Quoine Pte Ltd v B2C2 Ltd

JudgeSundaresh Menon CJ
Judgment Date24 February 2020
Neutral Citation[2020] SGCA(I) 2
Citation[2020] SGCA(I) 2
Date24 February 2020
Published date05 March 2020
Hearing Date14 October 2019
Plaintiff CounselStanley Lai SC, Ong Min-Tse Paul, Lim Jun Rui Ivan and Marrissa Miralini Karuna (Allen & Gledhill LLP)
Docket NumberCivil Appeal No 81 of 2019
Defendant CounselOng Tun Wei Danny, Ng Hui Ping Sheila, Zhuang Wenxiong and Teo Jason (Rajah & Tann Singapore LLP),Professor Goh Yihan (Singapore Management University) as amicus curiae.
CourtCourt of Appeal (Singapore)
Subject MatterBreach,Mistake of fact,Contract,Contractual terms,Restitution,Express trusts,Implied terms,Unjust enrichment,Breach of trust,Express terms,Trusts,Mistake,Certainties
Sundaresh Menon CJ (delivering the judgment of the majority): Introduction

The world of cryptocurrency trading is not for the faint-hearted. It can involve computer-generated, high frequency transactions in digital quasi-currencies (otherwise known and referred to in this judgment as “cryptocurrencies”) which manifest on computer screens or printouts but are not otherwise in a physical form. The transactions which have led to this appeal were conducted by way of algorithms created by the appellant, Quoine Pte Ltd (“Quoine”), and by the respondent, B2C2 Ltd (“B2C2”). Quoine operated a cryptocurrency exchange platform known as QUOINExchange (“the Platform”), and B2C2 traded on the Platform at the material time. Both Quoine and B2C2 were also market-makers on the Platform, which meant that they created liquidity on the Platform by actively placing orders to buy and sell cryptocurrencies, and in so doing, helped to minimise volatility in the market on the Platform. As is typical of algorithmic trading, the buy and sell contracts on the Platform were concluded without any direct human involvement, save that involved in the creation of the algorithmic processes leading to their formation. Algorithmic trading has been described as follows (see Alain Chaboud et al, “Rise of the Machines: Algorithmic Trading in the Foreign Exchange Market”, International Finance Discussion Papers, 29 September 2009 at p 1):

In algorithmic trading … [traders’] computers directly interface with trading platforms, placing orders without immediate human intervention. The computers observe market data and possibly other information at very high frequency, and, based on a built-in algorithm, send back trading instructions, often within milliseconds.

Sometimes things can go wrong, as they did in the present case.

It transpired that Quoine’s failure to make certain necessary changes to several critical operating systems on the Platform set off a chain of events that eventually led to the transactions which are at the heart of this appeal. On 19 April 2017, a total of 13 trades (“the Disputed Trades”) were concluded between B2C2 and two other users of the Platform, namely Pulsar Trading Capital and Mr Yu Tomita (“Pulsar” and “Mr Tomita” respectively, and “the Counterparties” collectively), where B2C2 sold one type of cryptocurrency, Ethereum (“ETH”), for another type, Bitcoin (“BTC”), at a rate of either 9.99999 BTC or 10 BTC for 1 ETH. The rates at which the Disputed Trades were concluded were approximately 250 times the then going rate in the market of around 0.04 BTC for 1 ETH. The Disputed Trades were automatically settled by the Platform, and 3092.517116 BTC was debited from the Counterparties’ accounts and credited into B2C2’s account, while 309.2518 ETH was debited from B2C2’s account and credited into the Counterparties’ accounts. As the Counterparties’ accounts did not have a sufficient BTC balance to meet the amount that was debited, this resulted in a negative BTC balance in the Counterparties’ accounts. When Quoine became aware of the Disputed Trades the next day, it considered the rates at which the trades were concluded to be highly abnormal and unilaterally proceeded to cancel the trades. The debit and credit transactions involving B2C2’s account and the Counterparties’ accounts were also reversed.

B2C2 subsequently commenced proceedings against Quoine on the basis that its unilateral cancellation of the Disputed Trades and reversal of the settlement transactions were in breach of contract and/or breach of trust. The International Judge who heard the matter (“the Judge”) rejected all of Quoine’s defences and allowed B2C2’s claims for both breach of contract and breach of trust. The Judge did not address the issue of damages given that the trial was bifurcated (see B2C2 Ltd v Quoine Pte Ltd [2019] 4 SLR 17 (“Judgment”) at [134]).

A central plank of Quoine’s defence both at trial and on appeal was the contention that the contracts underlying the Disputed Trades (“the Trading Contracts”) were void or voidable for unilateral mistake. This requires us to consider how the doctrine of unilateral mistake should operate where the contracts in question were entered into by way of the parties’ respective algorithms, as transpired here.

So far as the asserted breach of trust is concerned, this raises the complex question of whether the relevant cryptocurrency, BTC, may even be regarded as a species of property capable of attracting trust obligations.

Both these questions were the subject of extensive analysis by Prof Goh Yihan (“Prof Goh”), whom we appointed as amicus curiae. We are deeply grateful to Prof Goh for the extensive research he conducted and the excellent assistance he afforded us on both issues. However, the latter question was not explored in detail in the court below, where the parties appeared to have proceeded on the common ground that BTC was a species of property that was capable of being the subject of a trust. Despite Prof Goh’s able assistance, for reasons which we develop later, we think that the question as to whether BTC can be the subject of a trust should not be dealt with here but should be kept open for another day, in a case in which this issue is properly before the court.

In our judgment, for the reasons that follow, the Judge was correct to find that there were no terms in the various contractual documents, whether express or implied, which entitled Quoine unilaterally to cancel the Disputed Trades. We also agree with the Judge that there was no operative mistake on the part of the Counterparties that could be relied upon to vitiate the Trading Contracts. Additionally, given that the BTC was credited into B2C2’s account pursuant to valid contracts, B2C2 could not be said to have been unjustly enriched. We therefore dismiss Quoine’s appeal with respect to the breach of contract claim. However, we are satisfied that no trust could have arisen over the BTC in B2C2’s account, even assuming that the BTC could be the subject of a trust. Therefore, we allow Quoine’s appeal with respect to the breach of trust claim and reverse the decision of the Judge in that regard.

The factual background

The detailed facts are set out in the Judgment at [14]–[26] and [69]–[105]. It suffices for us to reproduce the salient facts which are relevant to understanding the arguments made in this appeal.

Quoine and the Quoter Program

We begin with a brief introduction of Quoine and the program it used for its trades as a market-maker. Quoine is a Singapore incorporated company which operated the Platform at all material times. The Platform allows users to trade cryptocurrencies, like BTC and ETH, for other cryptocurrencies or for fiat currencies. It uses an electronic ledger as an order book for all the orders that are placed by users wishing to buy and sell cryptocurrencies. Real time information on the available buy and sell orders are also displayed on the right panel of what was referred to as the “Trading Dashboard” located on the Platform’s website.

As mentioned, apart from being the operator of the Platform, Quoine also functions as a market-maker on the Platform. In actively placing buy and sell orders, Quoine adds depth to the order book and ensures that there is a continuous two-sided market on the Platform, thus creating liquidity on the Platform and helping to minimise volatility in the market (see Judgment at [18]). A market-maker also profits from what is known as the “bid-ask” spread, which is the difference between the price at which the market-maker is willing to buy or bid for a particular currency and the price at which it is willing to sell or ask for that currency. In the material period, Quoine was the principal market-maker on the Platform. Mr Mario Antonio Gomez Lozada (“Mr Lozada”), Quoine’s Chief Technical Officer, estimated that Quoine was responsible for around 98% of the market-making trades on the Platform (Judgment at [73]).

Quoine’s market-making trades on the Platform are conducted through its “Quoter Program”. The Quoter Program retrieves external market prices from other cryptocurrency exchanges and uses this data to determine the orders that Quoine will place on the Platform for market-making purposes. Importantly, the Quoter Program is proprietary to Quoine and the information generated by it is not available to other users of the Platform (Judgment at [18] and [72]).

The Counterparties and margin trading

We touch on some basic aspects of trading on the Platform as described in Quoine’s Trading Rules dated 17 March 2017. There are two types of trading offered on the Platform which are relevant to the present dispute. The first is spot trading, where trades are settled instantly with payment for a trade being effected as soon as the trade is completed. The second is margin trading, which is a variant where trades are entered into using borrowed funds (including borrowed cryptocurrencies). Margin traders may obtain loans directly from Quoine, or from other users of the Platform willing to offer them. For margin traders with loans from Quoine, the assets in their accounts serve as the collateral for the loans, which has a bearing on how the Platform’s operating system functions. The Platform is designed to close out a margin trader’s open positions when it detects that the margin trader may not be able to repay its loans. In the event that the collateral in the margin trader’s account falls below a pre-determined percentage of the loan, a margin call is triggered against the margin trader and the Platform automatically force-closes its margin positions by placing market orders on the Platform to close out its open positions. This is known as a “margin sell-out position”.

The Platform continually monitors a margin trader’s “live profit and loss” in respect of each open position (“live P&L”) for the purposes of determining how much...

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    ...upon this decision as conclusive proof that English law recognises Bitcoin as a form of property. Singaporean Judgements B2C2 v. Quoine [2020] SGCA (I) 2 In B2C2 v. Quoine [2020] SGCA (I) 2, Quoine operated a cryptocurrency exchange, on which B2C2 was an investor. Trading occurred automatic......
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    ...“Insurance 2030 — The impact of AI on the future of insurance” McKinsey & Company (30 April 2018) (accessed 4 January 2021). 4 [2020] 2 SLR 20 at [103]. 5 Ronan Hamon, Henrik Junklewitz & Ignacio Sanchez, Robustness and Explainability of Artificial Intelligence — From Technical to Policy So......
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    • Singapore Academy of Law Journal No. 2020, December 2020
    • 1 December 2020
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    • Singapore Academy of Law Annual Review No. 2020, December 2020
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