This article was first published in the China Business Law Journal, July / August 2016, Volume 7 | Issue 7

Improper service in arbitration proceedings has been commonly relied upon as a ground by PRC courts to set aside or refuse enforcement of arbitral awards made in China or overseas. What is less clear is when service is considered improper. PRC laws do not shed any light on the question. The rules of many arbitration institutions, although containing provisions on service, are not intended to address every situation that may arise in practice. As such, the answer rests completely within the discretion of the Chinese courts. An empirical analysis of PRC court decisions is thus necessary and important. This article reports the authors’ findings and discusses how a party can mitigate the risk of improper service. From the authors’ research of publicly available cases spanning 14 years, from 2002 to 2015, we found 111 Chinese awards (both domestic and foreign related) and 14 foreign awards of which enforcement was challenged on the ground of improper service. Among the 111 Chinese awards, 17 were set aside or denied enforcement by the court, accounting for a 15.3% success rate of the challenges on service in arbitration proceedings. Out of the 14 foreign awards, five (35%) were not enforced by the court. The statistics are astonishing, taking into account the PRC courts’ overall good track record of enforcing arbitral awards in the past 10 years.

COURT POSITION

The common causes for challenging the service process include the scenarios below. Most of the reasons for service failure are not attributable to the party upon whom service is sought.

Defective service process. Some Chinese courts regarded typographical errors on the delivery address made by the arbitration institution or the tribunal,  albeit negligible, as a valid ground for challenging the arbitral award. Also, one award was set aside due to the absence of the courier’s signature on the return receipt,  despite the fact that the mail was returned after being rejected by the recipient.

No reasonable second attempt. Many arbitration rules require a reasonable inquiry into the other addresses of a party if service at the first one fails. Free public record searches can count as a reasonable attempt. Failure to do so would result in the arbitral award being defeated. On the other hand, simply asking the other party to provide an alternative address may not be a sufficient effort in the view of some Chinese courts.

Intentionally hiding the valid address of the other party. If service at one address of a party fails, the opposing party must provide other valid addresses of the unserved party that are within its knowledge, failing which the validity and enforceability of the arbitral award is at risk. The burden of proving the opposing party has such knowledge is on the unserved party.

Receipt by a third party. If the arbitration documents are signed for by someone other than the parties themselves (for individuals), or the parties’ employees/ authorized attorneys (for legal entities), some courts would consider the service process to be ineffective, notwithstanding that the recipient and the party are closely connected. As for the authorized attorney, a formal power of attorney (POA) is required even before the service process starts. Otherwise, the lawyer’s acceptance of the mail may not be effective service even if he or she later receives a POA.

In 2003, the China Marine Arbitration Commission (CMAC) made an arbitral award arising from a dispute between Heilongjiang Hongchang International Freight Forwarding, FUSCO and Trans Marine in respect of a vessel charter contract. Hongchang applied to Tianjin Maritime Court, requesting that the award be vacated on the ground that it never received any arbitration documents from the CMAC and was deprived of the opportunity to present its case as it was not aware of the arbitration proceeding.

According to the CMAC, the arbitration documents mailed to Hongchang at its then registration address were all returned due to Hongchang’s change of address. The CMAC then asked FUSCO to provide an alternative address of Hongchang but received no useful response, so it treated the then registration address of Hongchang as its last known address.

The Tianjin court, however, was of the view that the CMAC failed to make a reasonable attempt as required under CMAC arbitration rules. The court held that after knowing Hongchang changed its address, the CMAC should have consulted with the local company registrar for Hongchang’s latest address, which was a reasonable and common practice. The CMAC’s failure to do so constituted a valid ground for setting aside the CMAC award.

STEPS TO CONSIDER

If a party wishes to protect itself from the consequences of improper service, we recommend that it should be mindful of the following steps.

Choose the right arbitration institution. Before choosing an arbitration institution, the parties should carefully read their rules to see if the institution has any peculiar requirements on service that they are not prepared to accept. It is advisable to choose reputable arbitration institutions such as the China International Economic and Trade Arbitration Commission, the Hong Kong International Arbitration Centre, and the Singapore International Arbitration Centre.

Carefully draft the arbitration clause. The parties may consider adopting a more detailed arbitration clause to include agreement on arbitrator appointments and specific requirements on service process, such as the time period, the address/person to be served, and confirmation of receipt.

Keep the other party informed. A party should notify the other party of any changes in its address and, if possible, provide all valid addresses to the other party. The purpose of doing so is to ensure a timely receipt of all arbitration documents and, if not, to hold the other party accountable for failing to provide the valid addresses to the arbitration institution or tribunal.

 

中国法院时常以仲裁过程中的送达不当为由撤销或拒绝执行国际、国内仲裁裁决。但送达在哪些情况下会被认定为不当尚未有定论:中国法律对这一问题没有相关的规定;许多仲裁机构的仲裁规则,尽管包含与送达有关的条款,但这些条款并不能解决实践中可能出现的所有问题。如此一来,这个问题就完全取决于中国法院的自由裁量。

因此,对中国法院相关案例的研究就显得十分关键与必要。本文对相关数据进行了分析,并就如何避免送达不当可能带来的风险进行了讨论。

通过研究2002年至2015年这14年间的公开数据,我们发现共有111例中国裁决(包括涉外裁决和国内裁决)与14个外国裁决面对以送达程序不当为根据的司法审查。在这111例中国裁决中,有17例裁决被法院撤销或被拒绝执行,因送达不当而申请撤销或不予执行仲裁裁决的成功率达到了15.3%。在14例外国裁决中,有五例裁决(相当于35%)没有得到执行。

以上数据十分惊人,特别是考虑到在过去10年里,中国法院在执行仲裁裁决中的良好表现。以下是几种最常见的送达程序不当情形,其中大多并非由受送达方自身原因造成:

法院观点

有瑕疵的送达程序。某些中国法院认为,仲裁机构或仲裁庭错误填写送达地址(尽管该笔误可能微不足道)可以成为撤销或不予执行仲裁裁决的有效理由。另外,曾有一个裁决因为快递员未在改退批条上签章而被撤销,尽管该文件之所以被退回是因为收件人拒收。

没有进行合理的二次尝试。许多仲裁规则要求在向当事人送达失败后,应合理查询该当事人的其他地址。搜索免费的公开记录可以被视为是合理的尝试。没有进行合理的查询会导致仲裁裁决被撤销或不予执行。另一方面,在某些中国法院看来,仅仅要求仲裁另一方当事人提供对方的替代地址尚不足以达到合理查询的要求。

故意隐瞒另一方的有效地址。在对一个地址的送达失败后,一方当事人应当提供它所知悉的另一方当事人的其他有效地址,否则仲裁裁决就会存在被撤销和不予执行的风险。未受送达方负有证明对方知悉该等其他有效地址的举证责任。

由第三方签收。如果一份仲裁文件由当事人(当事人为个人)或当事人的雇员/ 授权律师(当事人为法人实体)以外的第三方签署,即使收件人和当事方/ 当事人关系紧密,某些法院仍会认为送达无效。在向授权律师送达的情况下,授权委托书应在送达开始前就办理完毕,否则其签收仲裁文件的行为会被视为无效,即使其之后又收到了授权委托书。

2003年,中国海事仲裁委员会(海仲)就黑龙江鸿昌国际货物运输代理有限公司、美国连捷海运有限公司与福建省轮船总公司之间的轮船包租合同纠纷做出了一份仲裁裁决。鸿昌向天津海事法院提出撤销该裁决的申请,理由是它从未收到海仲发出的任何仲裁文件,对仲裁过程毫不知情,并因此被剥夺了就案件陈述意见的机会。

海仲则声称,向鸿昌当时的注册地址寄送的仲裁文件因为其地址改迁而都被退回了,之后海仲又要求福建省轮船总公司提供鸿昌的其他地址,但福建省轮船总公司并没有提供,因此海仲将鸿昌当时的注册地址作为鸿昌最后为人所知的地址。然而在天津法院看来,海仲未能按照仲裁规则的要求合理查询鸿昌的其他地址。法院认为,当知晓鸿昌变更了地址后,海仲应当向当地工商行政主管机关查询鸿昌的最新地址,而且这也是通常且合理的做法。因而,海仲未能进行合理的查询为撤销其裁决提供了正当的理由。

参考建议

如上所述,如果仲裁一方当事人希望免受送达不当的困扰,那么我们推荐其关注以下几点建议。

选择正确的仲裁机构。在选择仲裁机构前,各方当事人应仔细地阅读各机构的仲裁规则,以确保规则中关于送达的相关要求都能被当事人所接受。此外,我们建议选择声誉好的仲裁机构,如中国国际经济贸易仲裁委员会、香港国际仲裁中心和新加坡国际仲裁中心等。

审慎地起草仲裁条款。各方可以考虑起草较为详细的仲裁条款,包括仲裁员的任命以及对送达程序的具体要求,例如送达期间、送达地址、受送达人以及送达回执等。

即时通知对方当事人。如果一方当事人的地址发生变化,其应告知对方当事人,并在可能的情况下,向对方提供其所有的有效地址。这么做的目的在于确保自己能够及时收到仲裁文件,并在没有收到仲裁通知时,令对方承担没有向仲裁机构或仲裁庭提供有效地址的责任。