National Bank of Kazakhstan v Bank of New York Mellon. Branches’ activities, Article 7(5) Brussels I Recast and engagement of Article 30.

Thank you Ali Malek QC who acts for claimants (and who as I have noted, is a busy and efficient bee in international litigation land) for alerting me to a further episode of Kazakhstan v BNYM. This current jurisdictional challenge is part of a long-running saga relating to the enforcement of a Swedish arbitration award dated 19 December 2013 in favour of the “Stati parties”, the Second to Fifth Defendants, and against the Second Claimant, the Republic of Kazakhstan (“RoK”).

Many of the issues are ex-Brussels I Recast and /or Lugano Convention yet I report on them anyway for they reveal interesting issues on the relationship between foreign courts relevant to attachment (and enforcement generally), and courts with jurisdiction on the merits.

In [2017] EWHC 3512 (Comm) National Bank of Kazakhstan v Bank of New York Mellon (BNYM) which I reviewed here, Popplewell J had dismissed claims essentially designed to establish that BNYM is not obliged or entitled to freeze assets of the National Fund by reason of Belgian and Dutch court attachment orders.

Teare J has now held a few weeks back – helpfully in [2018] EWHC 3282 (Comm) also summarising the many proceedings which the blog has not always reported on. Trigger for this latest instalment of proceedings is claimants having sought to challenge a Belgian conservatory attachment before an “Attachment Judge” of the Belgian court. The Attachment Judge upheld the attachment order in a judgment dated 25 May 2018.

RoK seeks a declaration that the debts or assets held by BNYM(London) and said to be subject to the attachment order are in fact held by BNYM(L) solely for the National Bank of Kazakhstan (“NBK”), the First Claimant. They therefore submit that the attachment order has no subject-matter, because there are no assets to attach. The Claimants contend that this question was referred to this court by the Belgian court.

A provision of Belgian law cited by the Attachment Judge, article 1456(2) of the Belgian Judicial Code, provides as follows: “If the third-party debtor disputes the debt claimed by the creditor, the case is brought before the competent trial judge or, as the case may be, the case is referred to the competent trial judge by the enforcement court.” Further proceedings are now pending in Belgium, in which the Stati parties seek to convert the ‘conservatory’ attachment order into an ‘executory’ attachment order. In those proceedings, the Stati parties have raised a number of arguments in support of their contention that the GCA assets are properly held for RoK (rather than merely NBK). These include Belgian-law arguments relating (inter alia) to piercing of legal personality, sham trusts, and “abuse of law”.

The crucial consideration discussed by Teare J in current proceeding is that the Stati parties submit that there is no “serious issue to be tried” (hence no jurisdiction) as between the Claimants and the Second to Fourth Defendants, (i.a.) because “the declarations sought […] will not affect the Belgian Court’s decision” since that Court “faces a number of Belgian law arguments unrelated to the GCA with regard to the ROK debt question”.

There was a dispute between Belgian law experts as to precisely what had been remitted by the Attachment Judge to the High Court and it is worth repeating each assertion in full: at 28-29

‘The evidence of Mr Brijs (the Stati parties’ Belgian law expert [GAVC fellow Leuven Class of 1993] ) is that “a pure question of English contractual law will not resolve the core dispute” because “a Belgian enforcement court would still have to evaluate – amongst other things – the arguments raised by the Stati parties under Belgian attachment law” such as piercing legal personality, sham trusts, and abuse of law. Further, “the Belgian Enforcement court did not decide the arguments – not because the judge “envisaged” that these arguments should be resolved by an English Court or because the Belgian Enforcement Court found that it could not decide them (when in fact it can) – but solely because the Belgian Enforcement Court considered that it did not need to decide them… It is difficult to conceive why an English court should decide on e.g. matters that concern Belgian public policy, or on the question whether there is a sham trust structure to the prejudice of the creditors and what the sanction/effect thereof is on the Belgian attachment.”

The evidence of Mr Nuyts (the Claimants’ Belgian law expert [GAVC colleague and learned friend extraordinaire ) is that “[t]here is nothing in the Belgian judgment to show that the Belgian Court envisaged the English court deciding only some of the issues, and not the arguments raised by the Stati parties such as piercing of legal personality, sham trust, and abuse of law. These arguments had been raised at length by the Stati parties in written submissions in the Belgian proceedings, and the Belgian Court has distinctly decided not to address any of these arguments, leaving them to be decided by the English Court… The Belgian Judgment holds in general that the “challenge” relating to “the debt of the third party” must be referred to the English court… [and] that it is for the English court to decide in general “whether or not a debt exists from BNYM towards Kazakhstan”.”

It is Mr Nuyts’ evidence that convinced Tear J. At 31 ‘In this case, however [GAVC despite Meester Brijs’ correct statement that there are circumstances in which the enforcement court is competent to decide on the merits], the enforcement court has clearly decided that the English court is the competent court to decide the merits.’ At 35 the relevant passages of the Belgian Court are copied:

“The seized-debtor is entitled to challenge the declaration from the garnishee before the attachment judge. However, this challenge relates to the debt of the third party and must be referred to that trial court in the proceedings on the merits, under article 1456, 2nd para. BJC. The competent trial court is, as stated by Kazakhstan itself, the English court who must apply its own national substantive law. […] Both requests relate to the subject-matter of the attachment, notably whether or not a debt exists from BNYM towards Kazakhstan. Kazakhstan disputes the existence of such debt. The attachment judge cannot and may not settle such dispute, but only the judge on the merits. The judge on the merits is, as already mentioned above, the English court who must apply its own national law.”

That finding on the scope of referral to the English courts, also plays a role in the assessment of abuse: at 46: ‘I do not consider that it is an abuse of process for the Claimants to raise in these proceedings issues not argued before Popplewell J or the Court of Appeal in the earlier English proceedings. First, those proceedings served a different purpose, namely, the determination of BNYM(L)’s contractual entitlement to freeze the GCA assets and in particular the scope of clause 16(i). Second, it appears that the Claimants did in fact seek to raise the wider issue, or something like it, before Popplewell J. but were not permitted to because the Stati parties were not before the court. Third, it would be odd, to say the least, for this court to hold that these proceedings were an abuse of process in circumstances where the issues raised by the proceedings had been referred to it by the Belgian court. It cannot, I think, be in the public interest to frustrate the order of the Belgian court. On the contrary, comity and the public interest point to these proceedings serving a legitimate and proper purpose.’

Finally, a cursory look a the forum conveniens issue is warranted: at 58-61:

  1. Mr Sprange, for the Stati parties, submitted that “England is not a proper forum for a claim against the Second to Fourth Defendants, where that claim seeks (on the Claimants’ case) to conclusively determine issues of the validity of a Belgian executory attachment, which are properly the subject of Belgian attachment law for a Belgian attachment judge to decide”.
  2. Mr Malek, for the Claimants, submitted that the real dispute is not about “the validity of a Belgian executory attachment”, but rather “whether there is an obligation owed by BNYM London to RoK capable of forming the subject-matter of a Belgian attachment.” Further, he submitted that the effect of the Belgian Attachment Judge’s decision was to determine that England was the appropriate forum. Mr Malek relied upon this decision as giving rise to “an estoppel of a particular, autonomous, EU kind”; in the alternative, he submitted that it was a strong factor to be weighed in the analysis of the appropriate forum. Finally, Mr Malek submitted that the only realistic alternative to the jurisdiction of the English court would be the Belgian court, and that “the Belgian court is materially worse placed than this Court because it would be investigating matters by reference to an English-law governed contract, the GCA (so far as issues of Kazakh law, or facts in relation to the relationship between NBK and RoK, are concerned, the Belgian court enjoys no advantage over this Court).”
  3. I am unable to accept Mr. Sprange’s submission. This court will not be asked to determine the validity of the conservatory attachment order made in Belgium. Rather, it will be asked to determine what, if any, assets constitute the subject-matter of that order. The Belgian Attachment Judge plainly considered that a dispute concerning the content of the attachment – which, on its terms, constitutes only such assets (if any) as are held by BNYM(L) for RoK under the GCA – is a question for this court.
  4. The fact that the Belgian court has referred the dispute to this court is a cogent reason, indeed a compelling reason, for concluding that this court is a proper forum for determining the dispute. It would not be in accordance with comity to send the dispute back to Belgium. There is no need to consider Mr. Malek’s further submissions.

I quite like Ali Malek QC’s idea of “an estoppel of a particular, autonomous, EU kind”; linked to considerations of mutual trust, one assumes.

Finally, one of the defendants is based in Gribraltar and against it, (now) Article 8(2) Brussels I Recast applies, re third party proceedings. There is little to none CJEU authority. At 68 ‘I consider that the wording of article [8](2) is wide enough to encompass a situation in which a person is a proper party to a dispute between other parties to which he has a “close connection”, so long as that dispute has not been “instituted solely with the object of removing him from the jurisdiction of the court which would be competent in his case” and at 69 ‘This is a case in which “the efficacious conduct of proceedings” demands the presence of Terra Raf in this jurisdiction. I therefore find the requirements of article [8](2) to be satisfied.’

Teare J’s findings on this point also mean he need not consider (now) Article 7(5)’s jurisdiction for activities arising our of branch activity on which as I noted, I also have my doubts.

Geert.

(Handbook of) EU private international law, 2nd ed. 2016, Chapter 2, Heading 2.2.11, Heading 2.2.14.

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