Undue delay in passing Arbitral Award in violation of Public Policy?
A clause for Alternate dispute resolution (ADR) is incorporated in a contract to ensure avoidance of lengthy and costly legal procedures. Undue delay in arbitration procedure tends to vitiate this essential objective that ADR seeks to achieve. Further, the ADR process is designed to minimize the interference of courts, however, it is more of fiction as parties unhappy with the outcome of the process take the legal recourse as a dilatory tactic. Therefore, it is essential that arbitral awards are set aside only when there is a grave injustice or is unreasonable on the face of it[I].
Some light was shed on the issue recently by the Hon’ble Madras High Court in the case of Mr. K. Dhanasekar v Union of India and Ors[ii]. The court set aside an arbitral award on an application made to it under section 34 of the Arbitration and Conciliation Act, 2015 holding that undue and/or inordinate delays in passing an award are in fact violative of public policy.
The Petitioner, an engineering contractor, entered into an agreement with the Respondent, Southern Railways, for the collection and supply of 50 mm size machine crushed hard granite ballast for railway track doubling purposes. Certain disputes arose between the parties, and in accordance with the provisions of the contract which provided for settlement of disputes by arbitration, an arbitral tribunal consisting of three arbitrators was constituted. The learned arbitral tribunal dismissed the claim of the claimant in its entirety and allowed the counterclaim of the respondent. Challenging the same, the Petitioner approached the Hon’ble Madras High Court.
The Petitioner, inter alia, contended that there was a severe delay in passing the award. The arbitral tribunal passed the impugned award after a period of 3 years and 7 months which was not a reasonable time period. The Respondent countered that the learned arbitral tribunal, upon hearing the parties at length and upon consideration of all facts and circumstances, had passed the impugned award. Further, the delay in passing the award had not caused any prejudice to anyone and therefore, the award must not be set aside.
Whether inordinate delays in passing an arbitral award was sufficient cause to set aside the impugned award.
The Hon’ble Court observed that the fact that there were delays in passing the impugned award was not disputed. What was disputed was whether such delay warranted the interference of the Hon’ble Court in setting aside the award.
To answer the question, reliance was placed on the decision of the Hon’ble Delhi Court in the case of Harji Engineering Works Pvt. Ltd. v Bharat Heavy Electricals Limited[iii], wherein the Hon’ble Delhi High Court had held that an arbitrator was required to make and publish an award within a reasonable period of time, and in the event that there is a delay, the same had to be adequately explained. The lack of any satisfactory explanation to such delays would be prejudicial to the interests of the parties. The Hon’ble Delhi High Court also held that the parties to an arbitration agreement had the right to be satisfied that the arbitrator was conscious of and had taken into consideration all contentions and claims before adjudicating on the claim. An inordinate delay from the last date of hearing would not provide such satisfaction to the parties.
The Hon’ble Madras High Court, adopting the same rationale found that arbitrators are likely to forget the contentions and pleas raised by parties during the course of arguments. Further, unexplained delay in passing an arbitral award was violative of the public policy of India and therefore liable to be set aside.
The Hon’ble High Court has proceeded on the assumption that the arbitrators must have forgotten the arguments placed by the parties, despite the fact that written submissions were placed on record by each party. Additionally, Section 29A introduced by the Arbitration Amendment Act, 2015 (further amended in 2019) has prescribed a time limit of 12 months from the date of completion of pleadings, within which period, the Arbitrator must necessarily make the award. Although the amendment is not applicable to the case at hand (Consequent to the decision of the Supreme Court in Board of Control for Cricket in India v. Kochi Cricket Pvt. Ltd. and Ors[iv] on the retrospective application of the Arbitration Amendment Act, 2015), however, a similar case today would reach the same fate because of these set timelines. The said decision, as well as the amending provision, have the tendency of acting as a tool for the losing party to have the arbitral award set aside on procedural ground rather than on merits. These also increase the interference of the court which might result in unnecessary delays which the amending provision or the decision basically condemns. Further, with the 12 month or 18 months limit (if extended by the parties), the delay might not happen in ADR proceedings but may happen in the legal proceedings which the parties seek to avoid by opting for the ADR mechanism in the first place. In addition, court interference or dependence would hamper the confidentiality that parties seek to achieve through the ADR process. This is violative of the sanctity of arbitral awards and goes against the very fabric of the Arbitration and Conciliation Act itself.
Finally, the Arbitration Council being set up through the 2019 amendment, to undertake necessary measures to promote and encourage the ADR mechanism and to frame policy and guidelines for uniform professional standards, must take cognizance of this. Although provisions for penalizing arbitrators have not been provided in the amendment, the Arbitration Council should consider making regulations on the same to ensure compliance. This might provide an impetus to the overall arbitration process and ensure timely resolution in a fair and equitable manner while avoiding the interference of the court.
[i] Oil and Natural Gas Corporation Ltd., v. Saw Pipes Ltd., [2003 (5) SCC 705]
[ii] O.P. No. 4 of 2015 and O.A. No. 31 of 2015 at http://126.96.36.199/judis/chennai/index.php/casestatus/viewpdf/489701
[iii] [2009 (107) DRJ 213]
[iv] (SLP (C.) No. 19545-19546 of 2016)
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The Hon’ble High Court has proceeded on the assumption that the arbitrators must have forgotten the arguments placed by the parties, despite the fact that written submissions were placed on record by each party. Additionally, Section 29A introduced by the Arbitration Amendment Act, 2015 (further amended in 2019) has prescribed a time limit of 12 months from the date of completion of pleadings, within which period, the Arbitrator must necessarily make the award.