Athena Capital Fund v Secretariat of State for the Holy See. Thank Heavens for jurisdictional mercies (here inter alia involving lex fori prorogati and agency for choice of court).

Athena Capital Fund Sicav-Fis SCA & Ors v Secretariat of State for the Holy See [2021] EWHC 3166 (Comm) features as defendant the Secretariat of State of the Holy See  (not the Holy See itself), and relates to a fraud and embezzlement claim of property in Chelsea, London.

Defendant says that from the perspective of Claimants, the purpose and intention of bringing these proceedings is to try to influence the criminal process in Italy, and/or the publicity emanating from the criminal process.

For its jurisdictional challenge, defendant argues [81] i) The claim was not a “civil and commercial matter” within the meaning of A1(1) BIa; ii) one of the claimants was not a party to the relevant Sale and Purchase Agreement (SPA) and could not rely upon it [this was summarily dealt with [88] by suggesting an amendment of claim] and, more forcefully, (iii) Defendant was not a party to the SPA for the purposes of A25 BIa.

Salzedo J justifiably in my view held [84] that

whether the claim is a civil or commercial matter does not turn on the subjective intentions of the claimant as to the ultimate effect that a claim might have on its interests, but on an objective reading of the claim itself and the relief that it seeks from the court. On that basis, it is a claim for declarations against the Defendant concerning the Defendant’s entry into commercial transactions with the Claimants.

and that the transaction was not entered into by the Defendant in the purported exercise of public powers: [86]

The Transaction was one that any private person could have entered into if it had the requisite funds. Nothing that was essential to the Transaction required sovereign powers to enter it and nothing that the Defendant did or purported to do was in the exercise of public authority.

As for the defendant not being a party to the SPA, the context here is whether a party involved in the signing accepted the SPA and its choice of court as an agent of the defendant. The judge, confirming the parties’ consensus, points out that that agency issue befalls to be addressed by English law. It is not said why that is the case however it is of course the result of the amended A25 – as others before it, however, the court does not complete the lex fori prorogati analysis with the recital 20 in fine mandated renvoi. On the agency issue the judge holds there is a good arguable case that the relevant agent did bind the defendant.

Next [103] ff follows a CPR-heavy discussion on the amendment of the claim form, seeing as the claimants erroneously assumed [120] that BIa was not engaged as the Vatican is not party to Brussels Ia. At [123] the conclusion is that the claim form may be amended and that defendants’ time spent in dealing with the service out issues under the common law (a wasted exercise as BIa applied), may be met in the costs order.

Once the A25 point rejected, there would have been a most narrow window for any kind of stay, yet the defendants try anyways, with [129] a series of abuse and case management arguments. One particularly poignant one is that the proceedings would interfere with a criminal proceeding. After discussion the judge [159] dismisses the idea on the facts, seeing as none of the declarations sought would involve any assertion as to what does or does not amount to criminality as a matter of the law of the Vatican State.

[163] ff discusses the abuse of process issue which the defendants, I understand, presented more or less as being integrated into the criminal procedure element, discussed above. That was wise, for abuse of process, while entertained among others in Vedanta, is arguably noli sequitur in a BIa claim. [Support for the alternative view here was sought [172ff] in Messier-Dowty v Sabena SA[2000] 1 WLR 2040]

The case-management stay proper is discussed 192 ff with reference ia to Municipio, and Mad Atelier. The judge in current case is very aware of not re-introducing through the back door what CJEU Owusu shut the front door on. He summarily discussed the possibility anyway, only to reject it.

An interesting case.

Geert.

Court Amsterdam on the impact of the lex fori prorogati’s consumer laws for choice of court. A high net value Australian businessman sails away from Dutch jurisdiction.

I am catching up a little on recent case-law and am focussing it seems on the consumer section (see also yesterday’s post). This Court Amsterdam judgment published on 8 September caught my eye for it discusses choice of court, applicable law for the substantive validity of same, and ‘consumers’ in the context of buying yachts (now that I write that, in my exams I often have consumers buying yachts). Thank you Haco van der Houven van Oordt for signalling the case.

A purchase agreement for a yacht worth €5.4 million was signed in Singapore between buyer, an Australian living in Australia, and a Dutch shipyard. Seller’s GTCs mention

‘Article 17 – Settlement of disputes 1. Each agreement between [claimant] and the other party is subject exclusively to the laws of the Netherlands. 2. Any disputes which arise between the other party and [claimant], including disputes relating to the interpretation of these terms and conditions, will be put exclusively before the competent judicial body in Amsterdam.’

Pre-delivery was scheduled for December 2018 in Italy. Buyer changes his mind a week after signature, saying he will not be able to honour the agreed price. Vendor pursues the contractual penalty clause of 25% of the sale price. 

The judge finds the consent to choice of court to have been validly expressed on the basis of A25 BIa, under the classic Colzani formula. References to the GTCs had been properly made in the written contract. A duly diligent contracting party could and should have read these GTCs. Defendant’s argument that the choice of court clause in the GTCs should have been the subject of specific negotiation, is rejected [4.3.3].

As for the substantive validity of choice of court, the Dutch court (unlike eg the Belgian Supreme Court in Happy Flights) does add renvoi to the mix per recital 20 BIa. Dutch private international law (like the BE rules, nota bene) makes Rome I applicable to contracts even for the subject-matter excluded of its scope of application, among which choice of court agreements. Lex voluntatis therefore rules and the court holds that the choice of law for Dutch law for the contract as a whole, extends to choice of law for the forum clause [4.3.7].

The defendant finally alleges invalidity of the choice of court agreement on the basis of the lex fori prorogati’s rules on ‘potestative’ (unreasonably onerous) clauses. On this point, the defence succeeds: [4.3.9]: the defendant has to be qualified as a consumer under Dutch law, despite his high net value and the object of purchase, and the GTCs per article 6.236 n BW should have included a clause giving the consumer the option to opt for the default court with jurisdiction (which one that would be is not clear to me and the judgment does not specify it).

Seeing as the choice of court agreement is held to be invalid, that the defendant is domiciled in Australia, and in the absence of a relevant bilateral agreement between the two countries, Dutch residual rules are applied to assess alternative grounds for jurisdiction. There is no Dutch forum contractus, given delivery in Italy [4.5.1, with reference ia to CJEU Car Trim] and no other jurisdictional grounds have any traction.

Conclusion: no jurisdiction for the Dutch courts. The case is good material for the lex fori prorogati rule and for the realisation that even outside the context of the consumer title of Brussels Ia (defendant not being domiciled in the EU, that title was not triggered), consumer law plays an important role in choice of court.

Geert.

Trappit v American Express Europe. On choice of court in NDAs, privity, and lis pendens viz provisionally closed Spanish proceedings.

Trappit SA & Ors v American Express Europe LLC & Anor [2021] EWHC 1344 (Ch) confirms an application to strike out or stay proceedings claiming infringement of intellectual property rights in a computer programme called ARPO (relevant to fare re-booking), and breach of non-contractual obligations of confidence that are said to have arisen when ARPO was made available by claimants (Panamanian and Spanish special purpose vehicles of 2 software engineers) to first Defendant AmEx (a Delaware corporation with a registered branch in England), for assessment. AmEx after inspection declined to take a licence. AmEx reorganised and second defendant GBT UK (a joint AmEx and private equity venture) acquired AmEx Europe’s travel management services business in the UK. GBT use an alternative software which claimants argue is effectively an ARPO rip-off facilitated by AmEx’ consultation of ARPO.

The application is made by the Defendants, who argue Claimants are contractually bound to litigate the claims in Spain rather than England (an A25 Brussels Ia argument), or that in light of proceedings that have already been brought and provisionally determined against the Second Claimant in Spain, the E&W  should decline jurisdiction (A29 BIa) or strike out the English proceedings as an abuse of process.

First on the issue of choice of court and privity under A25 BIa. Relevant authority discussed includes CJEU CDC and UKSC AMT Futures v Marzillier. At 6 ff the genesis of choice of court and law provisions in the NDA is mapped (drafts had been sent to and fro). As Snowden J notes at 76,

it is the parties related to Trappit SA who are the claimants, who sought the NDA before making ARPO available to AmEx Europe, and who asked for a Spanish law and jurisdiction clause. However, it is those parties who now contend that the jurisdiction clause does not bind them and that they are free to issue proceedings in England for breach of confidence and copyright infringement arising (so they say) from the unauthorised copying of the source code to ARPO. In contrast, it was the parties related to AmEx Europe who would most naturally be the defendants to any claim under the NDA and who originally proposed an English law and jurisdiction clause. But it is those parties who are now contending that the jurisdiction clause in the NDA binds all parties and requires all of the claims made in the English Proceedings to be litigated in Spain.

The eventual clause reads “18. Governing law and jurisdiction. This Agreement (including any non-contractual obligations arising out of or in connection with the same) shall be governed in all respects by the laws of Spain without regard to conflict of law principles. Any dispute or controversy arising in connection with this Agreement shall be submitted before the courts of the city of Madrid, Spain.”

At 77 the judge notes that the scope and the circumstances in which persons other than Trappit SA and AmEx Europe might become a party to the NDA are matters to be determined in accordance with Spanish law as the governing law of the NDA. This underestimates the impact of A25 itself and discussion of in particular CJEU Refcomp rather than the tort /contract discussion in CDC would have been appropriate. Snowden J relies on expert reports on Spanish law with respect to (i) the proper approach to contractual construction, and (ii) the circumstances in which third parties can be bound by contracts.

Conclusion on these report is that a narrow construction of the clause must be rejected: [94] ‘all types of claims arising from misuse of the information which the NDA envisaged would be provided by one party to the other. This would include claims based upon unauthorised copying and infringement of intellectual property rights as well as claims for breach of confidence,..’ (At 97-98 a side-argument based on A8 Rome II is dismissed).

As for the privity element, Snowden J finds there was no contractual intention for other corporate entities also to be parties entitled to enforce the agreement and there was no indication that any other company was intended to acquire rights (or be bound) under the NDA. Spanish (statutory) law on assignment, subrogation and the like does not alter this.

Conclusion [138]: ‘the jurisdiction clause in the NDA applied to all the claims in the English Proceedings, but that it only binds AmEx Europe and Trappit SA as the original signatories to the NDA. The effect of Article 25 is that the English courts therefore have no jurisdiction over the claims brought by Trappit SA against AmEx Europe in the English Proceedings.’ Proceedings against GBT on that basis may continue on a A4 BIa basis (neither of the UK Defendants were named defendants to the Spanish Proceedings, hence an A29 ff lis alibi pendens argument against them has no object).

Obiter viz AmEx Europe yet of relevance to the UK defendants, on Article 29 lis pendens, of note is first of all that the Spanish proceedings are criminal ones, with an embedded civil liability claim. The English Proceedings were issued prior to the provisional dismissal of the Spanish Proceedings but after the delivery of the Expert Report in those proceedings whose findings were part incorporated into the Spanish judge’s provisional dismissal.

The first, threshold issue on A29 is whether the Spanish courts are still seised of the Spanish Proceedings seeing as there is a provisional dismissal in the Spanish criminal proceedings. Authority discussed was Easygroup v Easy Rent a Car [2019] EWCA Civ 477 and Hutchinson v Mapfre was also referred to. A29 only applies where there are concurrent proceedings before the courts of different member states at the time when the court second seised makes its determination [147]. Following the reasoning in Hutchinson, the judge decides  that the Spanish courts are no longer seized of the case: experts are agreed that the case has been closed and archived, and that it is unlikely in the extreme that any new evidence would come to light so as to justify reopening the case after more than five years of extensive investigatory proceedings in Spain [158].

A final set of arguments by the defendants, based on issue estoppel (the Expert Report had found that there had been no plagiarism or copying of the ARPO source code by the Defendants), Henderson v Henderson abuse, and vexatious ligation (all under an ‘abuse of process‘ heading) is dismissed.

Conclusion [195]: no jurisdiction to entertain any of the claims made in the English proceedings between Trappit SA and AmEx Europe by reason of the application of A25 BIa. The case against the UK defendants may continue.

Geert.

EU Private International Law, 3rd ed. 2021, 2.296 ff (2.355 ff), 2.532 ff.

 

Axis Corporate Capital v Absa. On poorly worded choice of court and the possibility of anti-suit to protect Brussels Ia jurisdiction against non-European proceedings.

Axis Corporate Capital UK Ltd & Ors v Absa Group Ltd & Ors [2021] EWHC 225 (Comm) is a good illustration of choice of court and law clauses that are a gift to conflict of laws practitioners. Choice of law and in particular choice of court was as Calver J put it [35] ‘somewhat poorly worded’. This is what the clauses look like in the various (re)insurance agreements [36 ff]

The primary reinsurances contain the following provision: “Any disputes concerning the interpretation of the terms, conditions, limitations and/or exclusions contained in this policy is understood and agreed by both the Reinsured and the Reinsurers to be subject to England Wales Law. Each party agrees to submit to a worldwide jurisdiction and to comply with all requirements necessary to give such court jurisdiction.”

The excess reinsurances contain the following provision: “Any dispute concerning the interpretation of the terms, conditions, limitations and/or exclusions contained in this policy is understood and agreed by both the insured and the insurers to be subject to England and Wales. Each party agrees to submit to the jurisdiction of England and Wales to comply with all requirements necessary to give such court jurisdiction. In respect of claims brought against the Insured and indemnified under this policy, as more fully described herein, the choice of law applicable is Worldwide and the choice of jurisdiction is Worldwide.”

Thirdly, the ARR [aggregate retention reinsurance, GAVC] contains the following two provisions: “Supplemental Clauses … “Policy Interpretation, Jurisdiction and Service of Suit Clause.” And then: “Choice of Law and Jurisdiction. “Any dispute concerning the interpretation of the terms, conditions, limitations and/or exclusions contained in this policy is understood and agreed by both the (re)insured and the (re)insurers to be subject to England and Wales. Each party agrees to submit to the jurisdiction of Worldwide to comply with all requirements necessary to give such court jurisdiction.”

The policy interpretation, jurisdiction and service of suit clause, which is specifically referred to as a supplemental clause, provides as follows and was contained in a schedule: “Any dispute between the Reinsured and the Reinsurer alleging that payment is due under this reinsurance shall be referred to the jurisdiction of the courts of the England and Wales and the meaning of this reinsurance policy shall be decided by such courts in accordance with the law of England and Wales.”

Claimant submits that, on the proper construction of the reinsurance contracts, the defendants were obliged to submit to and to submit any dispute arising under or in connection with any of the reinsurances contracts to the exclusive (A25 BIa imposes exclusive choice of court in principle: [56]) jurisdiction of the English courts. Calver J agrees that that is the case with a high degree of probability (this is an interlocutory stage). Generali Italia v Pelagic features as authority. Note the ‘worldwide’ reference in some of the clauses means that parties agree that all courts worldwide should ensure that the dispute be referred to the English courts.

The formulation in the excess reinsurance agreements, include what is construed as a carve-out of worldwide jurisdiction, which is non-exclusive, for claims brought against the insured and indemnified under the excess reinsurance. This is taken by the judge to mean that for all other claims, choice of court for E&W is, a contrario, exclusive.

At 81 ff, the judge grants an interim anti-suit injunction against proceedings in South Africa. The very possibility for this is not discussed at all (possibly as a result of the nature of the proceedings). It is not established that anti-suit to protect jurisdiction of a court in the EU, against that of courts outside the EU, is at all possible. In Gray v Hurley the Court of Appeal suggested it is not possible within the context of A4 BIa, yet referred to the CJEU where the case was withdrawn. This might become a contested issue.

Geert.

EU Private International Law, 3rd ed. 2021, para 2.24, para 2.296 ff.

PIS v Al Rajaan. An intensive Brussels Ia and Lugano choice of court (by incorporation) and anchor defendant discussion.

The Public Institution for Social Security v Al Rajaan & Ors [2020] EWHC 2979 (Comm) engages in lengthy discussion anchor jurisdiction (A6) and choice of court (A23) under the Lugano Convention which of course, albeit with some important mutatis mutandis, echoes Brussels I and Brussels Ia.

Henshaw J summarises the key issues at 74:

i)                    whether the exclusive jurisdiction clauses (‘EJCs’) relied on were agreed between the parties and incorporated into their respective contracts, applying;

a)                  the formal validity requirements set out in Lugano Convention Article 23/Recast Brussels Regulation Article 25, and

b)                 if relevant, the laws governing the contracts i.e. Swiss or Luxembourg law;

ii)                  if so, whether the EJCs satisfy the requirements for material validity under Lugano Convention Article 23/Recast Brussels Regulation Article 25;

iii)                if so, how the EJCs are to be interpreted under their respective governing laws;

iv)                whether, and if so to what extent, the EJCs apply to claims against the applicants;

v)                  if and to the extent that the EJCs apply to only some claims against particular applicants, or apply to some but not all of the applicants, whether this court has jurisdiction over the remainder of the claims pursuant to Lugano Convention Article 6(1)/Recast Brussels Regulation Article 8(1); and

vi)                whether the court should decline jurisdiction over the claims against Pictet Asia and Pictet Bahamas (seeing as they are neither EU or Lugano States domiciled) on forum non conveniens grounds.

 

The judgment is lengthy. These are my highlights:

  • At 107 following review of CJEU authority including Refcomp and Hoszig, the finding that the issue of validity of choice of court by incorporation are to be addressed solely by reference to the requirements of what is now A25 BIa and the corresponding provision in Lugano Convention Article 23. This requires real consent which is discussed with reference ia to Profit Investment Sim at 109 ff.
  • At 127 ff Henshaw J discusses the issue obiter under Swiss cq Luxembourg law as putative leges contracti for choice of court. At 142 the judge concludes that under Swiss law, as under EU law, it is sufficient, in order to incorporate a jurisdiction agreement into the parties’ contract, that the parties have made a written agreement which incorporates by reference general terms including a jurisdiction clause. Ditto with less discussion under Luxembourg law, at 148.
  • At 187 ff: the issue of material validity under EU law. This discussion kicks off with a review of what one of the parties calls the ‘proximity requirement’: per C-214/89 Powell Duffryn (CDC, too, is discussed), the fact that choice of court (only) extends to a ‘particular legal relationship’ (reference here is also made to Etihad, at the time of the judgment this had not yet benefitted from the Court of Appeal‘s judgment). At 201 ff Justice Henshaw takes a broad view:

In principle I would agree that if a jurisdiction clause is not clear, then it may be restrictively construed, consistently with the policy expressed in the relevant EU case law of promoting certainty and avoiding parties being taken by surprise.  On the other hand, I see no reason why parties cannot make a jurisdiction clause in deliberately wide-ranging terms which covers many, or indeed all, of their present and future contractual relationships.  I do not read the Opinion of the Advocate General in Refcomp as indicating the contrary.  Refcomp was essentially concerned with whether a jurisdiction clause could be relied on against a sub-purchaser of goods, and it is notable that the CoJ referred in its judgment to “the principle of freedom of choice on which Article 23(1) is based” (§ 40).  Nor do I read Powell Duffryn as restricting the parties’ ability to choose the scope of the particular legal relationships to which a jurisdiction clause is to apply.

  • Whether the claims at issue meet the ‘proximity’ requirements is then discussed at length, under EU law and again, obiter, under Swiss and Luxembourg law, largely leading to a conclusion of lack of jurisdiction in England and Wales for many of the claims.
  • Anchor jurisdiction is discussed for some of the claims at 403 ff, leading to a classic discussion of the (CJEU Kalfelis introduced) close connection requirement, and at 418 support for the fragile Court of Appeal finding in Privatbank, that that the word “expedient” in the context of the lis alibi pendens provision in Lugano Convention Article 28 must mean “desirable” as opposed to merely practicable or possible. At 427 the issue of fragmentation of proceedings is discussed: what should the court do where a claimant is required to sue a defendant in an overseas jurisdiction under A23 Lugano in relation to some claims, but seeks to pursue in this jurisdiction (a) connected claims against the same defendant, or (b) connected claims against another defendant, in reliance on A6? Henshaw J concludes the E&W courts should not entertain the accessory claims.
  • Forum non is discussed at 480 ff, with the final conclusion being that E&W does not have jurisdiction for any of the claims.

I fully expect there is scope for appeal.

Those criticising the intensity of jurisdiction squabbles will find ammunition in this 497 para judgment.

Geert.

EU Private International Law, 3rd ed. 2021, big chunks of Chapter 2.

 

ING v Banco Santander. Deferring to extensive discussion of national law on the insolvency exception, and a bit too rich a pudding on privity of choice of court.

The critical point in Monday’s judgment in  ING Bank N.V. & Anor v Banco Santander S.A. [2020] EWHC 3561 (Comm), an application for lack of jurisdiction, is whether this is a case about claims which a syndicate of eight lenders, including ING, had against Marme Inversiones 2007 S.L.U (“Marme”) under a loan agreement and related swap agreements (together “the Marme Agreements”) which were entered into between the lenders and Marme in September 2008, or whether it is about the effect of the ongoing liquidation of Marme in Spain on those claims. The Defendant Applicant says the latter, the Claimant Respondents say the former.

Of note is that on 2 January 2020, Sorlinda, whose agreements are at issue, merged into Santander. As a consequence of the merger, Santander assumed all of Sorlinda’s rights and liabilities.

At 4 Cockerill J summarises ‘the field of battle’ (at 4) as follows:

Santander contends that the court should refuse to exercise jurisdiction or order a stay because:

i) The claim falls within the EU Insolvency Regulation on insolvency proceedings (the “Insolvency Regulation”) and is excluded from the scope of the recast Regulation (EU) No. 1215/2012 on jurisdiction and the recognition and enforcement of judgments in civil and commercial matters (the “Brussels Regulation”) pursuant to Article 1(2)(b) of the Brussels Regulation.

ii) Even if the Claim does not fall within the exception under Article 1(2)(b), ING cannot rely upon Article 25 of the Brussels Regulation.

iii) As a matter of Spanish law, ING has not established that Sorlinda became liable to ING for Marme’s liabilities.

iv) There are in any event grounds for the Court to refuse to exercise its jurisdiction and/or to order a stay.

ING contends that:

i) The bankruptcy/winding up exclusion in Article 1(2)(b) of the Brussels Regulation does not apply. The Claim is between two solvent entities in relation to contractual payment obligations under the Marme Agreements, and has no effect on Marme or any of its other creditors. The Claim does not derive directly from Marme’s winding up nor is it closely connected with that winding up.

ii) The question of whether or not Santander is bound by the Marme Agreements is a question of English law having appropriate regard to the effect of the relevant “assumption” of Marme’s obligations by Sorlinda (now Santander) as a matter of Spanish law.

iii) There is (at least) a good arguable case that as a consequence of the “assumption” Santander has a direct liability to ING under the Marme Agreements which are subject to the exclusive jurisdiction of the English courts.

iv) There are no grounds for the Court to refuse to exercise its jurisdiction and/or to order a stay. (GAVC underlining)

She holds that the jurisdictional challenge succeeds on the A25 BIa point, and also on the Insolvency Regulation point. The other grounds (assumption in Spanish Law and case management stay) would have failed.

Arguments in essence concern Brussels Ia’s insolvency exception. Per CJEU Gourdain, an action is related to bankruptcy only if it derives directly from the bankruptcy and is closely linked to proceedings for realising the assets or judicial supervision. Valach and F-Tex is CJEU authority also discussed.

In general, it is the closeness of the link between a court action and the insolvency proceedings that is decisive for the purposes of deciding whether the insolvency exclusion is applicable (CJEU German Graphics). In the absence of substantive EU insolvency law, the CJEU does not push an autonomous interpretation of the concept and defers largely to national insolvency law.

Whether the action is within the scope of BIa therefore requires examination of the national laws at issue, and that is done at length (featuring ia prof Virgós,  whose expert report clearly impressed Mrs Justice Cockerill).

Core of the decision on the insolvency exception, is at 197:

..the nature of the claim is one which is defined by something which took place in the liquidation, and the dispute effectively cannot be expressed without reference to the conduct of the liquidation. Although there is no challenge to the validity of the liquidator’s actions, the proceedings do necessarily require a consideration of the ambit of those powers and the ambit of actions done as part of those powers. The question of to what extent Sorlinda assumed the relevant liability can only be answered by looking at the deal which was struck in the context of the Liquidation Plan (governed by Spanish insolvency law) and the statutory insolvency framework.

The claim is not covered by BIa. English courts do not have jurisdiction over it.

Article 25 BIa is discussed first in fact, at 113 ff. However I would have thought (although Cockerill J suggest quite the reverse) that the A25 arguments must be obiter, with the insolvency exception findings logically coming first. This may be at issue when this judgment is appealed and /or referred to later.

On A25, ING must demonstrate a good arguable case either as to succession to choice of court, or as to specific consent. It was clear that the latter was not established hence discussion focused on novation /succession.  Authority discussed was of course Refcomp, Coreck Maritime, Tilly Russ etc.

This section of the judgment does not have the same clarity as the discussion on insolvency. Much reference is made to the relevance of either Spanish or English law on the issue of privity of choice of court, however this seems to be mostly done with reference to those laws being potential lex contractus (of the underlying contract). Even if the issue is not completely dealt with autonomously by EU law (which is arguable; and would have ended reference to any national laws), discussion of national law arguably should be to lex fori prorogati per the new rule in Brussels Ia (even a putative lex fori prorogati). At any rate, no succession or novation is established.

Something to clear out in my head over the end of year break.

This was most probably my last posting for the year.

Merry Christmas, everyone, and Guten Rutsch. Be safe, and remember this nice thought.

 

Geert.

European Private International Law, 3rd ed., 2021, Heading 2.2.3.1 (2.73 ff) and Heading 2.2.10.7 (2.355 ff).

 

JK Fabrications. Unbolted choice of court in GTCs simply cannot lead to proper forum consent.

JK Fabrications Ltd v Fastfix Ltd & Anor [2020] NIQB 63 is a good illustration of how not to draft choice of court (and governing law, in fact) provisions generally, let alone in general terms and conditions – GTCs. Albeit with a shaky obiter suggestion on identifying a court.

Tobsteel GmbH domiciled in Őhringen, Germany seeks to set aside a third party notice served on it on the ground that the Northern Irish courts have no jurisdiction to determine the third party proceedings brought by Fastfix, domiciled in Ireland.  Fastfix is the defendant in proceedings brought by JK Fabrications, domiciled in Northern Ireland.  In separate proceedings JK Fabrications Limited is sued by SMBJV, an unincorporated joint venture in respect of a major sewerage project in London.  Bolts are the common element in dispute in both cases; the bolts supplied by Tobsteel to Fastfix who in turn supplied these bolts to JK Fabrications.

As justifiably held by Larkin J, the choice of court upon which Tobsteel bases its argument, itself was not properly bolted. The clause at issue is included in a  “General Terms of Supply and Payment for TOBSTEEL GmbH” document which  General Terms of Delivery and Payment document in which clause VIII reads

“VIII. Place of performance, choice of forum, applicable legislation. 

 1.        The place of performance and choice of forum for deliveries and payments (including complaints regarding cheques or bills) and for all disputes arising between us and the purchaser from the purchase contracts concluded between us and him or her shall be Öhringen.  However, we shall be entitled to file a complaint against the purchaser at his or her residence or registered business address.

2.         The legal relationship between us and our customers or between us and third parties shall be governed exclusively by the legislation of the Federal Republic of Germany”

The judgment shows that Tobsteel itself in fact did not initially see clear as to which GTCs applied. In earlier affidavits, two more, and different, versions of GTCs were said to apply.

The first level of discussion was whether there had at all been consent to the GTCs. The judge held there had not been. At 16:

The instrument on which Tobsteel relies as the vehicle of agreement is a combination of the words “Subject to our general terms of business if requested a print can be provided” and Mr Connolly’s [of Fastifx, GAVC] email containing the words “Alex, this is O.K.”. This combination is too fragile to bear that weight.

This was not so much (at 17) because it could not be established that the clause had actually been consulted by Mr Connolly. Larkin J, in line with the Report Jenard:

While it is often a commercially necessary fiction that a party has ‘agreed’ terms that he may not have seen in advance, far less read, based on his signature indicating his consent to be bound by such terms or some other manifestation of acceptance, …

Rather, it has to be clear which version of what is actually referred to: at 17:

..it is observable that in those cases in which this commercially necessary fiction operates, it will be clear what the applicable terms are.

At 19-20:

If Tobsteel wished, as I find it did, to secure agreement on Clause VIII.1 with Fastfix it needed an adequate mechanism or instrument for obtaining that agreement.  In the event, and taking the evidence for Tobsteel at its reasonable height, Tobsteel sought to bind Fastfix in the documents referred to above to Tobsteel’s “general terms of business”.  Clause VIII.1 of June 2014 is not contained in a document entitled “general terms of business” but in a document entitled “General Terms of Supply and Payment for TOBSTEEL GmbH”.  One might properly say, further, that in 2017  Herr Gebert, insofar as he thought specifically about the matter, meant to refer to the June 2004 text, but whether he meant to or not, he did not refer to it so as to permit the creation of an agreement between Tobsteel and Fastfix that Clause VIII.1 should apply.

In none of the cases on Article 25 or its antecedents is there an example of a term incorporating X by reference being held to incorporate Y by reference and thus satisfy the requirements of [A25].

In conclusion, consent had not been clearly and precisely demonstrated. Again, this is a clear emphasis on the need for proper GTC filekeeping.

At 21 ff the judge obiter but in this case in my view wrongly, holds that even if he had found there to have been consent to the clause, it did not meet with the requirements of A25 BIa. As a reminder, the clause reads

 1.        The place of performance and choice of forum for deliveries and payments (including complaints regarding cheques or bills) and for all disputes arising between us and the purchaser from the purchase contracts concluded between us and him or her shall be Öhringen.  However, we shall be entitled to file a complaint against the purchaser at his or her residence or registered business address.

2.         The legal relationship between us and our customers or between us and third parties shall be governed exclusively by the legislation of the Federal Republic of Germany”

The judge argues that the proviso at 1 does not identify a court at all and that the choice of law proviso in 2 cannot come to the rescue (it could conversely, under Rome I) for choice of court and law as recently emphasised in Enka Insaat are to be looked at differently.

I agree 1 is an odd mix of anchoring locus solutionis typically done under A7(1) BIa, with what seems to be a unilateral choice of court pro Tobsteel; and that on that basis it might be vulnerable as choice of court under A25 (but it could be rescued under A7(1). I disagree that the name of a town that has a court (let alone a court; which the judge agrees with) needs to be included for it to be proper choice of court: name any town and local civil procedure rules will tell you the relevant court.

‘(A)n agreement on ‘Derry Recorder’s Court’ would satisfy the requirement of Article 25 that a court be agreed but that an agreement on ‘Derry’ would not.’: I do not think that is correct.

Geert.

EU Private International Law, 3rd ed. Feb 2021, 2.296, 2.315 ff

The CJEU in Wikingerhof on distinguishing tort from contract between contracting parties. No Valhalla for those seeking further clarification of Brogsitter, let alone De Bloos.

Update 25 November 10:38 AM:  Readers  may want to refer to the discussion posted to Tobias Lutzi’s view on the case, which I will not copy /paste here save for my initial reply: ‘I believe Tobias’ biggest take-away from the judgment is the Court’s emphasis on ‘indispensability’ of contractual interpretation for A(7)1 to be triggered (he will correct me if I am wrong).
As I argue in my review of the judgment, I think that’s a change of emphasis viz Brogsitter and e.g. Apple v eBizcuss rather than a change in nature of the CJEU approach.
However assuming one applies the authority that courts must not dwell too long on merits in assessing jurisdictional gateways, it does follow that A7(1) will only be engaged in those cases where the contract prima facie is overwhelmingly needed to solve the underlying dispute. This still leaves room for manoeuvre for the creative claimant (see also the AG’s points on forum shopping), but not as much as might have been expected prior to this judgment.’

 

The CJEU held yesterday (Tuesday) in C-59/19 Wikingerhof v Booking.com. I reviewed the AG’s Opinion here and the Court follows the AG’s minimalist interpretation. The case was held in Grand Chamber, which might have provoked expectations yet the judgment is not exactly a bang. Neither however can it be described a whimper. As I note in my review of the Opinion, the case in my view could have been held acte clair. The AG did take the opportunity in his Opinion to discuss many issues which the CJEU was bound not to entertain, at least not in as much detail as the AG did.

Let me first signal what I believe might be the biggest take-away of the litigation, if at least the referring court is followed. That is the Bundesgerichtshof’s finding that  there is no durable record of the alleged consent by Wikingerhof of the amended GTCs, including choice of court, effected via amendments on the ‘Extranet’, which is the portal via which the hotel may update its information and retrieve reservations. Booking.com claimed these amounted to a ‘form which accords with practices which the parties have established between themselves’ pursuant to Article 25(1)(b). Parties will still argue on the merits whether the initial consent to the primary GTCs was strong-armed because of booking.com’s dominant position.

With respect to to the jurisdictional issue, the CJEU in a succinct judgment firstly points to the need for restrictive interpretation. It points at 29 to the claimant being the trigger of A7(1) or (2). Without a claimant’s decision to base a claim on the Articles, they simply do not get to be engaged. That is a reference to the forum shopping discussion of the AG. Still, the court hearing the action must assess whether the specific conditions laid down by those provisions are  met.

At 32, with reference to Brogsitter, ‘an action concerns matters relating to a contract within the meaning of [A7(1)(a) BIa] if the interpretation of the contract between the defendant and the applicant appears indispensable to establish the lawful or, on the contrary, unlawful nature of the conduct complained of against the former by the latter’.  ‘That is in particular the case of an action based on the terms of a contract or on rules of law which are applicable by reason of that contract’ (reference to Holterman and to Kareda, with the latter itself referring to De Bloos). At 33  ‘By contrast, where the applicant relies, in its application, on rules of liability in tort, delict or quasi-delict, namely breach of an obligation imposed by law, and where it does not appear indispensable to examine the content of the contract concluded with the defendant in order to assess whether the conduct of which the latter is accused is lawful or unlawful, since that obligation applies to the defendant independently of that contract, the cause of the action is a matter relating to tort, delict or quasi-delict’.

At 32 therefore the CJEU would seem to confirm De Bloos’ awkward (given the Regulation’s attention to predictability) support for forum shopping based on claim formulation yet corrected by what is more akin to Sharpston AG’s approach in Ergo and the Court’s approach in Apple v eBizcuss, a judgment not referred in current judgment: namely that the judge will have to consider whether contractual interpretation is strictly necessary (the Court uses ‘indispensable’) to judge the case on the merits. Update 25 November 2020 as Tobias Lutzi notes here, it is the repeated (after its first use in Brogsitter) emphasis on ‘indispensable’ which might be the core clue of the CJEU: it would make the threshold for the 7(1) gateway in cases like these, high. A change in emphasis compared to Brogsitter, rather than one in substance.

Here, Wikingerhof rely on statutory German competition law (at 34-36): therefore the claim is one covered by Article 7(2).

The judgment confirms the now very fine thread between jurisdictional and merits review for the purposes of tort-based litigation between two contracting parties.

(Handbook of) European Private International Law, 2nd ed. 2016, Chapter 2, Heading 2.2.11.2, Heading 2.2.11.2.9. 3rd ed. 2021 para 2.469.

 

Ryanair v DelayFix. The CJEU dots some i’s on choice of court and unfair terms in consumer contracts; defers to national law on the assignment issue; and keeps schtum on renvoi in Article 25 Brussels Ia.

In C-519/19 Ryanair v DelayFix, the CJEU held yesterday. The case echoes the facts in Happy Flights v Ryanair at the Belgian Supreme Court.

Following inter alia  CJEU Jana Petruchova, the (absence of) impact of substantive European consumer protection rules on the consumer section of European private international law is now fairly settled. The separation between the two sets of laws seems quite clear for the application of the consumer section itself.

However under A25 BIa, EU consumer law might still play a role in those circumstances where the conditions of the consumer Section are not met (dual-use contracts, contracts for transport (such as here) etc.) yet where one of the parties may qualify as a consumer under substantive EU consumer protection law.

A core issue of contention is the consideration of the EU unfair terms in consumer contracts Directive 2019/2161 and its predecessor Directive 93/13 , which was applicable in Ryanair v DelayFix. Via Article 25’s lex fori prorogati rule on substantive validity for choice of court, the Directive plays an important role.

In the case at issue at the CJEU, Passenger Rights, now DelayFix, a company specialised in the recovery of air passengers’ claims under the EU Regulation on air passenger rights, has requested the courts at Warsaw to order Ryanair,  to pay EUR 250 in compensation, a passenger on the relevant flight having assigned DelayFix their claim with respect to that airline.

The CJEU first of all looks at the issue from the limited extent of what is actually materially regulated by A25: the requirement of ‘consent’ (as well as the formal expression of that consent. It holds, not surprisingly, that in principle of course a jurisdiction clause incorporated in a contract may produce effects only in the relations between the parties who have given their agreement to the conclusion of that contract (referring ex multi to Refcomp).  In the case at issue,  a jurisdiction clause incorporated in the contract of carriage between a passenger and that airline cannot, in principle, be enforced by the latter against a collection agency to which the passenger has assigned the claim.

However, at 47, there is a gateway for the choice of court nevertheless to extend to third parties, namely when the third party not privy to the original contract had succeeded to an original contracting party’s rights and obligations, in accordance with national substantive law. At 49, referring to A25(1), that law is the lex fori prorogati. Here: Irish law.

Recital 20 BIa in fact instructs to include the lex fori prorogati’s conflict of laws rules (in other words: an instruction for renvoi) to be part of the referral. In the aforementioned Belgian SC ruling in Happy Flights, renvoi was simply ignored. Here, the CJEU does not mention renvoi, even if it does not expressly exclude it.

The CJEU does point out that Directive 93/13 on unfair terms in consumer contracts of course is part of the Irish lex fori prorogati, as it is of all the Member States. In making that reference it would seem to have answered in the negative the question whether the ‘consent’ provisions of that Directive have not been superseded in the context of the ‘consent’ requirements of Article 25 Brussels Ia, as recently discussed obiter in Weco Projects.

Per previous case-law, the capacity of the parties to the original agreement at issue is relevant for the application of the Directive, not the parties to the dispute.  Further, a jurisdiction clause, incorporated in a contract between a consumer and a seller or supplier, that was not subject to an individual negotiation and which confers exclusive jurisdiction to the courts in whose territory that seller or supplier is based, must be considered as unfair under Article 3(1) of Directive 93/13 if, contrary to requirement of good faith, it causes significant imbalance in the parties’ rights and obligations arising under the contract, to the detriment of the consumer. Reference is made in particular to Joined Cases C‑240/98 to C‑244/98 Océano Grupo (at 58).

It will be up to the national courts seised of a dispute, here: the Polish courts, to draw legal conclusions from the potential unfairness of such a clause (at 61). DelayFix therefore are not quite yet home and dry.

Geert.

European Private International Law, 3rd ed. February 2021, Chapter 2, para 2.240.

Wikingerhof v Booking.com. Saugmandsgaard AG on the qualification in contract or tort of alleged abuse of dominant position between contracting parties. Invites the Court to confirm one of two possible readings of Brogsitter.

Saugmandsgaard AG opined yesterday in C-59/19 Wikingerhof v Booking.com (no English version of the Opinion at the time of writing). At issue is whether allegations of abuse of dominant position create a forum contractus (Article 7(1) Brussels Ia) or a forum delicti (A7(2) BIa).

I published on jurisdiction and applicable law earlier this year and I am as always genuinely humbled with the AG’s (three) references to the handbook.  Wikingerhof submits inter alia that it only ever agreed to Booking.com’s general terms and conditions (‘GTCs’) because Booking.com’s dominant position leaves it no choice. And that it had most certainly not agreed to updates to the GTCs, effected via amendments on the ‘Extranet’, which is the portal via which the hotel may update its information and retrieve reservations.

At 16 of its referral, the Bundesgerichtshof holds acte clair and therefore without reference to the CJEU that there is no durable record of the alleged consent by Wikingerhof of the amended GTCs, including choice of court. Booking.com claimed these amounted to a ‘form which accords with practices which the parties have established between themselves’ pursuant to Article 25(1)(b). This finding echoes the requirements of housekeeping which I signalled yesterday.

In my 2020 paper I point out (p.153) inter alia that in the context of Article 25’s choice of court provisions, the CJEU in C-595/17 Apple v eBizcuss suggested a fairly wide window for actions based on Article 102 TFEU’s prohibition of abuse of dominant position to be covered by the choice of court. At 28 in Apple v eBizcuss: ‘the anti-competitive conduct covered by Article 102 TFEU, namely the abuse of a dominant position, can materialise in contractual  relations that an undertaking in a dominant position establishes and by means of contractual terms’. The AG as I note below distinguished Apple on the facts and applicable rule.

In the request for preliminary ruling of the referring court, CJEU C-548/12 Brogsitter features repeatedly. The Bundesgerichtshof itself is minded to hold for forum delicti, given that (at 24 of its reference)

‘ it is not the interpretation of the contract that is the focus of the legal disputes  between the parties, but rather the question of whether the demand for specific contractual conditions or the invoking of them by a company with an — allegedly — dominant market position is to be regarded as abusive and is therefore in breach of provisions of antitrust law.

In fact on the basis of the request, the court could have held acte clair. It referred anyway which gives the AG the opportunity to write a complete if  to begin with concise précis on the notion of ‘contract’ and ‘tort’ in BIa. At 38, this leads him to conclude inter alia that despite the need strictly to interpret exceptions to the A4 actor sequitur forum rei rule, these exceptions including the special jurisdictional fori contractus ut delicti, must simply be applied with their purpose in mind.

He calls it an application ‘assouplie’, best translated perhaps as ‘accommodating’ (readers may check this against the English version when it comes out) (viz tort, too, the AG uses the term assouplie, at 45, referring eg to CJEU C-133/11 Folien Fisher).

Further, the AG notes that in deciding whether the claim is one in contract, necessarily the claimant’s cause of action has an impact, per CJEU C-274/16 Flightright (at 61 of that judgment, itself refering to C‑249/16 Kareda which in turn refers to 14/76 De Bloos). The impact of claimant’s claim form evidently is a good illustration of the possibility to engineer or at least massage fora and I am pleased the AG openly discusses the ensuing forum shopping implications, at 58 ff. He starts however with signalling at 53 ff that the substantive occurrence of concurrent liability in contract and tort is subject to the laws of the Member States and clearly differs among them, making a short comparative inroad e.g. to English law, German law and Belgian /French law. (Michiel Poesen recently wrote on the topic within the specific context of the employment section).

The AG’s discussion of CJEU authority eventually brings him to Brogsitter. He he firmly supports a minimalist interpretation.  This would mean that only if the contractual context is indispensable for the judge to rule on the legality or not of the parties’ behaviour, is forum contractus engaged. This is similar to his Opinion in Bosworth, to which he refers. He rejects the maximalist interpretation. This approach puts forward that contractual qualification trumps non-contractual (arguably, a left-over of CJEU Kalfelis; but as the AG notes at 81: there is most certainly not such a priority at the applicable law level between Rome I and II) hence the judge regardless of the claimant’s formulation of claim, must qualify the claim as contractual when on the facts a link may exist between the alleged shortcomings of the other party, and the contract.

The maximum interpretation, at 76 ff, would require the judge to engage quite intensively with the merits of the case. That would go against the instructions of the CJEU (applying the Brussels Convention (e.g. C-269/95 Benincasa)), and it would (at 77) undermine a core requirement of the Brussels regime which is legal certainty. That the minimalist approach might lead to multiplication of trials seeing as not all issues would be dealt with by the core forum contractus, is rebuked at 85 by reference to the possibility of the A4 domicile forum (an argument which the CJEU itself used in Bier /Mines de Potasse to support the Mozaik implications of its ruling there) and by highlighting the Regulation’s many instances of support for forum shopping.

The AG then discusses abusive forum shopping following creative claim formulation at 88 ff. This  is disciplined both by the fact that as his comparative review shows, the substantive law of a number of Member States eventually will not allow for dual characterisation and hence reject the claim in substance. Moreover clearly unfounded claims will be disciplined by lex fori mechanisms (such as one imagines, cost orders and the like). This section confuses me a little for I had understood the minimalist approach to lay more emphasis on the judge’s detection of the claim’s DNA (along the lines of Sharpston AG in Ergo) than on the claim’s formulation.

The AG then continues with further specification of the minimalist approach, including at 112 a rejection, correct in my view (for the opposite would deny effet utile to A7(2), of the suggestion to give the A7(1) forum contractus the ancillary power to rule of over delictual (A7(2)) issues closely related to the contractual concerns.

Applying the minimalist test to the case at issue the AG concludes that it entails forum delicti, referring in support to CDC and distinguishing Apple v eBizcuss (which entails choice of court and relies heavily on textual wording of the clause).

It will be interesting to see which of the two possible interpretations of Brogsitter the CJEU will follow and whether it will clarify the forum shopping implications of claim formulation.

Geert.

(Handbook of) European Private International Law, 2nd ed. 2016, Chapter 2, Heading 2.2.11.2, Heading 2.2.11.2.9.

 

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