I have already reported that the UK Supreme Court ruled on the meaning of a “matter” in Article II(3) of the 1958 New York Convention on the Recognition and Enforcement of Foreign Arbitral Awards (NYC) in its judgment of 20 September 2023 in Republic of Mozambique v Privinvest Shipbuilding SAL (Holding)  UKSC 32.
On the very same day, the Privy Council, speaking through Lord Hodge (other judges were Lord Reed (President), Lord Lloyd-Jones, Lord Briggs, and Lord Kitchin), gave a judgment on Article II(3) NYC in FamilyMart China Holding Co Ltd v Ting Chuan (Cayman Islands) Holding Corporation  UKPC 33. This case was decided on appeal from the Court of Appeal of the Cayman Islands.
While there is a degree of overlap between the two judgments, the facts of the two cases are different and FamilyMart raised a broader range of issues.
A traveller to the Far East can be surprised by the number of convenience stores and the range of goods and services they offer. This case concerns a dispute between FamilyMart China Holding Co Ltd (“FMCH”) and Ting Chuan (Cayman Islands) Holding Corporation (“Ting Chuan”), the shareholders of China CVS (Cayman Islands) Holding Corp (“Company”), a Cayman Islands company that operates some 2,400 convenience stores in China under the “FamilyMart” brand.
The relationship between the shareholders is governed by a shareholders’ agreement, which contains a clause providing that “any and all disputes in connection with or arising out of this Agreement [shall be] submitted for arbitration” in Beijing.
In 2018, FMCH presented a petition in a Cayman Islands court to wind up the Company on the just and equitable ground under the Companies Law (2018 Revision). The petition was based on alleged misconduct by Ting Chuan in connection with the management of the Company. Ting Chuan applied to strike out or stay the petition under section 4 of the Foreign Arbitral Awards Enforcement Act, which applies to foreign arbitrations and implements Article II(3) NYC into Cayman Islands law. It provides as follows:
Staying of certain court proceedings — If any party to an arbitration agreement, or any person claiming through or under him, commences any legal proceedings in any court against any other party to the agreement, or any person claiming through or under him, in respect of any matter agreed to be referred, any party to the proceedings may at any time after appearance, and before delivering any pleadings or taking any other steps in the proceedings, apply to the court to stay the proceedings; and the court, unless satisfied that the arbitration agreement is null and void, inoperative or incapable of being performed or that there is not in fact any dispute between the parties with regard to the matter agreed to be referred, shall make an order staying the proceedings.
Kawaley J in the Grand Court struck out a part of the petition and granted a stay of the remainder. The Court of Appeal overturned this decision on the basis that no part of the winding up petition was arbitrable and that, consequently, the arbitration agreement was “inoperative”. The parties agreed that the dispute fell within the scope of the arbitration clause. The central dispute was whether the FMCH’s petition had made the matters raised in that petition non-arbitrable.
To decide the appeal, the UKPC had to rule on the meaning of a “matter” and “inoperative” in section 4 of the Foreign Arbitral Awards Enforcement Act/Article II(3) NYC.
Regarding the first issue, the UKPC essentially set out, albeit in more detail, and relied on the same principles that the UKSC set out and applied in Mozambique. Since I addressed this issue in a previous post, here I want to focus on the second issue, namely the meaning of “inoperative” and the arbitrability of the subject matter and the remedies sought in the court proceedings.
The UKPC stated that there are two broad circumstances in which an arbitration agreement may be inoperative: (1) where certain types of dispute are excluded by statute or public policy from determination by an arbitral tribunal; and (2) where the award of certain remedies is beyond the jurisdiction which the parties can confer through their agreement on an arbitral tribunal. The UKPC referred to the first type as “subject matter non-arbitrability” and to the second as “remedial non-arbitrability” ().
The underlying concept of subject matter non-arbitrability is that there are certain matters which in the public interest should be reserved to the courts or other public tribunals for determination (). For example, by preventing parties by agreement from contracting out of an employee’s right to have access to an employment tribunal and the courts, section 203 of the UK Employment Rights Act 1996 and section 144(1) of the UK Equality Act 2010 preserve a right of access to the courts (). Similarly, a subject matter will be non-arbitrable if “there is an inherent conflict between arbitration and the public policy considerations involved in that particular type of dispute” (, referring to  of the SGCA case of Larsen]. While there is no agreement internationally as to the kinds of subject matter or dispute which fall within subject matter non-arbitrability (), the court can refer to the jurisprudence of the courts of other common law jurisdictions ().
Remedial non-arbitrability is concerned with the circumstance in which the parties have the power to refer matters to arbitration but cannot confer on the arbitral tribunal the power to give certain remedies. There is a general consensus in the common law world that the power to wind up a company lies within the exclusive jurisdiction of the courts (). There is also a general consensus that an arbitral tribunal can grant inter partes remedies, such as ordering a share buy-out in proceedings for relief for unfairly prejudicial conduct in the management of a company under section 994 of the UK Companies Act 2006. This is because no third party has a legal interest and there is no public element in the dispute ().
That is why even in an application to wind up a company there may be matters in dispute, such as allegations of breaches of a shareholders’ agreement or of equitable duties arising out of the parties’ relationship, which can be referred to an arbitral tribunal, notwithstanding that only a court can make a winding up order (, ).
Following these principles, the UKPC decided that some matters were arbitrable, while others were non-arbitrable. Arbitrable matters were: whether FMCH had lost trust and confidence in Ting Chuan and the management of the Company; and whether the parties’ relationship had irretrievably broken down. A stay was granted and the parties were referred to arbitration in relation to these matters. Non-arbitrable matters were: whether it was just and equitable to wind up the company; whether an order should be made requiring Ting Chuan to sell its shares to FMCH; or whether a winding up order should be made. The parties were not referred to arbitration in relation to these matters. Nevertheless, a stay was ordered because the determination of the arbitrable matters would be an essential precursor to the assessment of the non-arbitrable matters.
This is an important judgment that offers not only an authoritative interpretation of the concept of a “matter” in Article II(3) NYC (like its sister UKSC judgment in Mozambique) but also of the concept of “inoperative” in this provision.
Importantly, the UKPC clarified the difference between “subject matter non-arbitrability” and “remedial non-arbitrability”. However, the judgment can be criticised on two bases.
First, the efforts of the UKPC to decide the case by reference to comparative law are commendable. Still, the court’s focus on the jurisprudence from the “leading arbitration jurisdictions in the common law world” (; similarly , , ) has a whiff of parochialism. The same criticism can be levelled at the UKSC judgment in Mozambique, which focused on the jurisprudence of the “leading jurisdictions involved in international arbitration in the common law world” ( of that judgment).
Second, the court could have gone a step further in its dealing with the concepts of “inoperative” and set out some kind of test for determining whether or not a matter is arbitrable. Provisions like 203 of the UK Employment Rights Act 1996 and section 144(1) of the UK Equality Act 2010 that expressly prohibit contracting out are an exception. When it comes to non-arbitrability for reasons of public policy, one is left to wonder when exactly “there is an inherent conflict between arbitration and the public policy considerations involved in that particular type of dispute” or when there is “no public element in the dispute”. The instruction to the courts to look at “the jurisprudence of the courts of other common law jurisdictions” to answer these questions is not necessarily helpful. Can the courts look at the jurisprudence of the courts of non-common law jurisdictions, which are the majority of NYC jurisdictions and include some very important arbitration centres? Does this instruction even make much sense in a world where the NYC and the UNCITRAL Model Law have done so much to transcend the common law – civil law divide in international commercial arbitration?