Case law Developments in PIL Views and comments

Mastermelt Ltd v Siegfried Evionnaz SA: Would the Lugano Convention Provide a Level Playing Field for Judicial Cooperation Post-Brexit?

The author of this post is Aygun Mammadzada, PhD Researcher at the Institute of Maritime Law of the University of Southampton.


Status quo

Withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union leaves many uncertainties and puzzling effects on civil justice and cross-border judicial cooperation. Upon its departure on 31 January 2020 the United Kingdom ceased to be a member of the Union while remaining subject to the EU law and rulings of the European Court of Justice throughout the transition period under Article 67 of the Withdrawal Agreement. In less than five weeks – by 1 July 2020, the United Kingdom and European Union should decide whether to extend the transition period up to two years, as permitted by the Agreement. However, that has been ruled out by the United Kingdom, which could be altered by another legislation and it seems hardly a case.

Once the transition period ends, the Brussels I bis Regulation will no longer be applicable to jurisdiction, as well as choice of court agreements and the recognition of judgments between the United Kingdom and the Union.

Absent such an instrument, successful operation of the sphere will mostly depend on either Article 33-34 of the Recast Regulation which are not comprehensive enough or domestic rules which prevent uniformity and certainty due to inevitable varieties. This will significantly affect businesses and individuals. Data suggested that in 2018 the UK was the largest legal services market in Europe (valued at approximately £35 bn in 2018).

On the same line, 75% of over 800 claims which were issued at the Admiralty and Commercial Court involved at least one foreign party and in 53% of the case all parties were international. In 2019, 77% of over 600 such claims were international in nature whilst in half of the cases all parties were international. On the same note, despite the fact that the Member States are taking different measures, such as establishing special commercial courts to attract international commercial parties, there is still not any alternative to the London Commercial Court as a leading global centre for international dispute resolution, as discussed by Giesela Rühl. Nonetheless, without any harmonized legal framework applicable to jurisdiction and the recognition of judgments in cross-border civil and commercial cases, parties to international trade might refrain from linking their transactions to English jurisdiction or avoid English choice of court agreements.

Among other measures, the UK has expressed that enhanced judicial cooperation with the EU is part of its global outlook and it will continue adherence to the existing international treaties, conventions and standards in the field. In this ambit, on 8 April 2020, the UK deposited its request for acceding the Lugano Convention of 2007 (see here a comment by Matthias Lehman).

The Convention is still applicable in regard to the UK during the transition period as part of the EU law. Unlike the Hague Convention on Choice of Court Agreements of 2005 which is also among the UK’s Brexit-related channels, the Lugano Convention is not an open treaty. According to Article 72 of the Convention, the UK can become a member only upon the unanimous consent of all of the contracting parties (EU and EFTA states). This brings many uncertainties about the foreseeable status of the UK’s accession request.

The Lugano Convention is mainly mirroring the Brussels regime and therefore, it might enshrine perspectives of cross-border judicial cooperation in civil and commercial matters between the UK and Union. The government perceives the importance of the Convention for the provision of judicial certainty and prevention of multiple court proceedings. Nevertheless, the Convention does not contain new lis pendens provisions that were brought by the Brussels I bis Regulation, hence lacks the same degree of respect to party autonomy and choice of court agreements as ensured by the revised Regulation.

Mastermelt Ltd v Siegfried Evionnaz SA: The relevance of the case

In the recent case of Mastermelt Ltd v Siegfried Evionnaz SA, the High Court decided that the Brussels I bis Regulation does not affect the interpretation of the Lugano Convention. Mr Justice Walksman concluded that unlike the new lis pendens provisions as contained in Article 31(2) of the Brussels I bis Regulation, the Lugano Convention preserves the “court first seized” rule and therefore, regardless of an exclusive jurisdiction agreement the court first seized shall continue the proceedings and rule on its jurisdiction.

This decision is very timely since it triggers nonequilibrium views on the foreseeable membership of the United Kingdom to the Convention. It confirms continuation of the Gasser scenarios and torpedo actions under the Lugano Convention, furthermore, gives rise to the risk of parallel proceedings and irreconcilable judgments.

Factual background

The dispute arose between Mastermelt Limited (Claimant), an English company, and Siegfried Evionnaz SA (Defendant), a Swiss company, over the quality of Mastermelt’s performance of the reclamation services in 2018.

After Siegfried informed Mastermelt about their intention to commence proceedings in Switzerland on the basis of the exclusive jurisdiction clause in favour the Swiss courts contained in Siegfried’s standard terms and conditions of contract (“STC”), the claimant initiated the English proceedings on 5 February 2019 seeking negative declaratory relief against the defendant. Later, on 23 July 2019, Siegfried instituted the Swiss proceedings in the Zurich Commercial Court against Mastermelt and subsequently, on 24 May 2019, applied the English High Court, for a declaration that it had no jurisdiction.

Mastermelt brought another set of Swiss proceedings for a stay in early 2020, which was rejected by the Zurich Commercial Court on 13 February 2020 and advanced to the Federal Supreme Court. As of the date of the hearing in the English High Court, the Supreme Court had not given any ruling on that.

Issues

The English court considered whether the harmonised version of Article 27 of the Lugano Convention applies and if so, it would have had stayed the proceedings until the Swiss court had decided the question of jurisdiction. Subsequently, the court also decided the question of its own jurisdiction and validity of the exclusive jurisdiction agreement.

Analysis

While considering the proper interpretation of Article 27 of the Lugano Convention the court as a primary point conferred that it was not bound by the Swiss court’s decision on the same issue which was relied upon by Siegfried.

Referring to Protocol No 2 to the Lugano Convention, Mr Justice Walksman paid ‘due account’ to the Swiss judgment, however, refused its binding effect. Drawing on the ‘too remote’ nature of the former to be characterized as res judicata, the judge opposed to the defendant’s contention to apply the CJEU’s decision in Gothaer v Samskip. On this line, the High Court resisted the harmonised interpretation of Article 27 of the Lugano Convention as Article 31(2) of the Brussels I bis Regulation and as the first seized court denied staying the proceedings.

Contrary to the defendant’s reasoning, the court determined that although the CJEU’s decision in Gasser was reversed by the new Article 31(2), it was not obsolete and still had limited application outside the Regulation. The court reiterated its conclusion by emphasizing the significance of academic discussion. As stated by Professor Briggs, “the innovation created by 31.2 … does not apply to proceedings within the scope of Lugano II which remains regulated by the original rule of strict temporal priority …”. Professor Joseph also took a similar approach by expressing that “… there is no equivalent provision in the … Convention to Article 31.2 … Therefore, as regards the enforcement of jurisdiction agreements, the court first seized will examine the enforcement of such an agreement, irrespective of whether it is the chosen court…”

These brought continuation of the proceedings and examination of the second issue – jurisdiction of the court first seized. Pursuant to the Convention, if there was an exclusive jurisdiction agreement in the ambit of Article 23 of the Lugano Convention the English court had to dismiss the proceedings in favour of the designated court, otherwise Siegfried’s claim had to be litigated in England as the place of performance according to Article 5.1(a).

Referring to a significant body of the European and English case law (including the CJEU’s rulings in Salotti v Ruwa, Berghoefer v ASA SA, Iveco v Van Hool, Benincasa v Dentalkit and the judgment o the Court Appeal in Deutsche Bank v Asia Pacific), Mr Justice Walksman regarded the existence of an agreement as an independent concept. The court highlighted the reasoning in Powell Duffryn and Aeroflot and stated that a valid agreement should be “clearly and precisely” demonstrated either in a form of “writing” or ‘evidenced in writing’. Moreover, it was asserted that the written form could be evidenced not only in a single document but it could consist of multiple documents such as the seller’s quotation and buyer’s purchase order.

While considering what constituted “writing”, Mr Justice Walksman articulated the tendency of the courts to adopt a flexible approach as in the CJEU’s judgment in Berghoefer and his own earlier decision in R + V Versicherung v Robertson which in turn referred to the decision of the Court of Appeal in 7E Communications v Vertex.

At the same time, he emphasized the importance of the valid agreement in the sense of consent in line with the opinion of the Advocate General Bot in Profit Investment. On this basis it was submitted that an oral agreement of the party to the other party’s STC which included an exclusive jurisdiction agreement would not be sufficient to meet the durability requirement without later written evidence of such putative consent. This view was also supported by academic commentaries and English authorities such as ME Tankers v Abu Dhabi Container Lines [2002] 2 Lloyds 643, Claxton Engineering v TXM [2007] 1WR 2175, Chester Hall v Service Centres [2014] EWHC 2529.

The court admitted that there was a written agreement and manifested consent between the parties on the basis of the purchase orders and STC, which were strongly compelled by prior dealings, later statements and invoices expressly found in the email exchange. It was also maintained that there was “much the better of the argument” satisfying the good arguable case standard for the applicability of Article 23.1(a) and any opposing presumption would be “commercially absurd”.

Upon these observations, Mr Justice Walksman held that the English proceedings had to be dismissed in favour of the exclusively designated Swiss court.

Comments

This decision is of importance for several reasons. It reaffirms the emphasis that has been traditionally placed on party autonomy and authentic consent in English law and practice.  Likewise, it reasserts the exhaustive interpretation of the form requirement of the exclusive jurisdiction agreements within the meaning of the Lugano Convention which might be a useful reference point for the courts post-Brexit provided the UK would have become a member to the framework.

On the other hand, the judgment is particularly sensible at the time of the United Kingdom’s Brexit planning and strategy to continue the Lugano membership. It reveals serious differences between the Brussels I bis Regulation and Convention notwithstanding the equivalent rules existing in both.

Contrary to the remarks favoring the Convention as an “oven ready” option for the United Kingdom, the lack of a mechanism preventing parallel proceedings and irreconcilable judgments frustrates legal certainty, provokes waste of time and expenses, thus, threatens the vital principle of private international law – party autonomy.

Articles 5 and 6 of the Hague Convention on Choice of Court Agreements which enforce parties’ choice and oblige any non-chosen court to stay or dismiss the proceedings, might be helpful in this regard, however only to some limited extent due to its limited scope and application only to the Contracting States, whereas the EFTA states have not ratified the treaty.

In this regard, return of anti-suit injunctions as the measures frequently issued by the English courts in support of exclusive jurisdiction agreements provokes special attention. Indeed, the lack of mutual trust within the Lugano framework might result in the reversal of the West Tankers ruling, however the matter is still uncertain since there has not been any relevant authority for such an implication. All the mentioned points raise considerable doubts over the satisfactory replacement of the Brussels I bis Regulation by the Convention for the post-Brexit UK.

Moreover, unusual obligation to “pay due account” to the case law of other contracting states, as well as the CJEU provided by Protocol No 2 to the Convention broadens skepticism. As indicated by Professor Hess, such language “… does not mean more than looking at the pertinent case-law and giving reasons as to why a deviation is considered to be necessary”. Furthermore, the absence of any sanction upon deviations brings “inherent weakness” of the Protocol and rests its application perspectives solely on “… goodwill and of courtesy of the courts …”.

All these lead to non-uniformity and harbours suspicion against the Convention as a successful post-Brexit means of the UK. These concerns leave further room for discussion about seeking robust solutions and especially reaching a bilateral agreement in this context as advised by Professor Hess. However crucial these items are, they are the subject matter of another study.

All in all, provided the United Kingdom becomes a Contracting State to the Lugano Convention, the Mastermelt ruling alerts the parties to be more careful and get appropriate legal advice while contracting and designating a competent forum for the resolution of their disputes.

2 comments on “Mastermelt Ltd v Siegfried Evionnaz SA: Would the Lugano Convention Provide a Level Playing Field for Judicial Cooperation Post-Brexit?

  1. Caterina Benini

    Thank you Aygun for posting such an interesting decision.

    I agree with you that there are several negative consequences deriving from the different approaches on the “harmonised” interpretation of Article 27 of the Lugano Convention and Article 31.2 of the Brussels Recast Regulation. As you mention, beyond the return of parallel proceedings, there is the risk of irreconcilable judgments, which could potentially give rise to negative conflicts of jurisdiction when the court first seized consider the choice of court agreement valid and decline its jurisdiction, when at the same time the chosen court denies its jurisdiction, considering the choice of forum agreement invalid. Leaving aside the harmonized formal validity requirements, in relation to which the courts should reach the same conclusions, I would say that the risk is real with regards to what you call “authentic consent”, i.e. the substantive validity of the agreement, in relation to which the courts can reach different conclusions based on the lex fori approach.

    In order to avoid this, I was wondering whether, for the time being and awaiting further clarifications from the Standing Committee of the Convention, it would be more convenient for the courts, when applying the Lugano Convention, to follow the Gothaer decision and to confer res judicata not only to the jurisdictional judgment, but also to the ascertainment of the validity or invalidity of the underlying choice of court agreement.

    • Aygun Mammadzada

      Dear Caterina,
      I appreciate your interesting comments, thank you much.
      As we know in Gothaer v Samskip, the CJEU held that the German court was bound by the Belgian court’s “procedural” judgment asserting there was an exclusive jurisdiction agreement in favour of Iceland. The court further confirmed that not only the intermediate finding as to the validity of the jurisdiction clause, but also the very decision of the court to decline its own jurisdiction (either ratio decidendi or not) would brought res iudicata and therefore made other member state courts bound – it relates to the last sentence in your comment.
      In Mastermelt, the High Court emphasized the importance of the established case law and Gothaer ruling. However, the English court particularly highlighted that the Swiss court’s decision was merely “refusing to stay its own proceedings” and with “an expanded interpretation of Article 27”. The latter is the key point here, Caterina – on this basis, the court assessed the nature of the Swiss court’s conclusion as being “too remote” to found a binding decision within the ambit of a case like Gothaer.
      I find your concerns very reasonable. My assumption is that if the Swiss court would have decided on the validity of the jurisdiction agreement the High Court might have considered the binding nature of the relevant judgment while “paying due account” to the latter. However, as long as there is a permissive “discretion” of paying due account rather than a rigid obligation I doubt that the courts would be willing to make themselves bound even by what should establish res iudicata. Unfortunately, abusive deviations and significant risks are still reality!
      I hope this helps. Always happy to have further discussion!

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: