Spain – Review of arbitration awards and public order

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Time to read: 5 min

Arbitration is a procedure for resolving disputes between parties that is very successful in the Anglo-Saxon legal system. But much less in our country.

Arbitration has advantages and disadvantages; it is more expensive than the Courts, but it is much quicker; and speed is essential for justice to be such.

Typically, an arbitration lasts six months plus a couple of months for the appointment of the arbitrator; in total, a dispute, however important and difficult it may be, can be definitively resolved in eight months.

To compare with the Courts, in Spain today it takes on average eighteen months to obtain a judgement at first instance and another eighteen months for an appeal; without considering the possibility of an appeal to the Supreme Court.

The cornerstone on which arbitration rests is that the arbitral award is final and definitive and cannot be reviewed or appealed; this statement has certain exceptions, mainly of a formal or procedural nature: basically, the legality of the arbitration agreement, the arbitrability of the matter and the procedural regularity in the conduct of the arbitration proceedings. These defects can be attacked by means of an action for annulment, which is heard by the ordinary courts.

But in addition to the possible “formal” defects, the action for annulment can be based on the allegation of a breach of “public order”, which the Constitutional Court has defined and outlined as “those public and private, political, moral and economic legal principles which are absolutely obligatory for the preservation of society in a given people and at a given time”.

As this definition of “public order” is undoubtedly broad and unspecific, the use of the violation of public order as a tool for declaring the nullity of arbitral awards by the ordinary courts has produced an “overflow” effect that has required, in the words of the Constitutional Court, “a restrictive interpretation of it, on pain of violating the autonomy of the will of the parties and their waiver of judicial protection”.

This is what the Court has proclaimed in the very important judgement of 15 February 2021, which is the reason for this legal note.

In recent years, the High Court of Justice of Madrid has resorted to the argument of “public order” in an extensive and “overwhelmed” manner to annul arbitral awards and “supplant the arbitral tribunal in its function of applying the law”, becoming “a second instance reviewing the facts and rights applied in the arbitral award, a control mechanism for the correct application of jurisprudence”.

And this expansive and “overwhelmed” interpretation of public order as a tool for annulling arbitral awards by the High Court of Justice of Madrid had become a serious problem for the arbitral institution and for the confidence of the contracting parties when including arbitration agreements in their contracts.

The principle that the arbitral award was the final and definitive solution to the dispute it was intended to resolve, except for procedural breaches or breaches of public order limited to those cases in which the arbitral award was arbitrary, illogical, absurd or irrational, was called into question and was a clear deterrent to contracting parties deciding to resolve their discrepancies through arbitration.

Well then, the Constitutional Court, in a categorical and explicit manner, repeating what it had already stated in its judgement of June last year, confirms that the need for the arbitral award not to contravene public order cannot result in the judicial body replacing the arbitrator in his function of applying the law, nor can it become a second instance reviewing the facts and legal grounds applied in the arbitral award, nor a mechanism for controlling the correct application of case law.

The principle of party autonomy prevails; and this means that when there is submission to arbitration, the parties have agreed that it should be through this channel that disputes between them are to be resolved, by means of the arbitrator’s decision, which can only be annulled through the strict channels that the Arbitration Act regulates; we insist, for procedural reasons or for violating public order in the restricted interpretation explained in the judgement we are commenting on; but in no case, by way of a second instance where the facts and legal grounds applied are re-evaluated once again.

In short, Spanish arbitration is to be congratulated, and will be able to recover the momentum that caused it to lose, in part, the extensive interpretation of public order defended by some High Courts of Justice. From now on, the Courts will not be able to ignore the Constitutional Court’s interpretation, which is a breath of fresh air for Spanish arbitration.

Javier Gaspar
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