In Wang Peiji v Wei Zhiyong  HKCFI 2593;  HKEC 3446, the Hong Kong Court of First Instance has set aside an order to enforce a mainland Chinese arbitration award, rejecting arguments that a twelve year limitation period applied because the award had been made under seal.
The Plaintiff, the Defendant and a third party entered into a loan agreement, under which the Defendant and the third party borrowed RMB 22 million. In case of default, the Defendant and the third party would pay interest at 2% per month, and the Defendant's companies would guarantee the repayment. The Defendant, the third party and the Defendant's companies failed to repay the loan, so the Plaintiff commenced arbitration at the Guangzhou Arbitration Commission, which made an award in the Plaintiff's favour on 20 April 2009.
The Plaintiff commenced enforcement proceedings in the Panyu People's Court where it recovered RMB 4,734,019.48, leaving RMB 3,353,496.92 plus interest outstanding under the award. The Plaintiff then commenced enforcement proceedings in Hong Kong to recover the remaining amount. On 14 May 2019 Madam Justice Mimmie Chan granted leave to enforce the award, holding that the Defendant should pay the outstanding sum plus interest. The Defendant appealed.
In setting aside the enforcement order, the court addressed two main issues.
The applicable limitation period
The first issue was the applicable limitation period under the Limitation Ordinance. The Plaintiff argued that the applicable provision was section 4(3) Limitation Ordinance (Cap. 347), which provides a limitation period of twelve years meaning that the Plaintiff was entitled to enforce the award until 20 April 2021. This was based on the fact that the award of the Guangzhou Arbitration Commission was executed under seal. The Defendant argued that the relevant period was six years under section 4(1)(c). The Court ultimately agreed with the Defendant. It rejected the Plaintiff's argument, stating that the relevant consideration is whether the underlying contractual document, not the award, was executed under seal. As there was no suggestion of that in this case, the Court held that the default limitation period of six years applied.
Suspension of the limitation period
In the alternative, the Plaintiff argued that the limitation should be suspended for the period in which the Plaintiff was engaged in enforcement proceedings before the Chinese court. The Plaintiff sought to distinguish CL v SCG  2 HKLRD 144, in which the judge relied on the English case Agromet v Maulden Engineering Ltd  1 WLR 762 to reject the suspension argument. The judge in CL stated that there was no provision in the Limitation Ordinance or the Arbitration Ordinance that the limitation period should not run during the period a party is seeking to enforce an award abroad. The Plaintiff sought to distinguish the case on the basis that, unlike in CL, enforcement efforts in this case went on for considerable time and were successful, meaning that it could not be expected to have ceased its efforts in China.
Despite these arguments, the Court again found in favour of the Defendant. It held that the ruling in CL had been clear, and the fact that the Plaintiff had had more success in China than the plaintiff in CL was not a material difference which distinguished the two cases. The Court therefore allowed the Defendant's application to set aside the enforcement order, and made a costs order in its favour.
The case serves as a reminder to pay close attention to limitation periods. In deciding where to bring enforcement proceedings, parties should consider not only the value of the defendant's assets in a particular jurisdiction, but also the effect that the length of enforcement proceedings could have on their ability to enforce in other jurisdictions. Parties and their legal advisers must consider all relevant factors when assessing where to enforce.
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