“Complex” questions involving novation of contract can’t be decided by Court under Section 11 of the Arbitration and Conciliation Act: Supreme Court

Supreme Court: In an important ruling on Arbitration, the 3-judge bench of RF Nariman, BR Gavai and Hrishikesh Roy, JJ has held that a Section 11 court under the Arbitration and Conciliation Act, 1996 cannot decide the questions of fact and law relating to novation of a contract containing arbitration clause and must refer them to an arbitral tribunal.

The Court held that such “complex” questions cannot possibly be decided in exercise of a limited prima facie review as to whether an arbitration agreement exists between the parties.

What’s the controversy?

A private company was incorporated on 09.12.1971 under the name and style of Asian Films Laboratories Private Limited (now ANI Media Private Limited) by Prem Prakash, the entire amount of the paid-up capital being paid for by him from his personal funds. He then distributed shares to his family members without receiving any consideration for the same.

Reuters Television Mauritius Limited (now Thomson Reuters Corporation), approached Sanjiv Prakash, son of Prem Prakash, for a longterm equity investment and collaboration with the company on the condition that he would play an active role in the management of the company. Hence, a MoU was entered into sometime in 1996 between the four members of the Prakash Family. A Shareholders’ Agreement dated 12.04.1996 [SHA] was then executed between the Prakash Family and Reuters.

The reason for entering into the SHA was as follows:


(A) Pursuant to a share purchase agreement dated today between the Prakash Family Shareholders and Reuters (the Share Purchase Agreement), Reuters has agreed to purchase 4,900 Shares (as defined below) representing 49% of the issued share capital of Asian Films Laboratories (Pvt.) Ltd. (the Company). Following completion of the Share Purchase Agreement, each of the Prakash Family Shareholders will hold the numbers of Shares set opposite his or her name in schedule 3 hereto, with the aggregate number of Shares so held by the Prakash Family Shareholders representing 51% of the issued share capital of the Company.

(B) The Shareholders (as defined below) are entering into the Agreement to set out the terms governing their relationship as shareholders in the Company.”

Disputes between the parties arose when Prem Prakash decided to transfer his shareholding to be held jointly between Sanjiv Prakash and himself, and Daya Prakash did likewise to transfer her shareholding to be held jointly between Seema Kukreja and herself. A notice invoking the arbitration clause contained in the MoU was then served by Sanjiv Prakash on 23.11.2019 upon the three Respondents, alleging that his pre-emptive right to purchase Daya Prakash’s shares, as was set out in clause 8 of the MoU, had been breached, as a result of which disputes had arisen between the parties and Justice Deepak Verma (retired Judge of this Court), was nominated to be the sole arbitrator.

However, the reply filed by Seema Kukreja and Daya Prakash, dated 20.12.2019, pointed out that the MoU ceased to exist on and from the date of the SHA, i.e. 12.04.1996, which superseded the aforesaid MoU and novated the same in view of clause 28.2 thereof. Therefore, they denied that there was any arbitration clause between the parties as the MoU itself had been superseded and did not exist after 12.04.1996.

Delhi High Court’s Verdict

After Sanjiv Prakash moved the Delhi High Court under Section 11 of the 1996 Act, the High Court, had, in it’s judgment held that,

“… the law relating to the effect of novation of contract containing an arbitration agreement/clause is well-settled. An arbitration agreement being a creation of an agreement may be destroyed by agreement. That is to say, if the contract is superseded by another, the arbitration clause, being a component/part of the earlier contract, falls with it or if the original contract in entirety is put to an end, the arbitration clause, which is a part of it, also perishes along with it.”

Supreme Court’s Verdict

The Court extensively discussed the law laid down in the recent judgment in Vidya Drolia v. Durga Trading Corporation, (2021) 2 SCC 1 wherein it was held that Section 11 Court is not empowered to determine whether an arbitration agreement is in existence or not. In the said judgment it was held that for Section 11 court to decide any matter, the “existence of an arbitration agreement” is mandatory. Whether or not an arbitration agreement exists, is a question to be decided by the Arbitral Tribunal.

“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.

Section 11 does not prescribe any standard of judicial review by the court for determining whether an arbitration agreement is in existence. Section 8 states that the judicial review at the stage of reference is prima facie and not final. Prima facie standard equally applies when the power of judicial review is exercised by the court under Section 11 of the Arbitration Act. Therefore, we can read the mandate of valid arbitration agreement in Section 8 into mandate of Section 11, that is, “existence of an arbitration agreement”.”

Hence, the court by default would refer the matter when contentions relating to nonarbitrability are plainly arguable; when consideration in summary proceedings would be insufficient and inconclusive; when facts are contested; when the party opposing arbitration adopts delaying tactics or impairs conduct of arbitration proceedings.

“This is not the stage for the court to enter into a mini trial or elaborate review so as to usurp the jurisdiction of the Arbitral Tribunal but to affirm and uphold integrity and efficacy of arbitration as an alternative dispute resolution mechanism.”

Applying the aforesaid test, the Court said that it was obvious that

“whether the MoU has been novated by the SHA dated 12.04.1996 requires a detailed consideration of the clauses of the two Agreements, together with the surrounding circumstances in which these Agreements were entered into, and a full consideration of the law on the subject. None of this can be done given the limited jurisdiction of a court under Section 11 of the 1996 Act.”

The Court said that the detailed arguments on 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.

“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.”

[Sanjiv Prakash v. Seema Kukreja, 2021 SCC OnLine SC 282, decided on 06.04.2021]

*Judgment by Justice RF Nariman 

Know Thy Judge| Justice Rohinton F. Nariman

Appearances before the Court by:

For Appellant: Senior Advocate K.V. Viswanathan

For Respondents: Senior Advocate Mukul Rohatgi and Advocates Avishkar Singhvi and Manik Dogra

Also read the detailed report on the Vidya Drolia judgment 

‘Landlord-tenant disputes under Transfer of Property Act are arbitrable’. SC lays down test for determining non-arbitrability of disputes

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