Case law Developments in PIL

Privy Council Overrules The Siskina

On 4 October 2021, the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council held in Convoy Collateral Ltd (Appellant) v Broad Idea (Respondent) (British Virgin Islands) that the House of Lords’ decision in Siskina (Owners of cargo lately laden on board) v Distos Cia Naviera SA [1979] AC 210 (“The Siskina”) and the Privy Council decision in Mercedes Benz AG v Leiduck [1996] AC 284 were wrongly decided.

The first few sentences of Lord Leggatt in Convoy say it all:

1. In his dissenting judgment in Mercedes Benz AG v Leiduck [1996] AC 284 at p 314D, Lord Nicholls of Birkenhead said:

“The law took a wrong turning in The Siskina, and the sooner it returns to the proper path the better.”

The Siskina

In The Siskina, the House of Lords held that English courts have no power to grant freezing orders (Mareva injunctions, at the time) unless it is ancillary to a cause of action, in the sense of a claim for final, substantive relief which the court has jurisdiction to grant.

In other words, English courts, and courts of common law jurisdictions following the English common law, would only grant freezing injunctions if they had jurisdiction on the merits.

In contrast, the mere presence of assets within the jurisdiction was not an autonomous ground for granting freezing injunctions. Despite scholarly opinions to the contrary, such as the comments of Lord Collins in a case note in the Law Quarterly Review:

Common sense would suggest that if proceedings are pending in one country, and the defendant’s assets are situate in another country, the plaintiff ought to be able to obtain protective or interim relief by way of attachment in the latter country. That is indeed the law in most countries …” L. Collins, “The Siskina again: an opportunity missed” (1996) 112 LQR 8

Convoy

Broad Idea is a company incorporated in the BVI. Dr. Cho is a shareholder and director of Broad Idea. In February 2018, Convoy applied to the BVI court for freezing orders against Broad Idea and Dr. Cho in support of anticipated proceedings against Dr Cho in Hong Kong. Convoy also sought permission to serve Dr. Cho out of the jurisdiction. Following a hearing held without notice to Broad Idea and Dr. Cho, the BVI court granted freezing orders restraining them from disposing of or diminishing the value of certain of their respective assets and gave permission to serve Dr. Cho out of the jurisdiction. Convoy commenced proceedings against Dr. Cho (but not Broad Idea) in Hong Kong shortly thereafter. The freezing orders issued against Dr. Cho by the BVI court and the order granting permission to serve Dr Cho out of the jurisdiction were subsequently set aside in April 2019 on the basis that the court did not have jurisdiction to make them. In the meantime, Convoy had made a further application for a freezing order against Broad Idea in support of the Hong Kong proceedings against Dr. Cho.

In July 2019, the judge continued the freezing order against Broad Idea indefinitely on the basis that the principle enunciated in TSB Private Bank International SA v Chabra [1992] 2 All ER 245 applied in the circumstances and that Broad Idea’s assets were at risk of dissipation. Broad Idea’s appeal against the judge’s decision was allowed by the Court of Appeal. Convoy then appealed to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Coucil.

The issues were:

(i) whether the BVI court has jurisdiction and/or power to grant a freezing order where the respondent is a person against whom no cause of action has arisen, and against whom no substantive proceedings are pursued, in the BVI or elsewhere, and if so
(ii) whether any such jurisdiction and/or power extends to the granting of a freezing order in support of proceedings to which that person is not a party.

Lord Leggatt concluded for the majority:

It is necessary to dispel the residual uncertainty emanating from The Siskina and to make it clear that the constraints on the power, and the exercise of the power, to grant freezing and other interim injunctions which were articulated in that case are not merely undesirable in modern day international commerce but legally unsound. The shades of The Siskina have haunted this area of the law for far too long and they should now finally be laid to rest.

Sir Goeffrey Vos wrote a minority opinion.

A Civil Law Perspective

Many lawyers from the civil law tradition found the Siskina quite remarkable. This is because, in most civil law jurisdictions, the proposition that protective measures could produce any extraterritorial effect has always been highly controversial. So, the idea that any other court than the court of the place where the assets might be situated could have jurisdiction to order, or supervise, their freezing, bordered the unthinkable.

True, protective measures in the civil law tradition are typically provisional attachments, which act in rem, while interim injunctions are equitable remedies which act in personam. But I would argue that this is a quite formalistic distinction. There is no fundamental reason why an in rem remedy could not reach assets situated abroad, and be enforced there.

If that is correct, then the issue is how to define the (extra) territorial reach of freezing injunctions/attachements. Jurisdiction on the merits is certainly a very reasonable one.

But, clearly, the location of the assets does also appear as a very reasonable ground for granting jurisdiction to freeze/attach them, if only for efficiency purposes (speed, in particular).

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