UNCITRAL Adopts Expedited Arbitration Rules

By Mylene Chan

This is the third part of a series of CPR Speaks posts reporting on the United Nations Commission on International Trade Law’s 54th session where the commission adopted legislative and non-legislative texts relating to alternative dispute resolution. 

At the three-week session concluding July 16, the commission adopted the UNCITRAL Expedited Arbitration Rules and the Explanatory Notes to the UNCITRAL Expedited Rules. These rules and notes complement and are intended to be read together with UNCITRAL’s well-known arbitration rules, which are for resolving international disputes and applicable both in administered arbitrations under the auspices of an arbitral institution, as well as in ad hoc arbitrations.

The UNCITRAL Arbitration Rules were originally developed as an alternative to other major rule systems. UNCITRAL’s innovative rules were initially viewed with skepticism, but over time, they have been frequently used in investment arbitrations, commercial arbitrations, arbitrations between states, and between states and individuals, such as for the Iran-U.S. Claims Tribunals and several bilateral investment treaties. Latham & Watkins Guide to International Arbitration (2019) (available at https://bit.ly/2VeZKU8).

The UNCITRAL Arbitration Rules have gone through three versions, in 1976, 2010 (revised to meet the needs of modern business including improvements to procedural efficiency, inclusion of provisions on multi-party arbitration and the development of rules on interim measures; available at https://bit.ly/3i7UrPq), and 2013 (incorporated rules on transparency for investment arbitrations based on treaties; available at https://bit.ly/2UZMEKH). See general background on the rules from UNCITRAL at https://bit.ly/3l6RyjD.

In 2018, UNCITRAL mandated Working Group II to explore ways to improve the efficiency of the arbitral proceedings through streamlining and simplifying procedures, resulting in the drafting of the UNCITRAL Expedited Arbitration Rules. The goal is to reach a final dispute resolution in a cost- and time-effective manner while ensuring due process and fair treatment for the disputants. (See https://undocs.org/en/A/CN.9/934 for the 2018 statement on expedited rules.)

For coverage of the early drafting process of the UNCITRAL Expedited Arbitration Rules, see Piotr Wójtowicz & Franco Gevaerd, “How UNCITRAL’s Working Group II on Arbitration Is Analyzing the Field to Help Expedited Processes” 37 Alternatives 90 (June 2019) (available at https://bit.ly/377Nfwg), and Piotr Wójtowicz & Franco Gevaerd,  “The Framework: The U.N.’s Working Group II Debates New Expedited Arbitration Rules,” 37 Alternatives 99 (July/August 2019) (available at https://bit.ly/3l5OLqS).

Special features in the UNCITRAL expedited arbitration rules include the following:

  • Disputes under the expedited procedures shall be settled in accordance with the UNCITRAL Arbitration Rules as modified by the expedited rules.
  • The expedited rules shall apply only with express consent by the disputants.
  • To facilitate speedy constitution of the tribunal, the claimant must include, with its notice of arbitration, the proposal of an appointment authority and the arbitrator. The notice of arbitration constitutes the claimant’s statement of claim. The respondent then has 15 days to file a response to the notice of arbitration. By contrast, under UNCITRAL Arbitration Rules, the time to respond is 30 days from the receipt of the notice of arbitration.
  • When the disputants cannot agree on an appointing authority, any disputant can request that the Permanent Court of Arbitration Secretary-General designate the appointing authority or serve as appointing authority. The PCA Secretary-General has discretion to decline serving as appointing authority and designate another authority if it deems it more appropriate. In this way, the UNCITRAL Expedited Rules have deviated from the default two-step designation/appointment procedure found in the non-expedited UNCITRAL Arbitration Rules.
  • The tribunal has discretion in shaping the proceedings, including extending or abridging timeframes (except for award issuance, as discussed in the bullet below) and determining whether hearings will be held or evidence taken.  This discretion represents an expansion of the discretion contained in the UNCITRAL Arbitration Rules.
  • The time period for rendering the award employs a bifurcated approach. If the tribunal considers that it is at risk of not rendering an award within nine months, it shall propose a final extended time limit. If all disputants agree, the extension is considered adopted.  If a party objects to the extension, however, any party may make a request that the UNCITRAL Expedited Rules no longer apply to the arbitration. After hearing the disputants, the tribunal may then decide that it will instead conduct the proceedings in accordance with the UNCITRAL Arbitration Rules, which do not contain the time limits.

The most contentious issue was the last bullet point above regarding the time period for rendering the award. Working Group II spent more than six hours debating on this point during the 54th session, focusing on how to balance the policy interest of promoting a truly expedited process with the goal of ensuring that the result of that process would be enforceable through the Convention on the Recognition and Enforcement of Foreign Arbitral Awards, better known as the New York Convention.

At one point, the U.S. delegation objected vehemently that “[u]sing this approach, as the default in the rules, creates a very concerning precedent for an uncontrolled instrument in our delegation’s experience.  . . . That is why we have drafted the compromise language that . . . seeks to bridge the gap between delegations like ours, who are very concerned about adopting a system that will likely produce unknowable awards, and those delegations who primarily are concerned that without a hard stop at nine months, the rules will enable arbitrators who were not very diligent, or who simply procrastinated to continue to take extensions.”

There were more concerns about protecting those with lesser means and bargaining power:

  • The U.S. delegation noted, “We think that given that these rules may be used by unsophisticated parties because they are expedited, . . . one of the goals is to reach out to parties who might be otherwise deterred from pursuing arbitration because of the cost.  . . .”
  • The Israel delegation point out that “[t]here could be concerns of parties with weaker bargaining powers that would have to be essentially compelled to agree to this.  . . .”

While the debate was heated, ultimately the member states drafted an innovative approach to reach a consensus. 

The UNCITRAL Expedited Arbitration Rules will appear together with the explanatory notes toward the end of the year as an appendix to the UNCITRAL Arbitration Rules.  In the fall, Working Group II will deliberate on rules about early dismissal of frivolous claims that will require modifications to the UNCITRAL Arbitration Rules. Working Group II will post the final rules, and currently has the drafts, here.

In addition, UNCITRAL is contemplating developing a new framework for adjudication. commonly known as dispute resolution boards, to complement the UNCITRAL Arbitration Rules. There has been a recurring expression of interest within UNCITRAL member states in the principle of rapid decision common to adjudication in construction projects. The U.S. delegation noted that it hoped that this principle can be adapted to expedite the resolution of disputes in other long-term contracts, or at least to mitigate the impact of those disputes.

UNCITRAL expects to conduct colloquiums to discuss adjudication next spring. With the adoption of the expedited rules, UNCITRAL is taking steps to expand the use of arbitration as a method of dispute resolution available to a wider range of parties.

Thomas W. Walsh, special counsel based in the New York office of Freshfields, who in his arbitration work focuses on UNCITRAL matters and worked on an early draft of the UNCITRAL Expedited Rules, said that the rules “are a welcome example of the arbitration community responding to the needs of the businesses that use arbitration. If parties have a commercial need to expedite the resolution of their dispute, the rules offer a thoughtful, ready-made procedure that they can select to meet that commercial need.”

The UNCITRAL Expedited Rules eliminate many of the obstacles that made arbitration costly and overly time-consuming, and the role of UNCITRAL as a global trend-setter on arbitration means that these new provisions are likely to be used as models worldwide.

* * *

The author, an LLM candidate at Yeshiva University’s Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law in New York, has covered UNCITRAL’s 54th Session proceedings for CPR Speaks as a 2021 CPR Summer Intern. Her articles can be found using the search box on the upper right of this page.

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