Arbitral Appeals under s.69…No Second Bites? – Simon Rainey QC and Peter Stevenson

Agile Holdings Corporation v Essar Shipping Ltd [2018] EWHC 1055 (Comm)

Overview: second bites at s.69(3)?

The English statutory regime for appeals against arbitration awards on questions of law under s.69 of the Arbitration Act 1996, as is well known, applies a two stage process: (i) the application of permission to appeal and, (ii), if permission is granted the appeal itself.

Section 69(3) sets out the matters on which the Court is required to be satisfied as pre-conditions for granting permission to appeal. Where a party unsuccessfully resists permission on the basis that some or all of the requirements are not met, can it nevertheless reargue the point or points all over again on the appeal proper? 

The position and the few cases in this area were recently considered by the Commercial Court in Agile Holdings Corporation v Essar Shipping Ltd [2018] EWHC 1055 (Comm).

The answer is: “it depends”.

How the issue arose

The claimant sought permission to appeal against an arbitration award on a question of law arising from the Award. The defendant opposed permission on various grounds including a submission that the tribunal had not been asked to decide the relevant question (and therefore that the threshold requirements of s.69(3) of the Arbitration Act were not met). It was contended that the argument now being sought to be run had never been argued in that way before the arbitrators. The claimant disputed that and put in evidence of the written submissions and the transcript of the oral submission. The Judge granted permission, rejected the submission and held that the point had been argued. He refused an application by the defendant for an oral hearing on the point.

On the full appeal, the defendant sought to re-open the issue and re-argue its original submission.

The Commercial Court’s decision

The Judge (HHJ Waksman QC, sitting as a deputy Judge of the High Court) allowed the appeal in full. On the s69(3)(c) point, he held that:

(i) the exercise undertaken by the judge granting leave to appeal involves a detailed consideration of the threshold questions;

(ii) once leave has been granted, there is every reason to move onto the merits of the question without the distraction of re-litigating tangential points which have already been decided;

(iii) a party cannot resist the appeal on the basis that the threshold requirements of s.69(3)(a) and (d) are not met. Those issues arise exclusively at the leave stage and the decision of the judge at that stage is final;

(iv) the position is different in respect of the requirements of s.69(3)(c) because, whether a point was put to the tribunal is tied to the issue of whether there is a question of law arising out of the award at all;

(v) however, while the Court hearing the appeal may not be bound as to whether the question arises from the award, it should give considerable weight to the decision of the judge granting leave.

Simon Rainey QC, leading Peter Stevenson, represented the successful appellant.

The Detailed Reasoning of the Court

The defendant submitted that the Court did not have jurisdiction to entertain an appeal because the threshold requirements of s.69(3) were not met.

In support of that proposition it relied upon two authoritiesMotor Image v SCDA Architects [2011] SGCA 58, a decision of the Court of Appeal of Singapore, and The Ocean Crown [2010] 1 Lloyd’s Rep. 468 a decision of Gross J (as he was).

(1) In Motor Image v SCDA Architects, the Singaporean court considered identical appeal provisions in s.49 of the Singapore Arbitration Act 2002. The judge at first instance (Prakash J., as she was) had granted permission to appeal a question of law under those provisions. When the same judge heard the appeal she decided that the question did not arise on the facts as decided by the tribunal. She took the view that as a result the appeal should be dismissed. The Court of Appeal agreed. It held that this sort of point could be reargued on appeal because it went to the very jurisdiction of the court to hear the appeal in the first place. In other words, the grant of leave was a finding that the court had the relevant jurisdiction. So if on further analysis, one of the threshold conditions was not made out, the court was actually deprived of jurisdiction and could not hear the appeal.

HHJ Waksman QC rejected that analysis. He held that once leave has been granted, the question of whether the Court has jurisdiction to determine the appeal has been determined. Subject to any challenge to that decision, the Court has jurisdiction to determine the appeal. The effect of this finding is that it is not open to a party to meet an appeal under s.69 by re-arguing points which relate exclusively to the threshold requirements for permission. Specifically the Judge held that a party cannot re-argue (i) that the determination of the question will not substantially affect the rights of the parties (s.69(3(a)); or (ii) that it is not just and proper for the court to determine the question (s.69(3)(d)).

(2) The decision The Ocean Crown was of a different nature. In that case there were three separate questions of law for appeal for which permission had been granted. The third question involved the allegation by the appellant that the tribunal had sought to restrict the ambit of a well-known legal principle concerning salvage remuneration and had thereby committed an error of law. The respondent argued that the tribunal had done no such thing but was merely dealing with how that principle was to be applied on the particular facts of the case. On that analysis there was no error of law at all.

Gross J. held that, in determining whether a question of law arises out of the award (a pre-requisite of allowing an appeal) the court is not bound by the decision of the judge granting leave.

As HHJ Waksman QC noted, Gross J’s decision not concerned with the threshold requirements of s.69(3) of the Act. It is concerned with whether s.69 is engaged at all: s.69 only permits appeals on questions of law arising from an award (s.69(1)). The Judge described this as ‘the Law Question’ which he distinguished from the issue of whether the question of law was actually put to the tribunal (which he described as ‘the Determination Question’).

However, although not addressing the point head on, the Judge appears to have accepted that the Determination Question is connected to the Law Question and is therefore not merely a threshold requirement for obtaining leave, but may also be considered as part of the substantive appeal.

Having drawn this distinction the Judge held that he was not prohibited from reconsidering whether the question of law raised in the appeal was one that the tribunal had been asked to determine. But he emphasised that the Court should give ‘considerable weight’ to the decision of the judge granting leave to appeal, particularly if (i) the decision was made after an oral hearing; and/or (ii) the materials before the judge granting permission are the same or substantially the same as those before the appeal court.

Adopting that approach the Judge reviewed the material advanced by the defendant and held that he was in no doubt that the question of law was one that the tribunal had been asked to determine.

Conclusions

The decision of the Judge is helpful in three respects.

First, it clarifies that the decision of the judge granting permission to appeal is final and determinative of that issue. It is not open to a party to meet an appeal by arguing that the threshold requirements for leave to appeal were not met and leave should not have been granted. In that respect it drew a clear distinction between the position under English law and the approach taken by the Singaporean Court of Appeal in Motor Image v SCDA Architects.

Second, it confirms that when determining whether the question of law arises from the award, the Court hearing the appeal is not bound by the decision to grant leave and, as part of that process, can reconsider whether the question was one that the tribunal was asked to determined.

Third, it provides clear guidance as to the weight that should be given to the decision of the judge granting leave to appeal. If the judge granting leave considered the issue and had the same material before him/her, ‘very considerable weight’ should be given to the original decision.

It is to be hoped that this robust approach discourages defendants who are unsuccessful at the permission stage from re-opening such points thereby rendering the s.69 process more time-consuming and more costly.

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