Whether Request without Fee is Valid

The steps that must be taken to stop time for the purposes of a contractual time bar provision must be determined by construing the contract and, as the contract itself is unlikely to say much beyond incorporating institutional rules, that means construing the rules.  The Court so decided in Libero Commodities SA v Augustin [2015]

Bylaw 302 of the 2011 version of the International Cotton Association (ICA) provides:

“1. Any party wishing to commence arbitration under these Bylaws … shall send us a written request for arbitration …

2. When sending the request, the Claimant shall also send:

… such application fee as may be due …”

Disputes arose in relation to the price under a contract for the sale of cotton. By a further agreement the parties agreed to submit the pricing dispute to ICA arbitration. The latter agreement also provided that if the reference was not commenced by a specified day the price was to be fixed at a spcified price.

On the final date specified, the seller sent a fax to the ICA requesting arbitration, but did not pay the required fee. The arbitration did not proceed further until the fee had been paid.

The first tier tribunal decided that failure to pay the required fee at the time of  the request meant that the seller had not validly commenced arbitration by the required date. The seller appealed to an appeal committee of the ICA, which decided that arbitration had been validly commenced in time, and, further, reached a decision on the substantive pricing issue.

The buyer challenged theappeal committee’s award.

The Court dismissed the appeal against the award on the issue of the commencement of arbitration. However, it allowed the buyer’s appeal against the substantive decision.

In relation to the commencement issue,the Court held that, as a matter of construction, it was not a prerequisite to the effective commencement of arbitration that the request for arbitration should be accompanied by the relevant fee. This conclusion was borne out by four principal factors:

  • Bylaw 302 drew a distinction between the “request for arbitration” and other matters (including the payment of the fee) that should be sent “when sending the request”.
  • The Bylaws did not expressly provide that the matters specified in Bylaw 302(2) were preconditions to the effective commencement of arbitration.
  • A written request for arbitration could be a meaningful and effective document without the matters specified (including the fee).
  • There was no commercial absurdity in this interpretation, and, indeed, it was consistent with the TAC’s own views.

It should not be assumed that the position will be the same under all institutional rules. For example, Article 1.4 of the LCIA  Rules (2014) provides that “The date of receipt by the Registrar of the Request shall be treated as the date upon which the arbitration has commenced for all purposes (the “Commencement Date”), subject to the LCIA’s actual receipt of the registration fee.” Similarly, the issue in this case was decided under the provisions of the 2011 ICA bylaws: those bylaws have since been amended to make clear that an arbitration is not commenced until the requisite fee has been paid.  However, Article 4.4 of the ICC Rules (2012) provides: “Together with the Request, the claimant shall: …b) make payment of the filing fee …
In the event that the claimant fails to comply with … these requirements, the Secretariat may fix a time limit within which the claimant must comply, failing which the file shall be closed without prejudice to the claimant’s right to submit the same claims at a later date in another Request.”

The Court further held, obiter, that some of the matters, such as the other party’s identity, were prerequisites of a valid notice.  Accordingly, it remains the case that it is important to check any applicable rules carefully and ensure that all requirements are addressed when commencing arbitration.

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