The United Kingdom’s recent referendum vote to leave the European Union (EU) is just a few weeks old, and dealmakers are rightfully concerned about its ramifications. The falling pound, the most immediate consequence, is just one of many factors that could affect pending deals with British companies. Many parties entered into contracts with UK-based companies with certain assumptions based upon the country’s membership in the EU. Now, with the UK’s situation uncertain, the lawyers are lining up to figure out next steps.
On July 18, CPR’s arbitration committee convened a panel on the topic of Brexit’s impact on cross-border arbitration and litigation involving the UK, hopefully clearing up some of the mystery. The panel was moderated by Jean-Claude Najar (France) of Lazareff Le Bars, and featured Tim Hardy (UK) of CMS Cameron McKenna LLP, Vanessa Alarcon Duvanel (Switzerland) of White & Case LLP, and Clifford J. Hendel (Spain) of Araoz & Rueda Abogados, S.L.P.
As explained by Mr. Hardy, Brexit’s main immediate impact on cross border litigation in the EU is the uncertainty as to what will happen post-exit to the existing unified regime for dispute resolution applying to all Member States. Since 1973, the UK has been required to adopt unifying arrangements to avoid duplicate litigation in different States through a series of rules intended to determine that the court of only one State can have jurisdiction and that the decision of that court should be respected by all other courts of Member States. Initially, the incorporation of these reciprocal arrangements into the legal framework of Member States was undertaken through a series of treaties – each requiring each State to approve, ratify and implement each Treaty. As this was extremely cumbersome and slow, subsequently, EU Regulations were implemented directly applying the rules into the law of each member state.
To exit the EU the UK will have to repeal the European Communities Act which will automatically repeal all Regulations but it will not repeal all treaties. Accordingly, a complex situation could develop where arguably some treaties will survive and may be applicable and relevant to determining parties’ positions if disputes arise. “One would hope,” said Mr. Hardy, “that the legislature will do what it can to avoid this mess. But at the moment, we don’t know what steps will be taken to address and tidy it up.”
As for the practice of international arbitration in the UK or London, Mr. Hendel explained, there is no reason to think that Brexit will have any legal effect because the Convention on the Recognition and Enforcement of Foreign Arbitral Awards (the “New York Convention”), which is the lifeblood of international arbitration, is immune from what will happen with Brexit. The situation is different, however, in the world of judicial dispute resolution. Mr. Hendel referenced the falling away of important EU regulations concerning the automatic recognition and enforcement of judgments throughout the EU, jurisdiction and choice of courts, as well as choice of law, in two years’ time or so, unless the UK takes action before then through negotiation with the EU or unilateral action to keep these legal mechanisms in place. These regulations currently provide an important degree of harmonized certainty on how to deal with everyday issues that arise in EU cross-border disputes, and Brexit will inevitably undermine this certainty. Mr. Hendel noted that the UK might have an incentive to preserve this framework one way or another in order to preserve its perceived supremacy in the financial and legal industries.
Ms. Duvanel examined how Switzerland has managed in the years since it voted in 1992 not to join the European Economic Area (EEA) to overcome isolationism vis-à-vis the EU. Although it took several decades, Switzerland managed to negotiate and ratify bilateral agreements with the EU to harmonize its legislation with that of the EU. For example, the Lugano Convention addresses the issues relating to jurisdiction and recognition and enforcement of judicial decisions between Switzerland and the EU. In the end, she explained that Switzerland has its own set of legislation, but that much of it is inspired by the EU, “fully harmonized but always a bit later.” The harmonization of the two legislative systems has been long and difficult for Switzerland, and it is likely to be difficult for the UK as well. She stressed, however, that all of that had no effect on international arbitration in Switzerland. Switzerland remains very attractive. Swiss arbitrators are among the most nominated in the world in international arbitration cases. Switzerland is the second most chosen seat for international arbitration and Swiss law is one of the most chosen applicable law due to the stability of the Swiss legal system.
From an in-house perspective, explained Mr. Najar (who held various senior legal positions in GE for close to 24 years), companies must analyze the potential consequences of Brexit on their contracts governed by English law, particularly long-term contracts, and determine how to best mitigate the uncertainty related to the impact of Brexit. There is a wide array of potential issues to consider, such as currency fluctuation, access to the EU market, organization setups, employees’ rights, corporate governance, and specific regulations. Dispute resolution clauses will also need to be reviewed closely. Najar pointed out that some companies had already started to opt out of the UK, in favor of jurisdictions such as France and Switzerland, several years ago out of other concerns, such as costs or being closer to a civil law environment. Najar stressed that English law enjoys a longstanding and solid reputation as the governing law in many contracts. However, it incorporates many elements of EU law, and Brexit will therefore create some uncertainty as these elements are being pulled out of English law. Since businesses do not like uncertainty, Brexit might deter companies from choosing the UK as a seat or English law as the applicable law.
For anyone involved in business in the UK, CPR’s European Advisory Board (EAB) is an excellent resource for efficient dispute prevention and resolution. The EAB, a highly experienced and distinguished group of sophisticated practitioners and users from Europe’s leading law firms and corporations, has recently released a European Mediation and ADR Guide. Developed under the leadership of CPR’s EAB, the Guide provides a valuable overview of the most widely used alternative dispute resolution processes (particularly mediation) and when they might be suitable, with practical suggestions on how to make use of them.
While Brexit may seem like an ugly divorce, the fallout for companies doesn’t have to be messy.