Hong Kong court stays proceedings for arbitration, honouring arbitration agreement in insurance policy

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.

Lau Lan Ying v Top Hill Company and another [2021] HKCFI 290

Background

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.

Stay Application

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.

Difference Issue

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:

  1. there is a prima facie assumption that contracting parties intend all disputes relating to a particular transaction to be resolved by the same tribunal;
  2. arbitration clauses should be construed as broadly and liberally as possible and any doubts on the scope of arbitration should be resolved in favour of arbitration; and
  3. each arbitration clause should be considered in its own context, and earlier decisions on the meaning of particular words or phrases may be persuasive depending on the similarity in contract and circumstances between such earlier decisions and the instant case.

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 [1942] 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”.

Policy Issue

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:

  1. in determining whether a dispute is arbitrable, the parties’ arbitration agreement is an important starting point, which the law should respect unless there are compelling reasons not to do so; and
  2. save when the statutory provision reserves exclusive jurisdiction to the courts, in considering whether the arbitration should be precluded by public policy considerations, a high threshold is required given the countervailing policy considerations of party autonomy and compliance with international treaty obligations (such as the duty to recognise and enforce an arbitration agreement under the New York Convention).

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.

Comments

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.

May Tai

May Tai
Managing Partner - Asia
+852 21014031

Simon Chapman

Simon Chapman
Partner
+852 21014217

Kathryn Sanger

Kathryn Sanger
Partner
+852 21014029

Briana Young

Briana Young
Professional Support Consultant
+852 21014214

KEY ISSUES IN ARBITRATION OF DERIVATIVES AND COMPLEX FINANCIAL DISPUTES: VIRTUAL PUBLIC CONSULTATION ON THE REVISION OF THE P.R.I.M.E. FINANCE RULES

Arbitration can provide an effective alternative to the courts for the resolution of disputes concerning derivatives and other complex financial products. In particular, given the inherent flexibility and emphasis on party autonomy, the arbitral process can be crafted to address the specific issues most likely to arise. Further, an arbitral tribunal experienced in financial markets law and practice can be appointed to resolve the dispute where appropriate. The advantages of arbitrating such disputes are explored in more detail in our article here.

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Hong Kong Court Refuses Enforcement Where Due Process Denied

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.

X v Y  [2020] HKCFI 2782

Background

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).

The Decision

At first instance, the CFI was invited to rule on two issues:

  1. Whether the award dealt with matters falling outside the terms of the submission to arbitration; and
  2. Whether the Bank had been unable to present its case in the arbitration.

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 [2017] 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 [2007] 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:

  1. the Court had misconstrued the nature of X’s claim in the arbitration;
  2. the Court had erred in finding that the legality of the Pledge was an issue that fell to be determined; and
  3. the Bank had been given a fair opportunity to present its case.

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.

Comments

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.

May Tai

May Tai
Managing Partner - Asia
+852 21014031

Simon Chapman

Simon Chapman
Partner
+852 21014217

Kathryn Sanger

Kathryn Sanger
Partner
+852 21014029

Briana Young

Briana Young
Professional Support Consultant
+852 21014214

Hong Kong court declines to grant time extension to a set-aside application which was made seven days after the statutory deadline

In A v D [2020] HKCFI 2887, the Hong Kong Court of First Instance refused to extend time for the applicants (the “Applicants”) to apply to set aside an arbitral award on the basis that the Applicants failed to give any satisfactory explanation for their delay in making the application.  The Court further found that, even considering the merits of the application, there were no prospects of persuading the Court to exercise its discretion to grant the time extension sought.

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Hong Kong court refuses to issue “interim-interim” injunction to restrain arbitrator from acting in arbitration

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.

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HERBERT SMITH FREEHILLS UPDATES ESSENTIAL GUIDE TO DISPUTES CLAUSES IN CHINA CONTRACTS

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.‎

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GOVERNMENT LAUNCHES PILOT SCHEME ON FACILITATION FOR PERSONS PARTICIPATING IN ARBITRAL PROCEEDINGS IN HONG KONG

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 Eligible Person holds a nationality that permits him/her to visit Hong Kong without a visa;
  • the duration of the stay does not exceed the current visa-free period;
  • a “Letter of Proof” is obtained from the relevant arbitral institution, confirming that he or she is eligible under the Scheme. (In ad hoc arbitrations, the Letter of Proof must be issued by a reputable venue with established and well-equipped hearing facilities for ad hoc arbitrations; namely, HKIAC or the Department of Justice).

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.

May Tai

May Tai
Partner
+852 21014031

Simon Chapman

Simon Chapman
Partner
+852 21014217

Kathryn Sanger

Kathryn Sanger
Partner
+852 21014029

Briana Young

Briana Young
Senior Associate
+852 21014214

HONG KONG COURT MAKES HADKINSON ORDER AND IMPOSES SECURITY AGAINST CHINESE BILLIONAIRE

The Hong Kong Court of First Instance has granted a so-called “Hadkinson order”, adjourning an application to resist enforcement of CIETAC arbitral awards, on the basis of the applicant’s poor conduct in earlier stages of the proceedings. The court also ordered the parties resisting enforcement to pay 40% of the award amounts as security. The application is the latest in a series of interim relief and enforcement proceedings in support of a Beijing seated CIETAC arbitration against Zhang Lan, billionaire and founder of the South Beauty restaurant group. Madam Zhang was earlier held in contempt of court for breaching a Hong Kong court injunction and asset disclosure order.

La Dolce Vita Fine Dining Group Holdings Ltd v Zhang Lan [2020] HKCFI 622

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