As an extraordinary year draws to a close and a brighter one (hopefully) beckons, we consider whether the compromises and sacrifices everyone has had to make to mitigate the effects of COVID-19 will inspire a greater willingness to rely on non-contentious means to resolve international commercial disputes. ‘Tis the season to be merry and mediate? Or will international arbitration continue to be the dominant means for resolving cross-border commercial disputes in 2021?
Mediation is a process by which parties attempt to resolve a dispute amicably with the assistance of a third party (ie the mediator) who has no authority to impose a solution on the parties. For the process to be successful, the parties must be willing to attempt to resolve their dispute through guided discussions on the issues in dispute coupled with a focus on their shared interests. The entire process is voluntary and usually can be terminated at any stage.
In contrast, arbitration is a process in which a neutral third party (ie the arbitrator or a three-person tribunal) is empowered, usually through the terms of a contract agreed before any dispute has arisen, to render a reasoned award binding on the parties. The great advantage of arbitration is that arbitral awards are enforceable practically anywhere in the world pursuant to the New York Convention.
Since a settlement agreement is one which the parties have agreed to comply with voluntarily, in theory, an enforcement procedure should not be necessary. But just as goodwill and harmony can subside at this time of year soon after the gift wrapping has been put away or the guests sent home, a party may live to regret a mediated settlement to which it has previously agreed. Alternatively, there may be a dispute as to the proper interpretation of the mediated agreement or whether its terms have been satisfied. In these circumstances, enforcement might be necessary. Traditionally, this has required the bringing of a court action. This can be a lengthy and expensive process, particularly if the assets being enforced against lie in a country (or countries) different to that of the enforcing party.
The Singapore Convention – a promising start
The Singapore Convention seeks to achieve for mediated settlement agreements what the New York Convention has done for international arbitration by providing a framework for the recognition and enforcement of mediated settlement agreements arising from international commercial disputes.
A court subject to the Singapore Convention is required to enforce a mediated settlement agreement in accordance with its rules of procedure unless one of the limited grounds for refusing enforcement has been established, which include:
- a party to the settlement agreement was under some incapacity;
- the settlement agreement is null and void, inoperative or incapable of being performed;
- the settlement agreement is not binding or final according to its terms;
- the obligations in the settlement agreement have been performed or are not clear or comprehensible;
- there was a serious breach by the mediator of applicable standards of conduct (which remain undefined) without which the challenging party would not have entered into the settlement agreement;
- the mediator failed to disclose circumstances that might raise justifiable doubts as to the mediator’s impartiality or independence and such failure to disclose had a material impact or undue influence on a party without which the challenging party would not have entered into the settlement agreement; or
- the requested relief is contrary to the public policy of the state party to the Singapore Convention.
In addition, the Singapore Convention recognizes the res judicata effect of a settlement agreement. The courts of contracting parties to the Convention are therefore required to allow a party to invoke a settlement agreement if another party seeks to pursue a claim in relation to a matter that has already been resolved under its terms.
The benefits of arbitration vis-a-vis mediation
The benefits of arbitration as a dispute resolution mechanism are well-known. They include:
- enforceability of arbitral awards, with the New York Convention having been ratified by 166 states;
- arbitrator selection, which enables the parties to choose subject matter experts;1
- neutrality of the forum;2
- finality of the award, with only limited grounds for challenging an arbitration award and no general right of appeal;
- speed;4 and
Mediation possesses many of these strengths, and in some cases to a greater degree (e.g. such as the ability to control the time and cost of the proceedings). Mediation may also be preferable to arbitration in cases where parties wish to control the ultimate outcome of the dispute instead of risking an adverse decision by a tribunal.
However, the enforceability of mediated settlement agreements pales in comparison to arbitral awards. Being a new treaty, the Singapore Convention only has six states which have signed and ratified the Convention as of the date of writing, and it could take decades before its worldwide reach approaches that of the New York Convention.
In addition, there may be circumstances where parties may be unable to achieve an amicable settlement through mediation and tougher action may be required. For example, the counterparty may be unwilling to participate meaningfully in mediation; there may be important principles in dispute that need to be clarified; limitation periods may be at risk of expiring, the gap between the parties may be too wide to be resolved amicably; or there may be concerns about the dissipation of assets during an attempted mediation. In such situations, there may be a need to resort to arbitration. Formal legal proceedings may also help focus minds and encourage the adoption of more reasonable positions in parallel negotiations.
Whether we will see a significant increase in mediations in the new year will depend in part on the rate at which states sign up to the Singapore Convention. Even more significant, however, will be whether commercial parties consider mediation to be a viable means for resolving international commercial disputes, which will often depend on the precise circumstances and the nature of the relationship between the parties. Ultimately, mediation or negotiations without the assistance of a mediator can only work if both parties are willing to participate constructively in the process and settle their disputes amicably.
We take this opportunity to wish everyone happy holidays and a joyous and rewarding 2021, which will be hopefully largely immune to the ill-effects of COVID-19.
1) In contrast, parties to court litigation have no say over which judge is appointed, who may or may not be familiar with the subject matter of the dispute.
2) This is likely to be preferable to having to submit contractual disputes to the national courts of only one party.
3) With that said, if the confidentiality of arbitration is desired, it should be stated expressly in the contract subject to national laws that do not imply such an obligation automatically (such as Australia). In contrast, the confidentiality of arbitration is implied by law in places like Singapore and England, for instance.
4) Court trials in most jurisdictions typically taking longer than arbitrations to conclude, especially if interlocutory and appellate procedures are taken into account.
5) While arbitrators, unlike judges, need to be paid by the parties, evidentiary hearings contribute to the bulk of the costs incurred by the parties and are usually significantly shorter in length in international arbitration compared to litigation. Choong, Mangan, and Lingard, A Guide to the SIAC Arbitration Rules (OUP, 2nd Ed, 2018), paras 15.04 to 15.07.
Mark Mangan leads Dechert's international arbitration practice in Singapore. He serves as both counsel and arbitrator. As counsel, Mr. Mangan represents clients in important and complex matters across a range of sectors and subject to a wide variety of applicable laws. This includes acting as counsel in several investment treaty arbitrations, a number of multi-billion dollar commercial cases, and high profile sports disputes. As an arbitrator, Mr. Mangan has been appointed in cases governed by the rules of SIAC, ICC, LCIA, SCC, and KCAB, as well as an ad hoc arbitrator.
Mr. Mangan is ranked among the leading arbitration lawyers in Singapore. He has been recognized as a leading lawyer by Chambers Asia-Pacific, Chambers Global and Legal 500 Asia Pacific for his work in international arbitration, noting that he is 'incredibly hard working', 'a great advocate', 'good cross examiner', 'has an ability to assimilate a large amount of highly complex data',‘remains cool under pressure’,is'brilliant at tactics' and ‘excels at formulating and executing winning legal strategy consistent with the client’s needs and objectives’. Mr. Mangan is also described by clients as 'superb', ‘highly astute’, ‘innovative’, ‘hands-on’, 'on top of things' and 'has an encyclopaedic knowledge of the SIAC rules and Singapore arbitration practice'. Legal 500 further notes that Dechert's Singapore arbitration practice led by Mr. Mangan is considered a future market leader by clients and peers alike. The team 'is going places', 'a growing force', 'has won a lot of new mandates' and is 'entrepreneurial in its approach'. Mr. Mangan is listed in the 2020 edition of Best Lawyers for international arbitration in Singapore, Global Arbitration Review’s Who’s Who Legal: Arbitration 2018, 2019 and 2020, and the 2017 Who’s Who Legal Future Leaders of Arbitration under 45, which noted that'he is viewed as "the rising star in Singapore"'arbitration. He was short-listed as Private Practice Lawyer of the Year in theLegal 500Southeast Asia Awards 2020, covering all practice area in Southeast Asia.
Mr. Mangan is a thought leader in international arbitration. He is a co-author of a leading book on Singapore Arbitration, A Guide to the SIAC Arbitration Rules (Oxford University Press; 1st edition 2014; 2nd ed. 2018); has written over 40 published articles and book chapters on investment treaty arbitration, international commercial arbitration, and sports arbitration; has taught arbitration at several universities; and presents regularly at industry seminars and conferences. Mr. Mangan was highly commended in the 2019 Financial Times Innovative Lawyer Awards Asia-Pacific (for leading one of Singapore’s first-ever third party funded arbitrations) and commended in the 2017 edition (for identifying and promoting international law remedies to cross-border haze pollution).
Daniel Gaw focuses his practice on international arbitration and litigation. He represents international clients across a wide array of industries including oil and gas, electricity, construction, commodities, telecommunications, and banking.
Prior to joining Dechert, Mr. Gaw was a Justices’ Law Clerk of the Supreme Court of Singapore, taught at Singapore Management University, and worked at a well-known transnational law firm in Singapore. He has co-authored chapters on litigation inLaw and Practice of Commercial Litigation in SingaporeandCivil Litigation in Singapore. He has also been appointed by the Singapore High Court as amicus curiae in two separate appeals concerning significant questions of law and public interest.