1. Mushrooming International Business Courts on the Eve of Brexit
Readers of this blog will have followed the developments on the international business courts and international commercial chambers being established around Europe and elsewhere. While many of the initiatives to set up such a court or special chamber date from before the Brexit vote, it is clear that the UK leaving the EU has boosted these and is considered to be a big game changer. It remains to be seen whether it really is, but in any case the creation of courts and procedures designed to deal with international commercial disputes efficiently is very interesting!
The Netherlands was one of the countries where, after the Senate came close to torpedoing the proposal (see our earlier blogpost), such an international commercial court (chamber) was created. The Netherlands Commercial Court (NCC) opened its doors on 1 January 2019, and it gave its first judgment on 8 March 2019 (see 2). Meanwhile, in Belgium the proposal for the Brussels International Business Court (BIBC) seems to be effectively unplugged due to lack of political support (see 3).
2. The First NCC Judgment
As reported earlier on this blog, on 18 February 2019 the Netherlands Commercial Court (NCC) held its first hearing (see here). The NCC’ s first case Elavon Financial Services DAC v. IPS Holding B.V. and others was held in summary proceedings and concerned an application for court permission to privately sell pledged shares under Article 3:251 (1) Dutch Civil Code. The NCC scheduled a second hearing on 25 February 2019, offering the interested parties that did not appear before court the opportunity to be heard. However, these notified the court about their intention not to attend the hearing and leave the application uncontested. As a result, the NCC cancelled the planned hearing and gave its first judgment granting the requested permission on 8 March 2019 (see here). Our discussion will focus on the NCC’s judgment regarding the four main jurisdictional requirements and aims at offering a sneak preview on the Court’s future case law on the matter.
(a) Jurisdiction of the Amsterdam District Court
Unlike what the name suggests, the NCC is not a self-standing court but a chamber of the Amsterdam District Court (see the new Article 30r (1) Dutch Code of Civil Procedure (DCCP) and Article 1.1.1. NCC Rules). Therefore, the jurisdiction of the NCC depends on the jurisdiction of the Amsterdam District Court (Article 30r (1) DCCP and Article 1.3.1. (a) and (c) NCC Rules). The Court confirmed its international and territorial jurisdiction based on a contractual choice-of-court agreement in favour of the Amsterdam District Court (Article 25 (1) Brussels Regulation Recast). With regard to the interested parties that were not a party to the agreement, the Court based its jurisdiction on the fact that they either entered an appearance or sent a notice to the Court acknowledging its jurisdiction without raising any objections (Article 26 (1) Brussels Regulation Recast and Article 25 Lugano Convention). Regarding the subject-matter jurisdiction of the Amsterdam District Court, Article 3:251 (1) Dutch Civil Code explicitly places applications for the private sell of pledged assets under the jurisdiction of the provisional relief judge of the District Court.
(b) Civil or commercial matter within the parties’ autonomy
Second, the dispute concerned a civil or commercial matter that lies within the parties’ autonomy (Article 30r (1) Dutch Code of Civil Procedure and Article 1.3.1. (a) NCC Rules).
Third, the NCC solely deals with international, cross-border disputes. So as to define the notion of internationality, the Explanatory Notes to Article 1.3.1. (b) NCC Rules entail a list of alternative, broad criteria that gives the dispute the required internationality (see Annex I, Explanatory Notes). The application in question was filed by Elavon Financial Services DAC, a company established in Ireland, and some of the interested parties are Dutch subsidiaries of a Swiss parent company (Explanatory Notes to Article 1.3.1. (b)). Although, pursuant to the Explanatory Notes, these circumstances were sufficient to establish the matter’s international character, the court went on to address other cross-border elements present in the case. Based on a broad understanding of a dispute’s international character, the court underlined that some of the interested parties are internationally active, operate or at least plan to operate business abroad (see also The Hague Court of Appeal, ECLI:NL:GHSGR:2011:BR1381). Similar to the rules of other countries’ international commercial courts, the NCC Rules qualify a case as international when the dispute arises from an agreement prepared in a language other than Dutch. Since the documents related to the application were drafted in English, the NCC regarded the English language of the contract as another international element.
(d) NCC Agreement
The fourth requirement for the NCC’s jurisdiction is that the parties should have expressly agreed in writing for the proceedings to be in English and according to the NCC Rules (Article 30r (1) Rv and Article 1.3.1. (d) NCC Rules). Since the NCC, unlike the rest of the Dutch courts, conducts proceedings entirely in English and applies its own rules of civil procedure the parties’ agreement justifies such a deviation and ensures that the parties wilfully found themselves before the newly established chamber. In the present matter, the parties signed a pre-application agreement and expressly agreed on the NCC’ s jurisdiction to hear their case. Although, two of the interested parties were not signatories to that agreement one of them appeared before the court leaving the NCC’ s jurisdiction uncontested and the other did not raise any objections against the chamber’ s jurisdiction in its communication with the court (see also Article 2.2.1 NCC Rules and the Explanatory Rules).
(3) The Fate of the Belgian BIBC Proposal
As reported on this blog, the proposal to create the Brussels International Business Court was brought before Parliament in May 2018. Interesting features of this proposal are that the rules of procedure are based on those of the UNCITRAL Model Law on International Commercial Arbitration and that cases are heard by three judges, including two lay judges. The proposal has been criticized from the outset (see for some interesting initial thoughts Geert Van Calster’s blogpost). As in the Netherlands, many discussions evolved around the fear for a two-tiered justice system, giving big commercial parties bringing high value claims a preferential treatment over ordinary court cases (see for the discussions in the Netherlands our earlier blogpost). The Belgian Ministry of Justice and Prime Minister presented the English language court as an asset in times of Brexit and efforts were made to adjust the proposal to get it through.
Over the last week it became clear that there is insufficient political backing for the proposal after one of the big parties withdrew its support (see De Standaard). Other – mostly left-wing parties – had expressed their concerns earlier and the proposed court has been referred to as a ‘caviar court’ and a ‘court for the super rich’. But probably the most fierce opponent is the judiciary itself. Arguments range from principled two-tiered justice fears (including for instance by the First President of the Court of Cassation) to concerns about the feasibility to attract litigation in the Brussels courts and the costs involved in establishing this new ‘vip court’. The message seems to be: we have enough problems as it is. Referring to the Dutch NCC and the French International Commercial Chamber, the Minister of Justice, Koen Geens, said that withdrawing the BIBC proposal would be a missed opportunity and that he can counter the arguments against the establishment of the BIBC. However, as it looks now it seems highly unlikely that Belgium will be among the countries that will have an international business court in the near future.