The French Supreme Court has ruled that a jurisdiction clause providing for exclusivity for the benefit of one party only is contrary to the object and purpose of Article 23 of the Brussels I Regulation, and is therefore invalid (Ms "X" v Banque Privée Edmond de Rothschild, No 11-26.022; 26 September 2012).
The decision will be of considerable concern to commercial entities – and in particular to banks. Even if the Court of Justice of the EU ultimately disagrees on the issue, it raises the prospect of uncertainty and confusion in the meantime, throughout EU and Lugano States.
Summary top tips on jurisdiction clauses providing for "one-way" exclusivity:
- When drafting, consider whether such a clause will be upheld - not only by the chosen court, but also by other courts in which proceedings might be commenced or which might refuse to enforce a judgment of the selected court. If they might not consider the clause to be valid, it may be better to make it exclusive for both parties.
- Ensure that your preferred court within EU/Lugano is "first seised" of any dispute which is subject to such a clause (especially if there is a French nexus). Currently, it will be that court which will determine the validity of the clause – and some States (e.g. the UK) are more likely to uphold it than others.
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- Ms “X” (a French national and resident of Spain) had opened an account with a Luxembourg bank via its French sister company. When the account failed to yield expected returns, she sued both the French and Luxembourg banks in the French courts
- However, there was a Luxembourg jurisdiction clause in the contractual documentation with the Luxembourg bank. Under its terms, although the bank remained able to sue elsewhere, Ms “X” could not. Its precise wording was as follows:
“[p]otential disputes between the client and the bank shall be submitted to the exclusive jurisdiction of the Luxembourg courts. The bank reserves the right to bring its claim before the courts of the client’s domicile or any other competent court should it not make use of the clause provided for in the previous sentence.”
- Under the Brussels I Regulation (“Brussels I”), the French courts were able to hear the claim against the French bank because it was domiciled in France1. Since the Luxembourg bank was a joint defendant, the French courts would have jurisdiction over the claim against it too2, but only if the jurisdiction clause failed to confer exclusive jurisdiction on the Luxembourg courts3.
- The issue for the French courts was therefore whether the Luxembourg jurisdiction clause was valid - in which case they would have to decline jurisdiction in favour of Luxembourg, or invalid - in which case they could hear the claim.
- The clause was found to be invalid by the French courts both at first instance and on appeal. Whilst the French Court of Appeal found that one-way jurisdiction clauses are in principle valid, it considered this clause too broad – since it permitted the Luxembourg bank to sue in “any other competent court”. On a further appeal, the issue came before the “Cour de Cassation” (the French Supreme Court).
- The French Supreme Court dismissed the appeal, ruling that the clause was invalid and therefore dismissing the Luxembourg bank’s application to contest jurisdiction.
Its reasoning was as follows:
- Since the clause was, in effect, only binding on Ms X, it was “potestative”. (Potestativité is a French concept, derived from legislation concerning conditions precedent - a “potestative” condition making the fulfilment of the agreement dependent upon an event in the control of one of the parties.)
- Such a clause was in conflict with the object and purpose of jurisdiction clauses as set out in Article 23 of Brussels I, and therefore invalid.
- Importantly, the French Supreme Court did not just hold invalid (1) that part of the clause which gave the Luxembourg bank the option to sue in any other competent court, or (2) the portion preventing Ms X from so doing. Instead, it decided that the jurisdiction clause was invalid in its entirety.
- Following that logic, neither party could have relied on the clause as a basis for commencing proceedings in Luxembourg instead, although Ms X at least could have done so on other grounds4.
- Taking the approach of the French Supreme Court further, presumably its ruling also means that the French courts would also consider that they were unable to take jurisdiction on the basis of French clauses like these which purported to confer jurisdiction on them.
Basis of the decision
The ruling is curious for a number of reasons:
- Although the decision concerned the interpretation of an autonomous EU provision, it was made using a domestic French law concept.
- The decision runs contrary to the key principle of freedom of contract. Recital (14) of Brussels I itself expressly states that “the autonomy of the parties ... must be respected”, save in limited circumstances which did not arise here5.
- The decision apparently conflicts directly with the express terms of the Brussels Convention (the predecessor to Brussels I). The penultimate paragraph of Article 17 of the Brussels Convention6 expressly stated:
“If an agreement conferring jurisdiction was concluded for the benefit of only one of the parties, that party shall retain the right to bring proceedings in any other court which has jurisdiction by virtue of this Convention.”7
The ability of the parties legitimately to make express provision to this effect is further bolstered by a related ruling of the (then) European Court of Justice8 that, for the purposes of the penultimate paragraph of Article 17, such one-way exclusivity could not be inferred from certain circumstances.
Although equivalent wording does not also appear in Article 23 of Brussels I9, there is a simple explanation:
- Save for the text quoted above, Article 17 of the Brussels Convention only expressly provided for exclusive jurisdiction clauses.
- Case law subsequently established that this did not mean that non-exclusive clauses would not also be given effect.
- Consequently, when Brussels I was introduced, it addressed the issue by making general express provision for clauses to be exclusive or non-exclusive according to party choice – rendering the wording quoted above redundant.
- Thus, the changes made did not represent a statement that one-way exclusivity could not be agreed. On the contrary, they were made to confirm that a more general (and wider) party autonomy would be respected and upheld.
- In its decision, the French Supreme Court stated:
“... given that the Court of Appeal noted that the clause, according to which the bank reserved the right to sue at Ms X’s domicile or ‘before any other competent court’, was, in reality, only binding upon Ms X, who was the only one bound to apply to the Luxembourg courts, the Court of Appeal accurately deduced that the clause was ‘potestative’ for the bank, so that it was in conflict with the object and purpose of a choice of jurisdiction clause contemplated under article 23 of the Brussels I Regulation.”
- On its face, this suggests that the French Supreme Court considered that clauses providing for exclusivity for the benefit of one party only are, as a matter of principle, “potestative” and thus invalid.
- Nevertheless, it is possible that it was merely the particular wording of the clause in this case which fell foul of the concept of potestativité. Thus, it remains to be seen whether other, more carefully drafted, clauses with a similar effect might yet be upheld.
- The decision of the French Supreme Court will be of considerable concern for commercial entities desirous of having their contractual bargains upheld, and in particular to banks - which commonly use such clauses.
- That is because many transactions (such as loans) envisage that only one party would ever need to make a “positive” claim in the event of breach. It is therefore common for such a party to seek to preserve its forum options (since its preference may depend upon the location of the other party’s assets), whilst also restricting those of the counterparty (which might otherwise use spoiling tactics designed to delay payment, by seeking declarations of “non-liability” elsewhere).
There has recently been a similar ruling in Russia, albeit that it was in relation to an arbitration clause10. Whilst such decisions made by courts outside the EU/Lugano pose a number of problems (in particular, the risk of parallel proceedings in such countries and difficulties associated with the enforcement of judgments), the decision of the French Supreme Court is even more concerning. That is for a number of reasons:
- Its decision concerns the meaning of an EU/ Lugano provision on jurisdiction clauses - a provision to which all EU Member States are subject.
- Although the French decision on the interpretation of that provision does not of itself bind other EU/Lugano States, they may take account of it when encountering similar issues. Whilst the courts of some such States (such as the UK) will almost certainly come to a different view, others may be persuaded or influenced by the French decision.
- If the French courts (or those of any likeminded EU/Lugano State) are “first seised” of a dispute involving such a clause, and they otherwise would have jurisdiction, then (currently) it will be their view which counts – the courts of other EU/Lugano States will be unable to interfere11. Further, those other States will be obliged to recognise/enforce judgment(s) of the court “first seised” – both on the question of its jurisdiction and the validity of the clause12, and also (if any is given) on the merits of the claim13.
- Many will therefore hope that the issue is quickly referred to the Court of Justice of the EU - and that it disagrees with the French ruling. In the meantime, however, the French courts (at least) will have regard to the decision, and there will be considerable uncertainty and confusion throughout EU/Lugano States.
Addressing the issues – some top tips
When considering including a jurisdiction clause in your contractual documentation which confers “one-way” exclusivity, it is important to be aware of the following:
- Such a clause might be held to be invalid – if not by the selected court, then perhaps by the courts of other countries in which proceedings might be commenced, or which might refuse to enforce a judgment of the selected court. If that is a real risk, then consider whether it would be preferable to make the clause exclusive for both parties.
- The validity of such clauses is now uncertain even in EU/Lugano States. Unless and until the Court of Justice of the EU says otherwise, the French courts may well hold a clause like this invalid, and some other EU/Lugano States may adopt a similar approach.
When a dispute arises which is subject to such a clause and possible forums include a number of EU/ Lugano States, then note the following:
- The question of where proceedings are commenced first is, currently, crucial - particularly if there is a nexus with France or a like-minded EU/Lugano State. That is because it is currently the court “first seised” that will determine the clause’s validity, and some States (e.g. the UK) are more likely to uphold it than others. It is therefore important to ensure that your preferred court within EU/Lugano is “first seised” of any dispute14.
That said, the position on “court first seised” in these circumstances is set to change. The recast version of Brussels I envisages, instead, that the EU/Lugano court which is selected in an exclusive jurisdiction clause will usually determine its validity and effect (and that the law of that State will be applied to determine its substantive validity). This would mean that, irrespective of the order of seisin:
- clauses like these purporting to confer jurisdiction on the courts of France or likeminded EU/Lugano States may well be declared invalid; but
- such clauses conferring jurisdiction on other States such as the UK are likely to be upheld.
- However, these reforms will not take effect until at least 201515.
- Ideally, of course, a further amendment would be made to the recast Brussels I ahead of its enactment - to address the validity issue itself, and thereby ensure a uniform approach across the EU.