Disputes and Issues Resolution – Best Practice for Collaboration (Part 2)

“One is not exposed to danger who, even when in safety is always on their guard.” – Publilius Syrus (circa 60 BC)

ludit lexus

Ludit Lexus  – J.Davies (2020)

Introduction

In part one of our discussion on disputes and issues resolution, we explored strategies for effectively dealing with disputes internally. The key theme here was to resolve issues quickly, fairly and at the lowest possible level.  In some circumstances though internal mechanisms may be insufficient to resolve critical disputes.  In our current volatile and uncertain environment, some aspects of the commercial relationship may not be possible to perform and the contract could be frustrated.[1] Even force majeure can introduce substantial uncertainty to the performance of the contract.  We therefore need to anticipate mechanisms to deal with serious issues that cannot be effectively resolved through internal measures.  We should not rely on litigation or arbitration to seek resolution.  Litigation and arbitration are very time consuming, expensive and uncertain processes that are very unlikely to support future positive relationships. Consequently, we must explore other, less destructive, external resolution mechanisms.

External Disputes Resolution Options

In our first blog we recognised that disputes and issues resolution processes and largely unfettered so long as they do not ‘oust the jurisdiction of the courts’.  This means that we are free to select any form of disputes and issues resolution process so long as the commercial agreement does not fetter any party in pursuing litigation until after the dispute resolution process has run its course. For effective collaborative outcomes we need to adopt the same mantra of disputes and issues resolution principles we explored earlier; that is resolve quickly, fairly and at the lowest level practical.  Once we move to external disputes resolution, solving problems at the lowest level means anything other than arbitration or litigation. Best practice resolution here includes mediation and expert determination

Mediation

The Resolution Institute offers a succinct definition of mediation as follows;

Mediation is a confidential process where an independent and neutral third party assists the disputants to negotiate and reach a decision about their dispute.[2]

The role of the mediator is not to impose a solution or binding outcome, rather the mediator facilities a joint, win-win outcome by exploring issues and positions of the parties collaboratively.

A mediator will only participate in the process if all parties are committed to resolution of issues in good faith.  Mediation is usually the quickest and cheapest of all the external dispute resolution processes and is also more likely to preserve positive business relationships.

Expert determination

For technical disputes, an expert can be employed in a resolution role. Quite often the expert’s ruling is considered binding.  The Australian Institute of Arbitrators and Mediators recommend the following rules apply to expert determination:

  1. The Expert shall determine the Dispute as an expert in accordance with these Rules and according to law.
  2. The parties agree that:
    1. the Expert is not an arbitrator of the matters in dispute and is deemed not to be acting in an arbitral capacity;
    2. the Process is not an arbitration within the meaning of any statute.
  3. The Expert shall adopt procedures suitable to the circumstances of the particular case, avoiding unnecessary delay and expense, so as to provide an expeditious cost-effective and fair means of determining the Dispute.
  4. The Expert shall be independent of, and act fairly and impartially as between the parties, giving each party a reasonable opportunity of putting its case and dealing with that of any opposing party, and a reasonable opportunity to make submissions on the conduct of the Process. [3]

For more complex and long-term commercial arrangements, parties may pre-select the expert for each discipline area. For example, the parties could pre-select an expert for pricing issues, technical solutions, or for contract interpretation.

There are several permutations in how the expert can decide on an issue. In most cases, the expert is free to come to their own conclusions as to how the dispute should be settled. In other cases, the expert may be bound to select a course of action between the ambit of the parties’ positions.

A variation of the expert determination decision making process is final offer arbitration or baseball arbitration.[4] In this situation, an expert is only permitted to select one course of action provided by one of the parties. There is no scope to select within the middle ground. Consider the following example:

A supplier is seeking additional sums related to a substantial contract change proposal initiated by the customer.  The customer is expecting a $100,000 increase in costs associated with the change, whereas the supplier expects the change to incur an additional $500,000 in costs. If the parties wish to resolve this issue via baseball arbitration, then they will need to submit a best and final offer to the arbitrator. Each party does not get to see the final offer from their counterparts.  The arbitrator will estimate the cost of the contract change proposal and will select the best and final offer that is closest to their expert estimate.  In this example, the expert may decide that the additional costs are $250,000. If the customer digs in their heels and sticks to the $100,000 additional sum, but the supplier is more reasonable and adjusts their escalation fee to $300,000 then the arbitrator will select the $300,000 escalation fee since this figure is closest to the arbitrator’s estimate.

Baseball arbitration prevents any one party making outrageous or unfair claims for fear that their claim will be considered less equitable or fair when compared to the other party’s claim. This can be implemented relatively quickly and cheaply provided there is an arbitrator with the necessary skills available.  By design, this approach nudges parties to provide reasonable offers and will likely preserve business relationships.

Conclusions

For resolving disputes and issues, we must first craft a commercial strategy that minimises the likelihood of disputes and issues arising in the first place. Fair and equitable risk allocation, early engagement, and transparency are all tools we can adopt to achieve this. Nonetheless, we need to anticipate disputes arising and ensure our contract has effective internal disputes and issues resolution processes.  With an effective collaborative culture, we should not expert disputes and issues to require external resolution processes, but we should not create a situation where arbitration and litigation is the only step available to us.  Mediation and expert determination should be considered, especially for longer term, strategic relationships.

[1] J. Curle & C. Allin ‘Coronavirus COVID-19 and frustration: Is your contract at risk? (United Kingdom)’ (Mar 2020)  https://www.dlapiper.com/en/chile/insights/publications/2020/03/coronavirus-covid-19-and-frustration-is-your-contract-at-risk/

[2] Resolution Institute (2017)  https://www.resolution.institute/dispute-resolution/mediation

[3] Resolution Institute (2017) https://www.resolution.institute/dispute-resolution/expert-determination

[4] L. Samples ‘Resolving Construction Disputes through Baseball Arbitration’ American Bar Association (2019)