Shall We Have an Adult Conversation About Legitimacy?

[A summary of the keynote address of Jan Paulsson on 2 March 2017 at the Annual Meeting of the CPR Institute at the Biltmore Hotel, Coral Gables, which has also been archived on CPR’s Facebook page.]

By Jan Paulsson

It is difficult to know when history is being made. Important developments tend to be incremental, and perceived only in hindsight. Yet I am willing to wager that we are in the middle of a decade this decade in which the international arbitral process seriously comes to grips with the existential need to secure acknowledgment of its legitimacy. This is not being done, and cannot be done, by individual arbitrators. The exemplary work of 50 is done in silence; the misconduct of one may become a first-page scandal. The heavy lifting must be done by arbitral institutions.

The three evils they must combat are: transparency deficits, entrenchment, and capture. Not all of the hundreds of arbitral institutions who purport to handle international disputes will do their part, because some of them were created and remain dominated by special interests, and like things the way they have them. They have other priorities than ensuring a fair and neutral process. These are not the successful institutions, but it is vital – lest all be tarred with the same brush – that they are recognized by tangible criteria for what they are. The test is not what institutions proclaim, but what they do; does their conduct prove a commitment to fairness and neutrality?

Thirty years ago Professor Hans Smit proposed in the Columbia Journal of Transnational Law (Vol. 25, p 30) that there should be a single global arbitral institution charged with the supervision of the arbitral process. If this could not be achieved by a voluntary process of federation, he suggested that the same goal could be reached by the establishment by the International Chamber of Commerce of a network of conveniently located branches around the world.  Existing institutions would be invited to “merge” into those branches, failing which the ICC would proceed alone. This may not have been a good idea at any time, given the dangers of bureaucratization and monopolistic complacency, not to mention prohibitive cost. And today it is surely an impossibility, given the emergence of a number of deservedly successful and robust institutions in a number of regions of the world. Still, Smit’s idea was founded on the crucial insight that international arbitration will suffer from the misconduct of what one might call its weakest links, and that it is necessary to be very clear about what the criteria of legitimacy are so that waywardness can be exposed by objective measurement.

This is not rocket science. The premise of international arbitration is that all commercial disputes, even those with stakes of billions of dollars, will be decided by three arbitrators, or even a sole arbitrator, and that the outcome is final. Let’s be frank; this is asking for a lot. Losing parties are often extremely unhappy, and quick to think that something has gone seriously wrong. When the institution has not been properly “designed for legitimacy”, the ultimate sad irony may be that each side thinks that its opponent has some occult advantage, and that each side therefore seeks achieve some compensatory secret trump card – even though their reciprocal suspicions had no foundation. This can be something like a death spiral.

Today I have the good fortune of having been asked to address the annual meeting of an organization which is known for having been created not by the service providers, but by consumers of dispute resolution services. How fitting it is therefore that in 2002 CPR took the unique initiative of developing a template for universal best practices suggested as suitable if not essential for any institution anywhere. This was called the CPR/Georgetown Commission’s 2002 Principles for ADR Provider Organizations. Much ground has been covered since then at the individual reforming initiatives of the leading institutions, but it was certainly a step in the right direction.

It seems that I have achieved modest notoriety for expressing doubts about the wisdom of the widespread practice of unilateral appointments of arbitrators. Given how insistently those who disagree with my ideas on this subject distort what I say, I could perhaps be forgiven if I concluded that the propositions I articulate must be very powerful. From where I’m standing today, I cannot tell if this audience is dominated by experienced lawyers or younger ones. Younger audiences are of course idealistic and invariably agree with me.  Older audiences are cynical and set in their ways, and always protest. So obviously I prefer the latter. It’s much more fun.

My opponents say that I want to do away with the fundamental right of parties to name their arbitrators. This is unfair; I do not that at all. In the first place, I believe in the freedom of consenting and informed adults. If arbitrants agree that each of them can name its best friend or favorite lawyer as arbitrator, that’s fine with me as long as everything is out in the open. I’m not sure the result deserves the name “arbitration”, but hey – what’s in a name? Second and more importantly, my animadversions against unilateral appointments have not led me to want to tear down the temple or destroy icons, but just to a modest proposal. Here it is: the default rule should be that if the parties have agreed to a three-member tribunal all three members should be agreed by both sides, or else by an appointing institution. It’s only a default rule, but I suggest it should not be varied by agreement until the dispute has arisen. That day the claimant can measure whether the dispute is going to be civilized or brutal. If the former – and perhaps that will be the case most of the time – it takes only a phone call to agree that each side can name one of the arbitrators in the usual way. If the latter, the claimant may well have reason to rejoice, faced with a bitter clash with a party who wants to break off relations forever and is likely to deploy scorched earth tactics, that the default rule is the one I suggest.

I have written at length about the disadvantages of the practice of unilateral appointments and will not go through them here. (See The Idea of Arbitration, Oxford University Press, Sections 5.4 and 9.4.) All experienced practitioners in the international field know what it is like when unilateral nominees misbehave, or when losing parties suspect undue influence. It’s an on-going concern, and I am not mollified by the “if it ain’t broke thesis.” Things may be tolerable most of the time, but most of the time is not good enough.

This was brought home to me when I read the heart-felt account published a couple of weeks ago of the experience of a lawyer participating in his first ICSID arbitration. I do not know him, but I am certainly aware that he is a prominent fixture of several decades’ standing in the Miami legal community. Indeed his office is only a mile away from the beautiful hotel where we are meeting now.  I will call him Mr X.  His account is interesting precisely because this is a sophisticated and articulate lawyer who discovers a process with which he is not familiar and feels compelled to express serious concerns. We do well to take the concerns of such thoughtful individuals to heart. I do know the two other arbitrators involved in the case, with whom I have participated in more arbitrations I can count. From what one can read in the award and the dissenting opinion, my only sources of information about this case, all three arbitrators behaved perfectly honorably and none should be embarrassed if I named them, but I will not do so since but I would find it a distraction to personalize a matter which I am using only as an illustration of what I believe to be a frequently recurrent and seriously troubling unease, maybe even a malaise.

Here’s the story in a nutshell. The case involved Costa Rica, which is all I have to say to enable anyone here with a laptop to learn as much as I know about the case.  From the parties’ point of view, the case was over in March 2014, when the parties filed post-hearing briefs.  After that date, the process seems (to the uninitiated reader) to have entered a black box, as the next recorded event is a challenge by the claimant, like a bolt out of the blue, to all three members of the arbitral tribunal. This dramatic event occurred in June 2015. You heard me: a year and three months later which the parties were presumably waiting passively, if with mounting impatience, for the award to come out. Something was obviously not right. We do know that the claimant’s complaint was based on the fact that the Tribunal’s legal secretary, a lawyer on the ICSID staff who as part of their function are present during deliberations and typically assist in such useful ways as retrieving documents from a voluminous file which the arbitrators are unlikely to transport in its entirety to the place of arbitration from their various home offices, had left ICSID’s employ to join the law firm representing the respondent. In other words, the claimant was complaining about a form (I might perhaps venture to say a mild form) of capture.

The challenge was dismissed nine months later in accordance with the relevant rules and practice. I say nothing about that.  The arbitrators, thus confirmed in their function, went about their duty to render a final award, which they did a few weeks ago, in January.  It turned out to be one of those cases where a number of issues  were decided 2-to-1, with each of the co-arbitrators finding himself either part of the majority or in dissent, and the presiding arbitrator always part of the majority. Mr X wrote the dissent which captured my attention. The first thing to say about it is that it is entirely respectful of the other arbitrators, with whom Mr X writes that he was “honored” to serve. He explained in lucid terms some significant differences of substance with respect to which he was disappointed to find himself in disagreement. Such things happen; reasonable people differ. But then we get to the troubling passages.

Mr X notes that “the period that followed the hearing was delayed by the embarrassing and unnecessary issues caused by the change in employment of the Panel secretary and other issues related to the impartiality of the panel.” What these “other issues” involved is not specified, and the challenge decision itself has not been published as far as I know. I have seen press articles referring to information to the effect that these issues had to do with the prior relations between the presiding arbitrator and the other co-arbitrator; such complaints are frequently raised by losing parties, sometimes on quite flimsy grounds, but let’s not pay heed to gossip or speculation or anonymous sources. Mr X then goes on to write that “I choose not to add any further comment on the issue of the secretary’s employment, but do wish to address the issue of the constitution of the panel and the issues of conflicts and impartiality.”

What Mr X then has to say is notably that “the arrangement whereby two of the panel members are selected by the parties to the agreement creates an uncomfortable aura of conflict which permeates, in my view, the proceedings” and that, although “I have worked hard to neutralize his factor as I am sure my esteemed [co-arbitrator] colleague has done”, the only panelist who did not have “an inherent conflict” was the chairman. Mr X concluded that the “appointment by a party of a judge to rule on the party’s claim creates an unnecessary barrier to pure objectivity” and recommended that ICSID consider prohibiting the practice of unilateral appointments.

This is not the occasion to discuss the feasibility or even desirability of such a prohibition, particularly in the case of ICSID since its rules are constrained by the text of the international treaty by which it was created. My point is rather to insist that this measured but heart-felt comment is one that all institutes and arbitrants should take to heart, recognize as not being an isolated phenomenon, and take as a compelling reason to consider ways in which this kind of unease can be alleviated.

I think I have heard and examined at length in writing all conceivable arguments against my suggestion that we move away from the practice of unilateral appointments as a default rule, and I challenge any one of you to a debate because I am confident that I will prevail. Prevail, that is, except if you make the one argument which is Kryptonite and will defeat me every time. Here is how you win the argument: you look me in the eye and say “I don’t trust the institution, and so as long as I can name one of the arbitrators I feel that I will reduce the risk of a runaway tribunal doing something crazy – but unappealable.”

That argument is indeed made, like it or not. Decent arbitral institution cannot fail to realize that it is a disappointing and sobering message, indeed something of an indictment. They must absorb this reality, and do try to do two things about it. The Big Thing is to earn such trust that this kind of worry about a runaway tribunal evaporates. The Little Thing is far easier, and may in practical terms be just about as good. It is to focus on the involvement of the parties in the selection of arbitrators, and to attend to the numerous adaptations and refinements that may take the edge off the disadvantages of what one might call unreconstructed unilateralism.

The CPR Institute took a noteworthy step in this direction with the well-known Rule 5.4 of its Rules for Administrated Arbitration of International Disputes, for which it deservedly won a prize as the best innovation of 2016 [from Global Arbitration Review]. It introduces what CPR calls a “screened selection process,” which allows parties to choose among proposed arbitrators but in a manner designed to keep the ultimately appointed panel members from knowing individual parties’ preferences. We need to see how this works in practice, and how similar initiatives function elsewhere. There will always, believe me, be attempts to game the system. If I may put it as a paradox, the only thing that must be constant is the readiness to change as we learn. The poacher never rests; neither can the gamekeeper…

But this is not enough. Institutions should not only be inventive themselves, but encourage parties to be inventive as well. Most often this concerns the parties’ lawyers. Why are we lawyers, so unbelievably inventive in argument, stuck in the mud when it comes to patterns of process? Can’t we all agree that in ideal circumstances an arbitral tribunal should operate as a team, and not as three sole arbitrators cobbling together something of dubious coherence that achieves an unappealable result but does not deserve to be called “consensus?” If we agree want cohesive tribunals capable of producing greater quality than their individual members, aren’t presiding arbitrators the captain of those teams? Why not give them an important role in the constitution of the team – perhaps identifying a number of individuals they find compatible, or complementary, and asking the parties to rank them. (This, by the way, seems to be a more likely route to diversity than to expect it from unilateral appointments by parties whose entire focus in making appointments is to win the case. The presiding arbitrator might say “I’m comfortable with the industrial context, but would like a member of the tribunal to be conversant with public international law; then we’ll be all set so the third member can be someone less experienced whom I believe will make a solid contribution and who merits the experience and exposure.”) Or how about each side giving the presiding arbitrator a list from which to chose each co-arbitrator on the basis of compatibility? Or even, when full confidence reigns, go all the way and allow the presiding arbitrator simply to come up with the two others, constrained by nothing except perhaps observations by the parties as to what kind of qualities or experience the case calls for?

Parties have also been known to achieve quite surprising things – if only they will pick up the phone and try. I have observed an interesting dynamic when two lawyers with a minimum of mutual respect agree (between themselves) to give each a right of veto with respect to the unilateral nominees, maybe once or twice. A cynic might say that the result will be that each will immediately propose wholly unacceptable names and then move on – but I say that such is not the unavoidable result, and no harm trying.  Or how about saying “If I appoint A, whom will you appoint? Are you saying B? Oh, no, then I’d appoint C.  What’s that, you like A? Well then, think of someone other than B”.

The possibilities are limited only by our imagination, and it is urgent that we unleash our capacity for innovation. As we have heard this morning from Noah Hanft as he enters his third year of leadership of the CPR, he and his staff are determined to give fresh impetus to the vigorous improvement of the dispute resolution process in all of its forms, and it behooves all of us to take a sympathetic interest in their efforts, which can only benefit all who believe that legitimacy in the resolution of disputes should not be negotiable.

Jan Paulsson is a founding partner of Three Crowns LLP, a specialist international arbitration firm. He holds the Michael Klein Distinguished Scholar Chair as professor of law at the University of Miami. 

 

 

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