Welcome to the eleventh issue of Inside Arbitration.
We are delighted to share with you the latest, new look issue of this publication from Herbert Smith Freehills’ Global Arbitration Practice.
The Hong Kong Court of First Instance stays third party proceedings commenced by an insured against an insurer, on the basis that the parties are bound by the arbitration clause contained in the insurance policy. Despite the outcome being that the main action and the third party proceedings will ultimately be pursued in different forums, by upholding the parties’ contractual agreement to arbitrate, the Court reinforces its pro-arbitration credentials and the principle of party autonomy.
On 22 November 2017, the plaintiff, a casual worker employed by the first defendant (D1), the sub-contractor, suffered bodily injury at work. As principal contractor, the second defendant (D2), was responsible for compensating the sub-contractor’s employees for work injuries. At the time of the accident, D2 was covered by an insurance policy (Policy) with Asia Insurance Co, Ltd (Insurer), in compliance with its obligation to obtain insurance cover under the Employees’ Compensation Ordinance. D2 accordingly made an insurance claim against Insurer on 27 November 2017, for compensation in respect of the plaintiff’s work injuries. On 30 April 2019, the Insurer repudiated its liability under the Policy, on the ground of D2’s alleged failure to submit relevant documents.
On 2 January 2020, the plaintiff commenced the present action against D1 and D2 for damages suffered as a result of the injury. D2 commenced the third party proceedings to enforce policy liability against the Insurer. Relying on the arbitration clause contained in the Policy, the Insurer applied to stay the proceedings for arbitration pursuant to section 20 of the Arbitration Ordinance.
Section 20 of the Arbitration Ordinance provides for a mandatory stay of legal proceedings in favour of arbitration where the action is the subject of (i) an arbitration agreement (ii) which is not null and void, inoperative or incapable of being performed, and there is (iii) a dispute/difference between the parties (iv) that is within the ambit of the arbitration agreement.
The Policy contained an arbitration clause which provides “[all] differences arising out of this Policy shall be determined by arbitration…”
Since the validity of the arbitration clause was not in dispute, the essence of the stay summons was whether there was any “difference” between D2 and the Insurer that would justify the mandatory stay in favour of resolving that “difference” through arbitration. In answering this question, the Court examined both the arbitration clause in question (particularly the word “differences”) and the wider public policy considerations.
The central question before the Court was whether there was any difference falling within the ambit of the arbitration clause. In this regard, the threshold test is uncontroversial – the court will be satisfied where there is a prima facie or plainly arguable case that there is such a difference.
In construing the arbitration clause, Marlene Ng J observed three guiding principles:
With the above principles in mind, the Court’s analysis turned on the meaning of word “differences” in the Policy arbitration clause. Following Mimmie Chan J’s decision in VK Holdings (HK) Limited v Panasonic Eco Solutions (Hong Kong) Company Limited HCCT19/2014 (unreported), the Court confirmed that the word “differences” confers the widest possible jurisdiction. Significantly, the Court held that it is wide enough to cover a claim of repudiation. In reaching this conclusion, Ng J highlighted the distinction between repudiating a contract and a contractual liability. As per Lord Wright in Heyman & anor v Darwins Limited  AC 356, in repudiating policy liability, the insurers “do not repudiate the policy or dispute its validity as a contract; on the contrary they rely on it and say that according to its terms, express and implied, they are relieved from liability”. As such, the substantive difference in this case, being whether or not the Insurer has wrongfully repudiated the Policy, is a difference arising out of the Policy and falls squarely within the arbitration clause.
Further, the Court reiterated that it is concerned only with the existence of any difference and will not evaluate the merits of that difference. Ng J drew support from the remarks by Ma J (as he then was) in Dah Chong Hong (Engineering) Limited v Boldwin Construction Company Limited HCA1291/2002 (unreported) that “even an unanswerable claim will not mean that a dispute or difference does not exist unless there is a clear and unequivocal admission of liability and quantum”.
The Court went on to address whether the arbitration clause could extend to the present claim, which D2 argued to be a statutory claim rooted in the Employees’ Compensation Ordinance. D2 contended that the claim should be excluded from arbitration for public policy reasons.
At the outset, the Court pointed out that D2’s claim cannot be said to be a statutory claim. First, the plaintiff in the main action sought common law damages rather than damages under the Employees’ Compensation Ordinance. Second, in the third party proceedings, D2 similarly did not rely on the Ordinance but sought indemnity and contribution based on the Policy.
Nevertheless, the Court conducted a thorough review on principles concerning the arbitrability of statutory claims or claims based on statutory rights. The Court confirmed that:
Consistent with English law authorities, the Court clarified in dicta that, the facts that (i) relevant legislation is motivated by public policy considerations, (ii) there may be procedural complexity in referring the matter to arbitration, (iii) third parties may possibly be impacted, or that (iv) there may be limitation on the power of the arbitrator to give full remedies may not be sufficient to preclude arbitration.
In light of the foregoing, the Court decided that the present difference on policy repudiation was essentially a private matter which did not trigger wider public policy interests.
While the Court’s decision does not establish new law, it is a useful reminder of the mandatory nature of a stay of legal proceedings under section 20 of the Arbitration Ordinance. This is exemplified by the low threshold test adopted by the Court where a prima facie case would be made out so long as there is an assertion of a dispute or difference, even in circumstances where no valid defence may exist.
On the other hand, the case also illustrates that despite the one-stop-shop presumption, there is a real possibility that matters relating to the same underlying transaction may be tried at different forums. In this respect, the Court cautioned that the presumption would not be sufficient to defeat a mandatory stay in light of an unequivocal arbitration agreement. As such, if parties intend to exclude a certain subject matter of dispute from arbitration, such intention must be expressly incorporated into the arbitration clause. As demonstrated in the present case, the court will endeavour to hold parties to their contractual bargain as reflected in the arbitration clause.
For more information, feel free to get in touch with any of the contacts below, or your usual Herbert Smith Freehills contact.
In a rare move, the Hong Kong Court of First Instance has refused to enforce an arbitral award, rejecting an appeal from its earlier decision to set aside the enforcement order.
The dispute arose between X, a Taiwanese life insurance company as investor and pledger, and the Bank as investment manager and the pledgee. The parties’ dealings involved a three-tier investment structure, encompassing X’s subscription of the “AB Trust”, the Bank’s management of assets deposited in a trust account, and X’s pledge of the managed assets as security for loans by the Bank.
The Bank’s management of assets was governed by an investment management mandate (Mandate) entered into by X and the Bank in April 2008. The Mandate provided for Taiwanese governing law and for arbitration as the dispute resolution mechanism. On the security side, in March 2008 the trustee of AB Trust executed, in favour of the Bank, a Pledge for Assets (Pledge) over the trust assets as continuing security for current or future obligations due to the Bank. The Pledge was governed by the laws of Singapore and submitted disputes to the non-exclusive jurisdiction of the Singapore courts.
The dispute arose when X was put into receivership in 2014, which prompted the receiver to demand the Bank to return the balance held in the trust account. The Bank relied on the Pledge to retain the balance, which represented the outstanding loans due to the Bank. In July 2016, the Bank instigated court proceedings in Singapore against X and other parties pursuant to the jurisdiction clause of the Pledge. In August 2016, X commenced arbitration against the Bank under the arbitration clause of the Mandate.
In the Request for Arbitration, X claimed that the Pledge was void under the laws of Singapore for lack of consideration, and as such that the Bank was liable to return the balance in the trust account. The Tribunal rendered an award in favour of X on 4 January 2018, ordering the Bank to return the balance of the trust account to X. X obtained an order to enforce the award in Hong Kong. On 24 October 2018, the Bank applied to set aside the enforcement order and the Court granted the application in a decision dated 5 November 2020 (Decision).
At first instance, the CFI was invited to rule on two issues:
The Tribunal’s jurisdiction
The parties’ dispute revolved around whether the Tribunal had jurisdiction to find that the Pledge was invalid, so as to deprive the Bank of its property interests. X argued that, after the Tribunal had found X’s subscription of trust and deployment of assets invalid under Taiwanese insurance law, the validity and enforceability of the Pledge did not arise. The Bank argued that the real dispute between the parties had always been the validity of the Pledge, particularly whether the Bank could rely on the Pledge to retain the assets.
Applying the English Court of Appeal’s decision in Trust Risk Group SpA v AmTrust Europe Ltd  1 CLC 456 (see our previous post), the Hong Kong Court held that, where the parties have entered into multiple interlinked commercial contracts to deal with different aspects of their relationship, “the proper test in ascertaining the parties’ intention on how their disputes should be dealt with is to identify the nature of the claim, and the agreement which has the closest connection with such dispute and claim”. In this respect, the Court highlighted that the one-stop-shop presumption in Fiona Trust & Holding Corporation v Privalov  UKHL 40 has limited application where the parties’ agreements contain competing jurisdiction clauses.
Applying the “closest connection” test, the Court agreed with the Bank that the Pledge was undisputedly the “centre of gravity of the dispute”. The Tribunal’s finding that the Pledge was illegal under Taiwanese law did not by itself invalidate the Pledge and the security interests under the Pledge. Since the parties’ dispute brought into question the validity of the Pledge, the question must be referred to the Singapore Court.
The Bank’s opportunity to present its case
Two issues were material to the Bank’s argument that it had been unable to present its case in the arbitration.
First, prior to the post-hearing submissions, X’s pleaded case had always been that the Pledge was invalid under Singapore law for lack of consideration. It was only in its post-hearing submissions that X argued, for the first time, that contravention of the relevant Taiwanese law provision (i.e. Article 146 of Taiwan Insurance Act) would render the Pledge void under Taiwanese law. This timing gave the Bank no opportunity to deal with X’s change of position.
Second, it was common ground between the parties’ experts that Article 146 did not have the effect of invalidating X’s transactions. Given that such evidence was unchallenged, the Bank did not further its case regarding Article 146. Contrary to the experts’ shared view, however, the Tribunal accepted X’s position that the pledge of X’s assets was void.
As a matter of law, the Court emphasised that the conduct complained of must be “serious or even egregious” before the Court can take a view that a party had been denied due process. Here, the Court sided with the Bank in finding that the Tribunal’s decision on Taiwanese law constituted a departure from the cases presented by the parties, and that the Bank had not been given a reasonable opportunity to present its case and to meet the case of X. The Court specifically cautioned that “in respect of matters which have never been in issue between the parties, and which do feature significantly in the arbitrators’ decision, great care should be taken to ensure that the parties are given a fair and ample opportunity to comment and deal with such matters.”
In light of the Tribunal’s jurisdictional overreach and the “substantial injustice” suffered by the Bank, the Court concluded that it would be a breach of rules of natural justice to enforce the award.
Leave to Appeal
Following the Decision, X sought leave to appeal on three grounds:
Applying the “reasonable prospect of success” threshold, Mimmie Chan J found that, in relation to the first two grounds, “[t]here are arguably some merits in the intended appeal which ought to be heard”.
However, the third ground was deemed to have no reasonable prospects of success. Chan J considered that the Court of Appeal would be unlikely to interfere with the first instance judge’s assessment of procedural fairness, which is a broad and multi-factorial exercise dependent on the Court’s analysis of the documentary evidence.
As such, even if the appeal were to succeed on the first and second grounds, the Court’s finding that the Bank had been denied due process would render the Award unenforceable. For this reason, the Court concluded that to allow the appeal would be against the object of the Arbitration Ordinance to facilitate the fair and speedy resolution of disputes without unnecessary expense.
This is a rare example of a Hong Kong court refusing to enforce an arbitral award, in spite of its long-established pro-arbitration and pro-enforcement reputation. The Decision highlights that the courts may be slow to apply the “one-stop-shop” presumption in commercial dealings involving different – and potentially competing – jurisdiction clauses. In such situations, the courts may revert to the “closest connection” test, out of respect for commercial realities and party autonomy. As a result, careful drafting is essential if parties intend to apply different dispute resolution mechanisms to different aspects of their relationships .
The Decision also reminds parties and arbitrators alike of the importance of due process. The Court reiterated that, in deciding whether to exercise its discretion not to enforce an award, it must consider standards of due process under Hong Kong law. Interference with due process, if sufficiently serious or egregious, may render an arbitral award unenforceable.
For more information, feel free to get in touch with any of the contacts below, or your usual Herbert Smith Freehills contact.
Hong Kong’s District Court has refused to grant an injunction to restrain an arbitrator from acting in an arbitration, on the grounds that there was already another identical application before the court scheduled for hearing and that there was no urgency for granting an “interim-interim” injunction.
The long-running case of Xiamen Xinjingdi Group Co Ltd v Eton Properties Limited and Others  HKCFA 32 finally came to an end when the Court of Final Appeal (the CFA) handed down its decision on 9 Oct 2020. In the judgment, the CFA clarifies that in a common law enforcement action on an arbitral award, the enforcing court has the power to grant relief that is wider than that in the award.
On 6 August 2020, Guangzhou Intermediate People’s Court made a civil ruling that an arbitral award made in Guangzhou by the ICC should be regarded as a Chinese arbitral award with a foreign element. It follows that the award should be enforced under Article 273 of the PRC Civil Procedure Law, rather than under the New York Convention on the Recognition and Enforcement of Foreign Arbitral Awards.
(2015) Sui Zhong Min Chu Si Zi No. 62 or (2015)穗中法民四初字第62号
This case concerned a supply contract between Brentwood Industries (US) as the seller, Guangzhou Faanlong Machinery Engineering Co Ltd (PRC) as the buyer, and Guangzhou Zhengqi Trading Co Ltd (PRC) as the agent of the buyer. Article 16 of the contract provided that “any dispute arising from or in connection with this contract shall be settled through friendly negotiation. If no settlement can be reached through negotiation, it shall be submitted to ICC for arbitration in the place where the project is located in accordance with international convention and practice…” (emphasis added). Article 17 provided that “the applicable law of this contract is PRC law”. In this case, the project was located in Guangzhou, Mainland China.
On 16 December 2010, Brentwood brought a claim against Faanlong and others (Respondents) in the Court. The Court declined to hear the case, as there was an arbitration agreement between the parties. On 9 May 2011, Brentwood applied to the Court to invalidate the arbitration clause. Brentwood was not successful. Subsequent to the Court’s ruling confirming the validity of the arbitration clause, on 31 August 2012, Brentwood commenced ICC arbitration against the Respondents. The arbitration was administered by the ICC through its Secretariat Asia Office based in Hong Kong. On 17 March 2014, the sole arbitrator made a final award in favour of Brentwood. On 13 April 2015, Brentwood applied to the Court for recognition and enforcement of the award.
The Court’s ruling on enforcement
Brentwood argued that judicial practice in Mainland China is that the nationality of the arbitral award is determined by the place where the arbitration institution is located. Accordingly, as the award was made by the ICC, which is headquartered in Paris, it should be recognised and enforced in Mainland China in accordance with the New York Convention. Alternatively, if the Court considered that the award was made by the ICC Secretariat Asia Office based in Hong Kong, the award is a Hong Kong arbitral award and should be recognised and enforced in accordance with the Arrangement Concerning Mutual Enforcement of Arbitral Awards Between the Mainland and the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (Mainland and Hong Kong Mutual Arrangement).
The Respondents argued that (1) the award was not “made in the territory of a State other than the State where the recognition and enforcement of such awards are sought “ (Article 1 of the New York Convention), and thus should not be recognised and enforced under the New York Convention; (2) ICC was not an arbitration institution stipulated in the PRC Arbitration Law and it was not legal for it to administer arbitration in Mainland China; and (3) the validity of the arbitration clause and the enforceability of the arbitral award were two separate legal issues under different rules. The fact that the arbitration clause was held valid did not necessarily suggest that the award made pursuant to it was enforceable.
The Court ruled that the award, made in Guangzhou by the ICC, should be regarded as a foreign-related arbitral award made in Mainland China. Enforcement of the award should be brought under Article 273 of the PRC Civil Procedure Law. It rejected Brentwood’s arguments for recognition and enforcement under the New York Convention or the Mainland and Hong Kong Mutual Arrangement and directed Brentwood to re-apply for enforcement under the PRC Civil Procedure Law.
It is a long-standing question whether foreign arbitration institutions can administer arbitration seated in Mainland China under the current PRC Arbitration Law regime. The traditional view was no, because “arbitration commission” in the PRC Arbitration Law meant Chinese arbitration institutions only. However, with the increase in commercial dealings between Chinese and foreign parties, the strict interpretation of the law no longer sits well with the demands of commercial parties. China’s Supreme People’s Court has recently, in several cases and judicial interpretations, confirmed the validity of clauses providing for arbitrations administered by foreign institutions seated in Mainland China. This latest decision made by the Guangzhou Court took a further step, supporting that the arbitral award made in arbitration seated in Mainland China and administered by a foreign arbitration institution can be enforced under PRC Civil Procedure Law. However, as Mainland China is not a case law jurisdiction, this latest decision by Guangzhou Court, even though it should have been vetted by the Supreme People’s Court via the internal reporting system, is not a binding authority in Mainland China.
Viewed in light of the fact that foreign arbitral institutions are now permitted to operate in Beijing and extended free trade zones in Shanghai (see here), we are hopeful that there will be a final clarification in the near future on the question of whether foreign arbitral institutions can administer arbitration seated in Mainland China. Legal practitioners in Mainland China have been calling for an amendment to the existing PRC Arbitration Law to address this issue. If that happens, it would be a significant step towards China further opening up its legal services market to foreign players. Having said that, before that final missing piece of the puzzle is complete, we would recommend that parties avoid agreeing to an arbitration clause that provides for arbitration seated in Mainland China to be administered by a foreign arbitral institution.
If you have questions or would like discuss any aspect of this post, please contact Helen Tang, Stella Hu or Briana Young of Herbert Smith Freehills, Weina Ye of Kewei Law Firm, or your usual Herbert Smith Freehills contact.
On 7 September 2020, the State Council of China published a policy paper on opening up the services sector in Beijing (“Work Plan for Deepening Comprehensive Pilot and New Round of Opening-Up of Services Sectors in Beijing and Building Comprehensive Demonstrative Area of Opening-up of State Services Sectors” or《深化北京市新一轮服务业扩大开放综合试点建设国家服务业扩大开放综合示范区工作方案》). The paper announces that foreign arbitral institutions will be allowed to set up “business organisations in designated area(s) in Beijing”, to “provide arbitration services in relation to civil and commercial disputes arising in the areas of international commerce and investments” and to “support and secure the application and enforcement of interim measures … before and during the arbitration proceedings, such as asset preservation, evidence preservation and action preservation” (emphasis added).
For these purposes, a “foreign arbitral institution” is one that is established outside Mainland China, including in Hong Kong, Macao or Taiwan.
The paper does not explain the exact scope of activities that business organisations will be entitled to carry out in Beijing. They might be permitted, for example, to organise arbitration hearings in venues in Beijing, or even to provide case administration services from Beijing. This is one step further from an earlier policy under a 2017 State Council policy paper (“Reply of the State Council in relation to Deepening Reform and Further Opening-up of Services Sectors in Beijing as Comprehensive Pilot” or 《国务院关于深化改革推进北京市服务业扩大开放综合试点工作方案的批复》), which allowed foreign arbitral institutions to “establish representative offices in Beijing” (emphasis added). No foreign arbitral institution has set up offices in Beijing following the 2017 policy.
The State Council of China previously released similar policies in Shanghai’s free trade zone. In 2015, a State Council policy paper allowed foreign arbitral institutions to open representative offices in Shanghai’s free trade zone. Subsequently, HKIAC, SIAC and ICC have opened representative offices in Shanghai. These offices, however, have been limited to liaison activities and have not been permitted to provide case administration services in Mainland China.
In August 2019, a further State Council policy paper stated that foreign arbitral institutions may be permitted to set up business organisations in Shanghai’s extended free trade zone to “conduct arbitration businesses in relation to civil and commercial disputes arising in the areas of international commerce, maritime affairs, investment, etc.” (emphasis added) (see here). It has been reported that several foreign arbitral institutions are in the process of setting up branches in the extended free trade zone under the August 2019 policy paper, although it remains to be seen which types of “arbitration businesses” those branches will be permitted to conduct.
It is worth noting that both the August 2019 Shanghai policy paper and the September 2020 Beijing policy paper mention that foreign arbitral institutions’ branches will be allowed “to support the application and enforcement of interim measures” in Mainland China. Under current Chinese law, parties to arbitration cases must apply to Chinese courts for interim measures; Mainland China-seated arbitral tribunals are not allowed to grant interim relief. However, Chinese courts generally do not accept interim relief applications from parties to arbitrations administered by foreign arbitral institutions (except for cases administered by designated Hong Kong arbitration institutions and seated in Hong Kong, see here), as there is currently no legal ground supporting this. The two policy papers appear to have allowed this possibility, but it remains unclear whether this is the correct interpretation and, if so, how it will be implemented in practice.
The latest Beijing policy paper, following the path of previous policy papers, signals further liberalisation and opening up of commercial arbitration practice in Mainland China. However, under the current Chinese Arbitration Law, foreign arbitral institutions are still not expressly permitted to administer arbitration cases seated in Mainland China.
For this reason, we continue to recommend against providing for arbitration of foreign-related disputes seated in Mainland China administered by an foreign arbitral institution (see here).
If you have questions or would like discuss any aspect of this post, please contact Helen Tang or Briana Young of Herbert Smith Freehills, Weina Ye of Kewei Law Firm, or your usual Herbert Smith Freehills contact.
Herbert Smith Freehills has launched the 8th edition of its guide, “Dispute resolution and governing law clauses for China-related commercial contracts”.
Better known as “The Dragon Book“, this practical guide explains how Mainland Chinese law affects parties’ choice of law and dispute resolution in China-related contracts.
On 29 June 2020, the Hong Kong Government launched a Pilot Scheme on Facilitation for Persons Participating in Arbitral Proceedings in Hong Kong. Under this Scheme, arbitrators, expert and factual witnesses, counsel, and parties to the arbitration (Eligible Persons) can participate in arbitral proceedings in Hong Kong as visitors without needing an employment visa, as was previously required. This is a welcome development, which will facilitate the participation in Hong Kong arbitrations of the many foreign nationals who travel regularly to the city for hearings and other arbitration-related activities.
The Scheme is subject to the following conditions:
The Department of Justice has authorised the following institutions to issue Letters of Proof: HKIAC, CIETAC Hong Kong Arbitration Center, ICC Asia Office, HKMA, SCIA (HK) and eBRAM. The Department has also issued a Guidance Note on the pilot scheme to the authorised institutions.
The Scheme will be reviewed in two years’ time. Subject to the review, it may be extended to Eligible Persons from other jurisdictions, including Mainland China.
However, in view of Hong Kong’s current COVID-19 measures and travel restrictions, persons covered by the Scheme remain subject to entry restrictions. We expect the Scheme to come into full effect once the relevant restrictions have been lifted.
For more information, please contact May Tai, Partner, Simon Chapman, Partner, Kathryn Sanger, Partner, Briana Young, Professional Support Consultant, or your usual Herbert Smith Freehills contact.
HKIAC has appointed David Rivkin and Rimsky Yuen as its new Co-Chairs, to succeed Matthew Gearing QC. HKIAC Council members Briana Young of Herbert Smith Freehills and Nils Eliasson of Shearman & Stearling have been promoted to Vice Chair, alongside Joseph Wan.
David W. Rivkin, Co-Chair of Debevoise & Plimpton’s International Dispute Resolution Group and Past President of the International Bar Association (IBA), and Rimsky Yuen GBM, SC, JP, arbitrator, mediator and barrister and former Hong Kong Secretary for Justice, are appointed Co-Chairs of HKIAC with effect from 15 June 2020.
Rivkin and Yuen succeed Matthew Gearing QC, whose three-year term as HKIAC Chair concludes on 14 June 2020.
Two members of HKIAC’s Council, Nils Eliasson, Partner at Shearman & Sterling, and Briana Young, Foreign Legal Consultant at Herbert Smith Freehills, are elevated to Vice Chair.
HKIAC’s press release is available here.