Access to Justice for Developing Countries: Third Party Funding for Sovereigns in WTO Disputes

Guest Post by Mauritius Nagelmueller

Access to justice remains one of the prevailing issues within the WTO Dispute Settlement Body (DSB), especially for developing countries. To enforce the promise of a fairer trading system, developing country participation in the DSB must be improved, given that relationships between WTO members are predicated on power dynamics, rather than adherence to the rule of law.

Third party funding has provided access to justice for claimants with meritorious claims, but with limited financial capacity in the private sector, as well as in investor-state disputes. The industry is also capable of leveling the playing field in the DSB, as it can be utilized by developing countries to finance a WTO dispute.

An expansion of the current third party funding business model to include financing sovereigns in WTO disputes would create a win-win situation, by allowing developing countries to bring claims which they otherwise could not afford, and by granting third party funders the opportunity to adopt a more neutral stance towards sovereigns by providing their services in support, rather than in mere contention (as is the case today). And demand is significant, given that most obstacles to developing country participation in the DSB are related to costs, such as high-priced experts that must be brought on to account for a lack of expertise, the fear of economic pressure from the opposing state, and the lengthy proceedings which often place a strain on a developing country’s resources (member states estimate a time frame of 15 months from the request for consultations to the report of the Appellate Body. A period of at least 6 to 14 months should be added to this, as a reasonable period for the implementation of recommendations. Although this time frame is short in comparison to other international procedures, the financial hardship for developing countries can be fatal). The costs of initiating a dispute of medium complexity in the WTO are in the region of $500,000, however legal fees can sometimes exceed $10,000,000. In many cases, developing countries are forced to rely on the financial support of local industries affected by the dispute.

This begs the question, why hasn’t there been an influx of third party funders into WTO dispute resolution?

There are two chief concerns which seem to keep funders shying away. The first involves the typical remedies in WTO disputes, which regularly circumvent a direct financial compensation that the funder could benefit from. Still, complainants seek monetary benefits, be it through concessions (the losing country compensates the winning country with additional concessions equal to the original breach), or retaliation (the winning country withdraws concessions in that amount). A simple solution to this issue is for the winning party to provide a share of those benefits to the funder. One possibility is to assess the level of harm caused by the illegal measure challenged in the dispute, and accept that as a basis for the compensation of the funder. If the WTO Panel decisions are implemented, and the disputed measures that were found to be inconsistent with the WTO are withdrawn, a certain value of trade is not affected by those measures anymore and can be realized again. Affected industries, or the affected country, can set aside part of the gain to compensate the funder. In the case of compensation or the suspension of concessions, the complainant gains from increased tariff revenue, and is able to compensate the financing entity from a portion of the same. In any event, financial benefits of a winning party can be measured, and any compensation for the funder will represent only a minor percentage of the gained value of trade.

The second main concern surrounds the area of enforceability, and whether WTO mechanisms would allow financing agreements. But those would have to be enforced in local courts, and the WTO DSB technically cannot rule on non-WTO agreement issues. However, there are provisions that allow the DSB to engage in arbitration if the parties both agree. A practical solution would therefore be to include an arbitration or dispute settlement provision in the financing agreement that operates outside of the DSB.

Based on the aforementioned demand, as well as the practical solutions which can mitigate possible concerns, it is clear that external funding of WTO disputes can provide a flexible, independent and powerful alternative for developing countries to increase access to justice, as well as for developed countries to “outsource the risk” of a WTO dispute.

It’s only a matter of time before third party funding makes its way into the WTO.

** A version of this article first appeared in International Economic Law and Policy Blog

Mauritius Nagelmueller is an associate at Fulbrook Capital Management in New York. He has been involved in the litigation finance industry for more than 10 years.

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