August 4, 2023


In the intricate matrix of cross-border legal risks, Australian enterprises are met with the most acute and perturbing challenges when they encounter situations such as insolvency, litigation, or arbitration with an international facet. However, these situations represent but a minute fraction of the total scenarios. A minuscule number of disputes possess the fortitude to bear the substantial costs and complexities linked with cross-border litigation or arbitration.

It is of note that a significant portion of the bankruptcies and insolvencies befalling the cross-border spectrum predominantly involve small-scale businesses. This is despite the fact that larger enterprises tend to be the predominant actors in the cross-border domain. The harsh realities and hardships of cross-border legal troubles disproportionately impact these smaller businesses, a factor that must not be overlooked when addressing such risks.

Given these conditions, civil remedies, which were once considered a feasible commercial option, increasingly prove to be unrealistic. The practical challenges presented by cross-border litigation have resulted in a situation where these remedies are more of an exception than a rule.

The extant mechanisms devised to tackle such complex cross-border issues exhibit an erratic and limited scope. The sporadic nature and limited efficacy of these mechanisms point towards an urgent need for a comprehensive solution. This deficiency underscores the importance of developing a robust, systematic, and consistent framework that can aid Australian businesses in effectively managing cross-border legal risks and uncertainties, a task which is undeniably significant in today’s globalised economic landscape.

Navigating cross-border legal risk

The navigation of cross-border legal risk is a delicate exercise, requiring careful consideration of a range of strategic options. These strategies often involve nuanced risk management processes tailored to the unique circumstances and risks involved.

Consider an exporter: to circumvent the risk of a buyer’s default, the exporter might transfer payment risk to its bank through the use of documentary credits. This financial instrument effectively shifts the responsibility of payment to a bank, which guarantees payment as long as the exporter meets certain agreed conditions. The intricate mechanics of these instruments offer a form of insurance to the exporter, who is then able to conduct international business with lessened financial anxiety.

Similarly, joint venture arrangements may necessitate an entirely different approach. Here, a carefully crafted agreement could dictate the apportionment of distinct legal risks among the participants. For instance, one joint venture partner might assume the regulatory risks associated with a particular jurisdiction, while the other takes on the operational risks. These contractual understandings provide a foundation for the distribution of liability, allowing each party to focus on its areas of strength and expertise.

The method of foreign law impact mitigation, or “quarantining” of risk, involves designing the company structure in such a way that risk is contained within a particular subsidiary. By segregating business units or processes that are exposed to high levels of foreign legal risk, the company can effectively limit the potential exposure of its overall operations to any detrimental legal consequences. This approach allows a firm to participate in potentially high-risk ventures without exposing the entire organization to these risks, in effect insulating the parent company and its other subsidiaries.

Yet another approach is the pricing of risk, where firms integrate the increased risk into their fees or returns. By doing so, companies essentially pass on the cost of risk management to consumers or partners. This strategy involves the careful analysis of risk profiles and potential financial impacts, balancing them against potential profits, and adjusting prices or returns accordingly. This nuanced dance requires not just a keen understanding of the legal risks involved but also astute business acumen to avoid pricing oneself out of the market.

At times, a firm may decide to accept the risk without seeking any form of recompense or protection. This is typically a calculated business decision, often made when the potential benefits far outweigh the potential losses, or when the costs of risk management strategies exceed the potential risks. This bold move requires a deep understanding of the legal landscape and potential impacts, as well as a willingness to face potentially significant consequences should the risks materialise.

Assessing cross-border legal risk

The assessment of cross-border legal risk, especially within a commercial setting, is frequently grounded in overarching beliefs and assumptions about a foreign country’s legal system. The process often involves more of a reliance on heuristic understanding of a foreign legal landscape than on detailed, comprehensive analysis. Occasionally, this reliance on generalized understanding can inflate fears and lead to overestimation of risks. This emphasizes the need for a balanced approach, blending the heuristic understanding with detailed, specific analysis to avoid overcompensation for perceived risks.

The complexity of cross-border legal risk management is further amplified when one considers the fact that the issues faced by Australian firms differ significantly depending on the countries and industries involved. Legal systems, regulatory environments, and business cultures vary widely from country to country, and what may be a significant risk in one country might be insignificant in another. Therefore, a more nuanced approach, which takes into account these variations, is necessary.

To this end, a country-by-country risk assessment approach is often appropriate. Such an approach involves identifying unique risks for each country within which Australian firms operate, and for each industry within those countries. This level of granularity enables a more targeted and effective risk management strategy, allowing firms to not only understand the risk landscape better but also develop more effective, tailored risk management strategies.

Moreover, the risk profile of an industry can vary widely from one country to another. Factors such as local regulations, cultural attitudes, and economic conditions can impact how businesses in a particular industry operate, and therefore the risks they face. Therefore, not only is it necessary to consider the risk landscape on a country-by-country basis, but also within the specific industry context within each country.

By adopting such a multifaceted approach to cross-border legal risk management, Australian firms can enhance their capacity to navigate this complex landscape. This not only safeguards their interests but also ensures their continued ability to take advantage of the opportunities afforded by engaging in international trade and investment.


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Author Contact

David Cosgrave

Of Counsel

David has worked as general counsel for almost 25 years in industries including finance, healthcare and education, and has extensive experience in court hearings appearing in more than 4,000 matters before the High Court, the Federal Court, the Administrative Appeals Tribunal (AAT), the NSW Supreme Court, amongst others.


We excel in handling arbitration cases, both at home and abroad, and are well-versed in managing complex litigation across different legal systems. We also have a strong track record in construction disputes and corporate matters, including tax issues. Beyond just solving problems, we support navigating legal risks and complex transactions.


We treat each mandate with meticulous analytical rigor, dissecting the unique challenges inherent to each industry. Our capabilities are substantiated by an unimpeachable track record in matters of high stakes and complexity. This blend of intellectual depth and practical experience positions us as the quintessential legal partner for those navigating multifaceted challenges.