Okpabi v Shell. The Supreme Court reverses the Court of Appeal and the High Court on jurisdictional hurdles in parent /subsidiaries cases. Guest blog by professor Robert McCorquodale.

Update 12 07 2021 Shell have now dropped further jurisdictional objections. The Nigerian daughter companies will therefore be joined to the case at the High Court, together with the English-incorporated mother corporation (Shell dual list in England and The Netherlands).

Those who combine my excitement of having professor McCorquodale contribute to the blog, with his enthusiasm at the end of his post, may find themselves in a perennial game of complimentary renvoi.

Robert, who represented interveners CORE in Okpabi v Shell (one-line summary in live tweeting here), signals the jurisdictional take-aways. The wider due diligence context of the case is considered by Ekaterina Aristova and Carlos Lopez here, Lucas Roorda signals ia the merits bar following the jurisdictional findings and Andrew Dickinson expressed his hope of an end to excessively lengthy jurisdictional proceedings here.

 

Okpabi v Shell: Judges’ Approach to Jurisdictional Issues is Crucial

In Okpabi v Shell [2021] UKSC 3, Nigerian farmers brought a claim against Shell’s parent company (RDS) and its Nigerian subsidiary (SPDC) for environmental and human rights impacts of oil pollution. The claim had been struck out at the initial state on the basis of lack of jurisdiction in relation to the actions of SPDC, and this decision had been upheld by the Court of Appeal.

The Supreme Court unanimously swept aside these decisions. It held that when considering issues of the court’s jurisdiction over such a claim, a court must start from the basis that the alleged facts of the claim are true and from there determine if the claim has a real prospect of success.  The defendant should not bring evidence of its own to dispute the alleged facts unless the facts are demonstrably untrue or unsupportable, as otherwise it risks showing that there is an issue to be tried.  If a judge engages with the evidence and makes findings on it in a summary judgment, the more likely it is that the decision to strike out will be overturned. Further, the Court considered that there was a danger of a court determining issues which arise in parent/subsidiary cases without sufficient disclosure of material documents in the hands of the defendants. Both courts below had acted incorrectly and conducted a “mini-trial”, and so the appeal by the claimants was successful.

The Court affirmed Vedanta that parent companies can have a duty of care towards those affected by a subsidiary’s actions, and that the Caparo test was inapplicable to these types of cases. The Court also clarified the scope of the duty of care by making clear that control is not determinative, it is the level of management involvement by the parent which is crucial. A parent company’s group-wide policies and standards were relevant in this respect. The Court, unfortunately, did not refer in its decision to any comparative law cases or international developments, even though these had been drawn to its attention.

This decision embeds the position that parent companies can have a duty of care towards those affected by a subsidiary’s actions, and that de facto management is a factor to consider. It examined the legal process by which courts consider these jurisdictional issues and made it much harder for a judge to strike out a case at the jurisdictional stage unless the facts on which the claim is based are demonstrably untrue or unsupportable. This could enable quicker proceedings towards the merits in these types of cases.

—Robert McCorquodale – it is my honour to contribute to this excellent blog.

High Court declines jurisdiction in Municipio de Mariana. An important (first instance) #bizhumanrights marker.

Update 27 July 2021 the Court of Appeal today granted the CPR 52.30 application and has given permission to appeal.

Update 10 May 2021 the Court of Appeal have agreed to hear our application to challenge the refusal for PTA.

Update 31 03 2021 the Court of Appeal have confirmed refusal to appeal in an order which fails to engage properly with inter alia the A34 issues.

Update 1 February 2021 Turner J last week refused permission to appeal (which can now still be taken to the Court of Appeal itself).

I am instructed for claimants in the case hence my post here is a succinct report, not a review and it must not be read as anything else.

Turner J yesterday struck out (not just: stayed) the case against the companies jointly operating the facilities that led to the 2015 Brazilian dam break and consequential human and environmental loss in Município De Mariana & Ors v BHP Group Plc & Anor [2020] EWHC 2930 (TCC). I reported on the case before here.

Eyre J’s earlier Order had identified the threefold jurisdictional challenge: 1. Forum non conveniens for non-EU defendants; 2. Article 34 Brussels IA for the EU-based defendants; 3. Abuse of process, case management for both.

In his judgment Turner J makes abuse of process the core of the case, hinging his subsequent obiter analysis of forum non and of Article 34 on his views viz abuse. At the centre of his abuse analysis is his interpretation of AB v John Wyeth & Brother (No.4), also known as the benzodiazepine litigation, with the points he takes from that judgment (even after the subsequent CPR rules wre issued) summarized at 76.

At 80 ff is a discussion (see e.g. my earlier review of Donaldson DJ in Zavarco) on the use of case-management powers, including abuse, against EU-domiciled defendants post CJEU Owusu (the ‘back-door analogy per Lewison J in Skype technologies SA v Joltid Ltd [2009] EWHC 2783 (Ch) ).

At 99 ff Turner J pays a lot of attention to the impact of accepting jurisdiction on the working of the courts in England, discusses some of the practicalities including language issues, and decides at 141 in an extract which has already caught the attention of others, that ‘In particular, the claimants’ tactical decision to progress closely related damages claims in the Brazilian and English jurisdictions simultaneously is an initiative the consequences of which, if unchecked, would foist upon the English courts the largest white elephant in the history of group actions.’

At 146 ff follow the obiter considerations of the remaining grounds, Article 34 Recast, forum non conveniens and case management stay. On Article 34 viz BHP Plc, the issue of ‘relatedness’ is discussed with reference of course to Euroeco and the tension between that case and Privatbank, as I flag ia here, holding at 199 in favour of Privatbank as the leading authority (hence focus on desirability of hearing cases together rather than on practical possibility). On relatedness, Turner J does not follow the approach of either Zavarco or Jalla, both of course first instance decisions.

At 206 Turner J takes the instructions of recital 24 Brussels Ia’s ‘all circumstances of the case’ to mean including circumstances which would ordinarily be part of a forum non consideration, despite Owusu, and at 231 Jalla is distinguished (at least practically; Jalla is not authority for the judge here) and i.a. at 221 Turner J lists his reasons for allowing an Article 34 stay (again: these are obiter views). As already noted, these echo his findings on abuse of process.

The forum non conveniens analysis viz BHP Ltd at 235 ff, applying Spiliada, delivers inter alia on an inherent implication of Lord Briggs’ suggestions in Vedanta: that a commitment of defendants voluntarily to submit to the foreign alternative jurisdiction, hands them the key to unlock forum non. At 241: ‘In this case, both defendants have offered to submit themselves to the jurisdiction of Brazil. Thus the force of any suggestion that there may be a risk of irreconcilable judgements against each defendant is attenuated.’

Conclusions, at 265:

(i) I strike out the claims against both defendants as an abuse of the process of the court;

(ii) If my finding of abuse were correct but my decision to strike out were wrong, then I would stay the claims leaving open the possibility of the claimants, or some of them, seeking to lift the stay in future but without pre-determining the timing of any such application or the circumstances in which such an application would be liable to succeed;

(iii) If my finding of abuse were wrong, then I would, in any event, stay the claim against BHP Plc by the application of Article 34 of the Recast Regulation;

(iv) If my finding of abuse were wrong, then I would, in any event, stay the claims against BHP Ltd on the grounds of forum non conveniens regardless of whether the BHP reliance on Article 34 of the Recast Regulation had been successful or not;

(v) If my findings on the abuse of process point were wrong, then a free-standing decision to impose a stay on case management grounds would probably be unsustainable.

Appeal is of course being considered.

Geert.

(Handbook of) European Private International Law, 2nd ed. 2016, Chapter 8, Heading 8.3.

3rd ed. forthcoming February 2021.

First analysis of the European Parliament’s draft proposal to amend Brussels Ia and Rome II with a view to corporate human rights due diligence.

Update 10 March 2021 the forum necessitatis and other amendments to Brussels Ia and Rome II were rejectedUpdate 16 April 2021 Thalia Kruger has succinct additional analysis and references here. Of note is here remark that the Resolution would leave it up to Member States to qualify any EU law as lois de police: clearly that would indeed be an odd move.

Update 28 October 2020 see also Chris Tomale’s further critical reflection here.

Update 22 October 2020  see for comparative purposes Jan von Hein’s critical comments on the EP draft work for a Regulation on the civil liability for artificial intelligence. There is a clear tendency in the institutions to draft tailor-made regimes for the PIL aspects of whatever hot topic hits them – it is generally neither a wise nor a necessary move.

Update 12 October 2020 Jan von Hein has weighed in on the debate here. Update 9 October 2020 Giesela Ruhl has further review of the Rome II elements here.

Thank you Irene Pietropaoli for alerting me to the European Parliament’s draft proposal for a mandatory human rights due diligence Directive. The official title proposed is a Directive on Corporate Due Diligence and Corporate  Accountability). Parliament also proposes insertions in both Brussels Ia and Rome II. For the related issues see a study I co-authored on the Belgian context, with links to developments in many jurisdictions.

I do not in this post go into all issues and challenges relating to such legislation, focusing instead on a first, preliminary analysis of the conflicts elements of the proposal.

A first issue of note in the newly proposed Directive is the definitional one.  The proposal’s full title as noted uses ‘corporate due diligence and corporate accountability’. However in its substantive provisions it uses ‘duty to respect human rights, the environment and good governance’ and it defines each (but then with the denoter ‘risk’) in Article 3. For human rights risks and for governance risks these definitions link to a non-exhaustive list of international instruments while for the environment no such list is provided.

The proposed Directive points out the existence of sectoral EU due diligence legislation e.g. re timber products and precious metals, and suggests ‘(i)n case of insurmountable incompatibility, the sector-specific legislation shall apply.’ This is an odd way to formulate lex specialis, if alone for the use of the qualifier ‘insurmountable’. One assumes the judge seized will eventually be the arbitrator of insurmountability however from a compliance point of view this is far from ideal.

As for the proposed amendment to Brussels Ia, this would take the form of a forum necessitatis as follows:

Article 26a
Regarding business-related civil claims on human rights violations within the value chain of a company domiciled in the Union or operating in the Union within the scope of Directive xxx/xxxx on Corporate Due Diligence and Corporate Accountability, where no court of a Member State has jurisdiction under this Regulation, the  courts of a Member State may, on an exceptional basis, hear the case if the right to a fair trial or the right to access to justice so requires, in particular: (a) if proceedings cannot reasonably be brought or conducted or would be impossible in a third State with which the dispute is closely related; or (b) if a judgment given on the claim in a third State would not be entitled to recognition and enforcement in the Member State of the court seised under the law of that State and such recognition and enforcement is necessary to ensure that the rights of the claimant are satisfied; and the dispute has a sufficient connection with the Member State of the court seised.

This proposal is a direct copy paste (with only the reference to the newly proposed Directive added) of the European Commission’s proposed forum necessitatis rule (proposed Article 26) at the time Brussels I was amended to Brussels Ia (COM (2010) 748). I discussed the difficulty of such a forum provision eg here (for other related posts use the search string ‘necessitatis’). The application of such a rule also provokes the kinds of difficulty one sees with A33-34 BIa (including the implications of an Anerkennungsprognose).

Coming to the proposed insertion into Rome II, this text reads

Article 6a
Business-related human rights claims
In the context of business-related civil claims for human rights violations within the value chain of an undertaking domiciled in a Member State of the Union or operating in the Union within the scope of Directive xxx/xxxx on Corporate Due Diligence and Corporate Accountability, the law applicable to a non-contractual obligation arising out of the damage sustained shall be the law determined pursuant to Article 4(1), unless the person seeking  compensation for damage chooses to base his or her claim on the law of the country in which the event giving rise to the  damage occurred or on the law of the country in which the parent company has its domicile or, where it does not have a domicile in a Member State, the law of the country where it operates.

I called this a choice between lex locus damni; locus delicti commissi; locus incorporationis; locus activitatis. Many of the associated points of enquiry of such a proposal are currently discussed in Begum v Maran (I should add I have been instructed in that case).

A first obvious issue is that the proposed Article 6a only applies to the human rights violations covered by the newly envisaged Directive. It does not cover the environmental rights. These presumably will continue to be covered by Rome II’s Article 7 for  environmental damage. This will require a delineation between environmental damage that is not also a human rights issue, and those that are both. Neither does the proposed rule apply to the ‘good governance’ elements of the Directive. These presumably will continue to be covered by the general rule of A4 Rome II, with scope for exception per A4(3).

My earlier description of the choice as including ‘locus incorporationis’ is not entirely correct, at least not if the ‘domicile’ criterion is the one of Brussels Ia. A corporation’s domicile is not necessarily that of its state of incorporation and indeed Brussels Ia’s definition of corporate domicile may lead to more than one such domicile. Does the intended rule imply claimant can chose among any of those potential domiciles?

Locus delicti commissi in cases of corporate due diligence (with the alleged impact having taken place abroad) in my view rarely is the same as locus damni, instead referring here to the place where the proper diligence ought to have taken place, such as at the jurisdictional level in CJEU C-147/12 OFAB, and for Rome II Arica Victims. This therefore will often co-incide with the locus incorporationis.

Adding ‘locus activitis’ as I called it or as the proposal does, the law of the country where the parent company operates, clearly will need refining. One presumes the intention is for that law to be one of the Member States (much like the proposed Directive includes in its scope ‘limited liability undertakings governed by the law of a non-Member State and not established in the territory of the Union when they operate in the internal market selling goods or providing services’). Therefore it would be be best to replace ‘country where it operates’ with ‘Member State’ where it operates. However clearly a non-EU domiciled corporation may operate in many Member States, thereby presumably again expanding the list of potential leges causae to pick from. Moreover, the very concept of ‘parent’ company is not defined in the proposal.

In short, the European Parliament with this initiative clearly hopes to gain ground quickly on the debate. As is often the case in such instances, the tent pegs have not yet been quite properly staked.

Geert.

(Handbook of) European Private International Law, 2nd ed. 2016, Chapter 8, Heading 8.3.

(3rd ed forthcoming February 2021).