Whether limitation falls within the power of the Arbitral tribunal to rule on its own jurisdiction – RF Nariman’s judgment in Indian Farmers case
2/Oct/2021, 6:23 AM, Authored by Hiroo Advani & Manav Nagpal
The Arbitration and Conciliation Act, 1996 (the A&C Act) is based on the 1985 UNCITRAL Model Law on International Commercial Arbitration, the enactment of the A&C Act signified the inception of the effort being made by the Indian legislature to bring India closer to the modern and pro-arbitral renaissance that was being spearheaded by the western world. Section 16 of the A&C Act embodies the sacrosanct doctrine of kompetenz-kompetenz which gives primacy to the Arbitral Tribunal to rule on its own jurisdiction including objections pertaining to the existence or validity of the arbitration agreement.
Although, Section 16 gives the express power to the Arbitral Tribunal to decide all issues pertaining to its own jurisdiction comprising an array of preliminary issues, it is silent as to what these preliminary issues include. The pertinent question that has warranted tremendous scholarly discourse by prominent practitioners in the global arbitral fraternity is whether the issue of limitation is one of jurisdiction or an adjudication on merits of the claim and whether this decision could be made by the Arbitral Tribunal under Section 16 of the A&C Act.
The present article will analyse two recent decisions of the Supreme Court of India where the Court has delivered conflicting opinions as to whether limitation constitutes a jurisdictional issue. The authors will conclude by suggesting a way forward until the controversy is conclusively settled by the judgment of a larger Bench of the Supreme Court.
The pertinent question of whether the decision of an Arbitral Tribunal on whether the claim of the claimant is barred under the law of limitation is an interim order or an interim award came up before the Division Bench of the Supreme Court comprising Nariman and Sinha, JJ. in Indian Farmers Fertilizer Coop. Ltd. v. Bhadra Products (Indian Farmers). The Court was confronted with a case where the respondent had invoked arbitration and the Tribunal considered it appropriate to decide whether the claimant’s claim was barred by the law of limitation at first as a preliminary issue before traversing into the merits of the dispute. The arbitrator held that the claimant’s claim was not barred by the law of limitation. Aggrieved by the aforesaid interim decision of the arbitrator, the petitioner preferred an application filed under Section 34 of the A&C Act before the trial court styling it as the “first partial award”. The trial Judge held that the arbitrator’s decision did not constitute an award and dismissed the petition. Aggrieved by this judgment, the petitioner preferred an appeal to the High Court of Orissa wherein the High Court concurred with the findings of the trial court thereby dismissing the appeal proceedings. When the matter reached the Supreme Court, the Court at the outset had to decide whether the petition filed under Section 34 was maintainable. The Court realised that this could be determined by ascertaining whether the decision of the arbitrator on the issue of limitation constituted an interim award under Section 2(1)(c) r/w Section 31(6) and therefore assailable before the Court under Section 34 or whether the issue of limitation was one of jurisdiction and fell within the ambit of Sections 16(2) and (3) and therefore assailable before the Court only under the recourse envisaged under Section 37(2)(a) of the A&C Act. In the light of the aforesaid conundrum, the Court in Indian Farmers framed the following issues:
(i) Whether an award on the issue of limitation can first be said to be an interim award?
(ii) Whether a decision on a point of limitation would go to jurisdiction and therefore be covered by Section 16?
The Court in Indian Farmers began its reasoning with a conjoint reading of Sections 2(1)(c) and 31(6) observing that an arbitral award includes an interim award while noting that the A&C Act does not define an interim award. The Court was then constrained to rely on the wordings of Section 31(6) wherein it observed that the legislature had given the express power to the Arbitral Tribunal to make an interim award with respect to any matter on which it may make a final arbitral award. The Court relied on Section 32(1) to hold that there can be more than one interim award prior to the final award which could conclusively determine some issues between the parties.
The Court in Indian Farmers relied on the wordings embodied in Section 47 of the English Arbitration Act, 1996 (English Arbitration Act) as it throws some light on what constitutes an interim award under English law. Relying on Section 47 of the English Arbitration Act, it was observed that a preliminary issue that affected the whole claim would expressly be the subject-matter of an interim award under the English Arbitration Act. It is pertinent to note that the Court stressed on the fact that the English Arbitration Act advisedly does not use the expression interim or partial so as to make it clear that the award covered by Section 47 of the English Arbitration Act would be a final determination of the particular issue arising from the dispute between the parties.
The Court in Indian Farmers in order to augment its ratio went on to rely on an earlier decision of the Supreme Court that laid emphasis on what characteristics were required to constitute an interim award under the Indian arbitral regime. The Court relied on the decision in Satwant Singh Sodhi v. State of Punjab (Satwant Singh) wherein an interim award in respect of one particular item was made by the arbitrator and the Court was confronted with whether such an award could be made a rule of the court. In Satwant Singh it was held that an interim award which finally determines the rights of the parties with respect a certain claim and one which could not be readjudicated again could validly be made a rule of the court. Applying the dictum in Satwant Singh, the Court in Indian Farmers held that as the issue of limitation was a final determination with respect to a part of the claim and was one which could not be readjudicated again it therefore validly constituted an interim award under Section 31(6) of the A&C Act. The Court in Indian Farmers also relied on the dictum of the Supreme Court in the famous case of McDermott International Inc. v. Burn Standard Co. Ltd. (McDermott International) wherein the Court has held that a partial award or an interim award is a final award on matters covered therein made at an intermediate stage of the arbitral proceedings. Relying on the above authorities, the Court in Indian Farmers has held that a final decision of the arbitrator on the issue of limitation is an interim award within meaning of Section 2(1)(c) r/w with Section 31(6) and by virtue of being an award, it was capable of being challenged under Section 34 of the A&C Act.
Moving on to the second issue, as to whether the issue of limitation would fall within the ambit of Section 16 warranted a lengthy consideration by the Court. While answering this question in the negative, the Court after discussing the rationale of the doctrine of kompetenz-kompetenz relied on the corresponding provisions in Sections 30 and 31 of the English Arbitration Act. After carefully examining the wordings of the said provisions, it held that the doctrine of kompetenz-kompetenz connoted that the term “jurisdiction” under Section 16 only encompassed reference to three particular determinations:
(i) As to whether there is the existence of a valid arbitration agreement.
(ii) Whether the Arbitral Tribunal is properly constituted.
(iii) Matters submitted to arbitration should be in accordance with the arbitration agreement.
To further inquire whether limitation converged with jurisdiction, the Court relied on the decision of the Constitution Bench in Ittyavira Mathai v. Varkey Varkey(Varkey Varkey) where the Constitution Bench interpreted the connotation jurisdiction wherein it laid down that a court has jurisdiction over the subject-matter pertaining to the case and the parties. It further held that it is true that courts are bound to rule while correctly applying the law, it is true that courts have been susceptible to making errors. The Court in Varkey Varkey concluded that in spite of the fact that a court might have erred in coming to its conclusion it does not tantamount that the court has acted outside its jurisdiction.
More importantly, the Court in Indian Farmers vehemently concurred with the findings of the Supreme Court in NTPC Ltd. v. Siemens Atkeingesellchaft(NTPC) wherein it was held that when no question of jurisdiction has been addressed by the arbitrator in its findings, a party cannot disguise it to be one of jurisdiction falling within the ambit of Sections 16(2) and (3) so as to enable it to file an appeal under the recourse contemplated by Section 37(2). The Court in NTPC observed that the appropriate recourse is for the aggrieved to prefer an application under Section 34 against the partial award and thereafter it could prefer an appeal under Section 37. Supplementing the opinion of the Court delivered at first by Mathur, J. in NTPC, Balasubramanyan, J. when discussing the ambit of jurisdiction under Section 16 laid down that when an Arbitral Tribunal finds that the claim was not maintainable for other valid reasons or that the claim was barred by the law of limitation it tantamounted to an adjudication by the Arbitral Tribunal on the merits of the claim and therefore would be assailable under Section 34 of the A&C Act.
Ultimately, the Court in Indian Farmers relying on the above authorities held that the award passed by the arbitrator was an interim award, which being an arbitral award could be challenged by preferring an application under Section 34 and not Section 37. The Court held that the issue of limitation does not fall within the ambit of the Arbitral Tribunal’s jurisdiction under Section 16 and therefore the drill of Sections 16(5) and (6) need not be followed.
At this juncture it is important to study the controversy that has arisen in contemporary arbitral jurisprudence with regard to whether the issue of limitation falls within the Arbitral Tribunal’s power to rule on its own jurisdiction. A Coordinate Bench of the Supreme Court comprising Malhotra and Rastogi, JJ. in Uttarakhand Purv Sainik Kalyan Nigam Ltd. v. Northern Coal Field Ltd.(Uttarakhand Purv Sainik) had to consider the ambit and scope of the newly inserted Section 11(6-A) in the light of the 2015 Amendment of the A&C Act. The Court in Uttarakhand Purv Sainik observed that insertion of Section 11(6-A) marked a significant departure from the opinion of the 7-Judge Constitution Bench in SBP & Co. v. Patel Engg. Ltd. (SBP & Co.) where many threshold issues could be decided by the Court. The Court observed that in view of the non obstante clause in Section 11(6-A), the decision in SBP & Co. stood legislatively overruled on that point. Moreover, the Court in Uttarakhand Purv Sainik laid down its opinion on the scope and ambit of Section 16 as to what constitutes an issue of jurisdiction wherein it relied on the decision in ITW Signode (India) Ltd. v.CCE (ITW Signode). In ITW Signode a Bench of three Judges held that the issue of whether a claim was time barred under law of limitation is a jurisdictional issue.
It is interesting to note what the Court in Uttarakhand Purv Sainik has discerned from the dictums in Indian Farmers and NTPC, as the Court relied on the same in coming to the conclusion that the issue of limitation is one of jurisdiction and falls within the ambit of the doctrine of kompetenz-kompetenz under Section 16. It is needless to say that Court has wrongly imported and applied the dictums in Indian Farmers and NTPC to the question that had arisen before it under Section 11(6-A) and has arrived at such an anomalous outcome.
Adding to the controversy, in a recent judgment of the Bombay High Court in C. Shamsuddin v. Now Realty Ventures LLP (C. Shamsuddin), G.S. Patel, J. was confronted with opining on the scope of jurisdiction of the Court at the pre-reference stage in an application filed under Section 11. The Bombay High Court in C. Shamsuddin considered the interplay between Sections 11 and 16 and while relying on the decisions of the Supreme Court in Indian Farmers and Uttarakhand Purv Sainik held that the issue of limitation should be decided by the Arbitral Tribunal under Section 16. It is our opinion that the Court in C. Shamsuddin appears to have been left astray by following the ruling in Uttarakhand Purv Sainik which erred in applying the decision in Indian Farmers.
It is evident that the decisions in Uttarakhand Purv Sainik and C. Shamsuddin suffer from the infirmity of incorrectly construing and applying the decision in Indian Farmers. It is our opinion that the decision in Indian Farmers was cogent, succinct and in consonance with contemporary pro-arbitral jurisprudence. It is also without doubt that the clarity brought about by the decision in Indian Farmers was long awaited by the arbitral fraternity. The decision also gave sufficient clarity to litigants that the appropriate remedy is to file an application under Section 34 before the appropriate court in the event that one of them is aggrieved by the decision of the arbitrator on the issue of limitation. It is our opinion that the laudable effort of Nariman, J. in Indian Farmers to settle ambiguity has been obscured by the ruling in Uttarakhand Purv Sainik and has left the scope and ambit of the doctrine of kompetenz-kompetenz in dubiety. It is in our opinion that the present conundrum warrants cognizance by a larger Bench of the Supreme Court at the earliest possible opportunity, in order to prevent another series of conflicting judgments and also to bring about consonance between decisions of the leading High Courts.
It is a settled canon of law in India that where there are conflicting decisions of concurrent Benches of the Supreme Court, it is for the subordinate courts to follow the judgments which appears to have laid down the law more emphatically and accurately in the correct scenario having regard to the issue being dealt with by the court together with proper consideration of the factual matrix. In light of the above, it is our opinion that the decision in Indian Farmers appears to have accurately and with adequate reasoning answered the questions with respect to the issues framed and is in the context of Section 16 rather than the decision in Uttarakhand Purv Sainik that appears to have wrongly imported the decision in Indian Farmers to the context of Section 11.
The decision in Uttarakhand Purv Sainik has evidently obscured the essence of the underlying rationale in Indian Farmers whilst erring by disregarding the nuanced difference between limitation and jurisdiction. It is our opinion that decision in Indian Farmers correctly distinguished limitation as being a defect pertaining to the claim or right of a party to approach the court for reliefs whereas jurisdiction is a defect pertaining the power of the adjudicating authority to take cognizance of a claim based on other statutory considerations. Therefore, we suggest that the decision in Indian Farmers be considered as the correct position of law in this regard. It is also recommended that the High Courts follow the decision in Indian Farmers rather than Uttarakhand Purv Sainik in order to prevent another series of conflicting decisions and to provide certainty to the arbitral fraternity thereby fostering the landscape for arbitration in India.
 (1964) 1 SCR 495 : AIR 1964 SC 907.
 (1964) 1 SCR 495 : AIR 1964 SC 907.