Bahraini Supreme Court on the Enforceability of a Foreign Judgment Ordering the Payment of Contingent Fees

I. Introduction

Contingency fee agreements are arrangements whereby lawyers agree with their clients to receive a percentage of the final awarded amount in terms of payment of legal services. Such payment typically depends upon the lawyer winning the case or reaching a settlement. The admissibility of contingency fee agreements varies from one jurisdiction to another, ranging from complete prohibition to acceptance. For example, in the MENA Arab region, jurisdictions such as Bahrain prohibit contingency fee arrangements (see below). However, in other jurisdictions such as Saudi Arabia, contingent fees are not only permitted but also have been described as established practice in the country (cf. Mekkah Court of Appeal, Ruling No. 980/1439 confirming the Ruling of Jeddah Commercial Court No. 676/1439 of 3 Rajab 1439 [20 March 2018] considering that receiving a percentage of the awarded amount that ranges between 15% to 30% as “an established judicial and customary practice among lawyers”).

With respect to the enforcement of foreign judgments, a crucial issue concerns whether a foreign award ordering the payment of contingent fees would be enforced abroad. In a country where contingent fees contracts are prohibited, the presence of such elements in foreign judgments is likely to affect their enforceability due to public policy considerations. The Bahraini Supreme Court (hereafter ‘BSC’) addressed this particular issue in what appears to be an unprecedented decision in the MENA region. The Court held that a foreign judgment ordering payment of contingent fees as agreed by the parties is contrary to public policy because contingency fee agreements are forbidden in Bahrain (Supreme Court, Ruling No. 386/2023 of 20 February 2024).


II. Facts

The case concerned an action for the enforcement of a Saudi judgment brought by X (a practicing lawyer in Saudi Arabia) against Y (the appellee, owner of a sole proprietorship, but no further indications as to Y’s nationality, habitual residence or place of business were mentioned in the judgment).

According to the underlying facts as summarized by the Supreme Court, both X and Y agreed that X would represent Y in a case on a fee of 10% of the awarded amount (105,000 USD). As Y failed to pay, X brought an action in Saudi Arabia to obtain a judgment against Y requiring the latter’s sole proprietorship to pay the amount. Later, X sought the enforcement of the Saudi judgment in Bahrain. The first instance court ordered the enforcement of the foreign judgment, but its decision was overturned by the Court of Appeal. There, X filed an appeal to the BSC.

Before the BSC, X argued that the Court of Appeal erred in its decision as it declared the (contingency fee) agreement between the parties null and void on public policy grounds because it violated article 31 of the Bahraini Attorneys Act (qanun al-muhamat), which prohibits such agreements. According to X, the validity of the agreement is irrelevant in casu, as the court’s function was to examine the formal requirements for the enforcement of the Saudi judgment without delving in the merits of the case. Therefore, since the foreign judgment satisfies all the requirements for its enforcement, the refusal by the Court of Appeal to order the enforcement was unjustified.


III. The Ruling  

The BSC rejected the appeal by ruling as follows:

“It stems from the text of the provisions of Articles 1, 2 and 7 of the [1995 GCC Convention on the Enforcement of Foreign Judgments] as ratified by Bahrain in [1996], and the established practice of this Court, that judgments of a GCC Member State rendered in civil, commercial, administrative matters as well as personal status matters that become final [in the State of origin] shall be enforced by the courts and competent judicial authorities of the other GCC Member States in accordance with the procedure set forth in [the] Convention if it was rendered by a court having jurisdiction according to the rules of international jurisdiction of the requested State or according to the provision of the present Convention. [In this respect,] the role of the judicial authority of the requested State shall be limited to examination of whether the [foreign] judgment meets the requirement set forth in the Convention without reviewing the merits of the case. [However,] if it appears that the [foreign] judgment is inconsistent with the rules of Islamic Sharia, the Constitution or the public policy of the requested State, the [requested court] shall refuse to enforce the foreign judgment as a whole or in part.

Public policy is a relative (nisbi) concept that [can be interpreted] restrictively or broadly [as it varies with] time, place and the prevailing customs, and it [is closely linked in terms of] existence or not with public interest. It [public policy] encompasses the fundamental principles that safeguard the political system, conventional social agreements, economic rules and the moral values that underpin the structure of the society as an entity and public interest. [In addition,] although public policy is often embodied in legislative texts, however, it transcends these texts to form an overarching and independent concept. [Thus,] when a legislative text contains a mandatory or prohibitive rule related to those fundamental principles and aims at protecting public interest rather than individual interests, [such a rule] should not be disregarded or violated. [This is because, such a rule is] crucial for preserving the [public] interests associated to it and takes precedence over the individual interests with which it conflicts as it falls naturally within the realm of public policy, whose scope, understanding, boundaries and reach are determined in light of those essential factors of society so that public interest is prioritized and given precedence over the interests of certain individuals.

[This being said,] it is established that the judgment whose enforcement is sought in Bahrain ordered Y to pay X 105,000 USD as [contingent fees], which represent 10% of the amount awarded to Y. [It is also established that] the parties’ [contingency fee] agreement, which was upheld and relied upon [by the foreign court] violates article 31 of the Attorneys Act, which prohibits lawyers from charging fees based on a percentage of the awarded amount. This provision is a mandatory one that cannot be derogated from by agreement, and judgments inconsistent with it cannot be enforced. Consequently, the [contingency fee] agreement upon which the [foreign] judgment to be enforced is based is absolutely void, [rendering] the [foreign] judgment deficient of one of the legally prescribed requirements for its enforcement. This shall not be considered a review of the merits of the case but rather a [fundamental] duty of the judge to examine whether the foreign judgment meets all the requirements for its enforcement.


IV. Comments


1. General remarks

To the best of the author’s knowledge, this is an unprecedented decision not only in Bahrain, but in the MENA region in general. In addition to the crucial issue of public policy (4), the reported case raises a number of interesting questions regarding both the applicable rules for the enforcement of foreign judgments (2) and révision au fond (3). (on the applicable rules in the MENA Arab jurisdictions including Bahrain, see Béligh Elbalti, “Perspectives from the Arab World”, in M. Weller et al. (eds.), The 2019 HCCH Judgments Convention – Cornerstones, Prospects, Outlook (Hart, 2023) 182, 196, 199. On révision au fond, see ibid, 185. On public policy, see ibid, 188-190).


2. The Applicable rules

As the reported case shows, the enforcement of the Saudi judgment was examined on the basis of the 1995 GCC Convention, since both Bahrain and Saudi Arabia are Contracting States to it. However, both countries are also parties to a more general convention, the 1983 Riyadh Convention, which was also applicable (on these conventions with a special focus on 1983 Riyadh Convention, see Elbalti, op. cit., 195-198). This raises a serious issue of conflict of conventions. However, this issue has unfortunately been overlooked by the BSC.

The BSC’s position on this issue is ambiguous because it is not clear why the Court preferred the application of the 1995 GCC Convention over the 1983 Riyadh Convention  knowing that the latter was ratified by both countries in 2000, i.e. after having ratified the former in 1996 (see Elbalti, op. cit. 196)! In any case, since the issue deserves a thorough analysis, it will not be addressed here (on the issue of conflict of conventions in the MENA region, see Elbalti, op. cit., 200-201. See also my previous post here in which the issue was briefly addressed with respect to Egypt).


3. Révision au fond

In the reported case, X argued that the decision to refuse the enforcement of the Saudi judgment on public policy grounds violated of the principle of prohibition of the review of the merits. The BSC rejected this argument.  The question of how to consider whether a foreign judgment is inconsistent with public policy without violating the principle of prohibition of révision au fond is very well known in literature. In this respect, it is generally admitted that borderline should be that the enforcing court should refrain from reviewing the determination of facts and application of law made by the foreign court “as if it were an appellate tribunal reviewing how the “lower court” decided the case” (Peter Hay, Advance Introduction to Private International Law and Procedure (Edward Elgar, 2018) 121). Therefore, it can be said the BSC rightfully rejected X’s argument since its assessment appears to be limited to the examination of whether the judgment, “as rendered [was] offensive” without “reviewing the way the foreign court arrived at its judgment” (cf. Hay, op. cit., 121).


4. Public policy in Bahrain


i. Notion & definition. Under both the statutory regime and international conventions, foreign judgments cannot be enforced if they violate “public policy and good morals” in Bahrain. In the case reported here, the BSC provided a lengthy definition of public policy. To the author’s knowledge, this appears to be the first case in which the BSC has provided a definition of public policy in the context of the enforcement of foreign judgments. This does not mean, however, that the BSC has never invoked public policy to refuse the enforcement of foreign judgments (see, e.g., BSC, Appeal No. 611/2009 of 10 January 2011 in which a Syrian judgment terminating a mother’s custody of her two daughters upon their reaching the age of 15, in application of Syrian law, was held to be contrary to Bahraini public policy). Nor does this mean that the BSC has never defined public policy in general (see, e.g., in the context of choice of law, Béligh Elbalti & Hosam Osama Shabaan, “Bahrain – Bahraini Perspectives on the Hague Principles”, in D. Girsberger et al. (eds.), Choice of Law in International Commercial Contracts – Global Perspectives on the Hague Principles (OUP, 2021) 429 and the cases cited therein).

What is remarkable, however, is that the BSC has consistently used for the definition of public policy in the context of private international law the same elements it uses to define public policy in purely domestic cases. This is particularly clear in the definition adopted by the BSC in the case reported here since it described public policy in terms of “ordinary mandatory rules” that the parties are not allowed to derogate from by agreement. It is worth noting in this regard that the BSC’s holding on public policy appears, in fact, to have been strongly inspired by the definition given by the Qatari Supreme Court in a purely domestic case decided in 2015 (Qatari Supreme Court, Appeal No. 348 of November 17, 2015).

Defining public policy in the way the BSC did is problematic, as it is generally admitted that “domestic public policy” should be distinguished from public policy in the meaning of private international law (or as commonly referred to as “international public policy”). It is therefore regrettable that the BSC did not take into account the different contexts in which public policy operates.


ii. Public policy and mandatory rules. As mentioned above, the BSC associates public policy with “mandatory rules” in Bahrain, even though it recognizes that public policy could “transcend” these rules “to form an overarching and independent concept”. This understanding of public policy is not in line with the widely accepted doctrinal consensus regarding the correlation between public policy and mandatory rules. This doctrinal consensus is reflected in the Explanatory Report of the HCCH 2019 Judgments Convention, which makes it clear that “it is not sufficient for [a state] opposing recognition or enforcement to point to [its] mandatory rule of the law […] that the foreign judgment fails to uphold. Indeed, this mandatory rule may be considered imperative for domestic cases but not for international situations.” (Explanatory Report, p. 120, para. 263. Emphasis added). The Explanatory Report goes on to state that “[t]he public policy defence […] should be triggered only where such a mandatory rule reflects a fundamental value, the violation of which would be manifest if enforcement of the foreign judgment was permitted” (ibid. emphasis added).

The BSC’s holding suggests that it is sufficient that the foreign judgment does not uphold any Bahraini mandatory rule to justify its non-enforcement, without a sufficient showing of how that the mandatory rule in question “reflects a fundamental value, the violation of which would be manifest if enforcement of the foreign judgment was permitted”. By holding as it did, the BSC unduly broadens the scope of public policy in a way that potentially undermines the enforceability of foreign judgments in Bahrain.


iii. Contingency fee arrangements and Bahraini Public Policy.  As noted above (see Introduction), although contingency fee arrangements are prohibited in Bahrain, they are permitted in Saudi Arabia, where they appear to be widely used. From a private international law perspective, the presence of elements in a foreign judgment that are not permitted domestically does not in itself justify refusal of enforcement. In this sense, the non-admissibility of contingent fees in Bahrain should not in itself automatically lead to their being declared against public policy. This is because contingency fee arrangements should not be assessed on the basis of the strict rules applicable in Bahrain, but rather on whether they appear to be manifestly unfair or excessive in a way that violates “fundamental values” in Bahrain. Otherwise, the implications of the BSC’s decision could be overreaching. For example, would Bahraini courts refuse to enforce a foreign judgment if the contingent fees were included as part of the damages awarded by the foreign court? Would it matter if the case has tenuous connection with forum (for example, the case commented here, there are no indication on the connection between Y and Bahrain, see (II) above)? Would the Bahraini courts apply the same solution if they had to consider the validity of the contingent fee agreement under the applicable foreign law? Only subsequent developments would provide answers to these questions.


V. Concluding Remarks

The case reported here illustrates the challenges of public policy as a ground for enforcing foreign judgments not only in Bahrain, but also in the MENA Arab region in general. One of the main problems is that, with a few exceptions, courts in the region generally fail to distinguish between domestic public policy and public policy in the context of private international law (see Elbalti, “Perspectives from the Arab World”, op.cit., 189, 205, and the references cited therein). Moreover, courts often fail to establish the basic requirements for triggering public policy other than the inconsistency with the “fundamental values” of the forum, which are often referred to in abstracto. A correct approach, however, requires that courts make it clear that public policy has an exceptional character, that it has a narrower scope compared to domestic public policy, and that mere inconsistency with ordinary mandatory rules is not sufficient to trigger public policy. More importantly, public policy should also be assessed from the point of view of the impact the foreign judgment would have on the domestic legal order by looking at the concrete effects it would have if its recognition and enforcement were allowed. The impact of the foreign judgment, in this case, would largely depend on the intensity of the connection the case has with the forum.