Banco San Juan Internacional Inc v Petroleos De Venezuela SA  EWHC 2937 (Comm) is a lengthy judgment which I report here for its discussion of Rome I Article 9’s provisions on overriding mandatory laws /lois de police. The discussion is similar to the consideration of A9 in Lamesa Investments, to which reference is made.
The Claims comprise two substantial claims in debt by claimant BSJI, a bank incorporated in Puerto Rico, against defendant PDVSA, the Venezuelan state-owned oil and gas company. PDVSA arue inter alia that payment obligations fall to be performed in the US and contends that US sanctions ought to be regarded as part of the order public (sic) of US law. It is said these are a central component of US foreign policy and its political and economic aims as regards Venezuela. It is argued that the terms of the Executive Orders themselves make clear that they are reactions to perceived political and human rights injustices in Venezuela and describe this as “an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States“.
However Article 9(3) Rome I comes with a sizeable amount of discretion: ‘Effect may be given to the overriding mandatory provisions of the law of the country where the obligations arising out of the contract have to be or have been performed, in so far as those overriding mandatory provisions render the performance of the contract unlawful. In considering whether to give effect to those provisions, regard shall be had to their nature and purpose and to the consequences of their application or non-application.’
At 118 Cockerill J decides not to use the discretion for the same reason she had earlier dismissed application of the Ralli Bros principle. That rule was recently discussed in Colt v SGG. (As summarised here by Mrs Justice Cockerill at 77) it ‘provides that an obligation under an English law contract is invalid and unenforceable, or suspended in the case of a payment obligation, insofar as the contract requires performance in a place where it is unlawful under the law of that required place of performance.’ And at 79: ‘The doctrine therefore offers a narrow gateway: the performance of the contract must necessarily involve the performance of an act illegal at the place of performance. Subject to the Foster v Driscoll principle [also discussed in Colt and of no relevance here, GAVC], it is no use if the contract could be performed some other way which is legal; and it is no use if the illegal act has to be performed somewhere else’ and at 84 ‘it is only illegality at the place of performance which is apt to provide an excuse under the Ralli Bros doctrine; it also makes clear that the party relying on the doctrine will in general not be excused if he could have done something to bring about valid performance and failed to do so.’
The lex contractus is English law which already has the Ralli Bros rule. At 120 Cockerill J suggest that if the court in question has no equivalent rule of law, Article 9(3) will have a significant impact. But not if the lex contractus is English law.
I have to give this some further thought and I am not sure it would make much difference in practice but could it not be said that A9(3) Rome I exhaustively regulates the use of overriding mandatory law to frustrate a contract? This would mean that where Rome I applies, Ralli Bros and even Foster v Driscoll must not apply and must not be entertained. That is a question of some relevance, even after Brexit albeit with a complication: for to the extent (see discussions elsewhere) the Rome Convention re-applies to the UK post Brexit, that Convention’s Article 7 rule on mandatory rules ordinarly applies – albeit the UK have entered a reservation viz A7(1) on which see also here. That article gives a lot of freedom for the forum to apply mandatory laws of many more States than the lex loci solutionis [Article 7(1) Rome Convention: ‘ When applying under this Convention the law of a country, effect may be given to the mandatory rules of the law of another country with which the situation has a close connection, if and in so far as, under the law of the latter country, those rules must be applied whatever the law applicable to the contract. In considering whether to give effect to these mandatory rules, regard shall be had to their nature and purpose and to the consequences of their application or non-application’].
At the very least an exhaustive role for A9 Rome I (and again in future for UK courts, potentially A7 Rome Convention; but see the note on reservation) would require from the judge a different engagement of the issues than under Ralli Bros. Again, whether indeed, and per Cockerill J’s suggestion here (she applies both Ralli Bros and A9) in the case of England that would make much difference in outcome is uncertain. Update 6 November 10:20 AM: see prof Dickinson’s impromptu contribution to the issue here.
(Handbook of) European Private International Law, 2nd ed. 2016, Chapter 3, Heading 3.2.8, Heading 188.8.131.52.
3rd ed. forthcoming February 2021.