Relational Contracts

A Relational Contract is my favourite type of contract, if actually having a favourite contract is a thing.

In any event, most mediators like me tend to see them a lot because they are uniquely suited to the process of mediation – many having a life of up to 10 or 15 years, maybe even longer. They might be joint ventures or other contracts that require a degree of collaboration, say in the tech space or mining sector – and they are certainly not confined to individuals and can be relational even if between companies.

The defining feature is not necessarily term but more that these types of contracts are underpinned by a relationship requiring more than simply what is written in the contact – and often it is that trust and confidence is vital for the business of the contract to work compared to an ordinary long term commercial lease or standard supply contract.

And it’s because of this special relationship that the courts have often been prepared to read in duties of good faith where none exist on a black-letter reading.

So, a common conversation I have with counsel in mediation is… “what difference, if any, does that relational underpinning make in law, will a judge be tempted to see some extra obligations where none exist within the four corners of the document?”

For instance in a dispute over the rights and wrongs of termination – if it is indeed a relational contract, an implied duty of good faith might have a real impact on the merit of that termination.

That conversation has been made easier by the recent English High Court case Bates v Post Office (a group litigation in which 550 sub-postmasters had claims relating to the introduction and operation of an IT system, known as Horizon ) identifying nine “specific characteristics” that are relevant when determining if a contract is relational – summarised well by White & Case here;

  1. no “specific express terms” in the contract preventing a duty of good faith being implied;
  2. a long-term contract, “with the mutual intention of the parties being that there will be a long-term relationship”
  3. an intention on the part of the parties “that their respective roles be performed with integrity, and with fidelity to their bargain”
  4. a commitment on the part of the parties “to collaborating with one another in the performance of the contract”
  5. the “spirits and objectives” of the parties’ venture being such that they are incapable “of being expressed exhaustively in a written contract”
  6. the parties “repose trust and confidence in one another, but of a different kind to that involved in fiduciary relationships”
  7. a contract which involves “a high degree of communication, co-operation and predictable performance based on mutual trust and confidence, and expectations of loyalty”
  8. a “degree of significant investment” or a “substantial financial commitment” by one party (or both) in the venture; and
  9. the exclusivity of the parties’ relationship.

The Singapore Convention : Decisions, Decisions

Bill Wood discusses the choice between opt-in and opt-out systems under the Singapore Convention

There is no mistaking the general excitement that has surrounded the recent signing of the Singapore Convention[1]. It is seen as recognition that mediation has now achieved such maturity and acceptance internationally that it deserves the status that arbitration has enjoyed since the New York Convention of 1959.

The place of signing is significant too. Singapore has again enthusiastically grasped the opportunity to brand itself as a new and dynamic international dispute resolution centre.

The Convention has been supported by the signatures of 46  countries including China and the United States. The UK along with the rest of the EU has remained aloof thus far. Indeed the Times recently speculated as to whether our abstention will diminish London’s standing as a forum for international disputes and damage trade generally [2].

Of course it is important to remember that no country has yet ratified.  When the moment of ratification comes countries will have an important choice to make. Article 8 of the Convention allows ratifying countries either to bring the Convention into law as an opt-in regime (where the parties expressly elect to submit to  the enforcement rules when settling) or as an opt-out (where the default setting is that the enforcement rules do apply). Paragraph 1(b) runs as follows:

            “1.  A party to the Convention may declare that

                        … (b) it shall apply this Convention only to the extent that the parties to the settlement agreement have agreed to the application of the Convention.”

There was understandably lengthy discussion of this clause during the drafting of the Convention and it is going to be an absolutely critical choice. Many of us have wondered whether at the moment of concluding a settlement parties will find opting-in an easy matter to agree. One assumes that in the average money dispute the paying party may not be enthusiastic about agreeing to grant his opponent supercharged enforcement powers.

It is easy to forget that because of Article 6 of the EU Mediation Directive EU countries have had similar enforcement  processes available for cross-border mediation settlements for some years now. Where a settlement “results from mediation” the parties, if they all agree, can apply to the court for a Mediation Settlement  Enforcement Order or MSEO[3]. When granted by the court this gives the settlement the enforcement statues of a judgment. Like the Singapore Convention it copes with situation  where proceedings have not yet been started and the parties do not have the option of enshrining their settlement in a consent award or judgment . (Unlike the Singapore Convention an application to the court is needed.)

This provision passed into law in 2011  but, to the best of my knowledge at least, it has disappeared utterly without trace. I have not heard it raised as an issue or  discussed by lawyers or  colleagues at any point in the eight years of its life to date and as far as I am aware no application for an MSEO has ever been made[4]. So much for an opt-in system.

Is the lesson of the MSEO  experience  that  Singapore Convention countries should choose an opt-out  system?

Or is another possible lesson that enforcement is not actually a major consideration and that concerns about enforcement are not in fact a significant brake on the advance of international mediation at all.

Parties mediating disputes post-litigation in England and Wales routinely agree “Tomlin orders”, consent orders embodying the settlement.  Pre-litigation parties cannot do so. Parties should not feel they have to start proceedings to get an enforceable deal. All perfectly rational.

But  in the long list of reasons that over the years I have heard given for parties being reluctant to move to mediation (“I don’t wish to appear weak”, “I don’t know what mediation is”, “Can I trust the mediator/the opposition to respect confidentiality” , “I don’t wish to appear weak”) I have to say I cannot remember hearing  enforcement worries mentioned.

The vast majority of commercial disputes whether domestic or international end in settlement. There is nothing about a mediated settlement as distinct from a negotiated settlement that makes it intrinsically more vulnerable to being disregarded. Where the parties in the negotiations which I facilitate have concerns about the other side’s willingness or ability to perform  that can be policed in the agreement. For example if a party has spent the mediation complaining of poverty and arguing that the case should settle because “there will be nothing left at the end of a trial” then the solution may be to make performance a condition subsequent to the agreement. If the defendant doesn’t pay the claimant’s claim revives.

The Singapore Convention is a welcome celebration of the arrival of mediation as a mature participant on the world stage and a  welcome celebration of Singapore itself. But as one observer wittily  put it: “I’m a huge fan of the Singapore convention, it’s all the stuff about enforcement I am not sure about ”.

How much practical effect the Convention is going to have will clearly  depend on choices yet to be made by the countries who ratify and the choices subsequently made by the parties themselves.


[1] The UN Convention on International Settlement Agreements resulting from Mediation.

[2] “Could the UK’s absence from the Singapore convention harm its post-Brexit prospects?” Times, 5th September 2019.

[3] CPR 78.24.

[4] If you have a drawer full of MSEOs in your litigation department please let me know; I will be delighted to publish a correction.

The Singapore Convention

Settlements reached in cross border mediation will soon be enforceable internationally just like arbitral awards when UNCITAL’s Singapore Convention, the first UN treaty named after Singapore, comes into force in August next year provided sufficient countries ratify.

As a result, there is an expectation by Singaporean authorities that the city state’s most favoured status as an international mediation venue will be further confirmed.

Seen as mediation’s answer to the New York Convention that allows for the easy enforcement of arbitration awards, the Singapore Convention comes on top of much mediation activity in Singapore having last year also enacted a Mediation Act whereby mediated agreements can be recorded as orders of Singapore’s courts, allowing parties to enforce their terms more easily.

Key terms of the Singapore Convention include*;

Article 1 outlines the scope, applying the Convention to cross-border commercial disputes resolved through mediation where “at least two parties to the [written] settlement agreement have their places of business in different States” or in which parties “have their places of business different from either the State in which a substantial part of the obligations under the settlement agreement is performed or the State in which the subject matter of the settlement agreement is most closely connected.” Article 1 specifically excludes settlement agreements related to consumer, family, inheritance, and employment matters, as well as those enforceable as a judgment or as an arbitral award.

Article 2 defines key terms used in the Convention such as “place of business,” “in writing,” including in electronic form, and even “mediation.”

Article 3 summarizes the general principles and obligates member States that ratify the Convention and also permits a party subject of the Convention to invoke a defense and to subsequently prove that a particular dispute being raised was already previously resolved by a settlement agreement.

Article 4 provides a specific but broad checklist of what a party must supply for enforcement of the international settlement agreements that result from mediation. Article 4 includes submission of a “settlement agreement signed by the parties” and “evidence that the settlement agreement resulted from mediation.” Evidence includes items “such as” a “mediator’s signature on the settlement agreement,” or “a document signed by the mediator,” or “an attestation by the institution” administering the mediation. In the absence of such proof, Article 4 allows a party to submit “other evidence” acceptable or required by a competent authority of the member State where relief is sought. Article 4 also addresses key issues related to electronic communication, translation of settlement agreements, and calls for the competent authority of the member States enforcing the settlement agreements to “act expeditiously.”

Article 5 was vigorously debated and certain overlaps within the Article are intentional to accommodate the concerns of a member State’s domestic legal systems. Article 5 includes the grounds when a competent authority may refuse to grant enforcement. These circumstances include incapacity of a party, or where the settlement agreement a) is null and void, inoperative or incapable of being performed; b) not binding or not final; c) was subsequently modified; d) was performed; e) is not clear or comprehensible; or where granting relief would be contrary to terms of the settlement agreement or contrary to public policy, and subject matter is not capable of settlement by mediation under the law of that party. A competent authority may also refuse to grant relief where there is a serious breach by the mediation of standards applicable to the mediator or the failure by the mediator to disclose to the parties’ circumstances as to the mediator’s impartiality or independence.

Article 6 addresses issues of parallel applications or claims and draws inspiration from the New York Convention. It grants, to the competent authority of the member State where relief is being sought, wide discretion to adjourn its decision under the Convention where an application or claim relating to a settlement agreement was made in a court, an arbitral tribunal, or other competent authority.

Article 7 also draws inspiration from the New York Convention and allows member States flexibility to enact national legislation in their countries to expand the scope of settlement agreements excluded by Article 1, Paragraphs 2 and 3 of the Singapore Convention.

Article 8 allows for a tailored adoption of the Convention by each member State, allowing for two reservations when ratifying the Convention. The first reservation is one which relates to the member State or its own governmental agency. The second allows for a declaration that the Convention applies only where the parties to the settlement agreement resulting from mediation have agreed to the application of the Convention.

* Singapore Convention: A First Look by Deborah Masucci and M. Salman Ravala

Brick Court mediators are active in Singapore and Hong Kong and would be delighted to talk to you about mediating in Asia.

A Baptism of Fire

Returning to London for a series of mediations this spring my cure for  jet-lag is a one-day Civil Justice Council workshop on the role of ADR in the civil justice system.

90 people packed into the ballroom of a central London hotel: High Court Judges, District Judges, Employment Judges, solicitors, barristers, arbitrators, mediators, the voluntary sector, civil servants from the Ministry of Justice and Her Majesty’s Court Service. As well – a sign of the times, various providers of dispute resolution software.

Chaired by Brick Court’s Bill Wood QC there were no speeches, no talking heads and no power points. Just fast moving discussion;

Why hasn’t the ADR message got through to the public? Are the existing prompts in the system working? If ADR can help parties without representation how is that to be funded and provided? Has ADR been treated as being limited to mediation for too long? Is some form of compulsion or automatic referral to ADR inescapable? If you have to provide at least some opt-outs does that inevitably bog the system down in satellite arguments? How big are the political obstacles in the path of radical reform? Will online access to the Court make all of these questions obsolete or raise new challenges? And what does the overseas experience tell us?

None of us envied the six members of the working group who now have to pick the bones out of it all and write a final report!

Read the CJC ADR Working Group’s Interim Report

Milestone Civil Justice Council Report Out for Comment

An expert working group of the Civil Justice Council has published a comprehensive interim report on the role of ADR in civil justice in England and Wales.

The CJC is now seeking written submissions and recommendations of the report, ahead of organising a seminar at which the proposals can be discussed and a final report prepared and submitted to the Government.

Chairman of the CJC Working Group is Brick Court’s Bill Wood QC

ADR has failed to achieve the integral position in the civil justice system that was intended and expected for it at the time of Woolf. The CJC assembled this Working Group (including representatives of the Bench, the professions, the ADR community and an academic) to try to understand the reasons for failure and to suggest some possible solutions.

Our aim is to stimulate a debate between all stake-holders as to the nature of the problem and the possible practical solutions, including the thorny issue of mandatory mediation. With the Online Court in development and pilot local mediation schemes up and running in a number of centres, this is an exciting time. The Report does not try to be utterly comprehensive nor does it purport to have all the answers but we hope it can make a contribution, and that in due course a final report can set out a widely-supported basis for moving forward.

Chairman of the CJC, Sir Terence Etherton, the Master of the Rolls

ADR is a very effective means of resolving civil disputes quickly and cheaply. This report explores the current use of ADR and the reasons why it is not used more frequently. As we prepare to enter a digital age of dispute resolution it is an ideal time to look in detail at how the potential for ADR can be maximized.

Read the full report

Written submissions by Friday 15 December 2017 to civiljusticecouncil@judiciary.gsi.gov.uk.

In other BC news, Bill Wood has recently been reappointed to the Civil Justice Council until 2020.