REUTERS | Edgar Su

Reflections on the Dispute Resolution and Arbitration Committee’s sessions at the Inter-Pacific Bar Association Conference in Singapore, April 2019

The Inter-Pacific Bar Association (IPBA) is an organisation with some similarities to the International Bar Association (IBA), with a regional focus on Asia-Pacific. Its annual conference (the 29th) was this year in Singapore between 24 and 27 April 2019. The conference was well attended by lawyers, experts and various others with an interest in the Asia-Pacific region. This does not necessarily mean that the attendees were from the Asia-Pacific region, and in recent years there has been a notable increase in the number of attendees from Europe and other areas outside Asia-Pacific (including barristers from England).

Not unlike the IBA, the IPBA annual conference followed the structure of having some plenary sessions followed by parallel sessions organised by the various committees. Highly notable dignitaries spoke at the plenary sessions and there was a special treat for disputes lawyers this year: one of the plenary sessions was The Rise of International Commercial Courts – Its Impact on International Arbitration. A stellar panel drawn from various jurisdictions debated the rise of new international commercial courts in various jurisdictions such as Singapore, and the ramifications this might have for international arbitration.

As for the committee sessions, obviously attendees could pick and choose which sessions interested them. I attended the sessions organised by the Dispute Resolution and Arbitration Committee, which were as follows:

Summary dismissal procedures in international arbitration

This session involved a thoughtful consideration of the advantages and disadvantages of such procedures. The perspectives ranged from criticism of the perceived slavish default adherence in international arbitration to fundamentally common law concepts, to praise for the introduction of a truly necessary tool helpful in sifting out unmeritorious claims at an early stage.

Arbitration and insolvency: reconciling private versus collective interests

This was a joint session with the Insolvency Committee. (There are usually one or two such joint committee sessions.) Speakers from a number of jurisdictions addressed how their jurisdictions are analysing the interface between private arbitration and very public insolvency, particularly in an international context.

Arbitration IP disputes

This was a highly topical session addressing the implications and side effects of attempts confidentially to protect intellectual property through private arbitration. One particularly notable debate centred around whether a party which had successfully protected its intellectual property in an arbitration could, in any direct or indirect way, seek to rely upon the outcome of that arbitration in a subsequent action against a different infringer.

The restitution of ill-gotten assets

This was a joint session with the Anti-Corruption and Rule of Law Committee. A fictional case study provided an entertaining way to debate the arising difficult issues, particularly where states may be involved.

Advantages and pitfalls of arbitration-mediation proceedings

This session involved a mock case which started out life as an international arbitration but was part-way through transformed into a mediation.

Investor-state arbitration in crisis: the arbitration strikes back?

Finally, just when delegates might have thought that the conference would pass without any reference to Achmea, the session on investor-state arbitration in crisis involved a spirited consideration of the extent to which investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS) is in a state of crisis. The withdrawal of a number of states from the investment treaty regime, coupled with the lack of enthusiasm for the current system amongst many more states, provided the background against which the advantages and disadvantages of an investment court system were rigorously debated.

My thoughts

What struck me in particular in attending these sessions was the increasingly internationalised nature of dispute resolution. Of course, whilst all jurisdictions still have their own way of doing things, there are so many common themes being discussed. The finding of solutions to common problems can only benefit from those problems being debated in international fora. What was also clear was the care taken by the various organising committees at ensuring a blend of experienced and new speakers on each panel, with geographic, ethnic, age and gender diversity really apparent in a visible and meaningful way. At a quiet moment on the way home at Singapore Airport, I went through the conference agenda and was pleased to see not only a huge spread of jurisdictions represented, but also that there were zero “manels” at the conference!

It is also worth mentioning that the social and networking sessions arranged for the evenings are one of the highlights of the IPBA annual conference, and this year was no exception. The farewell party, held at the historic Capitol Theatre with a costume theme, was tremendous fun and will long live in the memory of all who attended (including Indiana Jones, Black Widow, Wonder Woman, Black Panther, and numerous Jedi, Sith and storm troopers to name but a few)! The atmosphere is particularly informal at the IPBA and it is very easy to strike up a conversation and friendship with previously unknown attendees. This year, there was a conference app (coincidentally on the same platform as that being used for London International Disputes Week), which was very helpful in checking the agenda as well as organising meetings and sharing photographs.

Common consensus was that this was the best IPBA Conference to date and, with almost 1,300 delegates in total attending, it was also the biggest. Kudos to Francis Xavier SC and his organising committee for an exceptionally well-planned and executed project.

Next year’s annual conference will be the 30th. Such is the loyalty that this organisation engenders that there are still people regularly attending who were responsible for the formation of the organisation 30 years ago. IPBA 2020 will be hosted in Shanghai. It will take place between 20 and 23 April 2020. See you there!

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