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Session 2000-01
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Judgments - Three Rivers District Council v. Governor and Company of The Bank of England


Lord Steyn Lord Hope of Craighead Lord Hutton Lord Hobhouse of Wood-borough Lord Millett








ON 22 MARCH 2001

[2001] UKHL 16


My Lords,

    1. For the reasons given by my noble and learned friends, Lord Hope of Craighead and Lord Hutton, I would also allow the appeal. While it is unnecessary for me to cover the same ground, I must state in outline the principal factors that proved decisive in my approach to the case.

    2. It is right at the outset to emphasise that in substance one is dealing with a striking out application. The Bank of England submitted that the claims are plainly and obviously unsustainable. In aid of this submission the Bank deployed a written case of no less than 737 pages, amplified by many pages of written aids and lengthy oral argument. It was hardly a simple and obvious case for a striking out. At the end of the argument my views were that the Bank had not succeeded in establishing that it would be right and fair to strike out the claims. Having studied with care the judgments below, as well as the draft speeches on the appeal to the House, I am reinforced in my first view by a combination of the dissenting judgment of Auld LJ in the Court of Appeal, and by the majority speeches of Lord Hope of Craighead and Lord Hutton.

    3. It is necessary to test the question whether the action should be struck out against the new draft particulars of claim drafted and served after the first hearing: [2000] 2 WLR 1220, 1236E.

    4. The case fell into two distinct parts. The first question was whether the plaintiffs have pleaded a reasonable cause of action. In essence this was a demurrer point. With due deference to contrary views I have to say that I was unimpressed by the Bank's technical arguments under this heading. The new draft particulars of claim plead the case in misfeasance in public office in clear terms and in sufficient detail to enable the Bank to prepare a defence. The Bank does not need any further particulars. I would reject the Bank's arguments under this heading.

    5. The second question was whether the action is an abuse of the court's process in that it has no realistic prospect of success. This is the more difficult and controversial aspect of the appeal. The Court of Appeal was divided on the issue. The dissenting judgment of Auld LJ is an impressive one. The judgments of Clarke J at first instance and of the majority (Hirst and Walker LJJ) in the Court of Appeal are detailed and careful. Unfortunately, however, the use made by the judge and by the majority in the Court of Appeal of the Bingham Report of October 1992 was not permissible. The report is self-evidently an outstanding one produced by an eminent judge. But in law the judge and the majority erred in relying on positive conclusions and findings, and absence of conclusions and findings, of Bingham LJ. Not only was such use of the report ruled out by settled principles of law but on broader grounds it was also unfair to the claimants. After all, the report was the outcome of a private inquiry, the claimants were not represented before Bingham LJ and the case against the Bank was not put by counsel. And the Appendices to the report, which recount the history in greater detail, were not published and have never been seen by those representing the claimants.

    6. In these circumstances it is necessary for the House to consider the matter entirely afresh. Since I share the views of Lord Hope of Craighead and Lord Hutton I do not propose to revisit the battleground. But I must emphasise that it is indisputably the case that the Bank knew from April 1990 onwards that BCCI was in imminent danger of collapse with inevitable loss to depositors unless there was a real prospect of an effective rescue package. The Bank has failed to persuade me that the claimants have no realistic prospect of establishing that the Bank knew that there would be no effective and comprehensive rescue or was reckless as to whether there would be one. Moreover, I do not share the confidence of the judge and the majority in the Court of Appeal that discovery and cross examination will not produce significant materials assisting the claimants. It is a case that should be examined and tested with the procedural advantages of a fair and public trial.

    7. My conclusion is therefore strongly influenced by the events from April 1990. On the other hand, I also take the view that the earlier part of the history cannot be excised. The interests of justice require that the entire action should be permitted to go to trial. This conclusion involves no judgment about the likely outcome of the case but merely a finding that the threshold requirement for striking out has not been satisfied.

    8. I would, therefore, allow the appeal, dismiss the cross appeal and give leave to the claimants to amend their pleading in terms of the new draft particulars of claim. Like Lord Hope of Craighead I regard the supplementary directions sought by the claimants as entirely reasonable, but on balance I would also leave it to the Commercial Judge to give appropriate directions. I apprehend that he will wish to proceed to trial with due despatch and a minimum of technical interlocutory hearings. And in proceeding to trial it is axiomatic that the trial judge will have to approach this case in a neutral fashion and without preconceptions. He will have to ignore expressions of opinion on the facts in any of the speeches.

    9. At the request of the bank the issue of costs is reserved. Written submission on costs are invited within 21 days.


My Lords,

    10. At the previous hearing of this appeal your Lordships were concerned only with two questions of law. The first related to the ingredients of the tort of misfeasance in public office on which the plaintiffs' first ground of action depends. The second was whether the Bank was capable of being liable to the plaintiffs in damages for violation of the requirements of the First Council Banking Co-ordination Directive of 12 December 1977 (77/780/EEC). For the reasons given in your Lordships' judgment of 18 May 2000 [2000] 2 WLR 1220 the second question was answered in the negative. It is not necessary to give any further consideration to the Community law issues. They no longer form any part of the plaintiffs' case against the Bank. At the further hearing of the appeal with which this judgment deals your Lordships' task has been to consider whether the facts alleged or capable of being alleged by the plaintiffs meet the test for the tort of misfeasance in public office which were identified by your Lordships in answer to the first question. The question, in short, is whether the order of the Court of Appeal upholding the order of Clarke J that the action should be struck out should be upheld on the ground that the plaintiffs have no reasonable prospect of succeeding on the claim at trial.

    11. Your Lordships have been assisted by the oral arguments which were advanced at the further hearing by Lord Neill QC for the plaintiffs and by Mr Stadlen QC for the Bank and by the very substantial amount of written material which has been provided by each side. The issues which have had to be resolved are far from easy. Some indication of their complexity can be gathered from the fact that the written cases for the plaintiffs (including their reply) and for the Bank (including a detailed response on the facts but excluding two appendices) run to 385 and 737 pages respectively. There are two bundles of contemporaneous documents extending to 661 pages and a supplementary bundle of documents which extends to about 300 pages. The amount of material that must be read and understood to see whether the claim should be struck out is formidable. It will be necessary for me before I address the competing arguments to set out some of the facts by way of background.

    12. There are a number of preliminary points. (1) At a procedural hearing which was held on 27 June 2000 nine issues were identified for determination at the further hearing of the appeal. But it became clear in the course of the argument that there was a considerable amount of overlap between one issue and another and that it was more likely to be helpful for them to be looked at cumulatively rather than separately. So I do not propose to examine those issues one by one in this judgment. (2) In his judgment after the first hearing of this appeal my noble and learned friend Lord Steyn said that at the further hearing there should be available a new draft pleading by the plaintiffs reflecting the position which was recorded in your Lordships' judgments: [2000] 2 WLR 1220, 1236E. At the procedural hearing on 27 June 2000 the plaintiffs were required to serve their new draft pleading on the Bank by 17 July 2000, and they duly did so on that date. That new draft pleading is contained in a document entitled "New draft particulars of claim". For reasons which I shall explain later in more detail (see section (4)) it is to that document, which I shall call "the new draft particulars", that I shall for the most part direct my attention when I am discussing the question whether the facts pleaded meet the requirements of the tort. (3) These proceedings were issued before 29 April 1999 under the Rules of the Supreme Court ("RSC"), which were still in force when the case was in the Court of Appeal. On 29 April 1999 the Civil Procedure Rules ("CPR") came into force. This case is therefore subject to the transitional arrangements set out in the Practice Direction - Transitional Arrangements made under CPR rule 51.1. In accordance with the general principles which are set out in that Practice Direction the case is to proceed in the first instance under the previous rules, but any new step taken on or after 26 April 1999 is to be taken under the CPR: 51PD-003, 011.

    13. The parties are agreed that the service of the new draft particulars on the Bank was a new step, and that it follows that the question whether the claim on the ground of misfeasance in public office should be struck out must now be determined under the CPR. As the CPR require that the word "claimant" be used rather than the word "plaintiff", I propose to adopt the same terminology from now on throughout this judgment. Rule 3.2 provides, so far as relevant to this case, that the court may strike out a statement of case if it appears to the court (a) that it discloses no reasonable cause of action or (b) that it is an abuse of the court's process. There is no exact dividing line between these two grounds: Civil Procedure 2000, 3.4.2. Mr Stadlen did not attempt to maintain an exact separation between them and in the end, as I shall explain below (in section (5)), he invited your Lordships to give summary judgment against the claimants under CPR, rule 24.2.

    14. I propose to deal with the various matters that require to be considered at this stage in this order: (1) introductory narrative, to include (a) outline chronology, (b) the Bingham report and (c) history of the proceedings to date; (2) the requirements of the tort; (3) whether the facts pleaded by the claimants are capable of meeting those requirements; (4) the decision of the courts below to strike out; (5) the test for summary judgment under CPR rule 24.2; (6) whether, applying that test, the claim should be summarily struck out; (7) the Bank's cross-appeal; and (8) conclusion and further procedure.

    15. I should also make it clear at the outset that, although I shall be using the expression "the Bank" throughout this judgment, the claimants' position as explained in their written case is that those who were principally responsible for the regulation and supervision of BCCI SA were the officials of the Banking Supervision Division formed by the Bank in March 1980 for the purpose of implementing the Banking Act 1979 whose names are given in Schedule 1 to the particulars to the new draft particulars.

(1) Introductory Narrative

(a) Outline Chronology

    16. The history of the rise and fall of the Bank of Credit and Commerce International SA ("BCCI SA") can conveniently be divided up for the purposes of this action into four periods: (1) the period prior to the grant of a full licence under the Banking Act 1979 on 19 June 1980; (2) the period from the grant of the full licence to December 1986; (3) the period from December 1986 to April 1990; and (4) the period from April 1990 to closure in July 1991. This history was set out in great detail by Clarke J in his third judgment of 31 July 1997 (unreported), in which the history was divided up into the same four periods, and it was reviewed again in Part III of the judgment of the majority in the Court of Appeal of 4 December 1998 [2000] 2 WLR 15 (Part III of which is also unreported). I do not propose to set out that history all over again. No significance is to be attached to the fact that I have mentioned some events in the course of this narrative and omitted others. What follows is not intended to be a complete or definitive account of what happened. But for the purposes of this judgment it is necessary to provide an outline of the chronology and to identify some of the more important details in that history.

    17. BCCI SA was incorporated under the laws of Luxembourg on 21 September 1972. In November it established its first office in the United Kingdom and commenced its business in this country as a deposit-taker. Two years later the structure of BCCI was altered by the incorporation on 13 December 1974 of BCCI Holdings SA ("Holdings") in Luxembourg of which BCCI SA became a subsidiary. On 25 November 1975 another subsidiary of Holdings called BCCI Overseas ("Overseas") was incorporated in the Cayman Islands. Overseas opened its first branch in the United Kingdom in June 1976. At this stage a substantial part of the issued share capital of Holdings was owned by the Bank of America. Although the group was trading through various branches in the United Kingdom it was not subject to any regulatory system in this country. But Holdings was subject to regulation in Luxembourg by the Luxembourg Banking Commission ("LBC") which at that time was that country's regulatory authority. At the end of 1977 the Bank of America decided to withdraw from its relationship with BCCI. It sold its holding of shares in Holdings to International Credit and Investment Co Ltd ("ICIC") which at that time was BCCI's largest shareholder.

    18. Prior to the enactment of the Banking Act 1979 banking in the United Kingdom was not subject to any formalised system of regulation. Control was exercised in an informal way by the Bank of England and in an indirect manner by means of various statutory provisions which gave privileges to banks which were recognised by the Board of Trade and by the Bank. Following the publication of a White Paper in 1976 and the First Council Banking Co-ordination Directive (77/780/EEC) steps were taken to establish a new statutory system of banking supervision in the United Kingdom. This was contained in the Banking Act 1979, which came into force on 1 October 1979. It provided for the recognition of banks under section 3(1) if they satisfied the criteria in Schedule 2, Part I, and for the licensing of deposit-taking institutions under section 3(2) if they satisfied the less stringent criteria in Schedule 2, Part II. Section 3(5) of the Act provided that, in the case of an institution whose principal place of business was in a country or territory outside the United Kingdom, the Bank might regard itself as satisfied that the criteria in Schedule 2 regarding those responsible for the management of the business and the prudence with which its business was being conducted were fulfilled if the relevant supervisory authorities informed the Bank that they were satisfied with respect to them and the Bank was satisfied as to the nature and scope of the supervision exercised by those authorities.

    19. On 1 October 1979 BCCI SA applied to the Bank for recognition as a bank under the Act. On 19 June 1980 the Bank refused recognition as a bank but granted to BCCI SA a full licence under the Act as a deposit-taker. By that date its principal place of business was in the United Kingdom. Nevertheless the Bank decided to rely under section 3(5) of the 1979 Act on the supervision of its activities by LBC. The claimants' case is that when the Bank granted the licence (a) it did so knowingly deliberately contrary to the statutory scheme or (b) it was recklessly indifferent to whether it was acting in accordance with the scheme or (c) it wilfully disregarded the risk that it was not acting in accordance with that scheme (i) in bad faith and (ii)(a) in the knowledge that the likely consequences were losses to depositors and potential depositors or (b) that it wilfully disregarded the risk of the consequences or (c) that it was recklessly indifferent to those consequences: see paragraph 31 of the new draft particulars.

    20. During the period from June 1980 to December 1986 the activities of the BCCI group expanded dramatically not only in the United Kingdom but throughout the world. Officials of the Bank pointed out that it was unsatisfactory for it as the supervising authority of BCCI SA in the United Kingdom to rely, as it had been doing under section 3(5) of the 1979 Act, on the views of LBC as to the activities of the holding company in Luxembourg. They recognised that, as the activities of BCCI continued to expand, pressure was likely to grow for its recognition as a bank under that Act. Various possible solutions were considered including, on the one hand, a proposal for the Bank to supervise the whole institution and, on the other, the incorporation of Holdings in the United Kingdom to improve the effectiveness of the Bank's supervision of the group's activities in this country. In September 1984 the effectiveness of the existing statutory regime was called into question by the collapse of Johnson Matthey Bankers. In the light of that debacle a further White Paper was produced and the enactment of a new statute, which was to become the Banking Act 1987, was proposed. The system introduced by the 1979 Act was to be both strengthened and simplified. In place of the dual system of recognition and licensing a single system of authorisation was to be introduced with restrictions on the use of banking names. The Bank was to be required to establish a committee to be known as the Board of Banking Supervision which was to include six independent members as well as three members ex officio. Various other changes were to be made to the powers and duties of the Bank as regulatory authority.

    21. Meantime the Bank continued to rely on the views of the Luxembourg regulatory authority. In May 1983 the responsibilities of regulatory authority in that country had passed from the LBC to L'Institute Monetaire Luxembourgeois ("IML"). Further memoranda passed between officials of the Bank drawing attention yet again to the fact that the real place of business of the BCCI SA was in London and that effectively the Bank and not IML was its prime supervisor. Concern was expressed about heavy losses resulting from BCCI SA's central treasury activities which had been identified by BCCI SA's auditors but not been reported to the Bank and BCCI's lack of candour about its decision to relocate its central treasury operation from London to Abu Dhabi.

    22. The claimants' case regarding this period, which follows the same pattern as that set out in paragraph 31 of the new draft particulars which relates to the first period, is that the Bank was continuing to rely on assurances from LBC and IML and, that despite its knowledge of the illegality of this arrangement and the likelihood of losses to depositors, it failed in bad faith to take steps to revoke BCCI SA's licence under section 7 of the 1979 Act.

    23. The next period was marked by a number of changes in the supervisory regime and further expressions of concern about the activities of BCCI. The 1987 Act came into force on 1 October 1987. Section 3(5) of the 1979 Act was replaced by an equivalent provision in section 9(3) of the 1987 Act. BCCI SA was deemed to be authorised under the 1987 Act by section 107 of that Act and Schedule 5, paragraph 2. An international co-operative group, known as "the College", was established to enable the various national supervisors of the operations of the BCCI Group to meet twice-yearly to discuss its financial condition. Concern was expressed at meetings of the College about a large concentration of exposures due to the group's lending and the effect on the group's activities of the arrest of seven of its officials in Tampa, Florida in October 1988 on charges of drug-trafficking, money-laundering and conspiracy. Further consideration was given to proposals for the restructuring of the group's activities with a view to achieving effective consolidated supervision in London by the Bank. On 30 January 1990 the Bank decided to continue BCCI SA's authorisation following a decision of the Tampa prosecutor to enter into a plea-bargain agreement, approved by the court, by which SA and Overseas pleaded guilty to all counts of money-laundering and conspiracy. Concerns were expressed to the Bank by the group's auditors, Price Waterhouse ("PW"), about the probity of BCCI's senior management.

    24. The claimants' case regarding this period contains three specific allegations about decisions by the Bank not to withdraw the authorisation from BCCI SA. These are said to have been taken (1) after the Bank had learned in May 1986 that BCCI, which had been dealing on a massive scale in the financial and commodity markets through its central treasury in London, had incurred losses amounting to some $285 million: new draft particulars, Schedule 5, paragraphs 26 and 27; (2) after a paper prepared by the Bank for the Board of Banking Supervision in November 1989 had revealed serious defects in the group's structure and the existing supervisory regime and the extent to which BCCI's activities in the UK were dependent upon what happened elsewhere in the group which was largely unsupervised: new draft particulars, Schedule 6, paragraph 19; and (3) after the officials of BCCI had pleaded guilty in Tampa, Florida in January 1990 to charges of money-laundering and conspiracy: new draft particulars, Schedule 6, paragraph 24.

    25. The final period from April 1990 to closure in July 1991 began with expressions of concern to the Bank by PW about the group's serious financial problems and reports about efforts which were being made to obtain financial support from the majority shareholders. On 18 April 1990 PW reported to the board of Holdings that they were unable to sign the 1989 accounts. Later that month they felt able to do so in the light of expressions of support for the group by the Abu Dhabi Government. In early June 1990 IML, recognising that they were no longer in a position effectively to supervise their activities, gave notice to Holdings and to BCCI SA that they must leave Luxembourg within the next 12 to 15 months. These matters were discussed at a meeting of the College on 19 June 1990 when IML repeated its ultimatum and the Cayman supervisor said that, if SA had to leave Luxembourg, Overseas would have to leave Cayman. Further consideration was given to the need for a clear group structure, consolidated supervision of its activities, relocation of the group to Abu Dhabi and the need for a clear and substantial commitment by the Abu Dhabi Government of its support for it.

    26. In October 1990 PW reported to Holdings' audit committee that an urgent investigation was needed to quantify the group's liabilities and its need for financial support. On 5 October 1990 a letter was produced to the College on behalf of the majority shareholders undertaking to provide support to the level indicated by PW. But IML refused to extend its deadline unless certain conditions were met and the supervisors did not regard the shareholders' proposals for support as acceptable. By December 1990 a revised support package had been put together which PW regarded as acceptable, but later that month PW became aware of the extent to which BCCI's financial problems were due to fraudulent activities on the part of management. On 4 March 1991 the Bank commissioned PW to investigate and report to it under section 41 of the Banking Act 1987 on malpractice within BCCI. PW delivered their report to the Bank on 24 June 1991. It contained a comprehensive account of widespread frauds and deceptions which had been perpetrated by BCCI. Four days later the Bank decided that the proposed reconstruction of the group could not be pursued and that to protect depositors BCCI SA had to be closed down. On 5 July 1991 the Bank presented a petition for the appointment of a provisional liquidator.

    27. The claimants' case regarding this period, as explained by Lord Neill QC in oral argument, is based on general allegations that the Bank failed in bad faith to face up to its responsibilities as a supervisor to take decisions that would protect the interests of depositors and potential depositors when it was aware that there was a serious and immediate threat that unless it was rescued by the Abu Dhabi Government BCCI would collapse.

(b) The Bingham Report

    28. The closure of BCCI on 5 July 1991 provoked widespread concern in the financial community on the ground that this action was long overdue, yet the action that was taken was criticised by depositors, employees and shareholders as precipitate. In a prompt response to that concern Bingham LJ was invited to conduct an inquiry into the supervision of BCCI under the Banking Acts, to consider whether the action taken by all the UK authorities was timely and to make recommendations. The establishment of the inquiry was announced on 19 July 1991. Bingham LJ submitted his report to the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Governor of the Bank in July 1992. Among the questions which he understood to call for consideration by his terms of reference were the following: What did the UK authorities know about BCCI at the relevant times? Should they have known more? And should they have acted differently?

    29. The report (Inquiry into the Supervision of the Bank of Credit and Commerce International (HC Paper (1992-93) No 198) contains a masterly and eminently readable account of the entire sequence of events from the establishment of BCCI in the UK in 1972 to its closure in July 1991. Bingham LJ took evidence both orally and in writing from a large number of witnesses and he had access to many documents. In his covering letter he paid tribute to the very high level of co-operation which he had received from, among others, the Bank and the UK firm of Price Waterhouse, who acted from June 1987 to July 1991 as the group's auditors. He said that in deciding what was said and done during BCCI's nineteen year history he had relied heavily on contemporary notes and minutes of meetings and conversations between the Bank and Price Waterhouse. His report contains numerous findings of fact and expression of opinion relevant to the questions which he understood to have been comprised within his terms of reference. The report was published in October 1992, but eight appendices to the report were not published.