National Westminster Bank plc v Spectrum Plus Limited and others: HL 30 Jun 2005

Former HL decision in Siebe Gorman overruled

The company had become insolvent. The bank had a debenture and claimed that its charge over the book debts had become a fixed charge. The preferential creditors said that the charge was a floating charge and that they took priority.
Held: The appeal was allowed. The debenture, although expressed to grant the bank a fixed charge over Spectrum’s book debts, in law granted only a floating charge. The Siebe Gorman case was incorrect and could not stand. A seven man House considered whether it was appropriate to overrule an established case, upon which so many commercial decisions and arrangements were founded. It was, but it was not proper to overrule the case only prospectively.
Lord Nicholls of Birkenhead said: ‘The essence of the principled argument against prospective overruling is that in this country prospective overruling is outside the constitutional limits of the judicial function. It would amount to the judicial usurpation of the legislative function. Power to make rulings having only prospective effect, it is said, is not inherent in the judicial role. A ruling having only prospective effect cannot be characterised as merely a less extensive form of overruling than overruling with both retrospective and prospective effect. Prospective overruling robs a ruling of its essential authenticity as a judicial act. Courts exist to decide the legal consequences of past events. A court decision which takes the form of a ‘pure’ prospective overruling does not decide the dispute between the parties according to what the court declares is the present state of the law. ‘ However ‘If, altogether exceptionally, the House as the country’s supreme court were to follow this course I would not regard it as trespassing outside the functions properly to be discharged by the judiciary under this country’s constitution. Rigidity in the operation of a legal system is a sign of weakness, not strength. It deprives a legal system of necessary elasticity. Far from achieving a constitutionally exemplary result, it can produce a legal system unable to function effectively in changing times. ‘Never say never’ is a wise judicial precept, in the interest of all citizens of the country.’
He discussed the possibility of judge made law: ‘Judges have a legitimate law-making function. It is a function they have long exercised. In common law countries much of the basic law is still the common law. The common law is judge-made law. For centuries, judges have been charged with the responsibility of keeping this law abreast of current social conditions and expectations.’

Lord Nicholls of Birkenhead, Lord Steyn, Lord Hope of Craighead, Lord Scott of Foscote, Lord Walker of Gestingthorpe, Baroness Hale of Richmond, Lord Brown of Eaton-under-Heywood
[2005] 3 WLR 58, [2005] 2 AC 680, [2005] 4 All ER 209, [2005] All ER (D) 368, [2005] 2 Lloyds Rep 275, [2005] 2 BCLC 269, [2005] BCC 694, [2005] UKHL 41, Times 31-Jul-2005
Bailii, House of Lords
England and Wales
CitedGreat Northern Railway Co v Sunburst Oil and Refining Co 1932
(US Supreme Court) The Constitution neither prohibits nor requires prospective overruling. The Federal Court, Cardoza J said, ‘has no voice upon the subject.’ . .
CitedWest Midland Baptist (Trust) Association (Inc) v Birmingham Corporation HL 1970
The mere fact that an enactment shows that Parliament must have thought that the law was one thing, does not preclude the courts from deciding that the law was in fact something different. The position would be different if the provisions of the . .
CitedDonoghue (or M’Alister) v Stevenson HL 26-May-1932
Decomposed Snail in Ginger Beer Bottle – Liability
The appellant drank from a bottle of ginger beer manufactured by the defendant. She suffered injury when she found a half decomposed snail in the liquid. The glass was opaque and the snail could not be seen. The drink had been bought for her by a . .
CitedBanco Popolare di Cremona v Agenzia Entrate Uffficio Cremona ECJ 17-Mar-2005
A ruling of the European Court of Justice might be subject to a temporal limitation that the ruling should not take effect until a future date, namely, when the State had had a reasonable opportunity to introduce new legislation. . .
Appeal fromNational Westminster Bank Plc v Spectrum Plus Ltd; In re Spectrum Plus CA 26-May-2004
The court was asked whether a charge given over book debts in a debenture was floating or fixed.
Held: Since the charge asserted some control over receipt of the payments, it was a fixed charge. Upon payment into the account, title to the . .
CitedLaunchbury v Morgans HL 9-May-1972
The owner of a car appealed against a ruling that she was responsible for injury suffered by the three respondents who had been passengers in the car when it crashed. The owner had not been with them. The care was driven by her husband with her . .
OverruledSiebe Gorman and Co Ltd v Barclays Bank Ltd ChD 1979
It was possible to create a fixed charge over present and future book debts and on its true construction, the debenture granted to Barclays Bank Ltd in this case had done so. If the chargor of book debts, having collected the book debts, ‘[had] had . .
CitedRegina v National Insurance Commissioner, Ex parte Hudson HL 1972
The House considered whether it would have power to make a ruling with prospective effect only. Lord Diplock said the matter deserved further consideration; Lord Simon said that the possibility of prospective overruling should be seriously . .
CitedMiliangos v George Frank (Textiles) Ltd HL 1975
The issue was whether an English court was able to award damages in Sterling only.
Held: The House distinguished clearly between the substance of the debtor’s obligations and the effect of English procedural law when a debt in a foreign . .
CitedLinkletter v Walker 1965
(US Supreme Court) In both criminal and civil cases ‘the accepted rule today is that in appropriate cases the Court may in the interests of justice make the rule prospective.’ . .
CitedGolak Nath v State of Punjab 1967
(Supreme Court of India) The court considered whether it had jurisdiction to make a rulinging which was prospective only.
Held: The court reversed two earlier decisions of its own in circumstances where meanwhile constitutional amendments had . .
CitedChevron Oil Co v Huson 1971
(US Supreme Court) The Supreme Court summarised three factors to be taken into account when considering whether a ruling should be applied non-retroactively: whether the decision established a new principle of law, whether retrospective operation . .
CitedDefrenne v Sabena (No 2) ECJ 8-Apr-1976
ECJ The principle that men and women should receive equal pay, which is laid down by article 119, is one of the foundations of the community. It may be relied on before the national courts. These courts have a . .
CitedMarckx v Belgium ECHR 13-Jun-1979
Recognition of illegitimate children
The complaint related to the manner in which parents were required to adopt their own illegitimate child in order to increase his rights. Under Belgian law, no legal bond between an unmarried mother and her child results from the mere fact of birth. . .
CitedIndia Cement Ltd v State of Tamil Nadu 1990
(Supreme Court of India) The court found that it had jurisdiction to make rulings of retrospective effect only. Non-retroactive effect may be given to a ruling which decides an issue for the first time. . .
CitedRe Edward and Edward 1987
(Saskatchewan Court of Appeal) The court rejected the idea of making rulings of prospective effect only. Prospective overruling would be a ‘dramatic deviation from the norm in both Canada and England’. Bayda CJS said ‘the most cogent reason for . .
CitedMurphy v Attorney General 1982
(Supreme Court of Ireland) The Supreme Court held that certain taxation provisions were unconstitutional and void. The court rejected an argument that it was for the courts to say whether these statutory provisions should be held to be invalid . .
CitedArthur JS Hall and Co (A Firm) v Simons; Barratt v Woolf Seddon (A Firm); Harris v Schofield Roberts and Hill (A Firm) HL 20-Jul-2000
Clients sued their solicitors for negligence. The solicitors responded by claiming that, when acting as advocates, they had the same immunities granted to barristers.
Held: The immunity from suit for negligence enjoyed by advocates acting in . .
CitedReference re Language Rights under the Manitoba Act 1870 1985
(Supreme Court of Canada) The court declined to give retroactive effect to its decision on the constitutional invalidity of all statutes and regulations of the Province of Manitoba not printed and published in both English and French. A declaration . .
CitedRegina v Governor HM Prison Brockhill, ex parte Michelle Carol Evans (No 2) CA 19-Jun-1998
The plaintiff was serving a sentence of imprisonment. Her detention was correctly calculated in accordance with the law as understood. That method was later disapproved when the Divisional Court laid down (everyone has assumed correctly) a different . .
CitedRegina v Governor of Her Majesty’s Prison Brockhill ex parte Evans (No 2) HL 27-Jul-2000
The release date for a prisoner was calculated correctly according to guidance issued by the Home Office, but case law required the guidance to be altered, and the prisoner had been detained too long. The tort of false imprisonment is one of strict . .
CitedRegina (Bidar) v Ealing London Borough Council and Another ECJ 15-Mar-2005
Europa (Grand Chamber of the Court of Justice of the European Union) Citizenship of the Union – Articles 12 EC and 18 EC – Assistance for students in the form of subsidised loans – Provision limiting the grant of . .
CitedGoodwin v The United Kingdom ECHR 11-Jul-2002
The claimant was a post operative male to female trans-sexual. She claimed that her human rights were infringed when she was still treated as a man for National Insurance contributions purposes, where she continued to make payments after the age at . .
CitedKleinwort Benson Ltd v Lincoln City Council etc HL 29-Jul-1998
Right of Recovery of Money Paid under Mistake
Kleinwort Benson had made payments to a local authority under swap agreements which were thought to be legally enforceable when made. Subsequently, a decision of the House of Lords, (Hazell v. Hammersmith and Fulham) established that such swap . .
CitedWilson v Secretary of State for Trade and Industry; Wilson v First County Trust Ltd (No 2) HL 10-Jul-2003
The respondent appealed against a finding that the provision which made a loan agreement completely invalid for lack of compliance with the 1974 Act was itself invalid under the Human Rights Act since it deprived the respondent of its property . .
CitedFitzpatrick v Sterling Housing Association Ltd HL 28-Oct-1999
Same Sex Paartner to Inherit as Family Member
The claimant had lived with the original tenant in a stable and long standing homosexual relationship at the deceased’s flat. After the tenant’s death he sought a statutory tenancy as a spouse of the deceased. The Act had been extended to include as . .
CitedHa and Another v State of New South Wales and Others 17-Feb-1997
(High Court of Australia) The court unanimously considered that ‘it would be a perversion of judicial power to maintain in force that which is acknowledged not to be the law’. This would especially be so where ‘non-compliance with a properly . .
CitedTailby v Official Receiver HL 1888
A creditor can create, for good consideration an equitable charge over book debts which will attach to them as soon as they come into existence.
Lord Macnaghten said: ‘It was admitted by the learned counsel for the respondent, that a trader . .
CitedCarse v Coppen IHCS 8-Dec-1950
The court considered the inability to create a floating charge over a company’s assets in Scots law. It was conceded that a company registered in Scotland could not create a valid and effectual floating charge over its assets in Scotland, but it was . .
CitedIn Re Keenan Bros Ltd 1986
(Supreme Court of the Republic of Ireland) A debenture conferred a fixed charge on book debts. It specifically provided that withdrawals from the account to which the proceeds of the book debts had to be credited might only be made with the prior . .
CitedAgnew and Kevin James Bearsley v The Commissioner of Inland Revenue, and Official Assignee for the Estate In Bankruptcy of Bruce William Birtwhistle and Mark Leslie Birtwhistle PC 5-Jun-2001
(New Zealand) A charge had been given by a company over its book debts. The charge was expressed to create a fixed charge over debts uncollected when a receiver was appointed, so that on collection they became payable to the bank. Until the receiver . .
CitedWestminster Bank Ltd v Hilton HL 1926
As against the money of the customer’s in the banker’s hands the relationship between banker and customer is that of principal and agent.
Lord Atkinson said: ‘It is well established that the normal relation between a banker and his customer . .
CitedPractice Statement (Judicial Precedent) HL 1966
The House gave guidance how it would treat an invitation to depart from a previous decision of the House. Such a course was possible, but the direction was not an ‘open sesame’ for a differently constituted committee to prefer their views to those . .
CitedRegina v Bow Street Metropolitan Stipendiary Magistrate, ex parte Pinochet Ugarte (No 2) HL 15-Jan-1999
A petition was brought to request that a judgment of the House be set aside because the wife of one their lordships, Lord Hoffmann, was as an unpaid director of a subsidiary of Amnesty International which had in turn been involved in a campaign . .
CitedRondel v Worsley HL 1967
Need for Advocate’s Immunity from Negligence
The appellant had obtained the services of the respondent barrister to defend him on a dock brief, and alleged that the respondent had been negligent in the conduct of his defence.
Held: The House considered the immunity from suit of . .
CitedMalik v Bank of Credit and Commerce International (BCCI); Mahmud v Bank of Credit and Commerce International HL 12-Jun-1997
Allowance of Stigma Damages
The employees claimed damages, saying that the way in which their employer had behaved during their employment had led to continuing losses, ‘stigma damages’ after the termination.
Held: It is an implied term of any contract of employment that . .
CitedSharp v Thomson HL 1997
A floating charge was given over the whole of a company’s property which might from time to time be ‘comprised in our property and undertaking’. The charge terms echoed the section which allows a company to create a charge ‘over all or any part of . .
CitedHalesowen Presswork and Assemblies Ltd v Westminster Bank Ltd CA 1971
The relationship of banker and customer was a single relationship the situation was not one of lien. Buckley LJ said: ‘Nor is it a set-off situation, which postulates mutual but independent obligations between the two parties. It is an accounting . .
CitedHindcastle Ltd v Barbara Attenborough Associates Ltd and Others HL 22-Feb-1996
The guarantor of an original tenant under the lease remains liable after the disclaimer the lease on insolvency. The disclaimer operates to determine the lease altogether with the result that the landlord’s reversion is accelerated. ‘In order to . .
CitedLipkin Gorman v Karpnale Ltd CA 1989
A partner in a firm of solicitors stole money from them, and spent it gambling with the defendants. The firm sued also their banker, who had been held to be aware of the defaulting partner’s weaknesses and activities.
Held: The solicitors . .
CitedIn Re New Bullas Trading Ltd CA 12-Jan-1994
A company debenture, which purported to create a fixed charge on book debts, and a second floating charge over the proceeds when paid, was valid and effective to create a fixed charge. The chargee was not a bank, and therefore no facility could be . .
CitedIn re A Company (No 005009 of 1987); Ex parte Copp 1989
Knox J declined to look at evidence about an agreed overdraft limit, regarding it as a ‘collateral arrangement’. He said: ‘this is a type of transaction in respect of which judicial precedent is a particularly valuable guide to the commercial . .
CitedSalomon v A Salomon and Company Ltd HL 16-Nov-1896
A Company and its Directors are not same paersons
Mr Salomon had incorporated his long standing personal business of shoe manufacture into a limited company. He held nearly all the shares, and had received debentures on the transfer into the company of his former business. The business failed, and . .
CitedIn re Panama New Zealand and Australian Royal Mail Co 1870
The company had charged its ‘undertaking and all sums of money arising therefrom’.
Held: ‘undertaking’ meant ‘all the property of the company, not only which existed at the date of the debenture, but which might afterwards become the property . .
CitedIn re Colonial Trusts Corporation CA 13-Dec-1880
A company formed for the purchase and management of land, and which was empowered by articles to borrow money for the purposes of the company provided that the amount borrowed should not at any time exceed the amount of the unpaid subscribed . .
CitedEvans v Rival Granite Quarries Ltd CA 1910
The court discussed the nature of a floating charge, Buckley LJ describing it as: ‘A floating security is not a future security; it is a present security, which presently affects all the assets of the company expressed to be included in it. On the . .
CitedIn re Yorkshire Woolcombers Association Ltd CA 2-Jan-1903
Nature of Company’s Debenture Charge
The court considered the nature of a debenture charge. Romer LJ said: ‘I certainly do not intend to attempt to give an exact definition of the term ‘floating charge’, nor am I prepared to say that there will not be a floating charge within the . .
CitedIllingworth v Houldsworth HL 1904
A clause in a floating charge allowing a company to continue to trade in the assets charged: ‘contemplates not only that it should carry with it the book debts which were then existing, but it contemplates also the possibility of those book debts . .
CitedIn Re Portbase Clothing Ltd; Mould v Taylor 1993
The company had given two debentures, one fixed and one floating. Their priority was fixed by a deed of priority. On insolvency the liquidator sought direction as to the application of the assets.
Held: The deed made the bank’s floating charge . .
CitedRe: A Company (No. 005009 of 1987), ex parte Copp ChD 1988
MC Bacon Ltd had borrowed money from a bank. The loan was unsecured. The company got into financial difficulty. The bank commissioned a report on the company’s financial affairs; and insisted on the grant of a debenture to secure the company’s . .
CitedWilliam Gaskell Ltd v Highley 1994
. .
ApprovedSupercool Refrigeration and Air Conditioning v Hoverd Industries Ltd 1994
(New Zealand) The court noted a greater reluctance in Australia and Ireland than in England to accept the creation of a fixed charge over present and future book debts.
Tompkins J said:’ a requirement to pay the proceeds of the book debts . .
CitedIn re Florence Land and Public Works Co 1878
The court considered a floating charge: ‘The question we have to decide must be decided, like all other questions of the kind, having regard to the surrounding circumstances under which the instrument was executed, and especially the respective . .
CitedRe Holidair Ltd 1994
(Supreme Court of Ireland) The court considered whether a debenture created a floating charge over its book debts: ‘I am satisfied, accordingly, that the correct construction of the clause is that the trustee had a discretion to determine into what . .
CitedWelsh Development Agency v Export Finance Co Ltd CA 1992
The court was asked whether a transaction relating to goods between an exporter and the defendant, as a financier, associated with sales by the exporter to third-party purchasers, amounted to a true sale by the exporter to the defendant or was . .
At First InstanceNational Westminster Bank Plc v Spectrum Plus Ltd and others ChD 15-Jan-2004
The company granted a debenture to the claimant purporting to secure its book debts. The company went into liquidation. The liquidator challenged the bank’s charge.
Held: Siebe was wrongly decided. The charge was ineffective over the book . .

Cited by:
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A share in a marina had been inherited by one brother whose application to grant successive sub-lcences of it to the other two was rejected by the marina, who said that this was not permitted. The marina appealed a finding that it had to make its . .
CitedAXA General Insurance Ltd and Others v Lord Advocate and Others SC 12-Oct-2011
Standing to Claim under A1P1 ECHR
The appellants had written employers’ liability insurance policies. They appealed against rejection of their challenge to the 2009 Act which provided that asymptomatic pleural plaques, pleural thickening and asbestosis should constitute actionable . .
CitedWillers v Joyce and Another (Re: Gubay (Deceased) No 2) SC 20-Jul-2016
The Court was asked whether and in what circumstances a lower court may follow a decision of the Privy Council which has reached a different conclusion from that of the House of Lords (or the Supreme Court or Court of Appeal) on an earlier occasion. . .
CitedBorwick Development Solutions Ltd v Clear Water Fisheries Ltd CA 1-May-2020
Only Limited Ownership of pond fish
BDS owned land with closed fishing ponds. They sold the land to the respondents, but then claimed that the fish, of substantial value, were not included in the contract. The court as asked whether the captive fish were animals ferae naturae or . .
CitedBlack, Regina (on The Application of) v Secretary of State for Justice SC 19-Dec-2017
The Court was asked whether the Crown is bound by the prohibition of smoking in most enclosed public places and workplaces, contained in Chapter 1 of Part 1 of the Health Act 2006.
Held: However reluctantly, the claimant’s appeal was . .

Lists of cited by and citing cases may be incomplete.

Banking, Insolvency, Constitutional

Leading Case

Updated: 13 December 2021; Ref: scu.228273