Qatar Airways v Middle East News (Al Arabiya). On forum non and determining lex causae for malicious falsehood and locus damni for conspiracy.

Forum non conveniens featured not just in Municipio de Mariana at the High Court yesterday but also in Qatar Airways Group QCSC v Middle East News FZ LLC & Ors [2020] EWHC 2975 (QB).

Twenty Essex have good summary of the background and decision. Context is of course the blockade on Qatar, led by Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Qatar Airways Group (QAG) sue on the basis of tort, triggered by a rather chilling clip aired by Al Arabiya which amounted to a veiled threat against the airline.

Saini J at 27 notes what Turner J also noted in Municipio de Mariana and what Briggs LJ looked at in horror in Vedanta, namely the spiralling volume and consequential costs in bringing and defending a jurisdictional challenge. (Although at least for Vedanta and Municipio de Mariana the issues discussed are matters of principle, which may eventually settle once SC (and indeed CJEU) authority is clear).

The judgment recalls some principles of international aviation law under the Chicago Convention (with noted and utterly justifiable reference a 77 ff to an article on the opiniojuris blog by prof Heller) which is important here because (at 61) it is the starting point of QAG’s case that anyone who had taken steps to inform themselves of the legal position would have known that contrary to what (it argues) is the message of the Video, there was no real risk of any internationally legitimate interception, still less legitimate shooting at or down, of a QAG scheduled service in flight along one of the defined air corridors. At 88 Saini J concludes on that issue that there is an arguable case as to meaning and falsity.

On good arguable case, reference is to Kaefer v AMS, Goldman Sachs v Novo Banco, and Brownlie.

At 164 ff the judge discusses the issue of pleading foreign law at the jurisdictional threshold of making a good arguable case. Here, Saini J holds on the basis of the assumption that malicious falsehood is not covered by Rome II, which is the higher threshold for the purposes of establishing jurisdiction. He does suggest that it is likely that in fact malicious falsehood is covered by Rome II and not by the exception for infringement of personality rights (at 166: ‘Malicious falsehood is not a claim for defamation, and what is sought to be protected is not Qatar Airways’ reputation or privacy rights, but its economic interests’).

As for applicable law for conspiracy, that is clearly within the scope of Rome II and poses the difficulty of determining locus damni in a case of purely economic loss. Here, at 169 Saini J suggests preliminarily that parties agreed “damage” for the purposes of Article 4(1) of Rome II to have been suffered in the place where the third parties (that is, potential passengers) failed to enter into contracts with QAG (which they otherwise would have done) as a result of the video. Location of purely economic damage under Rome II as indeed it is under Brussel Ia is however not settled and I doubt it is as simple as locating it in the place of putative (passenger) contract formation.

Of long-term impact is the judge’s finding that for jurisdictional threshold purposes, he is content for claimant to proceed with a worldwide claim for tort on the basis of any foreign law that might be applicable having the same content as English law. 

Of note in the forum non analysis is that not just the obvious alternative of the UAE was not good forum, but neither would the DIFC be. At 374:’the UAE is not an appropriate forum is what I would broadly call “access to justice” considerations in what has clearly become a “hostile environment” for Qataris in the UAE.’ And at 379, re the DIFC: ‘The DIFC courts are a sort of “litigation island” within the UAE, created to attract legal business by their perceived superior neutrality, and higher quality, compared to the local courts. But as such, they have no superiority compared to the English courts, also a neutral forum. The English courts have the other connections to the case, which the DIFC courts do not.’