By Manan Mondal, An SLS, HYDERABAD law graduate
In general a jurisdiction clause dictates the forum where parties want their disputes arising under the terms of the agreement to be determined before a Competent Court with necessary jurisdiction. However, with present day drafters of finance agreements containing a limited jurisdiction clause, termed asymmetric jurisdiction clause, have created an unnecessary stir in determining the competent jurisdiction. The present analysis sheds some light towards deciphering the jurisdictional turmoil.
What is Asymmetric jurisdiction?
Herein parties decide the jurisdiction of the Court or Courts to adjudicate the dispute, allowing one party, usually the lender, to sue the other party, generally the borrower, in any Court of law but preventing the borrower from proceeding in any Court except the one with exclusive jurisdiction.
For instance, through the terms of the contractual arrangement, in an Asymmetric Jurisdiction Clause between X and Y, Y has limited authority over particular designated jurisdiction named A, while X has jurisdiction to sue in any Court under such a clause. Hence, the terms of an Asymmetric Jurisdiction can also be understood as an exclusive choice of Court or devolving a choice of jurisdiction upon a particular Court, as opposed to the essential factors followed in our domestic Civil Procedure Code, 1908.
Now, this liberty of choosing any Court to refer the dispute by the party with broader jurisdiction casts a few fundamental questions, i.e., whether such a Court will be stricto sensu ‘any Court’ or a Court of ‘Competent Jurisdiction’? And whether there exist any judicial opinion to determine the competence of a ‘Court’ in a transnational dispute?
Generally, a non-symmetric jurisdiction draws its sustenance from two primary legislation of the European Union- the Brussels Regulation (Recast) and the 2005 Hague Convention. However, following the Brexit, the Brussels regulation is no longer a valid authority post-December 2020 in the United Kingdom. Parties are constrained to find shelter under the 2005 Hague (Choice of Court Agreement), making it difficult for them to navigate through turbulent jurisdictional waters.
The Dissonance between Exclusive jurisdiction and Asymmetric jurisdiction
The Hague Convention relates to an ‘exclusive’ choice of Court arrangement under article 3(a). This exclusivity must be mutual, and a clause stipulating the parties to either sue in a limited jurisdiction or in any other Court will not be an exclusive choice of court, since it designates more than one Court as the venue for dispute resolution. However, different types of arrangements are still valid in determining the suitable jurisdiction, and the 2005 Hague Convention does not protest such domestic legislations towards determining of Court’s adjudicatory authority. Therefore, ‘Exclusive Jurisdiction’ is when the Court of one contracting party is designated to decide the dispute to the exclusion of other jurisdictions, provided the transaction is international. An asymmetrical clause makes this choice of Court a contractual agreement, with the chosen forum applying its laws and procedures, even if the proceedings are running concurrently in another jurisdiction. And the party resisting the choice of agreement needs to establish exceptional circumstances to save itself from this jurisdictional bargain.
In the English case of Commerzbank AG v Liquimar Tankers Management Inc, (‘Commerzbank AG‘) the issue before the Hon’ble High Court was whether the asymmetric jurisdiction clause is akin to the exclusive jurisdiction clause within the Brussels Regulation (Recast). As per article 31(2) of the Brussels 1 Recast, the jurisdiction agreement confers exclusive jurisdiction on the Courts of an EU member state; but this notion is true when any EU member state has been granted a limited jurisdiction, as in the instant case. Furthermore, Etihad Airways PJSC v Flother  confirmed that the agreements conferring jurisdiction on the Courts of member states through an asymmetric clause would be akin to an exclusive jurisdiction clause. Thus, dictums flowing through article 31(2) of the Brussels 1 Recast will render concurrent judicial processes in other destinations redundant, an absurdity under the 2005 Hague Convention.
Hence, according to Justice Cranston in Commerzbank AG, the asymmetric jurisdiction is akin to the exclusive jurisdiction clause, and the parties can sue only in the agreed or designated Court, deriving the ratio from Mauritius Commercial Bank Ltd v. Hestia Holdings Ltd ], where it is rightly held the party with the broader jurisdiction can sue in any Court with ‘competent jurisdiction’ the term ‘any Court’ symbolizes a Court with the necessary authority to hear the same.
Conferring Jurisdiction in Asymmetric Clauses
An asymmetric choice of court agreements, where only limited freedom to determine the courts having jurisdiction is allowed, should be respected. The jurisdiction of any alternative court depends on whether that Court has personal or subject matter jurisdiction.
In the seminal decision of Apple Sales International v eBizcuss: Cass. 1ere Civ, (‘Apple Case‘), a dispute between companies incorporated in France and Ireland, respectively, arose. They entered into an agreement containing an asymmetric clause and agreed that disputes would be decided by the Courts of the Republic of Ireland. However, the clause also allowed the Irish company to resolve disputes before the Court of counterparty’s registered office or in ‘any country’ where it suffered loss caused by the counterparty. The Irish entity then argued that the French Commercial Court did not have the necessary jurisdiction vide the asymmetric clause, and Courts in Ireland had the sole jurisdiction. Under these circumstances, following the afore-established rule of jurisdiction and competency, Ireland must have had broader jurisdiction. In contrast, the French entity had limited jurisdiction over Courts in the Republic of Ireland.
However, the French Supreme Court took a different stance on the issue of asymmetric jurisdiction in X v Banque Privée Edmond de Rothschild. It observed that the asymmetric clause would be upheld provided there is no unilateral jurisdiction clause, failing the core purpose of the clause. In the Apple Case, it was not open to the entities with the benefit clause to choose jurisdiction in any country; the flexibility of selecting jurisdiction is limited to the registered office or where any loss was caused, and the other party has suffered. The French Supreme Court made it clear that asymmetric clauses are to be avoided that allow a single party to apply to any jurisdiction of its choosing unless other possible forums with competent jurisdiction can be objectively determined and applied.
These French dictums might appear contrary to the notable English decisions in the Commerzbank AG and the Hestia Holdings case. Still, we can establish a faint connection that the flexibility of wider jurisdiction in the hands of one party is not an infinite ray of jurisdiction. It bends before the need of necessary subject matter to such unimpeded jurisdiction.
Let’s take an illustration wherein X is conferred the wider jurisdiction to unilaterally approach any Court through the asymmetric clause and Y to the limited jurisdiction A. Whether in such circumstances, it is fair for the transnational parties in an agreement to choose any Court, destination B, which is outside the knowledge of Y? And would the decision by the Courts of such country B have any bearing on the parties? It is a visible hurdle in these limited jurisdiction clauses.
In the case of Dr Jesse Mashate vs Yoweri Museveni Kaguta , theEnglish Court has tried to answer this riddle. In this case, an overseas party was subjected to the jurisdiction of the English Courts, and necessary summons was served. However, the overseas party failed to submit the necessary defence or any document intended to protect; consequently, the Court issued a default judgment under the English Civil Procedure Rules.
The Court of Appeal construed that before involving a party to the jurisdiction of the English Courts, i.e., destination B, the party A, with flexible jurisdiction, must explain why such Court has an authority over the dispute and the party be subjected to such jurisdiction. Otherwise, an overseas party must not be vexed with proceedings lacking substance, who bear no other allegiance to the English Courts’ jurisdiction must not be vexatiously subjected to service upon them of process issued out of English courts. Therefore, an applicant to serve out of the jurisdiction must explain the reason behind conferring jurisdiction and how the overseas party is subjected to the exorbitant jurisdiction of that unilaterally chosen Court.
Hence, the term ‘any Court’ and ‘competent jurisdiction’ are intertwined in financial agreements containing asymmetric clauses. The asymmetric clause is not an agreement to confer jurisdiction where none would otherwise exist; rather it limits the power of one party to approach a certain court, and expands for the another to ‘any Court’. It preserves the right to sue in any court which would reserve itself as competent by establishing a link with the subject matter; otherwise, an infinite ray of broad jurisdiction will be unnecessarily exorbitant on the parties to the agreement.