English court provides new guidance on summary dismissal process for groundless serious irregularity challenges

The English High Court has in the last few days proposed a procedurally strict approach to serious irregularity challenges under s68 of the Arbitration Act 1996 where these have already been dismissed on paper. The decision in Midnight Marine Ltd v Thomas Miller Speciality Underwriting Agency Ltd [2018] EWHC 3431 (Comm) suggests that the court should take a more active role in preventing such hearings from escalating into a full s68 challenge hearing (case available here).

The High Court’s earlier decision in the case of Asset Management Corporation of Nigeria v Qatar National Bank [2018] EWHC 2218 (Comm) covered in our previous blog post, demonstrated the difficulty in disposing of bad s68 challenges quickly. This judgment emphasised that an oral hearing will usually be granted after a challenge is thrown out on paper, unless the case is “something akin to vexatious“. In this case, the summary dismissal of the s68 challenge was nevertheless followed by two further applications, and an oral hearing, before the challenge was finally thrown out.

Both of these recent cases promote the summary dismissal process in paragraph O8.5 of the Commercial Court Guide as a useful tool for weeding out unmeritorious s68 challenges, but the decisions differ on how to treat applications to set aside orders dismissing such challenges. The decision in Midnight Marine v Thomas Miller takes a tougher line than the earlier Asset Management Corporation of Nigeria v Qatar National Bank decision, suggesting that the oral hearing referred to in the summary dismissal process should be a very short hearing, directed only at the question of whether the application has a real prospect of success.

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English court sets aside arbitration award for serious irregularity due to tribunal’s non-disclosure of novel point central to award

The odds of successfully challenging an arbitral award in the English Courts on the basis of s68 of the Arbitration Act 1996 (serious irregularity) remain low. In the recent past over 95% of s68 challenges have been unsuccessful and in the period from 2015 to 2017 only 3 out of 112 s68 appeals succeeded, approximately 2.7% of applications made.

However, the English High Court has recently set aside an arbitral award for serious irregularity under s68(2)(a) in the case of RJ and another v HB [2018] EWHC 2833 (Comm). This case is a relatively rare and interesting example of a successful s68(2)(a) challenge.

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Reliance v Union of India: English Court confirms that there is no serious irregularity under s68(2)(a) if an issue of construction decided by the tribunal is “squarely in play”

In Reliance Industries Limited & Ors v The Union of India [2018] EWHC 822 (Comm) the English commercial court (the Court) considered a number of challenges to parts of an arbitration award brought under sections 67, 68 and 69 of the Arbitration Act 1996 (the  Act).

The decision provides useful guidance regarding the requirements to be satisfied should a party wish to challenge an award due to a “serious irregularity” under the Act. In particular, the Court confirmed that the general duty under s33 of the Act to give each party a reasonable opportunity to present its case was satisfied if the “essential building blocks” of the tribunal’s analysis and reasoning were in play in relation to an issue, even where the argument (in this case on a point of construction) was not articulated in the way adopted by the tribunal.

In addition to the issues discussed in this blog post, the Court considered the foreign act of state doctrine. This challenge is discussed in a post on our Public International Law Notes blog here.

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