The credibility of any judicial or quasi-judicial proceedings is obviously undermined if there is room for justifiable doubt as to a decision-maker’s impartiality. The High Court made that point in considering – and rejecting – claims that a distinguished lawyer should relinquish his chairmanship of an arbitration panel.
After a dispute arose between a sporting club and a sports governing body, each side appointed one arbitrator. The appointees in turn selected the lawyer to act as the panel’s chairman. The body’s solicitors later disclosed, amongst other things, that they had appointed him as an arbitrator in three previous, unconnected sets of proceedings and that he had provided professional advice to the body on four occasions in the past.
The club argued that those circumstances gave rise to justifiable doubt as to his impartiality and that he should therefore play no further part in the arbitration. After he declined a request to recuse himself, the club launched proceedings under Section 24(1)(a) of the Arbitration Act 1996 seeking an order for his removal.
Dismissing the application, the Court noted that the lawyer accepted that he should have disclosed certain matters prior to his appointment but had inadvertently not done so. However, he was appointed as chairman not by the body but by his two fellow arbitrators. He had no continuing relationship with the body and over two years had elapsed since he last gave it professional advice.
Against the backdrop of his substantial experience and unquestioned reputation, any income he had in the past derived from the body or its solicitors was immaterial. He was to all intents and purposes retired from legal practice and was not looking for any further advisory work from the body or its solicitors. He was winding down his practice as a sports arbitrator. In the circumstances, no fair-minded and informed observer would conclude that there was any possibility of bias on his part.