Ebuy Partners. Anti-suit viz Belgian proceedings re incorporation of e-mailed and /or hyperlinked general terms and conditions, with a serious miss on Rome I.

Ebury Partners Belgium SA/NV v Technical Touch BV & Anor [2022] EWHC 2927 (Comm) discusses ia whether choice of court and law included in general terms and conditions – GTCs, agreed (or not) by inclusion in email and /or e-mailed click-wrapeable hyperlink (this is a factual discussion), justifies an anti-suit injunction against Belgian proceedings.

Pre-Brexit such injunction would not have been possible. It has since of course been granted frequently; my most recent report of one was QBE Europe v Generali. Issuing an anti-suit post Brexit therefore is no longer surprising (commentators continue to suggest the EU should somehow shield EU proceedings from them). The application of the Rome I Regulation under retained EU law however does remain less discussed – and it is poorly executed in current judgment.

Anticipatory proceedings seeking a declaration of non-liability were launched unexpectedly (Belgian CPR requires no prior warning in any circumstance) in Belgium on 4 May 2022. The Belgian court later that month held that Ebury’s jurisdiction challenge  will not be dealt with separately, instead, as is standard, will be reserved for consideration at the same time as the merits.

The English proceedings were launched in July 2022. A critical question is whether Ebury can show, with a high degree of probability, that there is a jurisdiction agreement governing the dispute in question. Was the E&W jurisdiction clause contained in Ebury’s RA standard terms incorporated into the agreement between Ebury and TT? The factual circumstances are not conclusive, for there are suggestions of GTCS with choice of court sent by incorporation in an e-mail and /or by click-wrapeable  hyperlink similarly e-mailed.

The judge is correct to classify Rome I as retained law [83]. However the exclusion of choice of court agreements from that Regulation has somehow entirely escaped him and counsel, it seems.

Rather therefore than considering the issue under English conflict of laws (in EU Member States the issue is now subject to Article 25  Brussels Ia however that is irrelevant here), the judgment ventures into Article 10 Rome I’s putative law /von Munchausen /bootstrap principle, to identify English substantive law as the lex cause for the validity (including the issue of incorporation) of the choice of court. This leads after extensive discussion to a finding of incorporation under English law [102].

[103] ff Belgian law is signalled as a fall-back under Article 3(5) and 10(2) Rome I, however the judge essentially ignores that possibility (although he formally entertains it) by referring to a lack of indication on the facts that the counterparty agreed to the relevant clauses. He uses the ‘man on the Clapham omnibus’ formula to reach that conclusion: counterparty did consult or should have consulted the GTCs and there are no factual indications it disagreed with them. Conflicting Belgian law  expert evidence is not discussed.

Anti-suit was eventually granted.

If their apparent lack of raising the proper analysis (ie: no inclusion of choice of court) of the Rome I issue does not prevent defendants from appealing, they clearly should, to the extent the English conflict of laws approach to validity of choice of court, may lead to a finding of non-incorporation.

Geert.

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