Supreme Court: The bench of Indu Malhotra* and Ajay Rastogi, JJ was posed with the question as to whether the period of limitation for filing the Petition under Section 34 of the Arbitration and Conciliation Act, 1996 would commence from the date on which the draft award is circulated to the parties, or the date on which the signed copy of the award is provided. Going with the latter, the Court held that the period of limitation for filing objections would have to be reckoned from the date on which the signed copy of the award was made available to the parties.
“There is only one date recognised by law i.e. the date on which a signed copy of the final award is received by the parties, from which the period of limitation for filing objections would start ticking. There can be no finality in the award, except after it is signed, because signing of the award gives legal effect and finality to the award.”
Below are the key points highlighted by the Court:
- Section 31 (1) is couched in mandatory terms, and provides that an arbitral award shall be made in writing and signed by all the members of the arbitral tribunal.
“If the arbitral tribunal comprises of more than one arbitrator, the award is made when the arbitrators acting together finally express their decision in writing, and is authenticated by their signatures.”
- An award takes legal effect only after it is signed by the arbitrators, which gives it authentication. There can be no finality of the award, except after it is signed, since signing of the award gives legal effect and validity to it.
- The making and delivery of the award are different stages of an arbitration proceeding. An award is made when it is authenticated by the person who makes it. The statute makes it obligatory for each of the members of the tribunal to sign the award, to make it a valid award. The usage of the term “shall” makes it a mandatory requirement. It is not merely a ministerial act, or an empty formality which can be dispensed with.
- The legal requirement under sub-section (5) of Section 31 is the delivery of a copy of the award signed by the members of the arbitral tribunal / arbitrator, and not any copy of the award. On a harmonious construction of Section 31(5) read with Section 34(3), the period of limitation prescribed for filing objections would commence only from the date when the signed copy of the award is delivered to the party making the application for setting aside the award.
“If the law prescribes that a copy of the award is to be communicated, delivered, dispatched, forwarded, rendered, or sent to the parties concerned in a particular way, and since the law sets a period of limitation for challenging the award in question by the aggrieved party, then the period of limitation can only commence from the date on which the award was received by the concerned party in the manner prescribed by law.”
- In an arbitral tribunal comprising of a panel of three members, if one of the members gives a dissenting opinion, it must be delivered contemporaneously on the same date as the final award, and not on a subsequent date, as the tribunal becomes functus officio upon the passing of the final award. The period for rendering the award and dissenting opinion must be within the period prescribed by Section 29A of the Act.
- The dissenting opinion of a minority arbitrator can be relied upon by the party seeking to set aside the award to buttress its submissions in the proceedings under Section 34.
- At the stage of judicial scrutiny by the Court under Section 34, the Court is not precluded from considering the findings and conclusions of the dissenting opinion of the minority member of the tribunal
- The date on which the signed award is provided to the parties is a crucial date in arbitration proceedings under the Arbitration and Conciliation Act, 1996. It is from this date that:
(a) the period of 30 days’ for filing an application under Section 33 for correction and interpretation of the award, or additional award may be filed;
(b) the arbitral proceedings would terminate as provided by Section 32(1) of the Act;
(c) the period of limitation for filing objections to the award under Section 34 commences.
- Section 34(3) provides a specific time limit of three months from the date of “receipt” of the award, and a further period of thirty days, if the Court is satisfied that the party was prevented by sufficient cause from making the application within the said period, but not thereafter
“If the objections are not filed within the period prescribed by Section 34, the award holder is entitled to move for enforcement of the arbitral award as a deemed decree of the Court u/S. 36 of the Act.”
[DAKSHIN HARYANA BIJLI VITRAN NIGAM LTD. v. NAVIGANT TECHNOLOGIES PVT. LTD., 2021 SCC OnLine SC 157 , decided on 02.03.2021]
*Judgment by: Justice Indu Malhotra