Supreme Court: In an important ruling, the bench of Indu Malhotra* and Ajay Rastogi, JJ has held that the period of limitation for filing an application under Section 11 of the Arbitration and Conciliation Act, 1996 would be governed by Article 137 of the First Schedule of the Limitation Act, 1963. Hence, the period of limitation will begin to run from the date when there is failure to appoint the arbitrator. Further,iIn rare and exceptional cases, where the claims are ex facie timebarred, and it is manifest that there is no subsisting dispute, the Court may refuse to make the reference.
The Court also suggested that,
“It would be necessary for Parliament to effect an amendment to Section 11, prescribing a specific period of limitation within which a party may move the court for making an application for appointment of the arbitration under Section 11 of the 1996 Act.”
This would be in consonance with the object of expeditious disposal of arbitration proceedings.
What would be the period of limitation for filing an application under Section 11 of the Arbitration and Conciliation Act, 1996?
Section 11 does not prescribe any time period for filing an application under sub-section (6) for appointment of an arbitrator. Since there is no provision in the 1996 Act specifying the period of limitation for filing an application under Section 11, one would have to take recourse to the Limitation Act, 1963, as per Section 43 of the Arbitration Act, which provides that the Limitation Act shall apply to arbitrations, as it applies to proceedings in Court.
It is a settled law that the limitation for filing an application under Section 11 would arise upon the failure to make the appointment of the arbitrator within a period of 30 days’ from issuance of the notice invoking arbitration.
“… an application under Section 11 can be filed only after a notice of arbitration in respect of the particular claim(s) / dispute(s) to be referred to arbitration [as contemplated by Section 21 of the Act] is made, and there is failure to make the appointment.”
However, the period of limitation for filing a petition seeking appointment of an arbitrator/s cannot be confused or conflated with the period of limitation applicable to the substantive claims made in the underlying commercial contract. The period of limitation for such claims is prescribed under various Articles of the Limitation Act, 1963.
“The limitation for deciding the underlying substantive disputes is necessarily distinct from that of filing an application for appointment of an arbitrator. This position was recognized even under Section 20 of the Arbitration Act 1940.”
Given the vacuum in the law to provide a period of limitation under Section 11 of the Arbitration and Conciliation 1996, the Courts have taken recourse to the position that since none of the Articles in the Schedule to the Limitation Act, 1963 provide a time period for filing an application for appointment of an arbitrator under Section 11, it would be covered by the residual provision Article 137 of the Limitation Act, 1963 which provides a period of 3 years from the date when the right to apply accrues.
However, this is an unduly long period for filing an application u/S. 11, since it would defeat the very object of the Act, which provides for expeditious resolution of commercial disputes within a time bound period.
“The 1996 Act has been amended twice over in 2015 and 2019, to provide for further time limits to ensure that the arbitration proceedings are conducted and concluded expeditiously. Section 29A mandates that the arbitral tribunal will conclude the proceedings within a period of 18 months. In view of the legislative intent, the period of 3 years for filing an application under Section 11 would run contrary to the scheme of the Act.”
Hence, the period of limitation for filing an application under Section 11 would be governed by Article 137 of the First Schedule of the Limitation Act, 1963. The period of limitation will begin to run from the date when there is failure to appoint the arbitrator. This position will hold field till the Legislature comes up with an amendment to Section 11 of the 1996 Act to provide a period of limitation for filing an application under this provision, which is in consonance with the object of expeditious disposal of arbitration proceedings.
Whether the Court while exercising jurisdiction under Section 11 is obligated to appoint an arbitrator even in a case where the claims are ex facie time-barred?
In view of the legislative mandate contained in the amended Section 11(6A), the Court is now required only to examine the existence of the arbitration agreement. All other preliminary or threshold issues are left to be decided by the arbitrator under Section 16, which enshrines the kompetenz-komptenz principle.
“The doctrine of kompetenz-komptenz implies that the arbitral tribunal is empowered and has the competence to rule on its own jurisdiction, including determination of all jurisdictional issues. This was intended to minimise judicial intervention at the pre-reference stage, so that the arbitral process is not thwarted at the threshold when a preliminary objection is raised by the parties.”
In a recent judgment delivered by a three-judge bench in Vidya Drolia v. Durga Trading Corporation, (2021) 2 SCC 1, on the scope of power under Sections 8 and 11, it has been held that the Court must undertake a primary first review to weed out “manifestly ex facie non-existent and invalid arbitration agreements, or non-arbitrable disputes.”
“The prima facie review at the reference stage is to cut the deadwood, where dismissal is bare faced 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 that the subject matter is not arbitrable, that reference may be refused.”
While exercising jurisdiction under Section 11 as the judicial forum, the court may exercise the prima facie test to screen and knockdown ex facie meritless, frivolous, and dishonest litigation. Limited jurisdiction of the Courts would ensure expeditious and efficient disposal at the referral stage. At the referral stage, the Court can interfere “only” when it is “manifest” that the claims are ex facie time barred and dead, or there is no subsisting dispute.
“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 time-barred, 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.”
[BSNL v. Nortel Network India Pvt. Ltd., 2021 SCC OnLine SC 207, decided on 10.03.2021]
*Judgment by: Justice Indu Malhotra
Appearances before the Court by:
For appellants: Senior Advocate R.D. Agrawala
For respondent: Senior AdvocateNeeraj Kumar Jain, Senior Advocate
Amicus Curiae: Senior Advocate Arvind Datar