Case law Developments in PIL

Swiss Court Refuses Post-Brexit Application of the Lugano Convention – Even Good Cases Can Make Bad (Case) Law

This post was written by Rodrigo Rodriguez who is Professor on Insolvency Law at the University of Lucerne.

Since 1 January 2021, as a result of the UK’s “hard Brexit” in respect of the field of cooperation in civil matters, the UK has not been a formal member of the 2007 Lugano Convention anymore. Much has been written and zoomed on this issue.

On 22 February 2021, the district court of Zurich issued an – as far as I know – first decision (courtesy of regarding the (non-)recognition of the UK judgement in Switzerland post-Brexit.

The decision refuses to apply the 2007 Lugano Convention ratione temporis to a UK decision of the High Court of London made in September 2020 (while the Lugano Convention was still applicable by virtue of the Withdrawal Agreement).

Upon request for recognition filed on 18 February 2021, the Zurich court concludes, in a short reasoning, that since 1 January 2021, the 2007 Lugano Convention is not applicable anymore to situations involving Switzerland and the UK and must therefore be disregarded as a basis for recognition. As the provisional measure requested in the claim was ultimately granted on a different legal basis, the decision was not challenged.

It is respectfully submitted that the decision is ill-founded. The intertemporal provisions in the Convention are way more complex than the district court’s reasoning acknowledges.

The relevant Article 63(1) of the Convention (transitional provisions) reads as follows:

This Convention shall apply only to legal proceedings instituted and to documents formally drawn up or registered as authentic instruments after its entry into force in the State of origin and, where recognition or enforcement of a judgment or authentic instruments is sought, in the State addressed.

The district court’s decision makes no reference to that article or to doctrine but refers to different views expressed by Swiss governmental bodies: one by the Federal Office of Justice (FOJ), and one by the Federal Office of Foreign Affairs (FOFA). While the first clearly (and accurately…) states that “[t]he recognition and declaration of enforceability of judgments made before the withdrawal date shall continue to be governed by the Lugano Convention even after the date of withdrawal”, the latter states that “the Lugano Convention will cease to form the legal basis for Swiss–UK relations, at least temporarily. As a result, matters of jurisdiction and declarations of the enforceability of judgments between Switzerland and the UK will, in principle, once again be governed by national legislation”. While the term “in principle” would seem to leave some room for nuance, the district court of Zurich opted to openly dismiss the FOJ opinion and embrace the “no legal basis”-assertion of the FOFA.

Under Article 63(1), the relevant elements are that (1) the Convention was in force in the State where the decision to be recognized was issued (or even already when the proceedings were instituted? see below), and (2) the Convention was in force in the State of the recognition at the time recognition was sought. This was clearly the case in the situation at hand. The district court of Zurich erred in not applying this provision.

From a strictly grammatical point of view, one could read Article 63(1) as covering only the situation where the Convention is applicable in both States at the time of recognition. However, such hypothesis would not even raise an intertemporal question and Article 63(1) would be completely pointless. This cannot be assumed as the drafter’s will. It would also contravene general principles on acquired rights and favorem recognitionis.

Missing the Really Tricky Questions

It is submitted that this first decision is a bad start into a true marathon of (really) tricky issues around Brexit and the Lugano Convention.

One of those questions is whether Article 63(1) requires the proceedings in the UK to be final (in order to be recognized in Switzerland later), or if it is sufficient that the proceedings have been “initiated” – opening the way for enforcing decisions issued even after 1 January 2021. In my opinion, this is consistent with the purpose of Article 63(2), which is to enforce decision under transitional rules once it is clear that the originating court has applied the Lugano provisions on direct competence. Views are also split on this (see Fn 3 of the FOJ decision here), but at least this would be the right debate to have.

The Return of the Undead: Applicability of the 1988 Lugano Convention?

The second question is whether, assuming the 2007 Lugano Convention were not to be applicable, its predecessor, the Lugano Convention of 1988, would apply.

The 1988 Lugano Convention was “superseded” by the 2007 Lugano Convention (no further acts of rescission were agreed between the parties) by virtue of article 65 of that Convention. As the latter would cease to be applicable, that could automatically lead to the 1998 Lugano Convention being applicable again. The 1988 Lugano Convention is not cited in Annex VII of the 2007 Lugano Convention (Agreements “superseded” by the 2007 Lugano Convention under its article 65). And the 1988 Lugano Convention has been and is still applied to the French and Netherlands overseas territories (not being EU territories).

However, this view is contested. In Switzerland, which follows the monist approach to treaties, courts should, in my opinion, apply the 1988 Lugano Convention again. However, since the UK follows the dualist approach, one must also consider its national law and the fact that Article 3A of the Civil Jurisdiction and Judgments Act 1982, giving force to the 1988 Lugano Convention, has since been repealed. Whether this outweighs the principles of the Vienna Convention the law of treaties (see on this argument in respect of the Brussels Convention the post by Serena Forlati) will be up to the courts – if asked. Unfortunately, also that opportunity was missed.

Surprisingly, I have not come across any view of UK lawyers (or lawmakers) defending the potential applicability of the 1988 Lugano Convention, although it would provide the UK with a far better “fallback position” than national laws in the case of a non-accession to the 2007 Lugano Convention. As this possibility seems more and more plausible (no agreement of the EU yet on the UK’s accession), it is a case worth making in the next recognition proceeding.