Arbitration for the financial sector: an emerging trend?



Traditionally, the financial sector has favoured litigation rather than arbitration as a means of resolving disputes. However, in recent years there has been a marked increase in the use of arbitration by the financial sector. 

What is arbitration?

Arbitration is a contractually agreed method for resolving disputes and getting a binding decision akin to litigation in the courts, which is recognised by the courts. Arbitration is similar to litigation in various aspects but has key distinguishing features that make it an attractive option, including ease of enforcement internationally, confidentiality, flexibility of procedure, parties’ participation in choosing the decision makers (who need not be lawyers) and flexibility of venue and language for proceedings. However, unlike litigation, arbitration can only be initiated by agreement. As such, when negotiating contracts it is worth sparing a few moments to consider whether arbitration would be more appropriate if a dispute does arise under the agreement. 

We explore in this article the traditional advantages of litigation for the financial sector, the current trend towards arbitration and the status of optional litigation/arbitration clauses. 

Traditional advantages of litigation

Traditionally litigation has been favoured by the financial sector due to the following perceived advantages over arbitration: 

Availability of summary and default judgments. Court procedures in common law jurisdictions allow for summary and default judgments, which are not available in arbitral proceedings. These procedures make it quicker to obtain judgment debts when the respondent raises only a very weak defence to a claim. Such procedures are especially suited to financial disputes, in particular when disputes relate to overdue payments. 

Potentially shorter length of proceedings. Arbitral proceedings can be delayed by disputes over the tribunal’s jurisdiction. Arbitration can similarly permit extensive document production in comparison to civil law jurisdictions. As a result, arbitration has been viewed in the past as comparatively inefficient and uneconomic in the financial sector. 

Existence of ‘bank-friendly’ jurisdictions. The traditionally favoured courts of New York and London have also been perceived as ‘bank-friendly’. Both jurisdictions have a reputation for upholding the sanctity of contract and permitting only limited defences for the non-performance of contractual obligations. In addition, the presence of commercially-minded judges bound by previous cases has given parties the comfort that outcomes will be, to a certain extent, predictable. 

The current trend towards arbitration 

The International Swaps and Derivatives Association, Inc (ISDA) began a consultation process last year on the potential incorporation of arbitration clauses within its Master Agreements. That consultation has resulted in a Guide to Arbitration being published by ISDA in September this year with various options for arbitration clauses to insert in ISDA Master Agreements. The options include a variety of suggestions including different arbitral institutions’ rules and different locations for the place of the arbitration. 

The increase in the use of arbitration by the financial sector is also reflected by the establishment of the Panel of Recognised International Market Experts in Finance (P.R.I.M.E. Finance), a specialist institution for resolving financial disputes. 

The driving force behind the current shift towards arbitration seems to be globalisation. As investment in emerging markets increases, issues have arisen as to the enforceability of foreign court judgments in local courts due to the lack of comprehensive reciprocal arrangements for the enforcement of such judgments. In contrast, arbitration offers a valuable solution to such issues through the New York Convention, which requires signatory countries to enforce arbitral awards without, for example, reviewing their merits. The New York Convention has been signed by 149 countries, and includes almost every major trading nation.

As the arbitration community reacts to increased demand from the financial sector, a number of the perceived disadvantages of arbitration in relation to the settlement of financial disputes have also been addressed, for example through the arbitral institutions’ rules, which include: (i) measures to increase the speed and efficiency of arbitral proceedings and encourage active case management – these measures help to provide a viable alternative to summary and default judgments; (ii) mechanisms to obtain urgent provisional measures which cannot await the constitution of an arbitral tribunal; and (iii) provisions that allow for awards to be published in anonymised form – such provisions allow the institution to develop a consistent body of decisions, encouraging outcomes to be more predictable.

 Optional clauses

A potential solution to the dilemma of choosing between litigation and arbitration is the incorporation of an optional arbitration clause. Such a clause provides one or both parties with the option of pursuing either litigation or arbitration, therefore offering flexibility and allowing a party to make an informed decision as to the most suitable process once a dispute has arisen. These clauses have been consistently upheld in England. (See, by way of example, Mauritius Commercial Bank Ltd v Hestia Holdings Ltd and Another [2013] EWHC 1328.) Recent international decisions have, however, cast doubt upon the enforceability of optional arbitration clauses elsewhere.

In 2012 in Russian Telephone Company OJSC v Sony Ericsson Mobile Communications Rus LLC (Case No. A40-49223/2011), Russia’s highest commercial court found an optional arbitration clause which gave one party the right apply to any competent court to be invalid, stating that the clause created an unfair advantage for one of the parties. This was followed later that year by Ms. v Banque Privée Edmond de Rothschild (No. 11-26.022), in which the French Cour de Cassationalso stated that a clause giving one party similar rights is one-sided and therefore ineffective under French law.

Indeed, there is little guidance on optional arbitration clauses in many other jurisdictions, with uncertainty persisting as to their enforceability in numerous key jurisdictions. As a result, when inserting optional jurisdiction clauses, consideration should also be given to where enforcement of an arbitral award may be sought. This is because although the optional jurisdiction clause may be valid under the governing law of the contract, if it is not valid where enforcement of an arbitral award is sought, enforcement may be challenged on the grounds that there was no valid arbitration agreement. 


There are a number of factors to consider when choosing litigation, arbitration or an optional arbitration clause in a financial contract, with no single option being universally suitable. However, with developments in arbitration and increased activities in emerging markets, arbitration can provide an effective and efficient means of dispute resolution.

The recent publication by ISDA of arbitration clauses for Master Agreements will lead to more awareness of arbitration in the financial sector, and there is a real opportunity for arbitration to prove itself as a viable process for derivatives contractsand the wider financial sector.


Guy Pendell and Omar Qureshi are partners, and Kushal Gandhi is an associate, at CMS London. Mr Pendell can be contacted on +44 (0)20 7367 2404 or by email: Mr Qureshi can be contacted on +44 (0)20 7367 2573 or by email: Mr Gandhi can be contacted on +44 (0)20 7367 2664 or by email:

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Guy Pendell, Omar Qureshi and Kushal Gandhi

CMS London

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