conversation with ms gunjan chhabra

Ms Gunjan is an experienced lawyer with particular expertise in commercial law and arbitration. Her temperament and approach with legal acumen is extremely meticulous. She has become a leading name in the field of arbitration in the recent years. Her prior experiences with some of the most prestigious organisations is a standing witness of her acumen, drive, exposure and skill set. She, recently, is the partner at the Adwitya Legal LLP.

1. Tell us about your journey from obtaining an undergraduate degree from Guru Gobind Singh Indraprastha to LLM from Kurukshetra University to a leading name in arbitration law and now more recently being a Solicitor of England & Wales?

I am a first-generation lawyer, and I would definitely say that the strong academic foundation and specialised education provided to me by these institutions has equipped me with several skills and the requisite knowledge. Having an academic bent of mind, I graduated amongst the top of my class, first division with distinction in my LLB as well as my masters degree from Guru Gobind Singh Indraprastha University (GGSIPU) and Kurukshetra University respectively.

During my law school days I focused, not only on academics but also whetted my skills with several co-curricular activities such as moot courts, both national and international as well several other extra co-curricular competitions.

I would say, law school is also a good time to discover yourself as a first-generation lawyer. I dedicated a substantial amount of time engaging in internships in different areas of law to really experience first-hand, which areas clicked with me. It is this exposure to varied fields which brought me to the conclusion that I could probably look into gaining the skills required for complex and technical commercial litigation due to my strong analytical, detail-oriented and problem-solving bent of mind.

I had completed my final year internship with Singhania & Partners, LLP, where I was called to work once I graduated. I worked with the firm for a period of five years and this time really provided me a strong foundation in commercial litigation and arbitration.

Building on this experience, I decided to establish my own practice at Adwitya Legal LLP, which allowed me to really branch out and gave me an accelerated growth trajectory in not only arbitration but also allowed me to focus on providing tailored legal solutions to clients in the field of commercial disputes.

As far as being called to the Bar at England & Wales as a Solicitor is concerned, I would say it was the need of the hour for me. I felt that some of my cross-border work and my clients would benefit greatly with this added qualification, which is why I went through the strenuous process. I can say that till date it is one the hardest qualifications for me to accomplish, which is just a testament to the high quality of the qualification.

Apart from this I have always had the outlook to continuously learn and contribute to the field, which has granted me recognition in the field. More recently I have also taken up the role of arbitrator with several organisations and passed awards in close to 45 arbitration matters.

Overall, I would say all this combined has played a pivotal role in shaping my career and I continue to be passionate about the field and strive to contribute to its further development.

2. Being a specialist in domestic and international arbitration, what is your take on India's footing in arbitration and mediation on an international level and what changes can be introduced for the development of India in the field of ADR?

I would say that several developments are being made in the field of ADR everyday. One of the extremely notable one being the introduction of the Arbitration and Conciliation (Amendment) Act, 2015 which brought about timelines for arbitration proceedings, apart from streamlining of various other processes. India has always been notorious for its lengthy dispute resolution timelines, and this was a much-needed step to even set a baseline for building confidence in India as seat.

Some further changes which I propose are (a) much needed specialised training and capacity-building initiatives for lawyers, Judges, engineers, architects and other professionals involved in the field of ADR to ensure a pool of skilled practitioners not only as arbitrators but also as expert witnesses; (b) an incentivisation of mediation in the field of commercial disputes — steps have been taken in this direction but more needs to be done here; (c) creating much more efficient enforcement mechanisms, which are standardised all over the country and not only in a selected few high courts of the country; and (d) ensuring diversity and inclusion in the fields of ADR by mechanisms such as mandatory compliance and reporting obligations. Measures such as these will surely provide greater confidence not only to international parties involved in commercial dealings in India, but even to domestic players to choose India as a preferred seat.

3. What challenges have you faced in pursuing arbitration as a career? Is there any certain set of skills to be an arbitrator?

As regards challenges I would say that being a first-generation lawyer, in the initial stages of my career, building a reputation and credibility is a great challenge. It is imperative not to limit yourself to the kind of matters you undertake in the beginning, and this is something which really helped me overcome this herculean task. In doing so, another challenge I faced was the need for developing expertise in diverse areas and staying updated with the latest developments in these fields.

Also, as you grow in your career you do understand that there is an urgent need to balance different roles and often wear multiple hats. In my case this is the role of an advocate, a solicitor, sometimes a neutral third party, an expert at other times, and an overall facilitator for any client keeping all factors in mind. This is something which requires a high level of professionalism and honing one's communication skills.

As an arbitrator I am currently empanelled with the Court of Arbitration for Art (CAfA) and an arbitrator and mediator. I am also empanelled with SAMA and with Presolv360. I believe that arbitrators should possess certain essential skills for effective dispute resolution and adjudication, which are crucial for serving the parties involved. These include a deep understanding of the subject-matter and the law, analytical problem-solving skills, attention to detail, impartiality and neutrality, excellent communication skills and time management, organisational skills to ensure a smooth arbitration process. Apart from this in cases of international arbitration, or domestic arbitration/mediation where there is a vast cultural gap between not only the parties but also sometimes between the parties/arbitrators it is imperative for an arbitrator to be sensitive to cultural differences and be adaptable keeping in mind these issues. This is where the role of diversity and inclusion comes in. As a side observation, while there is an increasing presence of women in roles of counsels and advocates, further efforts are necessary to promote and encourage women to attain decision-making positions.

In addition, an arbitrator also needs to possess a comprehensive understanding of not only technical knowhow but also how to write an award which can withstand challenge at the stage of a Section 34 challenge or for that matter an appellate challenge at the stage of a Section 37 appeal. Achieving this level of proficiency requires extensive training for writing a well-reasoned award and a solid foundational grasp of the grounds for challenging an award.

By continuing to hone these skills and adapting to evolving dynamics of the field one can effectively meet the demands of being an arbitrator.

4. Being qualified as Solicitor in the Senior Courts of England & Wales and representing clients before National and International Arbitration Tribunals, what is your opinion on the Bar Council's initiative of opening up the metaphorical legal borders of Indian courts for foreign lawyers?

As a Solicitor of England and Wales (E&W) I feel that this initiative does have the potential to bring in several benefits. Some of these could involve an enhanced expertise and knowledge sharing through a cross-pollination of ideas and knowhow, access to an international legal talent pool, facilitating cross-border transactions. Ultimately this could also be a factor which could aid to promote India as an arbitration hub, because it could bolster India's credibility and attractiveness by providing parties a wider choice of legal representation.

However, having said this, it is essential to ensure that the initiative is implemented in a manner which strikes a balance between welcoming foreign lawyers and safeguarding interests of Indian legal professionals, and this can be done by putting in place a proper regulatory framework for maintaining professional standards, ethics, and accountability.

Overall, global coloration and expertise could position India as a leading player in the international legal landscape.

5. With your experience and observation of young minds in the field of ADR, what can be the early signs that help a fresh mind to do exceptionally well in the field?

I believe that the early signs could be strong research abilities, a deep-delve problem-solving mindset, effective communication skills, a high emotional quotient (EQ), professionalism, and ethics with a drive to meet commitments. An analytical and curious mind along with a thirst for continuous learning are also extremely important indicators. At the end of the day, looking at the concerns of all stakeholders is very important for an ADR professional.

6. “Justice hurried is justice buried” plays a vital role in the legal industry, what are your views on its role in respect to ADR and especially arbitration?

As far as ADR methods of mediation and conciliation are concerned, it is important to understand that the parties chose these methods for one of its key features which is timely disposal. The concern of justice being buried do not arise with these dispute resolution methods as they inherently prioritise achieving a win-win solution for both parties involved.

But as for arbitration it is essential that principles of due process, procedural fairness and fair hearing are upheld. The key objective is to strike a balance between expeditious resolution of disputes and the need for a thorough examination of facts and legal arguments, which are both important requirements and expectations of clients from the arbitration process.

Hence, in arbitration, it becomes crucial for an arbitrator to diligently undertake extensive background research, carefully review the pleadings and documents, and arrive well prepared for the hearings. This ensures that counsels are not required to repeat their pleadings and show each of the documents during the hearings of the arbitration process. Consequently, the role of the counsels involved should not entail overwhelming the proceedings with long and verbose pleadings or engaging in protracted cross-examinations. Instead, the objective should be to maintain conciseness and relevance. This does work very well in the international scenario, where the seat is outside India, but it is yet to be implemented very widely in domestic arbitration proceedings.

Similarly, arbitrators and experts should use methods such as “hot tubbing” where it comes to differing views of various technical experts and parties. Similarly, the role of disclosure cannot be undermined. Such methods have the potential to cut the arbitration process much shorter, where the issues to be argued and cross-examined resultantly become very narrow.

In this manner, by achieving a balance between the roles of arbitrators, experts, counsels, and in fact all stakeholders, alternative dispute resolution (ADR) can successfully avoid the pitfall of “justice being buried” while still being a quick method of adjudication.

7. Have you ever worked or planned to use the mode of operation of electronic dispute resolution? What are your views on sustainability and diversity in the newly virtual world of international arbitration?

Yes, I have used EDR in several of my proceedings. When the pandemic hit in 2020 and was still a new phenomenon, I noticed, that several retired Judges heading the proceedings where I was involved, were very vary of the proceedings being taken online. In such a scenario I took the initiative of organising the hearings online, ensured that retired Judges were comfortable with the proceedings and convinced all stakeholders that this was the only way forward. If not, the proceedings and in turn, clients would have greatly suffered.

In fact, I am a big propagator of online dispute resolution (ODR) and have undertaken certain proceedings conducted by me as an arbitration with the help of information communication technology (ICT) tools. I am also empanelled with SAMA and Presolv360 which are both pioneering organisations in the field of ODR. Apart from several benefits of saving time and costs of parties, EDR also promotes sustainability and reduces the carbon footprint. EDR also enhances diversity and inclusion as it removes limitations of geographical boundaries.

Also, where traditional arbitration institutions are getting saturated with roles, new ODR institutions have come up with extremely lucrative job opportunities for young legal professionals in the field. Even from that perspective ODR players have become quite relevant in the field and do play a role in increasing the pool of talent and perspectives thereby enhancing diversity and promoting inclusion, which is why even the Government of India is backing these initiatives.

8. How has the pandemic influenced the field of arbitration? What challenges and trends have been observed during this time in the arbitration?

The pandemic has definitely led to a shift towards virtual hearings and accelerated technology adoption in arbitration. For instance, there were several established entities/centres or even for that matter arbitrators and practitioners who had qualms about adaptability of virtual hearings for the purpose of arbitration, but all those doubts dissipated once the pandemic hit and stakeholders knew it was here to stay. While internationally there were several virtual options available in this field even before COVID-19, but as a country, India surely benefited a lot from this push towards technology-driven and virtual arbitration.

This is nothing but a demonstration of the resilience and adaptability of the arbitration community. The shift has been so drastic that now, given a choice there is a preference for virtual hearings with the aid of technology.

9. The fact that certain universities are establishing such centres on ADR, how do you see this as an asset for changing the fate of ADR in India?

ADR centres play a crucial role in promoting awareness, education, and specialised training in ADR. Such centres facilitate the development of innovative techniques, promote interdisciplinary studies and foster connections between theory and practice.

In fact, I often collaborate with such centres for giving guest lectures of interesting topics in the field of arbitration. One such workshop was undertaken by me in collaboration with Chanakya Centre for Alternative Dispute Resolution (CCADR), CNLU which saw a large participation from students. I would be open to such opportunities in the future as I have a passion for academia and for forming a deep connect with the upcoming bright legal minds.

10. Any message for students and readers who want to develop their future in the field of ADR?

For all the young trailblazers stepping into the realm of ADR, I would guide them to embrace the power of dialogue, not be afraid to ask for help, and also recognise their potential in their unique abilities. No two people are alike. The need is for the young minds to come up with innovative solutions to dismantle barriers in the field. Key advice would be to not be afraid to change status quo, be forever curious and to not limit your potential.

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  • Arbitration landscape in India has undergone quite a few noteworthy changes in the last few years. Much more, however, remains to be done to make India a global hub of arbitration. Advocate, arbitrator and solicitor Gunjan Chhabra appropriately suggests few more reforms in this direction, such as (1) specialised training and capacity-building initiatives for lawyers, Judges, engineers, architects and other professionals involved in the field of ADR to broaden the pool of skilled practitioners not only as arbitrators but also as expert witnesses; (2) an incentivisation of mediation in the field of commercial disputes; (3) creating much more efficient enforcement mechanisms, which are standardised all over India; and (4) ensuring diversity and inclusion in the fields of ADR by mechanisms such as mandatory compliance and reporting obligations. Real life experience suggests that such progressive steps could help in instilling confidence not only in international parties involved in commercial dealings in India, but also in domestic players to choose India as a preferred seat of arbitration.
    An equally important is to clarify the issue that ADR methods do not lead to any kind compromise on the principles of justice. Advocate Chhabra reminds critics of ADR that as far as the methods of mediation and conciliation are concerned, it should be borne in mind that when the parties themselves choose these methods for timely disposal, the question of justice being buried does not even arise. These dispute resolution methods inherently prioritise achieving a win-win solution for both parties involved. In respect of arbitration, it is known that principles of due process, procedural fairness and fair hearing are upheld. The goal is to strike a balance between expeditious resolution of disputes and the need for a thorough examination of facts and legal arguments, which are both important requirements and expectations of clients from the arbitration process. Moreover, all the ADR methods can be practised in an online/remote/virtual, synchronous and asynchronous modes as well. This is convenient and economical for all stakeholders, if they prefer not to have physical or in-person hearings. .

  • Very well explained!

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