SC: “May” u/s 48 of Arbitration Act can depending on context mean “shall”

The Hon’ble Supreme Court, on 12th February 2020, in the matter of Vijay Karia & Ors. v. Prysmian Cavi E Sistemi Srl & Ors. pronounced that the expression “may” in Section 48 of Arbitration and Conciliation Act, 1996 can, depending upon the context, mean “shall” or as connoting that a residual discretion remains in the Court to enforce a foreign award, despite grounds for its resistance having been made out.

The Hon’ble Supreme Court observed that:

Unlike Section 37 of the Arbitration and Conciliation Act, 1996, which is contained in Part I of the said Act, and which provides an appeal against either setting aside or refusing to set aside a ‘domestic’ arbitration award, the legislative policy so far as recognition and enforcement of foreign awards is that an appeal is provided against a judgment refusing to recognise and enforce a foreign award but not the other way around (i.e. an order recognising and enforcing an award). This is because the policy of the legislature is that there ought to be only one bite at the cherry in a case where objections are made to the foreign award on the extremely narrow grounds contained in Section 48 of the Act and which have been rejected. This is in consonance with the fact that India is a signatory to the Convention on the Recognition and Enforcement of Foreign Arbitral Awards, 1958 (hereinafter referred to as “New York Convention”) and intends – through this legislation – to ensure that a person who belongs to a Convention country, and who, in most cases, has gone through a challenge procedure to the said award in the country of its origin, must then be able to get such award recognised and enforced in India as soon as possible. This is so that such person may enjoy the fruits of an award which has been challenged and which challenge has been turned down in the country of its origin, subject to grounds to resist enforcement being made out under Section 48 of the Arbitration Act. Bearing this in mind, it is important to remember that the Supreme Court’s jurisdiction under Article 136 should not be used to circumvent the legislative policy so contained. (Para 24)

Given the restricted parameters of Article 136, it is important to note that where no appeal is granted against a judgment which recognises and enforces a foreign award – this Court should be very slow in interfering with such judgments, and should entertain an appeal only with a view to settle the law if some new or unique point is raised which has not been answered by the Supreme Court before, so that the Supreme Court judgment may then be used to guide the course of future litigation in this regard. Also, it would only be in a very exceptional case of a blatant disregard of Section 48 of the Arbitration Act that the Supreme Court would interfere with a judgment which recognises and enforces a foreign award however inelegantly drafted the judgment may be. (Para 24)

All grounds relating to patent illegality appearing on the face of the award are outside the scope of interference with international commercial arbitration awards made in India and foreign awards whose enforcement is resisted in India. (Para 38)

Foreign awards cannot be set aside by second guessing the arbitrator’s interpretation of the agreement of the parties; the challenge procedure in the primary jurisdiction gives more leeway to Courts to interfere with an award than the narrow restrictive grounds contained in the New York Convention when a foreign award’s enforcement is resisted.  (Para 45)

Enforcement of a foreign award may under Section 48 of the Arbitration Act be refused only if the party resisting enforcement furnishes to the Court proof that any of the stated grounds has been made out to resist enforcement. The said grounds are watertight – no ground outside Section 48 can be looked at. Also, the expression used in Section 48 is “may”. (Para 46)

When the grounds for resisting enforcement of a foreign award under Section 48 are seen, they may be classified into three groups – grounds which affect the jurisdiction of the arbitration proceedings; grounds which affect party interest alone; and grounds which go to the public policy of India, as explained by Explanation 1 to Section 48(2).  (Para 53)

Where a ground to resist enforcement is made out, by which the very jurisdiction of the tribunal is questioned – such as the arbitration agreement itself not being valid under the law to which the parties have subjected it, or where the subject matter of difference is not capable of settlement by arbitration under the law of India, it is obvious that there can be no discretion in these matters. Enforcement of a foreign award made without jurisdiction cannot possibly be weighed in the scales for a discretion to be exercised to enforce such award if the scales are tilted in its favour. (Para 53)

When it comes to the “public policy of India” ground, again, there would be no discretion in enforcing an award which is induced by fraud or corruption, or which violates the fundamental policy of Indian law, or is in conflict with the most basic notions of morality or justice. It can thus be seen that the expression “may” in Section 48 can, depending upon the context, mean “shall” or as connoting that a residual discretion remains in the Court to enforce a foreign award, despite grounds for its resistance having been made out. (Para 54)

The expression “was otherwise unable to present his case” occurring in Section 48(1)(b) cannot be given an expansive meaning and would have to be read in the context and colour of the words preceding the said phrase. In short, this expression would be a facet of natural justice, which would be breached only if a fair hearing was not given by the arbitrator to the parties. Read along with the first part of Section 48(1)(b), it is clear that this expression would apply at the hearing stage and not after the award has been delivered. (Para 76)

A good working test for determining whether a party has been unable to present his case is to see whether factors outside the party’s control have combined to deny the party a fair hearing. Thus, where no opportunity was given to deal with an argument which goes to the root of the case or findings based on evidence which go behind the back of the party and which results in a denial of justice to the prejudice of the party; or additional or new evidence is taken which forms the basis of the award on which a party has been given no opportunity of rebuttal, would, on the facts of a given case, render a foreign award liable to be set aside on the ground that a party has been unable to present his case. This must, of course, be with the caveat that such breach be clearly made out on the facts of a given case, and that awards must always be read supportively with an inclination to uphold rather than destroy, given the minimal interference possible with foreign awards under Section 48. (Para 76)

It must always be remembered that poor reasoning, by which a material issue or claim is rejected, can never fall in this class of cases. Also, issues that the tribunal considered essential and has addressed must be given their due weight – it often happens that the tribunal considers a particular issue as essential and answers it, which by implication would mean that the other issue or issues raised have been implicitly rejected. For example, two parties may both allege that the other is in breach. A finding that one party is in breach, without expressly stating that the other party is not in breach, would amount to a decision on both a claim and a counter- claim, as to which party is in breach. Similarly, after hearing the parties, a certain sum may be awarded as damages and an issue as to interest may not be answered at all. This again may, on the facts of a given case, amount to an implied rejection of the claim for interest. The important point to be considered is that the foreign award must be read as a whole, fairly, and without nit-picking. If read as a whole, the said award has addressed the basic issues raised by the parties and has, in substance, decided the claims and counter-claims of the parties, enforcement must follow. (Para 78)

First and foremost, FEMA – unlike FERA – refers to the nation’s policy of managing foreign exchange instead of policing foreign exchange, the policeman being the Reserve Bank of India under FERA. It is important to remember that Section 47 of FERA no longer exists in FEMA, so that transactions that violate FEMA cannot be held to be void. Also, if a particular act violates any provision of FEMA or the Rules framed thereunder, permission of the Reserve Bank of India may be obtained post-facto if such violation can be condoned. Neither the award, nor the agreement being enforced by the award, can, therefore, be held to be of no effect in law. This being the case, a rectifiable breach under FEMA can never be held to be a violation of the fundamental policy of Indian law. Even assuming that Rule 21 of the Non-Debt Instrument Rules requires that shares be sold by a resident of India to a non-resident at a sum which shall not be less than the market value of the shares, and a foreign award directs that such shares be sold at a sum less than the market value, the Reserve Bank of India may choose to step in and direct that the aforesaid shares be sold only at the market value and not at the discounted value, or may choose to condone such breach. Further, even if the Reserve Bank of India were to take action under FEMA, the non-enforcement of a foreign award on the ground of violation of a FEMA Regulation or Rule would not arise as the award does not become void on that count. (Para 83)

Nothing in Section 48 of the Arbitration Act would permit an enforcing court to add to or subtract from a foreign award that must either be enforced or rejected by reason of any of the grounds under Section 48 being made out to resist enforcement of such foreign award. Court’s power under Article 142 ought not to be used to circumvent the legislative policy contained in Section 48 of the Arbitration Act. (Para 103)

Copy of judgement: Judgement_13-Feb-2020

-Adv. Tushar Kaushik

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