A Guide on the Enforceability of Dispute Resolution Clauses in Contracts

7 min read

Dispute resolution clauses in contracts provide a structured approach to conflict resolution, often steering parties away from litigation. These clauses typically include methods like arbitration, mediation, and CEO meetings, offering amicable resolution pathways outside of the jurisdiction of the court. Their enforceability and effectiveness depend on clear and precise language. The case Kajima Construction Europe (UK) Ltd v Children’s Ark Partnership Ltd highlights the judicial interpretation of these clauses, emphasising the need for clarity in drafting to ensure the desired dispute resolution process is followed. Such clauses play a critical role in contract law, offering a practical and cost-effective framework to resolve a dispute. This article discusses dispute resolution clauses in detail, exploring key aspects like their enforceability, validity and breach. We also provide a practical checklist for you to draft a valid dispute resolution clause. 

Table of Contents

Understanding Dispute Resolution Clauses

An enforceable dispute resolution clause is a crucial component of a contract, outlining the commitment of the parties to resolve any disputes through specified processes rather than immediately resorting to litigation. This clause typically mandates participation in non-litigious methods like negotiation, arbitration, or mediation, either as a preliminary step before litigation or as a complete substitute for it. Additionally, it should define the jurisdiction that governs the dispute resolution process. It can also alter the parties’ rights to litigate, for instance, by changing limitation periods or mandating compulsory arbitration. It is imperative to include a dispute resolution clause in the main agreement to avail its advantages.

Options for Dispute Resolution

The clause may require parties to engage in various methods of dispute resolution, such as:

  • Binding Arbitration: Governed by relevant federal or state statutes, this process involves a neutral third party making a decision that is binding on all parties. It typically requires the presence of either an arbitration clause in the main contract or a separate arbitration agreement. 
  • Expert Determination and Neutral Evaluation: Here, an expert or a neutral evaluator assesses the dispute and provides an opinion or decision.
  • CEO Meeting: A meeting between the CEOs or high-ranking officials of the parties involved, aimed at resolving the dispute at a senior level.
  • Mediation and Conciliation: These are facilitative processes where a mediator or conciliator helps the parties reach a mutually acceptable resolution.
  • Negotiation Commitment: The parties commit to making reasonable efforts to resolve the dispute through negotiation.
  • Multi-tiered Dispute Resolution Clauses: A combination of any of the above methods, tailored to the specific needs of the parties and the nature of the dispute.

Incorporating such a clause in a contract can expedite dispute resolution, reduce legal costs, and provide a more amicable and controlled environment for resolving conflicts. It allows the parties to maintain a level of control over the dispute resolution process, which is often lost in litigation.

What makes dispute resolution clauses in contracts enforceable?

The enforceability of a dispute resolution clause in a contract is contingent on several key factors, as discussed below.

Nature and Scope of the Clause

The clause must be sufficiently detailed and specific to be enforceable. It needs to be explicitly mandatory and structured accordingly. A vague or overly broad clause might not provide a clear mechanism for resolution, thus rendering it unenforceable.

Process and Timeline

The clause should outline a clear, structured, and mandatory process for dispute resolution. This includes specifying what happens if parties default or choose not to apply a particular process. Moreover, it should state that engaging in this process is a precondition to any court proceedings. This ensures that parties have a definitive roadmap to follow in case of disputes.

Dispute Resolution Clause in Relation to Contract Termination

The enforceability of a dispute resolution clause post-termination of the contract depends significantly on the contract’s wording. If the contract explicitly states that the dispute resolution provisions survive termination, courts will generally enforce this clause even after the contract has ended. Additionally, if the parties had already commenced the dispute resolution process before termination, they might still be required to comply with it, especially if it’s apparent from the contract terms that the dispute resolution clause is meant to survive termination. This aspect ensures that the mechanism for resolving disputes remains effective even if the contract is no longer in place.

These factors are critical in determining whether a dispute resolution clause will be upheld by courts and are essential considerations when drafting such clauses in contracts. Ensuring clarity, detail, and explicit terms in the dispute resolution clause enhances its enforceability, providing a more robust framework for resolving disputes outside of court.

Breach of Dispute Resolution Clauses – Kajima Construction vs Children’s Ark

The Court of Appeal’s decision in Kajima Construction Europe (UK) Ltd v Children’s Ark Partnership Ltd [2023] EWCA Civ 292 is significant for its interpretation of contractual dispute resolution provisions, particularly those requiring Alternative Dispute Resolution (dispute resolution) before litigation.

Background of the Case

The case involved a hospital redevelopment project. The NHS Trust contracted Children’s Ark Partnership Ltd (CAP), who subcontracted Kajima Construction for the work. The contracts had Dispute Resolution Provisions (DRPs) requiring initial referral of disputes to a Liaison Committee, composed of NHS Trust and CAP representatives. Decisions by the Committee were final unless escalated to the High Court or if there was an attempt to resolve the dispute through dispute resolution mechanism.

Kajima’s lack of representation on the Liaison Committee, responsible for dispute resolution, raised fairness and enforceability concerns. After the project’s completion, fire safety issues similar to those highlighted by the 2017 Grenfell Tower fire were identified. Kajima agreed to remedial works without accepting liability. As the 12-year contractual limitation period was nearing its end, the enforceability of the dispute resolution mechanism and the timing of legal actions became central issues in the legal proceedings.

After the discovery of fire safety concerns and nearing the end of the 12-year contractual limitation period, CAP and Kajima entered multiple standstill agreements. However, when Kajima refused further agreements, CAP initiated legal action and requested a stay until the Liaison Committee was engaged. Kajima sought to strike out the claim, citing a breach of the Dispute Resolution Provisions (DRPs). The High Court held that these DRPs were unenforceable due to uncertainty and opted for a stay over striking out the claim, leading to Kajima’s appeal.

Ruling by the Court of Appeal – Summarising Key Learnings

The Court of Appeal dismissed the appeal, upholding the High Court’s views on the unenforceability of the DRPs and the suitability of a stay of proceedings as a remedy. Below are some noteworthy observations made by the Court:

  • Enforceability of Dispute Resolution Clauses: The Court reaffirmed that to give effect to a dispute resolution clause, it must be clearly defined in the contract. In this case, the dispute resolution process was deemed unworkable and vague, particularly because it was a carryover from a head contract to a subcontract and did not adequately involve all parties.
  • Remedies for Breach of Dispute Resolution Clauses: The Court discussed appropriate remedies when an enforceable dispute resolution clause is breached by initiating litigation prematurely. While a stay of proceedings is common, it’s not automatic; the remedy depends on the case’s specifics. Here, the Court opted for a stay, even though it potentially removed a limitation defense for the defendant.
  • Claimants’ Conduct in Breach: The Court highlighted the significance of a claimant’s conduct. In this case, the claimant’s approach was considered sensible, as they did not ignore the dispute resolution process and were under limitation pressure.

The judgment highlights the court’s discretion in handling cases with similar dispute resolution clause breaches. It underscores the necessity of well-drafted dispute resolution clauses for enforceability in contracts. The case advises claimants to engage in dispute resolution processes and seek limitation standstill agreements when facing imminent limitation deadlines. If this is unfeasible, initiating legal proceedings before the deadline and subsequently requesting a stay for dispute resolution is recommended.

Checklist to Draft a Good Dispute Resolution Clause that is Valid and Enforceable

When drafting a valid and enforceable dispute resolution clause, it’s essential to ensure that it is comprehensive and tailored to the specific needs of the parties involved. Here’s a checklist to guide the drafting process:

  • Clarity and Precision: The clause should clearly cover all aspects of dispute resolution, from the identification of a dispute to how to refer the dispute to the appropriate body to its final resolution.
  • Scope of Disputes or Claims: Specify the types of disputes or claims the clause applies to.
  • Selection of Dispute Resolution Process: Determine the most appropriate dispute resolution process for the kinds of issues you anticipate, such as mediation, arbitration, conciliation, or expert determination.
  • Appointment and Payment of Dispute Resolution Experts: Outline the procedure for appointing the mediator, arbitrator, conciliator, or expert, and who bears the cost.
  • Reflect Parties’ Interests and Circumstances: Ensure the clause is tailored to the parties’ interests, providing a fair and equitable resolution process.
  • Ongoing Contract Performance: Include provisions for the continuation of contract obligations while the dispute resolution process is ongoing.
  • Non-Compliance or Unsuccessful Dispute Resolution: Address the steps to take if the dispute resolution process is not followed or fails to resolve the dispute.
  • Survival of the Clause Post Termination of Contract: State whether the dispute resolution provisions will continue to apply after the contract has ended.
  • Dispute Resolution Expert Procedures: Define the procedures for the dispute resolution expert, including:
    • Issue of the notice of dispute.
    • Information gathering methods.
    • Submission of statements or positions by each party.
    • Timeframes for the expert’s actions.
    • Guidelines or limitations for the expert.
    • Exclusions from the expert’s determination.
    • Requirements for the expert to provide reasons for their decisions.
    • Binding nature of the expert’s decision.
    • Options available if a party disagrees with the expert’s determination.
  • Scope Definition: Be specific about how disputes are defined, with options like:
    • “Any dispute arising out of the contract” (narrower scope).
    • “Any dispute, difference, or question with respect to this agreement” (broader scope).
    • “Any dispute, difference, or question arising out of or in connection with this agreement or its formation” (widest scope).

In defining the scope, consider whether it should encompass only disputes strictly related to the contract, or also include related issues such as pre-contractual misrepresentations, statutory claims, or torts. Tailoring the clause to the specific needs and circumstances of the parties involved is key to creating an effective and enforceable dispute resolution mechanism.

Key Takeaways

Dispute resolution clauses are crucial in contracts for handling conflicts efficiently. Their enforceability hinges on clarity, specificity, and the alignment of the clause with the overall contractual framework. The case of Kajima Construction Europe (UK) Ltd v Children’s Ark Partnership Ltd serves as a reminder of the importance of well-drafted dispute resolution clauses and the potential pitfalls of vague or improperly executed agreements. As legal professionals, we recognise the criticality of these clauses in preserving the interests of all parties and maintaining the sanctity of contractual relationships.

PBL Law Group specialises in creating and enforcing these clauses, tailored to individual needs and legal standards. We provide guidance on drafting and interpreting these clauses to ensure robust and dispute-resistant agreements. Contact us for expert legal advice on contractual matters and dispute resolution.

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Picture of Authored By<br>Raea Khan

Authored By
Raea Khan

Director Lawyer, PBL Law Group

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PBL handled my late mothers estate, they were very obliging and patient with any and all questions that we had, thank you to David , Sharon and the other staff that we dealt with, everyone was so easy to talk to and friendly .David came to the home where my Mother was living and helped her to get her will in order, Sharon helped us through the process of executing her wishes when the time came even doing a house call which was so much easier, thank you all so much
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