In Mastermelt v Siegfried Evionnaz  EWHC 927 (QB), at issue is negative declaratory relief on contractual performance.
Claimant Mastermelt is an English company specialising in the reclamation of precious metals. The defendant, Siegfried Evionnaz SA (“Siegfried”), is a Swiss company. There is a dispute between the parties over the quality of Mastermelt’s performance. Siegfried’s standard terms and conditions of contract (“STC”) include a clause stating that the governing law is Swiss law and that the Swiss courts have exclusive jurisdiction.
Relevant pending proceedings, are: very shortly after Siegfried had informed Mastermelt that it was going to issue proceedings against Mastermelt in Switzerland, Mastermelt issued the present claim in England on 5 February 2019. It seeks negative declaratory relief against Siegfried. Proceedings were subsequently issued by Siegfried against Mastermelt in the Zurich Commercial Court on 23 July 2019. Meanwhile, on 24 May 2019, Siegfried applied to the High Court in London for a declaration that it had no jurisdiction to try Mastermelt’s claim and so the Claim Form and service should be set aside, alternatively stayed. Further, on 29 January 2020 Mastermelt applied to the Swiss court (1) for a stay of those proceedings pending the UK decision, or (2) for the Swiss proceedings to be limited at that stage to a consideration of the court’s own jurisdiction there and nothing else, or (3) an extension of time for service of a response to Siegfried’s claim. By an order of 4 February 2020, the Swiss court rejected all three applications. On 7 February Mastermelt filed an appeal to the Federal Supreme Court of Switzerland which initially suspended enforcement of the Zurich Commercial Court’s decision pending the appeal. However, on 13 February Siegfried objected to any such suspension. The Supreme Court directed Mastermelt to file any response to that objection by 9 March. As far as the English courts know, that has been done but at the moment the Supreme Court has not given its decision on the suspension issue, let alone any substantive appeal, nor has there been any decision yet on the jurisdiction or otherwise of the Swiss court to hear the claim.
Siegfried argues, and has convinced the Swiss courts, that A27 Lugano needs to be applied ‘in harmony’ with A31(2) Brussels Ia: this now provides that regardless of which court was seised first, the court which was the subject of the putative exclusive jurisdiction clause, must decide the question of its jurisdiction first and the other proceedings must be stayed in the meantime. At 13 Waksman J refers to the Swiss court’s reasoning, where it takes an expansionist view of the Lugano Convention‘s protocol no2, that the Lugano States shall take ‘due account’ of each other’s courts decisions. The Swiss court suggests that in principle it should follow CJEU authority in Gasser (which introduced the torpedo mechanism by giving strict interpretation to the lis alibi pendens rule, even in case of choice of court) but that it has reasonable justification to deviate from Gasser given that the judgment has become ‘obsolete’ following A31(2) BIa.
Waksman J is first invited to accept the Swiss court’s reasoning as res iudicata, per CJEU C-456/11 Gothaer. (I did say at the time the CJEU may find its ruling in Gothaer would come back to haunt it). This he finds is a stretch of that authority but also not applicable given the limited findings of the Swiss court at any rate: ‘here the actual and only decision of the Swiss court thus far is simply to refuse to stay its own proceedings’.
He then discusses how A27 Lugano needs to be applied. A first reference is to the Court of Appeal’s most problematic view in Privatbank, to my mind, of applying Article 28 Lugano reflexively to third States. At 23-24 Waksman J distinguishes Privatbank (clearly he cannot hold it no relevant authority should he think so); then holds correctly that Gasser is not entirely obsolete following BIa; and finally at 30 that the harmonised regime per Lugano’s Protocol does not mean that one should now interpret Article 27 Lugano like 31.2 and (b) i Brussels Ia.
I agree most firmly. Note this has Brexit implications: one of the routes post Brexit, as readers know, is for the UK to become part of Lugano. In doing so it will surrender BIa’s forum non-light regime (Articles 33-34) in favour of Lugano which most definitely does not have a forum non-application – as well as, as is at issue here, re-arming the Italian torpedo. (Update 7 May 2020 Many thanks to Elijah Granet for pointing in the comments section to A6 of the Hague Choice of Court Convention which in future might serve towards disarming the torpedo to some degree: pursuant to Article 6 of that Convention, a court of a Contracting State other than the contractually chosen court must suspend or dismiss proceedings in that court to which an exclusive choice of court applies. There are exceptions however and in my view these could be used quite extensively: asymmetric choice of court, for instance, might well by some jurisdictions be classed as ordre public). (Update 28 May 2020 see also Aygun Mammadzada in the meantime here for similar and further comments re Lugano).
This leaves the issue of the putative choice of court agreement. England is the forum contractus per Article 5(1)a Lugano, hence will have jurisdiction less choice of court stands. Authority is well-known and recently applied in Pan Ocean, referred to here at 85. After much factual consideration it is accepted to a good arguable case standard that the parties contracted on the basis of the STC for the obligations concerned.
In conclusion therefore the action is stayed.
Handbook of) European Private International Law – 2nd ed. 2016, Chapter 2.