Bremer Vulkan Schiffbau und Maschineenfabrik v South India Shipping Coroporation: HL 1981

The parties had referred their dispute to arbitration, but there had been inordinate delay, and the plaintiffs complained that the delay had prejudiced them, and sought an injunction to prevent further contuance of the arbitration, saying that the delay had discharged the arbitration agreement and reference.
Held: A party aggrieved in this way must first make application to the arbitrator. The plaintiff could not rely upon the defendant’s breach to give them the right to treat the agreement as terminated. Lord Scarman said: ‘the object of arbitration is to obtain the fair solution of disputes by an impartial tribunal without unnecessary delay or expense’.
Lord Diplock discussed the source of the jurisdiction to dismiss an action for want of jurisdiction: ‘My Lords, to test the soundness of this analogy in my view calls for a closer legal analysis . . (1) of the respective sources of the jurisdiction of the High Court (a) to dismiss for want of prosecution an action that is pending before it and (b) to prohibit further proceedings in an arbitration pending before a duly qualified arbitrator; and (2) of the differences between action at law and arbitration as ways of resolving disputes between private parties as to their contractual rights.
The High Court’s power to dismiss a pending action for want of prosecution is but an instance of a general power to control its own procedure so as to prevent its being used to achieve injustice. Such a power is inherent in its constitutional function as a court of justice. Every civilised system of government requires that the state should make available to all its citizens a means for the just and peaceful settlement of disputes between them as to their respective legal rights. The means provided are courts of justice to which every citizen has a constitutional right of access in the role of plaintiff to obtain the remedy to which he claims to be entitled in consequence of an alleged breach of his legal or equitable rights by some other citizen, the defendant. Whether or not to avail himself of this right of access to the court lies exclusively within the plaintiff’s choice; if he chooses to do so, the defendant has no option in the matter; his subjection to the jurisdiction of the court is compulsory. So, it would stultify the constitutional role of the High Court as a court of justice if it were not armed with power to prevent its process being misused in such a way as to diminish its capability of arriving at a just decision of the dispute.
The power to dismiss a pending action for want of prosecution in cases where to allow the action to continue would involve a substantial risk that justice could not be done is thus properly described as an ‘inherent power’ the exercise of which is within the ‘inherent jurisdiction’ of the High Court. It would I think be conducive to legal clarity if the use of these two expressions were confined to the doing by the court of acts which it needs must have power to do in order to maintain its character as a court of justice.’


Lord Diplock, Russell of Killowen, Lord Edmund-Davies; Lord Scarman, Lord Fraser of Tullybelton dissenting


[1981] 1 AC 909, [1981] 2 WLR 141, [1981] 2 All ER 289


England and Wales

Cited by:

CitedMcNicholas Plc v AEI Cables Limited TCC 25-May-1999
The claimant had subcontracted to supply cabling on the defendant’s project. The contract provided both for the exclusive jurisdiction of the English courts but also for arbitration. The defendant applied for the action to be stayed and referred to . .
CitedMckie and others v Macrae and Another OHCS 23-Dec-2005
. .
CitedSG and R Valuation Service Co v Boudrais and others QBD 12-May-2008
The claimant sought to require the defendants not to work during their notice period to achieve the equivalent of garden leave despite there being no provision for garden leave in the contracts. It was said that the defendants had conspired together . .
CitedYasain, Regina v CACD 16-Jul-2015
The Court was asked as to the powers of the Court of Appeal Criminal Division to re-open an appeal to correct an error which is said to have caused real injustice in that the error led to the quashing of a sentence lawfully imposed in the Crown . .
Lists of cited by and citing cases may be incomplete.


Updated: 07 May 2022; Ref: scu.238327