all questions about the kinds of damage, or amount of damages that may be recovered, would likewise be treated as substantive issues governed by the lex loci delicti.” (emphasis added)
The right to proceed on a maritime lien will now need to be viewed in this country in the prism of whether it is a matter “that affect[s] the existence, extent or enforceability of the rights or duties of the parties” to the action119.
In Neilson v Overseas Projects Corporation of Victoria Ltd120, six justices of the High Court considered that the doctrine of renvoi should be applied in the case of a tort occurring in a foreign country. There, the plaintiff was injured in China in accommodation provided to her husband by his employer, an Australian company. Chinese law made specific provision for the application of its law in civil cases involving foreigners including an article (Art 146) that provided that if both parties were nationals of, or domiciled in, the same country, the law of that country or domicile “may also be applied” in claims for damages.
As a result of Zhang121, the lex loci delicti (the law of the place of the tort) was the substantive law for determining the parties’ rights and liabilities in respect of a foreign tort. Thus, Chinese law applied. The question in Neilson122 was whether the renvoi provision in Art 146 should be recognised in the Australian proceedings as authorising the use, as the lex loci deliciti, of Australian tort law and limitation provisions, or whether the renvoi in Art 146, being a private international law rule of Chinese law, was not part of the domestic law of China on which an Australian Court could act. Gummow and Hayne JJ discussed the principles in Neilson saying123:
“… the distinction between the domestic law of the foreign jurisdiction and its conflict of laws rules may not be easy to draw. To draw such a distinction invites difficulties of the same kind as have so long attended the distinction between procedural and substantive questions124. But even if those difficulties could be overcome, why should a choice of law rule which provides that the rights and obligations of the parties to a proceeding are to be resolved according to the law of a foreign jurisdiction refer to some but not all of that foreign law in deciding those rights and obligations? Why should choice of law be premised upon the results of imposing on a foreign legal system a division which that foreign system may not make? Those questions are not to be answered by choosing one theory of renvoi as the premise from which subsequent arguments proceed. Choosing a single overarching theory of renvoi as informing every question about choice of law would wrongly assume that identical considerations apply in every kind of case in which a choice of law must be made. But questions of personal status like marriage or divorce, questions of succession to immovable property, questions of delictual responsibility and questions of contractual obligation differ in important respects. Party autonomy may be given much more emphasis in questions of contract than in questions of title to land. Choice of governing law may be important in creating private obligations by contract but less important when the question is one of legal status. Choosing one theory of renvoi as applicable to all cases where a choice of law must be made would submerge these differences. No doubt that is why Kahn-Freund urged125 that in this field dogmatism must yield to pragmatism.” (emphasis added)
While their Honours were considering a case of tort, the principles that they identified may be of general application for Australian’s private international law purposes. The solution arrived at by Gleeson CJ, Gummow and Hayne JJ, Callinan J and Heydon J in separate judgments involved a pragmatic recognition in the Australian proceedings of the renvoi to Australian substantive law as the governing law for resolving the dispute by force of Art 146 under Chinese law126. This was because they found that Chinese law made special provision to deal with the very situation where two nationals of the same foreign country were litigating. As Gleeson CJ succinctly said127:
“If it be accepted that one object of a choice of law rule is to avoid difference in outcomes according to selection of forum, then the objective ought to be to have an Australian court decide the present case in the same way as it would be decided in China.”
Gummow and Hayne JJ discussed the principles and academic theories concerning renvoi in some detail128. They said that the scholars had focused more on theoretical explanations. That was in contrast to the principal, and essentially practical, concern of the Courts to decide controversies as they arise in a proceeding129. Their Honours identified three premises, namely, that, first, parties should not be able to obtain advantages by litigating in an Australian forum that were not available in the Courts of the place of the governing law130, secondly, whenever reasonably possible, certainty and simplicity are preferable to complexity and difficulty, and that the Court of the forum should assume that the governing law’s legal system is one constituted by interdependent rules131 and, thirdly, an Australian Court must determine, as an element of Australian law, the source and content of rules governing the rights and obligations of parties to a particular controversy132. Their reference in the second premise to simplicity, of course, harkens back to one of Lord Diplock’s principal justifications for the majority’s choice of the law of the forum as being determinative of all questions in relation to a maritime lien.
When the Court of the forum is called on to decide the rights of parties to a contract that is governed by another law, it must arrive at a method of resolution that an objective person in the position of the parties at the time of the contract would have understood from what they said and did, was the method that they intended be applied133. In other words, just as in any contractual dispute, the Court must use ordinary principles of construction to determine objectively the contractual intention, having regard to the matrix of facts in which the parties contracted, matters known to both parties, and the purpose and object of the transaction134. This approach to ascertaining a contractual choice of governing law was expounded by Lord Atkin in Rex v International Trustee for the Protection of Bondholders A-G135. So, if the parties make a choice of the governing law for their contract expressly or by necessary implication, the Court must discern whether that choice included or excluded all or some of the rules of private international law forming part of the governing law136.
Ordinarily, it would be surprising to commercial parties to a charterparty or a standard form contract used in international commerce that expressly provided for English law to be applied in a London arbitration, that different outcomes to their dispute were possible depending on whether English private international rules applied or not to the enforceability of their agreement to arbitrate. The evident intention in stipulating for a congruence in governing law and jurisdiction is that the resolution of any dispute would be the same whether or not any party or aspect of the dispute had a foreign element. That raises the question why, absent some clear contractual indication, would the Court of the forum be entitled to conclude that, where the parties chose a governing law but omitted a choice of jurisdiction, they intended that their dispute would be decided randomly, depending on whether the private international law rules of the forum accepted or rejected renvoi in contract? Such a result would provoke uncertainty rather than give effect to the intention of the parties that the governing law would yield the same result whether or not the law of forum was the same as that of the governing law.
Different considerations may be apposite in situations where a court determines that a governing law different from that of the forum applies to a contract that itself is silent on a choice of law: i.e. when the Court applies the test for ascertaining a governing law identified in Bonython v The Commonwealth137, namely that the governing law is that with the closest and most real connection with the transaction. In such a case, the Court of the forum, and not the parties, determines the system of law that governs the dispute.
The precise way and the relationships in which renvoi applies in Australian law has not yet been fully worked through by the courts, as is explained in Ch 15 of M Davies, AS Bell and PGG Brereton: Nygh’s Conflict of Laws in Australia138 and R Garnett: Substance Procedure in Private International Law139. This is not surprising since it was not necessary to set out a prescriptive formulation in Neilson140. Indeed, as Gummow and Hayne JJ observed, the courts focus on the practical solution necessary to decide the particular controversy141.