By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
The Bahamas must “move very quickly” to fulfill its potential as the Caribbean’s arbitration hub, a leading attorney yesterday warning that ever-increasing competition was already “on our heels”.
Dr Peter Maynard, the former Bahamas Bar Association president, told Tribune Business that this nation could still “outshine” regional rivals, but needed to translate talk and potential into reality through concrete action.
Noting that the likes of the British Virgin Islands (BVI) were aiming to become arbitration “players”, through the recent passage of the necessary legislation, Dr Maynard said the Bahamas now needed to “maximise the platform“ it already possessed.
He expressed hope that the Bahamas would follow Dubai and India in attracting the London Court of International Arbitration (LCIA) to set up a branch here, adding that this would facilitate the creation of a true arbitration centre and “significant” economic impact.
And the former Bar head also urged the local Bahamian business community to “take advantage” of alternative dispute resolution (ADR) and mediation, arguing that too many were missing out on the time and cost savings this offered.
Speaking ahead of the second annual Arbitration and Investment Forum, scheduled for January 23, Dr Maynard told Tribune Business: “I think there’s scope for the Bahamas, if we put our minds to it, to become the arbitration hub of the region - the gateway to Latin America and the Caribbean.
“There are some countries coming very quickly on our heels but I think the Bahamas, if we promote this well, can outshine these jurisdictions.”
Barbados and the Dominican Republic, with the latter’s position bolstered by numerous bilateral investment treaties, lead the Bahamas’ regional arbitration rivals.
Trinidad & Tobago is also in the game, and Dr Maynard noted that the BVI had just passed its own Arbitration Act.
“I think we need to move very quickly, and show we’re able to put our money where our mouth is,” Dr Maynard told this newspaper.
“BVI was not a player before, but now it wants to position itself as a player. This is the time for us to act expeditiously to make this happen.
“It’s hard to put a date, time limit on it, but it doesn’t take rocket science to put the three key requirements in place.”
Dr Maynard listed these as modern arbitration legislation; being a member of the New York Convention, which provides for the automatic enforcement of arbitration awards; and “arbitration friendly judges and courts”.
With the Bahamas having passed a revised Arbitration Act in 2009, and signed on to the New York Convention, Dr Maynard said these two key cornerstones were in place.
And the final ‘building block’ was also within reach, the former Bar president telling Tribune Business that the Chief Justice, Sir Michael Barnett, “wants more mediation and arbitration to happen”.
“The judges here have indicated they are very friendly towards arbitration,” he added, if only because its increasing use will reduce the burden on the Bahamian court system.
The Bahamas, with its well-established common law tradition, US proximity and strategic location, and cadre of local attorneys and associated professionals, has long been viewed as a natural arbitration hub.
These potential strengths are further supported by its financial services and international business sectors, and the world’s third largest shipping registry, further providing the Bahamas with a competitive advantage.
And this nation has also boosted its human capital through having a Chartered Institute of Arbitrators’ (CIArb) branch, which was targeting 200 members by year-end 2013.
“If one does a check list, literally as I have done, how many countries through the region fit these requirements?” Dr Maynard asked.
“There are simply very few, and that puts the Bahamas in a good position to become an arbitration centre.”
Parties to disputes were already increasingly seeking out the Bahamas as a neutral arbitration venue, on an “ad hoc” basis, he added, urging this nation to attract business via an “institutional” system.
Dr Maynard cited the example of dispute between a US investor and Sharia law client, which was arbitrated in the Bahamas, as neither party wanted to go to the other’s country.
He urged the Bahamas to go the full distance and become an arbitration centre, not a seat, as the former would generate more business for Bahamian professionals, plus employ stenographers and a full-time director to attract business.
Apart from attorneys and accountants, Dr Maynard said an arbitration centre would also generate work for other Bahamian professionals - such as engineers, surveyors, architects and contractors - who would be called upon either as experts or witnesses.
“The platform is there, and we’ve just got to make the maximum use of it,” he told Tribune Business.
“The world of arbitration has really grown quite phenomenally over the past several years. It’s really huge....If the Bahamas can offer itself to that market, it will make a very big difference to the economy here.
“It could be very significant. I think we would certainly see some significant growth in the financial sector on the commercial arbitration side through this. I’d like to see us bring it to fruition. It’s happening in an ad hoc way, not systematic. If there’s a methodical approach through a centre to attract these cases, there should be more.”
Dr Maynard expressed hope that the Arbitration Council created by Ryan Pinder, minister of financial services, would act “as a catalyst” to advance the arbitration centre proposal to completion.
He added that the main advantages of ADR/arbitration included timeliness, with parties not having to wait one-two years for cases to go to trial in the court system.
Arbitration clauses often specified how long dispute resolution will take, and Dr Maynard said speedy mediation also reduced costs for the parties as they were “employing fewer professionals for short periods of time, and the clock is not running as long”.
“Arbitration has many advantages and they’re not fully being taken advantage of by the local business community,” he added.
“The benefit is that it’s going to provide an environment more conducive, attractive to doing business if we have disputes resolved very quickly.”
The second annual Arbitration and Investment Forum, which Dr Maynard takes the lead in organising, will feature speakers including Babajide Ogundipe, president of the Lagos Court of Arbitration.
Others are Dame Joan Sawyer; former Court of Appeal president; Mr Pinder; and numerous international attorneys from countries such as the US and Canada.