The English High Court recently decided in A and another v. C and Others [2020] EWHC 258 (Comm) (“A v C”) that it did not have jurisdiction under s44(2)(a) of the English Arbitration Act (“the Act”) to issue a coercive order compelling a non-party to an arbitration agreement to give evidence in support of arbitration proceedings seated in New York.

The Claimants wished to compel the third defendant, E, who was not a party to the New York-seated arbitration, to give evidence in England. The claimants had been given permission by the New York tribunal to make such an application to the English court. However, despite the order of the tribunal, the Court ultimately found that it was unlikely that Parliament had intended to give the English courts jurisdiction to make the order sought under s44.

The Court considered the two leading authorities on the issue (Cruz City I Mauritius Holdings v Unitech Limited [2014] EWHC 3704 (Comm) (“Cruz City”) and DTEK Trading SA v Morozov [2017] EWHC 1704 (Comm) (“DTEK”)) and confirmed that the Court does not have jurisdiction under s.44 of the Arbitration Act to make an order against a non-party to the arbitration agreement.

Background Facts

The parties had embarked on a joint venture in relation to an oil field in Central Asia and the Claimants held a 15% interest in the oil field. A dispute arose between the parties, and an arbitration proceeding was initiated by the Claimants. The arbitration proceedings were seated in New York and, by the time of the High Court proceedings, the evidentiary hearing in the arbitration had already taken place. However, there remained an issue as to whether certain bonus payments made by the First and Second Defendants to the arbitration were deductible from the amount claimed by the Claimants in the arbitration.

Although the arbitral tribunal had already heard evidence from the assistant general counsel responsible for drafting and negotiating the agreements, the Claimants sought evidence from E, who was a non-party to the arbitration and the lead commercial negotiator who had been involved in negotiating the specific bonus payment.

The tribunal granted permission to the Claimants to bring an application in England, where E was domiciled, for the taking of his evidence.

S44 of the English Arbitration Act

Parties may apply under s44 of the English Arbitration Act for court assistance in relation to an arbitration seated within or outside England & Wales. The court’s power under this section is extensive and includes ordering the taking of witness evidence, the preservation of evidence, granting an interim injunction or appointment of a receiver, the sale of any goods which are the subject of the proceedings, and the power to make various other orders relating to property which is the subject of the proceedings.

The Court noted that at first sight the language of s44 lent “some support” to the Claimants’ contention that it was possible for orders to be made against non-parties. The legislation specifically stated at s44(1) that the court had the same power in relation to the particular matters listed as it would do in respect of court litigation. This tended to suggest that the Court had the same power to make orders in respect of non-parties to an arbitration as it did against non-parties to court litigation. It was also noticeable that the specific legislative provision relevant to this case referred to “the taking of evidence of witnesses” and this might be taken as an indication that the provision was mainly focused on taking evidence from witnesses outside the control of the parties to the arbitration.

Cruz City and DTEK

The Court noted that while the wording of the legislation might suggest that the provision could be employed against non-parties, the leading authorities of Cruz City and DTEK made it clear that the question is much less straightforward.

Cruz City concerned an attempt to serve out of the jurisdiction an application for a freezing injunction against non-parties to the arbitration agreement. The court in Cruz City considered the question of application to non-parties and decided that there were a number of indications in s44 itself that it was intended to be limited to orders made against a party to the arbitration agreement. This was primarily because s44 is expressly stated to be subject to contrary agreement between the parties, which the court decided could only mean the parties to the arbitration agreement. Subsection (4) operated so that, unless the matter was urgent, the court could only act on an application made either with the tribunal’s permission or agreement in writing given by “the other parties”. This must again mean the other parties to the arbitration agreement.

In addition, Subsection (5) stated that the court can only act where the arbitrators either have no power or are currently unable to act effectively. This would always be the situation in respect of an order against a non-party. Subsection (6) provided that the court could hand back control in respect of the relevant issues to a tribunal with “power to act in relation to the subject matter of the order”. This could not be relevant to orders made against a non-party. Subsection (7) provided that an appeal could only be made against an order under s44 if the first instance court gave permission. The court commented that it would be surprising if the non-party’s right of appeal was limited in this way in respect of an order against a non-party. The court in Cruz City also noted that s44 was one of only a small number of sections in the Act to apply to arbitrations seated outside England and Wales or Northern Ireland. It seemed unlikely that Parliament would have intended to give the English courts the jurisdiction to give orders against non-parties in support of arbitrations happening around the globe. Had there been any intention to permit the court to make such third party orders this would have been clearly expressed in the Act.

The court in Cruz City accordingly decided that s44 did not allow orders to be made against non-parties and the court in DTEK later reached the same conclusion.

The Claimants’ application to the High Court

In A v C the Claimants advanced two arguments in an attempt to distinguish the current case from the position in Cruz City and DTEK. They firstly contended that s44(2)(a) permitted orders to be made against non-parties because it referred to the taking of the evidence of witnesses, even if this was not the case for other sub-sections of s44(2). Secondly, the difficulties with making orders against non-parties in Cruz City and DTEK arose from the need to serve the applications out of the jurisdiction and this issue did not arise in A v C because E resided in England & Wales.

The Court took the view that the argument that some powers under s.44(2) can be exercised against non-parties, while others could not, was unattractive in the absence of statutory language justifying such a distinction. If s44(2)(a) orders could not be made against non-parties, it would be surprising if coercive orders could nonetheless be made against non-party witnesses. The judge recognised that the English Court could issue letters of request asking foreign courts to take evidence from non-parties, but that ultimately depended on the discretion of foreign courts, which was a different matter from ordering non-parties to give evidence for the purpose of foreign arbitrations.

In respect of the Claimants’ second argument, the Court emphasised that the applications to serve out of jurisdiction in Cruz City and DTEK failed because s44 does not apply to non-parties, not because it is impossible to serve such applications out of jurisdiction.

Appropriateness of the order

The Court further considered whether it would have been appropriate to issue the requested order if the Court had found that it had the power to do so, having regard to the fact that the seat of the arbitration was New York.

The Court concluded that there was no particular inconvenience to the witness and there was sufficient justification for his attendance. The evidence requested was “clearly an issue of importance in the New York Arbitration”. Since the witness was the lead commercial negotiator of the contract under which the bonus was payable, the Court found that there was a sufficient possibility that he may have relevant evidence to give, notwithstanding the evidence already given by the assistant general counsel. It also did not matter that his memory of the events might have been compromised by the passing of time. In any event, his memory could be assisted by reference to the documents. In addition, the Court found that it would not be appropriate to delve too deeply into the relative weight of evidence, as this was “pre-eminently a matter for the arbitral tribunal”.

However, the proposed list of topics on which the Claimants wished to question the non-party was too broad and the Court would have required the Claimants to produce an amended, narrower list of questions. The Court also noted that E had offered to produce a witness statement and evidence by video-link to the arbitral tribunal. The proposal made by E reasonably balanced the interests of the arbitrating parties and E and, even if any order had been granted under s44 of the Act, the order would have been along the same lines.

Comment

This case has confirmed that the English courts’ powers in support of arbitration under s44 of the Act do not extend to orders against non-parties to the arbitration, whether or not there is a need to serve the application out of the jurisdiction. Accordingly, the current position is that s44 orders are unavailable against non-parties to the arbitration, even where those third parties are based within England & Wales. The decision is being appealed to the Court of Appeal.