HONG KONG COURT CONFIRMS JUDICIAL IMMUNITY TO ARBITRATORS WHEN COMPELLED TO GIVE EVIDENCE

In Song Lihua v Lee Chee Hong [2023] HKCFI 1954, the Court of First Instance considered whether arbitrators can be compelled to give evidence in proceedings to challenge their awards, in this case an application to set aside an order granting leave to enforce in Hong Kong an arbitral award of the Chengdu Arbitration Commission.

The Court recognised the quasi-judicial function of arbitrators and held that arbitrators should be entitled to the same immunity available to judges in respect of their decision-making in an arbitration, except in situations of fraud or bad faith, and that such immunity included in this context immunity from being compelled to give evidence as witnesses in relation to the exercise of their quasi-judicial functions.

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THE USUAL SUSPECTS PROJECT: DECIPHERING DECISION-MAKING IN ARBITRATOR SELECTION

The Hong Kong International Arbitration Centre (HKIAC) and Cortex Capital have launched a collaboration called ‘The Usual Suspects Project’ with the support of a number of organisations including Herbert Smith Freehills. The project examines the decision-making process behind the selection of party-appointed arbitrators. The project will also reveal how factors such as diversity are considered in the appointment process.

During Hong Kong Arbitration Week, Cortex Capital partnered with the Hong Kong International Arbitration Centre (HKIAC) to launch a survey to explore how arbitrator appointments are understood by major arbitration players in Hong Kong, as well as the wider global arbitration community. The aim of the survey is to “unlock the black box” of party appointments, with vital input from those in the arbitral community who have a role in the decision-making process. Dr Ula Cartwright-Finch, project lead and Managing Director of Cortex Capital, says: “Picking arbitrators is a seriously spicy topic. It goes to the heart of arbitration as a process: efficacy, legitimacy, enforceability – everything. But how parties do it is such a mystery. Unpacking the decision-making process will be fascinating in its own right but it’s also an essential one if we’re serious about de-biasing those decisions.”

The survey is open to all arbitration users and arbitration counsel and takes less than five minutes to complete. To participate in the survey and share your experiences of the arbitrator appointment process, please follow this link.

For further information, please contact Simon Chapman, Partner, May Tai, Partner, Kathryn Sanger, Partner, or your usual Herbert Smith Freehills contact.

Simon Chapman KC
Simon Chapman KC
Regional Head of Practice - Dispute Resolution, Asia
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May Tai
May Tai
Partner
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Kathryn Sanger
Kathryn Sanger
Partner
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Hong Kong court sets aside award for wrongful identification of party

In arbitral proceedings where the respondent was wrongly named, the Hong Kong Court of First Instance has set aside the arbitral award on the basis that the named respondent is not a party to the arbitration agreement and was not given proper notice of the proceedings. This rare example of a successful set-aside application demonstrates that the courts will be prepared to overturn an award where a statutorily prescribed ground is clearly established.

AB v CD [2021] HKCFI 327

Background

The dispute arose out of an agreement between AB Bureau and CD (Agreement). Pursuant to the arbitration clause in the Agreement, CD issued a Notice of Arbitration in April 2019. Consistent with the Agreement, the Notice of Arbitration named AB Bureau as respondent. However, after the Notice of Arbitration was issued, a series of events occurred which ultimately led to the set-aside application:

  • In July 2019, CD submitted an Amended Notice of Arbitration revising the name of respondent from “AB Bureau” to “AB Bureau also known as AB Bureau Co, Ltd”.
  • The critical event took place in November 2019, when CD applied to the sole arbitrator to “correct” respondent’s name from “AB Bureau” to “AB Engineering”. In support of its application, CD relied on AB Engineering’s website which, CD submitted, showed that AB Bureau was the predecessor of AB Engineering.
  • Following CD’s request, the sole arbitrator issued a procedural order giving effect to the name change and ordering that no further service of notice was necessary.
  • In March 2020, the final Award was issued, with AB Engineering named as the respondent. Neither AB Bureau nor AB Engineering participated in the arbitration.

AB Engineering, the award debtor, applied to set aside the Award on the basis that:

  • AB Engineering was not a party to the Agreement, and there was no valid arbitration agreement between AB Engineering and CD (Article 34 (2)(a)(i) of the UNCITRAL Model Law);
  • the Award contained decisions on matters beyond the scope of the submission to the Arbitration (Article 34(2)(a)(iii) of the Model Law); and
  • AB Engineering was not given proper notice of an arbitrator or of the arbitration proceedings (Article 34 (2) (a) (ii) of the Model Law).

It was not disputed that if AB Engineering succeeded on any of the above grounds, the Court could set aside the Award.

Decision

It became clear at the court hearing that AB Bureau and AB Engineering were at all times two separate and distinct legal entities. CD nevertheless sought to enforce the Award on the grounds that AB Engineering was a party to the agreement and was estopped from applying to set aside the Award. Mimmie Chan J rejected both arguments.

CD’s primary case was that AB Engineering was a party to the Agreement by virtue of the definition of AB. In the Agreement, AB is defined to mean “AB Bureau or any other Affiliated entity”. On a proper construction of the Agreement, the Court found that the Agreement was made between CD and AB Bureau only and there was no evidence that AB Engineering had had any role in the performance of the Agreement. This distinguished the case from Giorgio Armani SpA v Elan Clothes Co Ltd [2020] 1 HKLRD 354, where the underlying agreement was expressly made “by and between” the parent company, SpA, “together with its branch offices and Affiliates”. The Court disagreed with CD’s “self-drawn conclusion” and found that there was no statement on AB’s website capable of indicating that AB Bureau and AB Engineering were the same legal entity.

The Court further noted that, even if AB Engineering could be said to be a party to the Agreement, it had not been given proper notice of the arbitral proceedings. The two notices of arbitration were never sent to the proper registered address of AB Engineering and were in any case addressed to AB Bureau. As such, no adequate notice of the arbitration had been given to AB Engineering, the award debtor.

CD also contended that AB Engineering was estopped from applying to set aside the Award because its employees had misled CD to believe that AB Bureau and AB Engineering were the same entity. This argument was rejected by the Court on the grounds that CD had not relied on the employees’ statements. On the evidence, CD relied solely and erroneously on AB Engineering’s website rather than on the alleged misrepresentation. In this connection, the Court emphasised that “it is incumbent on a claimant and its legal advisers to identify the proper defendant/respondent and to verify its name, particularly after query has been raised. It is no excuse for CD and its legal advisers now to put the blame on employees of Bureau/AB Engineering for any misnomer in the name of the party CD seeks to bring proceedings against.

In light of the above, Chan J held that the Award should be set aside under Article 34(2)(a)(i) and (ii) of the Model Law.

Comment

It is rare for a Hong Kong court to set aside an arbitral award, but it will not hesitate to do so if the award debtor can clearly demonstrate a statutory ground for set aside and the court considers set aside is justified.

Here, the similarities in the names of companies involved, the non-participation of the named respondent, and CD’s reliance on online sources all contributed to CD naming the wrong party and, ultimately, persuaded the court that the Award should not stand.

The judgment turns heavily on its facts, rather than marking any general change to the courts’ pro-enforcement approach. However, it emphasises the need for claimants to identify each counterparty carefully before commencing arbitration, especially when a complex corporate structure is involved, or risk losing the benefit of their awards.

May Tai
May Tai
Managing Partner - Asia
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Simon Chapman
Simon Chapman
Partner
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Kathryn Sanger
Kathryn Sanger
Partner
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Briana Young
Briana Young
Professional Support Consultant
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English Court rules that pre-conditions to arbitration are not matters of jurisdiction

The English High Court has declined to set aside an arbitral award, despite the fact that the Defendant had allegedly failed to comply with certain pre-conditions to arbitration agreed in a multi-tiered dispute resolution clause.

The Court said that the alleged non-compliance was a question of admissibility of the claim before the tribunal and not of the tribunal’s jurisdiction. The matter was best determined by the arbitrators and the award was not amenable to challenge under Section 67 of the English Arbitration Act 1996 (Act).

The decision provides welcome certainty that arbitration agreements will be upheld, even where there are questions regarding compliance with pre-conditions to arbitration, such as mandated cooling off or negotiation periods.

Republic of Sierra Leone v. SL Mining Ltd [2021] EWHC 286 (Comm)

Background

The underlying dispute concerned the cancellation of a large-scale mining licence. The licence contained a multi-tiered dispute resolution clause, in which the parties agreed to attempt to amicably settle disputes before commencing arbitration:

The parties shall in good faith endeavour to reach an amicable settlement of all differences of opinion or disputes which may arise between them in respect to the execution performance and interpretation or termination of this Agreement, and in respect of the rights and obligations of the parties deriving therefrom.

In the event that the parties shall be unable to reach an amicable settlement within a period of 3 (three) months from a written notice by one party to the other specifying the nature of the dispute and seeking an amicable settlement, either party may submit the matter to the exclusive jurisdiction of a Board of 3 (three) Arbitrators who shall be appointed to carry out their mission in accordance with the International Rules of Conciliation and Arbitration of the… ICC…

The Defendant served a Notice of Dispute on 14 July 2019 and its Request for Arbitration followed some six weeks later, on 30 August 2019.

The Claimant applied to set aside the award under Section 67 of the Act, which provides that an application may be made to Court to challenge any award as to its “substantive jurisdiction”. This is defined under Section 82(1) as referring to the matters specified in Section 30(1) of the Act.

Section 30(1) states that unless otherwise agreed by the parties, a tribunal may rule on its own substantive jurisdiction: “that is – as to: (a) whether there is a valid arbitration agreement; (b) whether the tribunal is properly constituted; and (c) what matters have been submitted to arbitration in accordance with the arbitration agreement.

The Claimant relied on Section 30(1)(c), submitting that because proceedings could not be commenced until the three month window for negotiations had lapsed, the dispute had not been submitted to arbitration in accordance with the parties’ arbitration agreement.

It was common ground between the parties that there is a distinction between a challenge that a claim is not admissible before the tribunal and a challenge that the tribunal had no jurisdiction to hear the claim. Only the latter challenge is available to a party under Section 67 of the Act. The distinction had been recognised by the Court in an earlier case in which it was said that: “Issues of jurisdiction go to the existence or otherwise of a tribunal’s power to judge the merits of a dispute; issues of admissibility go to whether the tribunal will exercise that power in relation to the claims submitted to it.”

Decision

The Court found that leading commentary and international authorities all lean “one way” in saying that pre-conditions to arbitration are questions of admissibility, not jurisdiction.

The Court cited Gary Born’s International Commercial Arbitration (3rd edn. 2021), in which Born said that the best approach is to presume, “absent contrary evidence”, that pre-arbitration procedural requirements are not jurisdictional, but matters better determined by the arbitrators. The rationale for this approach engages important public policy issues:

…parties can be assumed to desire a single, centralised forum (a ‘one-stop shop’) for resolution of their disputes, particularly those disputes regarding the procedural aspects of their dispute resolution mechanism.… The more objective, efficient and fair result, which the parties should be regarded as having presumptively intended, is for a single, neutral arbitral tribunal to resolve all questions regarding the procedural requirements and conduct of the parties’ dispute resolution mechanism.”

The Court was also persuaded by decisions in other leading international arbitration venues. The United States Supreme Court in BG Group v Republic of Argentina 134 S.Ct.1198 rejected a challenge to an arbitral award on the basis that a mandatory pre-condition to arbitration, namely a need to exhaust remedies before a local court, had not been complied with. The Supreme Court held that the question of compliance with pre-arbitration procedures was a matter for the arbitral tribunal to decide and not a question of jurisdiction to be reviewed by the courts.

The Singapore Court of Appeal in BBA v BAZ [2020] 2 SLR 453 and BTN v BTP [2020]SGCA 105 has also recognised the distinction between jurisdiction and admissibility. In the latter case, whether a claim was time barred was held to be a question of admissibility, not a question of jurisdiction.

As a matter of English law, the key question was whether the alleged prematurity of the proceedings properly fell within Section 30(1)(c) of the Act. The Court rejected the Claimant’s submission that this depends on the construction of the dispute resolution clause at hand, on the basis that there is no difference between a clause which provides: “No arbitration shall be brought unless X” and another which says: “In the event of X the parties may arbitrate”.

The Court found that Section 30(1)(c) of the Act has been applied so as to identify what matters have been submitted to arbitration, rather than whether or not matters have been submitted to arbitration. It concluded that if an issue relates to whether a claim could be brought to arbitration (i.e. whether arbitration is the appropriate forum), the issue is ordinarily one of jurisdiction and subject to further recourse under Section 67 of the Act. Whereas if it relates to whether a claim has been brought too early, the issue is one of admissibility and that is best decided by the arbitrators.

In reaching its conclusion, the Court distinguished its previous decisions in Emirates Trading Agency LLC v Prime Mineral Exports Private Limited [2014] EWHC 2104 (Comm) (see our blog post here) and Wah (aka Tang) v Grant Thornton International (GTIIL) Ltd [2012] EWHC 3198 (blog post here). In both cases, a challenge under Section 67 of the Act was entertained in circumstances where there was allegedly a failure to comply with a multi-tiered dispute resolution clause. However, the distinction between admissibility and jurisdiction had not been argued before the Court in either case.

Comment

The English High Court’s decision is of great practical and commercial significance, engaging fundamental policy considerations, including upholding arbitration agreements and promoting cost-effective and efficient resolution of disputes.

These policy issues are likely to be persuasive in other arbitration-friendly jurisdictions where this question may arise. Like the Act, many of its international counterparts limit the circumstances in which national courts can intervene in arbitration. In addition, although the Act is bespoke legislation and England and Wales is not an UNCITRAL Model Law jurisdiction, the distinction between matters of admissibility and jurisdiction has been recognised in Singapore, a Model Law jurisdiction.

Parties to disputes, however, remain best advised to comply with multi-tiered dispute resolution clauses where possible. Such clauses will usually be enforceable if they are drafted with a sufficient degree of certainty. Arbitral tribunals retain broad discretion to stay proceedings for a mandated cooling-off or negotiation period, or to apply cost sanctions on a non-compliant party.

It would also be open to a tribunal to rule that a premature claim is not admissible before it. In these circumstances, the parties may have to appoint a new tribunal after they have complied with the relevant pre-conditions, resulting in delay and unnecessary extra cost.

Simon Chapman
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Partner
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Briana Young
Briana Young
Professional Support Consultant
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Charlotte Benton
Charlotte Benton
Associate
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RISE IN ARBITRATION CASES IN 2020 DESPITE REDUCED VOLUME OF IN PERSON HEARINGS DUE TO CORONAVIRUS PANDEMIC

Most arbitration institutions that have released their statistics for 2020 have reported increased caseloads and/or claim amounts, despite the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic impacting in person hearings.  The strong demand for arbitration services and the fact that most arbitration institutions were able to move quickly to virtual hearings and avoid costly delays to proceedings establish arbitration as a resilient and reliable choice for commercial dispute resolution.  In this blog post we review both interim and full caseload statistics so far released for 2020.

HKIAC

The Hong Kong International Arbitration Centre broke a number of its own records this year.  With 318 cases, HKIAC received its highest number of new arbitration filings in over a decade.  The total amount in arbitration disputes handled by HKIAC was HK$68.8 billion (approximately US$8.8 billion).  Again, this is a record high since 2011.

203 of the arbitrations filed were administered by HKIAC (under rules such as the HKIAC Administered Arbitration Rules, the UNCITRAL Arbitration Rules and the HKIAC Electronic Transaction Arbitration Rules), representing a 20% year-on-year increase.  The amount in dispute for administered cases was HK$51.3 billion (approximately US$6.6 billion).

There was a small reduction in the proportion of new arbitration filings that were “international” (defined as at least one party not being from Hong Kong).  The proportion of all arbitration cases that were international also recorded a small drop.  The vast majority of cases (99.4%) chose Hong Kong as the seat of arbitration.  Hong Kong law was also the most commonly selected governing law for disputed contracts handled by HKIAC.

In 2020, HKIAC processed 22 applications under the Hong Kong-Mainland China Interim Relief Arrangement (Arrangement), which came into force in October 2019.  The total value of the evidence, assets or conduct sought to be preserved amounted to ¥6.4 billion (approximately US$988 million), of which ¥4.4 billion (approximately US$683.3 million) were successfully preserved.  This is an encouraging number, as it shows in the early days of the Arrangement that there is a realistic chance that assets and evidence sought to be preserved would likely be ordered to be preserved.

Fourteen emergency arbitrator applications were submitted to HKIAC in 2020. This is a large number, particularly given that only twenty-seven emergency arbitrator applications in total had been filed with HKIAC before 2020.  While it appears that 11 of the 14 applications were made in related arbitrations (which likely refer to a series of arbitrations arising from a related set of contracts or arise from the same or similar set of facts), there were still more applications than in past years.  Only three emergency arbitrator applications were filed in 2018, while none were filed in 2019.

The HKIAC granted 24 applications for expedited procedure in 2020, from a total of 28 applications.

There was a clear pivot to virtual hearings in 2020: 80 out of 117 hearings hosted by HKIAC in 2020 were fully or partially virtual, doubtless as a result of the pandemic.  Only 37 hearings were in-person, hosted at the HKIAC’s Hong Kong premises.

Fifty-two HKIAC arbitrations were concluded by Final Award in 2020, while four reached party settlement.

Finally, HKIAC released statistics on diversity of arbitrator appointments.  Of the 149 arbitrator appointments by HKIAC in 2020, 34 were of female arbitrators.  This continues an upward trend from 17.6% in 2018, to 20.5% in 2019 and 22.8% in 2020.

SIAC

The Singapore International Arbitration Centre is expected to report its full case load information later this year, but it has already announced that it had crossed the 1000-case threshold with 1005 new cases in 2020 as of 30 October 2020.  This is another record year for SIAC, breaking the previous record caseload it had reported in 2019.

CIETAC

The China International Economic and Trade Arbitration Commission also saw growth in its caseload in 2020.  A total of 3615 ongoing cases were registered by CIETAC, representing an 8.5% year-on-year growth.

CIETAC reported that it handled disputes amounting in total to ¥112.130 billion (approximately US$17.3 billion).

There was growth not only in the number of cases handled by CIETAC, but also in terms of its international caseload.  In 2020, 739 cases were categorised as “foreign-related cases”, compared to 617 in 2019.  67 of these were cases where both parties were considered “foreign”, which was a record high for CIETAC.  CIETAC made 5213 arbitrator appointments in 2020.

As part of its response to the pandemic, CIETAC also established new virtual hearing centres, handling 819 virtual hearings.  This was an increase of 628 cases that were heard virtually.

ICC

Like HKIAC, the International Chamber of Commerce Court of Arbitration also announced record demand for its arbitration services last year.

ICC reported 946 new arbitration cases in 2020, the highest since 2016.  The majority of the new cases (929 cases) adopted the ICC Rules of Arbitration, while the remaining 17 (which were ad hoc cases) were filed under the ICC Appointing Authority Rules.

LCIA

The London Court of International Arbitration also reported a record breaking 444 cases referred to the institution in 2020, which broke the record caseload LCIA had reported in 2019 by an increase of about 10%.  These results were published on an interim basis and further statistics are expected to be released later this year.

VIAC

The Vienna International Arbitral Centre received 40 new cases in 2020, with the majority of cases involving an Austrian party.  The total amount of disputes handled by VIAC by the end of 2020 was €428 million (approximately US$518 million).

Compared to 2019, where VIAC saw 45 new cases, there was a small drop in the number of new cases received.  However, looking at the statistics for VIAC over the past few years, the number of new cases each year has generally ranged from 40 to 60 cases, so the small drop is likely part of a normal fluctuation over a longer period.

While the number of new cases did not grow, on the diversity front, more than 30% of arbitrators nominated or appointed in VIAC cases were female arbitrators.  This is the highest that VIAC has seen in recent years, and is a highlight for the institution.

DIA

The statistics from the Danish Institute of Arbitration indicate that it is primarily focused on domestic arbitrations, but about one-fifth of its cases were international in nature.  At 28 cases in 2020, DIA’s international caseload was approximately the same as during  the past five years, which ranged from 27 to 33 cases.

SCAI

The Swiss Chambers’ Arbitration Institution reported 83 new arbitration cases in 2020, with 61 being international.  While the number of new cases was not the highest that SCAI has received, it continues an average growth trend over the past decade.

AAA-ICDR

The American Arbitration Association-International Centre for Dispute Resolution reported that it handled 9538 cases in 2020, worth approximately US$18 billion.  This is a slight drop from 9737 cases in 2019, but – notably – an increase in claim amount when compared to the US$15 billion in claims in 2019.  AAA-ICDR also saw an increase from 94 filings for emergency arbitration in 2019 to 111 filings in 2020.

The largest claims, in aggregate, were from the technology sector (US$1.4 billion) followed by financial services, telecommunications and energy (in that order).  This is in contrast to the largest claims in 2019 coming from life sciences (USD 1 billion) followed by construction, real estate and technology.

In terms of changes in caseload by sector, cases related to the cannabis industry saw a 100% increase, the largest rise of any sector (the same industry saw a 225% increase in 2019, which was also the largest sector rise in 2019).

On the diversity front, AAA-ICDR reported 33% of appointments as “diverse appointments” (which refers to gender and ethnic diversity).

Commentary

A majority of arbitration institutions globally reported growth in case load and/or claim amounts in 2020, many of them even breaking their previous records.  This goes to show that arbitration remains a robust dispute resolution mechanism, which has proven its ability to adapt to the highly challenging circumstances of the past year.

It was also a clear side effect of the pandemic that there was a significant shift to virtual hearings.  While users have been slowly moving towards virtual hearings for a number of years, it appears that 2020 will be recognised as the year in which virtual hearings went mainstream, allowing arbitral institutions all over the world to continue to serve the needs of their users.

Simon Chapman
Simon Chapman
Partner
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Rebecca Warder
Rebecca Warder
Professional Support Lawyer
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Jacob Sin
Jacob Sin
Associate
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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

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
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Briana Young
Professional Support Consultant
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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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