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Private International Law in the Proposal by the UNIDROIT Working Group on Digital Assets

UNIDROIT has started an online consultation on its Draft Principles and Commentary on Digital Assets and Private Law, which Marco Pasqua has thankfully posted on this blog.

Principle 5 titled “Conflict of laws” will be of special interest for our readers, yet even experts of the field may have trouble understanding this somewhat complex provision. As an observer in the Working Group, I would like to give some background.

Scope ratione materiae

The subject of Principle 5 is the law applicable to proprietary issues in digital assets. A digital asset is defined in a broad way as an “electronic record which is capable of being subject to control” (Principle 2(2)). This covers all cryptocurrencies and tokens. The term “proprietary issues” is not defined but can be understood as encompassing the existence and transfer of ownership as well as other rights in rem.

Party Autonomy

The law governing proprietary issues in digital assets is defined by a waterfall.

The first two levels are dominated by party autonomy. Principle 5(1)(a) refers to the law expressly specified in the digital asset itself, whereas Principle 5(1)(b) points to the law chosen for the system or platform on which the asset is recorded.

Free choice of law may be seen as a heresy in property law. Yet it must be borne in mind that the blockchain environment is relatively self-contained. A restricted choice of the applicable property law has already been accepted in the Hague Intermediated Securities Convention. This was a door-opener, even though the EU did not sign up.

The problem lies elsewhere. Virtually none of the existing digital assets or systems contains a choice of law. This is by no means a coincidence, but the result of the anti-etatist beliefs of the social circles in which the technology was conceived. Since these beliefs are unlikely to change any time soon (if ever), choice of law for a blockchain will remain as rare as hen’s teeth.

Options A and B

If the governing law is not chosen (i.e. virtually always), the draft provides two options (Principle 5(1)(c)). Under Option A, a state can specify the relevant rules of its forum law which should govern, and to the extent these are insufficient, refer to the UNIDROIT Principles as a kind of gap-filler. Under Option B, it can declare the UNIDROIT Principles to apply directly, without specifying any part of its domestic law.

What is striking is that the conflict-of-laws method is completely ignored here. The law of the forum or the UNIDROIT Principles govern, regardless of the connections of the case.

This may be justified insofar as substantive law harmonisation on the international level is achieved, i.e. in case of Option B. But where a state follows Option A by specifying certain rules of the forum as applicable, these rules would in fact govern all situations world-wide before its courts. Other states following Option A would also specify their own national rules. Divergences between these rules will not only be cast in stone, but exacerbated by substantive rules of PIL (règles matérielles de droit international privé). The result will be a global jumble, leading to the opportunities of forum shopping which PIL experts know so well. 

UNIDROIT Trumps National Law

If the governing law is not chosen, nor the substantive rules or the UNIDROIT Principles on Digital Assets apply, then the law applicable by virtue of the PIL rules of the forum governs (Principle 5(1)(c)). The PIL rules are thus relegated to the last level. What is more, no harmony is achieved, as not a single indication is given on how the states should fashion their PIL. Anything goes – hardly a recipe for global harmonisation.

Joint Project with HCCH

The Hague Conference on PIL has just published a joint proposal with UNIDROIT for a “Project on Law Applicable to Cross-Border Holdings and Transfers of Digital Assets and Tokens”. It shall deal specifically with Principle 5 of the UNIDROIT Draft. This is the first joint project between the two institutions. One may nurture the hope that it will result in more precise and elaborate connecting factors. Until then, the need for clearer conflicts rules may be highlighted in the UNIDROIT online consultation, which is open until 20 February 2023.

1 comment on “Private International Law in the Proposal by the UNIDROIT Working Group on Digital Assets

  1. Many thanks for this presentation, dear Matthias.

    I agree that the provision on choice of law is really unsatisfactory. To present it in the best possible light, these “principles” should in fact be understood as a model law which should be adopted by the relevant State. Otherwise, what Art 5 suggests is that States make applicable non state law, which is at present inconsistent with the systems of PIL of the vast majority of states in the world, and certainly EU PIL.

    What is a bit surprising is that no proposal is made for any default choice of law rule. One wonders whether this is because the drafters could not agree on any rule, or whether they were trying to promote their uniform law and hoped that by failing to properly address the choice of law issue, States would all adopt their principles, and would have created a brave new world where choice of law issues would have all disappeared…

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