Overview of Anti Arbitration Injunctions
The conundrum of anti-arbitration injunctions is similar to the relationship between a devil and deep blue sea, thereby, addressing the two-sided sword of danger and distress irrespective of choosing directions. India’s approach on anti-arbitration injunctions can be summarized more or less on the same lines. In common parlance, an anti-arbitration injunction suit seeks to injunct the initiation of arbitration proceedings. Generally, the parties prefer to take this recourse before the initiating arbitration proceedings. However, the same is not confined to narrow boundaries and hence, recourse can be availed before the tribunal passes the final award.
There are two broad limbs while dealing with such injunctions. On one hand, it is argued that this remedy strikes the power of arbitral tribunal to regulate or decide its own jurisdiction which results in increasing judicial intervention. On the other hand, it is argued in cantena of judgments that the duty of the court to ‘refer’ parties to the arbitration plays a vital role. The Hon’ble Apex Court in Vidya Drolia & Ors. v. Durga Trading Corporation (“Vidya Drolia”) reiterated four-fold conditions for determining arbitrability of disputes by appropriate forum viz., (i) instances where cause of action and subject matter of the dispute relates to actions in rem, not pertaining to subordinate rights in personam which arise from rights in rem, (ii) mutual adjudication would not be appropriate when cause of action and subject matter of the dispute inherently affects third party rights and hence, centralized adjudication must be there, (iii) mutual adjudication not possible when cause of action and subject matter of the dispute relates to sovereign and public interest functions of the State, and (iv) when the subject-matter of the dispute is expressly, or by necessary implication non-arbitrable as per mandatory statute.
Further, in P. Anand Gajapathi Raju v. P.V.G. Raju (Died) another set of principles were crystalised, viz., firstly, there must be an arbitration agreement; secondly, a party to the agreement must bring an action in the court against the opposite party; thirdly, similar subject matter of the action and arbitration agreement; and fourthly, the other party must move to the court for arbitration before it submits its first statement on the substance of the dispute. Simultaneous reading of S. 8 & 45 of the Arbitration and Conciliation Act, 1996 (“Act”) makes it clear that the remedy of anti-arbitration injunction sustains limited judicial intervention. India is struggling to find a fine line of balance on the issue of autonomy to arbitral tribunals and ability of courts to interfere in matters pertaining to jurisdiction, injustices, or aggravation in any arbitration proceedings.
Narrow Bridge Prior to Bina Modi-Lalit Modi and Amazon-Future Retail
Section 16 of the Act encircles the principle of Kompetenz-Kompetenz which talks about the issue of jurisdiction by arbitral tribunal as sufficient and efficient. In the case of Uttarakhand Purv Sainik Kalyan Nigam Ltd. v. Northern Coal Field Ltd, the Hon’ble Supreme Court, while examining this backbone principle applied this principle and held that “the dispute related to the arbitrability should be decided by the tribunal itself and courts can interfere only when there is no agreement at all or whether the consent to enter into an agreement is vitiated by fraud or misrepresentation.” Hence, under the said Act, the challenge before a court is maintainable only after the final award is passed as provided by sub-section (6) of Section 16. In the case of N.N. Global Mercantile v. Indo Unique Flame Ltd, similar footings were observed while dealing with the said principle. Interestingly, in Kvaerner Cementation India Limited v. Bajranglal Agarwal, it was held that the civil court do not have the jurisdiction to interfere in arbitral matters, owing to the principle of Kompetenz-Kompetenz which focuses on the competence of a court.
Quite recently, the Calcutta High Court denied the contention of forum non conveniens while restraining the other party from taking steps for a London-seated arbitration while reiterating that the contract was signed cautiously. Similarly, in Sancorp Confectionary v. Gumlik, the Delhi High Court refused to interfere and stated that all objections shall be heard by the arbitral tribunal itself. The Hon’ble Supreme Court in World Sport Group v. MSM Satellite Singapore Ltd while analysing the issue whether the arbitration agreement was null and void applied the principles of Section 45 of the Act. However, it is interesting and vital to note the case of Board of Trustees of Port of Kolkata v. Louis Dreyfus Armatures SAS & Ors where the Calcutta High Court granted anti-arbitration injunction and warned that it must only be granted in exceptional and unprecedented circumstances.
Window of Interference Post Bina Modi-Lalit Modi and Amazon-Future Retail
Recently, the Hon’ble Supreme Court in Vidya Drolia laid down certain principles while analysing the issue of non-arbitrability, while placing substantial reliance on Duro Felguera and Boghara Polyfab. Firstly, the scope of judicial review under Section 8 and 11 of the Arbitration and Conciliation Act, 1996 (“Act”) is identical but vastly limited, secondly, arbitral tribunal is the preferred authority to determine and decide all questions of non-arbitrability and court is the second option on such aspects, and thirdly, the court may interfere rarely only when it is manifestly and ex facie precise that the arbitration agreement is non-existent, invalid, or / and the disputes are non-arbitrable. Further, while following the principle of Kompetenz-Kompetenz, the Apex Court strongly observed that it is the arbitral tribunal which must be preferred as first authority to determine and decide all questions of non-arbitrability.
Recent judgments have shaken the balance between the courts and tribunals while sliding towards granting autonomy to arbitral tribunals. The suits in Bina Modi vs Lalit Modi were dismissed while reiterating the observation in Kvaerner Cementation wherein the Hon’ble Supreme Court dismissed suits as unmaintainable since an alternative remedy was present under Section 16 of the Act. Reliance was also placed on Section 41(h) of the Specific Relief Act, 1963, which bars the grant of injunctions when there is a possibility of deriving equally effective relief by any other usual mode of proceedings. The court while disallowing observed that the adequate remedy would be to approach the arbitral tribunal instead.
While hearing the Amazon-Future Retail, Justice Amit Bansal, stated that “there is only a very small window for interference with orders passed by the arbitral tribunal while exercising jurisdiction under Article 227. The said window becomes even narrower where the orders passed by the arbitral tribunal are procedural in nature.” The bench while upholding non-interference stated that the willingness of the court must be of utmost importance and added that arbitrators have a far greater flexibility in adopting procedure to conduct the arbitration proceedings as compared to civil courts and concluded by stating that nothing was found to suggest that the arbitral tribunal has denied equal opportunity to the parties or that it has not been accommodating towards the requests of the petitioners. Recently, the Supreme Court has set aside the orders of the Delhi High Court which initiated coercive steps against the companies and its promoters Biyanis for alleged violation of the Emergency Award passed by the Singapore Tribunal on the application filed by e-commerce giant Amazon.
In Vidya Drolia, the Hon’ble Supreme Court’s attempt to pose responsibility on the lower Courts while ensuring caution in exercising authority over proceedings referred to it under the Act clearly shows that we’re moving towards a pro-arbitration regime which must be accepted by open arms in order to curb over-burdening of judiciary. Prima facie, there are two important questions; firstly, can we have a common rule that everything must be decided by the arbitral tribunal with no power in hands of the court?, and secondly, has India approached this issue as if it were caught between the devil and the deep sea in choosing to exclusively rest the jurisdiction with the arbitral tribunal? Practically speaking, in the Indian context, we cannot shut eyes on the fact that there may be instances wherein the courts need to interfere in rare and exceptional circumstances. At times, the arbitral proceedings can be oppressive, vexatious, and inequitable. The law on anti-arbitration injunction suits in India has certainly reached a stifling point and hence, aim to not evolve as oppressive, manifestly unfair, unreasonable, and prejudicial to the interest of the parties.