Paris Arbitration Week 2020, originally scheduled for 30 March to 3 April, was one of the first major conference series to be postponed due to COVID-19, with new dates arranged for 6 to 10 July. At the time of postponement, the intention was very much for the event to take place as normal, as an in-person event, some three months later. Unfortunately, at that time, no one knew just how severe the COVID-19 crisis would become. Faced with a decision of what to do, having already postponed once, the organisers took the innovative decision to hold Paris Arbitration Week as an entirely virtual conference.
There have in recent times been many smaller events done entirely online, but this was something on a different scale. Suffice to say, the sessions I attended all ran smoothly, with the past three months having provided ample opportunities for all participants and organisations thoroughly to test hardware and software.
The following sessions, which I attended, were particularly interesting.
On 6 July, a session entitled International Arbitration in Africa: perspectives on virtual hearings and the Africa Arbitration Academy Protocol had as its primary focus the African Arbitration Academy’s innovative and ground-breaking Protocol on Virtual Hearings in Africa. This protocol has been built from the ground up with Africa in mind, rather than being recognisably the same as other similar documents which have been recently created.
On 7 July, the ICC held its European Conference on International Arbitration, for the first time in an entirely virtual format. This conference addressed how arbitration as an institution has addressed the myriad challenges presented by COVID-19, as well as trade wars and climate change.
Different aspects of climate change and environmental disputes were debated in a session on 8 July called Hot topics on damages in international arbitration. The session included analysis of a series of Spanish solar cases and what lessons could be drawn from them in relation to damages and arbitration procedure. Attempts by affected third parties to become involved in disputes with an environmental impact were also considered.
On 9 July, memorably, a session entitled Arbitral Institutions: Looking Into the Crystal Ball of Arbitration involved the participation of representatives of several arbitration institutions. The debate on whether arbitral institutions had any role or responsibility beyond the administration of arbitrations was particularly interesting, as was a debate regarding the potential impact on international arbitration (yet to be seen in any great significance) of the rise in international commercial courts seen across the world, such as the Singapore International Commercial Court, the Chamber for International Commercial Disputes of the District Court of Frankfurt/Main, the International Chamber of the Paris Court of Appeal, the Netherlands Commercial Court, and the Brussels International Business Court.
On 10 July, showcasing the truly international reach of Paris Arbitration Week, the panel, in a session called Recent developments and key arbitration trends in Asia, charted the rise of international arbitrations being seated in Asia (in particular, Singapore), offered some suggestions as to how this success had come about, and updated participants on the latest developments of interest throughout Asia.
This is just a snapshot of the many sessions offered to participants over the five days of Paris Arbitration Week. I noted two perhaps unintended positive consequences of the event being conducted in a fully virtual format.
First, it seemed to me that the fully virtual basis was perhaps more democratic in the sense of facilitating participation of attendees from all over the world, including from jurisdictions where lawyers may not find it so easy to garner support and funding from their organisations to travel abroad and be out of the office for a week in order to attend a conference.
Second, the climate change impact of hundreds of lawyers not travelling to Paris but attending the conference from their homes or offices should not be underestimated. Climate change is very much an item on the agenda at the moment, with initiatives such as Lucy Greenwood’s Campaign for Greener Arbitrations attracting considerable interest.
The one sad note was that the official opening cocktail, Young Arbitration Paris Arbitration Week cruise and closing cocktail had to be cancelled, along with various similar smaller events that would have taken place in conjunction with the main programme. Such social events are just not the same when attempted virtually (at least with technology as it stands today). There is an ongoing debate as to whether a permanent move to an entirely virtual format for conferences of this type will inhibit the experience of more junior lawyers attending. Many will not yet have had an opportunity to attend many in-person events and meet other junior lawyers from different jurisdictions with similar interests, make friends from across the world, and develop a professional network at the start of their careers. From personal experience, having attended many international conferences in person over the years, I firmly believe that these elements of the experience are just as important as the substantive sessions.
Interestingly, it appears that while for obvious reasons it was not practical to attempt this in July in Paris, there is recognition that it will be important in the fullness of time to try to restore this element of international conferences. It is notable, for example, that the organisers of the Baltic Arbitration Days 2020, due to take place on 16 and 17 August, have organised the conference on a hybrid basis; attendees will either be able to attend in-person in the traditional manner, or register to attend on an online basis at no cost. As things stand, the ICCA 2020 Congress, now rescheduled for February 2021, is going to proceed as a fully in-person conference. Once the world finds its new normal, it will be interesting to see whether the hybrid form of conference becomes the dominant type or whether the appetite from industry will be for a return exclusively to in-person conferencing.
Returning to Paris Arbitration Week, the organisers are to be thoroughly congratulated for putting on and delivering a unique series of events in challenging circumstances. Many sessions concluded with expressions of hope that participants will be gathering again in person in Paris in April 2021. Assuming that this happens, it would be very useful if thought could be given either to live or delayed broadcasting of events, using similar platforms to those used this year. Used in this way, modern technology could be used in a beneficial way so as to maximise reach, perhaps enabling a whole new group of participants, who might otherwise be unable to travel to Paris and attend in person, to join in and hear about recent developments and various other matters of interest.