In Bridgehouse (Bradford No. 2) Ltd v BAE [2020] EWCA Civ 759, the English Court of Appeal upheld a stay of court proceedings in favour of arbitration under s9 of the English Arbitration Act 1996 (the “Arbitration Act”). The issue in dispute related to a company’s claim for relief under section 1028(3) of the Companies Act 2006 (the “Companies Act”), a provision which gives the court the power to give directions to put a previously dissolved but restored company in the same position as if it had never been dissolved.

The Court of Appeal rejected Bridgehouse’s (“BB2”) arguments, finding that the dispute fell within the parties’ arbitration agreement and was capable of arbitration. This decision is significant because it once again confirms the starting presumption that by entering into an arbitration agreement, the parties intend to arbitrate all disputes between them. It also analyses the extent to which disputes that engage public interest factors or may require the involvement of the courts or third parties can be arbitrable.

Facts

BAE Systems plc (“BAE”), entered into a contract (“the Contract”) with BB2 under which BAE was to procure the sale to BB2 of two parcels of land for sums totalling £93 million. The Contract stated that if BB2 suffered an “Event of Default”, BAE had the right to terminate the contract. An “Event of Default” included “being struck off the Register of Companies or being dissolved or ceasing for any reason to retain its corporate existence”.

On 31 May 2016, BB2 was struck off the register and dissolved for failure to file its accounts and annual return for the year ended 31 December 2015. BAE gave notice to terminate the Contract on the basis that there had been an Event of Default.

On 24 June 2016, BB2 made a successful application to the Registrar of Companies for administrative restoration. Section 1028(1) of the Companies Act provides that “The general effect of administrative restoration to the register is that the company is deemed to have continued in existence as if it had not been dissolved or struck off the register.” Therefore, BB2 was effectively restored to its pre-dissolution position.

The Contract contained two conflicting dispute resolution provisions. Clause 19.1(a) of the Contract was to apply if “any dispute arises between the parties to this agreement arising out of the provisions of this agreement”, in which case the dispute was to be referred to ad hoc arbitration (the “Arbitration Clause”). Separately, the Contract contained a jurisdiction clause providing that the English courts had exclusive jurisdiction to settle disputes.

BAE initially issued proceedings in the Chancery Division seeking a declaration that the Contract had been validly terminated. However, following BB2’s successful application under section 9 of the Arbitration Act for a stay in favour of arbitration, the matter was referred to arbitration.

The arbitration

The arbitrator determined that BAE had validly terminated the Contract. The Arbitrator rejected, among others, BB2’s contention that any effective termination had to be reassessed retrospectively as a result of BB2’s restoration to the register by virtue of section 1028(1) of the Companies Act. The Arbitrator considered that section 1028(1) did not serve to undo BAE’s decision to terminate the Contract during the period between striking off and restoration.

In its submissions in the arbitration, BB2 reserved the right (if its primary position failed) to make an application to the court for relief under section 1028(3) of the Companies Act, which provides that the court has the power to “give such directions and make such provision as seems just for placing the company and all other persons in the same position (as nearly as may be) as if the company had not been dissolved or struck off the register”.

Chancery Division proceedings

As foreshadowed in its reservation of rights in the arbitration, and following an unsuccessful challenge to the arbitral award under s69 of the Arbitration Act, BB2 issued a claim in the Chancery Division seeking relief under section 1028(3) of the Companies Act.

BAE applied for BB2’s claim to be stayed under s9 of the Arbitration Act, claiming that any such dispute should also be resolved by (a second) arbitration. BB2 opposed this application for a stay, arguing primarily that its claim did not fall within the scope of the Arbitration Clause of the Contract because it did not arise out of the provisions of that Contract. If that was wrong, BB2 contended that the arbitration agreement was “inoperative” because the dispute was not capable of being settled by arbitration, on the basis that either the Arbitration Act or English public policy prohibited the reference of statutory remedies such as this one to arbitration.

The Chancery Division granted a stay in favour of arbitration, and BB2 appealed. The questions for the Court of Appeal were:

  • Did the Arbitration Clause apply to BB2’s claim for relief under section 1028(3) of the Companies Act?
  • Was that application in any event capable of arbitration (in other words, was the dispute “arbitrable”)?

Court of Appeal proceedings

Applicability of the Arbitration Clause

BB2 argued that the issue between the parties no longer arose out of the provisions of the Contract, which was the purported scope of the Arbitration Clause. Instead, the question was whether statutory relief should be granted. BB2 relied in particular on the fact that section 1028(3) of the Companies Act is, in principle, capable of affecting third parties, who would not be bound by the outcome of the arbitration.  BB2 said that made it inherently unlikely that the Arbitration Clause was intended to apply to such matters. BB2 also relied on the exclusive jurisdiction clause in the Contract, which it said was evidence that the parties envisaged some matters would fall outside the scope of the Arbitration Clause and fall to be determined by the courts rather than in arbitration.

In rejecting these arguments and determining that the dispute “arose out of the provisions of the Contract”, the Court of Appeal held as follows:

  1. BB2 only required the relief because BAE had terminated the Contract. The fact that the dispute related to whether relief should be given pursuant to statute did not mean that it did not also arise out of the Contract.
  2. The question of whether BB2 was entitled to relief under section 1028(3) of the Companies Act was intimately connected with section 1028(1), a provision which had already been ruled on by the arbitrator, so it clearly fell within the arbitrator’s remit.
  3. Following Fiona Trust, there was a presumption that the parties are likely to have intended any dispute arising from their relationship to be decided by the same tribunal. It could not be inferred from the existence of the exclusive jurisdiction clause that the Arbitration Clause was of more limited application than it would otherwise be taken to have. The exclusive jurisdiction clause ensured that the English courts would have jurisdiction over issues arising from the arbitration or an expert determination (as the Contract provided that an independent person could act as an expert rather than arbitrator). The Arbitration Clause should therefore be presumed to apply to this dispute.
  4. Very often, and indeed in this case, an application under section 1028(3) of the Companies Act would be of no significance to anyone but the immediate parties. If in a particular case third party interests were engaged, that might have implications for the relief that an arbitrator could grant. But that did not mean that disputes as to the application of section 1028(3) could not fall within the Arbitration Clause at all.

Arbitrability

The court considered both whether the Companies Act prohibited reference to arbitration and whether arbitration was precluded by public policy considerations. BB2 argued that applications under section 1028(3) engaged public interest factors which rendered them unsuited to arbitration, which is why Parliament tasked “the court” with granting relief. They were ancillary to applications to restore a company to the register, which could not be determined by arbitration.

The Court of Appeal held that the dispute was capable of arbitration:

  1. There was nothing in the Companies Act which precluded arbitration, including the reference to “the court” in section 1028(3). The fact that an arbitrator cannot grant all the remedies available to a court is not a reason to treat an arbitration agreement as having no effect, and is not determinative of whether the subject matter is arbitrable.
  2. Section 1(b) of the Arbitration Act explains that it is founded on the principle that the parties should be free to agree how their disputes are resolved, subject only to such safeguards as are necessary in the public interest. Following previous case law, this was a “demanding test”.
  3. Relief under section 1028(3) did not affect company status and an application for such relief would normally be private, affecting only the company and one or more specific individuals or entities. This was comparable to essentially “internal disputes” which were the subject of unfair prejudice petitions under section 994 of the Companies Act, and which had already been held by the English court to be arbitrable.[1] There was a distinction between statutory sections which were motivated by public policy considerations and those which needed to be the subject of court proceedings out of public interest.
  4. Applications under section 1028(3) of the Companies Act were not unsuited to an arbitrator: they required consideration of what directions and provisions were just for placing that company and other persons in the same position as if it had not been dissolved or struck off, which fell within the arbitrator’s capabilities. Although this could lead to procedural complexity (as there would inevitably need to be an order for restoration made by the court), procedural complexity alone would not generally be capable of giving rise to non-arbitrability. Indeed, section 48 of the Arbitration Act provides for an arbitrator to have “the same powers as the court…to order a party to do or refrain from doing anything”.

The Court of Appeal dismissed the appeal.

Comment

This case is a further reminder that the English courts will give short shrift to arguments which seek to undermine the parties’ arbitration agreement. Where parties agree to arbitrate, they will be held to their bargain, and the court will construe potentially competing dispute resolution provisions to give effect to that agreement to arbitrate.

The Court of Appeal’s judgment is also significant because it analyses the circumstances in which a dispute is capable of being arbitrated where statutory provisions involving the court are engaged. In addition to drawing a close analogy with Fulham Football Club (1987) Ltd v Richards (where arbitration was held to be available in the context of unfair prejudice petitions under section 994 of the Companies Act), the court also referred to a similar conclusion reached by the Singapore Court of Appeal in Tomulugen Holdings Ltd v Silica Investors, in which it held that minority shareholder claims are arbitrable.

It is clear that exceptions to party autonomy in order to safeguard public interests are subject to a demanding test – they require an impact on company status, and implications beyond the company and any particular counterparty (key examples of non-arbitrable questions being the winding up and restoration of companies). Disputes are likely to be arbitrable where they are private, essentially “internal” in nature and do not affect the “status” of the company. Moreover, procedural complexity or potential impact on third parties are not complete barriers to arbitration, even if some issues will need to be determined by the court.

For more information, please contact Craig Tevendale, Partner, Elizabeth Kantor, Associate, or your usual Herbert Smith Freehills contact.

Craig Tevendale
Craig Tevendale
Partner
+44 20 7466 2445

Elizabeth Kantor
Elizabeth Kantor
Senior Associate
+44 20 7466 2406


[1]        Fulham Football Club (1987) Ltd v Richards [2011] EWCA Civ 855, [2012] Ch 333