The Fiona Trust case is one of the best known decisions in English arbitration case law, setting out a “fresh start” in English jurisprudence with the strong presumption that commercial parties intend all disputes to be determined in a single forum.
That decision did not, however, prevent related litigation in the English courts. The most recent application to the English courts in Fiona Trust v Privalov  EWHC 527 (Comm) has highlighted the difficult path to be followed for the English court in reaching decisions in concurrent litigation proceedings which could impact upon or be seen to prejudge issues in on-going arbitration. Smith J in this case granted an application to clarify the meaning of an order as it would prevent litigation hampering the arbitral process.
The background to the 2007 House of Lords decision in Fiona Trust involved O, the owners of Russian ships which were chartered to C. O claimed to have rescinded the charterparties (including the arbitration clauses within them) on the grounds they had been induced by bribery.
C sought to refer the matter to arbitration and appointed an arbitrator. O applied to court seeking to restrain the arbitration on the basis that the charterparties (including the arbitration clause) had been rescinded for bribery. In response, C applied to stay the court proceedings in favour of arbitration under s 9 of the Arbitration Act 1996. The Court of Appeal ordered the stay (the “CofA Order“), ruling that the scope of the arbitration clause was wide enough to encompass a fraud claim. This was subsequently upheld by the House of Lords (now the Supreme Court). Following this decision, the parties appointed an arbitral tribunal.
In 2009, O brought fresh proceedings in the English courts. In these proceedings O pleaded that, by causing or permitting the charterparties, certain defendants had acted in breach of fiduciary or other duties owed to O. As part of these pleadings, O continued to plead that the charterparties and their arbitration provisions had been rescinded. The relief sought divided broadly into two types: (1) various heads of damage which were not dependent on the rescission of the charterparties; and (2) monetary claims relating to, or consequential on, rescission of the charterparties.
In 2010, Smith J in the High Court dismissed the claims as they were based on dishonesty and a finding there had been no dishonesty had been made. Counsel was asked to assist in the drafting of an order to that effect (the “2010 Order“).
The application in these proceedings came before Smith J again in the High Court. The application was made on the basis that the 2010 Order did not prevent O from bringing monetary claims consequential on rescission of the charterparties in the courts, as it was only the claim for a declaration that the charterparties had been validly rescinded which had been stayed by the CofA Order. The parties sought clarification under the Court’s discretionary powers as to the meaning of the 2010 Order.
Smith J was not persuaded to exercise any discretionary power to enable O to pursue claims for consequential monetary relief. If the claims were stayed under the CofA Order, they could not be pursued as no application had been made to lift the stay. The claims which had not been stayed had come to trial before Smith J in the 2009 proceedings (resulting in the 2010 Order) and no order had been made to allow O to try consequential monetary relief claims separately. It was not open to a party to decide, without reference to the Court, not to argue all their points at trial and then try to bring a separate claim at a later date.
Smith J continued that the only other reason to exercise the discretion sought to clarify the 2010 Order would be if it would assist the arbitration proceedings. Smith J refused to use CPR 3.1 to grant any of the applications to clarify. Neither would he use CPR 40.12 to “correct” the 2010 Order, as there was no accidental ‘slip or omission’ in the drafting of the order. Smith J said that the 2010 Order had not dealt with the specific possibility of consequential monetary claims as it had not occurred to him that the parties believed that those claims had not been stayed by the CofA Order – if he had realised this, he would have included wording to the effect that, in so far as not covered by the stay, such claims were dismissed. Smith J, using the inherent power referred to in CPR 40 BPD4.5, and after concluding that use of the power would not trespass on the arbitrators’ territory because it actually would prevent the litigation hampering the arbitral process, asked counsel to assist in drafting an order to this effect.
Throughout this judgment, Smith J appears conscious of a tension that he should endeavour not to express a view on questions which might rest within the jurisdiction of the Tribunal or on which the Tribunal might wish to reach its own conclusion. In particular, he did not wish to create a res judicata on the scope of the 2010 Order which might compromise the efficacy of the arbitration agreements. However, while Smith J was conscious of not stepping on the toes of the Tribunal, he accepted that in order to deal properly with the application, he would have to take a view on some matters which had been referred to arbitration.
The case demonstrates the difficulties caused by related claims in different fora. Concurrent disputes such as this one on similar and related issues will provoke difficult questions for both a court and tribunal as to which has the ultimate jurisdiction to determine any particular issue. While such tensions will continue to arise, the Court’s efforts here to continue to support the parties’ choice of arbitration – and to allow space for that arbitration to reach its own conclusions – is extremely welcome.