Athena Capital. Court of Appeal sets aside case-management stay under Brussels Ia, emphasises Brussels statutory purpose and A6 ECHR.

In Athena Capital Fund SICAV-FIS SCA & Ors v Secretariat of State for the Holy See [2022] EWCA Civ 1051, the Court of Appeal has overturned the High Court’s judgment ordering a stay in a case involving alleged property fraud. I reviewed the first instance judgment here. The judge held the E&W courts did have jurisdiction over the claims but stayed them

because he took the view that the respondent had adopted a neutral position as to whether the appellants were under any liability and because the real dispute was not between the parties to this action but between the appellants and the prosecuting authorities responsible for the conduct of criminal proceedings against the fourth appellant in the Vatican City State.

(Males LJ [1]).

Many of the High Court judgment’s’ findings were not on appeal (such as the erroneous dropping of renvoi in the A25 BIa choice of court analysis).

The Court of Appeal spends a while summarising the earlier judgment, to arrive [54] at the crucial juncture between the Brussels Ia Regulation and case-management stays, with reference to its very recent decisions in Municipio and Nokia and to Article 6 ECHR right of access to courts [59]. Para 59 is crucial and I repeat it here in full

There is, as it seems to me, no reason to doubt that it is only in rare and compelling cases that it will be in the interests of justice to grant a stay on case management grounds in order to await the outcome of proceedings abroad. After all, the usual function of a court is to decide cases and not to decline to do so, and access to justice is a fundamental principle under both the common law and Article 6 ECHR. The court will therefore need a powerful reason to depart from its usual course and such cases will by their nature be exceptional. In my judgment all of the guidance in the cases which I have cited is valuable and instructive, but the single test remains whether in the particular circumstances it is in the interests of justice for a case management stay to be granted. There is not a separate test in “parallel proceedings” cases. Rather, considerations such as the existence of an exclusive English jurisdiction clause and the danger of circumventing a statutory scheme for the allocation of jurisdiction (such as the Judgments Regulation) will be weighty and often decisive factors pointing to where the interests of justice lie.

Males LJ therefore, like others before him, does not rule out a case-management stay even for proceedings covered by Brussels Ia yet puts (among others) that Regulation’s statutory purpose, and the need not to allow it to be circumvented, at the centre ground of the decision on a stay.

[60] ff a succinct background is given to the happiness, or not, of English courts entertaining negative declarations. [74] is the Court of Appeal’s core argument for lifting the stay:

I consider that the judge’s conclusion on what he described as the Secretariat’s “central argument” was mistaken. The Secretariat was not neutral. It follows that the basis on which the judge concluded that, at present, the grant of declarations would serve no useful purpose and therefore exercised his discretion to grant a case management stay was fundamentally flawed. Indeed the circumstances in which he envisaged that the declarations might serve a useful purpose and that the stay might be lifted, that is to say if the Secretariat adopted a partisan position in the criminal proceedings in the Vatican, already existed.

The judge had essentially decided that claimants, given the jurisdictional (for reasons of immunity) unavailability of the real defendants, had picked an ‘innocent bystander’ against whom to seek the negative declaration, the Secretariat, yet the Court of Appeal now finds that the Secretariat is not a neutral bystander at all. There is a real ‘dispute between the appellants and the Secretariat as to whether the appellants are under any civil liability to the Secretariat, for example to pay compensation, as a result of entering into the Transaction.’ [75]

[77] it is conceded that the lifting of the stay means there will be related proceedings going on in E&E, and the Vatican. But that is not found to be a reason to stay the English proceedings.





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