Philip Morris v Australia award released: Tribunal decides that Philip Morris’ claim constitutes an abuse of rights – Jack Williams

On 16 May 2016 the Permanent Court of Arbitration released a redacted version of the Tribunal’s award on Jurisdiction and Admissibility (“Award”) in the investor-State arbitration dispute between Philip Morris Asia Limited (“Philip Morris”) (part of the Philip Morris group) and the Commonwealth of Australia.

The arbitration concerned the Tobacco Plain Packaging Act 2011, which was passed by the Australian Parliament on 21 November 2011 (and became law following Royal Assent on 1 December 2011). On 21 November 2011 Philip Morris served Australia with a formal Notice of Arbitration that initiated a lengthy international arbitration proceeding over Australia’s tobacco plain packaging laws. On 17 December 2015 the Tribunal issued a unanimous decision in Australia’s favour, but the award could not be released until confidential information was redacted.

In its award the Tribunal held that it was precluded from exercising jurisdiction over the tobacco plain packaging dispute because Philip Morris’ initiation of the arbitration constituted an ‘abuse of rights’. This was so, the Tribunal held, because Philip Morris had restructured its business at a time when there was a reasonable prospect that the dispute would materialise and it did this for the principal, if not sole, purpose of initiating arbitration proceedings against Australia over its tobacco plain packaging laws under the 1993 bilateral investment treaty between Australia and Hong Kong. The Tribunal was unconvinced by Philip Morris’ argument that other business and tax advantages were the principle drivers behind the restructure (Award, paras 582 and 584).

Interestingly, the Tribunal held that the test for whether a corporate restructure will constitute an abuse of rights is if an investor restructures its business to take advantage of treaty protection at a time when a specific dispute is foreseeable. The Tribunal held that ‘a dispute is foreseeable when there is a reasonable prospect…that a measure which may give rise to a treaty claim will materialise’ (Award, para 554). This can be contrasted with another leading award on the abuse of rights doctrine, Pac Rim v El Salvador, where the Tribunal held that an abuse of rights will only be established where restructuring takes place at a time when a specific dispute can be foreseen ‘as a very high probability and not merely as a possible controversy’ (Award, para 554). Accordingly this latest award applies a lower threshold test than that in the Pac Rim award for what constitutes an abusive restructure.

In conclusion this award provides authority for the proposition that multinational companies may restructure their business to take general advantage of potential treaty protections. However, if the corporate restructuring occurs at a time when there is a reasonable prospect that a specific dispute will materialise, the abuse of rights doctrine may preclude the investor from taking advantage of any applicable treaty protections with respect to that specific dispute.

Philip Morris sought to either have the tobacco plain packaging laws withdrawn or not applied to their investments or, in the alternative, to be awarded at least US$4.16 billion in damages from the Australian Government (Award, para 89).

The next and final stage in the proceedings is for the Tribunal to decide on the allocation of costs associated with the arbitration (Award, para 590).

Jack Williams is a Legal Officer at the Australian Attorney-General’s Department and spent three years working on the Australian Government’s legal defence of tobacco plain packaging in the arbitration that is the focus of this article and in the World Trade Organization. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of the Australian Government.