English courts will generally bow out from resolving disputes where the same issues are already under consideration by an overseas court. As a case concerning a barrister’s claim for allegedly unpaid fees against an Italian law firm showed, however, almost every rule has its exceptions.
About three months prior to the barrister launching a debt recovery claim in England, the law firm launched proceedings in Italy, seeking a declaration that it owed him nothing. There was no dispute that the two sets of proceedings mirrored each other, involving the same cause of action and the same litigants. The Italian proceedings having been lodged before the English claim, it was also common ground that the Italian court was, in legal terms, ‘first seised’ of the dispute.
In the event, the Italian court had declined jurisdiction to rule on the dispute. The law firm had, however, launched an appeal against that decision to a higher Italian court. A ruling on that appeal, which the barrister argued had been lodged too late, was awaited. It was in those circumstances that the law firm’s application to an English judge to stay the English claim on jurisdictional grounds was rejected.
Dismissing the law firm’s challenge to the latter ruling, the High Court noted that the right question to ask was not whether an appeal was outstanding in Italy but whether the Italian court first seised of the dispute had made a final determination that it would not accept jurisdiction. The judge correctly found that it had. His refusal to stay the English claim did not give rise to a risk of irreconcilable judgments emanating from the English and Italian courts.