December 4, 2019 / 7:53 AM / 11 days ago

Firms move legal battles from protest-hit Hong Kong in fresh setback for business

SINGAPORE/HONG KONG (Reuters) - Safety fears in Hong Kong have prompted firms to shift arbitration hearings out of the Chinese-ruled city, industry sources said, another sign that pro-democracy protests are denting its appeal as an international business hub.

FILE PHOTO: A man walks at the financial central district in Hong Kong, China August 11, 2016. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu

Months of demonstrations against mainland China’s growing influence have pushed the city’s economy into its first recession in a decade, prompted some tycoons to move their wealth offshore, and canceled events such as industry conferences and music festivals.

Lawyers and other legal professionals told Reuters the unrest also risks undermining the city’s position as one of the world’s top centers for arbitration - a process of settling disputes outside the public court system - with cases moving to rival Singapore.

International firms in dispute look for neutral sites with trusted legal systems for arbitration, and the parties involved decide where to hold hearings and which jurisdiction’s rules should be used.

Countries compete to become international arbitration venues not just because it is a multi-billion dollar global industry, but because it bolsters their reputation for being a good place to do business. Singapore and Hong Kong are the two leading arbitration hubs in Asia, and in the top five globally, according to Queen Mary University of London.

Australian mining firm Kingsgate (KCN.AX) said last month it had moved hearings related to a dispute with the Thai government from Hong Kong to Singapore early next year over safety concerns.

Lawyers say at least two other cases have moved their hearings from Hong Kong to Singapore because of the unrest, adding that more could follow.

Maxwell Chambers, the main venue for arbitration meetings in Singapore, said a “few hearings” had moved there from Hong Kong in recent months because of the protests. It did not give details of the cases.

Sarah Grimmer, Secretary General of the Hong Kong International Arbitration Center, declined to comment. But she said the center’s case numbers were at a record high, up 20% from this time last year.

“There are some cases - some hearings - that have shifted just for short-term practical reasons,” said Singapore-based barrister Toby Landau, adding that he knew of two or three cases that had moved from Hong Kong to Singapore.

He said the bigger question was whether parties would choose an arbitration jurisdiction outside Hong Kong “because of a view about long–term instability.”

If Hong Kong laws are chosen as the framework for arbitration - making it the “seat” for the case - its courts will have supervisory powers over the arbitration even if the proceedings are held elsewhere.

Although most of the unrest has been restricted to certain areas in Hong Kong, protests paralyzed broader parts of the city for nearly a week in November, including the central business district.

Reporting by Aradhana Aravindan in Singapore; Additional reporting by Alun John in Hong Kong; Editing by John Geddie and Gerry Doyle

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