Posts Tagged  EWHC 879 (Comm)
Ramona Ang v Reliantco: On bitcoins, choice of court, complex financial markets and ‘consumers’. As well as a first vindication of my GDPR jurisdictional prediction.
As noted, I have come up for some air after a few hectic weeks – next case to report on is  EWHC 879 (Comm) Ramona v Reliantco, held 12 April. (A similar case is pending with the CJEU against Reliantco as Case C-500/18).
Defendant (‘Reliantco’) is a company incorporated in Cyprus offering financial products and services through an online trading platform under the ‘UFX’ trade name. Claimant, Ms Ang, is an individual of substantial means who invested in Bitcoin futures, on a leveraged basis, through the UFX platform. She claims, essentially and primarily, that Reliantco wrongfully blocked and terminated her UFX account and should compensate her for the loss of her open Bitcoin positions, or at a minimum should refund her cash value invested. She also makes claims for relief in respect of what she says have been breaches of data protection obligations owed by Reliantco in connection with her UFX account.
The judgment does not concern the merits of Ms Ang’s claims but rather an application by Reliantco challenging jurisdiction. Reliantco contends that Ms Ang is bound by its standard terms and conditions, clause 27.1 of which provides that the courts of Cyprus are to have exclusive jurisdiction over “all disputes and controversies arising out of or in connection with” her customer agreement. Reliantco therefore relies on Article 25 Brussels Ia.
Ms Ang says that clause 27.1 is ineffective to require her to bring her claim in Cyprus, either because she is a consumer within Section 4 of Brussels (Recast) or because clause 27.1 was not incorporated into her UFX customer agreement with Reliantco in such a way as to satisfy the requirements of Article 25. Ms Ang says, in the alternative, that her data protection claims may be brought here notwithstanding Article 25 Brussels Ia even if Article 25 applies to her primary substantive claims.
All in all a nice set of jurisdictional issues and no surprise to have prof Jonathan Harris QC involved as counsel.
At all times material to her claim, Ms Ang was not employed or earning a living in any self-employed trade or profession (unless, which is contentious between the parties and considered below, her activity as a customer of Reliantco via the UFX platform is itself to be so classified). Ms Ang worked in money markets for two months as a trainee, observing US$/DM currency swaps. Other than that, she has no professional currency trading or money market experience (again, that is, unless her use of the UFX platform to invest in Bitcoin futures itself counts as such).
At 9, s little bit of Bitcoin drame enters the scene: Ms Ang’s husband, Craig Wright, is a computer scientist with cybersecurity and blockchain expertise who works as Chief Scientist for nChain Ltd, a blockchain technology company with a corporate vision “to transform how the world conducts all transactions – using the blockchain’s distributed, decentralised ledger that chronologically records transactions in an immutable way“. As a researcher, he publishes prolifically and has developed innovations for which patent protection has been sought. He is the same Craig Wright who has identified himself publicly as being ‘Satoshi Nakamoto’, the online pseudonym associated with the inventor (or a co-inventor) of Bitcoin. Baker J holds that he need not consider whether that claim is true, and on the evidence for this application I would not be in any position to do so.
Was Ms Ang a ‘consumer’? At 52 ff the arguments of Reliantco are summarised; at 55 ff those of Ms Ang.
CJEU precedent discussed by Baker J is C-89/91 Shearson; C-269/95 Benincasa; C-464/01 Gruber; C-498/16 Schrems; and the pending cases C‑208/18 Petruchová [I reviewed the AG’s Opinion (issued a day before the High Court’s judgment) yesterday] and C-500/18 Reliantco Investments and Reliantco Investments Limassol Sucursala Bucureşti.
Baker J concludes at 34 ‘the ECJ/CJEU has not decided whether contracts entered into by a wealthy private individual for the purpose of investing her wealth, or particular types of such contract, are not (or can never be) consumer contracts.’
Reference is then made to English precedent along the very lines of the precedent dismissed by Tanchev AG in Petruchová: including AMT Futures v Marzillier, and at 35 ff Standard Bank London Ltd v Apostolakis both through the English and the Greek courts – with differing results. At 44: ‘the disagreement between the English and Greek decisions in Apostolakis turns upon and is constituted by a difference of view as to whether investing private wealth for gain, if it takes the form of buying and selling foreign currency, is by nature a business activity so that an individual investing their wealth in that way cannot when doing so be a ‘consumer’ under Brussels (Recast). Longmore J thought there was no such proposition of law; the Greek court took the contrary view.’ German case-law is also discussed.
At 63 Baker J comes to the core of his reasoning: ‘In my judgment, the investment by a private individual of her personal surplus wealth (i.e. surplus to her immediate needs), in the hope of generating good returns (whether in the form of income on capital, capital growth, or a mix of the two), is not a business activity, generally speaking. It is a private consumption need, in the sense I believe intended by the ECJ in Benincasa, to invest such wealth with such an aim, i.e. that is an ‘end user’ purpose for a private individual and is not exclusively a business activity. That means, as was also Popplewell J’s conclusion in AMT v Marzillier, that it will be a fact-specific issue in any given case whether a particular individual was indeed contracting as a private individual to satisfy that need, i.e. as a consumer, or was doing so for the purpose of an investment business of hers (existing or planned).’
And at 65 in fine: the ‘question of purpose is the question to be asked, and it must be considered upon all of the evidence available to the court and not by reference to any one part of that evidence in isolation.’
At 68 he concludes ‘the purpose of her contract with Reliantco therefore was outside any business of hers’.
Baker J notes that he was not asked to defer any decision in C‑208/18 Petruchová. I believe it would have been of help to determine the issue before him. Tanchev AG (as noted, in an Opinion not available to Baker J at the time of his drafting his judgment) suggests that ‘to determine whether a person must be regarded as a consumer, reference must be made to the nature and objective of the contract, not to the subjective situation of the person concerned.’
Obiter, he then reviews Article 25, where CJEU authority discussed is ia Colzanni and Cars on the Web. Ms Ang contended that she was not able to access the standard terms web page at the time she opened her account, and therefore clause 27.1 did not comply with Article 25 B1a. At 78 extensive technical detail is discussed and at 80 Baker J finds that the Cars on the Web criterion of accessibility and durability were met; and at 81 that in any case, the current issue is not one of a click-wrap agreement for a signed hard copy of the GTCs with choice of court in it, had also been sent.
Equally obiter, at 83 ff Baker J summarily discussed the GDPR jurisdictional arguments which would have been more relevant had he not accepted jurisdiction under the consumer title. The brief discussion entirely fulfills my summer 2018 prediciton here: Article 79 GDPR will create a lot of issues at the level of jurisdiction.
A very relevant case.
(Handbook of) EU private International Law, 2nd ed. 2016, Chapter 2, Heading 220.127.116.11.