On 31 January 2022, 25 years to the day after the Arbitration Act 1996 came into force, the London arbitration community came together to look back on how the Act came into being, to celebrate its success and to consider what the future may hold.
Delivering introductory remarks to a full house in the Ashworth Centre lecture theatre at Lincoln's Inn, President of the Law Society of England and Wales, I. Stephanie Boyce, commented that we may look on the Act as "best in class". That affection for the Act was echoed by the other speakers, with Jackie van Haersolte-van Hof (Director General of the London Court of International Arbitration) and Claudia Salomon (President of the ICC International Court of Arbitration), both paying homage to the stable and predictable framework it provides and the close, supportive relationship between institutional rules and the Act. Professor Stavros Brekoulakis (Queen Mary University of London and 3 Verulam Buildings) noted landmark decisions arising out of the Act, while Dame Sara Cockerill DBE (judge in charge of the Commercial Court) agreed that although the Act has held up very well, some parts of the Act are "creaking".
Lord Saville of Newdigate, chair of the Departmental Advisory Committee on Arbitration and an original author of the Act, said it was gratifying to hear from most that the Act is still more or less fit for purpose. However, he welcomed the Law Commission's recently announced review, noting innovations in arbitration practice since the Act came into force, such as the use of emergency arbitrators. Another member of the Committee, Professor John Uff, agreed, commenting that the 1996 Act is still the best arbitration act we have ever had, but whether it is the best we can have is a matter for debate. Professor Sarah Green (Commissioner for Commercial and Common Law at the Law Commission of England and Wales), welcomed the debate, emphasising the "undoubted brilliance" of the Act and noting that there is no question of the Law Commission entirely overhauling it or declaring it a failure. She urged the arbitration community to get in touch with the Law Commission with their views, to ensure the law remains modern and cost effective.
Further valuable insights on the international impact of the Act were offered by Professor Dr Mohamed S. Abdel Wahab (Zulficar & Partners); by Sir Nicholas Francis (judge of the High Court Family Division) on family law arbitration; David Steward (President of the London Maritime Arbitrators Association) on maritime arbitration; Jonathan Wood (RPC) on insurance and reinsurance arbitration; and Graham Dunning QC (Essex Court Chambers), on commercial disputes under the Act. Sylvia Noury (Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer) added her thoughts on diversity issues in relation to the Act, noting the achievements that have been made in relation to gender diversity in arbitral tribunals and the further work needed.
The event culminated in an engaging debate addressing the motion "This House believes that the Arbitration Act remains best in class". Speaking for the motion, Paula Hodges QC (Herbert Smith Freehills) and Karyl Nairn QC (Skadden, Arps, Meagher & Flom LLP) emphasised that the Act is a true thoroughbred with ultimate pedigree, which encompasses and allows for a myriad of cases. However, despite the spirited, if less than neutral, support of moderator Toby Landau QC, ultimately the audience sided with Louis Flannery QC (Mishcon de Reya) and Duncan Matthews QC (Twenty Essex), arguing against the motion, who acknowledged the brilliance of the Act, but viewed it as a hotel in bad need of renovation and improvement, with the Law Commission's recently announced review being a golden opportunity for said repair work.
The live audience was joined by an online audience of nearly 500 people, logging on from 48 countries around the world. Following the conference, speakers and attendees continued the conversation at a drinks reception in the Great Hall.
The event's steering committee comprised Louis Flannery QC; Professor Stavros Brekoulakis; Audley Sheppard QC (Clifford Chance) and Duncan Bagshaw (Howard Kennedy), who also hosted the event.