Posts Tagged Fraus

Sinocore International Co Ltd v RBRG Trading: The commercial court on fraus, ordre public and arbitration.

Fraus omnia corrumpit (fraud corrupts all; alternatively formulated as ex turpi causa non oritur actio) is not easily applied in conflict of laws. See an earlier post here.  In Sinocore International Co Ltd v RBRG Trading , the Commercial Court granted permission for the enforcement of a foreign arbitral award despite allegations that the transaction in question had been “tainted” by fraud: this is how the case is summarised by Mayer Brown and I am happy broadly to refer to their overview and analysis.

The Commercial Court’s relaxed attitude is another sign of strong support of the English courts for the New York Convention and its narrow application of ordre public.

An interesting case for comparative conflicts /arbitration classes.

Geert.

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Vinyls Italia: Szpunar AG on the chemistry between the Insolvency Regulation and Rome I. And again, on the pauliana.

In C-54/16 Vinyls Italia (in full: Vinyls Italia SpA, in liquidation v Mediterranea di Navigazione SpA) Szpunar AG opined last week (the Opinion is not available in English). At the core of the case is the application of Article 13 of the Insolvency Regulation 2000 (Article 16 in the 2015 version; see my general review here), however the case opens an interesting discussion on the meaning of ‘international’ in ‘private international law’.

For the general context of Article 13 (16 new) I should like to refer to my review of Lutz and Nike. At issue in the case at hand are payments made by Vinyls to Mediterranea for the transport of chemicals of the former by the latter. Both are Italian registered companies. Shipment was presumably carried out in Italy (an extra-Italian element in the actual transport does not feature in the factual analysis re ‘international’, which I refer to below). However the contract made choice of law in favour of English law. Mediterranea makes recourse to Article 13 juncto English law as the lex contractus to ward off an attempt by Vinyls to have the payments return to its books.

First up is the question whether courts should apply Article 13 ex officio: for Mediterranea’s claim was made after the procedural deadline foreseen by Italian law. Szpunar AG in my view justifiably suggest it does not: he refers to the Virgos Schmit report [„Article 13 represents a defence against the application of the law of the State of the opening, which must be pursued by the interested party, who must claim it” – § 136 of that report, para 43 of the AG’s Opinion) and to the CJEU’s finding in C-310/14 Nike at 26. The AG does point to the particulars of the case: Mediterranea seemingly had provided proof supporting its view that the substantial conditions of Article 13 had been met (in particular an expert opinion by an English lawyer) but had not expressis verbis requested its application. Szpunar refers the final say to the Italian court, which needs to judge on the basis of Italian civil procedure however does suggest that it seems fairly inconceivable to have provided proof for the fulfillment of a legal proviso, without meaning to request its application.

The question on the applicability of Rome I at all (which is required if Mediterranea want to make recourse to the provisions of English law as lex contractus per Rome I or the Rome convention) may not make it to the CJEU. As Szpunar AG notes, the underlying contract dates prior to 17 December 2009, which is the cut-off date of the Rome I Regulation. The referring court being a court of first instance, it is not in a position to request preliminary review of Rome I’s predecessor, the 1980 Rome Convention. The AG completes the analysis anyway (the Court itself will not, should it find Rome I not to be applicable) and takes in my view the right, expansionist approach (one which I also defend in my handbook): especially given the presence of Article 3(3)’s proviso for ‘purely domestic’ contracts, it is clear that it suffices for Rome I to be applicable that parties make choice of court in favour of a foreign law. Further in the opinion (137 ff) he also suggests that such application is not tantamount to fraude a la loi (fraus legis) and again I agree: the relevance of fraus has been seriously diminished by the provisions on party autonomy in both Rome I and the Rome Convention.

The use of choice of law per Rome I (or the Convention) in turn serves as a jack to trigger the application of the insolvency Regulation. That too is correct in my view, and with undramatic consequences. Choice of law for the underlying contract only identifies its lex causae (where relevant, with an impact on Article 13 of the Insolvency Regulation). It does does not of course in and of itself determine the lex concursus: the latter is determined by the Insolvency Regulation once /if insolvency occurs. Parties have no means to manipulate this at the time of the formation of the contract.

Exciting, conceptual stuff. Most probably the Court itself will not be in a position to assess it all.

Geert.

(Handbook of) EU Private International Law, 2nd ed. 2016, Chapter 3, Heading 3.2.1; Heading 3.2.8.1; chapter 5; Heading 5.7.1.

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Trusts (Stiftung) and estate planning. You cannot have your cake, and eat it.

One cannot have one’s cake and eat it. Meaning once the cake has been eaten, it is gone and you no longer have it. (Apologies but this saying is so often misunderstood I thought I should clarify).

Anyways, the Flemish tax administration had something along these lines in mind when it recently ruled in a case involving a Liechtenstein Stiftung. Many thanks to De Broeck & Van Laere for bringing the ruling to my attention. The Inland Revenue generally employ quite a lot of deference towards trusts and Stiftungs of all kind. In the case at hand however it requalified the transfer of means from the Stiftung to the heirs of the deceased, as being of a contractual nature. That is because the deceased, upon creation of the Stiftung, had issued such precise instructions in the Stiftung’s by-laws, that the hands of the trustees (or equivalent thereof) had been tied.  This essentially takes away a crucial part of the Stiftung’s nature, and no longer shields the assets from the (Flemish) taxman. The cake has been eaten.

Geert.

 

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Banco Santander Totta: the High Court upholds snowball interest rate swaps under English law. The ‘purely domestic contracts’ provision of Article 3(3) Rome I is not engaged.

A longer title than readers are used to from this blog. However judgment itself is also an unusually long 163 pages. In Banco Santander Totta, the High Court was asked whether snowball interest rates swaps in loan agreements between a Portuguese Bank and four Portuguese public transport companies, should be declared invalid under Portuguese ‘mandatory’ law, applicable by use of the corrective mechanism of Article 3(3) Rome I.

The Transport Companies do not assert that BST wrongly advised them to enter into the swaps, or misrepresented the swaps to them. Rather,  defences raised by the Transport Companies are that:

(1) under Portuguese law, each company lacked capacity to enter the swaps which are therefore void; this is on the basis (among other reasons) of an assertion that the swaps were speculative transactions; this defence applies regardless of the law applicable to the swaps; it is common ground that, if correct, it is a complete answer to the claim;

(2) although English law governs the Master Agreements, this is subject to Art. 3(3) of the Rome Convention; this provides that where all the elements relevant to the situation at the time of the choice of law are connected with one country only, the choice does not prejudice the application of rules of the law of that country which cannot be derogated from by contract (“mandatory rules”). Portuguese mandatory rules apply to the swaps, giving rise to two defences: a) under rules dealing with gaming and betting and ordre public, the swaps are void for being unlawful “games of chance”, alternatively speculations; b) seven of the nine swaps are liable to be terminated under rules dealing with an “abnormal change of circumstances” (which termination takes effect as though the swaps were void); this is on the basis that since 2009 (following the financial crisis), the reference interest rates relating to the swaps (EURIBOR and LIBOR) have been close to zero (and remain so at the time of this judgment);

(3) in presenting the swaps to the Transport Companies, the bank acted in breach of its duties under provisions of the Portuguese Securities Code which implement relevant European Union legislation; these apply to the bank as a financial intermediary and relate to the protection of the legitimate interests of the Transport Companies as clients, and to conflicts of interest; the breach is said to entitle the Transport Companies to damages thereby extinguishing their liabilities under the swaps.

Blair J reviews precedent (European (limited, mostly related to the preparatory works), English and Portuguese (likewise limited) and decides against the engagement of Article 3(3). I will not regurgitate all of the analysis: readers are best referred to the judgment, in particular p.65 onwards, and the decision at 411, where Blair J concludes

because of the right to assign to a bank outside Portugal, the use of standard international documentation, the practical necessity for the relationship with a bank outside Portugal, the international nature of the swaps market in which the contracts were concluded, and the fact that back-toback (sic) contracts were concluded with a bank outside Portugal in circumstances in which such hedging arrangements are routine, the court’s conclusion is that Art. 3(3) of the Rome Convention is not engaged because all the elements relevant to the situation at the time of the choice were not connected with Portugal only. In short, these were not purely domestic contracts. Any other conclusion, the court believes, would undermine legal certainty.  

The latter element is quite important. Referring in particular to Briggs (at 374), the Court holds that the uncertainty of the rule of Article 3(3) should lead to its narrow interpretation. I agree. With party autonomy the core consideration of the Regulation, standard recourse to Article 3(3) [or 3(4) for that matter) under the pretext for instance of a general campaign against fraus legis is most definitely not warranted.

Permission was granted to appeal the issues on the Rome Convention (thank you to Ali Malek QC for pointing that out).

Geert.

(Handbook of) European Private International Law, 2nd ed. 2016, Chapter 3, Heading 3.2.8, Heading 3.2.8.1

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Fraus omnia corrumpit or accidental oversight? New South Wales Supreme Court goes full throttle in Proactive Building Solutions

Fraus omnia corrumpit (fraud corrupts all) is not easily applied in conflict of laws.  Both forum shopping and choice of law ought not prima facie to be regarded with much suspicion, especially in a B2B context. States typically employ mandatory law provisions, sometimes restricted to ‘overriding mandatory law’ (such as in the EU’s Rome I Regulation for choice of law in contracts) to ring-fence parts of national law not capable of being avoided by choice of law in purely domestic situations, and ‘public order’ provisions to trump choice for foreign law even in not purely domestic contexts, but then only for the most essential parts of a State’s legal fabric.

In Proactive Building Solutions, McDougall J held ex tempore that a choice of court and choice of law clause in favour of the English courts cq English law, was void in its entirety for it negated the working of a provision of the New South Wales Building and Construction Industry (Security of Payment) Act 1999 (NSW) (SOP Act). The object of this Act is to ensure that any person who undertakes to carry out construction work (or who undertakes to supply related goods and services) under a construction contract is entitled to receive, and is able to recover, progress payments in relation to the carrying out of that work and the supplying of those goods and services.

Section 34 of that Act reads

34 No contracting out

(1) The provisions of this Act have effect despite any provision to the contrary in any contract.

(2) A provision of any agreement (whether in writing or not):

(a) under which the operation of this Act is, or is purported to be, excluded, modified or restricted (or that has the effect of excluding, modifying or restricting the operation of this Act), or

(b) that may reasonably be construed as an attempt to deter a person from taking action under this Act, is void.

Section 7(1) of the Act, not referred to in judgment, reads

Subject to this section, this Act applies to any construction contract, whether written or oral, or partly written and partly oral, and so applies even if the contract is expressed to be governed by the law of a jurisdiction other than New South Wales.

As pointed out by Leigh Duthie and his colleagues,  while Section 7(1) may have normally allowed the Court to void only the SOP relevant aspects of choice of law, the trouble in the current case was that the contract had thrown choice of court and choice of law into one clause (a very common contractual occurrence), with a foreign court adjudicating.  McDougall J found it highly unlikely that the English courts would uphold the provisions of the SOP Act, hence giving the NSWSC no choice but making the clause void in its entirety. Consequently the whole contractual arrangement became subject to choice of court and choice of law as if no express clause had been inserted, even if the workings of the SOP Act would have had only a minor impact on parties’ contractual relations.

An obvious remedy is to lift SOP relevant parts of the contract out of the choice of court clause, however even in such case some uncertainty persists: for the recalcitrant party, suing in NSW in spite of a choice of court elsewhere, could attempt to raise the SOP flag if only to delay proceedings.

An interesting case for comparative conflicts classes.

Geert.

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