Okpabi v Shell: Supreme Court allows appeal in jurisdictional challenge relating to parent company duty of care

On 12 February, the Supreme Court handed down its judgment in a high profile jurisdictional challenge relating to group claims brought against Royal Dutch Shell Plc and its Nigerian subsidiary in connection with alleged pollution in the Niger Delta.  The decision will be of great interest – and potential concern – to all UK domiciled holding companies, particularly those in the extractive sector and others with businesses entailing environmental risks.

The Supreme Court unanimously allowed the claimants’ appeal, finding that the English court does have jurisdiction over the claims. It held that (1) the Court of Appeal materially erred in law by conducting a mini-trial in relation to the arguability of the claim at the jurisdiction stage, and (2) it was reasonably arguable that the UK domiciled Shell parent company owed a duty of care to the claimants: Okpabi and others v Royal Dutch Shell Plc and Shell Petroleum Development Company of Nigeria Ltd [2021] UKSC 3.

The decision provides further consideration of the circumstances in which a parent company may owe a duty of care to those affected by the acts or omissions of its foreign subsidiary, an issue that the Supreme Court considered in its recent judgment in Vedanta Resources PLC and another (Appellants) v Lungowe and others (Respondents) [2019] UKSC 20 (“Vedanta”) (which was heavily relied upon by the Supreme Court in this case).

The present decision emphasises that, in assessing at a jurisdictional stage whether there is an arguable duty of care owed by the parent company, the judge should not be drawn into a mini-trial to evaluate the factual evidence adduced, but should accept the factual assertions made in support of the claim by the claimants “unless, exceptionally, they are demonstrably untrue or unsupportable”. This will constrain defendants in seeking to challenge the factual basis on which claims are advanced, and many will be concerned that they are more vulnerable to weak and speculative claims being allowed to proceed in the English courts as a result of this judgment.

Further, UK domiciled holding companies will wish to scrutinise carefully the indicia by which it was established that a sufficiently arguable parent company duty of care existed in this case. The Supreme Court held that there was an arguable case that the parent company had: taken over the management or joint management of the relevant activity of the subsidiary; and/or promulgated group wide safety / environmental policies and took active steps to ensure their implementation such that a duty of care could arise.

The Supreme Court also adopted the analysis and conclusions of Sales LJ, who had dissented in the Court of Appeal, and who emphasised the significance of the fact that the Shell group is organised vertically on business and functional lines, rather than simply by corporate status. In the Supreme Court’s view, there was a triable issue as to whether this vertical organisational structure made it a group business that was in management terms a single commercial undertaking, with separate legal personality becoming largely irrelevant.

While UK parent companies will wish to give careful consideration to their own management structures, policies and practices in light of this judgment, significant uncertainty endures as to the precise circumstances in which a parent company duty of care will in fact arise. There is no special or separate legal test applicable to the tortious responsibility of a parent company for the acts of its subsidiary, and each case will need to examined on its own facts. Continue reading

Cross-border insolvencies in the UK and the EU – a quick guide

Our Restructuring, Turnaround and Insolvency team has published a quick guide to the implications of Brexit for cross-border insolvencies, given the absence from the EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement of any provision for continued recognition of, or co-operation in, insolvency and restructuring proceedings. The briefing examines in particular how:

  • Insolvency practitioners, debtors and creditors in both the UK and the EU will need to modify their approach where a debtor and its insolvency proceedings have a cross-border element.
  • Recognition of English insolvency proceedings in the EU will now depend on the local law of each member state. Only four member states have adopted the UNCITRAL Model Law, permitting cross-border insolvency recognition upon application to the member state’s courts. Recognition is not automatic.
  • For insolvency proceedings originating in a member state, recognition in England will be possible under the UNCITRAL Model Law.
  • Schemes of arrangement were given effect in the EU via civil jurisdiction rules, not insolvency jurisdiction rules. These have now been lost, though schemes are likely to retain effectiveness at least in relation to English law debts or debts arising under agreements containing a mutual, exclusive jurisdiction clause in favour of England.
  • As to restructuring plans, this is a live issue before the English courts, but may also be impacted by local laws in the EU.

For more information, click here to access the briefing.

Brexit: key practical implications for disputes and dispute resolution clauses

Despite the UK and EU having finalised a Trade and Cooperation Agreement to govern their trading and security relationship following the end of the Brexit transition period, there remain a number of uncertainties when it comes to commercial dispute resolution in cases involving the UK and the EU. In this post we look at some key practical points for parties to consider, taking into account both what we do know and what remains unclear.

The main source of uncertainty arises from the fact that the EU has not yet indicated whether it will consent to the UK’s accession to the 2007 Lugano Convention. It was hoped that a post-Brexit trade deal would pave the way for a further agreement on the UK’s accession to that Convention, but a month on from agreement being reached on the trade deal we are still waiting for a decision.

The position should become clear by April, since the UK submitted its application for permission to accede on 8 April 2020 and the Convention provides that contracting parties “shall endeavour to give their consent” within a year – though that is not a hard deadline. If consent is given, the Convention will come into force as between the UK and the EU on the first day of the third month following the UK’s deposit of its instrument of accession, and will apply to proceedings commenced after it comes into force.

In the meantime, two things are clear: (i) the recast Brussels Regulation no longer applies to jurisdiction and enforcement of judgments as between the UK and the EU, unless proceedings were commenced in a UK or EU court before the end of 2020; and (ii) the UK re-joined the 2005 Hague Convention on Choice of Court Agreements in its own right from 1 January 2021 (having previously been party to it by virtue of EU membership) so that the 2005 Convention now applies as between the UK and the EU in matters falling within its scope (as explained below).

Against that background, below are some key practical points for parties to consider in matters involving the UK and the EU. Continue reading

Article published – Jurisdiction clauses and service out post-Brexit: a welcome rule change

The Civil Procedure Rule Committee has, in principle, agreed an amendment to the rules governing service out of the jurisdiction after the end of the Brexit transition period. The amendment will remove the need for the court’s permission to serve out where the claim falls within a choice of court agreement in favour of the English courts. This will significantly streamline the procedure for serving out of the jurisdiction in circumstances where the defendant has agreed that the English court should have jurisdiction to determine disputes that arise under a contract.

Maura McIntosh has published a post on Practical Law’s Dispute Resolution blog which considers the rule change and its implications. Click here to read the post (or here for the Practical Law Dispute Resolution blog homepage).

Beyond Brexit: Countdown to 1 January 2021 – new video briefings and podcasts available, including on jurisdiction and enforcement of judgments

In the run up to the end of the Brexit transition period, we have produced a series of webinar videos which cover some of the key issues businesses face as they prepare for 1 January 2021, whether or not there is a new UK/EU trade deal. In addition to the webinar on jurisdiction and enforcement issues, there are further videos which can be accessed here on our website. These cover: trade in goods and services; retained EU law; mobility; contracts; intellectual property; data; media; technology and telecommunications; and tax.

We have also produced podcast versions of these video briefings, which are available on our Beyond Brexit podcast channel (see episodes 19-28), or click here for direct access to the podcast version of the briefing on jurisdiction and enforcement issues.

 

European Commission’s Notice to Stakeholders confirms its view Hague Choice of Court Convention will apply to exclusive English jurisdiction clauses only if they are entered into after Brexit transition period ends

On 27 August 2020, the European Commission published a Notice to Stakeholders setting out the rules that, in the Commission’s view, will apply in the field of civil justice and private international law once the Brexit transition period comes to an end on 31 December 2020 – assuming no other agreement is reached.

At that point, the current reciprocal regime that governs jurisdiction and the enforcement of judgments between the UK and the EU, under the Recast Brussels Regulation (and related instruments), will no longer apply – unless proceedings were started before the end of the transition period.

Where there is an exclusive jurisdiction clause in favour of a UK or EU court, the position may fall within the 2005 Hague Convention on Choice of Court Agreements. However, the 2005 Convention applies only if the exclusive jurisdiction clause was entered into after the Convention’s entry into force for the state of the chosen court. The 2005 Convention originally entered into force for the UK on 1 October 2015, when the EU acceded on behalf of all Member States (apart from Denmark, which acceded separately from 1 September 2018). Pursuant to the UK/EU Withdrawal Agreement, it was agreed that the UK would be treated as an EU Member State for the purposes of international agreements, including the 2005 Convention, until the end of the transition period. And the UK’s intention is to re-accede to the 2005 Convention in its own right from 1 January 2021, so that the 2005 Convention continues to be in force for the UK after that date.

EU Commission’s position

However, the Commission’s Notice makes clear its view that, in these circumstances, the 2005 Convention will apply to exclusive English jurisdiction clauses only if they are concluded after 1 January 2021. The Commission had hinted at this view (at least) in previous communications, but the recent Notice sets out its view in much starker terms. The Commission’s view will not of course bind the courts that will decide this question in future, and it is not clear to what extent it is shaped by the ongoing negotiations between the UK and the EU regarding their future relationship.

We believe the better view is that the 2005 Convention should apply to exclusive English jurisdiction clauses entered into from 1 October 2015 onwards, as the 2005 Convention first entered into force for the UK on that date, has remained in force since that date, and will continue to be in force after the end of the transition period. We do not see why a change in the basis on which the 2005 Convention has been in force (first by virtue of EU membership, then under the Withdrawal Agreement, and finally by way of the UK’s accession in its own right) should make any difference to that basic position.

Position as it applies in the UK

As far as the UK’s own application of the 2005 Convention is concerned, the position is clarified by amendments introduced to the Private International Law (Implementation of Agreements) Bill during its transition through the House of Lords. This is the legislation which will provide that the 2005 Convention has the force of law in the UK from the end of the transition period. The Bill provides (at paragraph 7 of Schedule 5) that for the purposes of the 2005 Convention as it has the force of law in the UK, the date of the 2005 Convention’s entry into force for the UK is 1 October 2015. This will not, however, affect how the 2005 Convention is interpreted and applied by other contracting parties, including the EU.

Clauses entered into after 1 January 2021

Regardless of how this debate is resolved, it is important to remember that, on any basis, the 2005 Convention will apply to exclusive English jurisdiction clauses entered into on or after 1 January 2021, once the UK has acceded in its own right. In general terms, therefore, EU Member State courts will have to respect such clauses and enforce judgments given pursuant to them. Parties to existing contracts who wish to have the certainty associated with such clauses may want to consider restating their jurisdiction clause, with the counterparty’s agreement, after 1 January 2021 in such a way that it will unquestionably fall within the 2005 Convention.

Of course, the 2005 Convention will be less significant, as between the UK and the EU, if the UK is able to accede to the Lugano Convention either from 1 January 2021 or a date shortly thereafter. However, this requires the EU’s consent which, to date, has not been forthcoming.

Anna Pertoldi
Anna Pertoldi
Partner
+44 20 7466 2399
Maura McIntosh
Maura McIntosh
Professional support consultant
+44 20 7466 2608

Court of Appeal gives wide interpretation to “damage” for the purposes of the common law jurisdictional gateway for tort claims

The Court of Appeal has held, by a majority, that direct damage in the jurisdiction is not required in order for a claim to come within the tort jurisdictional gateway in the CPR: FS Cairo (Nile Plaza) LLC v Christine Brownlie [2020] EWCA Civ 996. In doing so it followed obiter comments made by the majority in the Supreme Court in an earlier judgment in the case (see our post on that decision here).

The test under the common law is, therefore, different from the test under the recast Brussels Regulation (and the Lugano Convention) where direct damage in the jurisdiction is a requirement.

Given the divergent views expressed on this issue by numerous higher court judges, it remains ripe for further consideration in the Supreme Court. While arguments that the common law gateway does or should mirror the test in the Brussels regime may diminish post-Brexit, there is still the underlying question of principle to be decided: what amounts to a sufficient connection to the jurisdiction to justify tort proceedings being brought in England and Wales against a foreign defendant? Continue reading

High Court holds claim against anchor defendant must satisfy merits test if it is to be used to establish jurisdiction against co-defendants under recast Brussels Regulation

The High Court has held that the English court will only have jurisdiction against a co-defendant under article 8(1) of the recast Brussels Regulation where a merits test against the anchor defendant has been satisfied: Senior Taxi Aereo Executivo Ltda v Agusta Westland S.p.A [2020] EWHC 1348 (Comm). In doing so, it largely followed obiter comments by the majority in a previous Court of Appeal decision (Sabbagh v Khoury [2017] EWCA Civ 1120, considered here).

Under article 8(1), co-defendants domiciled in EU member states can be joined to proceedings commenced in England against an English domiciled defendant (the anchor defendant) where the claims are so closely connected that it is expedient to hear and determine them together to avoid the risk of irreconcilable judgments resulting from separate proceedings.

There is no merits test in respect of the case against the co-defendants, but it has been unclear whether that is also the case in respect of the case against the anchor defendant. The majority in Sabbagh considered that there was such a test, but Gloster LJ gave a strong dissenting judgment, leaving the position in doubt. The judge in this case (Waksman J) held there is such a test, preferring the reasoning of the majority, although clearly the issue is ripe for consideration by the Court of Appeal or CJEU.

Although the recast Brussels Regulation will no longer apply in the UK after the end of the transition period following the UK’s departure from the EU (save in respect of proceedings started before the period ends), the decision will remain of relevance if the UK joins the Lugano Convention, as the Convention contains the same provision regarding co-defendants as the Regulation.

If the UK does not join the Lugano Convention, the decision will cease to have relevance, as the common law jurisdiction rules will apply to co-defendants. Under those rules, a merits test clearly does apply to the claim against the anchor defendant. Continue reading

UK applies to join Lugano Convention from end of Brexit implementation period

On 8 April 2020, the UK submitted its application to accede to the 2007 Lugano Convention on jurisdiction and the recognition and enforcement of judgments, in accordance with the UK government’s previous statements of intention.

Lugano currently applies as between the EU (including the UK, until the Brexit transition period comes to an end – most likely on 31 December 2020 if the UK government’s recent statements on the point are taken at face value) and EFTA countries Iceland, Norway and Switzerland. The UK’s involvement in Lugano will however cease at the end of the transition period unless the UK accedes in its own right.

If the UK were to accede to Lugano, assuming no other agreement on jurisdiction and enforcement of judgments is concluded between the UK and the EU, Lugano would then apply as between the UK and the EU (as well as between the UK and other signatories). The result would be that there would be little change from the current regime in relation to jurisdiction and enforcement, so that English court judgments would continue to be readily enforceable throughout the EU and in EFTA countries, and English jurisdiction clauses would largely continue to be respected by those countries, and vice versa. (The Lugano Convention does have some disadvantages compared to the current regime, as it does not include the improvements made when the Brussels Regulation was “recast” for proceedings commenced from January 2015, as outlined here – but in broad terms the provisions are similar.)

The wrinkle, however, is that the UK will be able to accede to Lugano only if it has the unanimous agreement of the contracting parties – namely the EU, Denmark as an independent state (it has an “opt-out” of justice and home affairs matters under relevant EU treaties), Iceland, Norway and Switzerland. While Iceland, Norway and Switzerland have indicated their support for the UK’s accession, the EU’s position is not yet clear. It has recently been reported that the Commission at least may be less welcoming – in particular given that all current signatories are part of the EU’s single market or substantially participate in it, but the UK has said it intends to leave the single market once the transition period comes to an end.

If the UK does not accede to Lugano, the position regarding enforcement of English judgments and the effect of English jurisdiction clauses will depend, in part, on whether the 2005 Hague Convention on Choice of Court Agreements applies (assuming the UK accedes to that Convention from the end of the transition period – which it can do without the consent of the EU or any other contracting party). Otherwise, questions of jurisdiction and enforcement as between the UK and the EU will depend largely on local rules in each country. See this blog post for more information.

Anna Pertoldi
Anna Pertoldi
Partner
+44 20 7466 2399
Maura McIntosh
Maura McIntosh
Professional support consultant
+44 20 7466 2608

New Brexit podcast – The implications of Brexit for choice of law, jurisdiction and the enforcement of judgments

In the latest episode of our Brexit podcast series, Anna Pertoldi and Maura McIntosh look at the implications of Brexit for choice of law, jurisdiction and the enforcement of judgments, looking first at the position during the transition period to the end of December 2020 and then considering what will happen once that period comes to an end. They also give some thoughts on how commercial parties should approach their decision as to what dispute resolution clause to include in their contracts.

The episode is available to listen to on SoundCloud, iTunes or Spotify.

Anna Pertoldi
Anna Pertoldi
Partner
+44 20 7466 2399
Maura McIntosh
Maura McIntosh
Professional support consultant
+44 20 7466 2608