Contracts and illegality: Patel v Mirza

In Patel v Mirza ([2016] UKSC 42) the UK Supreme Court considered the law concerning the recovery of money paid under a contract to carry out an illegal activity where the illegal act is not performed. If the activity were not illegal, the party who has paid the money would be entitled to recover the sum paid as a claim in unjust enrichment. The question is whether the illegality should prevent the claimant from recovering the money or other property transferred to the other party to the failed contract. In the context of Hong Kong’s property law, these principles are relevant, for example, where ding rights are sold to developers and false declarations are made to the Government as part of the overall performance of the contract. Can property transferred to developers in pursuance of the illegality-tainted contract be recovered?

Until now, English law in this area has been based on the House of Lords decision in Tinsley v Milligan and Hong Kong’s courts have applied this framework. Under the Tinsley approach, the question is dealt with as a procedural matter. The plaintiff is treated as having substantive legal rights and the question of illegality is dealt with as a procedural issue. The plaintiff can succeed if he has no need to plead his own illegality. If the plaintiff has to plead his own illegality (to rebut a presumption of advancement for example) then the claim will fail. This is subject to the possibility of a locus poenitentiae; the plaintiff who has to plead his own illegality might still be able to succeed if he can show that he withdrew from the transaction before implementation. This approach to the treatment of sums paid under illegal contracts that are not performed has come in for severe criticism. The  judgments of the nine members of the UK Supreme Court in this case are a collective attempt to create a new framework for dealing with cases of this sort. While there was unanimity as to the outcome on the facts of the case, there was disagreement within the Supreme Court on some of the fundamentals of the approach to be taken in this area.

In Patel, P paid GBP620,000 to M. M was to use the money to bet on shares in RBS relying on M’s insider information concerning an anticipated UK Government announcement. The announcement was never made. P sought to recover the GBP 620,000 on the basis that M would be unjustly enriched if he were permitted to keep it once the contract had failed. The question was whether the courts would help P given the illegality of the contract which amounted to a conspiracy to commit the offence of insider dealing. The UK Supreme Court were unanimous in deciding that P was entitled to recover the money despite the illegality of the contract and despite the fact that he would need to explain the nature of the agreement in order to establish his claim.

 

Lord Toulson and the majority: enforce the contract where to do so would be appropriate as a matter of policy (the ‘range of factors’ test)

The majority of the Supreme Court expressed agreement with the ‘range of factors’ approach articulated by Lord Toulson. Under this approach, the court would carry out a balancing act when deciding on whether or not to enforce a contract where there was unlawful conduct in its formation, purpose or performance. In broad terms, the court would:

a) consider the underlying purpose of the prohibition which has been transgressed, b) consider conversely any other relevant public policies which may be rendered ineffective or less effective by denial of the claim, and c) keep in mind the possibility of overkill unless the law is applied with a due sense of proportionality.’ ([101] Lord Toulson).

Lord Toulson did not think any greater detail than that would help but suggested that relevant factors to be borne in mind when reaching a judgment would include: ‘the seriousness of the conduct, its centrality to the contract, whether it was intentional and whether there was marked disparity in the parties’ respective culpability.’ (107) The reliance approach in Tinsley should no longer be followed ([110] Lord Toulson).

 

Lord Neuberger’s Rule

Lord Neuberger takes a much simpler approach. He begins by saying that the appeal concerns, ‘a claim for the return of money paid by the claimant to the defendant pursuant to a contract to carry out an illegal activity, and the illegal activity is not in the event proceeded with owing to matters beyond the control of either party.’ ([145]). He contends for a very simple rule to the effect that the plaintiff is entitled to the money paid under such a contract (‘the Rule’) ([146]). This would apply ‘in appropriate cases’ even if the contract has been wholly or partly performed ([167]) though credit might have to be given for any benefit that the plaintiff has received ([168]). Lord Toulson’s balancing approach could be useful in deciding whether or not the case was an appropriate case for the application of the Rule ([174).

 

Do not enforce illegal contracts but order restitution of benefits conferred under contracts that fail on the grounds of illegality

The approach of the remaining judges is that the illegal contract is not enforced but is unravelled. Lord Mance disagreed with the majority’s suggestion that there needed to be a significant revision of the law in this area. His approach is that the unlawful contract could be rescinded and the parties put into the position that they would have been in had the contract never been entered into ([197]). Rescission would be available even if the contract had been partially performed, but the court would make adjustments to reflect any benefits that the plaintiff had received ([198]).

Lord Sumption spoke in favour of the illegality defence and the reliance principle as the appropriate guide as to when the defence was available (while accepting that its formulation in Tinsley was open to criticism). Where a contract fails then benefits conferred by one party on the other are recoverable ([247]). Equally, where the contract fails on the grounds of its illegality then the parties should be put into the position that they would have been had it never been entered into ([250]). The contract in this case was affected by the illegality principle ([267]) but restitution of the money that P paid to M in accordance with it should be ordered ([268]).

Michael Lower

 

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