Oxford University v Oxford Nanoimaging. On unfair trading terms in retained EU consumer law, the Brussels regime and substantive consumer law.

In Oxford University Innovation Ltd v Oxford Nanoimaging Ltd [2022] EWHC 3200 (Pat) Daniel Alexander KC in a lengthy judgment eventually held for the University in a dispute on the validity of the University’s contractual terms claiming intellectual property over research students’ work. The case is of interest to the blog in that it contrasts the consumer provisions in the ‘Brussels (conflict of laws) regime’ with those of substantive consumer law.

[8] The thrust of ONI’s case is that Oxford’s approach to allocation of the commercial fruits of research is unfair to DPhil students and, more particularly, unfair to Mr Jing, the young researcher, in the circumstances of the case. More specifically it is said that Oxford’s policies are unfairly weighted in favour of the University and senior academics, who may have contributed less to the detail of the work than more junior researchers or inventors.

Applicability or impact of consumer protection legislation on terms relating to intellectual property rights of students is core to the case. The Unfair Terms in Consumer Contracts Regulations 1999/2083 – UTCCR are derived from the European Directive on Unfair Terms in Consumer Contracts 93/13, the ‘Unfair Consumers Terms Directive’ UCTD, which is retained EU law and the CJEU authority on same is retained EU case law [240] . They only apply to contracts between a “consumer” and a “seller or supplier”. Was Mr Jing such a ‘consumer’?

UK courts regularly made recourse to Brussels  Convention and later Brussels Ia cases in the absence of much CJEU UCTD authority. The judge correctly holds [242] that one must be cautious with such approach pro inspiratio, as indeed I have also pointed out on this blog before, and discusses ia CJEU Benincasa, Gruber, Schrems, Milivojevic, albeit not CJEU Reliantco, and the UK cases of Standard Bank v Apostolakis, AMT Futures v Marzillier and Ang v Reliantco. In the discussion on whether the Brussels case-law has an impact on the UCTD, he refers ia to Weco Projects. [288] he points out that when later CJEU authority did interpret the term ‘consumer’ in the UCTD directly (eg Karel de Grote), it made fairly little reference to Brussels authority. [306] he decides the UCTD approach to ‘consumer’ is ‘more expansive’ and ‘not as strictly’ as under the Brussels regime and [310] rejects Oxford’s submission that it is necessarily the right approach to this case under the UCTD to adopt the framework of analysis of dual-purpose contracts of the Brussels Convention/Regulation case law. This also includes [320] a different approach to the burden of proof.

[410] the final conclusion is that a ‘DPhil student is normally entitled to be treated as a consumer under the UCTD and that it does not matter for this purpose whether the student is undertaking that educational qualification with a view to her career, profession and/or professional advancement’  and [425] that ‘Oxford has not shown that Mr Jing’s circumstances were such that it would be wrong to treat him as a consumer in entering into the DPhil Contract he did.’ However eventually [639] the terms were not judged to be ‘unfair’.

Many of the issues raised are new and one assumes permission to appeal may have been sought.

Geert.

EU private International Law, 3rd ed. 2021, 2.231 ff.

Simon v Tache. Interesting issues on post-Brexit Brussels lis pendens, and on moment of seizure in amended claims.

Simon v Tache & Ors [2022] EWHC 1674 (Comm) is an interesting judgment which one assumes is very appealable given the untested Withdrawal Agreement and other angles.

At issue is i.a. whether Article 67 Withdrawal Agreement requires both sets of proceedings which are a candidate for Brussels Ia’s Article 29-30 lis pendens /related cases provisions, to have been pending prior to Brexit Implementation Date and what date needs to be considered the date of seizing.

Claimants argue, that the Belgian Proceedings, which I outline below, could only have become related on 3 May 2021 by the lodging of the 3 May Submissions, and that the English Court only became seized of the English proceedings after 31 December 2020, either on the making of Service Out Application or on the subsequent issue of the English Proceedings. On this basis it would not be open to the Defendants in the English proceedings to rely upon Article 67 as applying Articles 29 and 30 of Brussels Recast to the English Proceedings.

Claimant is a French national living in London. She is a medical doctor who previously practiced. She now focuses on art and design. Defendants are Belgian nationals, contemporary art dealers with a gallery website in English. This element notably raises issues whether the contract could qualify as a consumer contract. Defendants deny this, citing the very example I often give in class when teaching the relevance of language in the context of the Pammer Alpenhof criteria: the very use of English on websites, particularly in the art, design or hospitality sector in cities like Brussels are hardly an indication of direction of activities outside the location. The contract being a consumer contract seemingly was not flagged in claim form or submissions, it only came up at hearing.

Claimant and defendants having met in Paris, various artworks were delivered to claimant’s Paris address. Lex contractus is disputed [20]. The relationship soured and Belgian libel proceedings by defendants in the E&W proceedings were initiated end of October 2020. End of March 2021 Dr Simon was given permission to serve out. Her application mentioned the Belgian proceedings but argued that these were unrelated, ia in light of the different (non)contractual basis of those proceedings [35]. A claim form was sent to defendants’ lawyers early April 2021 and the claim form was filed 10 May 2021. On 3 May the defendants in the E&W proceedings amended thier Belgian claim, adding a request for declaration of non-liability: in other words they requested the Belgian court to declare that there was no wrongdoing on their part in the contractual relationship.

End of October 2021 the first instance Belgian court held it does have jurisdiction, but that no damage was proven. That court however declined to rule on the claim for a negative declaration because the allegations were before the English court. The Belgian court’s dictum on that issue is very brief, declaring only ‘“Whereas the ensuing dispute was never resolved and is currently the subject of a lawsuit in London, such that this court will refrain from commenting on the merits of that case.” : it did not specify why which clearly is a failure on its part.

[50] it is the Defendants’ case that the Belgian court was first seized on 3 May 2021, before the E&W Court was first seized on 10 May 2021 on the issue of proceedings. On the other hand, it is Dr Simon’s case that the E&W Court was first seized on the making of the Service Out Application and/or the making of the Service Order on 30 March 2021, alternatively on the issue of the Claim Form on 10 May 2021, but that the Belgian court was only seized when the Defendants’ claim for a negative declaration was filed on 5 August 2021.

It is undisputed [52] that as a matter of Belgian procedural law, it would be open to Dr Simon to raise a counterclaim in respect of the causes of action that she seeks to pursue by the English Proceedings in the Belgian Proceedings, and to do so notwithstanding that they are now before the Belgian Appeal Court. Expectations of the Court of Appeal ruling varied between one and five years [54] however in the end that Court surprised all and held after the English judge’s draft judgment had been circulated.

In November 2021 Dr Simon at her turn added a claim to her English claim form, one in dishonesty.

The judge holds [74] that BIa continues to apply to new claims added to proceedings commenced prior to 31 December 2020 and claims against new defendants joined to such proceedings after that date. He refers to  On the Beach Ltd v Ryanair UK Ltd [2022] EWHC 861 (Ch) in support (acknowledging that that case is not authority to him and that the parties in that case were in agreement on the issue).

On the issue of seizure, the judge holds [92] that this must be linked to the formal lodging of a claim form in order to issue proceedings, rather than the taking of some preliminary step to obtain permission with regard to the service of proceedings which might never be issued. I have sympathy with the view [85] that this gives the other party a great opportunity to torpedo proceedings.

“the same cause of action, between the same parties” is judged, despite an acknowledgment of EU autonomous interpretation, with reference to Belgian procedural law and expert reports on same [103]. That must be a vulnerable position.

Conclusion on A29 is that a stay must be ordered [114] and obiter [120] that one would have been ordered on A30 grounds.

Service out is discussed [121] in a bit of a vacuum because of course is BIa applies then service out is not required. Here reference is made to Rome I’s applicable law as an element of the gateway requirements (contract governed by English law) (held: no: Belgian law is prima facie lex contractus [134], with discussion ia of the consumer title. As a pudding, forum non conveniens is considered and this is surely where the jurisdictional arguments become excessive per Lord Briggs’ speech in Vedanta.

Then comes the final pousse-café: the Belgian Court of Appeal, unexpectedly fast, found it had no jurisdiction (this may be appealable to the Belgian Supreme Court), leaving the possibility of a negative conflict of jurisdiction which the parties were invited to comment upon.

A case to watch.

Geert.

Barings et al succeed in first instance winding up order against Galapagos on shaky COMI and Withdrawal Agreement grounds.

I discuss the background to Barings (UK) Ltd & Ors v Galapagos SA [2022] EWHC 1633 (Ch) here. At the end of August 2019 an opening of insolvency proceedings was requested by various Barings companies and Goldman Sachs, in respect of the Respondent, Galapagos S.A. – GSA.

While this request was pending before the English courts, a group of high yield noteholders (including Signal, the main opponent in the English proceedings) procured the replacement of GSA’s English directors with a German director, and the new German director and two creditors brought separate ex parte applications before the Düsseldorf Amtsgericht (District Court) for the opening of insolvency proceedings there. Following the opening of insolvency proceedings by the Düsseldorf court, the English proceedings were stayed. The German proceedings then led to a preliminary reference to the CJEU which resulted in a judgment on 24 March 2022, the judgment I discuss in my previous post.

[12] ff Bacon J summarises the procedural tussle (including the, I believe unreported August 2019 Norris J stay: [2019] EWHC 2355 (Ch)). Justice Norris had stayed the English proceedings believing inter alia that the German courts might dismiss the German proceedings once they had been properly told of the English action.

The dictum in C-723/20 was

Article 3(1) of Regulation (EU) 2015/848 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 20 May 2015 on insolvency proceedings must be interpreted as meaning that the court of a Member State with which a request to open main insolvency proceedings has been lodged retains exclusive jurisdiction to open such proceedings where the centre of the debtor’s main interests is moved to another Member State after that request has been lodged, but before that court has delivered a decision on it. Consequently, in so far as that regulation is still applicable to that request, the court of another Member State with which another request is lodged subsequently for the same purpose cannot, in principle, declare that it has jurisdiction to open main insolvency proceedings until the first court has delivered its decision and declined jurisdiction.

 

The reference to ‘in so far as that regulation is still applicable’ refers to the Brexit element to the case which surprisingly perhaps was not included in the dictum: COMI presumptions ordinarily serve to protect the first court seized’ privilege to find, or reject, COMI in its jurisdiction however that privilege no longer applies vis-a-vis UK courts post Brexit.

As I note in my earlier review, the CJEU wrongly decided not to answer the German court’s question

Is Article 3(1) of [Regulation 2015/848] to be interpreted as meaning that:

(a)      the courts of the Member State within the territory of which the centre of the debtor’s main interests is situated at the time when the debtor lodges the request to have insolvency proceedings opened retain international jurisdiction to open those proceedings if the debtor moves the centre of its main interests to the territory of another Member State after lodging the request but before the decision opening insolvency proceedings is delivered, and

(b)      such continuing international jurisdiction of the courts of one Member State excludes the jurisdiction of the courts of another Member State in respect of further requests to have the main insolvency proceedings opened received by a court of that other Member State after the debtor has moved its centre of main interests to that other Member State?’

Neither, possibly because the question was not so asked by the referring court, does it entertain the issue of ‘permanency’ required to move COMI to another state (see my previous post for detail).

Applicants in the current case and Bidco say that the effect of the GalapagosCJEU judgment is that GSA’s winding up can and should now proceed in E&W. Signal, however, contends that the English insolvency proceedings should remain stayed or should be dismissed.

Of relevance in that assessment is Article 67(3) (c) withdrawal agreement, which reads

In the United Kingdom, as well as in the Member States in situations involving the United Kingdom, the following provisions shall apply as follows:…

Regulation (EU) 2015/848 of the European Parliament and of the Council shall apply to insolvency proceedings, and actions referred to in Article 6(1) of that Regulation, provided that the main proceedings were opened before the end of the transition period;

The question in my view is not ‘are the German insolvency proceedings to be regarded as the “main proceedings” within the meaning of Article 3 of the Recast EIR?’ which is the course which the judge seems to follow. Rather, whether either the German or the English insolvency proceedings were to be regarded as main proceedings.

In either case, in my view, main proceedings have been opened and the EU EIR continues to apply as acquired EU law.

[21] Signal’s position is that unless and until the German courts have given effect to CJEU Galapagos by setting aside or otherwise the Düsseldorf insolvency proceedings, the German insolvency proceedings remain the “main proceedings” for the purposes of the Recast EIR. Accordingly, under A67(3) WA the Recast EIR remains applicable and the German proceedings have to be recognised by the English court, precluding the making of a winding up order. If that is wrong, and the Recast EIR does not apply, Signal argue that GSA’s COMI is not in England, such that the UK IR (the retained Insolvency Regulation) does not apply, leaving s. 221 of the relevant UK law as the only jurisdictional basis for a winding up order. In addition, whether under the UK IR or s. 221, Signal contends that the circumstances are such that the court should not exercise its discretion to make the order.

The rather important questions are therefore summarised by Bacon J [23] as

i) The first issue is whether the Recast EIR remains applicable to these proceedings, as Signal contends. That in turn depends on whether the German proceedings are to be characterised as “main proceedings” for the purposes of Article 67(3)(c) of the Withdrawal Agreement. – as I note above, that issue is wrongly formulated.

ii) If the German proceedings are not “main proceedings”, such that the Recast EIR no longer governs the question of jurisdiction of the UK courts in the present case, the next question is whether there is jurisdiction to make a winding up order under the UK IR on the basis that GSA’s COMI is in England. – again see my own caveat above.

iii) The final issue is whether the court should exercise its discretion to make a winding up order under either the UK IR if that is applicable, or alternatively under s. 221 of the Insolvency Act 1986.

[48] the judge has the interim conclusion that up to and until 31 December 2020, the combined effect of the pending application before the High Court and the Recast EIR was to prohibit the German courts from declaring jurisdiction to open main insolvency proceedings. After that date, however, they could quite validly do so, if GSA’s COMI was by then situated in German territory.

I am not convinced that a mere request for opening of proceedings equates opening of these proceedings, and I am not convinced that the fall-back finding of COMI in England [83] ff, applying the Swissport ([2020] EWHC 3556 (Ch), unreported) summary of criteria, is solid: it is exactly on this point that the CJEU’s silence on the issue of ‘permanency’ is frustrating.

The judge concludes that a winding up order in respect of GSA be made however I think her analysis is incorrect and I assume permission to appeal must have been sought.

Geert.

Heslop v Heslop. A reminder of the constraints of the Moçambique rule for rights in rem, and (obiter) on joining a pre-Brexit with a post-Brexit claim under the Withdrawal Agreement.

Heslop v Heslop & Anor [2021] EWHC 2957 (Ch) essentially queries whether Deceased testator actually had any estate or interest in Jamaican Property which she could pass by will.

Under the Moçambique rule (after British South Africa Co v Companhia de Moçambique [1893] AC 602) an English court will not, as a matter of its own limits to jurisdiction, by and large determine matters of title to foreign land. The purpose of the rule is the maintenance of comity and the avoidance of conflict with foreign jurisdictions. The rule has been discussed on the blog before and it finds its EU equivalent of course in Article 24  Brussels Ia.

After considering the rule and the facts of the case, Dray DM holds it is not triggered here for [51-52]

the relief sought (across the two claims) is relief of an in personam nature in a dispute between the two central protagonists, the Second Defendant (the asserted trustee) and the Claimant (the asserted beneficiary) under the asserted trust. The fact that the land in question is situated in Jamaica does not preclude this court from having jurisdiction to hear the claim. The proceedings do not involve any determination of rights in rem. They do not assert a property right which is by its nature enforceable against third parties and they do not purport to bind strangers/third parties. For instance, no possession order, effective against the world at large, is sought (and none could be granted by this court). Neither is any order directed to the Jamaican Land Registry claimed (ditto). The court is only asked to resolve a dispute between those before it, the proceedings being based on an alleged personal (trust) relationship between the Claimant and the Defendants.

Obiter he then [57ff] considers forum non conveniens (argued in fact by neither parties), with the complication [63] that the two claims before the court have not been consolidated and are thus separate claims, albeit proceeding together, and that the first claim was commenced before the end of the Brexit transition period whereas the second claim was commenced afterwards. The judge holds (again: obiter) [68] (seeing also that no consolidation has been sought) that the former claim needs to be assessed viz BIa and the latter viz the post-Brexit rules, [74 ff] that under BIa A24 is not engaged for the same reason as the Moçambique rule, and [72] that if it had been, he would have been minded to follow (with all the necessary caveats  Kennedy v National Trust for Scotland‘s reflexive application.

Geert.

EU Private International Law, 3rd ed. 2021, para 2.208.

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