The English High Court has enforced a Swiss-seated arbitral award (the Award) issued by the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), notwithstanding that the Award ordered a payment representing enforcement of a contractual penalty.

The claimant entered into two contracts with an Italian football club regarding the sale of financial rights consisting of the "registration rights" of a football player. The contracts required payment by instalments. The second contract was governed by Swiss private law and provided for arbitration under the rules of the CAS. After the football club had failed to pay a sum due, the claimant launched arbitration proceedings. The CAS arbitration panel ordered that the football club pay a sum which included the payments due and an additional Penalty Sum on the basis of a provision of Swiss law, providing that a judge should reduce a contractual penalty which is considered excessive. On appeal by the club, the Award was upheld by the Swiss court. The claimant subsequently sought to enforce the Award in England.

Punishing clauses are not enforceable under English law. The Court did however not consider that the Award of the penalty was contrary to public policy regulation for the purposes of Article V(II) of the New York Convention 1958. The Court concluded that the prohibition of the enforcement of penalty clauses does not protect a "universal principle of morality" and the penalty clause was not "injurious to the public good" to the extent that enforcement thereof should automatically be refused.  On this basis, the governing law as applied by the CAS arbitration panel was considered by the Court. The parties had chosen Swiss law as the law governing the contract and the CAS had exercised its power to reduce the penalty, so that this reduction was found compliant with Swiss law.

The decision is groundbreaking in the context of international transactions, in which the parties may choose a governing law of a particular jurisdiction to govern their contractual obligations, in casu Swiss law, but may look to another jurisdiction for enforcement.  It is particularly important given that penalty clauses are a relatively regular feature in transactions in many sectors and jurisdictions.