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Recent decision of the Supreme Court on existence of an arbitration agreement

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Rukmini Das

First published at http://lexarbitri.blogspot.com/2011/07/recent-decision-of-supreme-court-on.html

The Supreme Court, in a judgment last Monday, clarified the law regarding existence of an agreement to arbitrate under section 7 of the Arbitration and Conciliation Act, 1996.
In State of Orissa & Ors. v. Bhagyadhar Dash, contractors had applied under section 11, Arbitration and Conciliation Act, for appointment of arbitrators to decide disputes between them and the state government. Clause 10 of the ‘Conditions of Contract’, part of the series of agreements between the parties, was held to be an arbitration clause by the Chief Justice of the Orissa High Court and the same was challenged before the Supreme Court.
Grounds of Decision

The Supreme Court decided the case on two grounds: first, based on judicial precedent on the essentials of an arbitration agreement and second, by tracing the history of the Standard Conditions of Contract of the Orissa government.
The Clause in Question
Clause 10 of the contract, purported to contain an arbitration agreement, stated thus:
The Engineer-in-Charge shall have power to make any alterations in or additions to the original specifications, drawings, designs and instructions that may appear to him necessary and advisable during the progress of work, and the contractor shall be bound to carry out the work in accordance with any instructions which may be given to him in writing signed by the Engineer-in-Charge and such alterations shall not invalidate the contract, and any additional work which the contractor may be directed to do in the manner above specified as part of the work shall be carried out by the contractor on the same conditions in all respects on which he agreed to do the main work, and at the same rates as are specified in the tender for the main work. The time for the completion of the work shall be extended in the proportion that the additional work bears to the original contract work and the certificate of the Engineer-in-Charge shall be conclusive as to such proportion. And if the additional work includes any class of work for which no rate is specified in this contract, then such class of work shall be carried out at the rates entered in the sanctioned schedule of rates of the locality during the period when the work is being carried on and if such last mentioned class of work is not entered in the schedule of rates of the district then the contractor shall within seven days of the date of the rate which it is his intention to charge for such class of work, and if the Engineer-in-Charge does not agree to this rate he shall be noticed in writing be at liberty to cancel his order to carry out such class of work and arrange to carry it out in such manner as he may consider advisable.
No deviations from the specifications stipulated in the contract nor additional items of work shall ordinarily be carried out by the contractor, nor shall any altered, additional or substituted work be carried out by him, unless the rates of the substituted, altered or additional items have been approved and fixed in writing by the Engineer-in-Charge, the contractor shall be bound to submit his claim for any additional work done during any month on or before the 15th days of the following month accompanied by a copy of the order in writing of the Engineer-in-Charge for the additional work and that the contractor shall not be entitled of any payment in respect of such additional work if he fails to submit his claim within the aforesaid period.
Provided always that if the contractor shall commence work or incur any expenditure in respect thereof before the rates shall have been determined as lastly hereinbefore mentioned, in such case he shall only be entitled to be paid in respect of the work carried out or expenditure incurred by him prior to the date of the determination of the rates as aforesaid according to such rate or rates as shall be fixed by the Engineer-in-Charge. In the event of a dispute, the decision of the Superintending Engineer of the Circle will be final.
Attributes of an agreement to arbitrate
written consent to submit future disputes to arbitration, contemplation of a binding decision of an impartial Tribunal which will decide in a judicial manner, contemplation that substantive rights of parties will be determined by the agreed tribunal, enforceability of the decision of the Tribunal in a court of law, and intention that the tribunal will make a decision upon a dispute which is already formulated at the time when a reference is made to the Tribunal.
Further, there is no specific form of an arbitration agreement, even absence of words like ‘arbitrator’ or ‘arbitral tribunal’ does not retract from the clause being an arbitration agreement if all requisite elements are present. Conversely, mere use of these words do not render it an arbitration agreement.
Where an agreement requires or permits an authority to decide a claim or dispute without hearing, or requires the authority to act in the interests of only one of the parties, or provides that the decision of the Authority will not be final and binding on the parties, or that if either party is not satisfied with the decision of the Authority, he may file a civil suit seeking relief, it cannot be termed as an arbitration agreement.
If the purpose of the clause is only to vest in the named Authority, the power of supervision of the execution of the work and administrative control over it from time to time, it is not an arbitration agreement.
The Apex Court has laid emphasis on the distinction between adjudication of disputes and prevention of disputes, the latter not amounting to arbitration.
The clause under consideration in this case related to power of the Engineer-in-Chief to make additions and alterations in the drawings and specifications and execution of non-tendered additional items of work (that is items of work which are not found in the bill of quantities or schedule of work). The last sentence of the proviso to clause 10 was purported to be an arbitration agreement. It stated: “in the event of a dispute, the decision of the Superintending Engineer of the Circle will be final“.
This, according to the Court, did not refer to arbitration as the mode of dispute resolution and it did not provide for reference of disputes between the parties to arbitration. There was no displayed intention to make the Superintending Engineer an arbitrator in respect of disputes that may arise between the Engineer-in-Charge and the contractor. It operated in a limited sphere.
It intended to avoid future disputes regarding rates for non-tendered items, not to refer future disputes for settlement. The decision of the Superintending Engineer was not a judicial determination, but a decision open to challenge in a court of law.
Thus relying on precedent alone, the Court held that clause 10 was not an agreement to arbitrate.
Amending History of Standard Conditions of Contract
Second, the Court analysed the history of the Standard Conditions of Contract of the Orissa government. Prior to 1981 there was a clause 23 in the Standard Contract which provided for binding arbitration. Since this was consciously deleted, according to the Court, therefore the intention was not to have any arbitration clause.
Furthermore, the Court relied on Executive Engineer RCO v. Suresh Chandra Panda, which held that even when the Standard Conditions of Contract contained a provision for arbitration (clause 23), clause 10 was considered to be a provision dealing with a matter excepted from arbitration.
Thus, in the absence of the arbitration clause, clause 10 cannot be considered an agreement to arbitrate.
Thus, from prior history of the Standard Conditions of Contract, it became evident that the clause in question was not an agreement to arbitrate.
This judgment provides a useful recapitulation of the legal position regarding the existence of an arbitration agreement.
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