A Principled Approach to Choice of Law in Contract?

by Andrew Dickinson on November 22, 2012

On 16 November, a Special Commission of the Hague Conference on Private International Law approved the text of the Hague Principles on the Choice of Law in International Contracts.

The Principles, an amended version of the draft text produced by the Conference’s working group, are intended to be used (among other functions) as a model for national, regional, supranational or international instruments. They deal with the effectiveness and effect of a choice of law in cross-border trade/business contracts, but not consumer or employment contracts (Art. 1). They allow not only a choice of national law (Art. 2) but also (albeit subject to conditions that are riddled with uncertainty, obfuscation and self-serving terminology) a choice of non-national rules of law (Art. 3).

The remaining Principles address other aspects of the choice of law (express and tacit choice, formal validity, law to be applied in determining choice, severability, renvoi, scope of chosen law, assignment, mandatory provisions and public policy).

The text of the Principles (which will, in due course, be accompanied by a Commentary) is as follows:

The Preamble

1. This instrument sets forth general principles concerning choice of law in international commercial contracts. They affirm the principle of party autonomy with limited exceptions.

2. They may be used as a model for national, regional, supranational or international instruments.

3. They may be used to interpret, supplement and develop rules of private international law.

4. They may be applied by courts and by arbitral tribunals.

Article 1 – Scope of the Principles

1. These Principles apply to choice of law in international contracts where each party is acting in the exercise of its trade or profession. They do not apply to consumer or employment contracts.

2. For the purposes of these Principles, a contract is international unless the parties have their establishments in the same State and the relationship of the parties and all other relevant elements, regardless of the chosen law, are connected only with that State.

3. These Principles do not address the law governing – a) the capacity of natural persons; b) arbitration agreements and agreements on choice of court; c) companies or other collective bodies and trusts; d) insolvency; e) the proprietary effects of contracts; f) the issue of whether an agent is able to bind a principal to a third party.

Article 2 – Freedom of choice

1. A contract is governed by the law chosen by the parties.

2. The parties may choose (i) the law applicable to the whole contract or to only part of it and (ii) different laws for different parts of the contract.

3. The choice may be made or modified at any time. A choice or modification made after the contract has been concluded shall not prejudice its formal validity or the rights of third parties.

4. No connection is required between the law chosen and the parties or their transaction.

Article 3 – Rules of law

In these Principles, a reference to law includes rules of law that are generally accepted on an international, supranational or regional level as a neutral and balanced set of rules, unless the law of the forum provides otherwise.

Article 4 – Express and tacit choice

A choice of law, or any modification of a choice of law, must be made expressly or appear clearly from the provisions of the contract or the circumstances. An agreement between the parties to confer jurisdiction on a court or an arbitral tribunal to determine disputes under the contract is not in itself equivalent to a choice of law. Article 5 – Formal validity of the choice of law

A choice of law is not subject to any requirement as to form unless otherwise agreed by the parties.

Article 6 – Agreement on the choice of law

1. Subject to paragraph 2, a) whether the parties have agreed to a choice of law is determined by the law that was purportedly agreed to; b) if the parties have used standard terms designating different laws and under both of these laws the same standard terms prevail, the law designated in those terms applies; if under these laws different standard terms prevail, or if no standard terms prevail, there is no choice of law.

2. The law of the State in which a party has its establishment determines whether that party has consented to the choice of law if, under the circumstances, it would not be reasonable to make that determination under the law specified in paragraph 1.

Article 7 – Severability

A choice of law cannot be contested solely on the ground that the contract to which it applies is not valid.

Article 8 – Exclusion of renvoi A choice of law does not refer to rules of private international law of the law chosen by the parties unless the parties expressly provide otherwise.

Article 9 – Scope of the chosen law

1. The law chosen by the parties shall govern all aspects of the contract between the parties, including but not limited to – a) interpretation; b) rights and obligations arising from the contract; c) performance and the consequences of non-performance, including the assessment of damages; d) the various ways of extinguishing obligations, and prescription and limitation periods; e) validity and the consequences of invalidity of the contract; f) burden of proof and legal presumptions; g) pre-contractual obligations.

2. Paragraph 1 e) does not preclude the application of any other governing law supporting the formal validity of the contract.

Article 10 – Assignment In the case of contractual assignment of a creditor’s rights against a debtor arising from a contract between the debtor and creditor – a) if the parties to the contract of assignment have chosen the law governing that contract, the law chosen governs the mutual rights and obligations of the creditor and the assignee arising from their contract; b) if the parties to the contract between the debtor and creditor have chosen the law governing that contract, the law chosen governs (i) whether the assignment can be invoked against the debtor, (ii) the rights of the assignee against the debtor, and (iii) whether the obligations of the debtor have been discharged.

Article 11 – Overriding mandatory rules and public policy (ordre public)

1. These Principles shall not prevent a court from applying overriding mandatory provisions of the law of the forum which apply irrespective of the law chosen by the parties.

2. The law of the forum determines when a court may or must apply or take into account overriding mandatory provisions of another law.

3. A court may only exclude application of a provision of the law chosen by the parties if and to the extent that the result of such application would be manifestly incompatible with fundamental notions of public policy (ordre public) of the forum.

4. The law of the forum determines when a court may or must apply or take into account the public policy (ordre public) of a State the law of which would be applicable in the absence of a choice of law.

5. These Principles shall not prevent an arbitral tribunal from applying or taking into account public policy (ordre public), or from applying or taking into account overriding mandatory provisions of a law other than the law chosen by the parties, if the arbitral tribunal is required or entitled to do so.

Article 12 – Establishment If a party has more than one establishment, the relevant establishment for the purpose of these Principles is the one which has the closest relationship to the contract at the time of its conclusion of the contract.

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