EWHC 59 (Ch) International Bank of Azerbaijan is an excellent illustration of the practicality v the doctrine of modified universalism in international insolvency law, as well as of the binding force of precedent even in a changing world. Hildyard J first summarises at 2 the question raised as ‘whether the Court has power to grant a permanent moratorium or stay to prevent a creditor exercising its rights under a contract governed by English law in order to prevent that creditor enforcing its rights contrary to the terms of the foreign insolvency proceeding by which all creditors were, under the relevant foreign law, intended to be bound. If it does, the second question is whether in its discretion the Court should exercise that power.’
IBA has fallen into financial difficulties, obliging it to enter into a restructuring proceeding under Azeri law. The Foreign Representative, Ms Gunel Bakhshiyeva (hence also giving her name to the official case-name) had the High Court issue an order recognising the Restructuring Proceeding as a foreign main proceeding. That recognition order imposes a wide-ranging moratorium preventing creditors from commencing or continuing any action against IBA or its property without the permission of the Court. The plan proposed by IBA pursuant to the restructuring proceeding has been approved by a substantial majority at a meeting of creditors in Azerbaijan, sanctioned by the relevant Azeri court, and as a matter of Azeri law, the plan is now binding on all affected creditors, including those who did not vote and those who voted against the Plan: a classic cram-down.
Respondents in the case contend that the plan cannot bind them. In each case their relationship as creditor with IBA is governed by English law. They rely on the (1890) rule in Gibbs, which states that a debt governed by English law cannot be discharged by a foreign insolvency proceeding. Reformulating the essential issues at 19, Hildyard J summarises them as
(1) Whether the Court has jurisdiction to extend a moratorium imposed under the CBIR without limit as to time, and in particular, beyond the date on which the foreign proceeding will terminate; and
(2) If so, whether the Court should refuse to lift the continuing moratorium in favour of a creditor whose debt is governed by English law, so as to prevent that creditor from achieving a better return than that enjoyed by all of the company’s other creditors under a restructuring plan promulgated in the jurisdiction in which the company is registered and has its centre of main interests (“COMI”).
At 44 ff Hildyard J excellently summarises the rule, and the critical reception of it in recent scholarship, the latter suggesting it is not just out of touch with a less anglo-centric view of the world, but also inconsistent with the English courts themselves expecting foreign recognition of schemes of arrangement (SAs being of a corporate, not lex concursus nature but nevertheless fishing in the same waters as insolvency proceedings) conducted in the English courts with English law as the lex causae.
Having summed up all the arguments against the rule and yet recent continued application of it, Hildyard J at 58 dryly notes that his place in the hierarchy means that he cannot simply swipe the rule aside: he must apply it and simply assess whether it applies in the current circumstances. More particularly, whether at one and the same time the ‘rule’ may formally be observed by accepting the continuation of the rights which English law confers, and yet also the principles of modified universalism which the UNCITRAL Model Law gives effect to.
Lengthy discussion then follows of the pros and contras, with the High Court eventually finding no persuasive argument to set aside the rule, particularly not by the English application of the UNCITRAL model law. Counsel had argued that qualifying the model law as procedural as opposed to substantive law, would enable the Court effectively to sidestep Gibbs as precedent. However Hildyard J prefered to accept the full force of precedent rather than sweeping it aside by the procedural pretext.
The substantive rule clearly is ripe for reconsideration by the Court of Appeal.
(Handbook of) EU Private International Law, 2nd ed. 2016, Chapter 5, Heading 5.1.