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公司清算诉讼 v 仲裁条款:香港法院支持清算纠纷中的仲裁条款

更新时间:2018-04-12 11:23:15  张振安 临时仲裁ADA 编辑:lianluobu  点击次数:232次

清算诉讼 v 仲裁条款

 

201832日,香港原讼法庭(“CFI”)就破产清盘和仲裁协议的关系问题作出一项重要裁定。CFILasmos有限公司诉西南太平洋铝土矿(香港)有限公司( Lasmos Limited v Southwest Pacific Bauxite (HK) Limited [2018]HKCFI 426案中裁定,如果据以支持法院清盘申请的协议有仲裁条款,通常应驳回以破产为由的清盘申请。该裁定偏离了香港法院以判例,即仅在有实质理由(substantial grounds)对有关债务的主张构成真实抗辩(bona fide defence),才可驳回该项申请。

 

案件事实


清盘申请由LasmosLtd (“Lasmos”)对西南太平洋铝土矿(香港)有限公司(“公司”)提出,宣称后者未能根据双方于2013724日签订的管理服务协议(“协议”)支付259,700.48美元的服务费(“债务”)。协议规定调解无果争议提交仲裁解决。

该公司拒绝偿还债务,理由是双方从未就应收取的费用和费率达成一致。针对清盘申请,公司抗辩认为应当支付多少费用给Lasmos构成基于实质理由的真实争议 “bonafide dispute on substantial grounds)。

 

法律依据

 


CFI首先概述了香港以往对清盘申请与仲裁条款之间关系的立场:有仲裁条款的协议产生的债务的清盘申请不会因为存在仲裁条款被中止,债务人若要驳回清盘申请,必须证明对该主张有实质理由的真实抗辩“bonafide defence on substantial grounds to the claim for the underlying debt”(Re Sky Datamann (Hong Kong) Limited (unrep.,HCCW 487/2001))

Re Quiksilver Glound Sun合资企业有限公司[2014]4 HKLRD 759中,香港CFI驳回了一项反对申请的抗辩,即据其性质,公正和公平的清盘申请不能由于仲裁而中止,而正确的方法是找出当事方之间争议的实质内容,并询问争议是否受仲裁协议管辖。

CFI认为,上述裁定没有详细讨论申请人与公司之间关于清盘债务的争议是否属于可仲裁事项,并认为,根据英国和新加坡近期裁定,认为该问题非常重要,以决定债权人提交清盘申请之前是否需要将争议的债务提交仲裁:

英国上诉法院在Salford Estates (No 2) Ltd v Altomart Ltd (No2) [2015] Ch 589 (“Salford“)一案中认为,为了支持仲裁,应当驳回清盘申请,并指出在这种情况下,债权人同意将与债务有关的任何争议提交仲裁时,清盘法院对未承认的债务责任,并以此为基础提出的清盘请求进行判决是不适当的anomalous, in the circumstances, for the Companies’Court to conduct a summary judgment type analysis of liability for anunadmitted debt, on which a winding up petition is grounded, when the creditorhas agreed to refer any dispute relating to the debt to arbitration,并且认为完全违反了当事人基于1996年仲裁法解决所涉争议的意愿。

CFI认为英国仲裁法香港仲裁条例有相似之处,并指出:与英国一样,香港立法机关已制定仲裁法令,旨在鼓励和支持当事人意识自治,选择何种方式解决两者之间的纠纷。随后,Eco Measure Marketing Exchange Ltd v QuantumClimate Services Ltd [2015] BCC 877案例遵循了Salford原则,CFI得出结论:英国目前的立场是,如果根据一项包含仲裁条款的协议引起的债务不被接受,则应驳回请愿 “the present position in England is that if an allegeddebt arising under an agreement containing an arbitration clause is not admitted the petition should be dismissed“.

关于新加坡的立场,CFI认为,BDG v BDH [2016] 5 SLR 977 (“BDG“)案件也采用了Salford原则,新加坡法院中止清盘申请以支持仲裁。然而,新加坡法院在BDG案中认为,它不关心该公司抗辩的强弱程度,但该公司有必要证明存在表面争议,而且初步看来遵守了争端解决条款。


法院观点


比较香港与英国及新加坡法院最近采取的不同方法,CFI认为,清盘申请的适当性质,是债权人追讨债务,而非一般地出于公司债权人的一些利他关怀some altruistic concern for the creditors of the company generally),因为这将是最有效的获得支付的方法 “the most efficacious method of obtaining payment)。CFI指出,要求债权人对纠纷进行仲裁,而不首先确定该公司是否有实质理由的真实抗辩,实际上将使债权人遵守其协议约定,也就是通过仲裁解决任何争议。CFI感到宽慰的是,这样做不会剥夺债权人现有优势,因为在仲裁结束前,债务争议的债权人适当时可以提出清盘申请,例如,如果有初步证据的清盘案件,债权人证明存在资产可能被挪用的风险或其他事项,则可提出临时清算申请和中止程序,以待仲裁裁决的结果。

基于以上所述,CFI决定背离香港以往判例,认为存在以下情形时,一般应当驳回清盘申请(A)公司对清盘申请人所依赖的债务提出异议;(B)产生债务的合同的仲裁条款涉及与债务有关的任何争议;(C)公司根据仲裁条款,开始合同规定的争议解决程序,并按照公司(清盘)规则”(32H)32条提交确认书予以证明。

(a) a company disputes the debt relied on by the winding-up petitioner; (b) the contract under which the debt is alleged to arise contains an arbitration clause that covers any dispute relating to the debt; and (c) the company takes the steps required under the arbitration clause to commence the contractually mandated dispute resolution process and files an affirmation in accordance with Rule 32of the Companies (Winding Up) Rules (Cap 32H) demonstrating this.

本案适用CFI确定的新标准,因为公司对债务存在争议,并要求根据协议中的仲裁条款解决争议,为此,CFI认定驳回“lasmos”清盘申请。 CFI发现,无论如何将驳回该申请,因为当事各方"清算债务的费用存在争议,也即存在“实质理由的真实争议“。


结论


对于债权人和债务人来说,如果引发争议债务的协议存在仲裁条款时,法院会驳回清盘申请。而在此之前,为了驳回这一请求,公司必须证明存在“实质理由的真实争议”。本案表示法院降低驳回清盘申请的门槛,也反映了香港法院维护双方解决清盘债务争议时的仲裁约定的态度。

本案裁定深受欢迎,证实了香港法院支持仲裁的立场,以及使香港案件与英国和新加坡案例相一致。然而,对于债权人来说,如果存在清偿债务,而引起债务的协议有仲裁条款,则可能成为公司清盘的障碍。债权人在进行清盘申请时,必须考虑到其他因素,例如在解决债务纠纷时可能发生的与仲裁有关的费用。

 

【英文原文】


Winding-up Petition v Arbitration Clause

Hong Kong Court Dismisses Winding-up Petition in Favor of Arbitration Clause


BY JAMES KWAN AND JAMES NG 

On 2 March 2018, the Hong Kong Court of First Instance (“CFI“) issued a notable decision which signifies a development of Hong Kong law in the contexts of insolvency and arbitration.  The CFI held in Lasmos Limited v Southwest Pacific Bauxite (HK) Limited [2018] HKCFI 426 that a winding-up petition issued on the ground of insolvency should generally be dismissed if there is an arbitration clause contained in an agreement giving rise to a debt relied on to support the petition.  This is a deviation from Hong Kong’s previous position whereby such petition may only be dismissed by establishing a bona fide defence on substantial grounds to the claim for the underlying debt.

Facts

The winding-up petition was issued by Lasmos Ltd (“Lasmos“) against Southwest Pacific Bauxite (HK) Ltd (“Company“), for the latter’s alleged failure to pay a US$259,700.48 service fee (“Debt“) under a management services agreement dated 24 July 2013 between the parties (“Agreement“).  The Agreement contains a clause referring the parties’ disputes to arbitration failing mediation.

The Company declined to pay the Debt on the basis that the parties had never agreed on the relevant fee and the rate to be charged.  In resisting the winding-up petition, the Company submitted that this constitutes a “bona fide dispute on substantial grounds” as to what further sums were payable to Lasmos.

Legal principles

The CFI first summarised Hong Kong’s previous position on the interplay between a winding-up petition and an arbitration clause:

A winding-up petition based on the ground of insolvency will not be stayed to arbitration if the debt arises under an agreement which contains an arbitration clause; to defeat the petition, the debtor must demonstrate that it has a “bona fide defence on substantial grounds to the claim for the underlying debt” (Re Sky Datamann (Hong Kong) Limited(unrep., HCCW 487/2001)).

In Re Quiksilver Glorious Sun JV Ltd [2014] 4 HKLRD 759, the Hong Kong CFI rejected the objection that because of its nature a just and equitable winding up cannot be stayed to arbitration. The correct approach is to identify the substance of the dispute between the parties and ask whether or not that dispute is covered by the arbitration agreement.  .

The CFI opined that these decisions had not discussed in detail whether a dispute between a petitioner and a company over a debt relied on to establish locus to present a winding-up petition is arbitrable, and observed that this was “important in determining whether a creditor should be required to arbitrate a disputed debt before presenting a petition” in recent English and Singapore decisions:

The English Court of Appeal held in Salford Estates (No 2) Ltd v Altomart Ltd (No 2) [2015] Ch 589 (“Salford“) that a winding-up petition should be dismissed in favour of arbitration, noting that it would be “anomalous, in the circumstances, for the Companies’ Court to conduct a summary judgment type analysis of liability for an unadmitted debt, on which a winding up petition is grounded, when the creditor has agreed to refer any dispute relating to the debt to arbitration“, as that would be “entirely contrary to the parties’ agreement as to the proper forum for the resolution of such an issue and to the legislative policy of the 1996[Arbitration] Act“. The CFI drew similarities between the English Arbitration Act and the Hong Kong Arbitration Ordinance, noting that “[a]s in England, the Legislature in Hong Kong has enacted legislation advancing a policy encouraging and supporting party autonomy in determining the means by which a dispute arising between them should be resolved“. Salford was subsequently followed in Eco Measure Marketing Exchange Ltd v Quantum Climate Services Ltd [2015] BCC 877, leading the CFI to conclude that “the present position in England is that if an alleged debt arising under an agreement containing an arbitration clause is not admitted the petition should be dismissed“.

With respect to the position in Singapore, the CFI found that BDG v BDH [2016] 5 SLR 977 (“BDG“) also adopted the Salford approach, which was consistent with decisions in Singapore granting a stay of proceedings in favour of arbitration. However, while the Singapore court held in BDG that it was not concerned with the strength of the company’s defence, it was necessary for the company to demonstrate that there is a prima facie dispute, and that there is prima facie compliance with the dispute resolution clause.

The CFI’s analysis

Comparing the different approaches taken by the Hong Kong authorities and the more recent ones in England and Singapore, the CFI concluded that the proper nature of a winding-up petition is for a creditor to recover its debt, rather than out of “some altruistic concern for the creditors of the company generally” as it would be “the most efficacious method of obtaining payment“.  The CFI noted that requiring a creditor to arbitrate a dispute without first determining whether the company has a bona fide defence on substantial grounds would, in fact, be holding a creditor to his contractual bargain – namely, to resolve any dispute by arbitration.  The CFI found comfort in the fact that doing so would not deprive a creditor of an advantage that it has under the existing authorities, as there are circumstances in which a creditor whose debt is disputed would be justified in issuing a petition before an arbitration had been concluded.  By way of an example, if a creditor can demonstrate a prima facie case for a winding up and a risk of misappropriation of assets or some other matter, a petition could be issued and stayed other than for applications relevant to the provisional liquidation pending determination of the arbitration.

Based on the foregoing, the CFI decided to depart from the previous approach in Hong Kong and held that a winding-up petition should generally be dismissed if: (a) a company disputes the debt relied on by the winding-up petitioner; (b) the contract under which the debt is alleged to arise contains an arbitration clause that covers any dispute relating to the debt; and (c) the company takes the steps required under the arbitration clause to commence the contractually mandated dispute resolution process and files an affirmation in accordance with Rule 32 of the Companies (Winding Up) Rules (Cap 32H) demonstrating this.

Applying the new test to the present case, since the Company disputed the Debt and required the dispute to be resolved in accordance with the arbitration clause in the Agreement, the CFI found that Lasmos’ petition should be dismissed.  In any event, the CFI found that it would have dismissed the petition since it was arguable on the facts that the parties’ discussions fell short of arriving at a binding agreement on fees resulting in the claim for a liquidated debt, i.e. there was a bona fide dispute on substantial grounds.

Conclusion

This case is significant for both creditors and debtors, in that a winding-up petition may now be dismissed based on the existence of an arbitration clause in an agreement giving rise to the debt relied on for the petition.  Previously, companies must positively establish that there is a “bona fide dispute on substantial grounds” in order to dismiss such petition.  The present position represents a lower threshold in dismissing a winding-up petition.  However, the Hong Kong courts have upheld the contractual bargain of the parties to arbitrate in dismissing a winding-up petition.

This case is a welcomed decision; it confirms the Hong Kong courts’ pro-arbitration stance, as well as bringing Hong Kong in line with the contemporary jurisprudence in England and Singapore.  In the eyes of the creditors, however, this case serves as a potential roadblock to winding up a company if there is a liquidated debt and the agreement giving rise to the debt contains an arbitration clause.  Creditors must now take into account additional factors when pursuing a winding-up petition, such as the possible costs associated with an arbitration in settling a debt dispute.