Postcard From Hong Kong

Bill Wood QC has been attending Hong Kong International Arbitration week and offers some reflections

At Hong Kong Arbitration Week’s ‘ADR in Asia’ session yesterday there was a striking account from Arthur Ma of DaHui law firm in Beijing, of arbitration practice on the mainland. At an early directions hearing Chinese arbitrators will routinely offer to mediate. If they do mediate and it does not settle the arbitration proceeds regardless with the same tribunal. 

For western lawyers red lights immediately flash. Surely you should use a separate mediator? Somebody outside the process? Will the award not ultimately prove to be unenforceable?

Why turn to somebody new, asks Arthur? It is as if you are just getting to the front of the taxi queue when you get pulled out and sent to the back of another queue. If the arbitrators have won the parties’ trust why would you go elsewhere for your mediation or, if needed, your subsequent arbitration? If the parties agree and there is a protocol to cover the confidentiality issues what’s the harm? It works!

Underlying this fundamental difference of view may be a difference in the style of arbitration. The arbitration procedures in Asia often seem much closer to brokering a deal between the parties than an arm’s-length adjudicatory procedure. One wonders whether the original trade arbitrations, such as those carried out by commercial men on the deck of the ship with the cargo there to be examined, were not also closer to that model. I suspect the result was often less an award ex cathedra than an expression of consensus, maybe sometimes even compromise. Something like this:

“Are we all agreed that this wheat is showing signs of mould?”

Modern arbitrators often express nostalgia for those days and regret the excessive legalism of the modern era. (At Tuesday evening’s debate sponsored by Norton Rose and chaired by the stellar panel of Lord Neuburger, Neil Kaplan QC. and Juliet Blanch, a motion was passed that “Due process paranoia was the curse of modern arbitration”!)

Room for mediation to step up and play its part? I think so. 

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.

Mediation: What Makes the Difference?

Two different mediations. Each with a completely different subject matter. Different cities. Different months. Different lawyers. One involving a construction contract, the other financial services.

Each reached a stage in negotiations where one party offered an amount, x, and the other party sought an amount, y.  Remarkably, the amounts x and y were the same figure in each mediation and thus the difference between x and y was also the same.  That difference, in the overall scheme of things, was relatively small, significantly less than 10% of the principal sums. Neither claiming party had a specific need to achieve y. There was an emotional component present for both. The paying party was on each occasion funded by an insurer. 

At the end of each mediation, the parties’ principals, the clients, met together in an atmosphere of mutual respect and thanked each other for the attempts made to resolve a difficult and long-running matter. The negotiations were, largely, conducted in a spirit of openness and apparent good faith. 

And yet….in one mediation, the parties reached an agreement and, in the other, they did not. What was the reason for these different outcomes?

As ever, there is no one answer. One might ask what had happened, if anything, during the day in each case to trigger or prime a certain response? I couldn’t detect reactive devaluation. Each party seemed to accept that the other was doing its best. Optimism bias, perhaps, but over such a relatively small difference? Could that really cause a deal to be lost, or a bridge not to be built, when the ongoing court costs would soon exceed the difference? 

Possibly the endowment effect: one has so much invested in one’s own view of value, that objectivity is hard to achieve.  But what about risk aversion? In each case, there was real risk on the facts and good reason to settle. And the bird in the hand theory (“carpe diem”) seemed really important, perhaps especially in the case which did not resolve, so that discounting possible future value to achieve present certainty appeared to be a rational thing to do. And yes, costs had been incurred so that the sunk cost fallacy may have had an impact but everyone was also realistic about future cost escalation. This was the time to reach agreement if possible.

There was one factor which may have been material. In one case, the lawyer was quite proactive in carrying out a pragmatic risk assessment and in helping the client to be realistic too. Expectations were managed and any tendency to exaggerate or inflate was resisted. Concessions were offered in order to expedite the negotiations. In the other matter, the lawyer seemed more reactive and willing to leave decisions with the client. There may well have been a different dynamic in that room, a different client-lawyer relationship and expectation – and of course I was not privy to discussions which occurred while I was not present. 

Further, my own relationship with the claiming parties was marginally different. My attempts to test reality and check understanding of risk were received in slightly different ways, one welcoming, another less so. When combined with the different approach of the lawyers, that may have created a sense of pressure by the mediator in one matter, which may in turn have created resistance. It is difficult to do other than speculate.

And my sense was that insurer attitudes were quite different. In one case the insurer was personally present. In the other, the insurer was on the end of a telephone. Might that have made a difference? 

Incidentally, in the case which did not settle, I subsequently suggested (carefully) that the parties might split the difference but (obviously) only if both wished to do so. To my surprise, that I should even make such a suggestion was met with disapproval by both. Perhaps directing their ire at the mediator would galvanise them. Funnily enough, on my desk that evening, I discovered the book “Never Split the Difference” by Chris Voss. Point made.

Some Tips for Mediating….

A number of recent mediations have reaffirmed some essentials which I share here in the hope that they might be helpful to others:

It’s not all about the money. Mr A had a very substantial claim against a bank, of which he was a long-standing customer, running into hundreds of thousands of pounds Sterling, most of his life savings. When I asked him, early on, what he needed from the mediation day, he replied “I’d like them to apologise”. The bank’s advice was that it had done everything it could and that it had no legal liability. A familiar situation. However, the bank’s representatives found a way, authentically, to convey their deep regret that Mr A had experienced losses. They said they would do everything they could to ensure it would not happen again.

Mr A was very pleased with what was said. The matter settled for a modest sum overall. The Bank and Mr A conducted the final stage of the negotiations themselves, with support from advisers. Both parties left the mediation process satisfied with the outcome.

When wheels have come off, re-engage the key players. Day two of mediation was designed to build on day one several weeks earlier. However, the parties (employer and contractors in a large construction project) had not made the expected progress. In private initial meetings, one party expressed frustration and a feeling of lack of respect being shown by the other party – and a desire to conclude the process and proceed with litigation.

The engagement between the mediation days had been at a level below the key players. When the principals came together in a private meeting with me, they were able to hear from each other about their mutual frustration with what had happened. They agreed that they needed to oversee the process.

Much progress was then made in joint meetings in which the subordinates addressed the main issues under the watchful eye of the principals. The less senior people (including professional advisers) behaved in a different way with each other as they explored why they had not made progress, where the difficulties lay, and what needed to be done to make faster progress. The most senior people watched, asked questions, summarised, and provided guidance and leadership. The parties probably achieved more in half a day than for several months.

Get under the surface. In a long-running claim worth many tens of millions, the decision-makers appeared to have reached the end of the road. In an effort to find a way forward, we spent four hours going through my ‘Questions for a Difficult Meeting’ questionnaire. The parties prepared privately first and then, meeting together, they alternated in giving their responses.

The nature of the questions is such that they needed to dig deeper to look for answers. This opened up new levels of understanding about pressures, outside constituencies, alternative courses of action, changed realities and validation required for amounts sought. It led to a further discussion about possible settlement figures.

Ask questions. Similarly, in a difficult mediation involving two very senior directors in a company, impasse had been reached. Or so it seemed. But the more questions I asked, about their own ambitions, what others would say about them, how they might have contributed, what they might change or do themselves to make a difference, what questions they needed to ask, what pressures each was under, what they might be missing, and so on, the more they could see for themselves what needed to happen.

I am a great believer in party autonomy. Questions, used well, compel people to take responsibility.

Use a worked example. Many of us struggle with figures. Few of us really get to the bottom of what the numbers are telling us – or might tell us if we understood them. In a mediation involving a business partnership in which property was being divided up in a separation, the lawyers had spent several hours trying to explain what it all meant.

Eventually we got the flip chart sheets up and the parties themselves began to map it all out. It wasn’t easy as there were so many variables around land valuations, compulsory purchase possibilities and development proposals. And the taxation aspects were uncertain. However, for over an hour, we worked it through.

One of the parties was moved to say: “The figures are so much easier to understand than the lawyers’ words”!! Enough said. A satisfactory deal was done.

Encourage forward-looking momentum. When the going gets tough, maintain a process and be clear what that is – and try to ensure that the parties continue to commit to it. It has been said (by Deepak Malhotra in his excellent ‘Negotiating the Impossible’): “Stay at the table even after failed negotiations – if you are not at the table, you are on the menu”.

The job of the mediator is to (a) try to offer the best possible process for the circumstances; (b) keep in touch with and support parties even when there seems to be an impasse and (c) be prepared for a window of opportunity to open up, perhaps unexpectedly. Keep looking for it. In my experience, it often does. And we rediscover that most people, whoever they are, wish to resolve their disputes by agreement.

Provide food. Continuing with the idea of eating, it is encouraging to have endorsement of the value of bringing all the participants in a mediation together to share food. I do this whenever I can, with everyone meeting for breakfast after my initial private meetings. A buffet lunch can also be useful where people can choose to linger and chat if they wish.

I find it is useful to explain why I am doing this and I can now provide academic support that it works: see ‘Shared Plates, Shared Minds: Consuming From a Shared Plate Promotes Cooperation’ by Woolley and Fishbach, Association for Psychological Science 2019.

A similar point is made here about the important role of glucose levels in decision-making.

So that will be pizzas all round for the early evening final push for resolution! It is all food for thought…

Bill Wood QC contemplates the incidentals: food, doors and Pinocchio

Mediation rooms tend to be unremarkable places. They do not have the structure and style of a courtroom.  Yet in these often plain spaces, we are privileged to witness great dramas, personal, commercial even political.  Shakespeare’s reference to “a great reckoning in a little room[1] comes to mind. To be fair he was probably referring to the death of his friend Christopher Marlowe in a fight over a bar bill.  But even that was a mediation of a kind I suppose.

The little room, the environment and the incidentals do matter of course. In fact, they are often memorable.

Now don’t get me wrong. I am not a furniture fiddler. There are those who teach that to lay the foundations of a good mediation you should arrive at the mediation centre long before the parties and make subtle adjustments to the furniture to create the best possible environment. “Could you turn towards me slightly Mr Jenkins, I’m not quite getting your body language”. You know the sort of thing. 

But there are certain rooms in certain solicitors’ offices which I will only ever enter reluctantly, haunted as they are by flashbacks of bruising and protracted encounters from the past. To me they reek of impasse even now.

We see less these days of the old cliche of putting the away team in a windowless room while the home team luxuriate in a light-filled corner suite. And food discrimination is rarer now. (A word of advice to those contemplating serving their own clients a dripping roast while handing a packet of crisps to the opposition: make sure the home team’s room does not have interior windows and the ice sculpture is not readily observable from outside. Or there will be trouble.)

I swear one London firm used to calibrate the lunches it served by reference to the strength of the case they were advancing at the mediation. You knew they had a drawerful of statutory defences when the cheese and pickle sandwiches appeared. But when the roast bass and the braised fennel were served it was likely that their clients were on rockier ground.

Then the stationery drawers: I find a long wait between offers can be enlivened by doing a still life of an apple using the in-house highlighter pens (red, green, yellow – it all makes sense). Or you can take a tour of corridors to see the law firm’s art collection. Victor Pasmore and Howard Hodgkin are ubiquitous (who is complaining). Simmons and Simmons have some quite punchy Tracy Emins which I always enjoy. And I often seek consolation from one firm’s stunning Jim Dine etching of Pinocchio; particularly comforting when the parties’ discussions seem to lack a proper degree of candour.

Climate matters too. I mediated a case about the adequacy of the air-conditioning in an office building. Unfortunately, we mediated on site. The tenant had undoubtedly turned the heating up to maximum to prove his point. But the landlord and his team entered fully into the spirit of things by sweating through the day with their jackets firmly on at all times. “Temperature’s perfect, Bill. Can’t see the problem” says the red-faced chief executive.

Which brings me inevitably to doors.The modern office door is designed to expose visitors to the maximum amount of ridicule. Frequently they are so heavy that only a circus strongman can open them. And be careful. The ones that promise to open inwards open out. The ones that promise to open outwards open in.  And woe betide you if you failed to spot the slider. A really well-designed office features a cunning mixture all three.  Taking Party A’s offer to Party B involves a Rubik’s cube problem of such complexity you are liable to forget the figure. No doubt the local inhabitants derive hours of harmless fun as they watch our struggles. Perhaps it’s reassuring that at 5pm these gifted and observant peacemakers are pushing on a door they should be pulling just as enthusiastically as they did at the start of the day.

I would write more but I think the Claimant is ready for me with a new number.   Now how does this door work?


[1] As You Like It, Act 3, scene 3.