What is a ‘court’ for a stay of court proceedings pending arbitration?

The Supreme Court of Victoria in Subway Systems v Ireland [2014] VSCA 142 interpreted the meaning of the term ‘court’ under the Australian Commercial Arbitration Act 2013 for the purposes of a stay of court proceedings pending arbitration. In line with the Model Law, the term ‘court’ was extended to cover an administrative tribunal. Therefore, those tribunal proceedings were stayed pending arbitration. This is also of significance to Malaysia on how the Arbitration Act 2005 may be interpreted for a stay of court proceedings pending arbitration.

Subway Decision

A dispute arose between the parties to a franchise agreement involving a Subway sandwich business. The agreement contained an arbitration clause. The franchisees sought to have the dispute heard in the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (VCAT) while Subway argued that VCAT was precluded from hearing the proceeding and must instead refer the parties to arbitration.

There is a useful summary of the principles from this decision in this Allens commentary. I quote a section from this commentary.

In interpreting the Act and the definition of the word ‘court’, the majority recognised the aims of the Model Law, of uniformity and harmonisation, given the Act’s genesis from the Model Law. The policy behind the Model Law was central to the majority’s analysis of whether VACT fell within the definition of a ‘court’ for the purposes of s8 of the Act. If VCAT was found to be a court in this instance, disputes to be heard in VCAT, where an arbitration agreement existed, would be referred to arbitration under the Act. Conversely, if VCAT was found not to be a court, parties would have a choice of forum in which to have their disputes heard: either at VCAT or under arbitration. The majority judges recognised the wholly unsatisfactory position of the latter option.

In analysing whether VCAT was a ‘court’, the Acting Appeal Justice Kyrou (in the minority) noted instances in legislation where the definition of court intentionally omitted VCAT, and observed that VCAT lacks the typical indicia of courts at common law, as it:

  • is not bound by the rules of evidence;
  • cannot enforce its own decisions;
  • is constituted by some members who are not legally trained;
  • can apply government policy; and
  • can provide advisory opinions.

Acting Appeal Justice Kyrou’s analysis focused on the text of the Act and other statutes where the word ‘court’ is applied and noted the intentional omission of VCAT in various definitions of court in legislation. This led his Honour to find that VCAT was not a ‘court’ for the purposes of s8 of the Act.

Conversely, Appeal Justice Beach (in the majority) held that VCAT possesses the six features typical of courts at common law and noted instances where the definition of courts in statutes has been held to include VCAT. President Maxwell focused on the international development, and aims, of the Model Law that were picked up in the Act and the effect of these on interpreting the definition of ‘court’ under the Act.

As a matter of statutory construction, the majority considered the text, context and purpose of the Act, and held that both the Model Law and the Act had application to ‘a body or organ of the judicial system,’ which extended to VCAT.

Malaysian Context

Section 10 of the Arbitration Act 2005 (“AA 2005”) provides that: “A court before which proceedings are brought in respect of a matter which is the subject of an arbitration agreement shall … stay those proceedings and refer the parties to arbitration … (emphasis added)”

In the AA 2005, similar to the Subway decision, there is no definition of the term ‘court’. This is in contrast with the definition in Article 2(c) of the Model Law where ‘court’ means a body or organ of the judicial system of a State. The term ‘court’ in the AA 2005 does not appear to mean only a High Court (i.e. the High Court in Malaya and the High Court in Sabah and Sarawak) since other sections in the AA 2005 refer specifically to the term ‘High Court’ and ‘High Court’ is defined in section 2 of the AA 2005 (for example, section 11 of the AA 2005 states that “a party may … apply to a High Court for any interim measure and the High Court may make the following order …”).

Further, I would also argue that there is a difference between ‘court’ (with the small ‘c’) and ‘Court’ (with the capital ‘C’). ‘Court’ is defined in the Courts of Judicature Act 1964 as the Federal Court, the Court of Appeal or the High Court. So if there is a deliberate use of ‘court’ (with the small ‘c’) in the AA 2005, could it be argued that Malaysia can also draw on the Model Law definition of ‘court’ as being a body or organ of the judicial system?

In line with this wider definition, the term ‘court’ should encompass this broader definition in order to allow the Subordinate Courts (i.e. the Magistrate and Sessions Court) to also grant a stay of proceedings to refer parties to arbitration. The Subordinate Courts do not fall within the definition of ‘Court’ under the Courts of Judicature Act 1964, but  it has been largely assumed that the Subordinate Courts would have the power to grant a stay of proceedings under section 10 of the AA 2005 (for example, see Sundra Rajoo & WSW Davidson (2007) ‘The Arbitration Act 2005: UNCITRAL Model Law as applied in Malaysia’, para 10.3).

If we accept this broader definition of ‘court’ under the Model Law, could this then be extended to other forms of statutory tribunals, the Industrial Court or other regulatory bodies for the purposes of a ‘court’ ordering a stay of proceedings? It will be interesting to see how this will develop and be argued in the Malaysian courts.

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