China’s Top Court Publishes Its First Annual Report on Judicial Review of Arbitration-Related Cases

On 23 December 2020, the Supreme People’s Court (“SPC”) of China released its bilingual 2019 Annual Report on Judicial Review of Arbitration Cases in China (the “Report”). It is the very first report issued by the SPC summarising the courts’ approach for judicial review of arbitration-related cases.

The Report aims to promote the SPC’s efforts over the course of last year in standardising judicial review approach in dealing with arbitration-related matters. In particular, it includes the SPC’s summary of its approach for judicial review of arbitration-related matters in 2019, such as on issues of validity of arbitration agreements, enforcement or revocation of domestic arbitral awards, as well as recognition and enforcement of offshore arbitral awards. Whilst the full content of the Report itself has not been made available online at the time of our blog, we set out below the key highlights based on the press release and information provided at the press conference of the SPC.

The SPC “reporting system”

The SPC “reporting system” applies to enforcement of arbitral awards in Mainland China.[i] Under the reporting system, lower courts are authorised to confirm validity of arbitration agreements, and order enforcement of onshore and offshore awards (or a Mainland Chinese foreign-related award). However, if a lower court is minded to deny validity of an arbitration agreement or to refuse enforcement of an arbitral award, it must refer the case to a higher court to confirm the decision.

For domestic awards, the higher court will conduct the final review without involving the SPC unless where (1) the parties are from different provinces in Mainland China; or (2) the refusal to enforce the award is based on an “infringement of public policy”.

For foreign-related arbitration cases, the higher court must refer the matter to the SPC for a final decision if it agrees that enforcement should be refused.

In 2018, the reporting system was further supplemented by the establishment of the First and Second International Commercial Courts.[ii] These courts are empowered to hear revocation and enforcement cases of foreign-related arbitral awards with disputed amounts exceeding RMB300 million or awards of significance released by five arbitration institutions.[iii]

According to the statistics provided by the SPC at the press conference, PRC courts heard a total of 11,029 cases concerning revocation of arbitral awards in 2019, only 5.8% of which the courts decided to set aside or partially set aside arbitral awards. Among the 201 cases reviewed by the SPC in 2019, 32% of lower courts’ decisions were overruled.

Recognition and enforcement of offshore arbitral awards

Recognition and enforcement of offshore arbitral awards in China is governed by the New York Convention as well as the Civil Procedure Law of China.

The SPC mentioned during the press conference that in 2019, a total of 32 applications were made to recognise and enforce offshore arbitral awards in China, among which 20 applications were successful and 1 application was denied because the award exceeded the scope of the arbitration agreement. The other applications were either withdrawn by the parties or dismissed due to lack of jurisdiction.

Interim injunctions in support of arbitration

The Arrangement Concerning Mutual Assistance in Court-ordered Interim Measures in Aid of Arbitral Proceedings by the Courts of the Mainland and of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (the “Arrangement”) came into effect on 1 October 2019. Parties to Hong Kong-seated arbitrations administered by an eligible arbitration institution in Hong Kong have the right to apply for interim measures from Mainland Chinese courts.

According to the SPC, between 1 October 2019 and 31 October 2020, 32 applications for interim measures have been granted by Mainland Chinese courts in relation to Hong Kong arbitration, among which 29 cases concern property preservation measures, two cases concern evidence preservation and one case concerns action preservation.

Pro-arbitration principles in judicial review

SPC mentioned at the press conference that the Report summarises the criteria and principles that Mainland Chinese courts should take into account in their judicial review of arbitration-related cases.

Six general principles are emphasised:

  • Courts shall respect parties’ agreement to arbitrate and interpret the arbitration agreements/clauses in favour of validity;
  • The grounds for setting aside arbitral awards shall be strictly limited to those provided by law;
  • Arbitration awards are in principle final and binding and the judicial review of arbitral awards shall only be limited to the extent of necessity;
  • The public policy defence shall be interpreted stringently to avoid being abused;
  • Courts shall accurately identify foreign governing laws, recognise and enforce foreign arbitral awards accordingly to law and create an “arbitration friendly” judicial environment; and
  • Courts shall recognise and enforce Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan arbitral awards according to law, and assist in interim measures in aid of Hong Kong arbitral proceedings in Mainland China.

According to the SPC, the Report also addresses recent development in arbitration practice, such as the formation of Belt and Road Mechanism for Resolution of International Commercial Disputes[iv] and China Pilot Free Trade Zone Arbitration Mechanism[v].

 

[i]           See the Provisions of the Supreme People’s Court on Issues concerning Applications for Verification of Arbitration Cases under Judicial Review (Fa Shi [2017] No.21).

[ii]          See Article 2 of Provisions of the Supreme People’s Court on Several Issues Regarding the Establishment of International Commercial Court (Fa Shi [2018] No.11).

[iii]         The five arbitration institutions are members of “One-stop” Diversified Settlement Mechanism for International Commercial Disputes in China, including China International Economic and Trade Arbitration Commission, Shanghai International Economic and Trade Arbitration Commission, Shenzhen Court of International Arbitration, Beijing Arbitration Commission, and China Maritime Arbitration Commission.

[iv]         Opinions of the Supreme People’s Court on the Provision of Judicial Services and Guarantee by People’s Courts for the Belt and Road Initiative (Fa Fa [2019] No.29) (Chinese text only).

[v]          Opinions of Supreme People’s Court on the Provision of Judicial Services and Guarantee by People’s Courts for the Construction of China (Shanghai) Pilot Free Trade Zone Lin-gang Special Area (Fa Fa [2019] No. 31).

 

Helen Tang

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Hong Kong and Mainland China Enter Supplemental Arrangement Concerning Mutual Enforcement of Arbitral Awards

On 27 November 2020, the Chinese Supreme People’s Court and the Hong Kong Department of Justice signed the Supplemental Arrangement Concerning Mutual Enforcement of Arbitral Awards between the Mainland and the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (Supplemental Arrangement). The Supplemental Arrangement modifies and supplements the existing Arrangement Concerning Mutual Enforcement of Arbitral Awards between the Mainland and the HKSAR which was signed on 21 June 1999 and came into effect on 1 February 2000 (1999 Arrangement).

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INDIA AMENDS ARBITRATION LAW RELATING TO ENFORCEMENT OF AWARDS TAINTED BY FRAUD AND ARBITRATOR QUALIFICATIONS

In a little heralded development, the Government of India passed the Arbitration and Conciliation (Amendment) Ordinance 2020 (the “Ordinance”) on 4 November 2020 to amend the Indian Arbitration and Conciliation Act 1996 (the “Act”) with immediate effect. The Ordinance introduces provisions to stay the enforcement of arbitral awards tainted by fraud, and deletes certain provisions from the Act relating to qualification and accreditation of arbitrators.

Stay on enforcement

An important change introduced by the Ordinance concerns the power of the Indian court to stay enforcement of an award where an application has been made to set it aside. A court must now grant an unconditional stay on the enforcement of an award if a prima facie case is made out that the arbitration agreement or contract which is the basis of the award, or the making of the award itself was “induced or effected” by fraud or corruption. The stay shall continue until the application to set aside the award is decided.

By way of background, under Section 34 of the Act, a party to an arbitral award made in India may apply to the Indian court to have it set aside on the grounds, amongst other things, that the award conflicts with the public policy of India, which includes circumstances where the making of the award was induced or affected by fraud or corruption.

Prior to 2015, Section 36 of the Act was applied such that enforcement of an award would be stayed where an application was made under Section 34 until that application had been decided. This incentivised losing parties to challenge awards on any grounds to prevent their enforcement. An amendment to the Act passed in 2015 (discussed in our prior blog post here) modified Section 36 such that the filing of an application to set aside an award would not by itself render the award unenforceable, unless the court in its discretion granted a stay based on a separate application.

The Ordinance now restricts this discretion in that a court must stay an award unconditionally if it is satisfied that a prima facie case of fraud is made out. The amendment is deemed to have been inserted from 23 October 2015, and applies to all court cases arising out of arbitral proceedings, irrespective of whether the arbitration or court proceedings were commenced before or after this date.

The Ordinance notes that the change was made to address concerns raised by stakeholders. While the court already had the discretion to stay enforcement where the award was being challenged, the mandatory nature of the stay where a prima facie case of fraud is made out will inevitably incentivise challenges on that basis. It will be interesting to see how judges deal with such challenges.

While this amendment addresses challenges to awards made in India, it should not apply to the enforcement of foreign awards under a separate part of the Act, although the Indian court has the discretion (under Section 48) to refuse enforcement of a foreign award where it finds that the award was induced or affected by fraud.

Norms for accreditation of arbitrators

The Ordinance has also deleted the Eighth Schedule to the Act dealing with the qualifications and experience of an arbitrator, which provided that a person would not be qualified to be an arbitrator in an arbitration seated in India unless he or she is an advocate, accountant or company secretary under Indian law, or an officer of the Indian Legal Service, or holding a particular degree and/ or having public sector experience. This provision was understood effectively to exclude foreign nationals from acting as an arbitrator on arbitrations seated in India.

Section 43J of the Act now states that: “The qualifications, experience and norms for accreditation of arbitrators shall be such as may be specified by the regulations.” It is possible that these regulations would be framed by the Arbitration Council of India, which is to be formed pursuant to the Arbitration and Conciliation (Amendment) Act 2019 (discussed in our blog post here).

For more information, please contact Nick Peacock, Partner, Nihal Joseph, Associate, or your usual Herbert Smith Freehills contact.

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ENFORCING COURT CAN GRANT WIDER RELIEF THAN AWARD, SAYS HONG KONG COURT

The long-running case of Xiamen Xinjingdi Group Co Ltd v Eton Properties Limited and Others [2020] 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.

Xiamen Xinjingdi Group Co Ltd v Eton Properties Limited and Others [2020] HKCFA 32

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PRC court clarifies enforcement of Mainland award made by foreign institution

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

Background

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.

Comment

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.

Helen Tang

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Weina Ye

Weina Ye
International Partner, Kewei
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Stella Hu

Stella Hu
Of Counsel, Beijing
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Briana Young

Briana Young
Professional Support Consultant, Hong Kong
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English High Court dismisses challenge to enforcement of award where award debtor allegedly unable to engage a hearing advocate

In a recent application (Shell Energy Europe Limited v Meta Energia SpA [2020] EWHC 1799 (Comm)), the English court dismissed a challenge to the court’s previous order under s66 of the Arbitration Act 1996 (“the Act”) granting leave to enforce an award. The challenge was made on the ground that the applicant was not able to participate in the merits hearing in the arbitration, due to difficulty in securing an advocate. In circumstances where the evidence “fell well short” of persuading the Court that the applicant had no choice but to cease its hearing participation, the challenge was unsuccessful.

Background

The applicant in this case, Meta Energia SpA (“Meta”) had participated fully in the underlying LCIA arbitration until the last stage. Less than 10 days ahead of the planned two-day final merits hearing, Meta dismissed its entire legal team, saying this was because it was unsatisfied with the way the legal team had pursued or presented the defence.

Meta was granted a hearing adjournment of two weeks and instructed new solicitors, but said that it was unable to instruct new leading counsel as advocate.

Meta’s new solicitors attended the final hearing, but did not participate other than to make a brief submission that Meta was unable to present its case.

The arbitrators considered whether it was just and appropriate to continue and concluded that it was. The claimant’s legal team reminded the arbitrators of points of substance raised against the claimant, based upon Meta’s written submissions on the merits.

The arbitrators afforded Meta a further period of time to engage with the merits, if it chose to do so after receiving the hearing transcript. Meta did not make any submissions on the merits and did not seek additional time to do so, although it did make a number of comments on costs. The award was then issued in December 2019.

The claimant sought to enforce the award in Italy under the New York Convention, but Meta attempted to resist enforcement there on the basis that Meta had been unable to present its case in the arbitration (Article V.1(b)). The claimant also sought to enforce the award in the UK and in May 2020 had obtained the High Court’s leave pursuant to s66 of the Act to enter judgment in the terms of the award (the “May 2020 enforcement order”). Meta subsequently applied to the Court to set aside the May 2020 enforcement.

S66 of the Act

The summary procedure under s66 of the Act can be used to enforce arbitral awards in arbitrations seated in England and elsewhere. An award creditor can apply to the English court under s66 to enforce an award in the same way as an English court judgment and may also seek judgment in terms of the award. Applications under s66 will be refused either where the award debtor can show that the tribunal lacked substantive jurisdiction (s66(3) of the Act), or where the court refuses the application on discretionary grounds.

In this case Meta sought to persuade the court that there was a “’due process’ complaint”…as a discretionary reason why… [the award] should not be enforced under s.66”.

Court’s decision

The Court was unsympathetic to Meta’s argument that it was not able to participate in the merits hearing because it was unable to be represented by leading counsel.

The Court noted that there was no clarity as to how the applicant’s defence in the arbitration could have been improved or set out differently by any new legal team. In addition, Meta had said it wanted to instruct leading counsel to provide the advocacy at the hearing and ”took the view that it would not participate on the merits unless it could be represented by leading counsel”. Despite this, the Court took the view that Meta could have been appropriately represented at the merits hearing by suitable junior counsel.  The Court went on further to say that Meta did not need to use the Bar and could have instructed suitable solicitors for the advocacy, there being “highly skilled and experienced international arbitration practitioners, not just the Bar”, able to provide advocacy services in arbitration.

No evidence had been put before the court to explain Meta’s decision not to provide written submissions in response to the receipt of the hearing transcript, or to explain how Meta’s position had allegedly been worsened by the hearing having gone ahead.

The Court also noted that no challenge to the award had been made under s68 of the Act, which would be the “normal means to pursue a complaint of lack of due process or other procedural unfairness”. It was in any event clear that there was no arguable basis for any s68 challenge. The arbitrators had been “scrupulously even-handed” and the process “unimpeachably fair”. Meta could have presented and fully developed its case, but simply chose not to do so.

Accordingly, the Court dismissed the challenge, and the May 2020 enforcement order was confirmed.

Comment

This judgment confirms the pro-arbitration stance of the English courts in relation to applications for enforcement under s66 of the Act. While the courts will refuse applications where enforcement would not be in the interests of justice, the courts will not exercise their discretion to deny enforcement on questionable grounds.

For more information, please contact Chris Parker, Partner, Rebecca Warder, Professional Support Lawyer, Peter Chen, Associate, or your usual Herbert Smith Freehills contact.

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Chris Parker
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Rebecca Warder
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Peter Chen

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CIETAC tribunal applies UNIDROIT Principles where parties fail to present case under governing law

While commercial parties are generally free to select the law that governs their contracts, they must also ensure that they understand the law they selected, and can actually apply that law to the contract.  In a CIETAC arbitral award published by CIETAC in its publication “Selection of Arbitration Cases Involving the Belt and Road Countries”, a sole arbitrator came up with a creative solution in a situation where the parties failed to present their cases under the governing law of the contract.  The arbitrator applied the UNIDROIT Principles of International Commercial Contracts to determine the legal issues in dispute.  Despite this arbitrator’s willingness to “think outside of the box”, the case is a reminder that parties must consider the legal and practical implications of their contractual choices.

Background

On 24 September 2012, the Indonesian Respondent EPC contractor entered into an EPC Sub-Contract (Agreement) with the Mainland Chinese First Claimant and Indonesian Second Claimant to build a coal-fired power plant located in Indonesia.  The governing law of the Agreement was Singapore law and disputes were referred to arbitration at the China International Economic and Trade Arbitration Commission (CIETAC).

The Project was stayed at the preliminary design stage.  The Claimants contended that the Respondent had failed to provide permanent use of the road to access the Project’s site and failed to provide location details of the main entrance of the Project, which resulted in the Claimants’ delay in providing the preliminary design drawings to the Respondent.  The Respondent in return blamed the Claimants for their delay in submitting the preliminary design drawing within the time limits as provided under the Agreement; and called the advance payment bonds and performance bond just before the Claimants completed and submitted the preliminary design drawings.  After calling the bonds, the Respondent refused to pass the preliminary design drawing to the Employer for review and approval.  As a result, performance under the Agreement was suspended.

The Claimants commenced arbitration and sought a declaration that the Agreement was terminated due to the Respondent’s breach.  The Claimants also sought an order for the Respondent to return the called amounts of the performance bond; to return the difference between the amount of the advance payment bonds and advance payment to the Claimants; damages, and interest.

The governing law issue

The parties had expressly selected Singaporean law to govern the Agreement.   However, neither party engaged Singaporean counsel or legal experts when arguing their cases in the arbitration. The Claimants submitted their pleadings based on Chinese law.  Whilst the Respondent objected to the application of Chinese law, it merely submitted a Singaporean legal expert report with a few Singapore court cases in support, which was very limited in substance and did not touch upon the major issues in dispute.

Despite the sole arbitrator’s instructions, the parties failed to provide sufficient Singaporean legal authorities.  The sole arbitrator referred to Article 49 of the CIETAC Arbitration Rules, which provides: “[t]he arbitral tribunal shall independently and impartially render a fair and reasonable arbitral award based on the facts of the case and the terms of the contract, in accordance with the law, and with reference to international practices”, and proposed that the parties submit their cases under the UNIDROIT Principles.  If any party considered there was a conflict between Singaporean law and the UNIDROIT Principles, it could make submissions accordingly.   The parties accepted this solution and submitted pleadings based on the UNIDROIT Principles.

The sole arbitrator found that the Claimants had breached the Agreement by delaying the initial design drawings.  However, the sole arbitrator held that the Respondent’s response to the Claimants’ breach, by calling the bonds in full and refusing to submit the initial drawing to the Employer, had been disproportionate to the breach.  In the arbitrator’s view, the Respondent’s call on the bonds made it impossible for the Claimants to continue performing the Agreement.

In the arbitrator’s view, the Respondent’s call on the bonds therefore constituted a fundamental breach of the Agreement.  The arbitrator relied on the UNIDROIT Principles to uphold the Claimants’ claim that they were entitled to terminate the Agreement, and to determine the consequences of that termination.  The arbitrator reasoned that the UNIDROIT Principles reflect good practice and general principles in international commercial contracts.  Unless either party could demonstrate otherwise, the sole arbitrator held that he had no reason to believe there was any inconsistency between Singapore law and the UNIDROIT Principles.

Comment

In practice, many arbitrators would not proactively apply a non-binding codification of transnational legal principles to resolve a dispute where parties have explicitly chosen the governing law of the contract.  The published award does not elaborate on why the tribunal proposed applying the UNIDROIT Principles.  However, it does indicate that Chinese arbitrators may be increasingly open to applying international legal principles when dealing with foreign-related commercial disputes.

Nevertheless, this case appears to be a one-off, and it would be unwise for parties to rely on an arbitrator’s willingness to adopt creative solutions of this kind.  Parties who take advantage of the contractual freedom to select a neutral governing law must be prepared to argue their cases under that law, i.e. to instruct counsel or experts who are qualified to practice that law.  If parties do not apply the selected governing law in the arbitration, they must be prepared for the additional time and expense involved in determining which laws apply before the substantive claims can be heard, not to mention the risk of an unexpected outcome if the law applied produces an unfavourable decision.

[1] This award was published by CIETAC in the Selection of Arbitration Cases Involving the Belt and Road Countries, at pages 58 to 105.

Helen Tang

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Jean Zhu

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Hong Kong court refuses enforcement of mainland award, rejects limitation arguments

In Wang Peiji v Wei Zhiyong [2019] HKCFI 2593; [2019] HKEC 3446, the Hong Kong Court of First Instance has set aside an order to enforce a mainland Chinese arbitration award, rejecting arguments that a twelve year limitation period applied because the award had been made under seal.

Background

The Plaintiff, the Defendant and a third party entered into a loan agreement, under which the Defendant  and the third party borrowed RMB 22 million. In case of default, the Defendant and the third party would pay interest at 2% per month, and the Defendant’s companies would guarantee the repayment. The Defendant, the third party and the Defendant’s companies failed to repay the loan, so the Plaintiff commenced arbitration at the Guangzhou Arbitration Commission, which made an award in the Plaintiff’s favour on 20 April 2009.

The Plaintiff commenced enforcement proceedings in the Panyu People’s Court where it recovered RMB 4,734,019.48, leaving RMB 3,353,496.92 plus interest outstanding under the award. The Plaintiff then commenced enforcement proceedings in Hong Kong to recover the remaining amount. On 14 May 2019 Madam Justice Mimmie Chan granted leave to enforce the award, holding that the Defendant should pay the outstanding sum plus interest. The Defendant appealed.

Decision

In setting aside the enforcement order, the court addressed two main issues.

The applicable limitation period

The first issue was the applicable limitation period under the Limitation Ordinance. The Plaintiff argued that the applicable provision was section 4(3) Limitation Ordinance (Cap. 347), which provides a limitation period of twelve years meaning that the Plaintiff was entitled to enforce the award until 20 April 2021. This was based on the fact that the award of the Guangzhou Arbitration Commission was executed under seal. The Defendant argued that the relevant period was six years under section 4(1)(c). The Court ultimately agreed with the Defendant. It rejected the Plaintiff’s argument, stating that the relevant consideration is whether the underlying contractual document, not the award, was executed under seal. As there was no suggestion of that in this case, the Court held that the default limitation period of six years applied.

Suspension of the limitation period

In the alternative, the Plaintiff argued that the limitation should be suspended for the period in which the Plaintiff was engaged in enforcement proceedings before the Chinese court. The Plaintiff sought to distinguish CL v SCG [2019] 2 HKLRD 144, in which the judge relied on the English case Agromet v Maulden Engineering Ltd [1985] 1 WLR 762 to reject the suspension argument. The judge in CL stated that there was no provision in the Limitation Ordinance or the Arbitration Ordinance that the limitation period should not run during the period a party is seeking to enforce an award abroad. The Plaintiff sought to distinguish the case on the basis that, unlike in CL, enforcement efforts in this case went on for considerable time and were successful, meaning that it could not be expected to have ceased its efforts in China.

Despite these arguments, the Court again found in favour of the Defendant. It held that the ruling in CL had been clear, and the fact that the Plaintiff had had more success in China than the plaintiff in CL was not a material difference which distinguished the two cases. The Court therefore allowed the Defendant’s application to set aside the enforcement order, and made a costs order in its favour.

Comment

The case serves as a reminder to pay close attention to limitation periods. In deciding where to bring enforcement proceedings, parties should consider not only the value of the defendant’s assets in a particular jurisdiction, but also the effect that the length of enforcement proceedings could have on their ability to enforce in other jurisdictions. Parties and their legal advisers must consider all relevant factors when assessing where to enforce.

May Tai

May Tai
Managing Partner, Greater China, Hong Kong
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Simon Chapman

Simon Chapman
Partner, Hong Kong
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Kathryn Sanger

Kathryn Sanger
Partner, Hong Kong
+852 21014029

Briana Young

Briana Young
Foreign Legal Consultant (England & Wales)/Professional Support Consultant, Hong Kong
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Hong Kong court: remission for reconsideration – not an automatic cure for substantial injustice

In P v. M [2019] HKCFI 1864; HCCT 6/2019 (24 July 2019), the Hong Kong Court of First Instance set aside parts of two arbitral awards which were found to be in breach of procedural fairness resulting in substantial injustice.

Background

This is the second of two set aside applications arising from the same underlying arbitration based on a construction contract (Contract) which provided for domestic arbitration in Hong Kong. M had claimed against P for monies to which it was entitled under the Contract. After a first hearing in November 2017, the tribunal issued an interim award against P, ordering it to pay damages for loss and expense (First Award).

Challenge to the First Award

P raised a challenge to the parts of the First Award relating to a sum in respect of site overheads and insurance costs (Disputed Sum).

  • P argued that M’s case on the Disputed Sum was that it was not required to give notice of the claim for the Disputed Sum, or that even if such notice were required, P had waived this requirement or was estopped from asserting M’s failure to do so.
  • While the tribunal had rejected M’s pleaded claims, it nevertheless awarded M the Disputed Sum by finding that certain letters from M to P constituted notice as required by the Contract. P argued that in doing so, the tribunal had exceeded its powers, or had failed to conduct the arbitral proceedings in accordance with the procedure agreed by the parties.
  • P thus sought to impugn certain paragraphs of the First Award pertaining to the Disputed Sum (Challenged Paragraphs), or alternatively, to set aside the First Award on the ground that P had been denied a reasonable opportunity to present its case in the arbitration.

P’s application was heard and granted by Mimmie Chan J.

  • Chan J found that P had been “deprived of the fair opportunity to present its case and to make submissions to the tribunal on the effect and adequacy of the [letters] as proper notices under the Contract”, given that P had not been informed of this argument during the arbitration proceedings.
  • While noting the need for finality of awards, and that only extreme cases would justify the court’s intervention, Chan J found that this was a case where a serious error had affected due process and the structural integrity of the arbitral proceedings, with the result that P had suffered substantial injustice.
  • Since the complaint was that P had been deprived of a fair opportunity to make relevant submissions to the tribunal, Chan J remitted the matter to the tribunal for reconsideration. In addition, she declared that the Challenged Paragraphs would have no effect pending the reconsideration, and ordered the parties to file further submissions to the tribunal on specific issues, including the meaning and effect of the letters and whether they constituted valid notification of claims as required under the Contract.

Challenge to the Second Award

Following Chan J’s decision, the parties filed further submissions and the tribunal issued a second interim award (Second Award), which reinstated the Challenged Paragraphs in the First Award. P then raised a challenge to the Second Award on the same grounds as its first challenge.

  • P again argued that the tribunal had exceeded its powers and/or failed to conduct the proceedings in accordance with the procedure agreed by the parties or as directed by Chan J by, among others:
    • summarily rejecting P’s submissions on “threshold issues” that injustice arising from matters not raised in the substantive arbitration could not be rectified by further submissions on remission in the absence of a further evidentiary hearing;
    • taking into account submissions made by M which were not “in reply” to P’s submissions on remission and had not been pleaded or dealt with in evidence in the arbitration;
    • directing further submissions on matters which could not properly and fairly be addressed by a further evidentiary hearing;
    • embarking on its own enquiry and making findings that were not contended by M.
  • P submitted that it was denied an opportunity to address such matters, of which P had had no prior notice.
  • P further submitted that there was no benefit in remitting such matters to the tribunal again.

Decision on the Second Award

Coleman J first canvassed the principles applicable to the challenge, which he regarded as “reasonably well-settled”:

  • it is for the applicant to establish both serious irregularity and substantial injustice. The test of a serious irregularity giving rise to substantial injustice requires a high threshold to be met, so as drastically to reduce the extent of intervention by the Court in the arbitral process;
  • the Court is concerned with the structural integrity of the arbitration proceedings, and not with the substantive merits of the dispute;
  • a balance has to be drawn between the need for finality of the award and the need to protect parties against unfair conduct in the arbitration. Therefore, only an extreme case will justify the Court’s intervention;
  • the effect of setting aside an award or declaring an award, or part thereof, to be of no effect is that the award, or the relevant part, is a nullity. The arbitration can revive or carry on as necessary to deal with the matters that were set aside or declared to be of no effect;
  • following a remission, the tribunal’s revived authority extends only to the matters that are so remitted; it cannot go beyond the scope of the revived jurisdiction.

On the evidence, Coleman J agreed with P that there had been a serious irregularity leading to substantial injustice.

  • Coleman J opined that “once it [was] identified and directed that parties are bound by their pleaded cases, and by the evidence already traversed at the arbitration hearing, and by the findings of fact made on that evidence, then there was really only one proper conclusion which the [tribunal] could have reached” – that the claim must fail.
  • If M had wished to advance a case on the suggestion of the tribunal that the letters constituted the required notice, then “it could only properly have done so by making an application to amend its pleadings, which if allowed would almost certainly have required re-opening the evidentiary hearing.”
  • While the tribunal was mindful of Chan J’s decision, and sought to provide proper opportunity for P to present its case by giving P the “final right of reply”, the defects “have not been cured, and could not have been cured, by the route taken by the Arbitrator”.
  • The Court had in fact already considered that intervention in this arbitration is justified and necessary. Despite the remission for reconsideration, the serious irregularity warranting intervention has not been cured.

Coleman J thus proceeded to set aside the paragraphs in the First Award that had been impugned by Chan J, as well as the relevant paragraphs of the Second Award that exceeded M’s pleaded case.

Conclusion

While Hong Kong courts are slow to set aside arbitral awards, they will do so where they consider that the high threshold of serious irregularity resulting in substantial injustice has been met. To avoid challenges based on serious procedural irregularities, arbitrators must resist any temptation to look beyond the case as set out in the parties’ pleadings.

 

May Tai

May Tai
Managing Partner, Greater China
+852 2101 4031

Simon Chapman

Simon Chapman
Partner, Hong Kong
+852 2101 4217

Kathryn Sanger

Kathryn Sanger
Partner, Hong Kong
+852 2101 4029

Briana Young

Briana Young
Foreign Legal Consultant (England & Wales) / Professional Support Consultant
+852 2101 4214