Update 10 June 2019 for an update of Canadian case-law developments see here.
Update 30 April 2019 I cannot possibly keep up with all emerging scholarship on the issue yet this review by Penelope Bergkamp most complete and worthwhile.
Update 17 April 2019 Opinio Juris have relevant review here.
Update 16 April 2019 Nick Lees and Tim Pickworth have similar caution for overenthusiastic reaction to the UKSC judgment here.
The SC this morning held in  UKSC 20 Vedanta and Konkola v Lungowe, confirming jurisdiction in England for a human rights /environmental claim against a Zambia-based defendant, Konkola Copper Mines or ‘KCM’, anchored unto an EU-based defendant, Vedanta resources, the ultimate parent company of KCM. Both High Court and Court of Appeal had upheld such jurisdiction (the links lead to my blog post on both).
Of note are:
1. First of all
Lord Briggs’ emphatic rebuke of parties (and courts, one assumes) having disproportionately engaged with the issue of jurisdiction. With reference to ia VTB Capital he underlines that jurisdictional dispute should be settled in summary judgment alone, and should not lead to a mini trial. Reference is made to the size of the bundles etc. A bit of an unfair comment perhaps given that clearly there was a need for SC intervention. At any rate, one imagines that current judgment settles a number of issues and that in future litigation therefore these at least will have to be met with less arguments; lest, as his lordship notes at 14, the Supreme Court’ will find itself in the unenviable position of beating its head against a brick wall.’
2. As noted by Coulson J at 57 in the High Court judgment, neither Vedanta nor KCM pursue an Article 34 Brussels Ia argument of lis alibi pendens with proceedings in Zambia. As I signalled in my succinct review of recent study for the EP yesterday, the A34 defence is likely to be important in future litigation.
3. Applicants’ arguments that pursuing the case against them is an abuse of EU law, were advanced and equally rejected at both the High Court and the Court of Appeal stage. They are pursued again with the SC (at the latter’s express instruction).
- At 29 Lord Briggs agrees with the HC and the CA and decides that the point that there has been no such abuse of EU law, is acte clair – no reference to the CJEU therefore.
- At 31 ff he discusses the limited authority (all of it discussed at the HC and the CA) on abuse of Brussels I (a), particularly abuse of the anchor defendant mechanism of (now) Article 8(1), including of course CDC and at 37 raises the interesting issue of remedy: if abuse is found, is it to be disciplined under a European remedy or rather using the common law instrument of forum non conveniens?
- And at 39: appellants argue that in CSR cases like these, Owusu has the almost inevitable effect that, providing a minimum level of triable issue can be identified against an English incorporated parent, then litigation about environmental harm all around the world can be carried on in England, wherever the immediate cause of the damage arises from the operations of one of that group’s overseas subsidiaries. With the case against the England-based defendant going ahead at any rate, per Owusu, the risk or irreconcilable judgments should jurisdiction against the subsidiaries be vacated, simply becomes to great. Not so hands tied behind the back, appellants argue, but forum non paralysis.
- At 40 Lord Briggs suggests an adjustment of the English forum non conveniens doctrine for cases like these: namely to instruct claimants of the need to avoid irreconcilable judgments, where the anchor defendant is prepared to submit to the jurisdiction of the domicile of the foreign defendant in a case where, as here, the foreign jurisdiction would plainly be the proper place, leaving aside the risk of irreconcilable judgments
4. Despite Owusu, the English courts are still within their rights to reject the case in summary judgment if there is no ‘real issue’ to be tried against the anchor defendant. Here, discussion turned at 42 ff as to whether one should merely apply Chandler v Cape  EWCA Civ 525, or whether this case involves the assertion of a new category of common law negligence liability.
- This was rejected, like it was by Sales LJ in AAA v Unilever plc  EWCA Civ 1532, which I review here.
- Lord Briggs 54 concludes that viz the common law of liability there is neither anything special nor conclusive about the parent /subsidiary relationship, and
- at 53 flags what instantly has become a favourite among commentators on the case: ‘Even where group-wide policies do not of themselves give rise to such a duty of care to third parties, they may do so if the parent does not merely proclaim them, but takes active steps, by training, supervision and enforcement, to see that they are implemented by relevant subsidiaries. Similarly, it seems to me that the parent may incur the relevant responsibility to third parties if, in published materials, it holds itself out as exercising that degree of supervision and control of its subsidiaries, even if it does not in fact do so. In such circumstances its very omission may constitute the abdication of a responsibility which it has publicly undertaken.’
4bis This part of course inevitably may give parent companies a means to prevent such liability (do not proclaim group-wide policies, let alone train or enforce them – as Gabrielle Holly also immediately noted here). However a variety of mechanisms may prevent this becoming a cheap trick to avoid liability: such compliance programs are often required under competition law, financial law etc., too; are relevant for directors’ liability; and of course may already (such as in the French devoir de vigilance) or in future (as mooted ia by the EC and the EP) be statutorily prescribed.
At 60: in the case at issue, the SC finds that the High Court with sufficient care examined and upheld the essence of the claimants’ case against Vedanta, that it exercised a sufficiently high level of supervision and control of the activities at the Mine, with sufficient knowledge of the propensity of those activities to cause toxic escapes into surrounding watercourses, as to incur a duty of care to the claimants. At 61 Lord Briggs adds obiter that not all the material (particularly services agreements) would have persuaded him as much as they did the HC or the CA, however at 62 he emphasis again that the HC and CA’s judgment on same was not vitiated by any error of law.
5. At 66 ff then follows the final issue to be determined: forum non conveniens and the further advancement of the issue already signalled above: it troubles Lord Briggs at 75 that the trial judges did not focus upon the fact that, in this case, the anchor defendant, Vedanta, had by the time of the hearing offered to submit to the jurisdiction of the Zambian courts, so that the whole case could be tried there. (An argument which was considered by Leggatt J in VTB).
- Evidently the A4 BruIa case would have had to continue per Owusu, yet the reason why the parallel pursuit of a claim in England against Vedanta and in Zambia against KCM would give rise to a risk of irreconcilable judgments is because the claimants have chosen to exercise that right to continue against Vedanta in England, rather than because Zambia is not an available forum for the pursuit of the claim against both defendants: claimant-inflicted forum non.
- Why, at 75 in fine, (it may be asked) should the risk of irreconcilable judgments be a decisive factor in the identification of the proper place, when it is a factor which the claimants, having a choice, have brought upon themselves?
- Lord Briggs’ argument here is complex and I need to cross-refer more to the various authorities cited however the conclusion seems to be that Lord Briggs rejects the argument of Leggatt J in VTB and he finds that ! provided the ex-EU forum is a suitable forum, under English private international law claimants do have to make a choice: either only sue the A4 defendant in the EU but not the ex-EU subsidiaries; or sue all in the forum where they may all be sued (if there is such a forum), here by virtue of submission to the non-EU forum. The alternative would allow claimant to profit from self-inflicted risks of irreconcilable judgments.
- In the end the rule is of no impact in the case for Zambia was found not to be an appropriate forum, for reasons of ‘substantial justice’: among others because of the absence of Conditional Fee Agreements, and given the unavoidable scale and complexity of this case (wherever litigated), the trial judge was right that it could not be undertaken at all with the limited funding and legal resources which the evidence led him to conclude were available within Zambia.
6. By way of my conclusion so far: (update 11 April 2019: in the meantime echoed by Robert McCorquodale’s analysis here; and here; he was counsel for interveners in the case hence was able to refer to insight gained from having seen parties’ submissions)
The group policy direction, enforcement, compliance and communication of same -issue is an important take away from this case. Particularly as it may be expected that holding companies will not find it that straightforward simply to do away with such policies. Of great impact too will be the choice now put upon claimants in the forum non conveniens issue: suing nondom companies by virtue of anchoring unto the A4 mother company in England at least will be less straightforward (many usual suspects among the competing jurisdictions do have CFAs, allow for third party funding etc.). Yet the two in my view dovetail: the reason for bringing in the ex-EU subsidiaries often is because the substantial case against them tends to serve the case against the mother. With a tighter common law neglicence liability the need to serve the daughter may be less urgent.
European private international law, second ed. 2016, Chapter 8, Headings 220.127.116.11., 8.3.2