Challenges and Opportunities for Asia-Pacific International Arbitration: Symposium Report, and News on a Forthcoming Publication

By Dr Benjamin Hayward, Professor Luke Nottage, and Dr Nobumichi Teramura

Photo: Faypearse, Creative Commons

On Friday 15 November 2019, Sydney Law School hosted the ‘Challenges and Opportunities for Asia-Pacific International Arbitration’ symposium.

The event addressed a range of dispute resolution issues: international commercial arbitration, investor-State dispute settlement (including investor-State mediation), and the rise of international commercial courts.  Academics, practitioners, and (both current and former) judges were in attendance: ensuring that a wide spectrum of views were addressed throughout the day.

The symposium focused on dispute resolution in the Asia-Pacific region.  This is a topic of significant interest to the Australian arbitration community.  As far back as 2009, the then-Attorney General Rob Hulls introduced reforms to Australia’s International Arbitration Act aiming to promote Australia as a regional dispute resolution hub.  More than 10 years later, this is a goal to which Australia still aspires.

The symposium addressed arbitration in the Australian, New Zealand, Japanese, Indonesian, Hong Kong, and mainland Chinese contexts.  It followed a counterpart event hosted by the University of Hong Kong in July 2019.

The symposium’s international comparisons provide much food for thought for the Australian arbitration community, as we seek to continually improve the local landscape.  For example, what degree of confidentiality should be preserved in Australian arbitral proceedings?  And what lessons can we learn from arbitration experience, in the region, relating to the possible future establishment of an Australian international commercial court?

A collection of papers presented at both events will be published in late 2020 (or early 2021) in a Kluwer volume titled New Frontiers in Asia-Pacific International Arbitration and Dispute Resolution.  Details of the volume, including links to pre-publication versions of some papers, are available here.

Of particular interest in the Australian context will be:

* Professors the Hon Marilyn Warren and Clyde Croft’s chapter titled ‘An International Commercial Court for Australia: An Idea Worth Taking to Market’;

* Albert Monichino SC and Nobumichi Teramura’s chapter ‘New Frontiers for International Commercial Arbitration in Australia: Beyond the “(Un)Lucky Country”’;

* Luke Nottage addressing ‘Confidentiality and Transparency in International Arbitration: Asia-Pacific Tensions and Expectations’; and

* Luke Nottage and Ana Ubilava’s chapter on ‘Novel and Noteworthy Aspects of Australia’s Recent Investment Agreements and ISDS Policy’.

Readers of this blog might also be particularly interested in Stacie Strong’s chapter titled ‘Promoting International Mediation Through the Singapore Convention’, that Convention also having been addressed at the December 2019 ADRRN Roundtable.  This chapter will mention some empirical data from a study addressing the use of mediation in resolving international commercial disputes.

Interestingly, while Australia’s geographic isolation is thought to be impeding its emergence as a regional dispute resolution hub, COVID-19 has led to the rapid adoption of virtual hearings in civil litigation and in arbitration.  The pandemic may have unintentionally highlighted a means by which Australian arbitration and an Australian international commercial court could flourish in the region: notwithstanding the unavoidable ‘social distance’ between Australia and our neighbours.

These recent developments, post-dating the symposium, will be addressed in the forthcoming Kluwer volume.  They will be of great interest to those invested in Australia’s potential as a venue for international commercial dispute resolution.

International Commercial Arbitration, its Application of the Law, and the Flexibility of its Process

By Dr Benjamin Hayward

Photo: Dennis Jarvis, Creative Commons

In a previous contribution to the ADRRN Blog, I argued in favour of taking a little bit of flexibility away from international commercial arbitration.

In my previous post, I noted that while arbitration is ADR, it remains a type of formal dispute resolution.  It also involves application of the law.  Still, where a contract doesn’t include a choice of law clause, arbitrators have to identify the law they will apply.  My doctoral research explored the significant discretion arbitrators have in this regard.

That discretion is a problem if parties chose to arbitrate because they want enhanced certainty about their legal rights.  It’s even more problematic in some particular categories of case where arbitrators have to identify the governing law even after the parties tried to agree on this issue themselves.

I’ve been thinking a bit more about this topic following a recent episode of The Arbitration Station podcast, which included a really great discussion about becoming an arbitrator.  Co-host Brian Kotick made some interesting observations about this issue, set in the context of how arbitrators decide their cases:

‘[I]t’s all discretionary at the end of the day and you can’t really predict universally what’s to be decided … I think it depends on how you approach being an arbitrator.  I know some arbitrators, their approach is “I’m only going to decide on the arguments – legal arguments and factual arguments – that are presented to me”.  And if you take that approach I think it’s much easier because your intellectual curiosity will not lead you in the wrong direction …

Another approach is finding justice – “capital J justice” – in which case you’re going to kind of take a more active role, do your own independent research perhaps … in which case it’s much more difficult of a task …”

So is arbitration about applying the law, or is it about more general notions of commercial justice?  Or is the true position somewhere in between?  Parties can specifically agree to give arbitrators the power to decide based on principles of equity and fairness, but this is extremely rare.  What, then, is the best view of arbitration’s decision-making process where they don’t do so?

In 2013, the High Court of Australia decided a constitutional challenge to the validity of an important part of Australia’s International Arbitration Act.  In upholding the legislation, it conceptualised the role of courts in enforcing arbitral awards as holding the parties to their initial agreement to arbitrate: rather than merely rubber-stamping arbitrators’ legal analyses.  The Court also held that there is no strict legal rule, in international commercial arbitration, that arbitrators must apply the law correctly.

This gets us part-way to the answer.  For a bit more, we can look to the grounds for challenging arbitral awards.

Under the Model Law and the New York Convention, both adopted in Australia, these grounds don’t include an error of law.  They do include public policy grounds.  Public policy doesn’t cover arbitrators’ ordinary legal errors, but it might cover very significant infringements of fundamental legal principles, such as the rule against double recovery.

Of more interest to me, however, is the ground relating to arbitrators not following the parties’ agreed procedure.  Application of the law is a matter of substance, but identifying what law to apply in the first place is a procedural question.  As I’ve discussed previously on this blog, arbitration laws and rules give arbitrators significant discretion in identifying the governing law.  However, they do still set out at least broad frameworks for making that decision.

While potential mistakes in the law’s application are just part and parcel of choosing arbitration as a form of ADR, in my view, parties remain protected against arbitrators violating the procedure required for identifying that law in the first place.

This is an idea I’ve been interested in for a while now.  What does it say about the exact nature of decision-making in international commercial arbitration?  I’m not yet sure, but I’m looking forward to exploring that question in my future research.