This post was contributed by Nicolas Kyriakides, who is a practising lawyer in Cyprus and an Adjunct Faculty at the University of Nicosia, and Laura McBride, a BA Jurisprudence student at the University of Oxford.
On 6 July 2021, Robin Knowles J handed down a lengthy judgment in the case of Province of Balochistan v Tethyan Copper Company Pty Ltd  EWHC 1884 (Comm), in the Commercial Court subdivision of the Queen’s Bench Division of the High Court of England and Wales.
This case was to settle various preliminary issues in an arbitration dispute, and provides an interesting insight into the workings of substantive jurisdiction and separability in arbitration.
The Province of Balochistan is one of the four provinces of Pakistan and is rich in natural resources, including gold.
The defendant is an Australian company, owned by two of the world’s biggest mining companies, Antofagasta and Barrick Gold, and had been exploring the Chagai Hills in Balochistan as a possible location for mining. For that purpose, a contract – the Chagai Hills Exploration Joint Venture Agreement (CHEJVA) had been formed in 1993 between BHP Minerals Intermediate Exploration Inc. and the Balochistan Development Authority, but BHP had been replaced as a party to the contract through a Novation Agreement in 2006 which introduced Tethyan Copper (TCCA).
The Islamabad High Court granted a Scheme of Arrangement, which broadly transferred TCCA’s rights to its wholly owned subsidiary (TCCP). After years of exploring, a Mining Lease application was made by TCCP to the Government of Balochistan, which was refused, and two arbitrations have followed – one through ICSID, and one through the ICC – as well as a case in the Supreme Court of Pakistan.
The Province of Balochistan claimed that the ICC arbitral tribunal did not have jurisdiction because the CHEJVA was void, and therefore the arbitration agreement contained within it was also void. This is based on the ‘Corruption Allegation’, which is the allegation that the CHEJVA and related agreements were void due to the existence of corruption.
Robin Knowles J’s robust analysis and thorough discussion laid bare a breadth of important points when it comes to substantive jurisdiction and separability of agreements in the context of arbitration. The ability to preclude parties from denying the jurisdiction of the tribunal is key to ensuring that an arbitration can occur successfully. The learned judge found multiple ways to ensure that the arbitration could occur in line with the actual submissions that the parties had advanced to proceed with the arbitration in the first place.
The Corruption Allegation, as it stood, appears to have had the possibility of preventing the two parties from having any non-litigious solution to their standoff, but Robin Knowles J effectively threw it out as a possible challenge to the jurisdiction of the ICC’s arbitral tribunal.
The sanctity of arbitration agreements, even in invalid, ineffective, or void contracts, is clearly demonstrated through the reasoning of Robin Knowles J, who carefully ensures both deference to the Supreme Court of Pakistan and the continuance of successful arbitration, especially in a case as complex as this.
This case reflects the importance of preserving such international deference and the ability to maintain relations across multiple jurisdictions, which has cemented London as a global centre of arbitration between warring international organisations.
Robin Knowles J was asked to give judgment on eight issues:
- Whether the Corruption Allegation is precluded by section 73(1) of the Arbitration Act 1996
- Whether the Corruption Allegation is precluded pursuant to the doctrine of waiver by election
- Whether TCCA is precluded by an issue estoppel arising from the Judgment of the Supreme Court of Pakistan from alleging separability of the arbitration agreement
- Whether TCCA is precluded by an issue estoppel arising from the Judgment of the Supreme Court of Pakistan from denying that the arbitration agreement is governed by the law of Pakistan
- Whether the Province of Balochistan is precluded by section 73 of the 1996 Act from denying separability of the arbitration agreement
- Whether the Corruption Allegation seeks impermissibly to challenge the ICC tribunal’s decision on the merits of the claim before it
- Whether the Province of Balochistan cannot pursue the Corruption Allegation on the basis that it was not included in the Arbitration Claim Form
- Whether an application dated 21 January 2021 by the Province of Balochistan to amend the Arbitration Claim Form should be granted?
A further two issues were dependent upon the answer given to the fifth issue.
The analysis began with extensive outlining of the Supreme Court of Pakistan’s judgment to see what the Court actually said with reference to corruption. The Supreme Court of Pakistan found that the CHEJVA was made contrary to the Balochistan Mining Concession Rules 1970 and the later Balochistan Mining Rules 2002, both of which were implemented in conformity with the Mineral Development Act 1948. The Government of Balochistan, under these rules, is able to relax the requirements outlined in the Rules in cases of hardship, and the applicant must show special circumstances warranting the exercise of such power. The hardship was never demonstrated, yet the rules were relaxed, in what the Supreme Court described as relaxations granted in excess of authority and therefore ultra vires. This means that the CHEJVA was made contrary to law, and hence was unenforceable. Beyond this, s23 of the Contract Act 1872 allows for a contract to be void if the object or consideration is unlawful, including if it opposes public policy – the contract, in its violation of the BCMR, was opposed to public policy, and therefore unlawful on these grounds as well.
Noticeably, there was not much discussion of corruption in the Supreme Court of Pakistan’s judgment. Indeed, Robin Knowles J made it clear that corruption was not the turning point in deciding that the CHEJVA was void, but the court had observed that there were disclosures of corruption. Descriptions or references to corruption are insufficient to found the claim that it rendered the contract void.
Issue (1) – Waiving The Corruption Allegation?
The first, and most substantial, issue concerns whether the Province of Balochistan was precluded from making the Corruption Allegation based on s73(1) of the Arbitration Act 1996, which says that a party continuing in an arbitration without making an objection about the substantive jurisdiction of the arbitral tribunal may not raise the objection later unless he proves that he did not know and could not with reasonable diligence have discovered this.
The Province, before the Supreme Court of Pakistan had delivered their reasoning, argued that there was no jurisdiction for arbitration, but that rather there should have been judicial review by the court system of Pakistan in reference to a decision made by the Licencing Authority under the BMR 2002 being a product of corruption. Furthermore, it argued that the Supreme Court of Pakistan should be able to determine the validity, legality, and vires of the CHEJVA before the arbitration even occurs, as the appropriate forum is Pakistan.
The ICC tribunal, however, disagreed with this argument by the Province, as they found that arbitration clause within the CHEJVA was separable from the larger agreement, and may be governed by a different law – in this case, arguably English law, as the chosen seat of arbitration is London, although the agreement did also reference international law – nor was there any formal challenge to the Tribunal’s jurisdiction by the Government. Following the delivery of the judgment of the Supreme Court of Pakistan, the Province argued that the entire contract being null and void meant that the jurisdiction of the ICC tribunal, arising from the contract, would also be illegal.
However, they did not ask the ICC’s arbitral tribunal to make an independent case of corruption leading to the invalidity of the arbitration agreement, and while the arbitral tribunal acknowledged that there were references to corruption within the Supreme court of Pakistan’s judgment, this was not the basis upon which the contract was declared void. The arbitral tribunal, in its Rulings on Preliminary Issues, decided that the Supreme Court did not make any findings of corruption and did not invalidate any agreement on this ground, but made no ruling itself upon the question of corruption because no separate arguments or evidence had been put before it.
Following the arbitral tribunal’s Rulings on Preliminary Issues, an exchange between the parties and tribunal occurred, wherein the latter offered to the parties a slightly different course of action, where the Rulings would be given as a Partial Award. Between the time of the grant of award and the transfer of the award itself, the right to object to substantive jurisdiction of the ICC tribunal would not be lost under s73 where the objection had been made in the proceedings which led to the Rulings. However, there were no objections, whether one was not made for the reasons under s73(1) or any other reason.
After this exchange, the Province said that it had recently uncovered ‘new evidence of extensive corruption by TCC’, and claimed that it was not too late to raise the issue of corruption, because the evidence had required the cooperation of third parties who had not been previously involved when the time had come to allege corruption originally.
It was open to the Province to request the ICC tribunal look at the issue of corruption as one which went to jurisdiction, not only to merits of claims under arbitration. The Province did not take this course of action, but confined the request to the merits of the claims, and Robin Knowles J felt that, by consulting an international law firm in doing so, they appreciated what they were doing. The Province identified an exception in English law to the general practice rule that corruption has no impact upon the jurisdiction of the arbitral tribunal and that the doctrine of separability is preferred, in that where bribery impeaches the arbitration clause in particular, then there is the possibility that the general rule no longer applies.
They did not wish to pursue this to vitiate TCC’s claim, nor did they acknowledge that the issue that, if the practice rule in English law also existed in Pakistan’s laws, they could not identify a suitable exception which would allow them to claim no jurisdiction.
The jurisdictional issue, then, was whether the Supreme Court of Pakistan had decided that the arbitration agreement was void, including on the basis of corruption, which is not the Corruption Allegation as defined above, which is wider. Raising the contention that there was contention is not enough to raise it as a jurisdictional objection, and raising the contention as a jurisdictional objection that the Supreme Court of Pakistan had decided that the arbitration agreement was void, including on the basis of corruption, is not the same thing as raising corruption as a jurisdictional objection.
As a consequence of this, the Corruption Allegation was ruled to be precluded by s73(1) of the 1996 Act because the Province did not make the jurisdictional objection to the ICC tribunal that the CHEJVA and related agreements were void due to the existence of corruption, even though with reasonable diligence the Province had the knowledge it needed to raise the objection.
Issue (2) – The Corruption Allegation: Waiver by Election
The second issue focused on the doctrine of election, which applies where a choice has to be made between two inconsistent courses of action. The Province had made a decision not to pursue the argument that the arbitration agreement in the CHEJVA was vitiated by corruption on behalf of TCC, which Robin Knowles J held to be a clear, unequivocal choice. Consequently, the Corruption Allegation is additionally precluded by the doctrine of waiver by election.
Within this issue, the principle of separability was also introduced. Section 7 of the 1996 Act provides that an arbitration agreement which was part of an “invalid, non-existent, or ineffective” larger agreement is not regarded as such, and is treated as a distinct agreement. While it was common ground that s7 applied before the ICC tribunal, the Province denied it.
Issue (3) – Issue Estoppel Against TCCA: Separability of the Arbitration Agreement
The notion that a judgment of a court in another jurisdiction is capable of giving rise to an issue estoppel in proceedings before the English courts has been in existence for over half a century in England. The focus of the issue estoppel here is whether the Supreme Court of Pakistan decided that the arbitration agreement was not separable from the CHEJVA, or if it was otherwise saved by the principle of separability.
Robin Knowles J identified that, while no part of the CHEJVA had escaped the Supreme Court of Pakistan’s judgment and indeed the Court had decided that there was no separability, there was an issue of who was in fact a party to the case in Pakistan. TCCP, the wholly-owned subsidiary of TCCA, was before the court, but a shared commercial interest does not make TCCP a privy to TCCA. As a result, TCCA is not precluded from alleging separability of the arbitration agreement by an issue estoppel arising from the judgment of the Supreme Court of Pakistan.
Issue (4) – Issue Estoppel against TCCA: The Governing Law of the Arbitration Agreement
The fourth issue was dealt with shortly. It was ruled that TCCA was not precluded by an issue estoppel arising from the judgment of the Supreme Court of Pakistan from denying that the arbitration agreement is governed by the law of Pakistan, for the same reasons that they were not precluded under issue (3).
Issue (5) – Separability: s73 of 1996 Act
The Province could have argued, for the fifth issue, that the lack of jurisdiction included the fact that the arbitration agreement is not separable, but they chose to not argue this, and in fact argued the opposite way during the arbitration. Robin Knowles J highlighted that the party raising an objection to jurisdiction must deal with separability when relevant in order for them to prevail. Due to the Province’s failure to do this, they are now precluded by s73 of the 1996 Act from denying the separability of the arbitration agreement under English law.
Issue (6) – Challenge on the Merits
The Corruption Allegation was not raised as a jurisdictional objection before the ICC tribunal but was raised as part of its defence on the merits. In its Partial Award, the ICC tribunal found that the ICSID tribunal’s dismissal of corruption allegations in the arbitration under the Bilateral Investment Treaty had a “preclusive effect” in the ICC arbitration. A party bringing a jurisdictional challenge under s67 of the 1996 Act may challenge the arbitral tribunal’s findings of fact which are relevant to that challenge, and the facts which have been treated as having preclusive effect may also be challenged. However, it is not for the Court to handle the aspects of jurisdiction challenge to which the findings of fact would be relevant.
The ICC tribunal had addressed the findings of fact as part of its consideration on the merits, and the Province had accepted their jurisdiction to determine TCC’s claims, so the effect of allowing a Corruption Allegation to be advanced within its s67 challenge would allow the Province to challenge the ICC’s treatment of the merits of dispute. The Province must raise the evidence relating to corruption with the tribunal, not the court as a challenge to the jurisdiction of the tribunal.
Issue (7) – The Arbitration Claim Form, and Issue (8) – Amendments to the Claim Form
These two issues together referred to the Claim Form submitted by the Province. The Province had incorrectly referenced corruption as one of the reasons for the Supreme Court of Pakistan’s decision in the claim form, but proper analysis of the judgment as above made it clear that corruption was not one of the grounds for the judgment. The Province did not include the Corruption Allegation in the claim form, so therefore cannot pursue it in arbitration. Indeed, the amendments under issue (8) relied upon the proposition that the Supreme Court had decided in favour of corruption. As a consequence, the ability to amend the form was denied.