Case law Developments in PIL

UK Supreme Court Rules on Law Applicable to Contribution Claims

On 2 November 2022, the UK Supreme Court delivered its judgment in The Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Families Association – Forces Help and another (Respondents) v Allgemeines Krankenhaus Viersen GmbH (Appellant).

The issue at stake was whether the Civil Liability (Contribution) Act 1978, which regulates whether a person liable from a damage may recover contribution from any other person liable, has overriding effect, and thus applies irrespective of the law governing the claim. The Rome II Regulation did not apply ratione temporis.

Background

Mr Roberts suffered brain damage at birth in the Viersen General Hospital (AKV) in Germany in June 2000. Mr Roberts claims that this occurred as a result of the negligence of the attendant midwife, who was employed by the Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Families Association Forces Help (SSAFA). He also sued the Ministry of Defence (MoD), which will indemnify SSAFA against any liability.

SSAFA and MoD have brought a claim against AKV for contribution if Mr Roberts’ claim against them succeeds. The basis for this contribution claim is the 1978 Act. The parties agree that the law governing the contribution claim is German law and under German law, the claim would be time-barred. However, if the 1978 Act has overriding effect and if SSAFA/MoD can show that AKV is liable under it, their contribution claim will be in time.

The High Court considered this issue as a preliminary issue before the rest of Mr Roberts’ claim is decided. The High Court decided that the 1978 Act does have overriding effect and therefore SSAFA/MoD’s contribution claim against AKV is not time-barred. The Court of Appeal agreed. AKV now appeals to the Supreme Court.

Judgment

The Court allowed the appeal on the grounds which were summarised in the Press Summary as follows.

The 1978 Act does not provide expressly that it has overriding effect. It does not provide that the 1978 Act applies irrespective of the foreign law otherwise applicable to the contribution claim. The question is whether such an intention must be implied from the provisions of the statute [38]. Three statutory provisions were identified variously by the Court of Appeal as supporting overriding effect: sections 1(6), 2(3)(c) and 7(3). The Supreme Court, however, considers these provisions equivocal. Their efficacy is not dependent upon overriding effect [39]-[48]. In particular, even in the absence of overriding effect, section 1(6) will be effective in many situations such as where the parties to the contribution claim are in a special relationship governed by the law of England and Wales [43].

Nothing in the admissible Parliamentary materials or the legislative history supports the view that the legislation was intended to have overriding effect [49] – [51]. However, the Bill was a Law Commission Bill and statements by the Commission in other reports suggest it was not intended to have overriding effect [52]-[55]. The weight of academic commentary strongly favours the view that the 1978 Act does not have overriding effect [73]-[79].

A line of authorities supports overriding effect. In a number of these cases overriding effect was assumed, was not directly in point and was not argued [56]-[60]. Arab Monetary Fund v Hashim (No 9) provides direct support for overriding effect, but the reasoning is open to the criticism that it is circular [61]-[68].

In coming to the conclusion that the 1978 Act was not intended to have overriding effect, the Supreme Court is influenced in particular by two considerations. First, there will be many situations in which a contribution claim will be governed by the law of England and Wales, notwithstanding the fact that the underlying liabilities are governed by a foreign law [82]. Secondly, it is difficult to see why Parliament should have intended to confer a statutory right of contribution whenever the party from whom contribution is sought can be brought before a court in this jurisdiction, regardless of the law with which the contribution claim has its closest connection. A failure of foreign law to provide for contribution claims is not a defect requiring remedy by legislation in this jurisdiction. Moreover, it would seem contrary to principle for the law of England and Wales to be applied if the contribution claim were most closely connected to a foreign system of law [83].

Assessment

Under the Rome II Regulation, the law governing the claim satisfied by a person liable to the victim also governs the right of that person to seek “compensation” from other persons liable to the victim of the same claim. The Rome II Regulation, however, did not apply in this case.

The judgement eventually concludes that German law should also apply to the contribution claim in a reasoning in three steps.

The first is that, although issues of contribution used to be perceived as issues of procedure, it is now widely considered in the British common law world that it is one of substance.

The second is that the issue should be characterised as closely analogous to a restitutionary or quasi-contractual claim, and that the applicable law should be the law with which this claim is the most closely connected. In the present case, given that the claims of each person liable to the victim was governed by German law, that law would be German law as well. But Lord Lloyd-Jones explains that this could have been otherwise if there had been a special relationship between the two liable persons.

The third is that the statutes with overriding effects should be identified by assessing whether the terms of the relevant legislation cannot be applied or its purpose achieved unless it is overriding, and the legislative policy would be so significant that the statute should override the application of foreign law.

The main difference between the English rule and the Rome II Regulation is now, it seems to me, that the English rule relies on a more flexible test which, in certain cases, could lead to the application of a law other than the law governing the claim of the victim. This was critical in this case, as a particular provision of the 1978 Act somewhat required that there be cases were the law of the claim of the victim would be different from the law governing the contribution claim.

Section 1(6) of the 1978 Act provides:

References in this section to a person’s liability in respect of any damage are references to any such liability which has been or could be established in an action brought against him in England and Wales by or on behalf of the person who suffered the damage; but it is immaterial whether any issue arising in any such action was or would be determined (in accordance with the rules of private international law) by reference to the law of a country outside England and Wales.

The answer of the Court is that, for this provision to make sense, it must be possible that English law sometimes applies where foreign law governs the claim of the victim. The example given is a case where a special relationship existed between the two persons liable.

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