Bundeszentralamt Fur Steuern v Heis. On comity, staying proceedings, and the ‘public /private’ divide in international litigation.

Bundeszentralamt Fur Steuern (Being the Federal Central Tax Office of the Federal Republic of Germany) & Ors v Heis & Ors [2019] EWHC 705 (Ch) was held in March 2019 bit only came unto BAILII recently and had not caught my attention before.

The primary question raised is whether appeals by the applicants, the German Federal Tax Office (“the GTA”) and by Deutsche Bank AG (“DB”) against the rejection by the Joint Special Administrators (“the Administrators”) of MF Global UK Limited (“MFGUK”) of their respective proofs of debt, to allow the underlying claim which forms the subject of the proof to be resolved by the specialist German tax or fiscal courts, which both the applicants (for different reasons) contend are the natural forum for the determination of the claims and the forum in which they can be resolved most efficiently.

The underlying issue concerns German withholding tax.

The GTA has at all times maintained that its claim should be determined in Germany by the German tax courts, per the UK-Germany double taxation Treaty, based on the OECD model convention (for those in the know: it is Article 28(6) which the GTA has suggested exclusively reserves its GTA Claim to the German Courts). However it felt compelled to submit a proof in MFGUK’s UK administration proceedings in order to preserve its rights.

Under German law, it is within the GTA’s power to give a decision on MFGUK’s objection to relvant Amended Tax Assessment Notices. If and when it did so, it would then be for MFGUK, if it wished to pursue the matter further, to file an appeal against that decision by the GTA with the Fiscal Court of Cologne. The Fiscal Court of Cologne is one of the 18 fiscal courts in Germany which are the courts of first instance for tax matters. That seems a natural course to take however here the GTA is caught in a conundrum: at 18: the GTA has not yet formally rejected MFGUK’s objection. This is because such objection would establish proceedings in Germany, and there is a procedural rule of German law that, in order to prevent parallel proceedings, a German court will automatically defer to the court first seized of a matter. Accordingly, it seems likely that if the GTA were to reject MFGUK’s objection before the Stay Application has been decided by the UK Court, on any appeal by MFGUK, the Fiscal Court of Cologne might as a matter of comity defer to this Court in order to avoid parallel proceedings.

At 57: Brussels Ia is not engaged for the case concerns both the insolvency and the tax exclusion of Articles 1.1 and 1.2.b. At 56 Hildyard J considers the issues under English rules on the power to stay, with a focus on the risk of irreconcilable judgments.

At 84 Hildyard J holds that the GTA read too much into A28(6) and that there is no exclusive jurisdiction, leaving the consideration of whether a stay might be attractive nevertheless (at 89 ff the issue is discussed whether German courts could at all entertain the claim). This leads to an assessment pretty much like a stay under Brussels Ia as ‘related’ (rather than: the same, to which lis alibi pendens applies) cases. Note at 87(6) the emphasis which the GTA places on the actual possibility of consolidating the cases – similar to the arguments used in BIa A33-34 cases such as Privatbank and later cases).

At 115 the impact of this case having public law impacts becomes clear: ‘It seems to me that, despite my hunch that there will also be considerable factual enquiry, and a factual determination of the particular circumstances may determine the result …, the legal issues at stake are not only plainly matters of German law, but controversial and complex issues of statutory construction of systemic importance and substantial public interest in terms of the legitimate interests of the public in the protection of its taxation system from what are alleged to be colourable schemes.’

And at 116, referring ia to VTB Capital v Nutritek, ‘the risk of inconsistent decisions in concurrent proceedings in different jurisdictions, is the more acute when in one of the jurisdictions the issue is a systemic one, or may be decided in a manner which has systemic consequences. Especially in such a context, there is a preference for a case to be heard by the courts of the country whose law applies.’ Reference to VTB is made in particular with resepect to the point that Gleichlauf (the application by a court of its own laws) is to be promoted in particular (at [46] in VTB per Lord Mance: “it is generally preferable, other things being equal, that a case should be tried in a country whose law applies. However, this factor is of particular force if issues of law are likely to be important and if there is evidence of relevant differences in the legal principles or rules applicable to such issues in the two countries in contention as the appropriate forum.’

At 117: ‘even if the factual centre of gravity may be London, the jurisdiction likely to be most affected by the result is Germany: and even if the US approach of ‘interest analysis’ is not determinative in this jurisdiction it does not seem to me to be an impermissible consideration.’

Held, at 121, there is here ‘a sufficiently “rare and compelling” reason for granting the stay sought by the GTA, provided that the German Fiscal Court are an available forum in which to determine the substance of the disputes.’ At 122 Hildyard J seeks assurances ‘insofar as the parties’ best endeavours can secure it, resolution of both the GTA Claim and the Later MFGUK Refund Claim as expeditiously as possible. That seems to me necessary in order to safeguard this jurisdictions’ insolvency processes and for the protection of the interests of the body of creditors as a whole.’

Then follows at 131 ff extensive analysis of the impact of this stay decision on the related case of Deutsche Bank, with at 190 a summary of the issues to be decided. Held at 218: ‘By careful selection of potentially dispositive issues, I consider that there is some prospect of that process enabling a determination without recourse to the intricacies of German tax law which are to be decided in the context of the GTA Claim; whereas an immediate stay guarantees a long delay before this court can determine the matter, based on presently hypothetical claims, after a long wait for non-binding guidance from the German court which may result from other cases to which DB is not a party.’ However at 219 the prospect of a stay after all is held out, should a quick resolution of those issues not be possible.

Most interesting.

Geert.

 

Comity and ‘domestic illegality’. Colt v SGG.

International comity underlies the rule of both Ralli Brothers v Compania Naviera Sota y Aznar (‘Ralli Bros’) [1920] 2 KB 287 and Foster v Driscoll [1929] 1 KB 470, jointly known as ‘illegality under foreign law’. They both engage lois de police of the place of performance, and the English courts’ attitude towards not assisting with contractual performance that would go against such lois. Per Cockerill J in Magdeev v Tsvetkov [2020] EWHC 887 at 307:

The Foster v Driscoll and Ralli Bros principles differ in this way: the latter is concerned only with whether the contract between the parties necessarily involves performance of an act which is illegal by the law of the place of performance, irrespective of the object and intention of the parties; the former is only concerned with whether the object and intention of the parties is to perform their agreement in a manner which involves an illegal act in the place of performance, and is not concerned with whether the contract necessitates the undertaking of such an act…’

At issue in Colt Technology Services v SG Global Group SRL [2020] EWHC 1417 (Ch), is an injunction to restrain SGG (of Italy) from presenting a winding-up petition against it. SGG claims that Colt UK is indebted to it in the sum of US$4,936,619.93 plus interest. Colt UK contends that the debt is bona fide disputed on substantial grounds, such that the Companies Court is not an appropriate forum to determine the dispute and the presentation of a winding-up petition would be an abuse of process. Colt UK says that SGG was not the true supplier of the services under the relevant agreement, but was a shell company acting as a front for another supplier and was engaged in a form of VAT “missing trader” fraud with the Italian authorities as victims.

After due consideration Wicks J holds that Colt UK has a properly arguable illegality defence to the sums claimed by SGG, based on the Ralli Bros principle. Held: the presentation of a winding-up petition against Colt UK would be an abuse of process and in all the circumstances it is right to restrain SGG from taking that step.

Another interesting example of international comity in private, commercial litigation.

Geert.

A reminder: Austrian courts apply CJEU Eva Glawischnig-Piesczek v Facebook ruling. Limits removal to national territory only but does not rule out worldwide removal on principle.

I had already reported in March on the first application of the CJEU C-18/18 Eva Glawischnig-Piesczek v Facebook ruling in an update to my post on the latter. I thought I’ld add a separate post on the ruling for it, well, deserves it: the court held that orders based on Austrian copyright are limited to Austria (given copyright’s territorial limitations), but if they are based on personal rights, the claimant has to specify the requested territorial reach (so potentially global).

IPKat have further analysis here. As one or two of us discussed at the time of the CJEU ruling: the infringement of personality rights angle is an important one.

Geert.

(Handbook of) EU Private International Law, 2nd ed. 2016, Chapter 2, Heading 2.2.8.2, Heading 2.2.8.2.5.

Impromptu Admiralty forum necessitatis in Trafigura v Clearlake.

Update 7 May 2020 for further specifications followign disagreement between parties, see order made a good week after the first one, in [2020] EWHC 1073 (Comm).

In [2020] EWHC 995 (Comm) Trafigura v Clearlake, Teare J essentially has created a forum necessitatis rule in admiralty, to accomodate the slower availability of the Singapore courts due to Covid19. At 29 ff:

In normal circumstances an Admiralty Court, faced with an application to release a valuable vessel from arrest, would determine whether the security offered was such as to allow the release of the vessel from arrest without delay. In such circumstances there would usually be no need for the court upon which the owner and charterer have conferred jurisdiction to determine disputes between them to find as a fact what security would be judged adequate by the court of the place of arrest to allow the release of the vessel from arrest. For that would in practice be determined by the court of the place of arrest.

But these are not normal circumstances. There is a worldwide Covid 19 pandemic which has disrupted normal life, including the justice system. As a result I was told that the court in Singapore is not able to hear the application to determine the adequacy of the security offered until 18 May 2020. In those circumstances the question arises, or may arise, whether this court should find as a fact whether the security which has been offered to secure the release of the vessel matches that which would be required by the court of the place of arrest or not. That is what this court would have to do, and would have jurisdiction to do, if, unusually, there was no appropriate application before the court of the place of arrest. Those are not the circumstances of this case. There is an appropriate application in Singapore but the result will not be known for almost a month.

At 31 he re-emphasises that comity would ordinarily restrain any jurisdictional temptation. However at 32 he concludes that ‘on the other hand there is a dispute between the owner and charterer. The charterer owes an obligation to the owner to provide security which will secure the release of a valuable vessel from arrest. The owner wishes to enforce that obligation and so to mitigate the losses it is suffering by reason of its inability to trade the vessel. There is therefore a powerful reason for this court, in circumstances where the court of arrest, for understandable reasons, is unable to determine the application for release until 18 May 2020, to exercise the jurisdiction the parties have conferred on it to resolve disputes between owner and charterer.’

Not a jurisdicitional claim out the blue therefore; the choice of court does give England a powerful link to the case.

Geert.

 

 

Lydian international. The Jersey courts on universalism and cross-border insolvency.

In Representation of Lydian international Limited [2020] JRC 049 MacRae DB refers to universality in insolvency proceedings only once,  namely where he refers to authority at 20. Yet his approach in honouring the request for assistance, made by the courts at Ontario ‘on the basis of comity’, walks and talks like universality. This is of course reminiscent of Menon CJ’s recent speech on the issue, or similar decisions elsewhere.

‘Though there is no precedent in Jersey for a Canadian CCAA order or similar order being enforced or recognised in relation to a Jersey company, we had no doubt that we should assist the Canadian Court in this case.  There were no reasons of Jersey public policy impeding the court making the orders sought.  To the contrary, it is consistent with Jersey’s status as a responsible jurisdiction for the Royal Court to lend assistance in order to facilitate an international insolvency process in a friendly country that has a potential to benefit the creditors of the Lydian Group as a whole.’ The Deputy Bailiff also notes that key Jersey creditors and the Jersey corporation of the Lydian group itself were represented in the Canadian proceedings.

Geert.

(Handbook of) EU Private International Law, 2nd edition 2016, Chapter 5.

 

Agbara et al v Shell. Recognition /enforcement, ordre public and natural justice. Shell Nigeria ruling refused registration in the High Court.

[2019] EWHC 3340 (QB) Agbara et al v Shell Nigeria et al (thank you Adeole Yusuf for flagging) illustrates what many a conflict teacher initiates classes with. There is some, but often limited use in obtaining a judgment which subsequently cannot be enforced where the defendant’s funds are. Coppel DJ refused to enter registration of a 2010 Nigerian judgment by which claimants were awarded 15,407,777,246 Naira (approximately £33 million today) in damages in respect of the pollution of land occupied by them following the rupture of a pipeline maintained by Shell in 1969 or 1970.

Brussels Ia does not apply to recognition and enforcement of an ex-EU judgment hence the common law was applied (clearly with due deference to international comity yet the standards of natural justice nevertheless being determined by lex fori, English law). Natural justice was found to have been infringed by the proceedings at issue. This included an impossibility for Shell to cross-examine witnesses and an unusually swift completion of proceedings following the dismissal of a procedural argument made by Shell. Shell’s subsequent bumbling of the appeal via procedural mistake was not found by Coppel DJ to alter the findings of infringement of natural justice.

Obiter the factual mistakes made in the calculation of damages leading to the award and the opaque inclusion of punitive damages were also found to stand in the way of recognition and enforcement.

The ruling has some relevance for Article 33/34 BI1’s Anerkennungsprognose.

Geert.

 

A v OOO “Insurance Company Chubb” et al. Anti-suit pro arbitration does have its limits.

In A v OOO “Insurance Company Chubb” [2019] EWHC 2729 (Comm), Carr J refused an ex parte application for interim relief seeking (i.a.) anti-suit and discontinuation of Russian proceedings, pro agreed arbitration in London. Defendants are domiciled at Russia, France and Switserland. At 33 ff Carr J lists five reasons for refusal, despite as readers will know the English courts’ general willingness to assist arbitration. Three of her reasons jump out: the lack of full and frank disclosure (ia relating to contractual provisions); the lack of immediate urgency requiring ex parte application; and some of the measures sought being more than just interim measures (assessment of that nature required evidence by a Russian law expert on the further continuation, if any, of Russian proceedings following anti-suit).

A good reminder that these applications are neither straightforward nor should be taken for granted.

Geert.

(Handbook of) EU private international law, 2nd ed. 2016, Chapter 2, Heading 2.2.1.

Hiscox v Weyerhaeuser. The High Court is not easily impressed by pending foreign proceedings in anti-suit application (pro arbitration).

A quick note on Hiscox v Weyerhaeuser [2019] EWHC 2671 (Comm), in which Knowles J was asked to continue an anti-suit injunction restraining Weyerhaeuser from continuing proceedings in the US courts and ordering parties to turn to arbitration. He obliged.

In April 2018 Weyerhaeuser filed proceedings in the US District Court (Western District of Washington at Seattle)for a declaratory judgment in respect of certain of its insurance excess policies in the tower of excess liability. Weyerhaeuser sought, among other things, a declaration that there is no valid arbitration agreement applicable to any coverage disputes between itself and various defendant insurers and that the US District Court is the appropriate forum for any such disputes.

Knowles J lists the various proceedings pending in the US however particularly in the light of all parties being established businesses, is not impressed by arguments of comity or fairness to restrain the English courts from further involvement in the matter. He expresses the hope and expectation that the US courts will come to the same conclusion as himself, in light of the contractual provisions.

Geert.

(Handbook of) EU private international law, 2nd ed. 2016, Chapter 2, Heading 2.2.1.

Steady now. Eva Glawischnig-Piesczek v Facebook. The CJEU on jurisdiction and removal of hate speech.

Update 5 May 2020 see the report of the first application of the criteria by the Austrian courts on 30 March 2020 here: the court held that orders based on Austrian copyright are limited to Austria, but if they are based on personal rights, the claimant has to specify the requested territorial reach (so potentially global).

My interest in C-18/18 Eva Glawischnig-Piesczek v Facebook as I noted in my short first review of the case, concerns mostly the territorial reach of any measures taken by data protection authorities against hosting providers. The Court held last week and o boy did it provoke a lot of comment.

The case to a large degree illustrates the relationship between secondary and primary law, and the art of reading EU secondary law. Here: Article 15 of the e-commerce Directive 2001/31 which limits what can be imposed upon a provider; and the recitals of the Directive which seem to leave more leeway to the Member States. Scant harmonisation of tort law in the EU does not assist the Institutions in their attempts to impose a co-ordinated approach.

The crucial issue in the case was whether Article 15 prohibits the imposition on a hosting provider (Facebook, in this case) of an obligation to remove not only notified illegal content, but also identical and similar content, at a national or worldwide level? The Court held the Directive does not as such preclude such order, and that as to the worldwide injunctive issue, EU law has not harmonised and that it is up to the Member States to direct in any such orders in compliance with public international law.

The judgment to a large degree concerns statutory interpretation on filtering content, which Daphne Keller has already reviewed pre the judgment succinctly here, Dan Svantesson post the judgment here, as did Lorna Woods, and a frenzied Twitter on the day of the judgment e.g. in this thread. A most balanced analysis is provided by Andrej Savin here. e-Commerce law is not the focus of this blog, neither my professed area of expertise (choices, choices). I do want to emphasise though

  • that as always it pays to bear in mind the CJEU’s judicial economy. Here: the need to interpret its judgment in line with the circumstances of the case. As Steve Peers noted, the Austrian court had ruled that the post was defamatory, which is a recognised basis for limiting freedom of expression; see also at 40: ‘In that regard, it should be made clear that the illegality of the content of information does not in itself stem from the use of certain terms combined in a certain way, but from the fact that the message conveyed by that content is held to be illegal, when, as in the present case, it concerns defamatory statements made against a specific person.‘ Nota bene, the same need to read the judgment in context goes for the earlier Google v CNIL case, applying Directive 95/46 and the GDPR, which I review here.
  • that speaking strictly as a member of the public who has seen the devastating effect of ‘social’ media on people close to me, the technical discussions on filtering (‘what filter does the CJEU think might possibly ever be available to FB to remove content in the way the Court wishes’) are emphatically beside the point. The public justifiably are not interested in the how. A service is offered which clearly has negative effects on EU citisens. Remedy those effects, or remove the service from those citisens. That is true for the negative impacts of goods (in 25 years of regulatory Bar practice I have seen plenty of that). There is no reason it should be any less true for services.

The jurisdictional issues are what interest me more from the blog’s point of view: the territorial scope of any removal or filtering obligation. In Google viz the GDPR and the data protection Directive, the Court confirmed my reading, against that of most others’, of Szpunar AG’s Opinion. EU law does not harmonise the worldwide removal issue. Reasons of personal indemnification may argue in specific circumstances for universal jurisdiction and ditto reach of injunctive relief on ‘right to be forgotten’ issues. Public international law and EU primary law are the ultimate benchmark (Google V CNIL). It is little surprise the Court held similarly in Eva Glawischnig-Piesczek, even if unlike in Google, it did not flag the arguments that might speak against such order. As I noted in my review of Google, for the GDPR and the data protection Directive, it is not entirely clear whether the Court suggests EU secondary law simply did not address extraterritoriality or decided against it. For the e-commerce Directive in Eva Glawischnig-Piesczek the Court notes at 50-52

Directive 2000/31 does not preclude those injunction measures from producing effects worldwide. However, it is apparent from recitals 58 and 60 of that directive that, in view of the global dimension of electronic commerce, the EU legislature considered it necessary to ensure that EU rules in that area are consistent with the rules applicable at international level.  It is up to Member States to ensure that the measures which they adopt and which produce effects worldwide take due account of those rules.

In conclusion, Member States may order a host provider to remove information covered by the injunction or to block access to that information worldwide within the framework of the relevant international law. To my knowledge, the Brussels Court of Appeal is the only national court so far to consider public international law extensively viz the issue of jurisdiction, and decided against it, nota bene in a case against Facebook Inc.

Any suggestion that the floodgates are open underestimates the sophisticated engagement of national courts with public international law.

In general, the CJEU’s approach is very much aligned with the US (SCOTUS in particular) judicial approach in similar extraterritoriality issues (sanctions law; export controls; ATS;…). There is no madness to the CJEU’s approach. Incomplete: sure (see deference to national courts and the clear lack of EU law-making up its legislative mind on the issues). Challenging and work in progress: undoubtedly. But far from mad.

Geert.

(Handbook of) EU Private International Law, 2nd ed. 2016, Chapter 2, Heading 2.2.8.2, Heading 2.2.8.2.5.

W v L. Brussels IIa and forum non conveniens ex-EU.

When I reported [2019] EWHC 466 (Fam) V v M, I suggested that forum non considerations there, moot given that eventually jurisdiction of the English courts was upheld, would resurface in further cases. They have. [2019] EWHC 1995 (Fam) W v L eventually went much the same way as V v M.

The Brussels BIIa Regulation applies when determining the question of jurisdiction regardless of whether there is an alternative jurisdiction in a non-member state (Re A (Jurisdiction: Return of Child) [2014] 1 AC 1 , later confirmed in CJEU UD v XB C-393/18 PPU [2019] 1 WLR 3083 ). Brussels IIa has an intra-EU forum non conveniens regime (applied in C‑428/15, Child and Family Agency, on which I report here).

Art 8(1) of BIIa provides that the courts of a Member State shall have jurisdiction in matters of parental responsibility over a child who is habitually resident in that Member State at the time the court is seised.

MacDonald J at 30 posits that where the English court does have jurisdiction under Art 8 BIIa but there are proceedings also in a third party non-member state (here: Jordan) the issue becomes one of forum conveniens – which he subsequently discusses following the Spiliada criteria. In V v M to which current judgment refers at 34, Williams J reflected on whether forum non at all has calling following (he held it does; not convincingly). MacDonald J in current case first at 30 simply seems to accept such application. Then at 38 holds he need not decide this issue here (counsel had suggested the issue was in fact covered by Brussels Ia and the precedent value of Owusu therefore clear) for even if forum non conveniens has to be decided, it clearly points to England.

In conclusion, therefore: the issue still has not been settled and will, again, return.

Geert.