The post below was written by Giuditta Cordero-Moss, who is a Professor at the Department for Private Law, University of Oslo. It is the sixth and concluding contribution to the EAPIL online symposium on the English Law Commission’s proposed reform of the law governing arbitration agreements. The other posts are written by Alex Mills, Manuel Penades, George Bermann, Sylvain Bollée and Matthias Lehmann.
Readers are encouraged to participate in the discussion by commenting on the posts.
In this online symposium, we addressed one particular aspect of the Final Report on the Review of the Arbitration Act 1996 rendered by the Law Commission of England and Wales: the choice of the law applicable to the arbitration agreement. The Law Commission recommends reversing the law as stated in the known UK Supreme Court decisions Enka (Enka v Chubb  UKSC 38), and Kabab-Ji (Kabab-Ji SAL (Lebanon) v Kout Food Group (Kuwait)  UKSC 48). Among other things, these decisions established that the choice of law made by the parties in their commercial contract applies also to the arbitration agreement.
Arbitration agreements are often contained in an arbitration clause which is part of a larger contract regulating the commercial relationship between the parties (which the Law Commission defines as the “matrix contract”, and I refer to as the “main contract”). Often, the main contract contains, in addition to the arbitration clause, a choice of law clause subjecting the contract to a certain law. The question is whether the choice of law made by the parties for the main contract also covers the arbitration clause. According to the Supreme Court, it does; according to the Law Commission, it does not.
In the Law Commission’s Final Report, the law chosen by the parties for the main contract applies to the arbitration clause only if it was expressly and specifically also made for the arbitration agreement. Failing an express and specific choice, the Report recommends that the arbitration agreement be subject to the law of the place of arbitral seat. This default rule is aligned with the New York Convention provision in article V(1)(a) and with the UNCITRAL Model Law provision in article 34(2)(a)(i), and will not be commented any further here, other than to commend the Law Commission for having recommended a clear rule harmonised with international sources.
The spirit of the reform is clear: party autonomy is respected, but subject to the principle of severability – although Manuel Penades points out in his post that the wording suggested by the Law Commission may give rise to some uncertainties.
The recommendation’s rationale is explained in sections 12.17-20 of the Final Report: the aim is to give a clear rule and to align the law applicable to the arbitration agreement with the law applicable to the arbitral procedure – which, incidentally, permits to apply English law to arbitration agreements that are to be performed in England.
A Restriction to Party Autonomy?
There is a general acceptance that the arbitration agreement may be subject to a law different from that governing the main agreement (see, for France, Cour de cassation, 28 September 2022, n° 20-20.260 (Kabab-Ji); for Sweden, ; for Germany, BGH 26 November 2020, I-ZR 245/19 (Mace-Flower)). However, opinions diverge on the effects for the arbitration agreement of a choice of law contained in the main contract and that does not specifically refer to the arbitration agreement.
Alex Mills argues in his post that the Law Commission does not persuasively explain why the policies mentioned in the Report should trump the principle of party autonomy. Likewise, George Bermann finds that the law chosen by the parties should be given respect even though it does not specifically mention the arbitration agreement.
The question is, however, whether the Law Commission’s proposal represents a restriction of party autonomy. If the parties to a contract subject to the law of Ruritania decide to submit disputes between them to arbitration in England, are they more likely to expect that their arbitration agreement is subject to the law of Ruritania or to the law of England?
The arbitration agreement is the source of the arbitral tribunal’s powers. Subjecting it to the law applicable to the arbitral proceedings may turn out to be more compatible with the parties’ expectations than a scenario in which the law of Ruritania has a say on the existence and scope of the arbitral tribunal’s powers in an arbitration that, according to the parties’ choice, is to be carried out in England.
Severability and Choice of Law
The arbitration agreement is to be deemed a separate agreement, even where it is a clause within the main contract. This is confirmed, i.a., in article 16(1) of the UNCITRAL Model Law.
Without falling into excessive dogmatism, as correctly warned against in the post by Matthias Lehmann, the principle of severability has important practical consequences.
The purpose of severability is to preserve the integrity of the arbitration agreement; if there were no severability, any issues relating to the existence, validity or termination of the contractual relationship would affect the arbitration agreement. Questioning the validity of the contract would be sufficient to affect the whole basis of the arbitral process in which the contract’s validity is an issue. The question is how far severability reaches: does it cover only the validity of the arbitration agreement, or also its applicable law?
George Bermann correctly assumes, in his post, that parties who choose the arbitration seat only choose the arbitration law of that country. He concludes that rules on the arbitration agreement fall outside of this choice. Arguably, however, the arbitration law covers also questions relating to the arbitration agreement and its effects – both the New York Convention and the UNCIRAL Model Law, to name two examples, have rules precisely on this, and there is no doubt that they can be defined as arbitration law. By choosing the seat for their arbitral proceedings and the arbitration law applicable to them, therefore, parties may well have expected that their choice would cover also questions regarding the arbitration agreement.
The UK Supreme Court argues in Enka that the arbitration clause should be dealt with like any other clause in the agreement. Surprisingly, instead of concluding that the parties’ choice of law consequently directly applies to the arbitration clause, the majority in Enka states that choice of law for the main agreement amounts to an implied choice of law for the arbitration agreement. According to the minority, this choice creates a presumption that the law was chosen also for the arbitration agreement.
The Law Commission correctly points out in sections 12.34-38 that this reasoning lacks internal logic: if the arbitration agreement is a clause like any other clause in the main contract, shouldn’t the parties’ choice of law be deemed to be an expressed choice of law, just like it is for any other cause of the contract? Why is it defined as implied, or presumed? The severability principle prevents drawing a full equivalence of the arbitration agreement with any other clauses of the contract; but an implicit, or presumed, equivalence, is assumed after all.
A comparative view supports the Law Commission’s proposal.
Indirectly, some of the most arbitration-friendly national arbitration laws confirm that the law chosen by the parties for the main contract not necessarily is the law governing the arbitration agreement: Article 178(2) of the Swiss Private International Law Act, as well as Article 9(6) of the Spanish Arbitration Act, are based on the validation principle. According to these provisions, an arbitration agreement is valid if it complies with the requirements contained in (i) the law chosen by the parties to govern the arbitration agreement, (ii) the law applicable to the main contract, or (iii) the lex fori. If a choice of law for the main contract had the effect to select the law applicable to the arbitration agreement, it would not be necessary to list the law chosen by the parties as one of three alternatives.
Also under French law, the parties’ choice in the main agreement does not apply to the arbitration agreement – although this is the consequence of a special understanding of arbitration as an autonomous legal order, as Sylvain Bollée explains in his post.
According to Swedish courts, the principle of severability implies that the arbitration agreement is subject to the lex arbitri, irrespective of any choice the parties may have made for the main contract (Svea Court of Appeal, 20 May 2015, T 8043-13).
Indeed, it seems artificial to affirm that the validity of the arbitration agreement is to be examined separately, while the law applicable to the validity is the same as the law applicable to the main agreement. This does not to correspond to the practice of arbitration either.
Parties rarely specify the law governing their arbitration agreement. Usually, model Arbitration clauses recommended by arbitration institutions or, for ad hoc arbitration, by the UNCITRAL, do not contain a choice of law specific for arbitration either. The Model clauses may suggest adding which law governs the contract, but this applies to the merits of the dispute, not to the procedural aspects of the arbitration, as is confirmed by the wording suggested by the LCIA (‘The governing law of the contract shall be the substantive law of ’) and by the SCC (‘This contract shall be governed by the substantive law of […]’). By expressly mentioning the substance of the dispute, these rules arguably exclude that the choice applies to the arbitration agreement itself; and they are generally silent on the law applicable to the clauses themselves. In one instance, (Hong Kong), the model clause specifically suggests that the parties choose the law applicable to the arbitration clause, thus indirectly confirming that severability extends to choice of law.
In my opinion, the above supports extending severability to the applicable law, as the Law Commission recommends. It is compatible with the principle of severability, corresponds to the expectations in international practice, and favours harmonisation of English law with what has been defined as the preferred approach (Gary Born, International Commercial Arbitration 3rd edition, Kluwer Law International 2021, §4.04[A]).
The Law Commission approach is to be saluted. In addition to the practical and policy reasons it mentions, the proposal has the advantage of enhancing harmonization.
In a study carried out at the Hague Academy on the law applicable to various issues in arbitration (D. Fernández Arroyo and G. Cordero-Moss (eds.), Applicable Law Issues in International Arbitration, Brill 2023), one chapter is devoted precisely to the law applicable to arbitration agreements: Giulia Vallar, “Validity of the arbitration agreement”, pp. 325-346. Vallar suggests two main solutions to enhance predictability for the parties. One solution is readily available, but seldom applied: the parties should choose the applicable law in the arbitration agreement. The other, is defined by Vallar as utopistic: a uniform conflict rule. While I agree with her skepticism about the feasibility of codifying a multilateral rule, I find it an acceptable second best solution that the different legal systems spontaneously adopt a harmonized solution.
The Law Commission recommendation is a step into the right direction.