Posts Tagged vulture funds
Belgian constitutional court’s ruling on vulture funds fails properly to answer arguments on the basis of EU law.
I have reported earlier on the action of MNL Capital against the 2015 Belgian Vulture Fund Act (my EN translation here), on which I have a paper here. I then reported on a related action (where MNL were joined by Yukos).
At the end of May the Belgian Constitutional Court, ruling 61/2018, rejected an MNL challenge to the Act, which was based inter alia on an alleged infringement of the Brussels I Recast Regulation: at A.23.2: MNL argued that Belgium cannot across the board reject vulture funds activities (I agree) based on an absolute ordre public argument against them: MNL suggested this entails a one-sided reading of ordre public in favour of foreign entities refusing to honour their debt.
Due in large part to the peculiarities of constitutional review in Belgium, the Court at B.15.4 looked at the argument purely from a non-discrimination point of view: creditors who have obtained a foreign judgment against a State are no better or worse off than those having obtained such ruling from a Belgian court.
In essence therefore the arguments on the basis of EU law are left entirely unanswered.
(Handbook of) EU Private International Law, Chapter 2, Heading 2.2.16, Heading 22.214.171.124.4.
Vulture funds (and Yukos) fail in Round 1 against Belgian enforcement regime viz sovereign immunity. No reference to Luxemburg on compatibility of Brussels I with international law.
Thank you Quentin Declève for alerting me to the Constitutional Court’s judgment on a related action (where MNL were joined by Yukos) namely against the act of 23 August 2015 which introduced Article 1412quinquies in the Belgian Judicial Code. It is noteworthy that the action against the Act of July has not yet been decided by the Court (that case number, for the aficionados, is 6371), at the least I have not been able to locate any judgment).
As Quentin summarises, as a general rule, Article 1412 quinquies of the Belgian Judicial Code provides that assets located in Belgium that belong to a foreign State are immune from execution and cannot be subject to enforcement proceedings by creditors. Exceptions to that rule are possible if very strict conditions are met: a party wishing to seize the assets belonging to a State needs to obtain a prior authorisation from a judge. This judge will only authorise the seizure if (i) the foreign State has “expressively” and “specifically” consented to the seizure of the assets; (ii) the foreign State has specifically allocated those assets to the enforcement of the claim which gives rise to the seizure; and (iii) the assets are located in Belgium and are allocated to an economic or commercial activity.
The Court has now annulled the word ‘specifically’ but has otherwise left the Act intact. Quentin summarises how the Court found that this proviso is not part of international law on State immunity.
Now, picking up where Quentin left: part of applicants’ arguments relate to Brussels I Recast. The argument is made that Belgium with its Act re-introduces exequatur, now that is has been abolished by the Recast. Belgium’s Government seems to argue that the law relating to seizure has public order character and hence is covered by the ordre public exception of the Brussels I Recast Regulation, and that seizure in Belgium which would go against public international customary law on State immunity, along the same lines would be covered by the ordre public exception of the Recast (para A.5.2, p.6).
The Court (at B.29.1 ff, .34 ff) deals with the Brussels I arguments very very succinctly: it refers to Article 41(1) which other than the substantive requirements of title III, makes recognition and enforcement subject to the law of the State of enforcement. The Court also says enforcement is not entirely obstructed: some of the foreign entities’ assets remain subject to seizure; and there are other ways of enforcement other than seizure. Finally the Court suggests that the Brussels I Recast surely must not be applied in a way which would be incompatible with international customary law. By rejecting the suggestion for a prelimary reference to Luxembourg (suggestion made by the Belgian State, unusually), the Court clearly believes that call is not one that has to be made by Luxembourg. Pitty: that would have been an interesting reference.
Again, NML Capital’s action against the Vulture Fund Act is still ongoing, lest I have missed withdrawal. As I noted in my paper, this Act I believe is wanting on various grounds, including some related to the New York Convention and the Brussels I Recast.
(Handbook of) EU Private International Law, Chapter 2, Heading 2.2.16, Heading 126.96.36.199.4.
Institute of Cetacean Research v. Sea Shepherd Conservation Society: A great illustration of (failure of) injunctive relief under ATS.
Institute of Cetacean Research v. Sea Shepherd Conservation Society has recently come to my attention thanks to Juliett Hatchett over at Baker: her analysis is spot on and I am happy to refer to it. She summarises the case as the district court confirming that perpetrating and funding piracy and unsafe navigation are within the scope of ATS jurisdiction, but holding that there is no enforceable international norm against whaling or financing terrorism.
The case is not easy to find however Sea Shepherd tend to link to court documents in their updates on the litigation.
I flag the case mainly to bring it to readers’ attention that CSR litigation can be done proactively: one need not wait for alleged violations of relevant legal standards to seek to seize a court. Exactly a point I assessed in the context of vulture fund litigation, end of May. (And in forthcoming paper).
Update 21 March 2016 (these updates seem to follow an equinox pattern) NML Capital Ltd reportedly are contesting the legality of the Act before the Belgian Constitutional Court. (Update 24 March the Constitutional Court has the case down under three seperate actions, 6371, 6372, 6373).
Update 21 September 2015: the Act was adopted in July and enters into force today.
I have delayed reporting on this initiative for exam reasons. The Belgian Parliament is currently debating a private members’ proposal for statute to address so-called ‘vulture funds’. These funds are described by the financial dictionary as ‘A fund that buys distressed debt of commercial companies or sovereign nations at a cheap price and then often sues them for the entire value of the debt. The resemblance to vultures is because these funds profit from the debt of failing companies or poor nations.‘
The text of the proposal (in Dutch and French) is available here. Vulture funds litigation is generally called immoral in the proposal. Reference is made to a number of high-profile recent judgments where vulture funds have been given approval by various courts worldwide, to seek redress against assets held by the sovereign nations concerned, or indeed their creditors. Particularly sore is the enforcement sought against funds destined for development aid.
The proposal essentially defines ‘vulture funds’ and then suggests that recognition and enforcement of relevant judgments or arbitral awards, regardless of the law applicable to the underlying relationship with the government concerned, is considered to be contrary to Belgian ordre public international, hence unenforceable. The proposal as it stands now adds (probably superfluously) that relevant EU (read: the Brussels I recast Regulation) and international (read especially: the 1958 New York Convention) law takes priority.
The part of the proposal that is bound to attract attention is the attempt at defining the ‘vulture’ in vulture funds. Frits Bolkestein for instance (former EU Commissioner) has remarked that buying up ‘bad debt’ need not always be morally reprehensible (I would suggest it is not that part of the fund’ activities which has attracted the Belgian Parliament’s attention). The enforcement /recognition part of the proposal is interesting because it applies ordre public in a categorical manner, rather than in the ad hoc application which both EU law and residual Belgian conflicts law (the Belgian Private International Law Act) ordinarily call for. For residual Belgian law, this is probably Parliament’s prerogative. However for EU law (and the New York convention), a general apprehension against vulture funds may not qualify as a proper exercise of the ordre public exception. Courts at the least may wish formally to disregard the act when the judgment /award concerned is covered by Brussels I cq. New York; however they can point to the sentiment expressed in the Act, to support incompatibility with Belgian ordre public when tested against an individual case.
The drafters are aware that this initiative may be a drop in the ocean. Reference is made to other, national initiatives (France, UK, US) which may point to an emerging pattern of anti-vulture funds sentiment. Indeed the realities of forum shopping mean that vulture funds action will migrate away from the Belgian legal order. On the other hand, Belgium’s safe harbour may also mean that relevant assets will seek refuge there. All of course, presuming the initiative will actually be adopted by Parliament.
Geert. Disclosure: I advised the MPs concerned on the technical aspects of the recognition and enforcement leg of the proposal. [My advice may or may not have been followed ].