The Court of Appeal in Etihad v Flother finishes the job on rendering Italian torpedoes harmless; puts the spotlight on Hague and BIa differences on choice of court.

Just before Christmas the Court of Appeal dismissed the appeal in Etihad Airways PJSC v Flother [2020] EWCA Civ 1707. I discussed the High Court judgment here – the only properly discussed issue under appeal (the A25 discussion on the court being ‘seized’ as I noted was not entirely acte clair, either, yet is dealt with in 3 short paras at 89-91 ) is whether Brussels Ia’s Article 31(2) anti-torpedo mechanism applies to so-called asymmetric choice of court.

The High Court focused on not treating such clauses as a whole but rather on the parties’ individual obligations, in terms of jurisdiction, vis-a-vis the specific claim brought. That effectively meant it sidestepped having to rule on whether A31(2) applies to asymmetric choice of court.

Henderson LJ first of all (at 52, following discussion of the Article’s genesis as an antidote to CJEU Gasser) holds that A31(2) (ia because of the use of ‘without prejudice’ to A31(2) in A29) is not to be construed narrowly as being an exception to A29 and (at 68, again following discussion of the authorities) that the guiding rule for the application  of A31(2) must be party autonomy. At 73 he points out that the fundamental difficulty with the opposite conclusion is that on a narrow construction of Article 31(2), the job of rendering the torpedo harmless, was left only half done.  That may be so – however I am still not convinced. It might not have reached the judgment however I think more analysis (including linguistically) could  have been of the wording of ‘exclusive’ and ‘the proceedings’, for instance. Given BIa’s DNA I do not think it is the Member States courts’ place to finish the job if clear statutory language has left it hanging. A31(2) most certainly is not the only place in BIa where intentions expressed in the travaux are not completely reflected in the final law’s provisions.

At 82 ff the discussion, equally obiter as at the High Court, turns to the Hague Convention, which has of course increased in relevance following the no-deal Brexit for judicial co-operation. Justifiably Henderson LJ suggests obiter that there is no instruction at all to apply BIa and the Hague in conformity with each other, and that the Hague neither applies to non-exclusive choice of court nor has any A29 BIa-type lis pendens rule.

The request for a CJEU reference is dismissed, with at 94 reference in support to other Member States’ courts not having done so, either.

Geert.

EU Private International Law, 3rd ed. 2021, Heading 2.2.10.5, para 2.343 in particular.

 

Ablynx and VUB v Unilever. The Court of Appeal reverses on Brussels Ia’s protection for choice of court (Article 31(2), yet dithers as to precise implications.

The Court of Appeal in [2019] EWCA Civ 2192 has reversed Hacon J’s ruling which I reviewed here in [2019] EWHC 792 (Pat) Ablynx and VUB v Unilever. Hacon J had held that Article 31(2) does NOT mean that the Brussels courts, to whom jurisdiction has been assigned in a licence agreement, get to decide first on the engagement of Article 24(4)’s exclusive jurisdictional rule re the validity of patents. Hacon J had decided that A31(2) cannot apply if A24(4) is engaged.

Lewison LJ with great clarity discussed CJEU and other authority on the application of (now) A25 and A24(4) (GAT v Luk and Roche of course feature). He holds at 71 that under the terms of the Recast Regulation, the Belgian court is empowered to decide whether the English court has exclusive jurisdiction; and that that question will involve the question whether the choice of court agreement is overridden by A25(4). And at 75: ‘the mere fact that there is a whisper of invalidity does not automatically bring proceedings in a different member state to a juddering halt. If this approach were to be applied to article 31(2) it would enable the Belgian court to decide, on a provisional basis, whether there was a non-negligible possibility that the UK court would declare the UK designation of the patents invalid. If it came to that conclusion, it would then have to decide to what extent that invalidated the exclusive jurisdiction agreement.’  ‘The court first seised (in England) is required to stay its proceedings as soon as the designated court has been seised (in Belgium) and until such time as the latter court declares that it has no jurisdiction under the exclusive choice of court agreement.’ Lewison LJ does hold that the court seized has to carry out a prima facie review of the validity of the choice of court agreement.

Conclusion, at 77: ‘it is for the court designated in the exclusive jurisdiction agreement (i.e. the Belgian court) to decide whether (and, if so, to what extent) it is deprived of its jurisdiction as a result of article 25 (4).’

However subsequently and despite counsel claim at 78 that the English court should not even consider the question whether A25(4) was engaged, the Court of Appeal does hold that the English courts should carry out a prima facie review of A25(4), too: at 78: if a prima facie case is established that A24 (4) does not apply (which at 110 following lengthy discussion it holds it does not, prima facie, in the case at issue; hence the action is stayed in its entirety) then it will be for the Belgian court to decide that question definitively. The opposite, it suggests, would cause unnecessary delay and expense.

This is a very thin line between full respect for Article 25(4)’s anti-torpedo mechanism, and disciplining abuse. I am not sure this judgment settles the issue on A25(4)’s full implications for court’s respective powers.

Geert.

(Handbook of ) European Private International Law, 2nd ed. 2016, Chapter 2, Heading 2.2.6.7, Heading 2.2.9.5.

Ablynx and VUB v Unilever. On Brussels Ia’s protection for choice of court (Article 31(2) and, again, on DNIs and exclusive jurisdiction for patents.

[2019] EWHC 792 (Pat) Ablynx and VUB v Unilver engages similar discussions as Eli Lily v enentech and Chugai v UCB with the additional element of now, under Brussels Ia, the application of Artile 31(2). This Article makes safe the torpedo previously used to gazump choice of court, by giving the courts of the States in whose favour choice of court has been concluded, a first go at discussing the validity and application of the choice of court agreement.

Here: does Article 31(2) mean that the Brussels courts, to whom jurisdiction has been assigned in a licence agreement, get to decide first on the engagement of Article 24(4)’s exclusive jurisdictional rule re the validity of patents?

It is worth quoting Hacon J in full: at 17 ff

’17. Ms Lane (for the defendants, GAVC) submitted that the position is clear: art.31(2) is engaged and therefore these proceedings must be stayed. Art.24 could never make a difference in this court because it cannot override art.31(2). That is because art.31(2) is expressly stated to be without prejudice to art.26 but not art.24. The consequence is that all issues arising in these proceedings must be ceded to the Brussels courts, including the question whether art.24(4) is engaged and if so, what should be done about it. It is not the concern of this court.

18. I disagree. To my mind art.25(4) explains why there is no mention of art.24 in art.31(2). Art.31(2) is necessarily without prejudice to art.24 since an agreement relied on for a stay under art.31(2) can carry no legal force if it purports to exclude the courts having exclusive jurisdiction under art.24. Even on the assumptions I have stated, art.31(2) cannot apply if art.24(4) is engaged. Art.24(4)’s engagement depends on whether these proceedings are ‘concerned with’ the validity of the Patents UK within the meaning of art.24(4). I must resolve this last question before I can decide whether the (assumed) agreement carries legal force and therefore whether art.31(2) is engaged.

19. I also note that art.26 is itself made subject to art.24. This reinforces my view that the recasting of Brussels I has not altered the hierarchy of provisions awarding jurisdiction, with art.24 at the top. Arts.24 and 25 both speak of ‘exclusive jurisdiction’, but that conferred by art.24 is the more exclusive.’

Having held that Article 31(2) is not engaged, the Court still has to assess whether the claim is essentially a declaration of non-infringement or rather ‘concerns’ the validity of the patents. Defendants argue that the validity of the Patents UK would form only an incidental part of this action, since it is really a dispute about the scope of defendant’s licence.

Here, Hacon J discussed CJEU authority at length (GAT v LUK, BVG, Gasser etc.) and summarises at 53

(1) When a stay is sought under art.31(2), if an argument is raised that the court before which the stay is sought has exclusive jurisdiction under art.24, that court must decide whether the argument is correct.

(2) If the court has exclusive jurisdiction under art.24, art.31(2) is not engaged. There will be no stay.

(3) If the court does not have exclusive jurisdiction under art.24, it must decide whether at least prima facie there is an agreement which satisfies art.25 and which confers exclusive jurisdiction on courts of another Member State. If so, provided the defendant has not entered an appearance in a manner which satisfies art.26, there must be a stay of the proceedings.

EPLaw helpfully summarise the lenghty review of testimony and pleadings as follows: taking into account the usual practice in relation to patent validity proceedings in the UK, and the arguments which are typically run, the Court concluded that there was no real doubt that if the proceedings progress to trial they will be concerned with the validity of the Patents within the meaning of art.24(4). Art.24(4) was therefore engaged.

The case raises again the interesting issue of the degree to which the court may rely on parties’ submissions in particulars of claim when examining jurisdiction, or alternatively need to look beyond these stated arguments into what might and will be argued.

Leave to Appeal has been granted and a further order has already dealt with service issues.

Geert.

(Handbook of ) European Private International Law, 2nd ed. 2016, Chapter 2, Heading 2.2.6.7, Heading 2.2.9.5.

Asymmetric clauses, exclusivity, torpedoes and lis alibi pendens: The High Court in Commerzbank v Liquimar Tankers.

Many of the issues in [2017] EWHC 161 (Comm) Commerzbank v Liquimar Tankers were also raised in Perella v Codere,  albeit there, as I reported, obiter. In current case, they were very much dicta, and they amount to the English courts viewing (properly constructed) asymmetric clauses as being exclusive. As such they fall under the new anti-torpedo provisions of Article 31(2).

Applications of defendants Liquimar Tankers (registered in Liberia but with head office in Athens) are being made in the course of proceedings in London by Commerzbank  in two separate actions in relation to the repayment of loans which the Bank extended for the building of a number of ships. There are ongoing proceedings taken by the defendants against the Bank in Piraeus, Greece concerning the same and/or related issues.

The Liquimar guarantee contained a governing law and an asymmetric jurisdiction clause, which was essentially similar in the other loan agreements. It provided:

“16 Law and Jurisdiction

16.1 This Guarantee and Indemnity shall in all respects be governed by and interpreted in accordance with English law.

16.2 For the exclusive benefit of the Lender, the Guarantor irrevocably agrees that the courts of England are to have jurisdiction to settle any disputes which may arise out of or in connection with this Guarantee and Indemnity and that any proceedings may be brought in those courts.

16.3 Nothing contained in this Clause shall limit the right of the Lender to commence any proceedings against the Guarantor in any other court of competent jurisdiction nor shall the commencement of any proceedings against the Guarantor in one or more jurisdictions preclude the commencement of any proceedings in any other jurisdiction, whether concurrently or not.

16.4 The Guarantor irrevocably waives any objection which it may now or in the future have to the laying of the venue of any proceedings in any court referred to in this Clause and any claim that those proceedings have been brought in an inconvenient or inappropriate forum, and irrevocably agrees that a judgment in any proceedings commenced in any such court shall be conclusive and binding on it and may be enforced in the courts of any jurisdiction …”.

 

Article 31(2) of the Brussels I Recast reads:

‘where a court of a Member State on which an agreement as referred to in Article 25 confers exclusive jurisdiction is seized, any court of another Member State shall stay the proceedings until such time as the court seized on the basis of the agreement declares that it has no jurisdiction under the agreement.’

Cranston J held that the concept of ‘exclusivity’ should be autonomously interpreted under the Brussels I (Recast) regime. He did not however refer for preliminary reference to the CJEU: as such, the High Court’s finding continues to be vulnerable until we have precedent from Luxembourg. The judgment as a whole is worth a read – readers in for concise summary, please refer to Herbert Smith’s analysis.

Summing up is done in para 70, with justifiable emphasis on parties’ and the Regulation’s intentions (but as noted with considerable reference to precedent and principles of statutory interpretation): Thus with the asymmetric jurisdiction clauses in the present case, the defendants agreed to sue only in the courts of one EU Member State, England. Instead, they have enabled another court, the Greek court, to be seized of the matter. It would undermine the agreements of the parties, and foster abusive tactics, if the jurisdiction clauses in these agreements were to be treated not as exclusive, but as non-exclusive.’ 

Of note is also the discussion on the role of recitals (eg. at 69; also at 77 ff). Justice Cranston’s arguments are supported by reference to a number of recitals. Defendant in my view has a valid point in principle where they argue at 77 that ‘a recital cannot constitute a rule when it is not reflected in the words of Article 31(2).‘ (Although they were wrong on substance).

A subsidiary argument in the case also merits further attention. Defendants argue that Article 25 requires the parties to have designated the courts of a Member State to enable the law applicable to the substantive validity of a jurisdiction clause to be identified and to provide certainty as to the forum in which a putative defendant can expect to be sued. That, they submit, is not achieved by a clause which designates the courts of all other competent states, including those of non-Member States, outside the territorial competence of the EU, which could mean suits in multiple jurisdictions. Although the argument could be phrased more precisely, I do agree with it: in the absence of a nominatim lex contractus for the choice of court clause specifically, the new lex fori prorogati rule in Article 25 Brussels I Recast, combined with recital 20 (yet again the troublesome habit of EU private international law to include substantive rules in recitals only) does create a vacuum in the case of hybrid, asymmetric or even non-exclusive choice of court.

An important case. Not the last we have heard of the issues.

Geert.

(Handbook of) European Private international law, 2nd ed. 2016, Ch.2, Heading 2.2.9, Heading 2.2.9.4.1, Heading 2.2.9.5.