One compensation for drinking all those strange foreign brews is that interesting projects attract interesting people. Years ago, I was involved in an arbitration relating to a major luxury housing development in Tehran, Iran, which had been abandoned halfway through because of the revolution in 1979. The developers left their English project manager to mothball the site, which he did, with the help of his 18-year-old daughter, who was working as a temporary secretary while on a gap year before university.
One morning, they were met at the site by 15 young revolutionary guards who had orders to shoot them. The project manager, with great sang-froid, invited them into the site hut to discuss this over a cup of Nescafé, a rare treat in Iran at the time. The guards agreed to postpone the execution until after coffee. As they trooped in, the daughter said to them: "In England, when you take coffee in someone's house, it's good manners to leave your guns outside." Meekly, they agreed, coffee was drunk, friendships made and the execution was cancelled. In the arbitration, it was established that the revolution was an act of force majeure and that the developers should be fully compensated.
For lawyers working in the international context, difficulties can arise in relation to the different laws applicable to the project in question. Common law, civil law, religious-based law and a wide range of statutes all form the legal basis of different countries. There are, however, some common threads.
First, in virtually every country, the words used in the written law mean what they say; of course, one needs to find a decent translation. Second, the basic laws of contract are the same in many countries. I agree to paint your house white for £1000; if I do it properly, you must pay me; if I paint it blue, you can recover damages for the cost of painting it white.
One morning, they were met at the site by 15 young revolutionary guards who had orders to shoot them
There was a case about marine works in Yemen where my European contractor client had claims of £4.4m, of which £1.1m had been certified. The contractor's director was asked to go to the client at its offices in Yemen, but on arrival, security guards took away his passport. He was shown into a darkened room, with about six burly men around the edge. He was told that, if he wished to leave the country, he had to sign a "full and final settlement" for a paltry sum – he had no choice but to sign.
When the contractor commenced international arbitration, the "full and final settlement" defence was run. The response was that it had been obtained by duress. Although the Yemeni code was based on Islamic law and couched in archaic and flowery language, it was basically the same as English law on duress. The duress-induced settlement was declared void and the client recovered most of his claims.
Unlike the UK, many countries have their civil laws in written codes. Countries such as Australia are based on the English common law, although their law has developed in somewhat different directions. China has recently introduced a new law of contract whose contents would be immediately familiar to UK lawyers. For instance, there are provisions about mistake, repudiation and frustration. Given the opportunities for investment in China, this enables project-related investors and contractors to have some confidence in Chinese law.
Neither lawyers nor, more importantly, their clients should have too much legal anxiety about working in foreign fields. There may be risks, but impenetrability of local law should not be one of them.
Robert Akenhead QC is a barrister specialising in construction law at Atkin Chambers and joint editor of Building Law Reports