John Beechey CBE is a pillar of the Hong Kong arbitration space, and “a very experienced practitioner”, who is accordingly identified as Global Elite Thought Leader in the field.
A partner in Clifford Chance for 25 years and founder of the firm’s international arbitration practice, John assumed the presidency of the ICC International Court of Arbitration in January 2009, serving two terms. His term of office is regarded as one of significant reform, expansion and modernisation of the Court. Since June 2015, he has been in practice as an arbitrator based in Hong Kong and London as a member of Arbitration Chambers. He was appointed CBE for services to international arbitration in 2016.
What do you enjoy most about working in arbitration on an international level?
The sheer variety of the work, the opportunity and the privilege to work with exceptional colleagues and counsel, and the ability to operate across multiple jurisdictions.
What are the main challenges of having such a global practice?
Keeping on top of the diary and being disciplined enough to keep the workload within manageable bounds. I have long been my own practice manager and travel agent - with varying degrees of success.
How has the practice of arbitration evolved since you first began your career?
Dramatically. First, it has become big business on a global scale. The days of a pre-eminent cadre of Western European arbitrators, leavened by some distinguished American jurists, have long gone. The number of practitioners active in the field has grown enormously. That will continue to be the case, particularly in the Far East, in India and, it is to be hoped, in Sub-Saharan Africa. Second, there are elements of arbitration practice and procedure, which have become global common currency. Third, the practice and procedure of arbitration have become increasingly subject to rules, to guidelines and to scrutiny, some of it misconceived or misinformed, wittingly or otherwise. These are challenging but stimulating times!
Are cash flow issues stopping parties from bringing claims?
Judging by the costs submissions that I see on a routine basis, it would appear not.
Has covid-19 had an impact on commercial arbitration? Are parties willing to be flexible in procedure and approach to get cases over the line?
Yes, without a doubt. All bar one of the hearings in my diary from early March of this year to the summer of 2021 have been, or will now be, conducted remotely. The vast majority of parties are content to embrace arbitration by video rather than entertain what will likely be a significant delay before an in-person hearing can be scheduled with any certainty. The Achilles heel of remote hearings is that of time zones rather than connectivity issues. While participants may be willing to attend (and do attend) at often very anti-social hours for a short hearing, that is not sustainable for a hearing of longer duration. It is noteworthy that international disputes referred to arbitration have continued to be heard throughout the pandemic with relatively minimal disruption, while many courts have been obliged to close or to curtail their sittings.
Where in your opinion does the future of international arbitration lie?
Provided it remains astute to be responsive to user demands and to demonstrate an ability to offer cross-border access to neutral tribunals in the quality and integrity of whose decisions the parties and supervising courts or courts of enforcement may have confidence, it will continue to flourish. However, the international arbitration community has to recognise that it cannot be complacent as to its standing. It must be prepared to ensure that the strengths of the process are recognised and understood, and to be robust in defending it.
What do you think will be the greatest challenge faced by the generation of arbitration practitioners behind you?
The management of expectations. The sheer numbers of new entrants in a competitive market means that there will never be enough opportunities for all to gain the essential grounding of practical experience for which there is no substitute. The bar is now set very high; it is not uncommon to find advocates, who are comfortable to plead in two or more languages in addition to their mother tongues, and whose entry ticket into a law firm or barristers chambers is nothing less than a postgraduate degree from a leading university. And aside from all that, there is still that elusive element of luck in being in the right place at the right time.
You have enjoyed an extremely illustrious career so far. Is there anything else that you would like to accomplish that you have not yet achieved?
I’m not done yet! For so long as I enjoy the work, the international network and the pleasure of seeing so many who have worked with me over the years make very successful careers of their own, I aim to continue. There is no particular ‘grand project’ in mind, but I am not averse to challenge and it remains to be seen what might yet materialise.