Almost every commercial contract contains an arbitration clause in order to circumvent the traditional trajectory of dispute resolution through litigation. It is common to encounter myriad project financing documents between a lender and a borrower bearing arbitration as a means of settling any dispute or difference. The concerning question raised in such a scenario is whether the lender of facilities exercises an upper hand in designating an arbitrator devoid of any recourse to the borrower; thereby bringing us to the crucial question: Have the clauses similar to “All disputes and differences of whatsoever nature arising out of this agreement, whether during its term or after expiry thereof or prior termination shall be referred to arbitration in terms of the Arbitration and Conciliation Act, 1996. The arbitration shall take place before a sole arbitrator, to be appointed by the Lender.” been obliterated?
The law in case of appointment of the sole arbitrator by a party has been settled by the Hon’ble Supreme Court in the case of Perkins Eastman Architects DPC and Ors. v. HSCC (India) Ltd. (Perkins case). HSCC (India) Ltd. (Respondent), the executing agency of the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, issued a Letter of Award (LOA) to the consortium of Applicants for the appointment of Design Consultant for All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) proposed at Guntur in Andhra Pradesh. The dispute resolution clause in the contract between the parties provided that if Applicants were dissatisfied with the decision of Director (Engg.), HSCC (India) Ltd. (HSCC) they were at the liberty to issue a notice to the Chief Managing Director (CMD), HSCC for the appointment of an arbitrator within 30 (thirty) days of receipt of the decision.
Furthermore, the contract also prohibited any other person except appointed by CMD, HSCC to act as a sole arbitrator thereby entirely vesting the power of appointment of an arbitrator on the Respondent. When disputes arose, the Applicants invoked the dispute resolution clause in the contract and the Chief General Manager, HSCC appointed the sole arbitrator. Thereafter, an application was filed by the Applicants under Section 11(6) read along with Section 11(12)(a) of Arbitration and Conciliation Act, 1996 (hereinafter referred to as the “Act”) which envisages appointment of an arbitrator by the court. The Hon’ble Supreme Court examined if it could exercise the power of appointment of an arbitrator in this case dehors the procedure set out in the arbitration agreement.
The Hon’ble Supreme Court referred to the judgement of TRF Limited v. Energo Engineering Projects Limited (TRF case) in which the Apex Court examined the issue wherein the Managing Director of the Respondent was titled as the sole arbitrator and was also vested with the authority to nominate a replacement. The Apex Court by virtue of Section 12(5) of the Act that deals with the arbitrator’s relationship with the parties or counsel or subject matter of dispute, affirmed the ineligibility of a person falling under the purview of Seventh Schedule of the Act to perform the role of an arbitrator. Therefore, the Managing Director was ineligible to act as an arbitrator due to which his ability to nominate another person as an arbitrator was annihilated. The Apex Court in this case differentiated the dual power of the Managing Director, one to adjudicate as an arbitrator and second, the capacity of the Managing Director to appoint a nominee in his place.
The principles emanating from the TRF case were reflected in the present case wherein the capacity of CMD, HSCC to appoint an arbitrator was analyzed. The Hon’ble Supreme Court held that in the TRF case the ineligibility of the Managing Director arose due to his interest in the outcome of the dispute. The same ground would be applicable in the scenario irrespective of the binary power of the arbitrator. In other words, if the appointed arbitrator has an interest in the dispute or in the outcome or decision thereof, he shall be incompetent to adjudicate the dispute as an arbitrator and/or disentitled to appoint any other person as an arbitrator.
The Hon’ble Court stated that the facet of exclusivity shall encompass the party that unilaterally appoints the sole arbitrator of its choice and discretion in spelling the course of the proceedings. Thus, the essence of the Act along with the TRF case was retained by upholding that it would be incongruous to confer the power of appointing an arbitrator in the hands of a person who has an interest in the outcome or decision of the dispute. The appointment made by the Respondent who was empowered in accordance to the dispute resolution clause was annulled and the Hon’ble Court exercised its power under Section 11(6) resulting in the appointment of a sole arbitrator to preside over the disputes between the parties.
The Hon’ble High Court of Delhi echoed this principle in the case of Bilva Knowledge Foundation and Ors. v. CL Educate Limited where the court conceded with the view, followed by the case of Proddatur Cable TV DIGI Services v. SITI Cable Network Limited wherein the distribution agreement vested a unilateral right to appoint the sole arbitrator on the Respondent Company which disagreed with the nomination of arbitrator proposed by the Petitioner. The High Court held that test of having an interest in the outcome of the dispute will be exhibited by the Respondent Company acting through its Board of Directors thereby vitiating the unilateral appointment. The High Court clarified that though party autonomy is a touchstone in arbitration, one cannot overlook the underlying principles of fairness, transparency and impartiality that are also fundamental in an arbitration. While the parties may agree to the procedure mentioned in the dispute resolution clause by free will, this agreement should not eclipse the facet of fairness and impartiality in an arbitration proceeding.
In cases where both parties can nominate their respective choice of arbitrators the power derived by one party is counter balanced by an equal power with the other party as seen in the Central Organisation for Railway Electrification v. ECI-SPIC-SMO-MCML (JV). Though it may seem that the law governing the right of the lender to appoint the sole arbitrator as upheld in the case of D.K. Gupta and Ors. v. Renu Munjal is now settled through the Perkins case, one has to be prudent in drafting and interpreting the clauses for the appointment of sole arbitrator that may be reached by mutual consent or by court appointment or any other alternative thereby balancing party autonomy and the tenets of fairness, transparency and impartiality.
In cases where both parties can nominate their respective choice of arbitrators the power derived by one party is counter balanced by an equal power with the other party as seen in the Central Organisation for Railway Electrification v. ECI-SPIC-SMO-MCML (JV).