Report No. 246
Scope and Nature of Pre-Arbitral Judicial Intervention
28. The Act recognizes situations where the intervention of the Court is envisaged at the pre-arbitral stage, i.e. prior to the constitution of the arbitral tribunal, which includes sections 8, 9, 11 in the case of Part I arbitrations and section 45 in the case of Part II arbitrations. sections 8, 45 and also section 11 relating to "reference to arbitration" and "appointment of the tribunal", directly affect the constitution of the tribunal and functioning of the arbitral proceedings.
Therefore, their operation has a direct and significant impact on the "conduct" of arbitrations. Section 9, being solely for the purpose of securing interim relief, although having the potential to affect the rights of parties, does not affect the "conduct" of the arbitration in the same way as these other provisions. It is in this context the Commission has examined and deliberated the working of these provisions and proposed certain amendments.
29. The Supreme Court has had occasion to deliberate upon the scope and nature of permissible pre-arbitral judicial intervention, especially in the context of section 11 of the Act. Unfortunately, however, the question before the Supreme Court was framed in terms of whether such a power is a "judicial" or an "administrative" power - which obfuscates the real issue underlying such nomenclature/description as to -
- the scope of such powers - i.e. the scope of arguments which a Court (Chief Justice) will consider while deciding whether to appoint an arbitrator or not - i.e. whether the arbitration agreement exists, whether it is null and void, whether it is voidable etc; and which of these it should leave for decision of the arbitral tribunal.
- the nature of such intervention - i.e. would the Court (Chief Justice) consider the issues upon a detailed trial and whether the same would be decided finally or be left for determination of the arbitral tribunal
30. After a series of cases culminating in the decision in SBP v. Patel Engineering, (2005) 8 SCC 618, the Supreme Court held that the power to appoint an arbitrator under section 11 is a "judicial" power. The underlying issues in this judgment, relating to the scope of intervention, were subsequently clarified by Raveendran J in National Insurance Co. Ltd. v. Boghara Polyfab Pvt. Ltd., (2009) 1 SCC 267, where the Supreme Court laid down as follows -
"1. The issues (first category) which Chief Justice/his designate will have to decide are:
(a) Whether the party making the application has approached the appropriate High Court?
(b) Whether there is an arbitration agreement and whether the party who has applied under section 11 of the Act, is a party to such an agreement?
2. The issues (second category) which the Chief Justice/his designate may choose to decide are:
(a) Whether the claim is a dead (long barred) claim or a live claim?
(b) Whether the parties have concluded the contract/transaction by recording satisfaction of their mutual rights and obligation or by receiving the final payment without objection?
3. The issues (third category) which the Chief Justice/his designate should leave exclusively to the arbitral tribunal are:
(a) Whether a claim falls within the arbitration clause (as for example, a matter which is reserved for final decision of a departmental authority and excepted or excluded from arbitration)?
(b) Merits of any claim involved in the arbitration."
31. The Commission is of the view that, in this context, the same test regarding scope and nature of judicial intervention, as applicable in the context of section 11, should also apply to sections 8 and 45 of the Act - since the scope and nature of judicial intervention should not change upon whether a party (intending to defeat the arbitration agreement) refuses to appoint an arbitrator in terms of the arbitration agreement, or moves a proceeding before a judicial authority in the face of such an arbitration agreement.
32. In relation to the nature of intervention, the exposition of the law is to be found in the decision of the Supreme Court in Shin Etsu Chemicals Co. Ltd. v. Aksh Optifibre, (2005) 7 SCC 234, (in the context of section 45 of the Act), where the Supreme Court has ruled in favour of looking at the issues/controversy only prima facie.
33. It is in this context, the Commission has recommended amendments to sections 8 and 11 of the Arbitration and Conciliation Act, 1996. The scope of the judicial intervention is only restricted to situations where the Court/Judicial Authority finds that the arbitration agreement does not exist or is null and void. In so far as the nature of intervention is concerned, it is recommended that in the event the Court/Judicial Authority is prima facie satisfied against the argument challenging the arbitration agreement, it shall appoint the arbitrator and/or refer the parties to arbitration, as the case may be.
The amendment envisages that the judicial authority shall not refer the parties to arbitration only if it finds that there does not exist an arbitration agreement or that it is null and void. If the judicial authority is of the opinion that prima facie the arbitration agreement exists, then it shall refer the dispute to arbitration, and leave the existence of the arbitration agreement to be finally determined by the arbitral tribunal. However, if the judicial authority concludes that the agreement does not exist, then the conclusion will be final and not prima facie.
The amendment also envisages that there shall be a conclusive determination as to whether the arbitration agreement is null and void. In the event that the judicial authority refers the dispute to arbitration and/or appoints an arbitrator, under sections 8 and 11 respectively, such a decision will be final and non-appealable. An appeal can be maintained under section 37 only in the event of refusal to refer parties to arbitration, or refusal to appoint an arbitrator.