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29 April 2014
In the recent Vitol Bahrain EC v Nasdec General Trading decision the Commercial Court reaffirmed the need for caution when considering whether to bring foreign defendants within the jurisdiction of the English courts.
The jurisdiction challenge arose out of a dispute concerning the ownership of two cargoes of oil purportedly sold by the first defendant company, Nasdec, to the claimant company, Vitol, for $120 million pursuant to contracts entered into in March and May 2012.
Vitol is a Bahranian company which carries on business trading and refining oil and petroleum products. Nasdec is a Dubai company.
The contracts for sale included warranties by Nasdec that it had marketable title to the cargo free and clear of any lien or encumbrance and had full right and authority to transfer and effect delivery of the cargo.
The contracts were subject to Dubai International Financial Centre law and to the exclusive jurisdiction of the courts of Dubai. However, the warranties of title were expressed to be governed by English law and subject to the exclusive jurisdiction of the English courts.
The two cargoes were delivered by vessel and discharged at the VTTI terminal in Fujairah as required by the contracts. On receipt of proof of delivery, Vitol paid the contract price to Nasdec.
Subsequently, the second and third defendants – Fal Oil Dubai and Fal Oil Sharjah, respectively – contacted VTTI asserting ownership rights over the cargoes. VTTI informed the Fal Oil parties that it was the terminal storing the oil and that the cargoes in question were stored in tanks leased to Vittol.
Notwithstanding the information provided by VTTI, Fal Oil Sharjah issued civil proceedings against VTTI in Fujairah in June 2012, alleging that VTTI was holding the cargoes on trust for Fal Oil and, as such, was liable to deliver them back to Fal Oil unless it could demonstrate that Fal Oil did not have title to the cargoes. In this respect, the claim against VTTI raised the issue as to whether the cargoes belonged to Vitol or the Fal Oil parties.
The Fal Oil parties also commenced criminal proceedings against their former general manager, Mohammed Osman, whom they said had set up Nasdec to misappropriate the cargoes dishonestly.
In October 2012 Nasdec petitioned to intervene in the Fujairah proceedings, asserting that:
The petition was granted and Nasdec became a party to the Fujairah proceedings.
On November 9 2012 Vitol commenced proceedings in England against Nasdec and (among others) the Fal Oil parties for a declaration that Nasdec had and had passed good title to the cargoes. Vitol sought and obtained permission to serve the proceedings on the defendants outside the jurisdiction a week later on the basis that they were necessary and proper parties to the proceedings. The claim form was served on the Fal Oil parties through diplomatic channels on September 30 2013. The Fal Oil parties filed an acknowledgement of service indicating an intention to contest jurisdiction on October 22 2013.
In the meantime, the Fal Oil parties successfully applied to join Vitol to the Fujairah proceedings. This prompted Vitol to make an application to the English court for an anti-suit injunction, which was granted on an interim basis. The application for continuation of the injunction came before the court on October 25 2013.
The judge dismissed that application on November 1 2013 on the grounds that Fujairah was the natural forum for the determination of the question of title of the cargoes. He decided that this was determinative of the application because it is well established that the English court will not grant an injunction unless it has some interest of its own to protect, the typical example being where England is the natural forum, which was not the case.
Fal Oil subsequently issued its jurisdiction challenge application to its involvement in the English court proceedings, which was heard on March 28 2014.
Referring to Lord Collins's recent summary of the law in Altimo Holdings & Investment Limited v Kyrgyz Mobil Tel Limited, the judge identified the principles in relation to permission to serve out of the jurisdiction as follows:
The debate before the court focused on the third – 'appropriate forum' – requirement. In this respect, the Fal Oil parties argued that an issue estoppel arose by reason of the judge's decision in connection with the anti-suit injunction application that Fujairah, not England, was the natural forum for resolution of the dispute. The judge hearing the jurisdiction challenge rejected this argument on the grounds that an issue estoppel can arise only where the issue in each application is identical, whereas he found that the issue before the previous judge was different in the following two respects:
As to the question of appropriate forum, Vitol argued that the starting point was to recognise that it had a contractual right to bring proceedings in England against Nasdec pursuant to the exclusive jurisdiction conferred by the warranties. The Fal Oil parties were necessary and proper parties to those claims because the issue of title to the cargoes required a single investigation between the parties, all of whom needed to be bound by the determination which the English court is bound to make in any event in connection with the claim against Nasdec.
Once it has been established that a person is a necessary and proper party to a claim against one or more anchor defendants in England, this is a weighty factor in favour of granting permission to join them to the English proceedings. Vitol argued that at that stage, the question was no longer whether England is the more appropriate forum for the resolution of the disputes between the claimant and the foreign defendants viewed in isolation, but whether England is distinctly the more appropriate forum for the resolution of the disputes between them, which it is necessary and proper to determine together with the claims against the anchor defendants. The policy engaged is the undesirability of the duplicative proceedings and conflicting judgments.
While acknowledging the force of Vitol's argument, the judge was not persuaded that the test for the necessary and proper party gateway had been satisfied. In this regard, he reflected on the anomalous nature of this head of jurisdiction, which effectively throws the net of jurisdiction beyond any territorial connection between the claim, the subject matter of the action and the English courts, and the caution with which it must be approached.
Although agreeing with Vitol that the starting point when considering the necessary or proper party head of jurisdiction is to examine the nature of the claim against the anchor defendants, on analysis the judge was not satisfied that the claim provided a valid platform for making the Fal Oil parties defendants to English proceedings. In this respect, the judge identified that the claims advanced against Nasdec in November 2012 would and could not have been pursued in the absence of the joinder of the Fal Oil parties. Vitol was not suing Nasdec for breach of the warranties; on the contrary, there was no issue between Vitol and Nasdec as to whether Nasdec had and passed good title to the cargoes to Vitol, and this issue arose only because of the Fal Oil parties' allegations. Indeed, Vitol's damages claim would be struck out if Fal Oil were not a party to the proceedings because there would be no allegation of a defect in Nasdec's title by anyone in the proceedings.
In the circumstances, the judge determined that Vitol had no claim that it could pursue in the English court independently of a claim against the Fal Oil parties, and hence there was no independent claim to which it could be said to be a necessary and proper party.
The judge also concluded that there was no risk of duplication of time and cost or inconsistent judgments because the only dispute requiring resolution were the claims between Vitol and the Fal Oil parties as to who had good title to the cargoes. Fujairah was clearly the most appropriate forum for the resolution of those claims.
This judgment provides a useful reminder of the limitations of the necessary and proper party head of jurisdiction and the English court's reluctance to extend its jurisdiction to claims to which it has no territorial connection.
The case also exemplifies the importance of the formulation of a claim to the course of proceedings and strategy generally: the judge's decision was driven by his analysis of the nature of Vitol's claim against Nasdec and it is interesting to note that the outcome of the jurisdiction challenge could have been different if the claim against Nasdec had been for breach of the warranties, rather than a declaration as to title.
For further information on this topic please contact Sarah Trimmings or Geraldine Elliott at RPC by telephone (+44 20 3060 6000), fax (+44 20 3060 7000) or email (email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org). The RPC website can be accessed at www.rpc.co.uk.
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