East-West logistics: debatable COMI determination in the case of an insolvent virtual trading company, and proprio motu obligations of the judge.

In  East-West Logistics LLP v Melars Group Ltd [2020] EWHC 2090 (Ch), at issue was COMI – Centre of Main Interests determination under Regulation 2015/848 of a  trading company incorporated in BVI, until 10 December 2015. It then moved its registered office to Malta, two months after service of the claim form in BVI proceedings and a month after acknowledging service, with regard to a charterparty gone wrong.

CJEU Interedil including its insistence on third-party observability, is the main authority called upon by parties. Baister DJ adds Northsea Base Investment in particular and notes at 22

Because this company traded virtually rather than physically, much of the case law is of little assistance: it deals largely with companies of substance that have a headquarters, offices, a tangible physical presence or assets or staff who are located and work somewhere or other.

He also notes, at 23 and I agree, that the forum shopping which the company had clearly engaged in, is not of itself of material relevance (despite nota bene the Regulation’s recitals betraying a contempt for forum shopping): ‘a debtor is entitled to move his centre of main interests and to do so for self-serving reasons. The question is whether the move is real or illusory.’ Baister DJ refers to Shierson v Vlieland-Boddy [2005] EWCA Civ 974 which albeit held early in the life of the (previous) EU Insolvency Regulation continues to have relevance.

The judge comments at 22 that ‘there appears to have been no attempt to notify any third party of the move: no evidence is given of the company’s having done so; on the contrary,…, the company continued to use a BVI address after the move’ – which could make one think that in fact BVI should emerge as a strong contender for COMI – even if seemingly neither party suggested it was.

The judge at 27 emphasises the proprio motu instruction of the EIR, i.a. in Article 4: a judge cannot ‘avoid the obligation imposed on it by the Regulation to “examine of its own motion whether the centre of the debtor’s main interests…is actually located within its jurisdiction,..”: the place of registered office is not a fallback in case parties do not provide proper evidence: the judge must examine COMI on the facts himself.

Then follows an admirably serious engagement with the few elements present in the case, leading to Baster J opting for England as COMI: at 54:

I conclude on the basis of the documentary material, the location of the company’s banking facilities from time to time, the location of its legal advisers, the location of at least one judgment creditor to which a debt was to be paid and the place where the company was involved in litigation that at the relevant time the company was administering its interests in both the UK and Switzerland so that both were centres of the company’s interests. I conclude, by a narrow margin and with misgivings, that on balance the greater use of English law for contracts, the greater use of London as a seat of arbitration, the actual recourse to or forced involvement in legal proceedings here and the consequential use of English lawyers makes the UK, on the balance of probabilities, the main centre of those interests. The company’s affairs seem to have been conducted in this country more than in Switzerland, certainly as far as contractual and litigation interests were concerned, although it is, I accept, hard to be precise.

I tend to disagree and I believe it is at 35 that the mistake is being made:

Locating the company’s centre of main interests in Malta rests on its registered office being there and no more than that. There is unchallenged evidence from the petitioner that there is no operational office and no one conducting the business of the company there. The registered office is a “letter box” and no more. It follows that if the company “conducts the administration of its interests on a regular basis elsewhere” such that that “is ascertainable by third parties,” that “elsewhere” can only be either the UK or Switzerland.

The Registered office presumption despite its rebuttability, remains a presumption. If on the facts, ‘the place where the debtor conducts the administration of its interests on a regular basis and which is ascertainable by third parties’ (definition of COMI in A3(1) EIR) does not clearly point to another place than the registered office, the presumption must remain in place. In the case at issue, the starting point seems rather to have been to establish either the UK or Switserland as COMI. In doing so the judge I feel did not give enough weight to the COMI presumption. Even with the proprio motu instruction, the judge must not scavenge for alternative COMI; there must be convincing evidence of the alternative, which I do not think from the judge’s description, is available here.

Geert.

(Handbook of) EU private international law, 2nd ed. 2016, Chapter 5, Heading 5.6.1.2.Heading 5.6.1.2.4.

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