Choice of Law and Contribution Claims in Australia
The Supreme Court of Victoria has recently addressed the choice of law implications of claims for contribution within the Australian federal context. The decision will be of particular interest to UK readers. The Victorian contribution statute under consideration, Part IV of the Wrongs Act 1958 (Vic), is materially identical to the Civil Liability (Contribution) Act 1978 (UK), but the Court declined to follow the view of the UK courts regarding the choice of law consequences of the statute.
The case concerned a claim for contribution brought in Victoria by Fluor Australia Pty Ltd against ASC Engineering Pty Ltd, relating to the breach of a contract governed by the law of Western Australia. In Victoria, as in the UK, the statutory right to contribution covers all forms of liability. In contrast, in WA (and all Australian jurisdictions except Victoria) contribution is governed by equitable principles in conjunction with a limited and gap-filling statutory right to contribution between tortfeasors.
Section 23B(6) of the Victorian Act provides that:
References in this section to a person’s liability in respect of any damage are references to any such liability which has been or could be established in an action brought against that person in Victoria by or on behalf of the person who suffered the damage and it is immaterial whether any issue arising in any such action was or would be determined (in accordance with the rules of private international law) by reference to the law of a place outside Victoria.
Fluor argued that this constituted a statutory choice of law rule in favour of the Victorian lex fori, notwithstanding that common law rules of private international law might have directed the application of WA law. This reasoning was said to be supported by a series of decisions on the equivalent section of the UK Act. In each of those cases, English courts applied the UK Act to claims for contribution regardless of whether those claims would have been governed by English law according to the common law choice of law rule for contribution claims.
Bongiorno J declined to follow this view, holding that it would “encourage forum shopping to the detriment of the whole Australian legal system [and] would be antipathetic to the federal compact itself, with obvious consequences for state sovereignty and the integrity of individual state legal systems.” Rather, common law choice of law rules for contribution applied. Section 23B(6) of the Victorian Act was held to be merely “facultative”, its role being to confirm that if the common law choice of law rules for contribution directed the application of the Act, the fact that the “underlying liability” of the person from whom contribution is sought to the person who suffered the loss would be governed by the law of another jurisdiction would not preclude application of the Act.
Although there is uncertainty in Australia as to the applicable common law choice of law rule – both a delictual analysis (favouring the contribution law of the place of commission of the wrong by the person from whom contribution is sought) and a restitutionary analysis (favouring the contribution law of the place with the closest connection to the contribution claim) having been previously posited by Australian courts –his Honour considered that whichever rule applied, the Victorian Act did not apply to Fluor’s claim against ASCE. Consequently, his Honour did not express a preference for either possible rule and Australian lawyers are therefore no closer to knowing the applicable common law rule for choice of law in contribution claims.
Fluor Australia Pty Ltd v ASC Engineering Pty Ltd  VSC 262 (17 July 2007)
(Note: Both Perry Herzfeld and I were involved in this case while at Allens Arthur Robinson.)