Del HC | Can International Arbitration Award be assailed on ground of patent illegality? Is it permissible for arbitrator to award compound interest? HC answers

Delhi High Court: Vibhu Bakhru, J., held that the scope of interference with an arbitral award under Section 34 of the Arbitration & Conciliation Act is limited.

Factual Matrix 

Steel Authority of India (SAIL) filed the instant petition under Section 34 of the Arbitration and Conciliation Act, 1996 impugning an Arbitral Award delivered by the Arbitral Tribunal.

Arbitration between the parties was an international commercial arbitration within the meaning of Section 2(1)(f) of the A&C Act and the same was conducted under the aegis of the Delhi International Arbitration Centre.

Respondent JOPL was the claimant and engaged in the business of maritime logistics including vessel operations and chartering.

Charter Party

Parties had executed a Charter Party whereby JOPL agreed to load, carry and discharge cargo of Bulk Coking Coal to ports in India.

Though there was no dispute between the parties as to the amount payable by SAIL under the Charter Party, there was also no dispute that JOPL had duly performed its obligations under the Charter Party.

Contract of Affreightment

However, it was stated that SAIL had withheld the admitted balance amount payable to JOPL for the reason that it had raised a claim of damages against JOPL in respect of another contract – Contract of Affreightment for shipping cargos of limestones.

What was the dispute?

OPL had not provided a vessel under the Contract of Affreightment for the 20th shipment and SAIL was compelled to make alternate arrangements for the same. SAIL claimed that JOPL had breached its obligations under the Contract of Affreightment and raised the claim for damages quantified at the additional expenses incurred by it to arrange for shipment of balance quantity of limestone.

But JOPL disputed the claim and stated that it was not obliged to provide a vessel as the shipment period under the Contract of Affreightment had come to an end.

Hence, disputes between the parties arising as a result of SAIL withholding the admitted amounts due under the Charter Party, were referred to arbitration.

Finding of the Arbitral Tribunal

The Arbitral Tribunal held in favour of JOPL and against SAIL and found that the Charter Party was unconnected with the Contract of Affreightment.

The Arbitral Tribunal found that there was no nexus between the two contracts. Whereas the Charter Party was a standalone contract for one shipment of Coking Coal, the Contract of Affreightment was a contract for multiple shipments of limestones over a period of twelve months.

In view of the above, the Arbitral Tribunal held that SAIL was not entitled to withhold any amount from the amounts as admittedly owed by it to JOPL under the Charter Party. It, accordingly, awarded a sum of USD 515,739.88.

Reasons and Conclusion

SAIL’s entitlement to any equitable set-off was contrary to public policy since Arbitral Tribunal failed to appreciate the same.

Fundamental premise that JOPL had breached the Contract of Affreightment was disputed

Bench added that SAIL had claimed that JOPL had breached the Contract of Affreightment and therefore, it was entitled to seek the performance of the balance obligations at its risk and cost. For the said claim SAIL was required to prove both its entitlement to damages and its measure.

 Whether set off could be claimed is a matter of discretion of the Court adjudicating the claim. SAIL could not claim it as a matter of right and in the given set of facts and circumstances, SAIL was not entitled to claim any set off as there was no ascertained debt owing by JOPL to SAIL.

Court while holding the position that impugned award is an award arising out of an international commercial arbitration and therefore, it cannot be assailed on the ground of patent illegality as contained in Section 34(2A) of the A&C Act.

Supreme Court in the decision of Ssagyong Engineering & Construction Ltd. v. National Highways Authority of India, (2019) 15 SCC 131, wherein it was held that an award arising from an international commercial arbitration can be assailed only on the limited grounds as specified under Section 34(2) of the A&C Act.

Hence, no grounds, whatsoever, to assert that the decision of the Arbitral Tribunal to reject SAIL’s contention falls foul of the fundamental policy of Indian Law.

The onus to prove that SAIL was entitled to withhold the admitted sums against any other claim, rested on SAIL. And it failed to discharge the said burden.

Whether the impugned award was liable to be set aside to the extent that it awards 12% interest compounded with quarterly rests, on the amount due to JOPL?

Court noted that the Statement of Claims filed by JOPL set outs the grounds for claiming the amount of USD 515,739.88.

It was also observed that JOPL had unequivocally stated that the only dispute between the parties was with regard to the payment of balance freight. SAIL did not traverse the said assertion. It was apparent that JOPL had premised its claim for interest and costs on the ground that SAIL had unjustifiably withheld the amounts admittedly payable by it. Thus, compelling JOPL to refer the disputes to arbitration. SAIL had contested the said Statement of Claims only on the ground that it was entitled to recover a sum of USD 1,187,847.318/- which, according to SAIL, was payable as damages by JOPL in respect of the Contract of Affreightment.

High Court opined that the SAIL cannot be permitted to contest the impugned award as contrary to fundamental policy of Indian Law.

Bench found considerable merit in the contention advanced by Mr Shankar that the rate of 12% p.a. interest compounded with 3 monthly rests cannot be held contrary to fundamental policy of Indian Law.

Supreme Court in its decisions noted that the recovery of compound interest would not contravene any fundamental policy of Indian Law, Mr Shankar also pointed that there are a number of legislation that provide for payment of compound interest.

It is also a norm of the banking industry to charge compound interest with either monthly or quarterly rests. Therefore, an arbitral award cannot be held to be contrary to the fundamental policy of Indian law only because one of the parties is awarded compound interest.

In view of the offering that, if SAIL was willing to pay the awarded amount with a lesser interest and put quietus to disputes, JOPL would accept the same and waive its right for receiving the balance interest.

Therefore, Bench adjourned the hearing to enable SAIL’s counsel to take instructions in the above regard. But the said offer was accepted by the Court.

But, considering that public funds are involved, this Court considered it apposite to grant SAIL another opportunity to reflect on the offer made on behalf of JOPL.

High Court held that the present petition was speculative and has been filed by SAIL to only protract litigation. Rs 50,000 costs were imposed.[SAIL v. Jaldhi Overseas PTE Ltd., 2021 SCC OnLine Del 2642, decided on 28-05-2021]


Advocates before the Court:

For the Petitioner: Mr Joy Basu, Senior Advocate with Mr Ashish Rana, Mr Kanak Bose, Advocates.

For the Respondent: Mr Ashwin Shankar and Mr Rishi Murarka, Ms Shweta Sadanandan, Mr Aditya Raj, Mr George Rebello,

Advocate.

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