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Unilever. Court of Appeal summarily dismisses CSR jurisdiction against mother company, confirming High Court’s approach. Lex causae for proximity again left undiscussed.

The Court of Appeal in [2018] EWCA Civ 1532 has confirmed the High Court’s approach in [2017] EWHC 371 (QB) AAA et al v Unilever and Unilever Tea Kenya ltd, holding that there is no good arguable case (the civil law notion of fumus boni iuris comes closes, as Bobek AG notes in Feniks) against Unilever, which could then be used to anchor the case in the English jurisdiction.

Pro memoria: jurisdiction against Unilever is clear, following Article 4 Brussels I Recast. That Regulation’s anchor mechanism however is not engaged for Article 7(1) does not apply against non-EU based defendants. It is residual English private international law that governs this issue.

Appellants appeal in relation to the High Court’s ruling that neither Unilever nor UTKL (the Kenyan subsidiary) owed the appellants a duty of care. Unilever has put in a respondent’s notice to argue that the judge should have found that there was no duty of care owed by Unilever on the additional ground that, contrary to her view, there was no proximity between Unilever and the appellants in respect of the damage suffered by them, according to the guidance in Chandler v Cape Plc. Unilever and UTKL also sought to challenge that part of the judgment in which the judge held that, if viable claims in tort existed against Unilever (as anchor defendant) and UTKL, England is the appropriate place for trial of those claims. Unilever also cross-appealed in relation to a previous case management decision by the judge, by which she declined an application by Unilever that the claim against it should be stayed on case management grounds, until after a trial had taken place in Kenya of the appellants claims against UTKL.

The legal analysis by Sales LJ takes a mere five paragraphs (para 35 onwards). Most of the judgment is taken up by an (equally succinct) overview of risk management policies within the group.

At 35 Sales LJ notes ‘Having set out the relevant factual background in relation to the proximity issue (i.e. whether the appellants have any properly arguable case against Unilever in the light of Chandler v Cape Plc and related authorities), the legal analysis can proceed much more shortly. It is common ground that principles of English law govern this part of the case.

– the ‘common ground’ presumably being lex loci incorporationis.

This is an interesting part of the judgment for I find it by no means certain that English law should govern this part of the case. In one of my chapters for professor Vinuales’ en Dr Lees’ forthcoming OUP book on comparative environmental law, I expand on that point.

The long and the short of the argument is that Unilever did not intervene in the affairs of its subsidiary in a more intensive way than a third party would have done. Reference at 37 is made to the contrasting examples given by Sir Geoffrey Vos in Okpabi, ‘One can imagine … circumstances where the necessary proximity could be established, even absent the kind of specific facts that existed in Vedanta … Such a case might include the situation, for example, where a parent required its subsidiaries or franchisees to manufacture or fabricate a product in a particular way, and actively enforced that requirement, which turned out to be harmful to health. One might suggest a food product that injured many, but was created according to a prescriptive recipe provided by the parent. …’

and, at 38, to the raison d’être of mother /daughter structures,

“… it would be surprising if a parent company were to go to the trouble of establishing a network of overseas subsidiaries with their own management structures it if intended itself to assume responsibility for the operations of each of those subsidiaries. The corporate structure itself tends to militate against the requisite proximity …

– subject evidently to proof of the opposite in the facts at issue (a test seemingly not met here).


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

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Unilever. Accepting CSR jurisdiction against mother companies not the High Court’s cup of tea.

Postscript 13 June 2017 for a similar scenario in the Italian courts (hearings pending) see here: Ikebiri v ENI.

After  Shell/Okpabi, the High Court has now for the second time in 2017 rejected jurisdiction to be established against the foreign subsidiary (here: in Kenya) using the mother company as an anchor. In [2017] EWHC 371 (QB) AAA et al v Unilever and Unilever Tea Kenya ltd, Unilever is the ultimate holding company and registered in the UK. Its subsidiary is a company registered in Kenya. It operates a tea plantation there. Plaintiffs were employed, or lived there, and were the victims of ethnic violence carried out by armed criminals on the Plantation after the Presidential election in Kenya in 2007. They claim that the risk of such violence was foreseeable by both defendants, that these owed a duty of care to protect them from the risks of such violence, and that they had breached that duty.

Laing J unusually first of (at 63 ff) all declines to reject the case on ‘case management’ grounds. Unlike many of her colleagues she is more inclined to see such stay as ignoring ‘through the back door’ Owusu‘s rejection of forum non conveniens.  I believe she is right. Instead the High Court threw out the case on the basis that the claims, prima facie (on deciding jurisdiction, the Court does not review the substantial merits of the case; a thin line to cross) had no merit. Three issues had to be decided:

i) By reference to what law should the claim be decided? This was agreed as being Kenyan law.

ii) Are the criteria in Caparo v Dickman [1990] 2 AC 605 satisfied? (A leading English law case on the test for the duty of care). The relevance of English law on this issues comes about as a result of Kenyan law following the same Caparo test: as I have noted elsewhere, it is not without discussion that lex fori should apply to this test of attributability. Laing J held that the Caparo criteria were not fulfilled. The events were not as such foreseeable (in particular: a general breakdown in law and order). Importantly, with respect to the holding company and as helpfully summarised by Herbert Smith:

  • the pleaded duty effectively required the holding to ensure that the claimants did not suffer the damage that they suffered, and not merely to take reasonable steps to ensure their safety;
  • the pleaded duty also effectively imposed liability on that holding for the criminal acts of third parties, and required it to act as a “surrogate police force to maintain law and order”; and
  • such a duty would be wider than the duty imposed on the daughter, as the actual occupier of the Plantation, under the Kenyan Occupiers’ Liability Act

At 103, Laing J discussed and dismissed plaintiff’s attempts at distinguishing Okpabi. In her view, like in Shell /Okpabi, the mother’s control is formal control exercised at a high level of abstraction, and over the content and auditing of general policies and procedures. Not  the sort of control and superior knowledge which would meet the Chandler test.

iii) Are the claims barred by limitation? This became somewhat irrelevant but the High Court ruled they were not. (This, under the common law of conflicts, was a matter of lex causae: Kenyan law, and requiring Kenyan expert input. Not English law, as the lex fori).

The case, like Okpabi, is subject to appeal however it is clear that the English courts are not willing to pick up the baton of court of prefered resort for CSR type cases against mother companies.


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

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