Lending $150 million to an oil company? Don’t worry too much about UCTA.

The decision in African Export-Import Bank & Ors v Shebah Exploration & Production Co Ltd & Ors [2017] EWCA Civ 845 , dismissing an appeal from Phillips J (noted here in this blog), contains few surprises and much relief. A syndicate of three banks, one Egyptian and two Nigerian, lent $150 million or so to a speculative Nigerian oil exploration company which — surprise, surprise — failed to pay most of it back. The lenders did the obvious thing, accelerated the loan and filled in the form asking for summary judgment. Hoping to stave off the evil day, the company and its two guarantors raised what looked like a fairly speculative set-off of a cool $1 billion, essentially suggesting that one bank had wrongfully dragged its feet over making the loan, and that another had broken the terms of a different, earlier, facility. The lenders sought to shut out this effort to muddy the waters by invoking an explicit anti-set-off clause. The borrower for its part argued that it had dealt on the lenders’ written standard terms of business and that the clause was clearly unreasonable under s.3 of the Unfair Contract Terms Act 1977(!). Phillips J disagreed and gave judgment in short order, pointing out that the terms, standard ones drafted by the Loan Market Association, had been extensively negotiated, and that it would be rare indeed for a party to be able to argue that a standard set of conditions like this was used so inflexibly as to attract the operation of s.3.

The Court of Appeal agreed wholeheartedly. They pointed out that the borrowers, who had to prove the use of written standard terms of business, had not even called any evidence to that effect. This would not do: as Longmore LJ drily put it at [33],

“A party who wishes to contend that it is arguable that a deal is on standard business terms must, in my view, produce some evidence that it is likely to have been so done. … It cannot be right that any defaulting borrower can just assert that business is being done on standard terms and that the lender then has to disclose the terms of other (how many other?) transactions he has entered into before he is entitled to summary judgment.”

Although he accepted that inflexible use of a third party’s standard terms might theoretically trigger s.33, he also pointed out that any substantial degree of negotiation would negative this, and also that the negotiation need not necessarily relate to the terms potentially caught by the 1977 Act.

As I said, a result which will be welcomed in the Square Mile. It will rightly reassure lenders that they can make their loans subject to English law safe in the knowledge that the courts here will give short shrift to snivelling arguments based on an Act which was never intended, one suspects, to protect highly commercial borrowers like this.

Of course, to make assurance doubly certain, there might be something to be said for strengthening the blanket exception to the 1977 Act in s.26 so as to encompass not only international supply contracts but contracts for loans or financial services between corporations with places in different jurisdictions. With the Queen’s Speech reduced this Parliament to about the length of a fireside chat, an under-occupied Government might even find Parliamentary time for the necessary change.

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