That London is a global capital for dispute resolution is well known. But even by London standards, Corinna zu Sayn-Wittgenstein-Sayn v His Majesty Juan Carlos Alfonso Victor Maria De Borbón Y Borbón is a spectacular litigation. Like in all complex international litigation, private international law has a role to play in this case. This is the aspect of the case that the High Court (Rice J) addressed in its judgment of 6 October 2023.
This case is complex, as is the High Court judgment, which spans 307 paragraphs or 92 pages. This post will present the key facts of the case, before addressing the four issues of relevance for private international law that the court addressed, namely submission to the court’s jurisdiction, Article 7(2) of the Brussels I bis Regulation, immunity under the State Immunity Act 1978, and the territorial scope of the Protection from Harassment Act 1997.
The defendant was King of Spain between 1975 and 2014, when he abdicated the throne. The claimant is an international businesswoman. Both parties have a cosmopolitan lifestyle and maintain homes around the world. The parties agreed that the defendant was domiciled in Spain for the purposes of the proceedings, even though he had been living in Abu Dhabi since August 2020. The claimant is a Danish national with a residence in Monaco and a home in England.
The parties were in an intimate relationship between 2004 and 2009. Their relationship came to public attention in April 2012 in the aftermath of an elephant-hunting trip to Botswana. In June 2012, the defendant paid €65m to the claimant, the purpose of which is a matter of dispute and controversy. Shortly thereafter the defendant allegedly started to harass the claimant. Harassment allegedly continued after the defendant’s abdication.
The facts pleaded by the claimant are complex, but are conveniently summarised at :
the Defendant (a) intimidated and pressured the Claimant over the use of the June 2012 payment, (b) threatened and intimidated her more generally, (c) made allegations of stealing, untrustworthiness and disloyalty with a view to disrupting her relations with friends and family, (d) made similar defamatory statements to her clients and business associates, (e) supplied false information to the media, with a view to publication, relating to her financial probity and alleging she was a threat to the Spanish national interest and/or was trying to blackmail the royal family, and (f) placed her and her advisers under surveillance, trespassed onto and damaged her Shropshire property and intercepted or monitored the mobile and internet accounts of herself and her advisors.
These acts of harassment were alleged to have occurred in different countries, including Austria, the Bahamas, England, Monaco, Saudi Arabia, Spain, Switzerland, Tahiti, United Arab Emirates, and the United States.
It is on the basis of these facts that the claimant brought a claim in England under the Protection from Harassment Act 1997 on 16 October 2020, two and a half months before the expiry of the Brexit transition period on 31 December 2020. This, coupled with the fact that the defendant was domiciled in Spain, meant that Brussels I bis applied.
The defendant’s first line of defence was sovereign immunity. On 6 December 2022, the Court of Appeal held that the defendant enjoyed immunity from the jurisdiction of the English courts under the State Immunity Act 1978 with respect to the allegations about his pre-abdication, but not post-abdication conduct. This paved the way for the issues that the High Court addressed in its judgment of 6 October 2023.
Submission is a recognised basis of jurisdiction under Article 26 of Brussels I bis. As a matter of High Court procedure, jurisdictional challenge and submission to jurisdiction are dealt with generally by Civil Procedure Rule 11. CPR 11(4)(a) provides that an application under this rule must be made within 14 days after filing an acknowledgment of service. Otherwise, the defendant is to be treated as having accepted that the court has jurisdiction to try the claim pursuant to CPR 11(5)(b).
The defendant filed an acknowledgment of service on 4 June 2021 and ticked the box ‘I intend to contest jurisdiction’. The claimant argued that the defendant should have disputed the court’s jurisdiction under Brussels I bis within 14 days. Instead, the defendant made a general challenge to the court’s personal jurisdiction in his application notice of 18 June 2021 ‘on grounds that England is not the appropriate forum’ and sought ‘to set aside the service on the Defendant out of the jurisdiction, which was improperly effected’. On 21 February 2023, the defendant abandoned his objection to the service of the claim. A specific challenge to the court’s jurisdiction under Brussels I bis was not made until 22 March 2023. This specific challenge was made pursuant to case management directions that followed the Court of Appeal’s judgment on the immunity issue.
The court held that the defendant did not submit on the basis that his jurisdictional challenge was not abusive, that his general challenge to the court’s personal jurisdiction of 18 June 2021 was sufficient at that stage, and that extension of time and relief from sanctions should be granted to cure any deemed submission that might have arisen by virtue of CPR 11(5)(b) from the lapse of a month between the abandonment of the service challenge and its replacement by the Brussels I bis challenge.
Article 7(2) of Brussels I bis
The heart of the judgment concerns the interpretation and application of Article 7(2) of Brussels I bis to a harassment claim and is found at -. This part of the judgment deals with four key points: the relationship between an autonomous interpretation of Article 7(2) and the domestic law under which the claim is pleaded; the elements of the tort of harassment under English law; whether the event giving rise to the damage occurred in England; and whether the damage occurred in England.
Relationship between Autonomous Interpretation and Domestic Law
It is undisputed that the concept of the ‘place of the harmful event’ in Article 7(2) requires an autonomous interpretation. But the question arose whether the domestic law under which the claim was pleaded had a role to play in this respect. The court provided a positive answer to this question. It quoted with approval - of the Supreme Court judgment in JSC BTA Bank v Ablyazov:
However, the requirement of an autonomous interpretation does not mean that the component elements of the cause of action in domestic law are irrelevant. On the contrary, they have a vital role in defining the legally relevant conduct and thus identifying the acts which fall to be located… In particular, whether an event is harmful is determined by national law.
This led the court to conclude that, for the purposes of determining whether the event giving rise to the damage occurred in England and whether the damage occurred in England, ‘the relevant “event” and “damage” are determined by English tort law, [which] requires consideration of whether the relevant components of an actionable tort, occurring in England, have been made out’ to the standard of a good arguable case (-).
Elements of the Tort of Harassment
This brought the Protection from Harassment Act 1997, which introduced the tort of harassment into English law, to the spotlight. According to the court, the essence of the tort of harassment is that
it as ‘a persistent and deliberate course of unreasonable and oppressive conduct, targeted at another person, which is calculated to and does cause that person alarm, fear or distress’. The conduct ‘must cross the boundary between that which is unattractive, even unreasonable, and conduct which is oppressive and unacceptable. To cross the border from the regrettable to the objectionable, the gravity of the misconduct must be of an order which would sustain criminal liability’. (, referring to  of the High Court judgment in Hayden v Dickinson)
a course of conduct is something more than a series of events attributed to the same person. A ‘course of conduct’ is more than the additive sum of its parts. A nexus between the activities complained of is required; a court must assess whether the acts complained of are separate or linked together to form a specific and coherent whole. ()
Armed with this insight, the court proceeded to determine whether the event giving rise to the damage occurred in England and whether the damage occurred in England.
Event Giving Rise to the Damage
The parties clearly had a deep and multifaceted relationship that went spectacularly sour. It was also clear that the parties’ relationship, including its most unpleasant aspects and their consequences, spanned multiple jurisdictions. Two issues of relevance concerning the interpretation of the ‘event giving rise to the damage’ limb of Article 7(2), however, were not clear.
The first issue concerns the fact that acts of harassment can be done by a defendant directly or by another person on the defendant’s behalf. The question arose whether the acts of another person acting on the defendant’s behalf in England could amount to an act of the defendant in England for the purposes of Article 7(2). To answer this question, the court relied on the Melzer judgment of the Court of Justice:
I do not, and do not need to, take from this any clear principle that the acts of an agent cannot constitute the acts of a principal for the purposes of the ‘cause’ limb of the jurisdictional test where the agent acts in one jurisdiction on the authority of a principal in another. But I was shown no clear authority for the contrary principle either. And I do take from Melzer at least the thoughts that (a) the BRR concerns itself in principle with the issue of a causal act by one person being attributed to another under national law for the purposes of determining jurisdiction, because that tends against the fundamental principles of certainty, predictability and the proximity of a defendant’s conduct to the courts of another country and (b) great care needs to be taken with appeals to intuition as to the ‘right’ outcome in such matters, when the starting point is the fundamental principle of a defendant’s entitlement to be sued in his place of domicile, subject only to limited exceptions of a predictable nature made in the interests of the effective administration of justice. ()
The second issue is whether Article 7(2) required an English course of conduct to confer jurisdiction on the English courts, or whether an international course of conduct with acts of harassment in England sufficed. The court held that the former approach was right:
The jurisdictional test cannot be satisfied by doing no more than identifying a collection of English acts featuring in a pleaded international course of conduct and inviting an inference that they themselves add up to an actionable course of conduct in their own right… The right approach works the other way around. It has to start with the pleaded identification of an English course of conduct and then establish that, through pleaded constituent acts of the Defendant in England. Whether any ‘English subset’ of a pleaded international course of conduct amounts to an actionable tort in its own right must itself be pleaded and evidenced. It cannot be assumed as matter of logic to have that quality: harassment is a distinctively cumulative tort, and pleading a whole course of conduct as harassment does not imply pleading that any subset of it must itself constitute harassment (even though it may). ()
The court ultimately held that the claimant failed to identify and evidence a tortious course of conduct by the defendant with the necessary coherence, connectivity, persistence, and gravity constituting harassment that occurred in England.
The question of whether the relevant damage occurred in England raised related issues. Does Article 7(2) require that the claimant became aware of harassing events and experienced alarm, fear, and distress in England, that the proximate and direct damage occurred in England, or perhaps that something else occurred in England?
The court held that:
The impact of any individual constituent episode of that course of conduct is simply not the legally relevant ‘damage’ as defined by English tort law. Any individual episode need have no particular effect at all – it is the cumulative, oppressive effect of the total course of conduct which is of the essence of the tort. ()
In other words, the legally relevant damage is ‘just “being harassed”’ ().
The claimant failed to identify and plead any specific experience of harassment in England. Instead, she pleaded an indivisible, ambulatory, and international experience of being harassed, which was not recognisable as distinctively English. Consequently, no relevant damage occurred in England. The court suggested that had the claimant had an English domicile, habitual residence, or physical presence in England throughout, she might have satisfied the requirements of the ‘damage’ limb of Article 7(2) ().
As mentioned, the Court of Appeal held on 6 December 2022 that the defendant enjoyed immunity from the jurisdiction of the English courts under the State Immunity Act 1978 with respect to the allegations about his pre-abdication, but not post-abdication conduct. Before the High Court, the claimant had another go at this by seeking permission to amend her pleadings to include pre-abdication matters on two bases: that these matters concerned the defendant’s motives for his post-abdication course of conduct; and these matters were part of the relevant background. The court refused permission because these matters were covered by immunity.
Finally, the court addressed the issue of territorial scope of the Protection from Harassment Act 1997. As is well-known, common law courts apply the presumption against the extraterritorial application of domestic statutes. Since the case contained international elements, the question arose whether it fell outside the territorial scope of the Act.
The court indicated briefly that the Act had territorial limits and that the case fell outside those limits:
It is one thing to say that regard may arguably be had to an extraterritorial ‘act of a defendant’ in an otherwise securely pleaded and evidenced ‘course of conduct’ within the jurisdiction. It may also be right that ultimately…some sort of test of preponderance or ‘significant proportion’ might conceivably evolve to meet the facts of a particular case. But there is no authority at present which comes close to giving any basis for concluding that fully ‘international harassment’ is comprehended within the geographical scope of the Act and I was given no contextual basis for inferring a Parliamentary intention to achieve that as a matter of public policy. ()
This is a complex and rich case and it is impossible to examine it fully within the confines of a blog post that is already too long. I want, nevertheless, to mention three points by way of commentary.
The first point concerns Brexit and the civil law/common law divide in international civil litigation. Civil law jurisdiction rules, epitomised by Brussels I bis, allocate jurisdiction in a rigid way. Jurisdictional bases are limited in number and relatively narrow. Common law jurisdiction rules are flexible, and jurisdictional bases are more numerous and relatively broad. These two approaches to jurisdiction, and how they play out in tort disputes, were recently discussed by the UK Supreme Court in Brownlie 2. Mrs zu Sayn-Wittgenstein-Sayn was in a unique position in that she could choose the jurisdictional system under which to bring her claim. By commencing her proceedings in October 2020, she effectively opted for Brussels I bis. Had she waited a few months and commenced her proceedings after the expiry of the Brexit transition period on 31 December 2020, she could have sued the defendant under the common law rules. It is possible that the claim would have passed the tortious jurisdictional gateway, but the forum conveniens doctrine would have presented a significant challenge. That is probably why the claimant chose to sue the defendant under Brussels I bis.
The second point concerns the court’s interpretation and application of Article 7(2) of Brussels I bis. In Shevill, the Court of Justice confirmed that the domestic law under which the claim is pleaded is of relevance for the application of Article 7(2):
The criteria for assessing whether the event in question is harmful and the evidence required of the existence and extent of the harm alleged by the victim of the defamation are not governed by the Convention but by the substantive law determined by the national conflict of laws rules of the court seised, provided that the effectiveness of the Convention is not thereby impaired. ()
The court seised on the opportunity created by Shevill to limit the jurisdiction of English courts over harassment claims. Through section 9 of the Defamation Act 2013, Parliament sought to end London’s position as the global libel litigation capital. The High Court judgment in Corinna zu Sayn-Wittgenstein-Sayn v His Majesty Juan Carlos Alfonso Victor Maria De Borbón Y Borbón can be seen as a related development in the field of harassment.
Finally, the third point concerns the choice-of-law aspect of the case. Even though this was a jurisdictional dispute, the court nevertheless opined on the issue of extraterritoriality. It is interesting, however, that the court approached the issue of application of the Protection from Harassment Act 1997 purely as an issue of statutory construction. There was no mention of the possibility that the choice-of-law rules of the Rome II Regulation (which is retained EU law) might have a role to play in this respect. I think that Rome II, at least if it is applied as directly applicable EU law, requires a different approach. The court should have started its analysis by applying the choice-of-law rules of Rome II. If English law applied, the court could have checked whether the case fell within the territorial scope of the Act. If English law did not apply, the court could have checked whether the Act should nevertheless apply on an overriding basis. A further question could then be asked, namely whether Rome II effects in any way the process of statutory construction.
The parties are in a bitter dispute. The claimant is likely to appeal the High Court judgment. The next chapter in this litigation is keenly awaited.