1 The aim of this briefing is to identify the relative advantages and disadvantages of Arbitration as a means of dispute resolution. Arbitration is, justifiably, an increasingly popular method of dealing with disputes, but arbitration is not ideally suited to every situation. This note compares the main features of arbitration with litigation and ADR, and pinpoints key issues in deciding the most appropriate dispute resolution forum.
2 Typically, the question of whether or not to arbitrate arises at two key stages:
- When negotiating a contract. The parties may decide to include in their agreement an arbitration clause to cover disputes that arise in the future. Inevitably, the arbitration clause is one of the last terms to be agreed, and there may be a temptation to rush matters to get the deal finalised. Given the far-reaching consequences of agreeing, or failing to agree, an arbitration clause, this temptation is best resisted. It is vital that the pros and cons of arbitration are given proper consideration at the time of contracting.
- When a dispute has arisen. The decision at this stage is, in one sense, easier because the features of the particular dispute, and its suitability for arbitration, will be clearer. However, it may be more difficult to conclude an agreement to arbitrate if one party has an interest in delaying matters, or perceives a tactical disadvantage in arbitrating.
3 If the parties do decide to enter an arbitration agreement, it is important that it is carefully drafted; further advise as necessary should be taken on individual circumstances.
Arbitration compared with litigation
4 Arbitration can have several advantages over litigation. However, it is important that each perceived advantage is examined carefully in each particular case to assess its weight.
5 Ease of enforcement is probably the most important factor in favour of arbitration. The New York Convention on the Recognition and Enforcement of Foreign Arbitral Awards (New York Convention) provides an extensive enforcement regime for international arbitration awards. There is no real equivalent for enforcement of court judgments.
6 If you opt for arbitration principally because of the advantageous enforcement regime, it is important to ensure that you draft the agreement with this in mind. This will usually involve ensuring that the arbitration agreement is in a form that will be recognised as valid in both the seat of the arbitration and the country of enforcement.
7 Like a choice of court clause, a well-drafted arbitration agreement introduces a welcome degree of certainty with regard to the forum for resolving disputes. This is particularly attractive where there is a cross-border element to the dispute: the need to consider, or take advice on, the complex rules of private international law governing jurisdiction can be entirely sidestepped.
8 In litigation, disputes over jurisdiction can be expensive and (once appeals are factored in) extremely time-consuming. By contrast, a carefully drafted arbitration agreement should minimise the chances of jurisdictional disputes. Furthermore, if the parties agree to institutional arbitration, or agree that a certain set of rules will apply to their arbitration, this will also ensure a degree of procedural certainty and predictability (By simply referring to the applicable arbitration rules, the parties can inform themselves of what steps they need to take, and when.
9 Of course, disputes relating to jurisdiction and procedure can and do arise in arbitration just as in litigation. But the chances of such disputes can be eliminated or minimised by carefully drafting the arbitration agreement.
10 A significant advantage of arbitration is the ability to tailor procedures to the needs of a particular dispute. There is great scope for the adoption of innovative, effective and efficient procedures. For example:
- The parties are generally free to agree a suitable procedure, and are able to influence the procedure much more than is possible in court proceedings.
- Similarly, the tribunal will give directions that are fine-tuned to the particular dispute so as to ensure its speedy and efficient determination.
11 The parties in an arbitration can choose their tribunal. For example, where a dispute raises technical or scientific issues of fact, the parties can choose a tribunal with the relevant technical expertise. Similarly, where a dispute turns on a point of law, they can appoint a lawyer or lawyers. Choosing wisely can save time and money.
12 Litigation is rarely private. For example, in England, court trials are usually open to members of the public. The mere fact that a party is involved in English court litigation can be ascertained by a search of publicly available information, and most judgments are publicly available. More importantly, non-parties are permitted to obtain copies of any statements of case, judgments or orders in English litigation (unless the court makes a special order to the contrary – see CPR 5.4C).
13 The relative privacy of arbitration is an attractive feature to many commercial parties. Arbitration hearings are usually held in private, and the fact that a party is involved in arbitral proceedings is not usually in the public domain. Furthermore, English law has also recognised an implied duty of confidentiality which prevents the disclosure to third parties of most documents produced or disclosed in an arbitration, including the statements of case and award. This is in stark contrast to court proceedings.
14 Note, however, that the precise scope of the duty of confidentiality, and the exceptions to it, may be a matter of argument. If privacy and confidentiality is a particularly important factor consider including an express confidentiality clause in your arbitration agreement.
15 Another important feature of arbitration is the ability of the parties to refer their disputes to a neutral forum. This factor is likely to be particularly important to commercial parties, wary of referring disputes to the “home” courts of their contracting partner. The consensual nature of arbitration means that the parties can ensure that the composition of the tribunal, as well as the seat of the arbitration and the location of any hearing, are neutral. By their choice of the arbitral seat, the parties can also ensure that their arbitration is subject to modern, effective and supportive arbitration law.
16 Although arbitration is often perceived as being cheaper than litigation, this is not always the case. The parties must pay the tribunal plus any administrative costs (for example, room hire), which may represent a relatively substantial outlay when compared with the cost of court proceedings. The parties must also undertake the practical arrangements and organisation for any hearing.
17 To a large extent, the relative cost of arbitral proceedings depends upon the attitudes of the parties and the tribunal. An experienced tribunal and co-operative parties will often be able to devise procedures that minimise costs. By contrast, where arbitration is conducted as if it were court litigation, or where the tribunal unthinkingly applies the procedure set out in institutional rules without any attempt to modify them, costs can escalate. Do not assume that arbitration necessarily equals cheaper.
18 Again, this perceived advantage of arbitration is one that needs to be assessed carefully. It is true that, compared with lead times to trial in court, arbitration often represents a speedy method of dispute resolution. However, if the parties opt for a three-man tribunal consisting of three busy and popular arbitrators, there may be a substantial delay before any hearing can be accommodated. Also, because arbitrators’ powers of coercion are much more limited than the courts’, there is greater opportunity for deliberate delays and breaches of procedural deadlines.
19 This works the other way, too: if your chosen strategy is to delay the “day of judgment” for as long as possible, then arbitration may be your best option. It is probably fair to say that institutional arbitration offers the greatest safeguards against delays.
20 A court judgment will very frequently be subject to appeal(s). By contrast, the opportunities for appealing or otherwise challenging an arbitration award are very much more limited. This is frequently perceived as an advantage to the parties – though, of course, this is questionable if the arbitrator determines a dispute wrongly.
21 Although national arbitration laws vary to some extent, there is a significant degree of harmonisation. Many countries have adopted the UNCITRAL Model Law; others (like England, Wales and Northern Ireland) have arbitration laws based upon its provisions. There is, therefore, a degree of certainty and predictability with regard to arbitration law that may not apply to the procedural law of national courts.
When is litigation preferable to arbitration?
22 Notwithstanding the factors identified above, there are certain situations in which litigation will usually be preferable to arbitration. The following analysis focuses primarily on litigation in the English courts: the position may be different if you are seeking to compare arbitration with litigation in a foreign court, in which case advice from a competent foreign lawyer is advisable).
23 The right to arbitrate derives from the arbitration agreement. There is, therefore, no power to join third parties unless all the parties, and the third party, agree. Although joinder may well result in overall savings in costs, parties will often refuse to agree to it for obvious tactical reasons. This means that in multiparty situations, arbitration can be a cumbersome and inconvenient procedure, which carries a risk of inconsistent findings and which may prejudice the chances of settlement.
24 For similar reasons, arbitration cannot easily accommodate class action litigation. ( Note, however, that class arbitration is recognised in the US (though subject to certain restrictions).
25 Arbitral tribunals’ coercive powers are much more limited than that of a court. Although national courts can sometimes intervene to enforce arbitrators’ procedural orders, delays are still a more distinct possibility in arbitration than in litigation. Some institutions have taken steps to deal with this, but deliberate delaying tactics may be more difficult to combat in arbitration than in litigation.
26 In principle an arbitral tribunal can determine claims and defences summarily. However, in practice they may be less willing than a court to do so. For example, English courts tend to be robust in disposing of meritless claims or defences on a summary basis. An arbitral tribunal is less likely to adopt such an approach. Therefore, if your claims are simple, involving only one defendant, and are indisputably due, you may prefer to issue court proceedings and apply for summary judgment.
27 An arbitration award is for most purposes confidential to the parties. Furthermore, although persuasive, it does not give rise to any binding precedent or res judicata vis a vis other parties. Where, therefore, a final and generally binding ruling on the meaning of a standard form contract is required, litigation in court will be preferable.
28 The tribunal or parties may decide whether or not to apply the strict rules of evidence. If they decide not to, there is a greater chance of the introduction of prejudicial or irrelevant material. However, this is not usually a problem in practice.
Arbitration compared with ADR
29 The term “ADR” encompasses so many and varied procedures that it is difficult to generalise about its relative advantages and disadvantages. For present purposes, the following general points may be stated.
30 ADR (in particular mediation) enables the parties to reach solutions that are not based on a “win/lose” paradigm, and that promote continuing relationships. As such, ADR may save time and costs by cutting through the legal or technical rights and wrongs, and focusing upon the solution. The flexibility and goal-oriented nature of ADR will be attractive to many parties.
31 However, unless the parties reach a settlement, ADR will not give rise to any binding judgment or award. Parties may withdraw from ADR before reaching any settlement, or the ADR may conclude without any settlement being reached, giving rise in such cases to wasted costs. Furthermore, and by contrast with arbitration, there is at present no statutory regime in support of ADR. Parties who are not comfortable with this relative lack of structure may prefer to arbitrate or litigate, or possibly to adopt two-tiered or hybrid procedures.