A v B [2017] EWHC 3417 (Comm)

The Requirements for (a) Valid and Effective Commencement of LCIA Arbitration and (b) When a Challenge to Jurisdiction Must be Made under the LCIA Rules

Summary: The LCIA Arbitration Rules (currently the 2014 revision) provide for a simple and well drafted procedure for the commencement of arbitration.

The recent decision of A v B [2017] EWHC 3417 (Comm), handed down on 21st December 2017 (and therefore perhaps escaping attention in the immediate Christmas rush), illustrates that failure to follow this simple procedure will result in a purported commencement of arbitration being wholly ineffective. This may have potentially highly significant consequences where the soi-disant “commencement” takes place hard up against the date of the expiry of a limitation period, statutory or contractual. The decision demonstrates that appeals to the ‘flexibility’, which may have a place in the very different context of arbitration where there are no rules or requirements as to how the arbitration is to be commenced (as in Easybiz Investments v Sinograin (The Biz) [2011] 1 Lloyd’s Rep. 688), have no traction where the manner of commencement is defined by institutional arbitration rules, which have either been complied with or not.

The decision also sheds valuable light on when (i.e. how early) a challenge to jurisdiction must be made under the LCIA Rules and the correct construction of Article 23.2 of the LCIA Rules.

Simon Rainey QC is counsel in the separate contested LCIA sub-arbitration by A against C, referred to in the judgment, and in applications currently before the Commercial Court related to that purported arbitration.

How the Issues in A v B Arose

B was party as seller to two separate contracts, one concluded in September 2015 and the second in October 2015, for the sale of parcels of crude oil on FOB terms. Each separate contract was subject to an LCIA arbitration clause. A, as buyer, on-sold the parcels by two separate sub-contracts on substantially identical terms save as to price. A failed to pay the price and B sought to commence arbitration to recover the price.

Article 1 of the LCIA Rules provides that “Any party wishing to commence arbitration under the LCIA Rules … shall deliver to the Registrar of the LCIA Court … a written request for arbitration (the “Request”) containing or accompanied by” and then setting out the basic core details relied upon as giving rise to the claim or dispute and as supporting the submission of that claim or dispute to LCIA arbitration.

Inexplicably B filed a single Request on 23rd September 2016 against A under Article 1 by which B purported to commence a single arbitration for the amounts claimed under the two separate contracts as if under a single contract and, in particular, as if under arbitration agreement. A single arbitration registration fee was paid under Article 1.1(vi) of the LCIA Rules.

A in its turn commenced a separate LCIA arbitration against C) on 31st October 2016), adopting an equally single form Request on the same ‘single claim and arbitration agreement’ basis. C challenged the jurisdiction of the Tribunal in the A vs C reference on the basis that A’s purported Request for Arbitration was invalid and ineffective to commence arbitration.

A sought to adopt the same argument against B. However, by this stage, A had already served its Response under Article 2 of the LCIA Rules (on 31st October 2016). That contained a generic reservation of rights (summarised by the Judge as “(i) stating that the Response should not be construed as submission to any arbitral tribunal's jurisdiction to hear the claim as currently formulated; and (ii) reserving A's rights to challenge the jurisdiction of the LCIA and any arbitral tribunal appointed” [6]). But no specific challenge to the Tribunal’s jurisdiction on the basis that B’s Request was invalid and ineffective to commence arbitration was made by A in the Response. That specific challenge, passing on the point taken by C against A, was not made by A vis-à-vis B until shortly before A was due to serve its Statement of Defence and therefore well after the Response.

B argued that under Article 23.3 of the LCIA Rules A’s challenge to jurisdiction on the grounds of an ineffective Request for Arbitration came too late.

The LCIA Tribunal (Ian Glick QC; David Mildon QC and William Rowley QC) agreed, holding that A should have raised its challenge in its Response, at the latest, and that it was too late to raise that challenge in its Statement of Defence.

A applied under section 67 of the Arbitration Act 1996 on the basis that the B’s Request was ineffective; that the Tribunal had no jurisdiction and that its determination was invalid.

Issue 1: Was B’s Request for Arbitration Effective to Commence Arbitration?

This, the threshold question as to whether the Tribunal enjoyed jurisdiction over A at all, turned on Article 1.1 of the LCIA Rules. Given the parties’ arbitration agreement was on the basis of arbitration under the LCIA Rules, the Rules governed the manner in which arbitration was to be commenced.

Article 1 provides that a party wishing to commence arbitration is to file a Request for Arbitration which is to be accompanied by (a) “the full terms of the Arbitration Agreement (excepting the LCIA Rules) invoked by the Claimant to support its claim, together with a copy of any contractual or other documentation in which those terms are contained and to which the Claimant's claim relates” (Article 1.1(ii)) and (b) “a statement briefly summarising the nature and circumstances of the dispute, its estimated monetary amount or value, the transaction(s) at issue and the claim advanced by the Claimant” (Article 1.1(iii)). In addition under Article 1.1(vi) “the registration fee prescribed in the Schedule of Costs” is to be paid the LCIA with the submission of the Request.

B accepted (inevitably) that an arbitration can only encompass a dispute arising under a single arbitration agreement (recorded at [16]).

As there were two separate contracts and two separate arbitration agreements forming part of each contract, albeit in identical form, two separate Requests were therefore necessary, one under each contract and arbitration agreement.

Phillips J. had little difficulty in dismissing B’s case that its single Request was to be read as a Request validly commencing two separate arbitrations, one under the September and the other under the October contract; in other words that while the Request was expressed in the singular, it could be and should be read as a double Request.

The problem for B was that its Request was, as the Judge summarised at [22], specifically drafted on the basis of a single Request referring a single dispute under a single contractual regime and, critically, under single arbitration agreement, to a single arbitration, with B as claimant thereby being entitled to pay a single arbitration fee.

The Judge summed up the ordinary objective interpretation of the Request and its language (drafted, as he pointed out, by lawyers) in these terms: “In my judgment, and given the analysis of the LCIA Rules and their effect above, a reasonable person in the position of the recipient would have understood the Request as starting one single arbitration. The Request makes no reference to the commencement of more than one arbitration, but refers throughout to "the Arbitration Agreement". The Request also claims one single amount of damages, refers to "the seat of the arbitration", "the language of the proceedings", "the governing law of the arbitration agreement" and payment of "the fee prescribed by the Schedule of Cost", being a reference to the fee for a single arbitration. It is entirely clear that the intention was to commence a single arbitration and no reasonable reader would conclude otherwise. Indeed, the LCIA itself regarded it as commencing just one arbitration.”

B’s ambitious argument that a Request for Arbitration under Article 1.1 of the LCIA Rules was nevertheless to be read in the light of section 61(c) of the Law of Property Act 1925 which provides that “in all deeds, contracts, wills, and other instruments […] the singular includes the plural and vice versa” was rejected by Phillips J. as having “no merit whatsoever” [19].

As the Judge pointed out, this would mean that multiple different arbitrations could be commenced under one registration and one registration fee. Further, the language of Article 1.1 made it clear that a Request was singular and that the arbitration commenced by it was equally singular, not multiple or permitting the commencement in the Claimant’s sole option of as many concurrent or consolidated arbitrations in one Request as it wished.

In seeking to remedy deficiencies in the commencement of arbitration, resort was made by B to the decision of Hamblen J. in The Biz [2011] 1 Lloyd’s Rep. 688.

This was a very different case in which claims under 10 different contracts (10 separate bills of lading), each with its own identical arbitration agreement, were the subject of one notice of appointment of an arbitrator under each agreement in respect of each claim. There were no rules or requirements as to how arbitration was to be commenced and, accordingly, the default regime in section 14 of the Arbitration Act 1996 governed the position. Hamblen J held that the requirements of section 14 had to be construed broadly and flexibly concentrating on the substance and not the form of the notice.

Phillips J. held at [22] that, while that approach was unimpeachable per se, it could not assist B in the different context where detailed arbitration rules defining the way in which arbitration had to be commenced were in place and governed now a claim was to be referred to arbitration.

Issue 2: How Quickly Must a Party Challenge Jurisdiction under the LCIA Rules?

Even if B’s Request was ineffective such that the Tribunal could have no jurisdiction, B contended in any event that A had lost its right to challenge jurisdiction.

Its case rested upon Article 23.2 of the LCIA Rules which provide in so far as material that: “An objection by a respondent that the Arbitral Tribunal does not have jurisdiction shall be raised as soon as possible but not later than the time for its Statement of Defence […].” [Emphasis added.]

B relied on the Tribunal’s view that this required an “as soon as possible” response in all cases, such that if a party receiving a Request for Arbitration considered it to be misconceived in jurisdictional terms, then it had to raise that objection “immediately”. This would require a challenge to jurisdiction to be made under the LCIA Rules potentially earlier even than the filing under Article 2 of the Response to the Request for Arbitration but in any event certainly no later than taking the challenge in and as part of the Response, such that a Respondent could not leave the taking of a challenge to the Tribunal’s jurisdiction to its Statement of Defence.

Even leaving to one side the relevant statutory background, the Court found this to be a difficult argument simply on the wording of Article 23.3 itself which refers expressly to the Statement of Defence in terms as being the final cut-off point.

As the Judge stated at [40]: “the better construction of Article 23.3 is that it excludes "untimely objections", that phrase relating back to the requirement that an objection shall be not later than the time for its Statement of Defence. Whilst the Article stipulates that objections shall be raised as soon as possible, it does not state a sanction for non- compliance, the sanction for untimely objections being provided by or implicit in the words "not later than" which apply to the time for the Statement of Defence. Had the intention, in 2014, been to introduce a new and much stricter requirement, complete with heavy sanction, it would surely have been done with far clearer words”.

The Judge supported that construction by the approach taken to a similar type of clause (: “as soon as reasonably practicable and in any event within 30 days”) in AIG Europe (Ireland) Ltd v Faraday Capital Ltd [2006] 2 CLC 770.

The Court’s view was further supported by the statutory context in which Article 23.3 was to be construed.

The Court recorded the fact that the Tribunal had cross-checked its construction of Article 23.3 against section 73(1) of the Arbitration Act 1996 which provides that where a party takes part in the arbitral proceedings “without making, either forthwith or within such time as is allowed by the arbitration agreement or the tribunal or by any provision of this Part” any objection to jurisdiction, the right to object is lost. The Tribunal viewed the requirement of “as soon as possible” as meaning just that with this being consistent with the “forthwith” element in section 73. It was therefore not open to a party to reserve jurisdiction at the response stage and then take it at the defence stage: it had to take it immediately but at the latest in and by the Response.

Phillips J. noted that the Tribunal had however not considered section 31(1) of the 1996 Act which specifically addresses when an objection to jurisdiction must be taken as the default position and which is referred to in section 73(1) (:“without making, either forthwith or within such time as is allowed by the arbitration agreement or the tribunal or by any provision of this Part”, emphasis added). Section 31(1) provides that an objection to jurisdiction “must be raised … not later than the time he takes the final step in the proceedings to contest the merits of any matter in relation to which he challenges the tribunal’s jurisdiction.” This follows Article 16(2) of the UNCITRAL Model Law save that the reference to it being not later than the statement of defence in the Model Law was replaced by a reference to the final contesting of the merits. As the Departmental Advisory Report on the Arbitration Bill records, the only reason for this change was the avoidance of the impression “that every arbitration requires some form of formal pleading or the like”.

The Judge held that, reading Article 23.3 of the LCIA Rules in its proper context, it was highly unlikely (indeed the Judge put it thus: “it is inconceivable”) that the LCIA had intended some new and stricter regime departing dramatically from section 31 and requiring a challenge even before Response or appointment of an arbitrator, even though both of those steps could not by themselves amount to a waiver of the right to challenge jurisdiction and even though the LCIA Rules provide that the omission to serve any Response does not affect the respondent’s position as to the denial of any claim (Article 2.4).

Conclusions

Permission to appeal was refused by the Judge and so the decision is effectively final on the points it determines.

The Judge’s decision on both issues should therefore be carefully noted.

First, it makes it clear that commencement of arbitration under the LCIA Rules is a straightforward process as defined in Article 1.1 where a claim or set of claims under one contract governed by an LCIA arbitration agreement is referred to arbitration by a Request and that if there are separate contracts and separate arbitration agreements, separate arbitrations must be commenced. Subsequent consolidation of the separate arbitrations is a different matter, with the necessary consents: the LCIA Rules provide for this in terms in Article 22.1(ix).

Secondly, it now clarifies the correct construction of Article 23.3 of the LCIA Rules (newly amended in the 2014 revision). While jurisdictional challenges must be made at an early stage in arbitral proceedings, the long-stop approach of requiring them to be made no later than the contesting of the merits and the time for the Statement of Defence which amounts to a step in the proceedings is consistent with the provisions of the Arbitration Act 1996 and similarly worded provisions.