Howard Kennedy co-hosts the 25th birthday party of the Arbitration Act 1996


The Arbitration Act 1996 ("Act") came into force on 31 January 1997. Twenty-five years later, on 31 January 2022, Howard Kennedy co-hosted a conference to celebrate its success and consider its future.  The event, which Howard Kennedy co-hosted with Clifford Chance, Mishcon de Reya and Queen Mary, University of London, and which was sponsored by several other leading firms and chambers, featured short talks from representatives of the judiciary, the commercial bar, professional associations and private practice. The event and the speakers were introduced by Howard Kennedy's Head of International Arbitration, Duncan Bagshaw.

As Law Society President, I. Stephanie Boyce explained in her opening address, a silver anniversary is an opportune moment to look to the future. The conference took place shortly after the Law Commission's recent announcement that it will review the Act, with an aim of ensuring that the UK remains at the forefront of international dispute resolution. Professor Sara Green, Law Commissioner for commercial and common law, emphasised that the Commission doesn't intend to "overhaul" the Act; rather, the Commission aims to make "tweaks", because "if it ain't broke, don't fix it". This approach stands in stark contrast to Singapore lawmakers who, as Paula Hodges QC pointed out, have already tinkered with their equivalent legislation several times in the last decade.  Professor Green emphasised that the review will be a consultative process at all stages, and anyone involved in arbitration law is encouraged to contribute their ideas.

The Ashworth Centre at Lincoln's Inn was filled to capacity with delegates, with many hundreds more watching online. Amongst the memorable contributions were:

  • The former Justice of the Supreme Court Lord Saville, who chaired the Departmental Advisory Committee on Arbitration and was intimately involved with the drafting of the Act, paid tribute to other key contributors to the Act including Lord Mustill and Parliamentary Counsel, Geoffrey Sellers. Although Lord Saville remains (rightly) proud of the Act, he welcomed the impending Law Commission review, whilst noting the considerable difficulties presented by some areas identified for potential reform (including the law concerning confidentiality and privacy in arbitration proceedings).
  • The view of the Judge in charge of the Commercial Court, Dame Sara Cockerill, was that the Act is working well, and it may be best in class. Nevertheless, "good enough is not good enough", and London should not rest on its laurels as a centre for international dispute resolution: the question we should be addressing is whether the Act is the best that we can do now.  Dame Sara's hit list of areas for reform included clarifying the Court's jurisdiction under section 44 to make orders or injunctions against non-parties, and improving the "cumbersome" default mechanism for the appointment of arbitrators under section 18.
  • The conference concluded with a lively and witty debate introduced and chaired by Toby Landau QC, on whether or not the Act remains "best in class". For the affirmative were Paula Hodges QC (Herbert Smith Freehills) and Karyl Nairn QC (Skadden Arps), who took on Duncan Matthews QC (Twenty Essex Chambers) and Louis Flannery QC (Mishcon de Reya).  After a valiant effort and some spirited jousting by both sides, which included the Act being compared to hotels, cars, horses and students, the debate was declared a draw after an audience vote showed an even split.

The other eminent speakers included Sir Nicholas Francis, Prof. John Uff QC, Graham Dunning QC, Jacomijn van Haersolte-van Hof, Claudia Salomon, Prof. Dr. Mohamed Abdel Wahab, David Steward, Jonathan Wood, Sylvia Noury and Prof. Stavros Brekoulakis.

The conference was recorded, and can be viewed for free on YouTube.

The Law Commission is receiving comments from practitioners and users of arbitration regarding the review of the Act. We would be delighted to discuss any such issues with our clients and friends.

The conference sponsors also included the LCIA, 3 Verulam Buildings, RPC, the LMAA, Skadden Arps, Essex Court Chambers, the IDRC, Keating Chambers, Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer and Twenty Essex.