In Essar Oilfields Services Limited v Norscot Rig Management PVT Limited(1) the Commercial Court rejected an application to set aside an arbitral award entitling the respondent to its costs of third-party litigation funding on the ground of serious irregularity. The court also held that the power under the Arbitration Act 1996 to award "legal and other costs" includes the costs of litigation funding.
Essar applied to set aside an award on the question of interest and costs made by Sir Philip Otton as sole arbitrator in an arbitration subject to International Chamber of Commerce (ICC) rules. This followed earlier awards in which Essar had been found liable to pay damages to respondent Norscot for the repudiatory breach of an operations management agreement.
Norscot had obtained third-party litigation funding of £647,000 in exchange for which the funder was entitled – if Norscot succeeded – to an uplift equivalent to 300% of the funding or 35% of Norscot's recovery, whichever was greater. Norscot had sought recovery of the sum due to the funder of around £1.94 million.
The arbitrator was highly critical of Essar's conduct, both during the operation of the agreement and for most of the arbitration proceedings. He found that Essar had deliberately sought to cripple Norscot financially by withholding payments due under the agreement, and had persisted in unjustified personal attacks and allegations of fraud and dishonesty against Norscot's principals. The arbitrator concluded that Norscot had no option but to enter into third-party litigation funding on the terms that it did, and that it would have been "blindingly obvious" to Essar that Norscot "would find it difficult if not impossible to pursue its claims by relying on its own resources". Norscot adduced expert evidence that the terms of its funding were market standard, which the arbitrator accepted.
Section 61(1) of the Arbitration Act gives an arbitrator the general power to allocate between the parties "the costs of the arbitration". Section 63(3) provides that the arbitrator "may determine by award the recoverable costs of the arbitration on such basis as it thinks fit". Finally, Section 59(1) provides that 'the costs of the arbitration' comprises, in addition to the fees and expenses of the arbitrator and arbitral institution, "the legal or other costs of the parties".
The arbitrator held that Norscot was entitled to its costs on the indemnity basis. He also held that he was entitled to award (and did award, subject to final quantification) Norscot the costs of third-party funding (including the uplift payable) on the basis that they fell within the meaning of 'other costs' in Section 59(1).
Essar applied to the court to have the award set aside under Section 68(1) of the act on the ground of serious irregularity (it was not open to Essar to appeal on a point of law under Section 69 of the act, that provision having been excluded by the applicable ICC rules).
Was there a serious irregularity?
The court first addressed the issue of whether, if 'other costs' did not include the costs of third-party funding, there was a serious irregularity in the award. The court noted that in order for a serious irregularity to have occurred, the arbitrator would have to have exceeded his powers. However, it held that awarding the costs of third-party funding in circumstances where 'other costs' did not include such costs should be characterised as exercise of the arbitrator's "undoubted power to award costs" coupled with "an error as to the scope of such costs", rather than the arbitrator exceeding his powers. Accordingly, there was no serious irregularity. That was sufficient to dispose of the application.
Does 'other costs' include third-party funding costs?
Given the obvious importance of the issue, the court went on to consider the meaning of "the legal or other costs of the parties" in Section 59(1) of the act. As a starting point, the court rejected Essar's submission that Section 59(1) should be construed by reference to what a court can order in litigation under the Civil Procedure Rules and related common law rules, noting that the act is a complete code as to the conduct of arbitration.
The court then went on to consider the language of the sub-section. It first noted that "Sections 63(3) and 61(1) allow the arbitrator to determine the recoverable costs of the arbitration as he sees fit", and that "Section 59(1)(c) then deliberately includes a head of costs, other than legal costs". The court dismissed as arbitrary Essar's submission that 'other costs' (which must have been intended to capture something other than pure legal costs) could include, for example, internal expert fees or management time, but not litigation funding, and rejected Essar's submission that 'other costs' should be construed eiusdem generis with 'legal costs' so as to cover only costs which were truly analogous to legal costs. The court concluded: "The real limiting factor… is the functional one. Do the costs relate to the arbitration and are they for the purposes of it?"
Accordingly, the court concluded that "as a matter of language, context and logic… 'other costs' can include the costs of obtaining litigation funding". The awarding of such costs was therefore within the arbitrator's general costs discretion.
This result has already prompted a significant response among commentators and has been hailed by many as a landmark decision. It has been met with understandable delight within the third-party litigation funding industry. In the short term, assuming that it is not overturned on appeal, it will almost certainly prompt third-party funded parties to arbitration to seek to recover the uplift payable to the funder – if not routinely, then at least more frequently. Whether many of them are likely to succeed is a different matter.
The impression given by the judgment is that the court did not expect that arbitrators would award the costs of third-party funding as a matter of course. Having reached its conclusion, the court noted that "the overall requirement of reasonableness can act as an important check and balance" and re-emphasised the arbitrator's findings in relation to Essar's exceptionally repressive conduct, which justified the award in this case.
In relation to the issue of reasonableness, Section 63(5) of the act provides that: "Unless the tribunal or court determines otherwise… the recoverable costs of the arbitration shall be determined on the basis that there shall be allowed a reasonable amount in respect of all costs reasonably incurred."
This is similar (albeit expressed the opposite way round) to the indemnity basis for assessment under the Civil Procedure Rules set out in 44PD.6, which requires the court to disallow any costs that have been unreasonably incurred or are unreasonable in amount.
However, it is unclear whether the default test in Section 63(5) would act as a bar to recovery in many cases. If a prospective claimant enters into third-party funding on market standard terms, it generally will be the case that any uplift ultimately payable will be both reasonably incurred and in a reasonable amount, especially where a claimant had no other means of funding its dispute. That may also be the case where a claimant could have funded from its own resources, but chose to manage its downside risk by obtaining third-party funding for the whole or part of the cost. Accordingly, if the cost of third-party funding is to be allowed as a category of recoverable cost, it follows that on the basis of the default test in Section 63(5), it could be recovered in most cases.
However, what may in fact have been envisaged by the court is an examination of the reasonableness of requiring the paying party to pay the costs of third-party funding in all the circumstances, which may not straightforwardly follow from the fact that those costs were reasonably incurred and reasonable in amount. The court clearly considered it reasonable for such costs to be awarded in a case such as this, where those costs were "so directly and immediately caused by the losing party". The difficulty is that an assessment of what is reasonable in this broader sense is a less familiar exercise, which arbitrators and the courts will now be expected to carry out without much guidance. Accordingly, although the absence of an absolute bar on the recoverability of the costs of third-party funding is to be welcomed in order to do justice in cases such as this, the uncertainty that parties to arbitration will now face (particularly given the absence of an obligation to disclose the terms of funding) pending further court authority (or amendment of the act) is not.
As for litigation under the Civil Procedure Rules, Rule 44.1(2)(a) limits the recoverable costs of court proceedings to "costs payable by a client to their legal representative". Accordingly, there is currently no scope for a corresponding development without a change in rules and it seems unlikely that anything will change soon, given that it is still less than four years since a significant move in the opposite direction with the abolition of recoverability of success fees for most new conditional fee agreements (although that was prompted in large part by policy considerations which do not apply to third-party funding to the same extent). That said, this decision potentially paves the way for the development of principles governing the recoverability of the costs of third-party funding, which may one day be adopted in the Civil Procedure Rules.
For further information on this topic please contact Geraldine Elliott or Daniel Hemming at RPC by telephone (+44 20 3060 6000) or email (email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org). The RPC website can be accessed at www.rpc.co.uk.
(1)  EWHC 2361 (Comm).
This article was first published by the International Law Office, a premium online legal update service for major companies and law firms worldwide. Register for a free subscription.