Sir Geoffrey Vos, the Master of the Rolls, wants English law to be at the forefront of developments relating to cryptoassets and smart contracts. In his thought-provoking foreword to the government-backed UK Jurisdictional Taskforce’s (UKJT) Legal Statement on Cryptoassets and Smart Contracts, he explained that English law should aim to provide “much needed market confidence, legal certainty and predictability in areas that are of great importance to the technological and legal communities and to the global financial services industry” as well as to “demonstrate the ability of the common law in general, and English law in particular, to respond consistently and flexibly to new commercial mechanisms.” He returned to the same theme in a speech on 24 February 2022 at the launch of the Smarter Contracts report by the UKJT in which he said “[m]y hope is that English law will prove to be the law of choice for borderless blockchain technology as its take up grows exponentially in the months and years to come”.
The law defines whether and how an owner can find and recover a stolen asset, whether a contract about an asset can be enforced and whether rights are owed between parties in relation to an asset. English law has traditionally been very flexible in fashioning remedies to uphold contracts and to allow parties to preserve and follow (trace) assets – by interim protective relief in the form of injunctions, disclosure orders against third parties (Banker’s Trust orders), by recognising trusts over assets and by the English Courts accepting jurisdiction over claims in the first place. If English law allows owners of cryptoassets to access these remedies, it should provide the “market confidence, legal certainty and predictability” described by Sir Geoffrey Vos. In this article, we explore the extent to which recent developments in English law have furthered these objectives and address in turn:
- Are cryptoassets property?
- Can cryptoassets be held on trust?
In the second part of this series, we will review recent developments concerning jurisdictional issues relating to digital assets and in the third part we will preview key legal and policy developments which are in the pipeline.