Wednesday, October 10, 2012

The Fortescue decision: analysis and the Commercial Court seminar

I'm attending a seminar tonight held by the Commercial Court of the Supreme Court of Victoria on the Fortescue decision by the High Court of Australia: Forrest v Australian Securities and Investments Commission [2012] HCA 39. Here's a flyer for the seminar.

By way of summary Fortescue Metals Group Pty Ltd (Fortescue) signed, between 6 August 2004 and 20 October 2004, 3 4 page agreements with 3 Chinese state owned companies. It sent a letter to the ASX, together with a media release, in which Fortescue said that it had entered into a 'binding contract' with one of the companies. There were further statements made by Fortescue as and when it entered into the agreements with the other Chinese companies during that time.

The nub of ASIC's case was that the contracts weren't binding as Fortescue could not oblige the companies to abide by them, and for that reason, Fortescue engaged in misleading or deceptive conduct in relation to a financial product (being shares) in breach of s1041H Corporations Act; it breached the continuous disclosure requirements under s674 Corporations Act; and Mr Forrest had not exercised his powers or discharged his duties as a director of Fortescue with the degree of care and diligence required by s180 Corporations Act.

At first instance the matter went before Gimour J of the Federal Court of Australia who dismissed the case. The Full Court of the Federal Court allowed an appeal by ASIC, and Fortescue and Mr Forrest appealed to the High Court of Australia.

The Fortescue decision isn't particularly revolutionary as the High Court's attention is focused on what the intended audience would make of the representation that Fortescue had entered into binding contracts with Chinese state-owned companies.

The majority (French CJ, Gummow J, Hayne J and Kiefel J) identified the audience (at [36]):
36 There are at least two difficulties in the Full Court's analysis. Both stem, ultimately, from the need to identify the intended audience for the impugned statements and the message or messages conveyed to that audience. The intended audience can be sufficiently identified as investors (both present and possible future investors) and, perhaps, as some wider section of the commercial or business community. It is not necessary to identify the audience more precisely. When that audience was told that Fortescue had made binding contracts with identified Chinese state‑owned entities, what would they have understood?
The majority then went on to note that no evidence had been led by ASIC which would demonstrate that the audience would understand 'binding contracts' to mean contracts which are enforceable in a court (at [39]):
39. There was no evidence led at trial to show that investors or other members of the business or commercial community (whether in Australia or elsewhere) would have understood the references in the impugned statements to a "binding contract" as conveying not only that the parties had agreed upon what they said was a bargain intended to be binding, but also that a court (whether in Australia or elsewhere) would grant relief of some kind or another to one of the parties if, in the future, the opposite party would not carry out its part of the bargain.
The majority then went on to identify a critical problem, which was ASIC's case that the representation conveyed to the audience a larger message that the agreements were not open to challenge in an Australian Court (at [43]):
43 Once it is accepted, as it must be, that the parties genuinely intended to make a legally binding agreement, the breadth of ASIC's submission (and the Full Court's conclusion) becomes apparent. For the submission was that, although the impugned statements accurately recorded that the parties to each framework agreement had made an agreement which said that the bargain was, and was intended by the parties to be, legally binding, the impugned statements were misleading or deceptive or likely to mislead or deceive because they also conveyed to their intended audience a larger message. This was that the agreements the parties had made were not open to legal challenge in an Australian court. That broader proposition should not be accepted. The impugned statements conveyed to their intended audience what the parties to the framework agreements had done and said they had done. No further message was shown to have been conveyed to an "ordinary or reasonable" member of that audience.
The critical question about the audience was identified by the majority at [48]:

48. It is, however, necessary to bear firmly in mind that the impugned statements were made to the business and commercial community.  What would that audience make of the statement that Fortescue had made a binding contract with an entity owned and controlled by the People's Republic of China? 
This was answered by the majority at [50]:
50. Instead, the central tenet of ASIC's case was that the impugned statements conveyed a message to their intended audience (a) that, in the words of ASIC's statement of claim, it was "practicable to force" the counter‑parties to perform their part of the bargain and (b) that whether it was "practicable to force" performance was to be determined according to the same principles as would be applied to an agreement for the sale of a suburban block of land or the construction of a house in suburban Australia. ASIC established neither of those propositions. The impugned statements conveyed to their intended audience what the parties to the framework agreements said they had done — make agreements that they said were binding — and no more. ASIC did not demonstrate that members of the intended audience for the impugned statements would have taken what was said as directed in any way to what the parties to the agreements could do if the parties were later to disagree about performance. ASIC did not demonstrate that the impugned statements conveyed to that audience that such a disagreement could and would be determined by Australian law. And given that the impugned statements did accurately convey what the parties to the framework agreements had said in those agreements, it would be extreme or fanciful for the audience to understand the impugned statements as directing their attention to any question of enforcement by an Australian court if the parties later disagreed. Such an extreme or fanciful understanding should not be attributed to the ordinary or reasonable member of the audience receiving the impugned statements.
The conclusion by the majority was that the letter which Fortescue sent to the ASX accurately recorded what the agreement provided, and that that letter did not convey to its intended audience any message about whether an Australian Court would enforce that agreement. For that reason, the appeal was allowed by the majority across the board (at [58] to [60], [65] and [67]):
58. The letter which Fortescue sent to the ASX about having made the framework agreement with CREC was not misleading or deceptive and was not likely to mislead or deceive. That letter accurately recorded what the framework agreement provided. The letter did not convey to its intended audience any message about whether an Australian court would conclude that the agreement could be enforced. It conveyed to its intended audience that the framework agreement between Fortescue and CREC was what those parties had described (and a commercial audience would describe) as a "binding contract".

59.  Having regard to the way in which ASIC presented its argument in this Court, it is not necessary to consider separately the other impugned statements to which ASIC referred in its statement of claim. It is also unnecessary to give separate consideration to the "likely to mislead or deceive" limb of s 1041H. In the Full Court, Emmett J expressly based his reasons on this ground. His Honour concluded that the statements "were, at least, likely to mislead or deceive an ordinary and reasonable member of the investing public who read the [impugned statements]". But the inquiry into how an ordinary or reasonable member of the intended audience would receive a message is of its nature hypothetical. That inquiry is therefore apt to answer both whether conduct is misleading or deceptive and whether it is likely to mislead or deceive. Separate consideration of this limb of s 1041H is therefore not necessary once it is decided that an ordinary or reasonable member of the audience would not have understood the impugned statements to have conveyed anything other than what the parties did and intended, and that the statement made about those matters was neither misleading nor deceptive.

60.  ASIC did not establish that Fortescue engaged in misleading or deceptive conduct contrary to s 1041H of the Corporations Act. 
65.  For the reasons already given, the premise for ASIC's alternative argument about the application of s 674 was not established. The impugned statements did not express any relevant opinion. The impugned statements accurately conveyed to their intended audience what the agreements provided. That is reason enough to reject ASIC's alternative argument. Fortescue's statements having described accurately what the framework agreements provided, it is not to be supposed that s 674 nonetheless required Fortescue to publish the very text of those agreements. ASIC should have special leave to cross‑appeal but its cross‑appeal should be dismissed.
70.  ASIC's allegations that Mr Forrest breached the duties imposed by s 180(1) of the Corporations Act on directors and officers depended upon it demonstrating that Fortescue had contravened s 1041H or s 674. Having failed to do that, ASIC's claim of contravention of s 180(1) also fails.
Heydon J, in separate reasons, allowed the appeal, the summary of which is set out at [85]:
85. First, leaving aside issues relating to what was "contractually binding", the agreement was an agreement calculated to ensure that CREC built and financed a railway by compelling the parties to enter further negotiations about the further detailed agreements necessary to make certain that the railway was built within the framework – what cl 7 called the "intent" – of the agreement. Secondly, even if the agreement was not a "binding contract" to build the railway, it was a "binding contract" to engage in the necessary further negotiations and enter the necessary further agreements. Thirdly, so far as Fortescue had represented that there was a "binding contract" to build the railway, the statement was one of opinion, and only fell within s 1041H if ASIC established that Fortescue did not hold that opinion, or, if it did, that it had no reasonable basis for stating it. ASIC did not establish either proposition.
The more interesting aspect of the Fortescue decision was the heavy criticism of ASIC by all members of the High Court.

The majority took ASIC to task in the way it appeared to conflate a pleading on misleading or deceptive conduct with a pleading of fraud, and when this was explained by ASIC, took ASIC to task even further (at [24] and [25]):
24. ASIC sought to explain and justify the inclusion in its statement of claim of a plea that Fortescue had no genuine or reasonable basis for making the statements as a plea that anticipated Fortescue alleging that the impugned statements were expressions of opinion not fact. But it was neither necessary nor appropriate for ASIC to attempt to use its statement of claim to meet an answer that had not been made.

25. This is no pleader's quibble. It is a point that reflects fundamental requirements for the fair trial of allegations of contravention of law. It is for the party making those allegations (in this case ASIC) to identify the case which it seeks to make and to do that clearly and distinctly. The statement of claim in these matters did not do that.
Further, Heydon J at [89] agreed with D Jackson QC's submission that ASIC's pleaded characterisation of the agreement was 'absolute nonsense', describing it as 'false':

89 The above reasoning renders false the allegations in par 28(a)-(c) that the agreement "did not state that CREC would … build and finance the railway", or "construct it on a 'Build and Transfer' basis", or "complete any works". It also renders false the allegations in par 20(a) and (b) that the agreement "did not by its terms oblige CREC" either to "build or transfer a railway facility" or "to finance the construction of a railway facility". Mr D F Jackson QC submitted that leaving aside the question of contractual effect, "with respect, the contention that that is not the effect of the agreement is absolute nonsense." This submission was entirely correct in content, style and tone.
I'm interested in the insights which will come from the seminar, particularly since it is being presented by Michael Kingston, the Chief Legal Officer of ASIC and Mark Moshinsky SC, who appeared as one of the senior counsel for ASIC.

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