Premium Nafta Products Ltd v Fili Shipping Company Ltd

JurisdictionEngland & Wales
CourtHouse of Lords
JudgeLORD HOFFMANN,LORD HOPE OF CRAIGHEAD,LORD SCOTT OF FOSCOTE,LORD WALKER OF GESTINGTHORPE,LORD BROWN OF EATON-UNDER-HEYWOOD
Judgment Date17 October 2007
Neutral Citation[2007] UKHL 40

[2007] UKHL 40

HOUSE OF LORDS

Appellate Committee

Lord Hoffmann

Lord Hope of Craighead

Lord Scott of Foscote

Lord Walker of Gestingthorpe

Lord Brown of Eaton-under-Heywood

Premium Nafta Products Limited
(20th Defendant)

and others

(Respondents)
and
Fili Shipping Company Limited
(14th Claimant)

and others

(Appellants)

Appellants:

Christopher Butcher QC

philip Jones QC

(Instructed by Ince & Co)

Respondents:

Nicholas Hamblen QC

Vernon Flynn

(Instructed by Lax & Co)

LORD HOFFMANN

My Lords,

1

This appeal concerns the scope and effect of arbitration clauses in eight charterparties in Shelltime 4 form made between eight companies forming part of the Sovcomflot group of companies (which is owned by the Russian state) and eight charterers. It is alleged by the owners that the charters were procured by the bribery of senior officers of the Sovcomflot group by a Mr Nikitin, who controlled or was associated with the charterer companies. It is unnecessary to set out the details of these allegations because it is not disputed that the owners have an arguable case. They have purported to rescind the charters on this ground and the question is whether the issue of whether they were entitled to do so should be determined by arbitration or by a court. The owners have commenced court proceedings for a declaration that the charters have been validly rescinded and the charterers have applied for a stay under section 9 of the Arbitration Act 1996. Morison J [2007] 1 All ER (Comm) 81 refused a stay but the Court of Appeal (Tuckey, Arden and Longmore LJJ) [2007] Bus LR 686 allowed the appeal and granted it.

2

The case has been argued on the basis that there are two issues: first, whether, as a matter of construction, the arbitration clause is apt to cover the question of whether the contract was procured by bribery and secondly, whether it is possible for a party to be bound by submission to arbitration when he alleges that, but for the bribery, he would never have entered into the contract containing the arbitration clause. It seems to me, however, that for the reasons I shall explain, these questions are very closely connected.

3

I start by setting out the arbitration clause in the Shelltime 4 form:

"41.(a) This charter shall be construed and the relations between the parties determined in accordance with the laws of England.

(b) Any dispute arising under this charter shall be decided by the English courts to whose jurisdiction the parties hereby agree.

(c) Notwithstanding the foregoing, but without prejudice to any party's right to arrest or maintain the arrest of any maritime property, either party may, by giving written notice of election to the other party, elect to have any such dispute referred …. to arbitration in London, one arbitrator to be nominated by Owners and the other by Charterers, and in case the arbitrators shall not agree to the decision of an umpire, whose decision shall be final and binding upon both parties. Arbitration shall take place in London in accordance with the London Maritime Association of Arbitrators, in accordance with the provisions of the Arbitration Act 1950, or any statutory modification or re-enactment thereof for the time being in force.

(i) A party shall lose its right to make such an election only if:

(a) it receives from the other party a written notice of dispute which -

(1) states expressly that a dispute has arisen out of this charter;

(2) specifies the nature of the dispute; and

(3) refers expressly to this clause 41(c)

And

(b) it fails to give notice of election to have the dispute referred to arbitration not later than 30 days from the date of receipt of such notice of dispute…"

4

It will be observed that clause 41(b) is a jurisdiction clause in respect of "any dispute arising under this charter" which is then incorporated by reference (by the words "any such dispute") in the arbitration clause in 41(c). So the first question is whether clause 41(b) refers the question of whether the charters were procured by bribery to the jurisdiction of the English court. If it does, then a party may elect under clause 41(c) to have that question referred to arbitration. But I shall for the sake of convenience discuss the clause as if it was a simple arbitration clause. The owners say that for two reasons it does not apply. The first is that, as a matter of construction, the question is not a dispute arising under the charter. The second is that the jurisdiction and arbitration clause is liable to be rescinded and therefore not binding upon them.

5

Both of these defences raise the same fundamental question about the attitude of the courts to arbitration. Arbitration is consensual. It depends upon the intention of the parties as expressed in their agreement. Only the agreement can tell you what kind of disputes they intended to submit to arbitration. But the meaning which parties intended to express by the words which they used will be affected by the commercial background and the reader's understanding of the purpose for which the agreement was made. Businessmen in particular are assumed to have entered into agreements to achieve some rational commercial purpose and an understanding of this purpose will influence the way in which one interprets their language.

6

In approaching the question of construction, it is therefore necessary to inquire into the purpose of the arbitration clause. As to this, I think there can be no doubt. The parties have entered into a relationship, an agreement or what is alleged to be an agreement or what appears on its face to be an agreement, which may give rise to disputes. They want those disputes decided by a tribunal which they have chosen, commonly on the grounds of such matters as its neutrality, expertise and privacy, the availability of legal services at the seat of the arbitration and the unobtrusive efficiency of its supervisory law. Particularly in the case of international contracts, they want a quick and efficient adjudication and do not want to take the risks of delay and, in too many cases, partiality, in proceedings before a national jurisdiction.

7

If one accepts that this is the purpose of an arbitration clause, its construction must be influenced by whether the parties, as rational businessmen, were likely to have intended that only some of the questions arising out of their relationship were to be submitted to arbitration and others were to be decided by national courts. Could they have intended that the question of whether the contract was repudiated should be decided by arbitration but the question of whether it was induced by misrepresentation should be decided by a court? If, as appears to be generally accepted, there is no rational basis upon which businessmen would be likely to wish to have questions of the validity or enforceability of the contract decided by one tribunal and questions about its performance decided by another, one would need to find very clear language before deciding that they must have had such an intention.

8

A proper approach to construction therefore requires the court to give effect, so far as the language used by the parties will permit, to the commercial purpose of the arbitration clause. But the same policy of giving effect to the commercial purpose also drives the approach of the courts (and the legislature) to the second question raised in this appeal, namely, whether there is any conceptual reason why parties who have agreed to submit the question of the validity of the contract to arbitration should not be allowed to do so.

9

There was for some time a view that arbitrators could never have jurisdiction to decide whether a contract was valid. If the contract was invalid, so was the arbitration clause. In Overseas Union Insurance Ltd v AA Mutual International Insurance Co Ltd [1988] 2 Lloyd's Rep 63, 66 Evans J said that this rule "owes as much to logic as it does to authority". But the logic of the proposition was denied by the Court of Appeal in Harbour Assurance Co (UK) Ltd v Kansa General International Insurance Co Ltd [1993] QB 701 and the question was put beyond doubt by section 7 of the Arbitration Act 1996:

"Unless otherwise agreed by the parties, an arbitration agreement which forms or was intended to form part of another agreement (whether or not in writing) shall not be regarded as invalid, non-existent or ineffective because that other agreement is invalid, or did not come into existence or has become ineffective, and it shall for that purpose be treated as a distinct agreement."

10

This section shows a recognition by parliament that, for the reasons I have given in discussing the approach to construction, businessmen frequently do want the question of whether their contract was valid, or came into existence, or has become ineffective, submitted to arbitration and that the law should not place conceptual obstacles in their way.

11

With that background, I turn to the question of construction. Your Lordships were referred to a number of cases in which various forms of words in arbitration clauses have been considered. Some of them draw a distinction between disputes "arising under" and "arising out of" the agreement. In Heyman v Darwins Ltd [1942] AC 356, 399 Lord porter said that the former had a narrower meaning than the latter but in Union of India v E B Aaby's Rederi A/S [1975] AC 797 Viscount Dihorne, at p. 814, and Lord Salmon, at p. 817, said that they could not see the difference between them. Nevertheless, in Overseas Union Insurance Ltd v AA Mutual International Insurance Co Ltd [1988] 2 Lloyd's Rep 63, 67, Evans J said that there was a broad distinction between clauses which referred "only those disputes which may arise regarding the rights and obligations which are created by the contract itself" and...

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