Validity of an Arbitration Clause: No Strait-Jacket Formula

On September 7, 2022, the Hon’ble Supreme Court issued a significant ruling in the case of Babanrao Rajaram Pund v. Samarth Builders & Developers[1], holding that no strait jacket formula can be made under the Arbitration and Conciliation Act, 1996, to determine the particulars of an arbitration clause. It further held that an arbitration clause must be treated as final and binding even if specific words like “final” or “binding” are not used in such a clause.

Babanrao Rajaram Pund v. Samarth Builders & Developers

The case related to one Babanrao (the Appellant), who was the owner of a property situated in Aurangabad. The Appellant intended to build residential and commercial complexes on this property. Samarth Builders & Developers (Respondent No. 1), a company specialising in the building of homes and commercial buildings, learned of the Appellant’s intention to build such a residential and commercial complex and approached him. A “Development Agreement” (DA) was subsequently signed by the Appellant and Respondent No.1. The Appellant, thereafter, signed a General Power of Attorney (GPA) in favour of Respondent No. 1.  Respondent No. 2, in the civil appeal was the partner of Respondent No. 1.

According to the DA, Respondent No.1 had to build “Amay Apartments” on the property within 15 months. However, this deadline could have been extended with the payment of a penalty. Respondent No. 1 accepted the conditions of the DA and stated that he would build 45 percent of the constructed space before or on the deadline of the 15-month period, retaining the other 55 percent of the developed section for himself.

Respondent No.1 was, however, unable to finish the work within the allotted time. Aggrieved by this act, the Appellant gave notice to terminate the DA and to cancel the GPA. On 11.07.2016 the cancellation of the agreement and GPA were also publicised in a newspaper by the Appellant. Since, Respondent No.1 did not respond to the notice of the Appellant issued under Clause 18 of the DA, which carried an arbitration clause, the Appellant was constrained to approach the High Court.

Clause 18 of the DA reads as follows:

“18. All the disputes or differences arising between the parties hereto as to the interpretation of this Agreement or any covenants or conditions thereof or as to the rights, duties, or liabilities of any part hereunder or as to any act, matter, or thing arising out of or relating to or under this Agreement (even though the Agreement may have been terminated), the same shall be referred to arbitration by a sole arbitrator mutually appointed, failing which, two arbitrators, one to be appointed by each party to the dispute or difference, and these two Arbitrators will appoint a third Arbitrator and the Arbitration shall be governed by the Arbitration and Conciliation Act, 1996 or any re-enactment thereof.”

The Arbitration Clause

Before the Hon’ble High Court of Bombay, the Appellant had filed an application pursuant to Section 11 of the Arbitration Act, 1996, after receiving no response from the Respondents. The Respondents claimed that clause 18 of the DA could not be enforced because it lacked the precise phrase “to be bound by the decision of the Arbitral Tribunal.” The Hon’ble High Court ruled in favour of the Respondents and determined that the clause lacked necessary components of a legitimate arbitration agreement and did not expressly specify that the arbitrator’s ruling would be binding. Aggrieved by the order of the High Court, a Special Leave Petition was filed by the Appellant before the Hon’ble Supreme Court.

The Issue Before the Hon’ble Supreme Court

If an arbitration clause lacks specific language like “binding” or “final,” should it still be considered a valid agreement for the purpose of invoking powers under Sec. 11 of the Arbitration and Conciliation Act, 1996?

While analysing the issue, the Hon’ble Supreme Court made it clear that there is no precise form of an arbitration clause, and that Section 7 of the Arbitration Act of 1996 does not provide a specific form of arbitration agreement. The Hon’ble Supreme Court critically analysed Clause 18 of the DA and concluded that the terms of the agreement were clear. It made it clear that the term “disputes shall be” referred to arbitration, meant that the reference to arbitration was clear in the DA. Additionally, it was also observed that the contract contained clear instructions for choosing a third arbitrator and that the parties would be subject to the Arbitration and Conciliation Act, 1996. The Hon’ble Supreme Court further opined that the requirement and purpose of the parties to be bound by the arbitral tribunal are mandated by Clause 18 of the DA. The arbitral clause was held to be not invalidated by the omission of the phrases “final” and “binding.” The decision of the Hon’ble High Court of Judicature of Bombay was thus set aside by the Hon’ble Supreme Court and a sole arbitrator was appointed to resolve the dispute.

Key Takeaway

Though, the decision by the Hon’ble Supreme Court gives considerable breathing room for an arbitration clause, it is imperative to consider that an insufficiently written arbitration clause does hinder the process of arbitration. The only solution in such a scenario is to fix the deficiency in the arbitral clause. The parties must ensure that the arbitration agreement is well drafted so that there are no errors and the intention of the parties to refer the dispute to arbitration can be easily inferred. This will also ensure that the parties will not be forced to approach the courts to determine the validity of the clause.

References: 

[1] 2022 SCC OnLine SC 1165.

The only solution in such a scenario is to fix the deficiency in the arbitral clause. The parties must ensure that the arbitration agreement is well drafted so that there are no errors and the intention of the parties to refer the dispute to arbitration can be easily inferred. 

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