Court rejects bid for Queen's Counsel

The Supreme Court building.
The Supreme Court building. PHOTO: ST FILE

Issues in $185m arbitration case not complex enough to call for foreign counsel: High Court

The High Court has clarified that a Queen's Counsel will be admitted here only when needed to argue complex cases beyond the competence of local lawyers.

The court overruled the bid by law firm Rajah & Tann to bring in high-profile London-based Queen's Counsel Toby Landau to argue a judicial review of a US$129 million (S$185 million) arbitration award.

"The fact that foreign counsel would do 'an even better job' than local counsel does not really address the question of necessity," said Justice Steven Chong in judgment grounds issued last month.

The judge noted that China Machine New Energy Corporation (CMNC), the company that sought the QC, had hired leading local firm Rajah & Tann Singapore for the case, which has "five senior counsel within its ranks, each with an impressive track record in arbitration".

Justice Chong added that he was not prepared to assume that there was only a small pool of local lawyers who could act in the case to justify the need for a QC.

The High Court here has the discretion to admit QCs or their equivalent to argue cases on an ad hoc basis after assessing the complexity of the issues involved in the case, the QC's expertise, necessity and the availability of local counsel with the requisite experiences, among other things.

In the case, CMNC had lost a deal against Jaguar Energy Guatemala last year that was settled by an arbitration panel here which awarded Jaguar more than US$129 million for CMNC's breaches of contract.

The US-based Jaguar had contracted for CMNC in 2008 to build a power generation plant in Guatemala for US$450 million which subsequently derailed and led to arbitration.

CMNC then applied to the High Court for a review to set aside the award and sought Mr Landau to be admitted to argue its case.

All parties including the Attorney-General and the Law Society agreed that Mr Landau possessed wide-ranging experience in arbitration and the requisite expertise to address the issues identified in the case.

The Attorney-General supported the move, while the Law Society objected to the admission.

But Justice Chong made clear that although the court hearing the case would certainly benefit from having Mr Landau's "formidably wide-ranging experience, it does not follow there is a need to admit him".

He found nothing "exceptional" about the case and the issues involved were not "unduly novel or complex" or beyond the "range of competence" of local lawyers.

Law firm Morgan Lewis Stamford, which represented Jaguar in the proceedings, said the judgment among other things recognises "that the local Bar has the experience and expertise to represent parties in litigation ancillary to international arbitration proceedings".

Separately, Morgan Lewis lawyers Timothy Cooke and Daniel Chia said on its "Lawflash" online that the judgment "reaffirmed Singapore's status as a leading international arbitration hub".

They added: "Parties who wish to engage foreign counsel for Singapore court proceedings may want to consider including a clause in their contract specifying the Singapore International Commercial Court (SICC) as the forum for resolving disputes; in certain defined circumstances, matters heard in the SICC may be argued by foreign counsel."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 12, 2016, with the headline 'Court rejects bid for Queen's Counsel'. Print Edition | Subscribe