North or South of the Border? Where should your claim be issued?

A recent English Court of Appeal decision indicates that an English court can strike out a claim brought before it if it is more closely connected to Scotland than England, even if neither party has raised the issue.

8 January 2016

In a recent English Court of Appeal decision it has been held that for cases with no international element, the court may strike out a claim if it considers there to be a more appropriate forum within the UK in which the matter could be heard.  

The appeal concerned two cases issued in the County Court of Northampton, and later transferred to Carlisle. The cases both concerned personal injury claims in which the relevant injury had been suffered in Scotland. In one, Cook v Virgin Media Limited, liability had been admitted but the defendant had indicated their intention to challenge jurisdiction; in the other, McNeil v Tesco PLC, the defendant intended to defend the proceedings.  

The doctrine of forum non conveniens (the court's power to dismiss a civil action where a more appropriate or convenient forum exists) was held to apply. The Judge struck out both claims on the basis that Scotland was the natural and most appropriate forum for the dispute to be heard, noting in particular that a hearing in Scotland would be of greater convenience to witnesses.  

The claimants appealed the decision, arguing that under the Brussels Regulation (which determines in which EU Member State a claim should be brought) persons domiciled in a Member State must be sued in the courts of that Member State. The 'domicile' of a company is its registered office or principal place of business. It was argued that as the defendants in both claims were companies whose registered offices were in England, claims against them should be brought in the Courts of England and Wales. The appeal was dismissed on the grounds that for the Brussels Regulation jurisdiction rules to apply, there must be an international element to the case – the Regulation does not affect purely domestic matters, and the UK is one Member State. However, whilst the UK may be one Member State for European law purposes, it encompasses three legal systems – those of England and Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. The forum non conveniens principles can be applied if a case is not brought in the most appropriate forum within the UK.

This is a useful clarification of an issue on which there is limited authority. The case shows the importance of properly considering all the facts and circumstances of a case before deciding where to bring a claim. It is important to note that the court can strike out a claim of its own volition, taking into account factors such as availability of witnesses and expenses likely to be incurred, even where the issue of forum has not been raised by one of the parties.

In these circumstances, a case being struck out on the basis of forum non conveniens is not fatal to the claim as it may then be brought in the more appropriate UK jurisdiction. However, significant time and cost may be saved by ensuring from the outset that the claim is brought in the most appropriate forum.