London holds the distinction of being a preferred seat for arbitration, making significant developments in English arbitration law of general interest to arbitration specialists and, at times, private international lawyers. Few developments in arbitration law can match the significance of a reform affecting the statute providing a framework for arbitration. This is precisely what the Law Commission of England and Wales is recommending in its final report on the review of the Arbitration Act 1996.
One of the proposals aims to introduce a statutory rule for determining the governing law of an arbitration agreement, which significantly departs from the current common law position. Given the importance of this proposal, the EAPIL blog will host an online symposium on the law governing arbitration agreements from 11 to 13 September 2023.
In this post, I will introduce the Law Commission’s proposals and the symposium.
Law Commission’s Proposals
On 6 September 2023, following an extensive consultation process that included the publication of two consultation papers in September 2022 and March 2023, the Law Commission unveiled its proposals for reforming the 1996 Act (the text of the final report and draft Bill is available here; a summary is available here). These proposals aim to uphold the Act’s core principles, while introducing improvements aimed at enhancing London’s position as a global arbitration centre.
The Law Commission’s major proposals are: codifying an arbitrator’s duty of disclosure; strengthening arbitrator immunity around resignation and applications for removal; introducing the power to make arbitral awards on a summary basis; improving the framework for challenges to awards under section 67 on the basis that the tribunal lacked jurisdiction; adding a new rule on the law governing arbitration agreements; and clarifying court powers in support of arbitral proceedings and emergency arbitrators.
Additionally, the Law Commission proposes several minor corrections, including: allowing appeals from applications to stay legal proceedings; simplifying preliminary applications to court on jurisdiction and points of law; clarifying time limits for challenging awards; and repealing unused provisions on domestic arbitration agreements.
Since private international lawyers are likely more interested in the proposed choice-of-law rule for arbitration agreements and the proposed new relationship between courts and arbitrators regarding jurisdictional challenges, I will focus on these two proposals.
New Choice-of-Law Rule for Arbitration Agreements
The Rome I Regulation does not cover arbitration agreements, leaving the determination of the law governing arbitration agreements in England to the common law choice-of-law rules for contracts. These rules are well-known: a contract is governed by the law expressly or impliedly chosen by the parties or, in the absence of choice, by the system of law with which the contract is most closely connected. Applying this rule to arbitration clauses can be difficult. Does a broad choice-of-law clause in a matrix contract amount to an express choice of law for the arbitration clause contained therein? If the parties have not expressly chosen the law to govern their arbitration clause, is the choice of law for the matrix contract an indication of implied choice for the arbitration clause? Is the designation of the arbitral seat an indication of such implied choice?
The United Kingdom Supreme Court addressed these questions twice in the past three years in Enka and Kabab-Ji. The court’s majority in Enka (Lord Hamblen, Lord Leggatt, and Lord Kerr) set out the following rules for determining the existence of parties’ choice of law in :
iii) Whether the parties have agreed on a choice of law to govern the arbitration agreement is ascertained by construing the arbitration agreement and the contract containing it, as a whole, applying the rules of contractual interpretation of English law as the law of the forum.
iv) Where the law applicable to the arbitration agreement is not specified, a choice of governing law for the contract will generally apply to an arbitration agreement which forms part of the contract.
v) The choice of a different country as the seat of the arbitration is not, without more, sufficient to negate an inference that a choice of law to govern the contract was intended to apply to the arbitration agreement.
vi) Additional factors which may, however, negate such an inference and may in some cases imply that the arbitration agreement was intended to be governed by the law of the seat are: (a) any provision of the law of the seat which indicates that, where an arbitration is subject to that law, the arbitration agreement will also be treated as governed by that country’s law; or (b) the existence of a serious risk that, if governed by the same law as the main contract, the arbitration agreement would be ineffective. Either factor may be reinforced by circumstances indicating that the seat was deliberately chosen as a neutral forum for the arbitration.
vii) Where there is no express choice of law to govern the contract, a clause providing for arbitration in a particular place will not by itself justify an inference that the contract (or the arbitration agreement) is intended to be governed by the law of that place.
The court also clarified that the law of the seat is ‘generally’ the system of law most closely connected to the arbitration agreement.
Unsurprisingly, consultees said that these rules were complex and unpredictable. This has led the Law Commission to propose a reform of these rules in its second consultation paper.
The proposal has three key elements: 1) retaining express choice; 2) eliminating implied choice; and 3) specifying that the law of the seat applies in the absence of an express choice.
The proposed choice-of-law rule for arbitration agreements reads as follows:
6A Law applicable to arbitration agreement
(1) The law applicable to an arbitration agreement is—
(a) the law that the parties expressly agree applies to the arbitration agreement, or
(b) where no such agreement is made, the law of the seat of the arbitration in question.
(2) For the purposes of subsection (1), agreement between the parties that a particular law applies to an agreement of which the arbitration agreement forms a part does not, of itself, constitute express agreement that that law also applies to the arbitration agreement.
(3) This section does not apply in relation to an arbitration agreement that was entered into before the day on which section 1 of the Arbitration Act 2023 comes into force.
New Relationship between Courts and Arbitrators Regarding Jurisdictional Challenges
If a party participates in arbitral proceedings, raises a jurisdictional challenge before the tribunal, and is accorded a fair hearing, should they be allowed to challenge the tribunal’s jurisdiction before a court using the same arguments and evidence? The answer to this question is principally guided by two somewhat conflicting considerations: efficiency and freedom of contract (which, of course, includes a freedom not to be bound by a non-existent or invalid contract).
The UKSC addressed this issue in Dallah. Lord Mance wrote obiter in  that:
An arbitral tribunal’s decision as to the existence of its own jurisdiction cannot…bind a party who has not submitted the question of arbitrability to the tribunal. This leaves for consideration the nature of the exercise which a court should undertake where there has been no such submission and the court is asked to enforce an award. Domestically, there is no doubt that, whether or not a party’s challenge to the jurisdiction has been raised, argued and decided before the arbitrator, a party who has not submitted to the arbitrator’s jurisdiction is entitled to a full judicial determination on evidence of an issue of jurisdiction before the English court, on an application made in time for that purpose under s.67 of the Arbitration Act 1996.
Lord Collins and Lord Saville expressed similar views in, respectively,  and -.
The Law Commission believes that such a de novo rehearing is inefficient and unfair to the party wishing to enforce the arbitration agreement. It proposes to limit when a participating party can raise a jurisdictional challenge before English courts.
Following a very controversial proposal in its first consultation paper, the Law Commission has settled on a proposal that has the following four key elements: 1) it covers situations where a party participates in arbitral proceedings, objects to the tribunal’s jurisdiction, and the tribunal rules on its jurisdiction; 2) the court will not entertain any new grounds of objection, or any new evidence, unless it was not reasonably possible to put them before the tribunal; 3) the court will re-hear evidence only if necessary in the interests of justice; and 4) these limitations are to be introduced through rules of court rather than the 1996 Act itself.
The proposed rules outlining this new relationship between courts and arbitrators regarding jurisdictional challenges, to be inserted in section 67, read as follows:
(3A) Rules of court about the procedure to be followed on an application under this section may, in particular, include provision within subsection (3B) in relation to a case where the application—
(a) relates to an objection as to the arbitral tribunal’s substantive jurisdiction on which the tribunal has already ruled, and
(b) is made by a party that took part in the arbitral proceedings.
(3B) Provision is within this subsection if it provides that—
(a) a ground for the objection that was not raised before the arbitral tribunal must not be raised before the court unless the applicant shows that, at the time the applicant took part in the proceedings, the applicant did not know and could not with reasonable diligence have discovered the ground;
(b) evidence that was not heard by the tribunal must not be heard by the court unless the applicant shows that, at the time the applicant took part in the proceedings, the applicant could not with reasonable diligence have put the evidence before the tribunal;
(c) evidence that was heard by the tribunal must not be re-heard by the court, unless the court considers it necessary in the interests of justice.
EAPIL Blog Symposium on the Law Governing Arbitration Agreements
From 11 to 13 September 2023, the EAPIL blog will host an online symposium on the law governing arbitration agreements. The focus will be on assessing the Law Commission’s proposal and providing a comparative perspective. Professor Alex Mills (UCL) and Dr Manuel Penades Fons (KCL) will kick off the discussion by assessing the proposed choice-of-law rule for arbitration agreements from a UK perspective on Monday 11 September 2023. More contributions from comparative perspectives will follow on Tuesday and Wednesday.
Readers are encouraged to participate in the discussion by commenting on the posts.