Directors & Shareholder Claims: 3

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Understanding the options – 5 tips

As discussed in previous posts, Boardroom and shareholder disputes arise for many reasons. When they do, it is important to understand the legal rights of all parties and the options available. The consequences of allowing things to drift and potentially get worse shouldn’t be ignored. There are options which help make life easier.

  • If you are a minority shareholder in a company, what happens if you have a disagreement with the majority shareholder, or a group which has more control?
  • How do you solve the problem, or even avoid a dispute?
  • In the third of this series, here are five important tips:

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1] Shareholder Agreements

The House of Lords in Russell v Northern Bank Developments Corp Ltd[i] emphasised the practical utility of Shareholder Agreements. These are used for a wide variety of purposes, adding significantly to the company’s constitutional regime of Memorandum and Articles. This includes providing personal rights to minority shareholders who otherwise have no control over fundamental points.  The minority shareholder’s concerns would be more difficult to deal with unless specifically covered as an enforceable private contract between members.

These should be provided in the Shareholder Agreement, covering similar areas to partnership agreements.

The benefits include avoiding future misunderstandings and practical difficulties in running the business.

A Shareholder Agreement typically deals with issues such as:

  • restrictions on transferability of shares
  • lack of a market for sale of shares
  • establishing a purchaser
  • formulas for valuation and funding
  • pre-emption rights
  • compulsory transfer or option arrangements
  • protection of minority members by permitting a veto
  • preserving confidentiality
  • efficient transfer on death, disability, retirement
  • estate planning
  • regulating management and involvement of investors
  • mechanisms for dealing with stalemate.

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2] “Unfair Prejudice” Petition
Section 994 of the Companies Act 2006 permits a shareholder to petition the court on the basis that the shareholder’s interests have been unfairly prejudiced in the conduct of the Company’s affairs due to e.g. breach of:

  • the Articles of Association
  • the Shareholder Agreement
  • fiduciary duties by directors
  • exclusion of a minority from the running of the company in small “quasi-partnership” companies.

The Court has wide discretion to grant the relief it decides is appropriate. This is often an order that the aggrieved minority shareholder’s shares are purchased for ‘fair value’. This may include a premium on the actual value of the shares as recompense to the petitioner for any wrongdoing by the majority.

3] What is a ‘derivative claim’ – S.260 of the Companies Act 2006?

In certain circumstances a shareholder can ask the court to prevent action being taken by the Directors which is harmful to the company, or make a claim against the Directors for any loss suffered by the company as a result of their action.  The claim must be made by the shareholder on behalf of the company. The shareholder’s right to bring a claim “derives from” the company. This is a claim made in a “representative capacity” by the individual shareholder, not on the shareholder’s own behalf. It is the company which is suffering the harm.  The damage to the company may also harm the shareholder indirectly, e.g. if there is a reduction in profits or other damage suffered.

Derivative claims are relatively unusual because although it is the member who issues the court proceedings as claimant to launch the action, the court must give permission for the claim to continue to trial.  A number of tests have to be satisfied before the court will give permission.

The shareholder runs a risk on costs and at least initially has to fund the claim themselves. It is possible to obtain an order that the company indemnify the member, although they may obtain no immediate benefit themselves by launching the court case. However, if the claim succeeds, the company will have been protected. Ultimately, that should benefit the shareholder because it protects their investment in the company.

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4] What is a claim under S.122(g)  of the Insolvency Act 1996?

Any shareholder may apply to have a company wound up on “just and equitable grounds” including in quasi-partnerships, involving the shareholder’s right to manage the company – Ebrahimi  v Westbourne Galleries Ltd[ii]. The sole remedy here of winding up is draconian, available only in specific circumstances. This is the “nuclear option” in shareholder disputes – the aggrieved shareholder petitions the court for a winding up order to terminate the company.

Usually the shareholders’ differences have become irreconcilable and a ‘commercial divorce’ is the only way to move forward. When a company is wound up, if there is anything left after paying the creditors and the liquidator the proceeds are divided amongst the shareholders.

Not every aggrieved shareholder will be able to justify a winding up petition to the court. There must be compelling reasons showing that the company can no longer continue.  The aggrieved shareholder has to prove there will be a concrete benefit in making a winding up order.  If there is some alternative remedy, which would allow the company to continue, the court may refuse to make the order.

A typical scenario where a winding up may be justified is where there is deadlock or stalemate between two or more shareholders in a quasi-partnership company which can’t be resolved. Where there is an aggrieved minority shareholder, experience shows that the majority shareholder will seek to dispute:

  • the complaints by the minority that there was any “quasi-partnership” in the first place
  • the circumstances of any alleged unfairly prejudicial conduct
  • the alleged value of the business
  • the aggrieved minority shareholder’s share

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5] Finally

The sooner informed negotiations start, the more likely it is that a private business will survive a shareholder dispute. A comprehensive Shareholder Agreement can help to preserve operations and resolve matters quickly.

Expert legal advice early on could keep the process out of prolonged, expensive and destructive litigation. This is by providing the facts, insight and information to allow all parties to make informed decisions quickly. This would ultimately be to the benefit of the company as a whole and the shareholders individually.

For further information regarding minority shareholder / business disputes and unfair prejudice petitions contact Paul.Sykes@lf-dt.com

[i] [1992] 1 WLR 588

[ii] [1972] 2 All ER 492

Unfair Prejudice & Drag Along

Minority Shareholder wins Quasi Partnership claim

8 Ways to avoid a Business Dispute

Are you a Shadow or de facto director?

Service of a Claim Form on a Director

WHEN DIRECTORS FALL OUT

Disclaimer

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Directors & Shareholder Claims: 2

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Resolving Boardroom Conflict  – 5 More Tips

Disputes between shareholders of private companies are often emotional and can be as complicated as a personal divorce. The disruption to any business can be extremely damaging. Knowing what remedies are available to resolve matters quickly could be the key to survival.

  • What if the majority is taking unfair advantage of you?
  • What if you suspect co-shareholders are stealing from the company?
  • In the second of a series, here are five further important pointers to be aware of:

1/ Protecting the Minority

There is a common misconception that the complex laws and regulations relating to companies should achieve a just and fair relationship between a minority shareholder and the majority. However, there is very little law which protects the minority, unless the parties have agreed beforehand.

Differences between shareholders don’t always arise because of power struggles or personal animosity. Frequently, disputes are down to differences in approach where one party wants to retire or withdraw their investment. Disagreements may centre on

  • timing
  • valuation issues
  • the direction of the company

The public courts are unlikely to be the ideal venue for resolving shareholder disputes. Proceedings are in the public domain and the procedure can be expensive and slow.

Particularly where private companies are concerned, there are effective alternatives, including: negotiation, mediation and arbitration.

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2/ Shareholder Agreement

An effective way to address potential problems before they arise is a Shareholder Agreement. This sets out ground rules for the shareholders in given circumstances. Many potential and predictable problems can be addressed in advance in a Shareholder Agreement. This leaves the shareholders to concentrate on managing the business, rather than a future internal dispute.

Amongst other things, the agreement can cover:

  • management responsibilities
  • non-competition restrictions
  • bonus and remuneration formulae
  • approval/decision process for major corporate decisions
  • buy/sell provision – e.g. a “shotgun clause” to force a transaction
  • how a shareholder can realise his or her investment in the company
  • whether to impose any restrictions on selling shares
  • criteria on valuing the shareholding
  • exit provisions – timetable for sale
  • appointment of an independent third party to value the shares
  • a detailed dispute resolution framework

 

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3/ What is an “Unfair Prejudice” claim?

The majority shareholders are in a powerful position, even where there is a Shareholder Agreement. However, the court will protect the position of minority shareholders from being abused in certain circumstances.

Section 994 of the Companies Act 2006 allows a shareholder to apply to the Court for an order declaring that the affairs of the company are being conducted in a manner unfairly prejudicial to the minority shareholder’s interests. If the court agrees, it will usually order that the shares of the minority shareholder are bought for fair value. However, the Court has a very wide discretion as to what it can order, including:

  • purchase of the shares of any members of the company by other members or by the company itself and, in the case of the purchase by the company itself, the reduction of the company’s capital accordingly
  • conduct of the company’s affairs in the future
  • company to refrain from doing or continuing an act complained about, or to do an act about which the petitioner has complained that it has omitted to do
  • civil proceedings to be brought in the name and on behalf of the company by such persons and on such terms as the court may direct
  • company not to make any, or any specified, alterations in its articles without the court’s permission

4/ When might a court find “unfair prejudice”?

Where a minority shareholder believes that the company is being run in a way which is unfairly prejudicial to some of the shareholders, the aggrieved shareholder can make an application to the Companies Court for a remedy. Unfairly prejudicial conduct may include for example:

  • majority shareholders paying themselves excess remuneration
  • majority shareholders failing to pay dividends
  • breach of duty by diverting business to majority shareholders or their connected companies
  • directors selling or buying assets at an unfair price
  • failing to pay declared dividends
  • undertaking activities which are not permitted under the company’s Articles
  • doing something which might result in the company’s insolvency
  • failure to follow company law or proper procedure on meetings.
  • failure to issue annual accounts

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5/ “Quasi-Partnership”

In small to medium sized private companies, the court might be persuaded that a “quasi-partnership” exists. The aggrieved party may complain that there is a breach of their ‘legitimate expectations’ about what the company was set up to do, and how it would be run. E.g.

it was agreed, or a common intention is proved:

  • the company would carry on a particular business
  • all would be entitled to an equal say in how the company is managed
  • a mutual expectation of continued employment
  • the directors would be fair when deciding on the salaries to be paid, the amounts to be kept in the company to fund growth, and the dividends to be paid out

If the court decides that a quasi-partnership exists, termination of that arrangement or unfair prejudice to the minority may result in the majority being obliged to buy out the shares of the aggrieved minority shareholder. If the majority acts in breach of such

“legitimate expectations”

the court may intervene.

Where an aggrieved shareholder has cause for complaint, urgent action is required. The court may refuse to interfere if a minority shareholder let the matter slide. The court will treat this as acceptance of the action taken by the majority:

“delay defeats equity”.

The court will consider all of the background circumstances on an application, including the minority shareholder’s own conduct.

These applications are rarely straightforward and are often settled by negotiation before the court is asked to make a final decision.  Quite often, one or more of the shareholders leave with a package.

For further information regarding minority shareholder / business disputes and unfair prejudice petitions contact Paul.Sykes@lf-dt.com

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Directors & Shareholder Claims: 1

Unfair Prejudice & Drag Along

Minority Shareholder wins Quasi Partnership claim

8 Ways to avoid a Business Dispute

Are you a Shadow or de facto director?

WHEN DIRECTORS FALL OUT

Disclaimer

 

 

 

 

New Professional Negligence Pilot: Adjudication

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Scheme launched 1 February 2015

Adjudication is a form of ADR (Alternative Dispute Resolution). A new voluntary scheme is being piloted aimed at professional negligence claims of less than £100,000 (excluding costs). This is of particular interest in solicitors’ negligence claims.

The objective is to see if claims can be resolved without the issue of Civil Court proceedings. There would be a substantial likely saving in terms of costs to all parties, time, and court resources. This is particularly apt in view of the forthcoming hike in Civil Court Issue fees.

The Adjudication process is aimed at any professional negligence claim, whether wholly or in part.

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Key advantages of Adjudication

  1. It is possible to obtain a reasoned judgment enforceable in Court for much lower cost than using Court proceedings.
  2. The scheme can work with the pre action protocol claim and response letters as submissions from the parties.
  3. The PNBA  (Professional Negligence Bar Association) have appointed a panel of 5 adjudicators for the pilot, all with many years of experience in this type of claim on standard terms of business and cost.
  4. The scheme itself is designed as a precedent which can be adapted by agreement for individual cases – adaptations agreed will be useful in assessing the feedback.
  5. Interlocutory points/preliminary issues could be adjudicated if a barrier to other forms of ADR like mediation and/or as a cheaper and quicker alternative to Court hearings.
  6. The meeting and process could be agreed as similar to mediations at similar cost.

The adjudication pilot is appropriate where the claimant seeks damages or compensation in a professional negligence claim with a financial value. The scheme and terms of business can be used or adapted for any case even if the parties do not wish to provide feedback or take part in the pilot. The pilot scheme details are being circulated to PNLA (Professional Negligence Lawyers Association), ABI (Association of British Insurers) and PNBA members.

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The introduction from Mr Justice Ramsey as approved by the Ministry of Justice provides the background. The Judge is looking for 3 pilot cases with feedback by June:

‘I am pleased to say that the Ministry of Justice have agreed to be involved in these discussions and to consider whether, as a result further steps might be taken to include adjudication of professional negligence claims as part of civil procedure or take other steps to introduce ways to minimise the costs and costs exposure of those who wish to bring professional negligence claims.’

Feedback is being administered on a neutral basis by Masood Ahmed of Leicester University in consultation with the Ministry of Justice

http://www2.le.ac.uk/departments/law/people/masood-ahmed

Limits to Adjudication

Adjudication is one of the many forms of alternative dispute resolution, such as mediation, arbitration, conciliation, negotiation, mini trial, expert determination etc.

Adjudication could have an important role to play.  It is derived from the statutory provisions which apply to construction contracts.  Adjudication allows a person with specialist knowledge in a particular field to provide a temporarily binding decision on the merits of a dispute within a short time and at minimum expense.

Experience has shown that, whilst parties can then seek to have a final determination of the dispute in the Courts, they often do not do so.  In the vast majority of  cases they accept the adjudication or use it as a means of settling the dispute.

In his introduction to the pilot scheme (which is also monitored by the Ministry of Justice) Mr Justice Ramsay explains that some practitioners consider that adjudication is particularly appropriate in resolving disputes in professional negligence cases where, without some independent decision on the merits, the parties may not be able to resolve their dispute.  The fact that the decision is temporarily binding means that the parties are not finally bound by the decision, but clearly a decision by a specialist adjudicator has to be given great importance in deciding whether to seek a finally binding decision in litigation through the Civil Courts.

The aim of the pilot scheme is that it shall run until 3 cases have been adjudicated, and the relevant feedback has been analysed.  The Ministry of Justice is to be involved in the subsequent review and to consider whether, as a result further steps might be taken to include adjudication of professional negligence claims as part of civil procedure accross the board, or to consider other ways to minimise the costs and costs exposure of potential claimants in professional negligence disputes.

If the scheme proves to be popular, and as a potential route to reduce costs and delay, other claimants and parties are likely to be interested in participating in adjudication of professional negligence claims, outside of the pilot scheme.

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Arbitration: Pros & Cons

 

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Why Arbitrate?

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.

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Enforcement

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.

Certainty

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.

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Flexibility

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.

Expertise

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.

Privacy

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.

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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.

Neutrality

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.

Cost

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.

 

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Delays

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.

Finality

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.

Predictability

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.

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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).

Multiparty disputes

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).

Recalcitrant parties

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.

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Summary determination

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.

No precedent

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.

Irrelevant evidence

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.

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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.