Arbitrable or Not – India at Crossroads

As a rule, arbitral tribunals have been considered capable of adjudicating every civil or commercial dispute, which can be decided by a civil court, subject to: (i) the dispute being covered under the arbitration agreement; (ii) the party/ parties to the dispute referring the same to arbitration and (iii) the disputes being capable of adjudication and settlement by arbitration.

Having said that, the most contentious issue debated on arbitrability has been “subject-matter arbitrability” i.e. whether the disputes are capable of adjudication and settlement by arbitration. Historically, several disputes in India have been considered ‘non-arbitrable’ on the ground that the subject matter of the dispute is not capable of resolution by arbitration under the Indian law. This has largely been in line with the UNCITRAL Model Law, which permits domestic courts to set aside an arbitral award based on “subject-matter arbitrability”, under the domestic law[1].
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Foreign Arbitral Award – The Pro-Enforcement Trend Continues

The courts of this country should not be places where resolution of disputes begins. They should be the places where the disputes end after alternative methods of resolving disputes have been considered and tried.

Sandra Day O’Connor, Former Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States

The law on Arbitration in India is constantly evolving. Arbitration clauses are now the norm that figure in nearly all commercial agreements whether it is domestic in nature or has an international flavour. Over the years, the Arbitration and Conciliation Act, 1996 (Act) has undergone several changes to address various issues arising thereunder. An important aspect of the Act that has seen significant development is enforcement of foreign awards, both through legislative and judicial intervention.
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Avitel v. HSBC: Finality on the Question of Arbitrability when Allegations of Fraud are Raised By Indranil Deshmukh, Vineet Unnikrishnan and Samhita Mehra The Supreme Court in the case of Avitel Post Studioz Limited v. HSBC PI Holdings (Mauritius) Limited (“Avitel Case”) has recently engaged with the question of whether allegations of fraud can be adjudicated in arbitration, or whether they require adjudication before a court. In its judgment, the Court has laid down clear tests to determine when a dispute involving allegation of fraud is arbitrable, and when it would require adjudication before a court. Material Facts In this case, a Share Subscription Agreement (“SSA”) dated April 21, 2011, was entered into between Avitel and HSBC, by way of which HSBC invested USD 60 million in Avitel to acquire 7.80% of its shareholding. The SSA contained a clause providing for arbitration at the Singapore International Arbitration Centre in case of a dispute. An accompany Shareholders’ Agreement (“SHA”) dated May 6, 2011, was also executed, which contained an identical arbitration clause. Thereafter, a dispute arose between the parties. HSBC alleged that the promoters of Avitel, namely, the Jain Family, had induced HSBC to invest in Avitel by making a representation that Avitel was on the verge of finalising a lucrative contract with the British Broadcasting Corporation. HSBC alleged that there was no such contract, and that around USD 51 million from the USD 60 million investment had in fact been siphoned away to other companies owned or controlled by the Jain Family. Arbitral proceedings were initiated, and a final award was passed in favour of HSBC inter alia holding the above allegations to be true (“Award”). The matter reached the Supreme Court in the context of a petition under Section 9 of the Arbitration and Conciliation Act, 1996 (“Act”), filed by HSBC seeking orders of deposit of the full claim amount of USD 60 million to protect the subject matter of the Award, pending enforcement of the same. Issues and Discussion The Supreme Court was asked to consider whether HSBC had a prima facie case for enforcement of the Award in India. Challenging the enforcement of the Award, it was contended on behalf of Avitel that since the allegations of fraud have been made in arbitral proceedings involving serious criminal offences, such as forgery and impersonation, such a dispute is not arbitrable then under Indian law and the award unenforceable, as a consequence. On behalf of HSBC, it was contended that non-arbitrability would be triggered only in cases where serious allegations of fraud would vitiate the arbitration agreement and not in other cases. After taking stock of the jurisprudence on this point thus far, the Court held that “serious allegations of fraud”, leading to non-arbitrability would arise only if either of following two tests were satisfied, and not otherwise. 1. Where the Court finds that the arbitration agreement itself cannot be said to exist being vitiated by fraud; or 2. Where allegations are made against the State or its instrumentalities, relating to arbitrary, fraudulent, or mala fide conduct, giving rise to question of public law as opposed to questions limited to the contractual relationship between the parties. This means that all other cases involving “serious allegations of fraud” i.e. cases that do not meet the above two tests laid down by the Supreme Court, would be arbitrable. Applying the aforesaid test to the facts before it, the Court found that the issues raised and answered in the Award were the subject matter of civil as opposed to criminal proceedings. The fact that a separate criminal proceeding was sought to be initiated by HSBC is of no consequence whatsoever. It was held that the impersonation, false representations and siphoning of funds found to have been committed were all inter parties and had no “public flavour” so as to be non-arbitrable on account of allegations of fraud. As such, the Supreme Court inter alia upheld the orders of deposit of the full claim amount of USD 60 million to be kept aside for the purposes of enforcement of the Award in India. Way Forward The Supreme Court’s judgment in the Avitel Case lends clarity to courts and arbitral tribunals, which should aid in weeding out incessant and creative submissions to “wriggle out” out of arbitration agreements. The two grounds forming exceptions to arbitrability of matters involving serious allegations of fraud as crystallised by the Supreme Court are clearly identifiable and easily discernable. Therefore, the judgment in the Avitel Case is likely to save precious judicial time that may otherwise have been spent in deliberating on the question of arbitrability of a dispute involving allegations of fraud.  

The Supreme Court in the case of Avitel Post Studioz Limited v. HSBC PI Holdings (Mauritius) Limited[1] (“Avitel Case”) has recently engaged with the question of whether allegations of fraud can be adjudicated  in arbitration, or whether they require adjudication before a court. In its judgment, the Court has laid down clear tests to determine when a dispute involving allegation of fraud is arbitrable, and when it would require adjudication before a court.
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The Centrotrade Enforcement Saga Ends on a High Note

The recent judgment of Centrotrade Minerals v. Hindustan Copper[1] had seen two previous rounds of litigation before the Supreme Court finally enforced a foreign award, passed in 2001 after 19 years, in favour of Centrotrade.

Background

The Appellant, Centrotrade, a US company and the Respondent, Hindustan Copper Ltd. (HCL), an Indian company, entered into a contract under which Centrotrade was required to supply 15,500 DMT of copper concentrate to HCL at Kandla Port in India. Centrotrade supplied the concentrate, but disputes arose over the dry weight of the concentrate supplied.

Two-tiered Arbitration

The arbitration agreement in the contract provided for a two-tiered, arbitration: a first arbitration in India, which could be appealed by the unsatisfied party through a second arbitration to be conducted by ICC in London.

Centrotrade invoked arbitration and in 1999 the Indian arbitration rendered a ‘nil award.’ This award was carried in appeal by Centrotrade to an ICC arbitration in London.
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Domestic Arbitration receives booster shot from Supreme Court

  

Recently, the Supreme Court in Quippo Construction Equipment Limited V. Janardan Nirman Private Limited[1] held that if a party to an arbitration agreement chooses not to participate in arbitral proceedings, that party is deemed to have waived the right to raise objections regarding jurisdiction of the arbitral tribunal or the scope of its authority at a later stage. While dealing with objections to a domestic arbitral award, the Supreme Court also had occasion to comment on the perennial seat vs venue debate. In doing so, it inter alia observed that objections with respect to ‘place of arbitration’ may have significance in international commercial arbitrations (where the place of arbitration may determine which curial law would apply), but not so much in domestic arbitrations.
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SC refuses unilateral appointment of single arbitrator

Arbitration is a method of alternate dispute resolution wherein a third party is appointed for adjudication of disputes between the concerned parties. In such a scenario, preserving the sanctity of the judicial process becomes imperative. As arbitration requires adjudication on rights of the parties involved, principles of natural justice play a critical role in avoiding any potential risk of miscarriage of justice. The first principle of natural justice is ‘nemo judex in causa sua’, which means ‘no man can be a judge in his own cause’. This principle intends to avoid any ‘reasonable apprehension of bias’ that may arise during any judicial process.
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Arbitration Agreements in Unstamped Documents

Introduction

There has been constant confusion with respect to admissibility of unstamped documents. Section 35 of the Indian Stamp Act, 1899 (“Stamp Act”), provides that an unstamped or inadequately stamped document is inadmissible in evidence. Applying Section 35 of the Stamp Act, the Supreme Court in Garware Wall Ropes Ltd v. Coastal Marine Construction & Engineering Ltd [1](“Garware Judgement”) held that an arbitration agreement contained in an unstamped contract cannot be taken in evidence and invoked. It was further held that, in case the Court is faced with an unstamped document, it must proceed to impound the same, in accordance with the provisions of the Stamp Act; only once such an impounding is done — the deficit stamp duty and penalty paid, can the Court proceed on the basis of the arbitration agreement.
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Seat Venue Place Order - Supreme Court of India

Last week, the Supreme Court issued its decision in the case of Union of India v. Hardy Exploration and Production (India) Inc[1]. The much-anticipated decision attempts to provide clarity on the venue-seat conundrum in arbitration cases — cases where an arbitration agreement fails to specify the ‘seat’ of an arbitration but does specify a ‘venue’.
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The Law Commission of India’s report of August 2014 on the Indian Arbitration Act mentions that amendments are being suggested to the Arbitration Act to provide a “stable business environment and strong commitment to the rule of law, based on predictable and efficient systems of resolution of disputes.”

Amendments to the Indian Arbitration Act, 1996 were passed by both Houses of Parliament and assented to by the President on December 31, 2015. These amendments apply to all arbitral proceedings commenced on or after October 23, 2015 but parties can agree to even apply these amendments to proceedings commenced before the Amendment Act.


Continue Reading India and International Arbitration: Prospects