Court Grants Removal of Arbitrator in Sierra Fishing Company Case Over Impartiality Concerns

Citation: [2015] EWHC 140 (Comm)
Judgment on


In the case of Sierra Fishing Company & Ors v Farran & Ors [2015] EWHC 140 (Comm), the High Court of Justice in the Queen’s Bench Division, Commercial Court, scrutinized an application for the removal of an arbitrator under Section 24(1)(a) of the Arbitration Act 1996, due to concerns about impartiality, and the potential loss of the right to object under Section 73 of the same Act. The case delivers guidance on the considerations pertinent to arbitral impartiality and participation in arbitral proceedings. This analysis elucidates the key legal principles and facts that shaped the Court’s decision.

Key Facts

The claim arose from a complex background involving business arrangements over a loan agreement and subsequent arbitration proceedings. The crux of the case revolved around the claimants’ contention that circumstances existed giving rise to justifiable doubts regarding the impartiality of the appointed sole arbitrator, Mr Ali Zbeeb. Crucial aspects were his commercial and legal connections with one of the parties, his involvement in drafting agreements linked to the dispute, and his conduct of the arbitration proceedings.

The Court’s analysis centered around the following legal principles:

Apparent Bias and Section 24(1)(a) of the Arbitration Act 1996

Restating the principles from Locobail (UK) Ltd v Bayfield Properties Ltd and Porter v Magill, the Court applied the test for apparent bias: whether a “fair-minded and informed observer” would conclude that a real possibility of bias existed. The Court considered whether the arbitrator’s past connection with a party’s business and familial legal associations would give rise to doubts as to his impartiality.

Involvement in Disputed Agreement

The Court considered whether Mr Zbeeb’s role in advising on and drafting an agreement central to the dispute would compromise his impartiality, particularly because the dispute evolved to concern the arbitrator’s jurisdiction over the said agreement.

Conduct of the Arbitration Proceedings

Mr Zbeeb’s communications and conduct during the arbitration proceedings were scrutinized to assess if they indicated a descent into the arena that might compromise his neutrality.

Section 73 - Loss of Right to Object

The Court evaluated whether the claimants had “taken part” or “continued to take part” in the arbitration without promptly objecting, potentially forfeiting their right to challenge under Section 73 of the Arbitration Act 1996. The principle from cases such as Broda Agro Trading v Toepfer and Rusal v Gill & Duffus was cited, clarifying “taking part” in the context of arbitration proceedings.

IBA Guidelines on Conflicts of Interest in International Arbitration

The IBA Guidelines on Conflicts of Interest in International Arbitration were referenced to illustrate the international arbitral community’s view on situations that may amount to bias or conflicts of interest.


The Court concluded that there were indeed circumstances that raised justifiable doubts regarding Mr Ali Zbeeb’s impartiality as an arbitrator. It was determined that:

  1. Mr Zbeeb’s professional and commercial connections with Dr Farran, a party in the dispute, presented conflicts of interest that warranted his removal.
  2. Mr Zbeeb’s involvement in drafting the agreements at the heart of the dispute became problematic once the arbitration claim included issues concerning those agreements.
  3. His conduct of the arbitration proceedings, especially his communications with the Court and the parties, further eroded his appearance of impartiality.
  4. The claimants had not “taken part” or “continued to take part” in proceedings in a way that would trigger the loss of their right to object under Section 73.

Thus, the application for the removal of Mr Ali Zbeeb was granted.


In Sierra Fishing Company & Ors v Farran & Ors, the Court navigated through intricate circumstances to uphold the tenet that an arbitrator must be impartial and devoid of conflicts of interest. The decision reinforces the significance of an arbitrator’s disclosure duty and affirms that parties have the remedy to challenge the appointment of an arbitrator whose impartiality is plausibly questionable. This case outlines a clear precedent on the interpretation of “taking part” in the arbitration for claimants seeking to reserve their right to object under Section 73, thereby providing a robust illustration of how English courts interpret and apply these principles under the Arbitration Act 1996.