Commissioners of Customs and Excise v Barclays Bank Plc

JurisdictionUK Non-devolved
CourtHouse of Lords
Judgment Date21 June 2006
Neutral Citation[2006] UKHL 28
Date21 June 2006

[2006] UKHL 28


Appellate Committee

Lord Bingham of Cornhill

Lord Hoffmann

Lord Rodger of Earlsferry

Lord Walker of Gestingthorpe

Lord Mance

Her Majesty's Commissioners of Customs and Excise
Barclays Bank plc


Michael Brindle QC

Richard Handyside

(Instructed by Lovells)


Philip Sales

Daniel Stilitz

(Instructed by Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs Solicitors Office)


My Lords,


The important question raised by this appeal is whether a bank, notified by a third party of a freezing injunction granted to the third party against one of the bank's customers, affecting an account held by the customer with the bank, owes a duty to the third party to take reasonable care to comply with the terms of the injunction. The question arises in these proceedings brought by the Commissioners of Customs and Excise against Barclays Bank, and has been resolved as a preliminary issue on facts assumed to be true but not proved. Colman J at first instance resolved the issue in favour of the Bank: [2004] EWHC 122 (Comm) [2004] 1 WLR 2027. The Court of Appeal (Peter Gibson and Longmore LJJ and Lindsay J) reversed his decision and ruled in favour of the Commissioners: [2004] EWCA Civ 1555, [2005] 1 WLR 2082. The Bank challenges that ruling.


In January 2001 Brightstar Systems Limited and Doveblue Limited held current accounts with the Bank. Both accounts were substantially in credit, but both companies owed the Commissioners large sums of unpaid VAT. The Commissioners believed that both companies would dissipate their assets in order to defeat judgments which the Commissioners were likely to obtain. They accordingly applied for freezing injunctions against each of the companies, which were granted on 26 and 30 January 2001 respectively. The value of the assets restrained was £1,800,000 in the first case and £3,928,130 in the second. In each order a numbered account held by the company at the Bank was specified, and in the second order the branch also. The first order was served on the Bank by fax at about 12.33 p.m. on 29 January, the second (also by fax) at about 11.38 a.m. on 30 January 2001. At about 2.30 p.m. on 29 January 2001 the Bank authorised payments totalling £1,240,570 to be made out of the Brightstar account, and at about 2.0 p.m. on 30 January it permitted payments totalling £1,064,289 out of the Doveblue account. In due course the Commissioners entered judgment against Brightstar for £2,285,788.98 and against Doveblue for £3,944,095.85. Neither company paid any part of the judgment, although the Commissioners obtained and enforced garnishee orders absolute against residual sums remaining in the accounts of the companies. In these proceedings the Commissioners claim damages against the Bank in the sums paid out in breach of the respective injunctions plus interest for the appropriate periods. It is alleged (and for present purposes assumed) that the Bank was negligent to permit the payments to be made.


On being notified of each injunction the Bank sent to the Commissioners a standard letter confirming that the Bank would abide by the terms of the order and notifying the Commissioners of their duty to reimburse the Bank for its costs incurred in complying with the order. Neither letter reached the Commissioners before the respective payments were made, and neither influenced the conduct of the Commissioners in any way. Had the letters reached the Commissioners before release of the funds, the judge would have attached significance to them (paras 76-81 of his judgment). But in my respectful opinion they were of no significance. The Bank was bound to comply with the order of the court irrespective of any confirmation on its part. The letters did not affect the factual or the legal position. Their purpose was to pave the way to reimbursement of the costs of compliance incurred by the Bank.

The test of tortious liability in negligence for pure financial loss


The parties were agreed that the authorities disclose three tests which have been used in deciding whether a defendant sued as causing pure economic loss to a claimant owed him a duty of care in tort. The first is whether the defendant assumed responsibility for what he said and did vis-à-vis the claimant, or is to be treated by the law as having done so. The second is commonly known as the threefold test: whether loss to the claimant was a reasonably foreseeable consequence of what the defendant did or failed to do; whether the relationship between the parties was one of sufficient proximity; and whether in all the circumstances it is fair, just and reasonable to impose a duty of care on the defendant towards the claimant (what Kirby J in Perre v Apand Pty Ltd [1999] HCA 36, (1999) 198 CLR 180, para 259, succinctly labelled "policy"). Third is the incremental test, based on the observation of Brennan J in Sutherland Shire Council v Heyman (1985) 157 CLR 424, 481, approved by Lord Bridge of Harwich in Caparo Industries Plc v Dickman [1990] 2 AC 605, 618, that

"It is preferable, in my view, that the law should develop novel categories of negligence incrementally and by analogy with established categories, rather than by a massive extension of a prima facie duty of care restrained only by indefinable 'considerations which ought to negative, or to reduce or limit the scope of the duty or the class of person to whom it is owed'."

Mr Brindle QC for the Bank contended that the assumption of responsibility test was most appropriately applied to this case, and that if applied it showed that the Bank owed no duty of care to the Commissioners on the present facts. But if it was appropriate to apply either of the other tests the same result was achieved. Mr Sales for the Commissioners submitted that the threefold test was appropriate here, and that if applied it showed that a duty of care was owed. But if it was appropriate to apply either of the other tests they showed the same thing. In support of their competing submissions counsel made detailed reference to the leading authorities including Hedley Byrne & Co Ltd v Heller & Partners Ltd [1964] AC 465; Ministry of Housing and Local Government v Sharp [1970] 2 QB 223; Smith v Eric S Bush [1990] 1 AC 831; Caparo Industries Plc v Dickman [1990] 2 AC 605; Henderson v Merrett Syndicates Ltd [1995] 2 AC 145; White v Jones [1995] 2 AC 207; Spring v Guardian Assurance Plc [1995] 2 AC 296; Williams v Natural Life Health Foods Ltd [1998] 1 WLR 830; and Phelps v Hillingdon London Borough Council [2001] 2 AC 619. These authorities yield many valuable insights, but they contain statements which cannot readily be reconciled. I intend no discourtesy to counsel in declining to embark on yet another exegesis of these well-known texts. I content myself at this stage with five general observations. First, there are cases in which one party can accurately be said to have assumed responsibility for what is said or done to another, the paradigm situation being a relationship having all the indicia of contract save consideration. Hedley Byrne would, but for the express disclaimer, have been such a case. White v Jones and Henderson v Merrett, although the relationship was more remote, can be seen as analogous. Thus, like Colman J (whose methodology was commended by Paul Mitchell and Charles Mitchell, "Negligence Liability for Pure Economic Loss (2005) 121 LQR 194, 199), I think it is correct to regard an assumption of responsibility as a sufficient but not a necessary condition of liability, a first test which, if answered positively, may obviate the need for further enquiry. If answered negatively, further consideration is called for.


Secondly, however, it is clear that the assumption of responsibility test is to be applied objectively ( Henderson v Merrett, p 181) and is not answered by consideration of what the defendant thought or intended. Thus Lord Griffiths said in Smith v Bush, p 862, that

"The phrase 'assumption of responsibility' can only have any real meaning if it is understood as referring to the circumstances in which the law will deem the maker of the statement to have assumed responsibility to the person who acts upon the advice."

Lord Oliver of Aylmerton, in Caparo v Dickman, p 637, thought "voluntary assumption of responsibility"

"a convenient phrase but it is clear that it was not intended to be a test for the existence of the duty for, on analysis, it means no more than that the act of the defendant in making the statement or tendering the advice was voluntary and that the law attributes to it an assumption of responsibility if the statement or advice is inaccurate and is acted upon. It tells us nothing about the circumstances from which such attribution arises."

In similar vein, Lord Slynn of Hadley in Phelps v Hillingdon, p 654, observed:

"It is sometimes said that there has to be an assumption of responsibility by the person concerned. That phrase can be misleading in that it can suggest that the professional person must knowingly and deliberately accept responsibility. It is, however, clear that the test is an objective one: Henderson v Merrett Syndicates Ltd [1995] 2 AC 145, 181. The phrase means simply that the law recognises that there is a duty of care. It is not so much that responsibility is assumed as that it is recognised or imposed by law."

The problem here is, as I see it, that the further this test is removed from the actions and intentions of the actual defendant, and the more notional the assumption of responsibility becomes, the less difference there is between this test and the threefold test.


Thirdly, the threefold test itself provides no straightforward answer to the vexed question whether or not, in a novel situation, a party...

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