I presented a paper at the ABLU (Annual Banking Law Update) on 27 September. The ABLU is a prestigious conference with decades of tradition organised by the Centre for Banking Law of the University of Johannesburg with the sponsorship of multinational law firms. This year's programme reflected an emerging interest in cryptocurrencies.
The topic of my paper was the same as for the earlier KLRI/UNCITRAL Trade Law Forum. But I revised the slides with some additions (attached below), reflecting a longer presentation time. Among the added slides are the first and last.
Here is what I said on the first slide.
The topic of this presentation concerns cryptocurrencies in a bankruptcy setting: the bankruptcy of an exchange which acts as an intermediary for trade. The word intermediary might sound strange because the transactions of cryptocurrencies are recorded in a blockchain which permits disintermediation: it dispenses with intermediaries. It is indeed possible to send and receive cryptocurrencies on a P2P basis without any middle person. It does not, however, mean that the users of cryptocurrencies cannot use any intermediary. If they find it more convenient to use third parties, they can use them. That is in fact what most of us do when we trade cryptocurrencies because it would otherwise be difficult to find suitable trading partners. This is why we sometimes still have to talk about intermediaries when we discuss cryptocurrencies.
Here is what I said on the last slide.
Towards the beginning of this presentation, I identified two causes of uncertainty of law in this area. Let me wrap up by coming back to them to see where in the legal analysis they fit into.
The first cause lies in the novelty of cryptocurrencies as assets. They are intangible assets registrable on a blockchain. The novelty will raise the question whether cryptocurrencies can be owned in the context of rei vindicatio and the similar question whether they can be classified as “property” in the context of the tort of conversion. It will also raise the question whether they can comprise trust property.
Another cause is the need to scrutinise legal relationships between an exchange provider and its customers. The legal relationships between them matter when we address the question to whom the entrusted cryptocurrencies belong in the context of rei vindicatio. In the course of addressing this question, it has been observed that depending on the terms of the contract with the customers, an exchange provider sometimes acts as a counter-party to transactions and other times merely facilitates transactions between customers. The legal relationships between an exchange provider and its customers also need to be scrutinised to consider whether there is a trust between them. This is so under the legal systems which allow a trust to be created by the inference of a trust agreement as well as under the legal systems which impose a constructive trust by operation of law.
Very many thanks to Prof. Charl Hugo for his kind invitation.