Reading the Prima Facie Test into Section 11: Supreme Court in Vidya Drolia

 

Introduction

 

The seminal judgment of the 3-Judge Bench of the Supreme Court of India in Vidya Drolia v. Durga Trading Corpn.[1] (Vidya Drolia) has been instrumental in settling many controversies that have existed in Indian arbitral jurisprudence since the commencement of the Arbitration and Conciliation Act, 1996 (the Act). The judgment of the Supreme Court has addressed multiple issues concerning the interpretation of the various facets of the arbitration agreement that have time and time again been obscured by obsolete and conflicting jurisprudence. The Court found it appropriate to recalibrate the Indian position of arbitrability and therefore has holistically articulated the fourfold test to determine subject-matter arbitrability supplementing the rights test laid down in Booz Allen and Hamilton Inc. v. SBI Home Finance Ltd.[2](Booz Allen). The Court has also held the ratio in Booz Allen as per incuriam with regard to the arbitrability of the tenancy disputes governed by the Transfer of Property Act, 1882. The judgment has also laid emphasis on the scope of judicial interference when the courts are seized of an application made under Sections 8 and 11 of the Act. The Court while delivering its opinion in this regard has conclusively outlined the scope of judicial inquiry that is to be conducted to determine the existence and validity of the arbitration agreement. The Court in its reasoning has extensively relied on the 246th Report of the Law Commission of India and has noted the importance of giving effect to the intention of the legislature that is evident from the series of amendments made to the Act in recent years. The opinion of the Supreme Court pertaining to the scope of judicial inquiry at the time of deciding an application under Sections 8 and 11 and the appealability of the orders under the provisions of the Act is within the purview of the present article.

 

The Prima Facie Test

 

The Supreme Court laid extensive reliance on its earlier decisions while simultaneously noting the lack of their precedential value in the light of the legislative amendments made to the Act in recent years. The Court has propounded a prima facie test in order to determine the existence of an arbitration agreement by holding that the courts must refer parties to arbitration unless they find that prima facie no valid arbitration agreement exists. The Court has reiterated that this prima facie examination is only to weed out ex facie non-existent arbitration agreements, invalid arbitration agreements and that on rare occasions the courts could consider non-arbitrability contentions. It must also be kept in the mind that the Court’s findings must be based on and limited to a summary presentation of documents rather an extensive appreciation of evidence.

 

The Court has also reiterated the importance of strictly adhering to the words in the erstwhile Section 11(6-A) of the Act and has also stated that its omission in 2019 has not changed the restrictive examination of the courts at the referral stage. Augmenting its ratio, the Court also placed reliance by elucidating the rationales of the sacrosanct doctrines of separability and kompetenz-kompetenz that give primacy to the Arbitral Tribunal to determine all questions pertaining to the validity and existence of the arbitration agreement. The Court also departed from its earlier position and has held that arbitrability is for the arbitrator to decide in accordance with the power enshrined in Section 16 of the Act. The Court has held while the principle of kompetenz-kompetenz gives the Arbitral Tribunal primacy to decide issues of non-arbitrability, they still have the final word as the courts can take a second look when deciding an application for setting aside under Section 34 of the Act. Finally, the Court in Vidya Drolia[3] has held that the scope of judicial inquiry at the time of deciding applications under Sections 8 and 11 is identical and the said sections are complementary in nature.

 

It is interesting to note, that although the Supreme Court has confined its inquiry to ascertain prima facie whether a valid arbitration agreement exists to compel parties to arbitrate, it has distinguished validity and existence as two separate corollaries to assess the enforceability of an agreement in law. It is true that many jurisdictions recognise the dichotomy between the formal and substantive validity of the arbitration agreements, it is in my opinion that the assessment of the substantive validity in terms of the requirements under the Contract Act, 1872 would not be feasible on a summary perusal of documents and would in fact require an extensive appreciation of evidentiary proceedings. The Court has pre-empted such a situation and has therefore held that when the Court cannot come to a conclusion on the validity of the arbitration agreement applying the prima facie test, it must stop any further inquiry and must refer the parties to arbitration. The judgment of the Court in Vidya Drolia[4] has summed up this approach as “when in doubt, do refer”.

 

It is also pertinent to note that this opinion of the Court in Vidya Drolia[5] is based on the findings of the another decision of the Supreme Court in Garware Wall Ropes Ltd. v. Coastal Marine Constructions and Engg. Ltd.[6] (Garware). However, a coordinate Bench of the Supreme Court in N.N. Global Mercantile (P) Ltd. v. Indo Unique Flame Ltd.[7] has expressed dissent with the opinion of the Court in Garware[8] that was affirmed in Vidya Drolia[9] and has accordingly referred the question to a Constitution Bench. Therefore, until this question is settled by the Constitution Bench the opinion of the Court regarding the dichotomy of existence and validity of the arbitration agreement in Vidya Drolia[10] is of uncertain precedential value.

 

Appealability and Conclusion

 

After analysing the above proposition, it is clear that the Supreme Court in Vidya Drolia[11] has vehemently laid down that the scope of judicial inquiry under Sections 8 and 11 of the Act is identical and extremely restrictive. Although the Court has brought the ambit of inquiry under Sections 8 and 11 at par by reading the prima facie test into both provisions, it has erred by failing to take cognizance of an inconsistency between the said sections with regard to the appealability of orders passed under these sections. From a conjoint reading of Section 8(1) with Section 37(1)(a) and Sections 11(6) and (6-A) with Section 11(7) of the Act it appears that an anomaly has arisen. It will be seen that an order passed under Section 8 that refuses to refer parties to arbitration is appealable under Section 37(1)(a), whereas a similar order passed under Section 11(6) read with Section 11(6-A) whether referring the parties or refusing to refer parties to arbitration is barred from an appeal by virtue of the strict rule in Section 11(7).

 

It is needless to say that this outcome is undesirable and is contrary to the true spirit of the ratio laid down by the Court in Vidya Drolia[12]. The legislature has followed the recommendations of the Law Commission of India and has carried out amendments to the Act but has not brought about the desired consistency between Sections 11(7) and37 of the Act. It is my opinion that such a lacuna could be used by recalcitrant parties, as they are likely to resort to dilatory tactics by filing mala fide Section 11 applications. Through this medium, these parties would attack the existence and validity of the arbitration agreement and would therefore pray for an order refusing to refer the parties to arbitration. By virtue of Section 11(7) of the Act that order would not be appealable. Such an outcome defeats the legislature’s policy to promote arbitration as the preferred method for dispute resolution arising from commercial contracts and is evidently not in conformity with the due process of law.

 

However, the Supreme Court in a recent judgment in Pravin Electricals (P) Ltd. v. Galaxy Infra and Engg. (P) Ltd.[13] (Pravin Electricals) has noted this inconsistency and has expressed its concern in relation to what has been laid down in Vidya Drolia[14]. The Court in Pravin Electricals[15] has invited the attention of the legislature to this conundrum by making an observation stating that Parliament might need to have relook at Sections 11(7) and 37 in order to bring the orders passed under Sections 8 and 11 at par on appealability. Therefore, until the legislature steps in and fixes this loophole the uncertainty will prevail.

 


† Hiroo Advani, Senior Managing Partner at Advani & Co.

†† Manav Nagpal, Associate at Advani & Co.

 

[1] (2021) 2 SCC 1.

[2] (2011) 5 SCC 532.

[3] (2021) 2 SCC 1.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] (2019) 9 SCC 209.

[7] 2021 SCC OnLine SC 13.

[8] (2019) 9 SCC 209.

[9] (2021) 2 SCC 1.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] 2021 SCC OnLine SC 190.

[14] (2021) 2 SCC 1.

[15] 2021 SCC OnLine SC 190.

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