In GM1 and GM2 v KC [2019] HKCFI 2793, the Hong Kong Court of First Instance granted an interim anti-suit injunction restraining mainland Chinese court proceedings involving a third party, and clarified the jurisdiction basis for doing so.

The decision reflects the long-standing pro-arbitration approach of the Hong Kong courts and confirms that arbitration clauses are not to be interpreted narrowly, but may cover claims against the non-contracting affiliates or associates of a contracting party. The decision also reiterates that in considering an application for an anti-suit injunction, the question for the Court remains whether or not its jurisdiction is invoked, and the fact that the foreign Court would assume jurisdiction and refuse to stay the foreign proceedings is not relevant.

Background

GM1 and KC entered into a guarantee (Guarantee) which contained an arbitration clause in favour of arbitration in Hong Kong administered by the Hong Kong International Arbitration Centre.

KC later commenced legal proceedings in the Court of Suzhou (Mainland Proceedings) against GM1 and GM2, the latter being an affiliate of GM1 who was not a party to the Guarantee. In parallel, there were pending arbitration proceedings between GM1 and KC pursuant to the Guarantee, and related arbitration proceedings between GM1 and a wholly-owned subsidiary of KC.

GM1 and GM2 sought an anti-suit injunction from the Hong Kong Court to restrain KC from pursuing the Mainland Proceedings and commencing further proceedings in breach of the arbitration agreement, and an “interim-interim” injunction in the same terms pending the substantive hearing of the injunction application.

Decision on interim-interim injunction

The Court did not determine the substantive interim injunction application, only the “interim-interim” injunction.

In the present application, the questions before the Hong Kong Court were:

  1. whether the Court had power to grant an interim anti-suit injunction in favour of an arbitration in Hong Kong under section 45 of the Arbitration Ordinance (AO);
  2. whether the proper course would be to leave it to the Mainland Court to recognise and enforce the arbitration agreement (including determining the validity of the arbitration clause); and
  3. whether the Court can grant an anti-suit injunction in relation to proceedings commenced against a third party such as GM2.

On the first issue, the Court confirmed that it has power under AO section 45 to grant an interim anti-suit injunction. The objects of the AO are to facilitate fair and speedy resolution of disputes by arbitration without unnecessary expense and enforce arbitration agreements. Specifically, the Court has power under AO section 45 to grant interim measures which, pursuant to AO section 35, include an order to “maintain or restore the status quo pending determination of the dispute“. An anti-suit injunction is to enforce the positive promise of a party to arbitrate disputes and the negative right not to be vexed by foreign proceedings, and is therefore in line with AO section 35 to maintain such status quo pending determination of the dispute. The Court therefore had the power to grant an anti-suit injunction under AO section 45.

On the second issue, the Court held that the following grounds were not grounds to refuse the anti-suit injunction / not stay the Mainland Proceedings:

  1. that the Mainland Court may insist on its own jurisdiction and would not have granted a stay of the proceedings;
  2. that it may not be possible for KC to discontinue or withdraw from the Mainland Proceedings after its case had been accepted by the Mainland Court; and
  3. that the existence and validity of the arbitration clause was disputed.

As a matter of principle, the arbitral tribunal can decide on its own competence and jurisdiction, and, as the supervisory court, the Hong Kong Court has jurisdiction to review the findings of the tribunal on its own jurisdiction. The Court further noted that, if GM1 and GM2 later sought enforcement of the award in the Mainland, it would be open to the Mainland Court to review at that point in time the validity of the arbitration agreement and resist enforcement on that basis.

On the third issue, the Court held that anti-suit relief may be granted against a third party if the arbitration agreement can be construed to cover claims not only against the contracting party, but also against the non-contracting affiliates or associates of the contracting party. This is based on the principle in Giorgio Armani SpA v Elan Clothes Co Ltd [2019] HKCFI 530 that rational businessmen would have wanted the disputes with affiliates of the contract to be decided in the same forum in the same manner of dispute resolution. The Court did not decide decisively on the third issue, but it was satisfied that there was a serious question to be tried in the adjourned substantive hearing for the interim injunction application as to whether KC’s claims against GM2 in the Mainland Proceedings should be dealt with by the same arbitral tribunal based on the specific circumstances in relation to the existence, validity and binding effect of the Guarantee and its arbitration agreement.

For these reasons, the Court concluded that it was within the jurisdiction of the Court, and that it was just and fair to grant the interim injunction pending the conclusion of the substantive hearing of the injunction application.

Comment

This decision demonstrates the Court is prepared and equipped to grant an anti-suit injunction to restrain a party from pursuing non-arbitral proceedings even against a third party, to the extent that such proceedings are covered by the arbitration agreement. The fact that the foreign Court may insist on its jurisdiction and refuse to stay the foreign proceedings is no bar to the Hong Kong Court granting an anti-suit jurisdiction.

This case also serves as a helpful reminder that parties should carefully consider the implications of parallel proceedings and seek legal advice for each particular case if necessary.

May Tai
May Tai
Managing Partner, Greater China
+852 2101 4031

Kathryn Sanger
Kathryn Sanger
Partner, Hong Kong
+852 2101 4029

Simon Chapman
Simon Chapman
Partner, Hong Kong
+852 2101 4217