北京仲裁委员会

疫情下的仲裁开庭:网上还是网下/Can video links in arbitration hearings help in a pandemic?

发布时间: 2020-4-26   供稿人:许捷

因新冠疫情采取的“社交疏离”措施让大量仲裁案件的程序陷入停滞,如何组织开庭成为了当前困扰仲裁参与各方的现实问题。年初至今,“网上开庭”作为一种替代方案,迅速成为业内热议话题之一,并在中国内地不同的仲裁机构已有不少实践创新。本文试从实践出发,分析仲裁中“网上开庭”的实操障碍和顾虑。

技术和习惯障碍

得益于信息化产业的发展,视讯会议的技术在我国已有相当的成熟度,并广泛应用于商业场景之中。仲裁开庭虽不同于商业会议,但这种不同或不会导致难以克服的技术障碍。无论是法律和规则的制约还是信息化技术的制约,都可以通过对具体程序和技术的调整加以克服。仲裁机构、仲裁庭和当事人之间相互配合,可以最大化地发挥仲裁的意思自治特性,灵活采用恰当的网上开庭形式。

例如,《仲裁法》对“仲裁应当开庭进行”的程序要求以及通常在机构仲裁规则中对“开庭地点”的明确规定或许让网上开庭的效力存在不确定的风险。但是,仲裁机构或仲裁庭可以对案件积极管理,促成各方就网上开庭的相关事宜达成一致,例如开庭地点的选择、软件平台的选择、身份确认和证据核对等事项。在北京仲裁委员会/北京国际仲裁中心(北仲)近期一例实践中,各方为了尽快解决争议,创造性地协商引入了公证处参与监督证人作证的开庭环节,以确保证人独立作证和隔离作证。从实现网上开庭的角度看,唯一的“技术障碍”或许只是仲裁机构和仲裁庭对个案的管理能力,即协调各方立场的能力。

更具挑战的障碍或许是如何调整仲裁机构、仲裁员和当事人的工作习惯。传统意义上,仲裁中的开庭“必须有适宜的庭审室,配备附属的休息室或合议室、可以随时现场打印的设备、WIFI覆盖、记录或速录设备等。最好还有能够让证人、专家证人及代理人单独商议的会议室。”网上开庭显然没有这些条件,仲裁参与各方必须调整、适应网上开庭的工作习惯。

关于公平性的顾虑

早在2009年,英国在其治安法院开始推广“视讯法庭试点”,并在2010年进行了全面评估。其评估结果提及“法官认为‘远程’很难树立其威严,与现场开庭相比,被告在网上开庭时漫不经心。”卫报亦就此评论“视讯技术不可避免地降低了人与人之间互动的质量,细微之处难以察觉、不经意间更容易发生信息误解,很难(在裁判者和当事人之间)建立同理心。”虽然治安法院的案件性质与商事案件性质相去甚远,但上述问题或别无二致。这也是英国在2016年雄心勃勃地启动“英国皇家法院和法庭服务改革计划”后,至今在民商事案件中网上开庭迟迟未能取得进展的原因之一。据该改革计划最新的年度报告称“在减少(现场)开庭方面,HMCTS(改革计划)未取得任何进展......”。

无论在哪个法域,现场开庭的互动都可以让各方更敏锐地捕捉言谈举止间的信息。而在网上开庭时,多个画面之间切换查看以及相对“呆滞”的画面会隐藏言谈举止的细微差异。当案件事实的查明主要依赖于证人证言或事实/专家证人的陈述和盘问,且裁判者的判断因此而徘徊时,抹去这些开庭的细微之处是否公平?这仍是没有答案的问题。

商事仲裁如何破题

首先,就北仲实践而言,笔者认为可以从三个方面协助仲裁参与各方减少网上与网下工作习惯的差异,获得更好的网上开庭体验:其一,应有技术人员提供协助,针对硬件和网络环境进行评估、指引、测试;其二,网上开庭所使用的软件平台应具备主副屏切换及屏幕共享功能,主屏用于展示证据内容、笔录或锁定某一方的视频讯号源,副屏始终保持锁定参会各方的视频讯号源;其三,在网上开庭前,仲裁庭应组织各方积极商定具体审理的步骤和流程,并由仲裁机构方(通常为仲裁秘书)据此在软件平台上进行实时管理。尤其在涉及多方多轮的庭审步骤中,各方应事先约定具体参与顺序(和时长,若有必要),并严格执行。

其次,商事仲裁通常源于商业主体之间的合同关系。相较于一般民事或侵权类争议的当事人,商业主体对法律关系的认知以及基于风控合规需要对书面证据的管理都有相当的成熟度。在大量北仲实践中,一旦双方的书面证据能够基本反映事实全貌,仲裁庭或当事人均鲜有动力主动引入证人。若当事人以解决争议为其仲裁目的,网上开庭理应成为更为便利的选择。

综上,如澳大利亚《联邦法院视讯会议指引》第1.7条所述,“便利本身并不足以使当事人的申请(视讯会议)得到(法院)批准......法院必须考虑这(使用视讯会议)是否有助于法院和当事人能够正当、及时、经济和高效地利用司法资源并有助于诉讼程序的推进或解决。”截止本文成稿之际,英国最高法院已搁置争议,全面推进网上开庭的应用。疫情当前,仲裁机构或仲裁庭或应以担当的精神采取合理措施,避免让已陷入争议泥潭的当事人雪上加霜。

作者:北京仲裁委员会/北京国际仲裁中心高级主管许捷。



Can video links in arbitration hearings help in a pandemic?


Many arbitration cases have been paused due to social distancing measures, which are widely regarded as the key to fighting the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. This creates a dilemma for tribunals and parties to decide whether they should start rearranging hearings, or simply wait for an unknown period of time for the measures to be suspended.


Virtual hearings, or so-called online hearings, have become a promising solution for this dilemma, as they have been utilized in many mainland arbitration institutions. This article takes a closer look at the online hearing practice, and provides several tips for its future practice.


NOT GETTING USED TO IT


Almost every Chinese has benefited from the sophisticated tech developments of recent years. The videoconference, for example, is now frequently employed in commercial activities. Although an arbitration hearing is different from a business conference, this difference need not cause any substantial technical difficulty.


Neither the procedural constraints in laws and rules nor the incompatible technology settings really limit the possibilities of online hearings, unless parties give away the advantage of party-autonomy in arbitration. Arbitration institutions, tribunals and parties can always co-operate and work out solutions for online hearings in light of party autonomy.


For example, some argue that a physical hearing is a must in China because the Arbitration Law, and many arbitration rules, explicitly stipulate the place of arbitration hearing and attach significance to it. However, as mentioned above, the arbitration institution and tribunal can always be proactive in case management and co-ordinate the parties’ consent on conducting an online hearing, specifically the matters regarding place of hearing, platform choice, identity confirmation, and evidence verification.


In one recent case of Beijing Arbitration Commission/Beijing International Arbitration Centre (BAC/BIAC), in order to avoid an uncertain prolonging of proceedings, the parties agreed to hire an institution to notarize the witness giving his testimony independently. This creative arrangement took out the possibility of a “hidden coach” and thus mitigated the potential risk associated with giving testimony via video link.


The only technical difficulty in terms of conducting online hearings may lie in the capability of case management, which helps the institutions and tribunals co-or- dinate parties’ positions in disputes.


Nonetheless, how to cope with the established working habits of arbitration users is perhaps a more challenging task for utilizing online hearings. For many users, hearings in arbitration mean a suitable hearing room must be provided, with ancillary breakout rooms and facilities for the parties and the arbitral tribunal. Access to printing facilities and a Wi-Fi connection are invariably essential. A live transcript and verbatim record of the proceedings is often considered essential. Accommodation is also required for witnesses, experts, and the parties’ legal teams.


The online hearing, by contrast, requires nothing in terms of these traditions. It is up to everyone in an arbitration case to decide whether they can adapt their working habits in a timely and reasonable manner.


CONCERNS ABOUT FAIRNESS


As early as 2009, the UK’s magistrate courts launched the Virtual Court Pilot, and in 2010 conducted an outcome evaluation. The assessment indicated that, “Judges thought that the court had more difficulty in imposing its authority ‘remotely’, and perceived that defendants took the process less seriously than they would if they appeared in person.”


The Guardian newspaper also commented: “Virtual technology inevitably degrades the quality of human interaction. Nuances may be undetected, misunderstandings may go unnoticed more easily. Empathy may be lost.”


Although magistrate court cases are different from commercial cases in nature, the online hearing issues may be similar. The same issues, since 2016, have deterred Her Majesty’s Courts & Tribunals Service’s (HMCTS) reform programme from achieving the goal of virtual hearings in civilian and commercial cases across the UK. According to the recent evaluation of HMCTS reform, “On hearing reductions, HMCTS did not record any progress”.


All legal practitioners have been trained to capture the information underlying behaviour and interaction, including eye contact and body language, at a given hearing. In an online hearing, these subtle expressions are simply not available when everyone is checking on more than one image, and the images are usually sleepy eyes staring at the screen.


Whenever the case is to be determined through critical testimony presented by witnesses or fact/expert witnesses, the adjudicator may rely more on the examination and cross-examination. Lacking the above-mentioned nuances, can online hearings in such scenarios still be a fair approach? This question remains unanswered.


SOLUTION IN COMMERCIAL ARBITRATION


On one hand, based on the practice of the BAC/BIAC, three tips are available for better adapting participants’ working habits making online hearings a good choice.


First, a tech personnel is necessary to help with devices, software setups, internet assessment, and operational guidance whenever needed.


Second, the software used for the online hearing should be equipped with the function of separating video screens. It should be switchable from one to another because the main screen needs to present evidence, transcripts or video links of one party. At the same time, the other screens must be maintained with all the parties’ video links.


Third, the arbitral tribunal shall, before the online hearing, facilitate and streamline every step of the hearing.To make sure everyone sticks to these steps, the arbitration institution (usually the institutional case managers) can help monitor and manage the software operation. In particular, where a hearing step involves several rounds of interaction, everyone should agree on the sequence of speaking in advance (and the length of speaking, if necessary). A good sequence of speaking needs to be strictly followed.


On the other hand, commercial arbitration cases normally arise from contractual relationships between commercial entities. Unlike the parties in civil or tort cases, commercial parties normally have a sophisticated mechanism to manage legal risks and preserve documentation for latter use as evidence.


It is true in many BAC/BIAC cases, when the documentation is enough to reflect the facts of the disputes, that neither tribunal nor parties are inclined to introduce witnesses into the case. Therefore, the online hearing is a more convenient option for parties who use arbitration as a way of dispute resolution.


In sum, as stated in article 1.7 of the Guide to Videoconferencing in the Federal Court of Australia, “Convenience alone is not, however, sufficient to justify a party’s request for leave. In every situation where it is proposed to use a video link, the court must consider whether this will provide a just, timely, economic and efficient use of the court’s and the parties’ resources, and aid the progress or resolution of the litigation.”


As the author writes this article, the UK’s supreme court has switched to video conferencing in all cases, yet the above-mentioned question still seems unresolved. The unpredicted length of the COVID-19 pandemic and the dilemma of dispute resolution calls for similar action in arbitration, either by institution or by tribunal, to find a way out for parties in dispute during this extraordinary time.



Terence Xu is a senior manager of Beijing Arbitration Commission/Beijing International Arbitration Centre (BAC/BIAC).


因本合同引起的或与本合同有关的任何争议,均提请北京仲裁委员会/北京国际仲裁中心按照其仲裁规则进行仲裁。仲裁裁决是终局的,对双方均有约束力。
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