The Law of the Agreement to Arbitrate

In Habas Sinai Ve Tibbi Gazlar Istihsal Endustrisi AS v VSC Steel Company Ltd [2013] the Court was faced with a dispute in relation to an alleged contract for the sale and purchase of steel.

Negotiations for the contract had involved Habas, its agents, and VSC.  Various drafts of the contract had suggested different governing laws of the underlying contract and arbitration clause.  Habas argued that its agents had known that it would only accept Turkish law and Turkish arbitration and that the agents did not have actual authority to agree to any other arbitration clause.  However, following further negotiations between the agents andVSC, the final contract did not provide an express choice of law, but simply provided for ICC arbitration in London.

VSC commenced arbitration proceedings, claiming damages.  The arbitral tribunal found that Habas’s agents, had ostensible authority to conclude the contract and arbitration agreement. It consequently found that there was a binding London arbitration agreement and awardedVSC damages.  Habas made various applications, including a challenge the tribunal’s jurisdiction and its award, under section 67 of the Arbitration Act 1996.

Habas acknowledged that, where there was no express law governing the underlying contract, it was clear on authority that the applicable law of the arbitration agreement should be that of the seat.  However, it argued that, in this case, there was good reason for departing from that principle, because the agents had exceeded their actual authority by agreeing to the London arbitration clause and it was only because of this, that it was possible to say that the arbitration agreement had its closest connection with English law.  Habas argued that English private international law should determine the proper law of the arbitration agreement without reference to the London arbitration clause. On that basis, the proper law of the arbitration agreement was Turkish law, being the law with the closest connection to the underlying contract.

The Court concluded that, even if it was the case that there was no actual authority for the agents to agree the London arbitration clause, the applicable law of the arbitration agreement was English law.

On the assumption, as argued by Habas, that as there was no choice of the law of the underlying contract, the law of the underlying contract would be Turkish law, being the law with which the underlying contract was most closely connected.

Referring to the conclusions reached in Sulamerica [2012] and Arsanovia [2012], the terms of the arbitration clause may themselves connote an implied choice of law.  Referring to the decisions in Cie Tunisienne v Cie d’Armement [1971] and Egon Oldendorff v Liberia Corp [1996],  the terms of the arbitration clause may operate as an implied choice of law for the underlying agreement.

The Court concluded:

  • There is no logical link between the issue of authority and the issue of the law with which a contract has its closest connection.  Determining the latter question involves a consideration of the terms of the contract as made, rather than the authority with which it was made.
  • It is well established that validity is determined by the putative proper law of the contract.  Furthermore, there is no reason why that principle should be limited to issues of validity arising out of lack of actual authority.
  • Habas’s argument involved English law giving special treatment to actual authority for conflicts of laws purposes. As a matter of English law, actual authority is not a stronger or more effectual form of authority than ostensible authority. As between the principal and the third party, there is no difference between actual and ostensible authority.
  • Habas’s argument would potentially affect the validity of many contracts which would otherwise be valid and binding because the agent had ostensible authority as a matter of English law as the putative applicable law, and for reasons outside the knowledge and control of the third party and contrary to the representations made to him as to that authority.
  • The first question that should be asked is: what is the applicable law of the putative agreement? All other questions then follow.
  • There is authority on agency principles which states that, whether an agent has ostensible authority is a matter for the law of the putative contract, and that law “also governs apparent authority to subject a contract, whether directly or indirectly, to a particular system of law” (Bowstead and Reynolds on Agency (Sweet & Maxwell, 19th edition, 2010) at paragraph 12- 016).
  • There are a number of decisions in which ostensible authority has been treated as being governed by English law as the result of putative agreement to a clause in a contract, without any consideration of actual authority to agree that clause and notwithstanding that it was being alleged that there was no actual authority to enter into the contract.
  • There are authoritative decisions in which arguments similar to that advanced by Habas had been rejected. In The Parouth [1982] (followed by the Court of Appeal in The Atlantic Emperor [1989] ) the Court of Appeal rejected an argument that, where the issue between the parties was whether a contract was made, it would be wrong to allow the English arbitration clause to be a factor pointing towards English law and that it should be treated neutrally.

 The case adds to the principles cited in cases such as  Sulamerica and Arsanovia on how to determine the applicable law of an arbitration agreement, in the absence of any express choice.  It highlights, in particular, that the terms of the arbitration clause themselves may suggest an implied choice of law.

The Court also distinguished between the ability of an agent to bind a principal to a choice of law clause when acting outside actual authority, and the ability to bind the principal to a clause which might affect the implied choice of a system of law, such as an arbitration choice of seat clause.

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