Arbitration post-Brexit

The Lord Chief Justice a couple of days ago gave a bullish speech in Beijing about London as an arbitration centre post-Brexit. Despite the self-serving nature of the speech, one suspects he may well be right. At least post-Brexit we should with a bit of luck get shot of the ECJ control over jurisdiction; be able to abandon The Front Comor [2009] EUECJ C-185/07, [2009] 1 AC 1138 and go back to issuing anti-suit injunctions against Euro-proceedings that infringe London arbitration agreements; and possibly get rid of tiresome Brussels I provisions that make life difficult for P&I clubs which want to insist on arbitrating here (see, for details, this post). But as usual, to know the details we have to wait and see.

Want to stymie a judgment creditor? It’s not as easy as you think.

English courts aren’t best pleased when they give judgment, only to find someone busily trying to frustrate the claimant’s efforts to collect on it. Last year, in JSC BTA Bank v Ablyazov [2016] EWHC 230 (Comm) (noted here on this blog), Teare J very rightly decided that an elusive judgment debtor’s pal was liable in tort to the judgment creditor when he helped the debtor shuffle his assets around in an elaborate “now you see them, now you don’t” exercise. Yesterday, in Marex Financial Ltd v Garcia [2017] EWHC 918 (Comm), Knowles J carried on the good work. Marex had got judgment in England for some $5 million, plus the usual freezing orders, against a couple of BVI companies controlled by SG, a globetrotting businessman. SG thereafter took care to avoid the UK, instead taking steps to spirit away the English assets of his companies to a web of entities in far-flung jurisdictions where it was difficult, if not impossible, for Marex to track them down. Marex thereupon sought permission to sue SG out of the jurisdiction, alleging a tort committed in England. What tort? In so far as SG might be deemed to have acted with the companies’ consent, inducement of breach of contract (i.e. the implicit contract by the companies to pay the judgment debt); and in so far as the companies hadn’t consented and hence he was in breach of duty to them, causing loss to Marex by unlawful means. Knowles J agreed with both limbs of the argument, swiftly disposed of a forum non conveniens point, and allowed service out, thus giving Marex at least a decent chance of getting paid.

Good news, therefore, to judgment creditors. Moreover, while this was a non-EU service out case, note that so long as any relevant monkey-business took place in England, its reasoning will apply equally to EU and EEA-based defendants under Brussels I and Lugano, because the tort “gateway” has been interpreted similarly in both cases since Brownlie v Four Seasons Holdings Inc [2015] EWCA Civ 665; [2016] 1 W.L.R. 1814.

So good luck and good hunting.

Investors — beware how you handle corporate structures

Most serious investors in everything from ships to real estate to businesses act through the medium of ‘tame’ companies. They do this for very good reasons. However, the Supreme Court gave a salutary warning this morning that even the simplest structures of this kind can provide pitfalls for the unwary.

Slightly simplified, in Lowick Rose LLP (in liquidation) v Swynson Ltd [2017] UKSC 32 what happened was this. A wealthy investor H used a wholly-owned special purpose vehicle S Ltd to make a loan of £15 million to EMS Ltd to enable EMS to buy MIA Inc. Due diligence, or rather a lack of it, was provided by accountants HMT, who failed to notice glaring problems with MIA. The trouble quickly surfaced. As a damage limitation exercise H caused S to lend a further £1.75m to EMSL in 2007 and £3m in 2008, H at the same time obtaining a large holding in EMS. Things went from bad to worse, and in 2008 more refinancing was necessary. H personally lent EMS some £19 million, most of which went to pay off EMS’s borrowings from S, with the rest being new money. To no avail: MIA collapsed, and with it the whole house of cards.

H and S sued HMT for losses of some £16 million. At this point an awkwardness arose. HMT was held on the facts to have owed no duty to H. As regards S it admitted negligence, but argued that in so far as S’s loans to EMS had been paid off (by H) the loss was H’s and not S’s. Reversing the Court of Appeal, the Supreme Court decided for HMT. S had indeed suffered no loss. The loan by H to EMS to pay off S was not an unconnected benefit, so as to be regarded as res inter alios acta. Nor could S invoke transferred loss and the rule in Dunlop v Lambert (1839) 2 Cl & F 626; nor yet could H use the doctrine of subrogation to keep the loan from S to EMS alive and claim in the name of S.

A nice windfall for HMT’s professional indemnity insurers, and an unnecessary one. Had H lent the money to S for S to use to refinance EMS, there would have been no problem; H, through S, would have been £16 million to the good. But he hadn’t done that, and that was an end of the matter. As we said above, when using corporate structures any failure to take care to guard your back can be very costly.

Solicitors also note: you are now on notice. Since this decision, unless you take great care in advising on refinancing deals, the SIF is likely to have some less-than-kind words for you too.

Message from the Supreme Court: do your due diligence

Yesterday’s Supreme Court decision in BPE Solicitors v Hughes-Holland [2017] UKSC 21 looks like a dry-as-dust decision on the measure of damages in professional negligence cases. It is more important than that, however.

A financier, G, was negligently misinformed by his solicitor about a project he was thinking of financing. To cut a long story short, G was led to believe he was bankrolling the carrying out of a property development, while in fact he was merely refinancing the property owner’s own crippling indebtedness, leaving no assets left over to actually do the work. Having taken the loan the borrower went bust; the property was sold for a song, and G lost his hard-earned cash.

Pretty obviously, had G not been misled he would have run a mile and invested his funds elsewhere, where they would still have been available to him. There was however a complication: quite apart from any misinformation by his lawyers, the project he invested in was a complete dud from beginning to end. In other words, even if what his solicitors told him had been entirely true and he had been financing the actual works, he would still have been pouring his money down the drain, and he would still have lost out.

Upholding the Court of Appeal, Lord Sumption (speaking for the court) decided that G recovered nothing. Even though he would not have made the disastrous investment he did but for his solicitors’ blunder, his solicitors’ duty did not extend to protecting him from garden variety commercial misfortune. It followed that (contrary to a number of earlier authorities) the so-called SAAMCO cap (see South Australia Asset Management Corpn v York Montague Ltd [1997] AC 191) applied to reduce recovery to nil.

The significance of this decision to businesses generally, from lenders of money to buyers of ships or businesses, is that it removes what was once quite a comforting safety-net. Prior to BPE, if professional advisers negligently failed to tell a client facts indicating that some investment he was seeking to make was entirely unacceptable or unviable, the client could recover his entire (foreseeable) loss, even if other commercial conditions indicated that the deal was a disaster and he would have lost out anyway regardless of the facts he was not told about. Quite rightly, the Supreme Court has now closed off this means of palming off one’s own financial misjudgment on somebody else’s professional indemnity insurers. As the title says: do your due diligence. If you don’t, from now on you’re on your own.

New York judgment against you? England expects you to pay up, in pretty short order.

A refreshing no-nonsense approach from Teare J today in Midtown Acquisitions LP v Essar Global Fund Ltd [2017] EWHC 519 (Comm) to a guarantor desperately trying to avoid enforcement in London of a judgment given against it in Manhattan. EGF had guaranteed a facility given to Essar Steel Minnesota LLC, a now-very-bankrupt former subsidiary of monster Indian conglomerate Essar Global. When Essar Minnesota defaulted, EGF  confessed liability ; a New York judge duly signed judgment against it in the modest sum of about $172 million. EGF applied to vacate the judgment: meanwhile the creditor, Midtown, wasted no time and applied to enforce it in England.

Teare J in quick succession demolished four arguments hopefully raised against enforcement.

(a) The New York order was based on a confession of liability, with no action technically brought. Irrelevant, he said: it was still a judgment.

(b) The outstanding application to vacate meant that the judgment wasn’t final. Nonsense: it was immediately binding as res judicata in New York unless and until set aside, and that sufficed to make it enforceable in England.

(c) The judgment was on admissions, with neither party arguing on the law or the facts. So what? It was still a judgment on the merits — i.e. whether EGF had to pay $172 million.

(d) To a half-hearted pleading of fraud, Teare J answered shortly that only a showing of conscious and deliberate dishonesty would do to establish this, and none had been pleaded or shown.

In addition he was prepared to enforce the judgment on the basis of a clause under which “The Guarantor agrees that a judgment in any such action, suit or proceeding may be enforced in any other jurisdiction by suit upon such judgment … The Guarantor hereby waives any objection it may now or hereafter have to the laying of the venue of any such action, suit or proceeding, and … further waives any claim that any such action, suit or proceeding brought in any of the aforesaid courts has been brought in any inconvenient forum.”

The only indulgence he allowed was a short stay of execution until one week after the result of the application to vacate: unless the application was successful, execution would then follow automatically.

In our view this judgment is to be welcomed and should be widely publicised. If a creditor has a clear claim, the fact that it got judgment on it quickly, with no argument, ought to be a factor in favour of, rather than against, its being immediately able to enforce that judgment here. Furthermore, delaying tactics such as applications to vacate should generally not be allowed to derail the process. The message is simple: even outside the EU context, bring your judgments to London, and we’ll enforce them unless the other side produces a pretty convincing reason why we shouldn’t.

 

Narrow channels and crossings

A rare pure collision case in the Admiralty Court today in Nautical Challenge Ltd v Evergreen Marine (UK) Ltd [2017] EWHC 453 (Admty). Suppose Vessel A is coming out of a narrow channel and Vessel B is entering it: suppose further that Vessel A is approaching Vessel B on the latter’s starboard bow. The Colregs crossing rule says Vessel A has priority: the narrow channel rule says Vessel A must manoeuvre to pass Vessel B port to port. Which applies? Teare J has little doubt: it’s the narrow channel rule, following the Hong Kong decision in Kulemesin v HKSAR [2013] 16 HKCFA 195. Useful to know, and to clear up a long-standing controversy.

Exclusive jurisdiction: where is the obligation not to sue to be performed?

A nice point of potential importance in conflict of laws: see AMT Futures Ltd v Marzillier & Ors [2017] UKSC 13 today. If someone in Germany has a contract with you providing for exclusive jurisdiction in England and they nevertheless sue in Germany, do the English courts have jurisdiction under Brussels I to hear your claim for damages? Against the other contracting party, clearly Yes. But what if you want to sue a third party for bankrolling the action and thereby inducing the breach of the obligation? Is the harm suffered by you suffered here within Art.5.3 (Art.7.2 Recast)? No. The relevant obligation is to be construed as an obligation to refrain from suing in Germany, not an obligation to sue in England if you sue at all.

Another interesting point raised in the case was whether entertaining an action for breach of the obligation not to sue in Germany was itself contrary to the full faith and credit ethos lying behind the Brussels regime (as denied in West Tankers v Allianz [2012] EWHC 854 (Comm)). The SC refused to grasp this hot potato: perhaps wisely, since it may well not matter after Brexit.

The proper place to sue: holding companies, etc

Another transnational tort claim against a UK holding company on the lines of Chandler v Cape plc [2012] EWCA Civ 525; [2012] 1 WLR 3111 was dealt with today by Laing J: see AAA v Unilever Plc [2017] EWHC 371 (QB). Employees and others connected with a sub-subsidiary of Unilever in Kenya  suffered political violence at the hands of thugs after the 2007 Kenyan election. They sued not only the Kenyan company involved (essentially the Brooke Bond tea operation), but Unilever, alleging failure by it as holding company to make sure its local operation took care to protect them. Unilever sought to get rid of the action, on the basis of (a) Act of State (since the actions, or rather inactions, of the Kenyan police were in issue); (b) forum non conveniens; and (c) case management grounds. The attempt failed. On (a) it had to founder since Belhaj v Straw [2017] UKSC 3; [2017] 2 WLR 456 and nothing more needs to be said. On (b) her Ladyship was forced by Brussels I Recast, Art.4 and Owusu v Jackson [2005] QB 801 to refuse a stay, even though most of the connections were with Kenya, and indeed there were fairly clear indications that the claimants were only suing Unilever here in order to be able to sue the Kenyan subsidiary in the English rather than the Kenyan High Court. What is more significant is the decision on (c), the case management argument. Unilever relied on a throw-away line of Coulson J in Lungowe v Vedanta Resources Plc [2016] EWHC 975 (TCC) at [84] to argue that there might be a stay if there was no serious issue to be tried between the claimants and Unilever. But even though it was found that there was indeed no serious issue to be tried between the claimants and Unilever, Laing J refused to go down this road, regarding it as an unjustified attempt to sideline Owusu v Jackson in the absence of pending proceedings abroad such as would justify a stay under Brussels I Recast, Art.34. The only way Unilever could get rid of the action was by showing, in the old-fashioned way, that it was bound to fail.

This is an unfortunate result for defendants sued on dubious causes of action in England, if only because it is much more time-consuming and expensive to show that an action must fail than to argue that it is being brought in the wrong place. One suspects that this will add to the pressure on the government to include in its Brexit shopping-list a wholesale revision of the Brussels I provisions on jurisdiction. Indeed, if this were done, one attraction of companies setting up shop here would be precisely the protection against inappropriate lawsuits that the current EU law pointedly fails to give.

Shipbuilding options – worth the paper they’re written on?

Shipbuilding contracts often contain an element of “buy one, get a special offer on another”. In other words, an order for one vessel may well give the buyer an option on one or more further ships to be built at a later date. Unfortunately option provisions of this kind, can be of doubtful value, as Teekay Tankers found to its cost this week. As part of an order for four vessels from Korean builders STX, the parties included a clause aimed at giving an option on a further dozen vessels as follows:

“The Delivery Dates for each [of the] Optional Vessels shall be mutually agreed upon at the time of [Teekay’s] declaration of the relevant option … but [STX] will make best efforts to have a delivery within 2016 for each [of the] First Optional Vessels, within 2017 for each [of the] Second Optional Vessels and within 2017 for each [of the] Third Optional Vessels.”

STX went into Korean-style Chapter 11 bankruptcy, failed to build the original four ships and unsurprisingly repudiated the extra options. For the purpose of establishing its rights in the Korean administration (since recognised in England under the Model Law on Cross-border Insolvency), Teekay with the court’s permission got an arbitration award in respect of the original vessels, and in Teekay Tankers Ltd v STX Offshore & Shipbuilding Co Ltd [2017] EWHC 253 (Comm) sued for damages for the repudiation of the options. It failed in the latter.  Although it was clear that both parties had intended the option provision to have legal effect, and also that the courts disliked striking down a clause for uncertainty, this was simply too vague, since there was no way of establishing what criteria were to apply if Teekay gave notice to exercise the options and the parties could not agree dates. Cutting through a lot of verbiage, the conclusion appears to be simply this: to be sure of being able to enforce options of this kind, there is little alternative to providing for some kind of arbitration or third-party decision to be binding in the absence of some other agreement. Unpalatable, to be sure, especially to the yards, which need to maintain flexibility: but there seems little choice in the matter.

 

 

Trustees, beneficiaries and purchasers — good news all round

Good news from the Supreme Court last week for commerce: in particular, those purchasing assets from trustees. In Akers v Samba Financial Group [2017] UKSC 6 ASa Saudi businessman, held shares on trust for a company, SICLA: he disposed of the shares to Samba in satisfaction of a debt. Assuming Samba were in good faith, you might have thought there was no problem: they would take free of the trust. But SICLA was insolvent: and the liquidator sought an end-run round the rule of equity’s darling by invoking s.127 of the Insolvency Act 1986. This prohibits disposition of the assets of an insolvent company (including beneficial interests in trust property), and allows their claw-back, with only a judicial discretion to protect the alienee and no general good-faith purchaser protection. The Supremes refused to allow this attempted circumvention. Dispositions within s.127 implied dispositions by the company, not dispositions of the company’s (equitable) property by a trustee purporting to vest it in a third party. Result: purchasers, provided they are in good faith and without notice, can happily thumb their noses at alleged trust beneficiaries, even insolvent ones. Quite right too.

But there was also good news for beneficiaries. In the present case the trust was a Cayman trust; however, the shares, being shares in Saudi companies registered in Saudi Arabia, were situated in Saudi Arabia. Now, Saudi law doesn’t accept the existence of trusts. Nevertheless their Lordships made it clear that under the Hague Convention embodied in the Recognition of Trusts Act 1987, the English courts would recognise the trust (although under Art.11(d) of the Convention the question whether a purchaser of the shares took free of it would fall to be decided by the lex situs, Saudi law). We all thought that was probably the case anyway; but it’s nice to have confirmation of one’s prejudices, especially if (as here) they are sensible ones.