Parties' ability to choose their arbitrators remains one of the most frequently mentioned advantages of arbitration over litigation. However, this freedom makes sense only if it preserves the overarching duties of arbitrators and judges alike – that is, the duty to be and remain independent and impartial from the parties.
The Paris Court of Appeal recently set aside an award on the grounds of a violation of the principle of equality of arms. The court had to rule on the Iraq war's impact on due process in arbitral proceedings between the Republic of Iraq and two German companies. This decision comes as a reminder that arbitration is a jurisdictional process where parties and arbitrators, while enjoying considerable freedom and flexibility, should be mindful of due process and fair trial guarantees.
The French courts recently supported the rigorous application of the principle of procedural estoppel and reiterated their commitment to the enforcement of agreements that govern arbitral proceedings. The principle prevents parties from relying on alleged irregularities that affect arbitration proceedings before the French courts if the requesting party has not initially raised them before the arbitral tribunal.
A recent Supreme Court decision confirms French law's strict approach in matters involving arbitrators' independence and impartiality. The court found that despite an arbitrator's previous disclosure that his firm had had an inactive relationship with the parent company of one of the parties to the arbitration, his later failure to disclose that this relationship had resumed created reasonable doubt as to his independence and impartiality.
The jurisdictional duality which characterises the French legal system triggers practical difficulties in international arbitrations, especially when they involve the recognition and enforcement in France of arbitral awards relating to issues of French administrative law. The Cour de Cassation recently decided on this issue, holding that civil courts have jurisdiction to rule on the recognition and enforcement of any foreign arbitral award.