Explained| Can arbitrator grant pendente lite interest if contract expressly bars payment of interest? 

Supreme Court: The bench of SA Nazeer* and Krishna Murari, JJ has held that if the contract contains a specific clause which expressly bars payment of interest, then it is not open for the arbitrator to grant pendente lite interest.

Facts

Parties entered into a contract for construction of boundary wall at 2×750 MW Pragati III Combined Cycle Power at Bawana, Delhi, which, inter alia, contained the interest barring the following clause:

“Clause 17: No interest shall be payable by BHEL on Earnest Money Deposit, Security Deposit or on any moneys due to the contractor.”

When the dispute arose between the parties, the appellant, apart from claiming various amounts under different heads, inter alia claimed pre-reference, pendente lite and future interest at the rate of 24% on the value of the award.

The Arbitrator concluded that there is no prohibition in the contract about payment of interest for the pre-suit, pendente lite and future period.  Therefore, he awarded pendente lite and future interest at the rate of 10% p.a. to the appellant on the award amount from the date of filing of the claim petition i.e. 02.12.2011 till the date of realization of the award amount.

Analysis

Interest payments are governed in general by the Interest Act, 1978 in addition to the specific statutes that govern an impugned matter.

  • Section 2 (a) of the Interest Act defines a “Court” which includes both a Tribunal and an Arbitrator.
  • Section 3 allows a “Court” to grant interest at prevailing interest rates in various cases. The provisions of Section 3 (3) of the Interest Act, 1978 explicitly allows the parties to waive their claim to an interest by virtue of an agreement. Section 3(3)(a)(ii) states that the Interest Act will not apply to situations where the payment of interest is “barred by virtue of an express agreement”.

Further, the provisions of the Arbitration and Conciliation Act, 1996 give paramount importance to the contract entered into between the parties and categorically restricts the power of an arbitrator to award pre-reference and pendente  lite  interest when the parties themselves have agreed to the contrary.

Section 31(7)(a) of the 1996 Act which deals with the payment of interest is as under :

“31(7)(a) Unless otherwise agreed by the parties, where and insofar as an arbitral award is for the payment of money, the arbitral tribunal may include in the sum for which the award is made interest, at such rate as it deems reasonable, on the whole or any part of the money, for the whole or any part of the period between the date on which the cause of action arose and the date on which the award is made.”

The provision makes it clear that if the contract prohibits pre-reference and pendente lite interest, the arbitrator cannot award interest for the said period.

In the present case, clause barring interest is very clear and categorical. It uses the expression “any moneys due to the contractor” by the employer which includes the amount awarded by the arbitrator.

Hence, it was held that when there is an express statutory permission for the parties to contract out of receiving interest and they have done so without any vitiation of free consent, it is not open for the Arbitrator to grant pendent lite interest.

Important rulings

Sayeed Ahmed and Company v. State of Uttar Pradesh, (2009) 12 SCC 26

A provision has been made under Section 31(7)(a) of the 1996 Act in relation to the power of the arbitrator to award interest.  As per this section, if the contract bars payment of interest, the arbitrator cannot award interest from the date of cause of action till the date of award.

Sree Kamatchi Amman Constructions v. Divisional Railway Manager (Works), (2010) 8 SCC 767

here the parties had agreed that the interest shall not be payable, the Arbitral Tribunal cannot award interest between the date on which the cause of action arose to the date of the award.

Sri Chittaranjan Maity v. Union of India, (2017) 9 SCC 611

If a contract prohibits award of interest for pre-award period, the arbitrator cannot award interest for the said period.

[Garg Builders v. Bharat Heavy Electricals Ltd., 2021 SCC OnLine SC 855, decided on 04.10.2021]

_______________________________________________

Counsels:

For appellant: Advocate Sanjay Bansal

For respondent: Advocate Pallav Kumar


*Judgment by: Justice SA Nazeer

Know Thy Judge | Justice S. Abdul Nazeer

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