Can Courts modify Arbitral Awards under S. 34 of Arbitration Act or is power limited? SC decides

Supreme Court: The Division Bench of R.F. Nariman and B.R. Gavai, JJ., while addressing a significant and interesting question of law expressed that,

“If one were to include the power to modify an award in Section 34, one would be crossing the Lakshman Rekha”

Interesting Question of Law

Whether the power of a Court under Section 34 of the Arbitration and Conciliation Act, 1996 to ‘set aside’ an award of an arbitrator would include the power to modify such an award?

Madras High Court decision 

A Division Bench of the Madras High Court had disposed of a large number of appeals filed under Section 37 of the said Act laying down as a matter of law that, at least insofar as arbitral awards made under the National Highways Act, 1956, Section 34 of the Arbitration Act must be so read as to permit modification of an arbitral award made under the National Highways Act so as to enhance compensation awarded by an Arbitrator.

Factual Matrix

The crux of the matter was that the above-stated appeals concerned notifications issued under the provisions of National Highways Act and awards passed. The said notifications were of the year 2009 onwards and the awards made were based on the ‘guideline value’ of the lands in question and not on the basis of sale deeds of similar lands.

It was stated that the competent authority had granted abysmally low amounts.

In Section 34 petitions that were filed before the District and Sessions Judge, the said amounts were enhanced to Rs 645 per sq. meter and the award of the Collector was therefore modified by the District Court in exercise of jurisdiction under Section 34 of the Arbitration Act.

Further, in the appeal filed to Division Bench, the above-stated modification was upheld, with there being a remand order to fix compensation for certain trees and crops.

Analysis, Law and Decision

Section 34 of the Arbitration Act

Bench noted that far from Section 34 being in the nature of an appellate provision, it provides only for setting aside awards on very limited grounds, such grounds being contained in sub-sections (2) and (3) of Section 34.

It is the opinion of the arbitral tribunal which counts in order to eliminate the grounds for setting aside the award, which may be indicated by the court hearing the Section 34 application.

Further, the Court stated that Section 34 is modelled on the UNCITRAL Model Law on International Commercial Arbitration, 1985 under which no power to modify an award is given to a court hearing a challenge to an award.

Old v. New

Elaborating more, Bench added that by way of contrast, under Sections 15 and 16 of the Arbitration Act, 1940, the court is given the power to modify or correct an award in the circumstances mentioned in Section 15, apart from a power to remit the award under Section 16.

Thus, under the scheme of the old Act, an award may be remitted, modified or otherwise set aside given the grounds contained in Section 30 of the 1940 Act, which are broader than the grounds contained in Section 34 of the 1996 Act.

In Supreme Court’s decision of MMTC Ltd. v. Vedanta Ltd., (2019) 4 SCC 163, it was decided that Section 34 proceeding does not contain any challenge on the merits of the award.

Adding to the above, Court stated that the point raised in the appeals stands concluded in McDermott International Inc. v. Burn Standard Co. Ltd., (2006) 11 SCC 181.

Delhi High Court’s decision in Cybernetics Network (P) Ltd. v. Bisquare Technologies (P) Ltd., 2012 SCC OnLine Del 1155 is also instructive.

Court’s opinion

Hence, in Court’s opinion, there cannot be a doubt that Section 24 of the Arbitration Act, 1996 cannot be held to include within it a power to modify an award.

McDermott International Inc. v. Burn Standard Co. Ltd., (2006) 11 SCC 181 was followed in Kinnari Mullick v. Ghanshyam Das Damani, (2018) 11 SCC 328. Also, in Dakshin Haryana Bijli Vitran Nigam Ltd. v. Navigant Technologies Pvt. Ltd., 2021 SCC OnLine SC 157, a recent judgment of this Court also followed McDermott International Inc. v. Burn Standard Co. Ltd., (2006) 11 SCC 181 stating that there is no power to modify an arbitral award under Section 34 as:

(f) In law, where the Court sets aside the award passed by the majority members of the tribunal, the underlying disputes would require to be decided afresh in an appropriate proceeding.

Under Section 34 of the Arbitration Act, the Court may either dismiss the objections filed, and uphold the award, or set aside the award if the grounds contained in sub-sections (2) and (2A) are made out. There is no power to modify an arbitral award.

Judicial Trend

Therefore, in view of the above discussed, it can be stated that this question has now been settled finally by at least 3 decisions of the Supreme Court.

To state that the judicial trend appears to favour an interpretation that would read into Section 34 a power to modify, revise or vary the award would be to ignore the previous law contained in the 1940 Act; as also to ignore the fact that the 1996 Act was enacted based on the UNCITRAL Model Law on International Commercial Arbitration, 1985.

Coming to the submission in support of the impugned judgment that the fact that the Central Government appoints an arbitrator and the arbitration would therefore not be consensual, resulting in a government servant rubber-stamping an award which then cannot be challenged on its merits, cannot possibly lead to the conclusion that, therefore, a challenge on merits must be provided driving a coach and four through Section 34 of the Arbitration Act, 1996. The impugned judgment is also incorrect on this score.

Lastly, the Supreme Court stated that if one were to include the power to modify an award in Section 34, one would be crossing the Lakshman Rekha and doing what, according to the justice of a case, ought to be done.

Parliament very clearly intended that no power of modification of an award exists in Section 34 of the Arbitration Act, 1996.

In several cases, the NHAI has not filed appeals even in matters which are similar i.e., arising from the same Section 3A Notification, as a result of which certain landowners have got away with enhanced compensation given to them by the District Court. Also, we cannot shut our eyes to the fact the arbitrator has awarded compensation on a completely perverse basis i.e., by taking into account ‘guideline value’ which is relevant only for stamp duty purposes, and not taking into account sale deeds which would have reflected the proper market value of the land.

Differential Compensation

The Court noted that in several cases, the NHAI has not filed appeals even in matters which are similar i.e., arising from the same Section 3A Notification, as a result of which certain landowners have got away with enhanced compensation given to them by the District Court. Also, the arbitrator has awarded compensation on a completely perverse basis i.e., by taking into account ‘guideline value’ which is relevant only for stamp duty purposes, and not taking into account sale deeds that would have reflected the proper market value of the land.

The Court was of the opinion that the said differential compensation cannot be awarded on the ground that a different public purpose is sought to be achieved. Also, the legislature cannot say that, however laudable the public purpose and however important it is to expedite the process of land acquisition, differential compensation is to be paid depending upon the public purpose involved or the statute involved.

Illustration

Take the case of a single owner of land who has two parcels of land adjacent to each other. One parcel of land abuts the national highway, whereas the other parcel of land is at some distance from the national highway. Can it be said that the land which abuts the national highway, and which is acquired under the National Highways Act, will yield a compensation much lesser than the adjacent land which is acquired under the Land Acquisition Act only because in the former case, an award is by a government servant which cannot be challenged on merits, as opposed to an award made under Part III of the Land Acquisition Act by the reference Court with two appeals in which the merits of the award can be gone into? There can be no doubt that discrimination would be writ large in such cases.

However, since the NH Amendment Act, 1997 had not been challenged before the Court, it refrained from saying anything more. It was said that in the facts and circumstances of the case interference under Article 136 was not called for.[National Highways v. M. Hakeem,  2021 SCC OnLine SC 473, decided on 20-07-2021]

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