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The Cairn Energy v. India Saga: A Case of Retrospective Tax and Sovereign Resistance against Investor State Awards

Fri, 2021-07-02 02:00

In the last decade, fifteen cases have been filed by foreign investors against India under various bilateral investment treaties (BITs).  Of these, three major cases were spurred by the ill-reputed retrospective taxation by India in 2012, allegedly targeted towards certain foreign investors namely: (i) Vodafone International Holdings BV v. The Republic of India (Vodafone case); (ii) Cairn Energy Plc and Cairn UK Holdings Limited v The Republic of India (Cairn case); and (iii) Vedanta Resources Plc v. The Republic of India (Vedanta case).

The most controversial of these was the Cairn case. This followed India’s 2012 decision to retrospectively amend the income tax laws, and its 2015 imposition of a tax liability of USD 1.6 billion on Cairn India Ltd for its failure to deduct withholding tax on alleged capital gains arising during a restructuring transaction in 2006 in the hands of its parent Cairn UK Holdings Ltd (“CUHL”). After Cairn initiated arbitration under the 1994 India – United Kingdom BIT in 2016 (the “BIT”), India seized CUHL’s shares in another entity, seized dividends due to CUHL, and offset a tax refund due to CUHL as a result of overpayment of capital gains tax on a separate matter, to enforce the tax demand.

On December 21, 2020, the international arbitral tribunal (the “Tribunal”) constituted in the Cairn case held that India had failed to uphold its fair and equitable treatment obligations under the BIT and under international law, by imposing the tax liability retrospectively and adopting measures to enforce the liability. The Tribunal ordered India to pay to Cairn USD 1.2 billion in damages for the ‘total harm’ suffered by Cairn as a result of India’s breaches.

However, the post award developments in the case exemplify the arduous battle for a foreign investor to enforce the award against a State. The post will focus on these aspects.

In early 2021, Cairn had reportedly initiated proceedings in courts of the US, UK, France, Netherlands, Quebec and Singapore in order to enforce the award against India. Cairn can initiate proceedings to enforce the award in jurisdictions where India has assets, and which recognise and enforce the award made in Netherlands.


India’s Attempt to Remove Funds from Overseas Banks

In May 2021, the Indian Finance Ministry reportedly issued a guidance to state-run banks to withdraw funds from their nostro accounts. With this alleged instruction, India attempted to remove a key Indian asset type from Cairn’s enforcement kitty. However, on May 23, 2021, the Finance Minister of India denied issuing any such order.


Cairn’s Petition to Attach India’s State-Run Airline in New York

On May 14, 2021, Cairn filed a lawsuit in the United States District Court for the Southern District Of New York against Air India Ltd (“Air India”), requesting a Money Judgment against Air India and to hold Air India jointly and severally liable in pursuance of the pending petition for the enforcement of the award against India.

Cairn’s case is built on the factors laid down by the United States Supreme Court (“US SCt”) in the case of National City Bank v. Banco Para El Comercio Exterior de Cuba (“Bancec”). In Bancec, the US SCt held that a foreign creditor can enforce its judgement against an instrumentality of the sovereign debtor. However, such enforcement against an instrumentality is justified only in exceptional circumstances where such instrumentality is “so extensively controlled by the State that a relationship of principal and agent is created, or giving a separate legal identity to the instrumentality would result in fraud or injustice.

Relying on the Bancec doctrine, Cairn has submitted that the India maintains a high level of economic control over Air India inter alia by providing benefits like direct contribution to capital, loans, and grants or special treatment under the Income Tax Law of India. Furthermore, India also ensures that Air India has smooth access to other sources of funding, such as securing private bank loans etc. Additionally, India is also involved in Air India’s day-to-day operations by having the authority to appoint its managing director, board members, and decide their pay scale. In this light, it should be noted that Air India’s board is also filled by politicians and civil servants who dictate the airline’s daily policy. Finally, India also regulates the fares and routes of the airline, and reviews the performance of the airline.

Further, relying on the exception of fraud and injustice to justify piercing the corporate veil, Cairn argues that a ruling on separate legal status of Air India without looking through at the real controlling entity, i.e. India, would enable India to shield its assets from enforcement of the award, and cause an unjust result.


Challenge to the Award by India

On May 22, 2021, India challenged the award in a Dutch court, reportedly terming the award as “highly flawed”. India contends that the exercise of jurisdiction by the tribunal over a national tax dispute is improper. India argues that the claim is based on the alleged violation of the Indian Income tax laws, which is not covered within the scope of the India – United Kingdom BIT, and that India did not offer or accept the offer to arbitrate a tax dispute. Moreover, India has reportedly made an argument that the award ratifies Cairn’s scheme to avoid paying taxes to any sovereign, which is a matter of significant concern to all the governments worldwide and a matter of public policy.


Piercing the Corporate Veil and Sovereign Immunity

While the challenge to the award is pending, India will be required to resist enforcement proceedings in parallel. Though no codified treaty exists that grants immunity to states in foreign jurisdiction, states usually recognise sovereign immunity under their national laws against enforcement of foreign judgments or arbitral awards. The extent of sovereign immunity differs from one jurisdiction to another, and can be absolute or restrictive. The engagement of the concept of sovereign immunity also involves an analysis of whether the State asset or entity under potential attachment carries out a sovereign or commercial activity.

Reportedly, Cairn’s enforcement kitty includes airlines, shipping corporation vessels, bank accounts, oil and gas fields and cargoes of the Indian state-owned enterprises (“SOEs”). SOEs are generally presumed to be immune from attachment and execution as they are considered to be separate commercial entities. However, if the corporate veil is pierced and the SOE is found to be extensively controlled by the State or to be its alter ego, its assets can be attached towards enforcement of the award. If Cairn is able to satisfy the test of the respective jurisdictions on piercing of corporate veil and defend against sovereign immunity, India may have slim chance of protecting its SOEs from enforcement of the award.


Conclusions: India’s Approach to Foreign Investors

The milestones and growth achieved by India on the FDI landscape in 2020, despite the pandemic, is testament to the attractive investment opportunities available for foreign investors in India.

However, the much discussed cases of Vodafone and Cairn are a stark reminder of limits placed by international law even upon States’ sovereign rights of taxation. States have the sovereign right to tax and to determine whether a transaction is taxable or not. Accordingly, India can defend the exercise of its sovereign right in respect of measures taken to protect its security or taxation authority. However, the manner in which tax is imposed such as where it is employed as a means to target, discriminate, or arbitrarily impose liability on foreign investors – can reasonably be tested under a BIT.

On the FDI disputes front, India is increasingly embroiled in arbitration proceedings initiated by other foreign investors under BITs, and subsequently in post award proceedings including complexities in enforcement of the award. The recent case of Devas Multimedia Private Ltd v. Antrix Corporation, NCLT, Bengaluru Bench, C.P. No. 06/BB/2021 is testament to the multiple complexities that can arise even after a foreign investor or the company receives an award in its favour. In the Antrix case, Devas received a commercial arbitration award, and its investors received several treaty arbitration awards in their favour. However, at the stage of enforcement of the award in India, upon India’s petition, a National Company Law Tribunal has passed an order in late May 2021 to liquidate Devas on the ground that the company was incorporated fraudulently in India.

As India strives to create its reputation as an investment-friendly nation, it is essential for India to make pragmatic decisions with respect to foreign investment and foreign investors, and abide by its sovereign commitments to other nations under international treaties. The way forward is to recognise sovereign powers, but exercise them in a manner that honours international law and practice.

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Counsel Ethics in International Arbitration: The Glass Slipper Still Does Not Fit

Fri, 2021-07-02 01:23

The story of counsel ethics in international arbitration is very much like Cinderella’s fairytale. Once the clock struck midnight, all that remained was her glass slipper. This left the prince to search the kingdom for a maiden with the perfect fit for a “happily ever after”. Counsel ethics in international arbitration similarly involve an ongoing pursuit, with no end in sight. It is necessary to apply the proper law, find the appropriate forum to raise any concerns, and then determine a suitable remedy. This post seeks to tell the story of the various difficulties and challenges when navigating this tricky landscape, as illustrated in a recent case before the Canadian Federal Court (the “Court”) – Geophysical Service Incorporated v. Canada.

In this case, the Court refused to review the decision of the Trade Law Bureau of Global Affairs Canada (“TLB”), which had declined to remove a member of its counsel team representing Canada in a NAFTA arbitration. The Applicants (Claimants in the NAFTA arbitration) alleged that one of TLB’s counsel was conflicted because of prior employment at the Claimant’s third-party funder. The Applicants asserted that said counsel had access to privileged information that could prejudice their position in the NAFTA arbitration since the negotiation of their funding terms took place immediately prior to that counsel joining the TLB. Because the application was one for judicial review, and not a direct challenge of the counsel in question, the Court was able to avoid addressing the alleged conflict of interest by refusing to intervene on jurisdictional grounds. This post highlights the key considerations of the Court and maps out the likely journey of this application before the arbitral tribunal.


Judgment of the Federal Court – The Court Dismisses the Application

Issue 1 – The Court has No Jurisdiction to Review the Contested Decision

The Court conducted a narrow assessment under the Federal Courts Act (“FCA”) and found that the contested decision of the TLB was private in nature, and thus outside of the Court’s jurisdiction for review. Under Article 17(3)(b) of the FCA, the Court may set aside, prohibit or restrain a contested decision of a federal body. The Supreme Court of Canada has recognized the “sweeping” nature of this definition, that includes everything “from the Prime Minister and major boards and agencies to the local border guard and customs official and everybody in between.” Yet, the Court found that this definition did not encompass “any other body that is loosely connected to the Crown”, such as the TLB.

The Court reasoned that the TLB, as a representative of the federal government, acted as any other arbitration counsel. Thus, its decisions regarding the constitution of Canada’s defense team are inherently private and outside of the Federal Court’s purview. In conclusion on this issue, the Court also added that the NAFTA arbitration does not have any public implications, as the Applicants were “claiming damages for the misappropriation of their property”. The court held that the Applicants had other remedies available to ensure the public interest of “conflict-free lawsuits” without identifying any remedy in particular.

The Court analyzed the nature of the contested decision through a very narrow lens that did not encompass the context of the underlying NAFTA arbitration, which could have impacted the final decision. Firstly, the Court characterized the TLB as “loosely connected to the Crown”, despite the fact that it represents the government before international tribunals (in this case, in a NAFTA arbitration). Secondly, the Court denied any public interest in the underlying NAFTA arbitration, focusing on the specific claim of the investor, rather than the broader framework of the case. While investors generally pursue their private interests against host States in investment arbitration, as is widely recognized within the arbitration community (and also by critics of the investor-State dispute settlement system), this does not diminish the public dimension of the proceedings, not least because any adverse award of damages will be paid out of the public budget. Further, should the refusal of the TLB to remove the challenged counsel from Canada’s defense team result in adverse costs in the arbitration, such costs would be borne by the government. Therefore, although this narrow reading of the nature of the underlying issues provided the interpretive framework for the Court’s decision on jurisdiction, it is difficult to square with the full picture of the case.


Issue 2 – The Court Cannot Intervene in Proceedings Under Chapter 11 of NAFTA

On the second issue, the Court relied on Article 5 of the UNCITRAL Model Law to find that the review of the decision in question was outside of the Court’s jurisdiction. The Court went on to state that the Applicant’s request was not a proper interim measure in its nature, and even if it were, the tribunal had the express power to order such measures under Article 17 of the Model Law. However, there may have been avenues which would have allowed the court to consider the request, both under NAFTA and the Model Law itself.

It is well established that parties who agree to arbitrate thereby waive their right to resort to national courts, subject to exceptions stipulated by contract, or provided by law. This is also the case under Articles 1121(1)(b) and 1121(2)(b) of NAFTA that provide exceptions to the exclusive jurisdiction of the arbitral tribunal for “…any proceedings for injunctive, declaratory or other extraordinary relief, not involving payment of damages”. The Application in this case could arguably fall under the express exception provided in these articles, as it did not relate to the merits of the case, nor did it involve the payment of damages.

The UNCITRAL Model Law and the UNCITRAL Rules recognize the competence of courts to issue interim measures in relation to arbitral proceedings, without derogating from the agreement to arbitrate. Therefore, the Court’s power to review the contested decision is not incompatible with the NAFTA tribunal’s jurisdiction.


What Would the Arbitral Tribunal Do?

The decision is not likely to be any easier once this issue is raised before the arbitral tribunal. The main difficulties will relate to the determination of the applicable rules and standards governing such a challenge. The fact that the challenged counsel is a member of the State defense team additionally complicates the already layered issues. Prior investment awards do not provide much guidance in this sense. The few known cases where the tribunal did take up the issue related to allegations of conflicts between the counsel and a member of the arbitral tribunal.

In Hrvatska Elektroprivreda d.d. v. Slovenia and Rompetrol v. Romania the parties requested the removal of counsel due to alleged conflicts of interest with tribunal members. Both tribunals recognized that the ICSID Rules were silent on such matters, and emphasized party autonomy in the context of selecting their representatives. In Hrvatska Elektroprivreda the tribunal deduced the powers to decide on the challenge and removal of counsel from the principle of the “immutability of properly-constituted tribunals”. The tribunal in Rompetrol noted that, when such powers are found to exist, they should be exercised in exceptional cases.

However, such analytical gymnastics would be of little help in the case at hand, as the alleged conflict of interest did not relate to the arbitral tribunal, or the merits of the case, rather the professional relationships of a member of the State defense team.

Finally, and most consequentially, even if the tribunal were to find a conflict of interest on the side of Canada’s counsel, the existing arsenal of remedies does not guarantee the protection of the integrity of the proceedings. The IBA Guidelines on Party Representation provide some examples of possible remedies that tribunals can order in cases of misconduct by party representatives, which include: admonishing the representative, drawing adverse inferences in the evidence or the legal arguments, considering the misconduct when apportioning costs and taking any other appropriate measure in order to preserve the fairness and integrity of the proceedings. None of the suggested measures can resolve alleged conflicts of interest, unless the tribunals find that the alleged conflict would endanger the “integrity of the arbitral proceedings”.


What About the Conflicts of Interest?

The analysis above illustrates the journey of challenges related to alleged conflicts of interest of counsel in international arbitration. With proper standards and rules still out of sight, both national courts and arbitral tribunals will be reluctant to resolve these issues, and where they do, they will find themselves in an ethical “no man’s land”. In the analyzed case, the Applicants sought to resolve the issue through judicial review, as interim relief, only to learn that it was not a good fit under the applicable law. The arbitral tribunal, under the current framework, is not in a much better position, as it lacks investigatory resources and disciplinary authority.

Numerous instruments have been proposed over the years, ranging from universal international rules of ethics to choice-of-law rules and specialized checklists, as discussed in previous contributions to this blog.

Since the “happily ever after” is not yet in sight,  and considering the harmful effects of the persistent uncertainty, it may be time to put the idea of specialized rules aside for a more pragmatic agreement on the proper forum and choice of law rules to apply to issues of counsel conduct in international arbitration. Perhaps it is time to trade in the glass slipper for a more sensible choice that is more likely to fit.

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