Arbitration is considered as one of the most preferred modes of dispute resolution as it is expedient, it values party autonomy and ensures party equality and these features are also the pillars on which arbitration as a method of dispute resolution enjoys its standing.
Mr Fali S. Nariman in one of his lectures said “the development of arbitration in India is not attributable to the success in arbitration, rather to the failures of the Court”.
The above-quoted statement quite vehemently and rightly express the development of the law concerning arbitration in India. The Indian jurisprudence has seen a constant development in its understanding and applicability of the concepts and principles of arbitration and the major changes in its jurisprudence has to be attributed to the developing judicial understanding over the same.
However, this method of dispute resolution suffers from various limitation and this article will be dealing with the issue of arbitrability, which is one of the most important issues and limitations of arbitration and it discusses whether the scope of the Arbitration Tribunal extends to disputes of all nature or there exists disputes which the Tribunal is not capable of resolving and have to be mandatorily tried in the courts.
Arbitrability refers to determining which type of disputes may be resolved by arbitration and what kind of disputes shall be exclusively dealt with by the courts. As per Article V(2)(a) of the New York Convention, the arbitration award may be refused recognition or enforcement if the subject-matter of the difference is not capable of settlement by arbitration under the law of that country. Further, Article 36(1)(b) of the UNCITRAL Model Law, a court can refuse enforcement if it finds that the subject-matter of the dispute is not capable of settlement under the law of the State.
In Booz Allen and Hamilton Inc. v. SBI Home Finance Ltd., the Supreme Court while propounding the three-prolonged test of determining arbitrability bifurcated the disputes into dealing with rights in rem and right in personam and held that the latter were arbitrable whereas the former was not arbitrable as they have the potential to affect the society at large. The Court also listed out certain types of disputes which were not arbitrable and there has been an evolving jurisprudence which has further added type of disputes to this list.
There are various categories of dispute like intellectual property rights, antitrust, insolvency, criminal matters, fraud, etc. which are considered to be non-arbitrable. Fraud has been defined as concealing or making false representation by way of a statement or conduct which results into loss of the person relying on such representation.
Section 17 of the Contract Act, 1872 defines “fraud” to mean and include suggesting “a fact knowing it to be untrue, knowingly active concealment of a fact, making a promise without intending to fulfil it or any other act which is capable of deceiving and is committed by a party to a contract, or with his participation, or by his agent, with intent to deceive another party thereto or his agent, or to induce him to enter into the contract”.
The Evolving Jurisprudence
The following judicial decisions highlight the evolving jurisprudence over the concept of arbitrability of fraud:
- Russel v. Russel.—The issue of arbitrability of fraud for the first time arose in this case, wherein it was held that if there exists prima facie evidence to support the existence of fraud the court can refuse to refer the matter to arbitration.
- Thereafter, the Supreme Court in Abdul Kadir Shamsuddin Bubere v. Madhav Prabhakar Oak held that cases involving serious allegations of fraud were to be decided by the court and it was a valid ground for not referring the matter to arbitration.
- The Supreme Court again in N. Radhakrishnan v. Maestro Engineers held that an issue of fraud is not arbitrable as the case involved serious allegations of fraud and such dispute were to be settled by the courts through detailed evidence led by both parties. In addition to this, the Court also emphasised that the dispute would be non-arbitrable on public policy consideration if it was related to serious allegations of fraud.
- A. Ayyasamy v. A. Paramasivam.—It was held that, cases where there exists serious allegation of fraud are to be treated as non-arbitrable and such matters have to be dealt with only by the civil courts. However in case, the allegations are in the nature of fraud simpliciter, such disputes can be dealt by the Arbitral Tribunal. The Supreme Court further deliberated that issues in which there exists serious allegation of forgery/fabrication of documents or where fraud is capable of invalidating the entire contract or affects the validity of the arbitration clause will be dealt only by the courts and the Arbitration Tribunal will not have jurisdiction to decide the same.
- The concept of “complex fraud” may be found in the opinion of Lord Hoffman, in Fiona Trust & Holding Corpn. v. Privalov, where the Court dealt with the concept of “complex fraud” and held that it refers to a scenario where the very foundation of an arbitration agreement is challenged due to a fraudulent act.
- Further in Rashid Raza v. Sadaf Akhtar, the Supreme Court formulated a two-step test to determine what constitutes a complex fraud It held that firstly, it has to be seen that whether the plea perrmeates the entire contract and specifically the arbitration agreement, thus rendering it void and secondly, the courts have to see whether the allegations of fraud are related to the internal affairs of the parties and have no implication in the public domain and such case it would be arbitrable.
- The Supreme Court in Avitel Post Studioz Ltd. v. HSBC PI Holdings (Mauritius) Ltd. observed that a dispute becomes non-arbitrable only when the court comes to the conclusion that the “serious allegations of fraud” which make arbitration agreement itself is inexistent and has been vitiated by fraud; or in cases where the allegations are levelled against the State or its instrumentalities, relating to arbitrary, fraudulent, or mala fide conduct, raising the question of public law as opposed to questions limited to the contractual relationship between the parties and rest all the allegations of fraud are arbitrable.
The Problematic Jurisprudence
The existing jurisprudence highlights the complexity with which the issue of arbitrability of fraud has been dealt with and more importantly it has been overfilled with various test making it more prone for judicial intervention. There exists no sound logic for differentiating between fraud simpliciter and fraud complex as the arbitrators also has the power to seek assistance for the recording of evidence under Section 27 of the Arbitration and Conciliation Act, 1996 (hereinafter referred to as “the Act”) and hence decide accordingly based on such evidence the issue of fraud like the courts would ordinarily do.
The fact that this distinction is superfluous and impractical is evident by the fact that the Supreme Court itself after suggesting this distinction in Ayyaswamy has suggested new and complex factor to the same and thus making it unpredictable and wavering.
Even the Law Commission in its 246th Report proposed addition of sub-section (6) to Section 16 of the Act and empowering the Tribunal to pass an award even if there were allegations of fraud which would still leave the parties with the option of raising the issue of arbitrability before the arbitrator at the pre-award stage and thus adhering to the principle of Kompetenz-Kompetenz and if rejected by the Tribunal, it would be available at the post-award stage as the award can be challenged on the ground of conflicting with the public policy of India under Section 34(2)(b)(ii) of the 1996 Act.
Further, the Supreme Court in World Sport Group (Mauritius) Ltd. v. MSM Satellite (Singapore) Pte. Ltd. while dealing with a foreign seated arbitration held that every kind of fraud is arbitrable, there exists no reasonable differentia for this different approach for foreign and domestic arbitration.
Solving the Problem
Recently, the Supreme Court in Vidya Drolia v. Durga Trading Corpn. held that allegations of fraud are arbitrable when it relates to a civil dispute and exclude only those claims which vitiates and render the arbitration clause invalid. The Court analysed the fact that arbitration is a private dispute resolution mechanism which aims at securing just, fair and effective resolution of disputes in an expedient manner. The Court focused on the distinction between matters which deal with right in rem and right in personam.
Previously, in N Radhakrishnan case, the Supreme Court had held that a dispute would be non-arbitrable on public policy constraints if it is related to serious allegations of fraud. However, the Supreme Court in Vijay Drolia held that if the reasoning propounded in N. Radhakrishnan has to be accepted, it would be similar to agreeing that the arbitration mechanism of the country is flawed and compromised one which can be set aside on grounds that public policy or public interest demands that such dispute should be decided in the court and it would be abrupt to second this opinion. In addition to this, the Court also highlighted the fact that an arbitrator is also an expert and decides a case on basis of facts, evidence and law. Further simplicity, informality and expedition are hallmarks of arbitration. Also the principle of party autonomy which finds its place in Sections 8 and 11 of the Act and also Section 89 of the Civil Procedure Code, 1908 of respecting the autonomy of parties and their decision to arbitrate the matter by simply referring the matter to arbitration and not try it themselves.
The Court further highlighted that the general rule and principle, given the legislative mandate clear from Act 3 of 2016 and Act 33 of 2019, and the principle of severability and Kompetence Kompetence, is that the Arbitral Tribunal is the preferred first authority to determine and decide all questions of non-arbitrability. The Court has been conferred the power of “second look” on aspects of the non-arbitrability post the award in terms of sub-clauses (i), (ii) or sub-clause (iv) of Section 34(2)(a) or sub-clause (i) of Section 34(2)(b) of the Arbitration Act.
The Court propounded the fourfold test for determining the arbitrability of the subject-matter:
- When the cause of action and subject-matter of the dispute relates to actions in rem, that do not pertain to subordinate rights in personam that arise from rights in rem;
- When the cause of action and subject matter of the dispute affects third-party rights; have erga omnes effect; require centralised adjudication, and mutual adjudication would not be appropriate and enforceable;
- When the cause of action and subject-matter of the dispute relates to the inalienable sovereign and public interest functions of the State and hence mutual adjudication would be unenforceable; and
- When the subject-matter of the dispute is expressly or by necessary implication non-arbitrable as per mandatory statute(s).
It held that only when the answer is affirmative, the subject-matter would be considered as non-arbitrable and accordingly it overruled the ratio in N. Radhakrishnan judgment and held that allegations of fraud can be arbitrable when it relates to a civil dispute. However, the only caveat being that fraud which vitiates or rends the arbitration clause invalid would be non-arbitrable. It further held that matters which are to be adjudicated by the Debts Recovery Tribunal under the Recovery of Debts Due to Banks and Financial Institutions Act, 1993 will not be arbitrable.
This recent judgment of the Supreme Court has cleared its stance over the issue of arbitrability of disputes concerning serious allegation of fraud and its relation to the public policy of India and is definitely a step towards the agenda of a pro-arbitration regime, however in the author’s view the Supreme Court has left the matter half done by holding that “those frauds which vitiate or renders the arbitration clause invalid would still be non-arbitrable”, as this still leaves the scope for judicial intervention in arbitration matters where the courts can delve into the question of validity of the arbitration clause and thus can still intervene in arbitration matters which is against the basic principle of arbitration i.e. Kompetenz-Kompetenz.
In Henry Schein Inc. v. Archer and White Sales Co., the US Supreme Court held that the issue of arbitrability must be decided by the arbitrator in all cases and not by the civil courts. It further emphasised that even where any party pleads that the reference to arbitration is baseless or has no grounds, even that plea should be decided by the arbitrator because of the principle of Kompetenz-Kompetenz.
This approach adopted by the US Supreme Court is in consonance with the basic principles of arbitration and hence acts as a benchmark towards establishing and functioning a pro-arbitration regime and is a favourable approach than the one propounded by the Indian Supreme Court. Thus it can be concluded that though the Indian jurisprudence on arbitraibility is moving towards a pro-arbitration regime, it cannot be said to be settled notion and in full consonance with the established principles of arbitration like Kompetenz-Kompetenz.
* Principal Associate, Hammurabi and Solomon Partners.
** IVth year student, BA LLB (Hons.), National Law University, Nagpur.
Nigel Blackaby, Constantine Partasides et al., Redfern and Hunter on International Arbitration, 110, (5th Edn. 2014).
Article V(2) NYC, United Nations Commission on International Trade Law, UNCITRAL Model Law on
International Commercial Arbitration 1985: With amendments as adopted in 2006 (Vienna: United Nations,
2008), available from www.uncitral.org/pdf/english/texts/arbitration/ml-arb/07-86998_Ebook.pdf.
Commercial Arbitration 1985: With Amendments as adopted in 2006 (Vienna: United Nations, 2008)
See O.P. Malhotra on The Law and Practice of Arbitration and Conciliation, Third Edn. authored by Indu Malhotra.
Shubham Jain and Prakshal Jain, Arbitrability of Fraud in India – Is Ayyasamy only about “Seriousness”?, IndiaCorpLaw (31-10-2019), available at https://indiacorplaw.in/2017/12/arbitrability-fraud-india-ayyasamy-seriousness.html.
Fiona Trust & Holding Corpn. v. Privalov, 2007 UKHL 40.
 Supra Note 10.
 Supra Note 9.
 Supra Note 18.
 Supra Note 9.
 Supra Note 9.