Novation Review Not Entertainable under Section 11 Application
In Sanjiv Prakash Vs Seema Kukreja and Ors, Civil Appeal No. 975-976 of 2021, a bench of SC comprising of Justices RF Nariman, BR Gavai and Hrishikesh Roy on 6th April,2021 held that in an appeal again the dismissal of Section 11 application, the question of novation cannot be entertained.
The Court focussed on the core issue and the legality in a Section 11 Application to the effect that
By virtue of the Arbitration and Conciliation (Amendment) Act, 2015 [“2015 Amendment Act”], by which Section 11(6A) was introduced, the earlier position as to the scope of the powers of a court under Section 11, while appointing an arbitrator, are now narrowed to viewing whether an arbitration agreement exists between parties.
The Court went on to refer two decisions which illustrated the scope of the amended Section 11(6) of the Act.
In a gradual evolution of the law on the subject, the judgments in Duro Felguera (supra) and Mayavati Trading (supra) were explained in some detail in a three-Judge Bench decision in Vidya Drolia v. Durga Trading Corporation, (2021) 2 SCC 1 [“Vidya Drolia”].
Empowerment of an Arbitral Tribunal
The most relevant and significant part of the aforesaid decision which airs the jurisdiction of an arbitral Tribunal is reproduced here-in-under:
129. Principles of competence-competence have positive and negative connotations. As a positive implication, the Arbitral Tribunals are declared competent and authorised by law to rule as to their jurisdiction and decide non-arbitrability questions. In case of expressed negative effect, the statute would govern and should be followed. Implied negative effect curtails and constrains interference by the court at the referral stage by necessary implication in order to allow the Arbitral Tribunal to rule as to their jurisdiction and decide non-arbitrability questions. As per the negative effect, courts at the referral stage are not to decide on merits, except when permitted by the legislation either expressly or by necessary implication, such questions of non-arbitrability. Such prioritisation of the Arbitral Tribunal over the courts can be partial and limited when the legislation provides for some or restricted scrutiny at the “first look” referral stage. We would, therefore, examine the principles of competence-competence with reference to the legislation, that is, the Arbitration Act.
130. Section 16(1) of the Arbitration Act accepts and empowers the Arbitral Tribunal to rule on its own jurisdiction including a ruling on the objections, with respect to all aspects of non arbitrability including validity of the arbitration agreement. A party opposing arbitration, as per sub-section (2), should raise the objection to jurisdiction of the tribunal before the Arbitral Tribunal, not later than the submission of statement of defence. However, participation in the appointment procedure or appointing an arbitrator would not preclude and prejudice any party from raising an objection to the jurisdiction. Obviously, the intent is to curtail delay and expedite appointment of the Arbitral Tribunal. The clause also indirectly accepts that appointment of an arbitrator is different from the issue and question of jurisdiction and non-arbitrability. As per sub-section (3), any objection that the Arbitral Tribunal is exceeding the scope of its authority should be raised as soon as the matter arises. However, the Arbitral Tribunal, as per sub-section (4), is empowered to admit a plea regarding lack of jurisdiction beyond the periods specified in sub-sections (2) and (3) if it considers that the delay is justified. As per the mandate of sub-section (5) when objections to the jurisdiction under sub-sections (2) and (3) are rejected, the Arbitral Tribunal can continue with the proceedings and pass the arbitration award. A party aggrieved is at liberty to file an application for setting aside such arbitral award under Section 34 of the Arbitration Act. Sub-section (3) to Section 8 in specific terms permits an Arbitral Tribunal to continue with the arbitration proceeding and make an award, even when an application under sub-section (1) to Section 8 is pending consideration of the court/forum. Therefore, pendency of the judicial proceedings even before the court is not by itself a bar for the Arbitral Tribunal to proceed and make an award. Whether the court should stay arbitral proceedings or appropriate deference by the Arbitral Tribunal are distinctly different aspects and not for us to elaborate in the present reference.”
Prima facie Review
The Court proceeded to discuss as to what is the ambit of prima facie review in context of a recent decision in Pravin Electricals Pvt. Ltd. v. Galaxy Infra and Engineering Pvt. Ltd., 2021 SCC OnLine SC 190, referred in detail to Vidya Drolia (supra) in paragraphs 15 to 18 as follows:
On the amended Section 8 for Review
“15. Dealing with “prima facie” examination under Section 8, as amended, the Court then held [Vidya Drolia v. Durga Trading Corporation, (2021) 2 SCC 1]:
“134. Prima facie examination is not full review but a primary first review to weed out manifestly and ex facie non-existent and invalid arbitration agreements and non-arbitrable disputes. The prima facie review at the reference stage is to cut the deadwood and trim off the side branches in straightforward cases where dismissal is barefaced and pellucid and when on the facts and law the litigation must stop at the first stage. Only when the court is certain that no valid arbitration agreement exists or the disputes/subject-matter are not arbitrable, the application under Section 8 would be rejected. At this stage, the court should not get lost in thickets and decide debatable questions of facts. Referral proceedings are preliminary and summary and not a mini trial. This necessarily reflects on the nature of the jurisdiction exercised by the court and in this context, the observations of B.N. Srikrishna, J. of “plainly arguable” case in Shin-Etsu Chemical Co. Ltd. [ShinEtsu Chemical Co. Ltd. v. Aksh Optifibre Ltd., (2005) 7 SCC 234] are of importance and relevance. Similar views are expressed by this Court in Vimal Kishor Shah [Vimal Kishor Shah v. Jayesh Dinesh Shah, (2016) 8 SCC 788 : (2016) 4 SCC (Civ) 303] wherein the test applied at the pre-arbitration stage was whether there is a “good arguable case” for the existence of an arbitration agreement.
On Reading Section 8 & 11 for Review
The Court further relied upon the following paras and held that
16. The parameters of review under Sections 8 and 11 were then laid down thus:
“138. In the Indian context, we would respectfully adopt the three categories in Boghara Polyfab (P) Ltd. [National Insurance Co. Ltd. v. Boghara Polyfab (P) Ltd., (2009) 1 SCC 267 : (2009) 1 SCC (Civ) 117] The first category of issues, namely, whether the party has approached the appropriate High Court, whether there is an arbitration agreement and whether the party who has applied for reference is party to such agreement would be subject to more thorough examination in comparison to the second and third categories/issues which are presumptively, save in exceptional cases, for the arbitrator to decide. In the first category, we would add and include the question or issue relating to whether the cause of action relates to action in personam or rem; whether the subject-matter of the dispute affects third-party rights, have erga omnes effect, requires centralised adjudication; whether the subject-matter relates to inalienable sovereign and public interest functions of the State; and whether the subject-matter of dispute is expressly or by necessary implication non-arbitrable as per mandatory statute(s). Such questions arise rarely and, when they arise, are on most occasions questions of law. On the other hand, issues relating to contract formation, existence, validity and non-arbitrability would be connected and intertwined with the issues underlying the merits of the respective disputes/claims. They would be factual and disputed and for the Arbitral Tribunal to decide.
When Review not Conclusive ?
140. Accordingly, when it appears that prima facie review would be inconclusive, or on consideration inadequate as it requires detailed examination, the matter should be left for final determination by the Arbitral Tribunal selected by the parties by consent. The underlying rationale being not to delay or defer and to discourage parties from using referral proceeding as a ruse to delay and obstruct. In such cases a full review by the courts at this stage would encroach on the jurisdiction of the Arbitral Tribunal and violate the legislative scheme allocating jurisdiction between the courts and the Arbitral Tribunal. Centralisation of litigation with the Arbitral Tribunal as the primary and first adjudicator is beneficent as it helps in quicker and efficient resolution of disputes.”
What is an Existence?
The Court dealt on this very critical issue as to what amounts to “existence” in terms of Section 11(6A) and held that;
17. The Court then examined the meaning of the expression “existence” which occurs in Section 11(6A) and summed up its discussion as follows:
“146. We now proceed to examine the question, whether the word “existence” in Section 11 merely refers to contract formation (whether there is an arbitration agreement) and excludes the question of enforcement (validity) and therefore the latter falls outside the jurisdiction of the court at the referral stage. On jurisprudentially and textualism it is possible to differentiate between existence of an arbitration agreement and validity of an arbitration agreement.
Such interpretation can draw support from the plain meaning of the word “existence”. However, it is equally possible, jurisprudentially and on contextualism, to hold that an agreement has no existence if it is not enforceable and not binding. Existence of an arbitration agreement presupposes a valid agreement which would be enforced by the court by relegating the parties to arbitration. Legalistic and plain meaning interpretation would be contrary to the contextual background including the definition clause and would result in unpalatable consequences. A reasonable and just interpretation of “existence” requires understanding the context, the purpose and the relevant legal norms applicable for a binding and enforceable arbitration agreement. An agreement evidenced in writing has no meaning unless the parties can be compelled to adhere and abide by the terms. A party cannot sue and claim rights based on an unenforceable document. Thus, there are good reasons to hold that an arbitration agreement exists only when it is valid and legal. A void and unenforceable understanding is no agreement to do anything. Existence of an arbitration agreement means an arbitration agreement that meets and satisfies the statutory requirements of both the Arbitration Act and the Contract Act and when it is enforceable in law.
Existence and Validity via Stamp Duty
The Court while discussed as to how a existence of a contract can be understood in the realm of jurisprudence and reasonableness, also went ahead and further discussed on the stamp duty issue which cropped in Garware ;
147. We would proceed to elaborate and give further reasons: 147.1. In Garware Wall Ropes Ltd. [Garware Wall Ropes Ltd. v. Coastal Marine Constructions & Engg. Ltd., (2019) 9 SCC 209 : (2019) 4 SCC (Civ) 324], this Court had examined the question of stamp duty in an underlying contract with an arbitration clause and in the context had drawn a distinction between the first and second part of Section 7(2) of the Arbitration Act, albeit the observations made and quoted above with reference to “existence” and “validity” of the arbitration agreement being apposite and extremely important, we would repeat the same by reproducing para 29 thereof: (SCC p. 238)
“29. This judgment in Hyundai Engg. Case [United India Insurance Co. Ltd. v. Hyundai Engg. & Construction Co. Ltd., (2018) 17 SCC 607 : (2019) 2 SCC (Civ) 530] is important in that what was specifically under consideration was an arbitration clause which would get activated only if an insurer admits or accepts liability. Since on facts it was found that the insurer repudiated the claim, though an arbitration clause did “exist”, so to speak, in the policy, it would not exist in law, as was held in that judgment, when one important fact is introduced, namely, that the insurer has not admitted or accepted liability. Likewise, in the facts of the present case, it is clear that the arbitration clause that is contained in the subcontract would not “exist” as a matter of law until the sub-contract is duly stamped, as has been held by us above. The argument that Section 11(6-A) deals with “existence”, as opposed to Section 8, Section 16 and Section 45, which deal with “validity” of an arbitration agreement is answered by this Court’s understanding of the expression “existence” in Hyundai Engg. case [United India Insurance Co. Ltd. v. Hyundai Engg. & Construction Co. Ltd., (2018) 17 SCC 607 : (2019) 2 SCC (Civ) 530] , as followed by us.”
Existence and validity are intertwined, and arbitration agreement does not exist if it is illegal or does not satisfy mandatory legal requirements. Invalid agreement is no agreement.
147.2. The court at the reference stage exercises judicial powers. “Examination”, as an ordinary expression in common parlance, refers to an act of looking or considering something carefully in order to discover something (as per Cambridge Dictionary). It requires the person to inspect closely, to test the condition of, or to inquire into carefully (as per MerriamWebster Dictionary). It would be rather odd for the court to hold and say that the arbitration agreement exists, though ex facie and manifestly the arbitration agreement is invalid in law and the dispute in question is non-arbitrable. The court is not powerless and would not act beyond jurisdiction, if it rejects an application for reference, when the arbitration clause is admittedly or without doubt is with a minor, lunatic or the only claim seeks a probate of a will.
147.3. Most scholars and jurists accept and agree that the existence and validity of an arbitration agreement are the same. Even Stavros Brekoulakis accepts that validity, in terms of substantive and formal validity, are questions of contract and hence for the court to examine.
147.4. Most jurisdictions accept and require prima facie review by the court on non-arbitrability aspects at the referral stage.
147.11. The interpretation appropriately balances the allocation of the decision-making authority between the court at the referral stage and the arbitrators’ primary jurisdiction to decide disputes on merits. The court as the judicial forum of the first instance can exercise prima facie test jurisdiction to screen and knock down ex facie meritless, frivolous and dishonest litigation. Limited jurisdiction of the courts ensures expeditious, alacritous and efficient disposal when required at the referral stage.”
The Court while putting their reliance upon the decision in Bharat Sanchar Nigam Ltd. v. Nortel Networks India Pvt. Ltd., 2021 SCC OnLine SC 207, another Division Bench of this Court referred to Vidya Drolia (supra) held that:
“39. The upshot of the judgment in Vidya Drolia [Vidya Drolia v. Durga Trading Corporation, (2021) 2 SCC 1] is affirmation of the position of law expounded in Duro Felguera [Duro Felguera, S.A. v. Gangavaram Port Ltd., (2017) 9 SCC 729] and Mayavati Trading [Mayavati Trading (P) Ltd. v. Pradyuat Deb Burman, (2019) 8 SCC 714], which continue to hold the field. It must be understood clearly that Vidya Drolia [Vidya Drolia v. Durga Trading Corporation, (2021) 2 SCC 1] has not resurrected the pre-amendment position on the scope of power as held in SBP & Co. v. Patel Engineering [SBP & Co. v. Patel Engg. Ltd., (2005) 8 SCC 618]. It is only in the very limited category of cases, where there is not even a vestige of doubt that the claim is ex facie timebarred, or that the dispute is non-arbitrable, that the court may decline to make the reference. However, if there is even the slightest doubt, the rule is to refer the disputes to arbitration, otherwise it would encroach upon what is essentially a matter to be determined by the tribunal.”
Hence, the Court concluded that
- Whether an agreement which contains an arbitration clause has or has not been novated cannot possibly be decided in exercise of a limited prima facie review as to whether an arbitration agreement exists between the parties.
- Also, this case does not fall within the category of cases which ousts arbitration altogether, such as matters which are in rem proceedings or cases which, without doubt, concern minors, lunatics or other persons incompetent to contract.
- There is nothing vexatious or frivolous in the plea taken by the Appellant. On the contrary, a Section 11 court would refer the matter when contentions relating to non-arbitrability are plainly arguable, or when facts are contested. The court cannot, at this stage, enter into a mini trial or elaborate review of the facts and law which would usurp the jurisdiction of the arbitral tribunal.
The scope of Section 11 has been prima facie upheld in this decision as what was decided in Droliya supra and reiterated in many decisions thereafter.
The Court also clarified while reading through many decisions and jurisprudence that an existence and validity are intertwined, and arbitration agreement does not exist if it is illegal or does not satisfy mandatory legal requirements. Invalid agreement is no agreement.
This 3 member bench decision of Supreme Court has clarified various dilemma which of late had started prevailing over the terms of existence & validity of agreement & limited scope of review under an application under Section 11 of the Arbitration & Conciliation Act,1996(the Act).
The Court also set a limited ecosystem of review while reading into the provisions of Section 8 and 11 of the Act to derive the real intent of a review and not a carrying out a review of facts or mini trial at a referral stage.
We can say that this decision has again set a benchmark and clarified all decisions which gave new branches to interpretation on the scope of Section 11 in a per se bundled manner.
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