Asia ADR Week 2021 session on roles of in-house counsel [& ‘errors of law in arbitration’]

[PS Also in August 2021, I chaired a presentation via Monash University on “Errors of Law in Arbitration – Revisited”, with a recording here. Dr Benjamin Hayward argued that a tribunal’s application of a substantive law different from that expressly chosen by the parties, or not applying the conflict of law provisions of the seat (and any chosen Rules) where such substantive law is not expressly chosen, could constitute an error of applicable procedure and thus a ground for challenging the consequent arbitral award.]

As part of the “Asia ADR Week” of events for 2021, coordinated by the Asian International Arbitration Centre based in Kuala Lumpur, as session was scheduled for the first day of the main conference – Thursday 19 August 4-5pm AEST (2-3pm KL time) – on the topic of “Starting In-House: The Role of General Counsel of Multinational Corporations in ADR”. [A recording is available on request for my USydney students.] Agreed session contributors were myself as moderator and:

  1. Ms Debolina Partap (Wockhardt Limited, general counsel based in Mumbai)
  1. Ms Esther Chow (Kone Elavator (M) Sdn Bhd, general counsel based in KL)
  1. Mr Nick Longley (Holman Fenwick Willan, based in Melbourne; formerly in a law office in Hong Kong as well as in-house for four years with a Japanese civil engineering company and now significant engagement with Korean firms)
  1. Mr Cameron Ford (Squire Patton Boggs, based in Singapore, and formerly in-house for over a decade)
  2. Mr Raymond Goh (China Tourism Group Corp Ltd, Group general counsel – International, in Hong Kong / China).

The assigned description was: “The role of an in-house counsel in shifting the focal point on dispute resolution from the traditional standpoint of litigation to the innovative vigor of ADR has resulted in the majority of Fortune 1000 companies preferring to use ADR as a means of resolving both international and domestic disputes. This session focuses on the multi-faceted role of in-house counsel in spearheading ADR as a principal means of resolving disputes.” The focus therefore was on evolving in-house counsel perceptions around Asia regarding alternatives to litigation (arbitration, mediation, other Alternative Dispute Resolution) to resolve cross-border disputes. Part of the backdrop is resurgent delays and especially costs in international commercial arbitration despite its continued spread east from the traditional (European then US) venues.

The first part of the session asked some general questions focused on our panelists currently or having worked extensively as in-house counsel [Ms Chow, Ms Partap, Mr Goh, Mr Ford]:

1. How do or should in-house counsel teams nowadays decide generally whether to provide for and/or engage in arbitration, mediation, expert determination or other ADR rather than cross-border litigation?

2. Does or should the approach change if the disputes involve commercial and government parties?

The second part of the session posed some more specific questions:

3. The latest QMUL international arbitration survey (with more than usual Asia-Pacific respondents) confirms the continued popularity of multi-tiered DR clauses, which commit parties contractually to try eg mediation before arbitration (rather than having waiting for the dispute to arise, and then try to achieve agreement to try other ADR before proceeding to pre-agreed arbitration). Yet are such multi-tiered clauses equally negotiated and invoked among companies and legal advisors in the Asian region? See http://www.arbitration.qmul.ac.uk/research/2021-international-arbitration-survey/ [cf eg Japan, Korea (Mr Longley), Malaysia (Ms Chow)]

4. Especially in the region, are there difficulties in enforcing say the mediation step (as a jurisdictional requirement say before being able to proceed to arbitration), and issues in determining the law applicable to that question? Cf eg this US report / chapter for a book / project by Profs Gu and Reyes: https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=3601337, and recent case law in Hong Kong etc (https://pulse.kwm.com/hong-kong/multi-tiered-dispute-resolution-clauses-what-happens-if-you-dont-comply/) [Mr Longley]

5. What prospects are there for more establishment and use of dedicated centres for mediation, especially in the Asian region (eg already Singapore / SIMC, but also recently Japan / JIMC and Vietnam / VMC)? See eg https://www.jimc-kyoto.jp/. Would it be easier for in-house counsel to promote cross-border mediation if institutional, rather than ad hoc?

6. Why is the 2019 Singapore Mediation Convention, aimed at facilitating enforcement of settlement agreements along the lines of the NYC, attracting many signatures (but not eg from Japan or Australia) but few ratifications? See https://uncitral.un.org/en/texts/mediation/conventions/international_settlement_agreements/status. What have been experiences in enforcing settlement agreements cross-border in Asia even without this new Convention?

7. Is there declining interest and practice of Arb-Med across Asia (except perhaps in mainland China and to a lesser extent Japan), linked perhaps to more use of separate mediation as part of multi-tiered DR clauses, and/or a sense that Arb-Med is not “global practice” which arbitration institutions and practitioners feel increasingly required to follow? Cf ACICA (for which Mr Longley and I served on the Rules drafting committee) which decided not to proceed with an Arb-Med provision in its 2021 Rules, although modelled on legislative provisions for domestic arbitrations: http://arbitrationblog.kluwerarbitration.com/2021/05/01/is-arb-med-un-australian/ [Mr. Goh]

8. Are there already or likely to be changes towards more use of mediation (either separate, or in Arb-Med) due to the pandemic, or eg has the enforced move to remote hearings etc created enough time, cost and arbitrator availability benefits to maintain adequate attractiveness for international arbitration? Is the recent rise of Expert Determination in Australian domestic dispute resolution driven by arbitration costs and delays in arbitration and litigation, thus likely to carry over into cross-border dispute resolution and beyond the pandemic? [Mr Longley, compared with say Malaysia – Ms Chow, and experiences from Singapore – Mr Ford]

Author: Luke Nottage

Prof Luke Nottage (BCA, LLB, PhD VUW, LLM Kyoto) is founding co-director of the Australian Network for Japanese Law (ANJeL), Associate Director (Japan) of the Centre for Asian and Pacific Law at the University of Sydney (CAPLUS), and Professor of Comparative and Transnational Business Law at Sydney Law School. He specialises in international dispute resolution, foreign investment law, contract and consumer (product safety) law.