The High Court has recently handed down another interesting decision on the so-called Quincecare duty: Roberts v The Royal Bank of Scotland plc  EWHC 3141 (Comm).
Quincecare duty claims typically arise where a bank received a payment mandate from an authorised signatory of its customer, and executed the order, in circumstances where (allegedly) there were red flags to suggest that the order was an attempt to misappropriate the funds of the customer. The recent uptick in Quincecare duty claims against financial institutions is striking, perhaps a culmination of years of increased regulation which has raised the expectation of firms to identify potentially fraudulent activity. Accordingly, insights from the court on the risks associated with processing client payments will be welcomed by the sector. You can find our blog posts on previous Quincecare decisions here.
Roberts involved a classic breach of Quincecare duty (and breach of mandate) claim, in respect of which the court granted the defendant bank’s application for reverse summary judgment on the basis that the claims were time-barred under the Limitation Act 1980. It highlights the court’s approach to a limitation defence to resist claims alleging breach of Quincecare duty and breach of mandate claims. The decision confirms that the court will (in appropriate cases) take a robust approach in dismissing such claims which on the facts are clearly time-barred; this will especially be the case where the necessary facts required to plead a prima facie case of breach were within the claimant’s knowledge at an earlier date than contended.
However, in doing so the court concluded that a prima facie case for breach of the Quincecare duty could be pleaded by the claimants from inference, i.e. simply being inferred from the fact of payment. While this was helpful in the context of the bank’s limitation defence, it is potentially less helpful to the extent that it suggests a low threshold applies to the pleading requirements in Quincecare cases.
We examine the decision in more detail below.
In early 2006, an advertising company set up a business account with the defendant bank (Bank). The Bank was authorised to accept instructions from any two signatories as set out on the authorised signatories sheet attached to an original mandate.
In mid-2006, the company hired a temporary accounts clerk. Shortly thereafter, a form was sent to the Bank apparently authorising that clerk as a full and additional signatory of the company’s business accounts. Between 2006 and 2007 the Bank paid cheques presented to it (totalling £265,000), which had the clerk’s signature and which were in favour of the company’s majority shareholder. In 2008, the company went into administration and was subsequently placed into compulsory liquidation.
In late 2015, the liquidators assigned the company’s claims to the claimant individual who issued a claim in 2019 (more than 12 years after the last cheque had been paid), alleging that the company’s administration and compulsory liquidation was a consequence of the Bank honouring the cheques presented to it. The claimant’s case was that the Bank had breached its Quincecare duty and the mandate in place between the Bank and the company.
The bank applied for reverse summary judgment and/or strike out of the claims made against it on the basis that the claims were time-barred and that the claimant had no real prospect of establishing that the limitation period had been extended under section 32 of the Limitation Act 1980.
The court rejected the claimant’s arguments and granted the Bank’s application for reverse summary judgment.
The claimant argued that the limitation period did not start running until late 2017 as it was only then that certain facts were discovered, having been deliberately concealed by the Bank until then. The facts relied on by claimant included, in respect of the breach of the: (a) Quincecare duty claim, “the knowledge whether the defendant conducted an inquiry on any of the cheque payments and if it did not why”; and (b) mandate claim, certain paperwork such as that relating to the mandate and the authorised signatory form.
The court noted that section 32(1)(b) of the Act does allow for the postponement of the commencement of the relevant period of limitation where “any fact relevant to the plaintiff’s right of action has been deliberately concealed from him by the defendant”. That postponement will be until the time when “the plaintiff has discovered the fraud, concealment or mistake or could with reasonable diligence have discovered it”. However, the court said that (as per Arcadia Group Brands Limited and others v Visa Inc and others  EWHC 3561) not every broadly relevant fact would qualify; the only facts that would count for this purpose would be those facts which the claimant would need to plead in a statement of case to plead a prima facie case.
In the present case, the court said that what really mattered was whether there was knowledge sufficient to plead that the Bank had reasonable grounds for believing that the payment was part of a scheme to defraud the company such that the Bank came under a duty to refrain from making the payment. The court concluded “without hesitation” that a prima facie case of breach could be pleaded by inference from the fact of payment, if the prior steps could be pleaded (i.e. that the company was a customer of the Bank, that the authorised signatory instructed the Bank to make payment etc.). The court noted that this was, in fact, the way the claimant had pleaded the case.
The court held that the facts giving rise to the claims were plainly within the company’s knowledge at a very early stage – far earlier than six years ago, therefore there could be no deliberate concealment which has a real as opposed to a fanciful prospect of success. The claims were therefore time-barred and the court granted reverse summary judgment in favour of the Bank.