The way we conduct business and live our lives will no doubt be altered for years to come. There will inevitably be a number of disputes arising from the crisis across all sectors which are unfortunately unavoidable. With the limited number of cases local courts across the world are able to accommodate remotely, there is likely to be a serious backlog of cases which courts will need to service before new cases can be dealt with. There are also likely to be disputes which are sensitive in nature which parties do not wish to be aired in the public domain.
Further, whilst the number of press inches dedicated to Brexit has significantly reduced in recent weeks, Brexit is still a matter which businesses will need to contend with once the current crisis has subsided regardless of whether the transitional arrangements are extended past 31 December 2020 or not.
Accordingly, many businesses that do not usually adopt arbitration clauses in their commercial agreements are considering whether they should use arbitration as an alternative to court litigation.
What benefits could arbitration provide over court litigation in a post Covid-19 and Brexit world?
Many will be familiar with arbitration. But put simply, arbitration is a private form of dispute resolution. It allows parties to refer their dispute to an independent neutral tribunal to resolve. Arbitration is a creature of contract. All parties must agree in writing to refer their dispute to arbitration (whether at the outset of entering into a contract or at a later date).
Whilst some seek to argue that arbitration has certain limitations, most will admit that it provides many benefits which court procedures cannot offer. There are three benefits that may be of particular interest to the business community in a post Covid-19 and Brexit world.
Speed, flexibility and use of technology
Arbitration is a party led process which provides the parties with the flexibility to agree at the outset how their dispute should proceed. For example, parties are free to decide whether any dispute between them should be subject of expedited proceedings. Some arbitration institutional rules already provide that claims of certain values will be subject to expedited procedures (eg the ICC Rules provide that disputes under USD 2m should be resolved within 6 months of the first case management conference unless the parties agree otherwise). Parties can even agree that their disputes be resolved in a paper only format (ie the parties file submissions and supporting evidence together on paper for the tribunal to adjudicate on without a hearing).
Arbitration has always been at the forefront of employing cutting edge technology to make the procedure more efficient and cost effective. For years it has not been uncommon for arbitration hearings to be conducted by video conferencing software where the law of the seat allows. That ensures that the cost, time and environmental impact of people having to travel to hearings can be limited and also helps minimise delays of when everyone can convene for a hearing.
Statistics from a survey conducted by Queen Mary University in 2018 found that 66% of arbitration users they surveyed had seen an increase in virtual hearing rooms being used during the arbitrations. ICSID meanwhile reported that about 60% of the 200 hearings and sessions it organised in 2019 were conducted by videoconference.
Following the recent crisis, many arbitral centres have been quick to adopt technology which allows for video hearings to be conducted effectively and efficiently. By way of example, the International Arbitration Centre in London provides a service that allows for hearings to be conducted by secure video-link which provides for private breakout rooms for parties and tribunals respectively. It also provides a decluttered screen focussed only on the tribunal, advocates and witnesses.
With UK courts unfortunately announcing in March 2020 that they were limiting the number of hearings being heard during the Coronavirus outbreak, there is likely to be a significant backlog of cases to be listed once the courts are fully functioning again. Because parties are free to select the tribunals which they wish to appoint, no such issues should occur in arbitration. That means that even if parties would rather have a final hearing in person, there is no need for case management or interlocutory hearings to be delayed if they could be determined by a video hearing. That will ensure that there are no unnecessary delays to the arbitration process. Accordingly, arbitration is already being seen by participants in the market as an attractive alternative to court litigation for those that do not wish the resolution of their disputes to be delayed.
One of the key benefits of arbitration is that it is generally easier to enforce arbitration awards across the globe than it is to enforce court judgments. More than 160 States are signatories to the New York Convention which requires courts of member states to uphold arbitration agreements and enforce arbitral awards, with limited exceptions. Whilst the UK has some similar arrangements in respect of its court judgments, they are not on the scale which the New York Convention provides for.
Further, post Brexit, the Brussels Recast Regulation will cease to apply in the UK. The position regarding how UK judgments will be enforced throughout the EU and vice versa remains uncertain and will depend on what arrangements the UK agrees with the EU once the transitional arrangements come to an end, such as whether the UK:
- will rely on the 2005 Hague Choice of Courts Convention and 2019 Hague Judgements Convention (if acceded to); or
- is permitted to become a member of the Lugano Convention. The UK formally applied to become a member on 8 April 2020 but recent reports on 27 April 2020 have indicated that the EU may find grounds to reject the application although further details have yet to be provided.
No such uncertainty exists for the enforcement of arbitration awards under the New York Convention.
One of the major advantages of arbitration is that proceedings are conducted in private and are confidential. That means that the subject matter and the contents of a dispute should be kept out of the public domain. Court litigation by contrast is almost always conducted in public in order to allow for due process and transparency of justice.
Whilst the English Arbitration Act 1996 does not include a provision that parties to arbitrations are required to keep the existence of the arbitration confidential, English common law does dictate that it is an implied term of every arbitration agreement that the existence of the arbitration and the documents produced during the proceedings are to be kept confidential. That can only be fettered in limited circumstances. The privacy of arbitration can be important to parties in particular where parties do not wish their sensitive, commercial and/or proprietary information to be disclosed to the public.
The current crisis presents many unknown unknowns. It is difficult to predict where we will be in six to twelve months from now. However, planning ahead will be key to any recovery. And dispute management should be part of that. Arbitration could provide many advantages to parties that wish to ensure any disputes they face are resolved as quickly as possible, in a confidential manner and resulting in an award they are confident they will be able to enforce.