Westdeutsche Landesbank Girozentrale v Islington London Borough Council: HL 22 May 1996

Simple interest only on rate swap damages

The bank had paid money to the local authority under a contract which turned out to be ultra vires and void. The question was whether, in addition to ordering the repayment of the money to the bank on unjust enrichment principles, the court could also award compound interest. It was clear law that the court had power to do so in the case of a breach of trust.
Held: Simple interest only was payable on a debt payable for an interest rate swap agreement which had been avoided as ultra vires the council’s powers. The failure of the swap agreement did not place the authority under any fiduciary duty to the claimants. A finding to that effect would create equitable interests with uncertain consequences for others. Accordingly simple interest only was payable. Parliament had made its intentions clear and it was not for the courts to create new situations in which compound interest would be awarded. ‘Although it is difficult to find clear authority for the proposition, when property has been obtained by fraud equity imposes a constructive trust on the fraudulent recipient: the property is recoverable and traceable in equity.’ An innocent recipient of property wrongfully obtained does not become a constructive trustee of it until receipt of knowledge of the claim in equity of the true owner.
HL Lord Goff said: ‘Claims in restitution are founded upon a principle of justice, being designed to prevent the unjust enrichment of the defendant: see Lipkin Gorman v Karpnale Ltd. [1991] 2 A.C. 548. Long ago, in Moses v Macferlan (1760) 2 Burr. 1005, 1012, Lord Mansfield C.J. said that the gist of the action for money had and received is that ‘the defendant, upon the circumstances of the case, is obliged by the ties of natural justice and equity to refund the money’. It would be strange indeed if the courts lacked jurisdiction in such a case to ensure that justice could be fully achieved by means of an award of compound interest, where it is appropriate to make such an award, despite the fact that the jurisdiction to award such interest is itself said to rest upon the demands of justice. I am glad not to be forced to hold that English law is so inadequate as to be incapable of achieving such a result. In my opinion the jurisdiction should now be made available, as justice requires, in cases of restitution, to ensure that full justice can be done. The seed is there, but the growth has hitherto been confined within a small area. That growth should now be permitted to spread naturally elsewhere within this newly recognised branch of the law. No genetic engineering is required, only that the warm sun of judicial creativity should exercise its benign influence rather than remain hidden behind the dark clouds of legal history.’
Lord Browne-Wilkinson said (obiter): ‘The argument for a resulting trust was said to be supported by the case of a thief who steals a bag of coins. At law those coins remain traceable only so long as they are kept separate: as soon as they are mixed with other coins or paid into a mixed bank account they cease to be traceable at law. Can it really be the case, it is asked, that in such circumstances the thief cannot be required to disgorge the property which, in equity, represents the stolen coins? Moneys can only be traced in equity if there has been at some stage a breach of fiduciary duty, i.e. if either before the theft there was an equitable proprietary interest (e.g. the coins were stolen trust moneys) or such interest arises under a resulting trust at the time of the theft or the mixing of the moneys. Therefore, it is said, a resulting trust must arise either at the time of the theft or when the moneys are subsequently mixed. Unless this is the law, there will be no right to recover the assets representing the stolen moneys once the moneys have become mixed.
I agree that the stolen moneys are traceable in equity. But the proprietary interest which equity is enforcing in such circumstances arises under a constructive, not a resulting, trust. Although it is difficult to find clear authority for the proposition, when property is obtained by fraud equity imposes a constructive trust on the fraudulent recipient: the property is recoverable and traceable in equity. Thus, an infant who has obtained property by fraud is bound in equity to restore it: Stocks v. Wilson [1913] 2 K.B. 235, 244; R. Leslie Ltd. v. Sheill [1914] 3 K.B. 607. Moneys stolen from a bank account can be traced in equity: Bankers Trust Co. v. Shapira [1980] 1 W.L.R. 1274, 1282C-E: see also McCormick v. Grogan (1869) L.R. 4 H.L. 82, 97′.
Lord Browne-Wilkinson explained the differences between institutional and remedial constructive trusts: ‘Under an institutional constructive trust, the trust arises by operation of law as from the date of the circumstances which give rise to it: the function of the court is merely to declare that such trust has arisen in the past. The consequences that flow from such trust having arisen (including the possibly unfair consequences to third parties who in the interim have received the trust property) are also determined by rules of law, not under a discretion. A remedial constructive trust, as I understand it, is different. It is a judicial remedy giving rise to an enforceable equitable obligation: the extent to which it operates retrospectively to the prejudice of third parties lies in the discretion of the court.’

Lord Browne-Wilkinson, Lord Goff, Lord Woolf
Times 30-May-1996, [1996] 2 All ER 961, [1996] 2 AC 669, [1996] UKHL 12, [1996] 2 WLR 802, [1996] 5 Bank LR 341
England and Wales
Appeal fromWestdeutsche Landesbank Girozentrale v Islington London Borough Council CA 30-Dec-1993
A bank paid money to a local authority under an interest rate swap agreement, which was held later to be outside the local authority’s powers.
Held: The local authority was to repay the money paid to it for an ultra vires purpose (a swap . .
CitedBurdick v Garrick HL 1870
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AppliedHazell v Hammersmith and Fulham London Borough Council HL 1991
Swap deals outwith Council powers
The authority entered into interest rate swap deals to protect itself against adverse money market movements. They began to lose substantial amounts when interest rates rose, and the district auditor sought a declaration that the contracts were . .

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Lists of cited by and citing cases may be incomplete.

Banking, Local Government, Equity

Leading Case

Updated: 01 November 2021; Ref: scu.90405