Privy Council Enforces Arbitration Agreement: When “May” Means “Must”

By Alex J. Potts, Sedgwick-Chudleigh Bermuda

The Privy Council has handed down its judgment in Anzen Limited v Hermes One Limited [2016] UKPC 1, a case concerning enforcement of an arbitration agreement. The judgment can be found at http://www.bailii.org/uk/cases/UKPC/2016/1.html. The appeal came from the Eastern Caribbean (BVI) Courts, but the decision is of significance for all arbitration-friendly offshore jurisdictions whose final right of appeal lies with the Privy Council, including Bermuda and the Cayman Islands.

The main issue on the appeal was the proper interpretation of an arbitration clause in a BVI company’s shareholders’ agreement which provided that, in the event of an unresolved dispute, “any party may submit the dispute to binding arbitration.” The arbitration agreement was subject to English law, and any arbitration was intended to be subject to ICC arbitration rules and the English Court’s supervisory jurisdiction.

It was concluded both at first instance and in the BVI Court of Appeal that the use of the word “may” effectively resulted in the arbitration clause being non-exclusive, permissive and optional, rather than mandatory; and that, unless and until a party actually had exercised its arbitration option by commencing an ICC arbitration with respect to a dispute, there was no basis for the BVI Court to stay any Court proceedings.

The Privy Council disagreed. Although it did not accept that the arbitration clause was mandatory in all circumstances, it concluded that it was mandatory in the event that either party unequivocally insisted on there being an arbitration of any unresolved disputes (even if that party was not minded to commence arbitration itself, but simply waited until the other party did so).

The decision is to be welcomed as yet another example of the Court’s willingness to uphold and enforce arbitration agreements in arbitration-friendly jurisdictions such as Bermuda, the BVI, and the Cayman Islands.

However, the decision also illustrates, quite starkly, the importance of careful drafting of any arbitration agreement or jurisdiction agreement. Had the parties and their lawyers clearly used the word “shall” rather than the word “may” in the arbitration clause, they might have avoided the time and costs associated with over two years of litigation and two appeals.

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