In a July 12, 2007 post, we reported on issues relating to HIH Casualty and General Insurance Limited (“HIH”). The question before the court was whether it had jurisdiction to entertain a request under the Insolvency Act for directions to the liquidators in England to transfer assets collected by them to the liquidators in an Australian liquidation. The Court of Appeal held that it would not direct a transfer of the English assets by the English provisional liquidators to the Australian liquidators because to do so would prejudice the interests of many of the creditors. The House of Lords disagreed, allowing an appeal and ruling that the English assets of the insolvent insurer should be remitted to the Australian liquidator. There were sharp differences of opinion as to why exactly that should be the case.

The HIH group presented winding up petitions to the Supreme Court of New South Wales in 2001. Some of the assets, which consisted mostly of reinsurance claims on London policies, were situated in England, so English provisional liquidators were appointed. The Australian judge subsequently issued winding up orders and sent a letter to the High Court in London asking that the provisional liquidators remit the assets to the Australian liquidators for distribution in accordance with Australian law. The question on appeal was whether the English court could and should accede to the request. The alternative was a separate liquidation and distribution of the English assets under the English Insolvency Act of 1986. The manner of distribution mattered because Australian law generally gave priority to insurance creditors at the expense of other creditors, while the same result would not obtain under English law.

The decision was resolved primarily by analyzing the tension between section 426(4) of the Insolvency Act, which allows an English court with insolvency jurisdiction to assist designated foreign courts (including Australian courts), and section 426(5) of the same Act, which allows a court discretion to provide assistance in accordance with the rules of private international law, including the common law principle of “modified universalism.” That principle requires United Kingdom courts to cooperate with Australian courts to ensure that all the assets are distributed under a single system of distribution. While the court stated that a refusal to remit the assets might be appropriate if it causes a manifest injustice to a creditor, it ultimately found that the Australian distribution was not unacceptably discriminatory or contrary to public policy.

The dispute was focused on whether the basis of jurisdiction ought to be grounded in the common law considerations allowed by section 426(5) or the discrete statutory authority of section 426(4). Lord Hoffmann would have allowed the remission solely through the exercise of common law principles. He argued that under the common law doctrine of ancillary winding up, English courts may “disapply” parts of the statutory scheme by authorizing the English liquidator to allow actions he is obliged by statute to perform in accordance with English law to be performed by the foreign liquidator in accordance with foreign law. Others, including Lord Phillips, rejected this view: “I do not propose to stray from the firm area of common ground [of allowing the appeal under section 426] onto the controversial area of whether, in the absence of statutory jurisdiction, the same result could have been reached under a discretion available under the common law.” Lord Neuberger, too, opposed Lord Hoffman’s view, stating that he took “the view that it would not have been open to an English court to make the order sought by the Australian liquidators in the absence of section 426(4) and (5) of the 1986 Act.” McGrath v. Riddell [2008] 1 WLR 852, [2008] UKHL 21 (Apr. 9, 2008).