Ducking the Ricochet: The Supreme Court of Canada on Foreign Judgments

November 08, 2021

By Professor Stephen Pitel

The court’s decision in HMB Holdings Ltd v Antigua and Barbuda, 2021 SCC 44 (available here) is interesting for at least two reasons. First, it adds to the understanding of the meaning of “carrying on business” as a test for being present in a jurisdiction. Second, it casts doubt on the application of statutory registration schemes for foreign judgments to judgments that themselves recognize a foreign judgment (the so-called ricochet).

In this litigation HMB obtained a Privy Council judgment and then sued to enforce it in British Columbia. Antigua did not defend and so HMB obtained a default judgment. HMB then sought to register the British Columbia judgment in Ontario under Ontario’s statutory scheme for the registration of judgments (known as REJA). An important threshold issue was whether the statutory scheme applied to judgments like the British Columbia one (a recognition judgment). In part this is a matter of statutory interpretation but in part it requires thinking through the aim and objectives of the scheme.

Regrettably for academics and others, the litigants conducted the proceedings on the basis that the scheme DID apply to the British Columbia judgment. Within the scheme, Antigua relied on one of the statutory defences to registration. The defence, found in section 3(b), requires that “the judgment debtor, being a person who was neither carrying on business nor ordinarily resident within the jurisdiction of the original court, did not voluntarily appear or otherwise submit during the proceedings to the jurisdiction of that court”. Three of the elements of this defence were easily established by Antigua, leaving only the issue of whether Antigua could be said to have been carrying on business in British Columbia. If not, the decision could not be registered in Ontario.

On the facts, Antigua had very little connection to British Columbia. What it did have was “contracts with four ‘Authorized Representatives’ with businesses, premises and employees in British Columbia for the purposes of its Citizenship by Investment Program  [which] … aims to encourage investments in Antigua’s real estate, businesses and National Development Fund by granting citizenship to investors and their families in exchange for such investments” (para 7). HMB argued this was sufficient to be carrying on business in British Columbia. The courts below had disagreed, as did all five judges of the Supreme Court of Canada (paras 47-49, 52).

Confirming this result on these facts is not overly significant. What is of more interest is the court, in its decision written by Chief Justice Wagner, offering some comments on the relationship between how the meaning of carrying on business in the context of taking jurisdiction relates to the meaning of that same phrase in the context of determining whether to recognize or register a foreign judgment. Below, one judge of the Court of Appeal for Ontario had held the meanings to be quite different in those different contexts, with a much lower threshold for carrying on business in the latter (para 18). The Supreme Court of Canada rejects this view. When considering presence in a jurisdiction by means of carrying on business there, the analysis is the same whether the court is assessing taking jurisdiction on that basis or is determining whether to give effect to a foreign judgment (and so engaging with the defence in section 3(b)) (paras 35, 41). This is welcome clarification and guidance.

One smaller wrinkle remains, not germane to this dispute. At common law the phrase “carrying on business” is used for two distinct aspects of taking jurisdiction: presence, where it grounds jurisdiction (see Chevron), and assumed jurisdiction, where it gives rise to a “presumptive connecting factor” linking the dispute to the forum (see Club Resorts). If you think that distinction seems odd, you are not alone (see para 39). Anyway, does the phrase also have the same meaning in these two contexts? The court expressly leaves that issue for another day, noting only that if there is a difference, the threshold for carrying on business would be lower in the assumed jurisdiction cases than the presence cases (para 40).

Returning to the issue not pursued by the parties: the status of ricochet judgments under registration schemes. The court could have said nothing on this given the position of the parties and the conclusion under section 3(b). However, Chief Justice Wagner and three of his colleagues expressly note that this is an “open question” and leave it for the future (paras 25-26). Saying the question is open is significant because there is obiter dicta in Chevron that these judgments are caught by the schemes (para 25). Indeed, Justice Cote writes separate reasons (despite concurring on all of the section 3(b) analysis) in order to set out her view that a recognition decision is caught by the scheme, and she points specifically to Chevron as having already made that clear (para 54). Her analysis of the issue is welcome, in part because it is a reasonably detailed treatment. Yet the other judges are not persuaded and, as noted, leave the matter open.

I find powerful the argument that the drafters of these statutory schemes did not contemplate that they would cover recognition judgments, and so despite their literal wording they should be read as though they do not. This would avoid subverting the purpose of the schemes (see para 25). On this see the approach of the Court of Appeal for England and Wales in 2020 in Strategic Technologies Pte Ltd, a decision Justice Cote criticizes for being “unduly focused” on what the statutory scheme truly intended to achieve and lacking fidelity to the actual language it uses (paras 67-68). I also find Justice Cote’s distinctions (paras 60-64) between foreign recognition judgments (which she would include) and foreign statutory registrations (which she would not include) unpersuasive on issues such as comity and judicial control.

In any event, unless this issue gets resolved by amendments to the statutory schemes to clarify their scope, this issue will require a conclusive resolution.

This blog post also appears in Conflict of Laws: Views and News in Private International Law.