Bulgaria has traditionally been an arbitration-friendly jurisdiction, both for domestic and international disputes. Arbitration as a means of dispute resolution was implemented in Bulgaria at the end of the 19th century with the first Civil Procedure Act (1892). In the first half of the 20th century, arbitration was widely used to resolve both civil and commercial cases, and the arbitrators had extensive powers, including resolving disputes ex aequo et bono. During the socialist period (1944–1989), arbitration was allowed only in respect of legal disputes between Bulgarian socialist organisations and foreign enterprises or entities. The transition to market economy at the end of the 1980s led to considerable development and modernisation of both domestic and international commercial arbitration, which gradually come back as a widely used dispute resolution mechanism.
i National legislation
Arbitration in Bulgaria is regulated mainly by the International Commercial Arbitration Act (ICAA).2 Adopted back in 1988, the ICAA is largely based on the UNCITRAL Model Law on International Commercial Arbitration (1985), thus rendering Bulgaria one of the first Model Law jurisdictions. The 2006 amendments to the UNCITRAL Model Law have not yet been implemented in Bulgaria.
In addition to the ICAA, provisions of the Civil Procedure Code3 (in respect of the scope of the arbitration agreement, arbitrability and seat of the arbitration) and the Private International Law Code4 (in respect of recognition and enforcement of foreign arbitral awards) are also applicable to arbitration proceedings.
ii International conventions concluded by Bulgaria
Bulgaria is a party to the most significant international conventions in the field of arbitration. In respect of recognition and enforcement, Bulgaria is a party to the Convention on the Recognition and Enforcement of Foreign Arbitral Awards (New York 1958) (the New York Convention)5 and the European Convention on International Commercial Arbitration (Geneva 1961).6
In the field of international investment law, Bulgaria is party to the ICSID Convention7 and the Energy Charter Treaty (ECT).8 Bulgaria has also concluded 71 bilateral investment treaties (BITs),9 including with all major investors' jurisdictions. In respect of investment protection, Bulgaria has been a Member State of the European Union since 1 January 2007 and thus all legal issues arising in respect of the validity of intra-EU BITs would be relevant (see Section III below).
iii The ICAA scope and structure
Despite its name, the ICAA applies to both domestic and international arbitrations having a seat in Bulgaria. An arbitration is deemed international if one or all of the parties to it are seated (for legal entities) or resident (for individuals) outside of Bulgaria. Respectively, an arbitration is domestic when all parties are seated or resident in Bulgaria.
The ICAA is applicable also to arbitrations with a seat outside Bulgaria, but only in respect of (1) the effects of the arbitration agreement (i.e., the duty of state courts to terminate a case if the dispute is subject to arbitration) and (2) the possibility to request interim measures in support of an arbitration seated outside Bulgaria.
Both institutional and ad hoc arbitration are regulated by the ICAA. It applies to private parties, as well as to state or public entities having concluded arbitration agreements. The ICAA follows the Model Law's structure and covers the arbitration agreement, the composition of the arbitral tribunals, its jurisdiction and the compétence-compétence principle, the conduct of the proceedings, the arbitral award and its effects, the set-aside proceedings and the recognition and enforcement of arbitral awards.
iv Arbitrability under Bulgarian law
The conditions of arbitrability under Bulgarian law are primarily addressed in Article 19 of the Civil Procedure Code. The parties to a dispute involving a pecuniary right that is 'disposable' (i.e., a right that parties may dispose of between themselves by way of a settlement), may agree that the dispute be settled by arbitration with the exception of the following disputes:
- disputes in respect of absolute rights over immovable property or possession of immovable property (disputes involving relative contractual rights in respect of immovable property – such as lease agreements, are arbitrable);
- disputes in respect of alimony (financial obligation arising out of divorce);
- employment disputes (disputes under management agreements between companies or shareholders and their directors are arbitrable);
- disputes involving non-pecuniary rights;
- administrative and other public law disputes;
- disputes involving non-transferable personal rights and disputes in relation to personal or marital status and origin;
- civil law disputes that may be initiated by a prosecutor or where the participation of a prosecutor is required;
- some disputes in relation to insolvency proceedings (such as disputes for declaratory judgments establishing the existence of receivables from an insolvent company that have not been accepted in the insolvency proceedings); and
- disputes to which one of the parties is a consumer in the meaning of the Consumer Protection Act.
v Arbitration agreement
The ICAA requires written form for the arbitration agreement.
An arbitration agreement is considered to be in writing when the agreement is contained in a document signed by both parties, in an exchange of letters, faxes, telegrams or other means of telecommunication, or in general terms and conditions to which the parties have referred in their contract. Any of the parties may rise and objection as to the form or existence of an arbitration agreement by the end of the first hearing. If no objection is made it will be considered that there was a valid arbitration agreement.
The ICAA provides that an arbitration agreement may be concluded before a dispute arises or afterwards and could cover both contractual and non-contractual disputes.
Under Bulgarian law the doctrine of separability of the arbitration agreement is fully recognised and the ICAA provides that an arbitration agreement included in a contract is independent of the other terms of the contract. The nullity of the contract does not automatically render the arbitration agreement in it also invalid.
vi Mandatory principles applicable to the arbitral proceedings
Under the ICAA and case law only a very limited number of mandatory procedural provisions could lead to setting aside the arbitral award, such as:
- the parties must be treated equally (according to the principle of equal treatment of the parties);
- each party must be given an equal opportunity to present its case;
- the arbitrators must be impartial and independent;
- the parties must be notified of the arbitration and the hearings; and
- the requirements for the form and the requisites of arbitral awards provided for in the ICAA should be met (i.e., written form of the award, motives, signatures of the arbitrators).
vii Intervention by state courts
The ICAA strictly limits the possibility of intervention by state courts in arbitration proceedings only:
- if a dispute, subject to arbitration, is referred to a state court and no party objects to the state court proceedings by the reply to the statement of claim;
- to impose interim or conservatory measures (such as freezing of assets, collection of evidence, etc.) in support of a future or pending arbitration case;
- there is a challenge to arbitrators;
- there is need to assist the parties or an arbitral tribunal to collect evidence;
- in set-aside proceedings;
- in proceedings for the issuance of a writ of enforcement for an arbitral award rendered in arbitration seated in Bulgaria; and
- in proceedings for the recognition and enforcement of foreign arbitral awards.
Requests for interim measures or collection of evidence may be made before any competent Bulgarian court and the Civil Procedure Code will apply.
In respect of issuance of writs of enforcement on the basis of arbitral awards rendered in arbitrations seated in Bulgaria, the competent court would be the respective district court at the place of residence of the debtor. The procedure is conducted ex parte and is relatively quick and efficient.
Set-aside proceedings against an arbitral award rendered in Bulgaria may be initiated before the Bulgarian Supreme Court of Cassation within three months of the serving of the arbitration award to the respective party. The filing of a set-aside request does not stop the enforceability of the respective arbitral award unless a specific order in this respect is made by the Supreme Court of Cassation and the requesting party establishes a security for the whole amount of the award. The judgment of the Supreme Court of Cassation on the set-aside request is not subject to appeals.
Requests for Recognition and Enforcement of foreign arbitral awards are to be brought before the Sofia City Court. Such requests follow the standard claim procedure and the first instance judgments are subject to appeals before the Sofia Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court of Cassation.
viii Local arbitration institutions
In Bulgaria more than 40 arbitral institutions are active. This considerable number is due to the possibility until 2017 to include arbitration agreements in consumer contracts. This lead to proliferation of institutions specialised in consumer disputes – such as disputes arising out of utilities contracts (electricity distribution, heating, mobile phones, water supply etc.), consumer finance contracts. Some of these institutions administered several thousand cases per year with, however, low individual value.
As to commercial disputes, there are three major national arbitration institutions.
The oldest and most prominent Bulgarian arbitral institution is the Arbitration Court (AC) at the Bulgarian Chamber of Commerce and Industry (BCCI),10 which recently marked its 120th anniversary. The AC at the BCCI has considerable experience in dealing with domestic and international commercial disputes in number of sectors, such as sale of goods, construction, electricity trade and distribution, leases, loan agreements, agriculture, public procurement, IT sector, etc. It has a permanent secretariat with specialised staff and hearing facilities in Sofia. The AC at the BCCI Rules of Arbitration,11 the tariff of arbitration fees and costs,12 the recommended arbitration clause13 and other documents are available in different languages and the institution has considerable experience in administering disputes in English, Russian and German. The AC at the BCCI implemented an online document management system, allowing the parties to proceedings to have full access to all documents in the proceedings (all parties' submission, orders or awards by the tribunal, correspondence and delivery receipts, transcript from hearings, etc.) via secure access on the website of the AC at the BCCI. The AC at the BCCI is by far the busiest arbitral institution in Bulgaria, for example, in 2017 it registered approximately 300 domestic and 50 international new arbitration cases. In addition to institutional arbitration, the AC at the BCCI may act as appointing authority, provide administrative support to ad hoc arbitrations and provide mediation services.
Other major Bulgarian arbitral institutions are the Arbitration Court at the Bulgarian Industrial Association,14 the recently established KRIB Court of Arbitration15 and the Arbitration Court at the Bulgarian-German Chamber of Commerce.16
ix Trends or statistics relating to arbitration
Since 1990 arbitration in Bulgaria has been widely used both by local companies and international businesses. A considerable number of commercial contracts provide for arbitration and such disputes are very common. Arbitration is the most commonly used means to resolve commercial disputes in business transactions with an international element.
The exact proportion of disputes settled through arbitration is unknown due to the lack of official statistics published by the various arbitration institutions in the country.
Regarding foreign arbitral institutions, Bulgarian parties most often opt for ICC, VIAC, SCC or LCIA arbitration.
II THE YEAR IN REVIEW
i Developments affecting international arbitration
The most important legislative development in the field of arbitration in Bulgaria in recent years is the amendment to the Civil Procedure Code and the ICAA of 2017 (the 2017 amendments).17 They were initiated by the Ombudsman with the aim of enhancing the rights of consumers.
Consumer disputes not arbitrable
The first major development introduced by the 2017 amendments was the prohibition of arbitration of consumer disputes. This was achieved by extending the scope of Article 19 of the Civil Procedure Code18 – the legislator added all disputes involving consumers to the list of disputes that are not arbitrable. Under Bulgarian law, a 'consumer' is considered any natural person who acquires products or uses services for purposes that do not fall within his or her commercial or professional activity, and any natural person who acts outside his or her commercial or professional capacity. Thus, arbitration is no more available in respect of most of the contracts entered into by physical persons, such as utilities contracts (water, electricity, gas, heating, waste), telecom contracts, consumer finance contracts, purchase of goods by consumers, travel packs etc.
In order to ensure the effectiveness of the new provision, the new legislation also provides that:
- arbitration clauses in consumer contracts are null and void;
- arbitral awards rendered in disputes that are not arbitrable shall be considered as null and void;
- an express provision has been adopted obliging district courts to refuse issuance of writs of enforcement of arbitral awards that are rendered in disputes that are not arbitrable; and
- arbitrators who render arbitral awards involving a consumer may be subject to financial sanctions amounting to up to 2,500 leva and the arbitration institution could be fined up to 5,000 leva.
Control over arbitral institutions
Another major development is the introduction for the first time in Bulgarian law of a mechanism for control over arbitration institutions for compliance of their practices with the ICAA. Such control is exercised by an Inspectorate with the Ministry of Justice. The inspectorate may initiate an inspection ex officio by way of decision by the Minister of Justice or upon complaint by interested parties. During an inspection the arbitral institution shall ensure access to its premises and archives. Following the inspection, the inspectors may issue mandatory recommendations to the arbitral institution, where the non-compliance may lead to fines amounting to up to 2,500 leva. Obviously, this mechanism applies exclusively to arbitral institutions seated in Bulgaria. Notwithstanding that at first sight it may seem a threat to the independence of arbitral institutions, the mechanism is intended primarily to ensure the compliance with the provisions protecting consumers and until now it has not been enforced in practice.
Minimum conditions for appointing arbitrators
The 2017 amendments introduced for the first time in Bulgarian law conditions to be met by arbitrators. Under the new Article 11(3) of the ICAA, as arbitrator may be appointed any natural person who (1) has not been convicted of a premeditated crime, (2) holds a university degree (3) has at least eight years of professional experience and (4) has high integrity. Similar conditions existed under some of the institutional arbitration rules, but were not provided in the ICAA. This requirement should be considered also when appointing arbitrators for arbitrations with a seat in Bulgaria under foreign arbitration rules (for instance in case of an ICC arbitration seated in Bulgaria).
Obligation to ensure online access to the case file
Following the 2017 amendments the parties in arbitration proceedings should have online access to the case file. Although such options existed for arbitration at the AC at the BCCI for a long time, applying this condition could create some practical issues in respect of ad hoc arbitration or arbitrations administered by other institutions.
Breach of public policy no more ground for set aside
Perhaps the most unexpected change introduced by the 2017 amendments was the reduction of the grounds for setting aside an arbitral award. The Bulgarian legislator deleted item 3 of Article 47(1) of the ICAA, which provided that a breach of public policy is a ground for setting aside an arbitral award.
Since the adoption of the ICAA in 1988, breach of public policy was one of the grounds for setting aside, as it is also under Article 34(2)(b)(ii) of the Model Law. The provision was widely used by the Supreme Court of Cassation and recognised by legal doctrine.
This amendment was unexpected, as it was not discussed by doctrine and was not related to the main purpose of the 2017 amendments (i.e., to enhance the protection of consumers) but on the contrary seems to reduce the possibility for state courts to control arbitral awards.
Deleting the breach of public policy as a ground for setting aside immediately produced effects – the Supreme Court of Cassation extended the scope of other grounds for setting aside in order to prevent arbitral awards from producing unacceptable results.19
The 2017 amendments did not affect the application of the public policy grounds in matters of recognition and enforcement of foreign arbitral awards, which is governed by the New York Convention or the Bulgarian Private International Law Code (if the NYC is not applicable).
Amendments in the BCCI Rules of Arbitration
In 2017 entered into force some minor amendments to the AC at the BCCI Rules of Arbitration. They imply, among others, provisions clarifying the rules on the constitution of the arbitral tribunal, rules in respect of registration and conservation of the originals of arbitral awards, modalities for serving the arbitral award to the parties and a provision allowing the publication of anonymised parts of arbitral awards upon a decision by the Chairman.
ii Arbitration developments in local courts
In recent years, Bulgarian courts published a number of judgments with importance for various aspects of arbitration. The following are of particular interest.
Ruling No. 468 of 14 August 2017 under private commercial case No. 596/2017 of the Supreme Court of Cassation, Second Commercial Division
Under Article 19(2) of the Bulgarian Civil Procedure Code,20 the seat of an arbitration may be abroad if at least one of the parties to the arbitration agreement has its seat abroad. Although disputed in the doctrine, this provision remains in force and prevents Bulgarian parties from referring their dispute to arbitration seated outside Bulgaria. This is particularly relevant for
Bulgarian subsidiaries of foreign companies, which are thus obliged, when dealing with Bulgarian companies, to agree exclusively to arbitration seated in Bulgaria.
By Ruling No. 468 of 14.08.2017 the Supreme Court of Cassation has confirmed the most conservative view – an arbitration agreement providing for arbitration seated outside Bulgaria, in a contract between two Bulgarian parties, is null and void.
As a consequence, such agreements should not have the effect of obliging Bulgarian state courts from stopping proceedings initiated in breach of such arbitration agreement.
Judgment No. 833 of 11 April 2017 under commercial case No. 868/2017 of Sofia Court of Appeals, Commercial Division
Notwithstanding the provision of Article 19 (2) of the Civil Procedure Code and the Ruling of the Supreme Court of Cassation, discussed above, the Sofia Court of Appeals and the Sofia City Court had the occasion to clarify what would be the effects of an award, rendered on the basis of an arbitration agreement in breach of this provision.
In its judgment No. 833 of 11 April 2017, the Sofia Court of Appeals confirmed a first instance judgment of Sofia City Court which granted recognition and enforcement of and arbitral award rendered in an arbitration between two Bulgarian parties, but seated abroad. In particular, both courts considered that although Article 19(2) of the Civil Procedure Code is an imperative provision (i.e., it could not be derogated from by agreement of the parties) its breach does not amount to a breach of Bulgarian public policy. In this respect, the recognition and enforcement of the arbitral award would not qualify under Article V(2)(b) of the New York Convention and shall be recognised and enforced in Bulgaria.
This judgment illustrates the strict approach of Bulgarian courts towards the construction of the scope of the public policy under the New York Convention and confirms their pro-arbitration approach.
Ruling No. 30 of 5 January 2017 under private commercial case No. 5182/2016 of the Sofia Court of Appeals, Commercial Division
This ruling considers again the disputable provision of Article 19(2) of the Bulgarian Civil Procedure Code, however, in the context of choosing the rules of arbitration of a foreign institution for an arbitration seated in Bulgaria.
The parties to the dispute agreed that the disputes would be resolved by ICC arbitration with a seat in Sofia, Bulgaria. One of the parties objected to the issuance of a writ of enforcement on the ground that the choice of ICC arbitration, notwithstanding the seat in Bulgaria, amounted to a breach of Article (2) of the Civil Procedure Code.
In its ruling the Sofia Court of Appeals rejected all such arguments and made a clear distinction between applicable arbitration rules (in the present case – the ICC Rules), arbitration institution (the ICC in Paris) and seat of arbitration (Sofia, Bulgaria). It firmly and unambiguously confirmed that an arbitration seated in Bulgaria but subject to foreign rules and administered by a foreign institution complies with the provision of Article 19(2) even if both parties are Bulgarian.
In practice, this ruling confirms the possibility for Bulgarian parties to conclude arbitration agreements under foreign rules and administered by foreign institutions, provided that the seat is in Bulgaria.
ii Investor–state disputes
Bulgaria is currently involved in a number of investment arbitrations. At present there is public information available about five pending ICSID cases, but there are indications that the state is a respondent in at least one further confidential investment arbitration.
EVN AG v. Republic of Bulgaria (ICSID Case No. ARB/13/17)
This case was initiated by the Austrian utility company EVN on the basis of the Austria–Bulgaria BIT and the ECT. The dispute arose after regulatory changes in the electricity sector were initiated in 2012. Although its main objective was to reduce the burden of renewable energy sources generation on the electricity system, it had considerable adverse effects on electricity distribution and supply companies.
The case is still pending and an award is expected by the end of 2018.
Energo-Pro a.s. v. Republic of Bulgaria (ICSID Case No. ARB/15/19)
The case was initiated following a dispute similar to the EVN case. The claim is based on the Czech Republic–Bulgaria BIT and the ECT.
The arbitral tribunal has been constituted and the case is still pending at an initial stage.
State General Reserve Fund of the Sultanate of Oman v. Republic of Bulgaria (ICSID Case No. ARB/15/43)
This claim, based on the Bulgaria–Oman BIT of 2007, has been initiated following the collapse of the fourth-largest Bulgarian bank – the Corporate Commercial Bank. The State General Reserve Fund of the Sultanate of Oman was one of the minority shareholders of the bank. It claims that Bulgarian authorities (mainly the Bulgarian National Bank and administrative courts) have prevented the fund from implementing rescue measures in respect of its investment, and thus breached several investment protection standards. After the initial difficulties of the bank, it not only faced considerable losses, but was also denied the right to appeal in justice the decision of the Bulgarian National Bank to impose an administrator on the bank.
The arbitral tribunal has been constituted, but the case is still pending at an initial stage.
ČEZ, a.s. v. Republic of Bulgaria (ICSID Case No. ARB/16/24)
The case was initiated following a dispute similar to the EVN and Energo-Pro cases above. The claim is based on the Czech Republic–Bulgaria BIT and the ECT.
The arbitral tribunal has been constituted and the case is at an initial stage.
ACF Renewable Energy Limited v. Republic of Bulgaria (ICSID Case No. ARB/18/1)
This case was initiated in 2018 on the basis of the ECT. The investor owns and operates a photovoltaic power plant in Bulgaria. The dispute arose out of the changes in the regulatory framework in the electricity sector that began in 2012 and continued until 2018.
As of 17 April 2018 no arbitral tribunal has been constituted.
III OUTLOOK AND CONCLUSIONS
Arbitration remains a widely used and reliable venue for dispute resolution in Bulgaria. The jurisdiction is arbitration-friendly and the local legislative framework and court practice are predictable in respect of arbitration. 2017 and 2018 have been successful years in this respect and confirmed the previous trend.
In respect of commercial arbitration, the limitation of consumer disputes, although limiting the number of cases, may have positive effects in terms of credibility and integrity of arbitration. Lower fees of arbitration compared with state courts, a faster arbitration process and the considerable workload of state courts, which often impedes judges from going into the details of a dispute, are favourable conditions for commercial arbitration to expand in Bulgaria across sectors, including electricity and gas trade, construction and FIDIC disputes, and possibly post-M&A disputes.
Investment arbitration also may experience growth. Although the Achmea case of the CJEU raises a number of questions in respect of intra-EU BITs and related arbitration and could provoke hesitation in some claimants, the recently adopted legislative measures in the energy sector in Bulgaria could generate a considerable number of investment claims. This trend is already noticeable in the Czech Republic, Italy and Spain, and Bulgaria may follow.
1 Anna Rizova-Clegg is a partner and Oleg Temnikov is a senior associate at Wolf Theiss.
2 International Commercial Arbitration Act (Закон за международния търговски арбитраж), Published in State Gazette issue No. 60 5 August 1988, as amended time to time, last amendment published in State Gazette issue No. 8 of 24 January 2017.
3 Civil Procedure Code (Граждански процесуален кодекс), Published in State Gazette issue No. 59 of 20 July 2007, as amended time to time, last amendment published in State Gazette issue No. 102 of 22 December 2017.
4 Private International Law Code (Кодекс на международното частно право), Published in State Gazette No. 42 of 17 May 2005, as amended time to time, last amendment published in State Gazette issue No. 100 of 21 December 2010.
5 Convention on the Recognition and Enforcement of Foreign Arbitral Awards (New York, 1958), signed on 10 October 1961, entered into force on 8 January 1962, published in the State Gazette Issue No. 57/1964. Please note that Bulgaria has made a reciprocity reservation under Article 1 of the New York Convention.
6 European Convention on International Commercial Arbitration (Geneva, 1961), signed on 21 April 1961, entered into force on 13 May 1964, published the State Gazette Issue No. 57/1964.
7 Convention on the Settlement of Investment Disputes between States and Nationals of Other States, Signed on 21 March 2000, entered into force on 12 May 2001.
8 1994 Energy Charter Treaty, signed on 17 December 1994, entered into force on 16 April 1998.
9 For a full up-to-date list, please see UNCTAD's Investment Policy Hub at the following link: http://investmentpolicyhub.unctad.org/IIA/CountryBits/30.
17 Act for amendment and supplementation of the Civil Procedure Code, published in State Gazette issue No. 8/2017.
18 Arbitration Agreement – Article 19.
(1) The parties to a property dispute may agree that the said dispute be settled by an arbitration court, unless the said dispute has as its subject matter any rights in rem or possession of a corporeal immovable, maintenance obligations or rights under an employment relationship, or is a dispute one of the parties to which is a consumer within the meaning of § 13, Item 1 of the Supplementary Provisions of the Consumer Protection Act.
(2) The arbitration may have a seat abroad if one of the party has his, her or its habitual residence, registered office according to the basic instrument thereof or place of the actual management thereof abroad.
19 For instance, Judgment No. 189 of 9 November 2017 under commercial case No. 1675/2017 of the Supreme Court of Cassation, where an arbitral award was set aside on the ground that the award was dealing with matters outside the arbitration agreement, where before the amendments the SCC would probably have used the provision on breach of public policy.
20 Article 19(2) of the Civil Procedure Code: 'The arbitration may have a seat abroad if one of the party has his, her or its habitual residence, registered office according to the basic instrument thereof or place of the actual management thereof abroad.'