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High court grants Russian Orthodox Church permission to seize Google South Africa’s assets



South African courts can enforce foreign civil judgments — even from Russia, which has been sanctioned by the West for its war on Ukraine — if a court in this country grants permission.

ARussian Orthodox Church television company has successfully attached Google South Africa’s assets after pursuing legal action against the tech firm in this country.

No assets will be physically seized or removed though: the attachment is judicial, meaning the court order – used in debt collection – essentially freezes a debtor’s specific assets to ensure there are funds available to pay a potential judgment if the creditor wins the case.

In this case, the assets of Google LLC have already been attached by the sheriff at Google’s South African premises in Bryanston.

The Orthodox Television Fund, known as No Fond Pravoslavnogo Televideniya, which operates the Russian media company Spas, obtained a civil judgment in Moscow against Google LLC — the American multinational’s Russian subsidiary — in March last year, for losses stemming from the shutdown of its YouTube channel.

Google stopped selling online advertising in Russia in March 2022 after Russia invaded Ukraine, but kept some free services available. It also shut down the church’s YouTube channel.

On 14 March 2023, the Moscow Arbitrazh Court ruled in favour of the foundation’s YouTube channel, ordering Google LLC not only to reinstate it but also to pay a monetary penalty because the firm refused to comply with the ruling.

The court imposed an astreinte (meaning “on call duty”, a monetary penalty) for failure to reinstate the channel, for each day that Google LLC refuses to comply with the order.

On 22 June, the Ninth Arbitrazh Court of Appeal dismissed Google LLC’s appeal against the judgment in Russia.

The following month, on 20 July 2023, Google LLC was declared bankrupt by a Moscow court, reported Reuters, after a year-long battle with Russian authorities, who seized the firm’s bank account in April 2022, making it impossible for it to pay its employees and suppliers.

No Fond Pravoslavnogo Televideniya approached the South African court to launch an ex parte application in December 2023 in pursuit of an order for edictal citation — a legal procedure used in South Africa when the defendant in a lawsuit is outside the country, and their exact whereabouts are unknown. The procedure allows the plaintiff to initiate legal proceedings despite being unable to serve the summons in person.

The Gauteng Division of the High Court in Johannesburg found for the church and served the ruling electronically on Google LLC in California on 6 June 2024.

The penalty, viewed as “compensation” by the church, amounts to about 100,000 roubles per day, doubling every week, which translates to about R4-million every nine months, Hugo Johnston of Pagel Schulenburg Attorneys — the firm representing the church’s Russian law firm Art De Lex – told Moneyweb.

Art De Lex is facilitating similar application processes in 10 other jurisdictions across the world.

Google informed Daily Maverick that it was still studying the judgment and would respond once this was done.

Independent legal tech expert Lucien Pierce, a director at PPM Attorneys, explained that South African courts could enforce foreign civil judgments — including those issued in Russia. An example would be when a person (the plaintiff) was awarded damages against a defendant in another country.

If the defendant does not have any assets in the country where the award was made, but has assets in another country, the defendant can then try to execute — or sell the assets — in the other country to satisfy its damages award. Typically, they would need a court order in that other country to do this.

Those wanting to enforce a foreign judgment in South Africa can do it in two ways: either through the South African Enforcement of Foreign Civil Judgments Act or through the common law, which essentially means launching legal proceedings to persuade a South African court to enforce the foreign judgment.

South African courts avoid hearing matters where they are unable to enforce judgments, if, for example, they lack jurisdiction over the defendant.

“To convince a court that it has power (found jurisdiction), plaintiffs have been known to attach aeroplanes, ships, and, in my case, even the master and sole copy of an international television advert that had been filmed in South Africa,” Pierce said.

Source: DM

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