Choosing Your Battleground - Cross Border Litigation in the UK and the EU

Cross-border trade is an essential part of business in today’s world and wherever there is business, there is scope for dispute.  When a dispute arises with a party in another jurisdiction, it is essential to know where Court proceedings should be pursued. 

The harmonisation of legislation within the EU has made cross border litigation and debt recovery more straightforward.  The Brussels Convention which now forms part of UK law within the Civil Jurisdiction & Judgments Act 1982 regulates proceedings between member states, this Act also sets out a modified version of the Jurisdiction Rules of the Brussels Convention to regulate proceedings between the different legal jurisdictions within the UK. 

General Principle

Under the Brussels Convention the general principal is that a person domiciled, or normally resident, in a member state shall be sued in the Courts of that state.  Following this principal, proceedings by a plaintiff based in Northern Ireland against a debtor based in (for example) the Republic of Ireland would usually be issued in the Republic.  There are exceptions to the general principal.  For example:

  • A plaintiff who is a “consumer”, defined as a party acting in relation to matters outside their profession as a plaintiff, has the choice of issuing proceedings either in the state in which the defendant is domiciled, or in the state in which he is domiciled (ie in this case Northern Ireland).  This provision offers protection to individuals of limited means who cannot be expected to take on the burden of instituting proceedings in a foreign jurisdiction.
  • In matters relating to contract, proceedings can be issued in the Courts for the place of performance of the obligations in question.  The German vendor of a motor vehicle, for example, could be sued in Northern Ireland for breach of contract if that is where the vehicle was due to be delivered.  The place of performance can of course be contentious and each case will turn on its own facts.
  • In matters relating to damages for tort, proceedings should be commenced in the Courts for the place where the harmful event occurred.  For example, if a tourist from Northern Ireland is involved in a road traffic accident in Spain in which a Spanish individual is injured the Spanish Plaintiff can issue proceedings in the Spanish Courts.
  • The parties to a contract may also agree by a jurisdiction clause in the contract which jurisdiction shall determine any dispute.  Such clauses are often passed over without much thought as standard provisions, but in the event of dispute can be vital.

The Civil Jurisdiction & Judgments Act applies similar principles to proceedings between Northern Ireland, Scotland, England and Wales within the UK.  

Practical Considerations

In considering in which jurisdiction to issue proceedings, it may be that a plaintiff has a choice of jurisdictions.  For example, a defendant might be pursued in England as the jurisdiction in which contractual obligations were to be performed or in Northern Ireland as the jurisdiction in which they are domiciled.  In such case, a plaintiff may wish to consider their own convenience, the likely costs in each jurisdiction, and the  likely damages which might be recovered.

Has the Correct Jurisdiction been Chosen?

If the wrong jurisdiction is chosen, the proceedings can be challenged on this basis and potentially struck out.  Whilst fresh proceedings can then normally be brought in the correct jurisdiction, there may be a costs order against the plaintiff.  A recipient of proceedings which emanate from outside of Northern Ireland would be well advised to seek advice on whether such proceedings were issued in the correct jurisdiction.  If not, the proceedings can be challenged on this basis and the plaintiff forced to bring proceedings in Northern Ireland.


Under European Regulations, a judgment obtained in one EU state can be enforced in another state.  This may be necessary if the defendant has assets in a state other than that in which the judgment is obtained.  The judgment is registered with the Court in the country in which enforcement is to take place and enforcement is then pursued in line with that country’s procedures.

If you would like advice in relation to any of the issues covered in this article please contact Patrick Keown or Philip Gordon in our Belfast office.

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