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.

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.