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Supreme Court on existence of arbitration agreement

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Rukmini Das
First published http://lexarbitri.blogspot.com/2011/12/reva-electric-car-co.html
December 6, 2011
Reva Electric Car Co. P. Ltd. v. Green Mobil, decided by the Supreme Court on 25 November 2011, was an application under sections 11(4) and (6) of the Arbitration and Conciliation Act, 1996 (the “Act”) for appointment of arbitrator by the Chief Justice of India (“CJI”).

Facts

Petitioner had entered into a Memorandum of Understanding (“MoU”) with Respondent for marketing of cars by Petitioner. The term of the MoU was from 25 September 2007 until December 2007, but it was extendable at the sole discretion of Petitioner in terms of clause 2 of the MoU and, according to Petitioner, was in fact extended by acts of Parties. These acts were various requests in 2008 and 2009 by Respondent for supply of cars in terms of the MoU. In September 2009, according to Petitioner, disputes arose between the Parties, with Petitioner claiming that Respondent did not have necessary resources to build Petitioner’s brand, since enough cars were not sold in the Belgium region. Via email on 25 September 2009, Petitioner asked Respondent to cease marketing on behalf of Petitioner, thus constituting termination of the MoU, according to Petitioner.
Petitioner received on 14 January 2010, a writ of summons of legal proceedings initiated by Respondent in the Commercial Court in Brussels, Belgium. Respondent claimed damages for termination of the MoU. An email from Respondent dated 15 March 2010 suggested a global settlement with Petitioner and the latter construed this as acknowledgement of the fact that the rights and obligation of both the parties were covered by the MoU, which stood duly terminated.
On appointment of a sole arbitrator by Petitioner, for confirmation by Respondent, under the terms of the MoU, Respondent denied existence of a contractual relation between Parties on 25 September 2009. A Section 9 application was thus filed by Petitioner in Bangalore, attempting to restrain legal proceedings in Brussels. On this being granted, the present section 11 application was filed, in terms of clause 11 of the MoU.
Contentions
Respondent claimed that the MoU expired on 31 December 2007, and claims made by Petitioner related to commercial distribution of cars, commencing in 2008 and the distribution agreement, entered into after expiry of the MoU in 2007. Respondent also contended that Petitioner had invoked arbitration proceedings only to avoid legal proceedings in Brussels, as evident from the arbitration clause being invoked after Petitioner was intimated of proceedings in Brussels.
Petitioner, on the other hand stated that it was Respondent’s intention to avoid arbitration by starting legal proceedings in Brussels. Moreover, Petitioner submitted that irrespective of the continued existence of the MoU, the arbitration clause would survive. Further, the Court, when acting under section 11 of the Act, is required to refer disputes without in-depth examination. It must only be satisfied that the disputes fall within the ambit of the arbitration clause.
Respondent contended that the arbitration clause in the MoU related only to the test and trial period when the MoU was subsisting. Thus, disputes pertaining to a period after this were outside the ambit of the arbitration clause and could not be referred for arbitration by the Court.
Decision
The Court, relying on Patel EngineeringNational Insurance Co. Ltd. v. Boghara Polyfab Pvt. Ltd.A. P. Tourism Development Corporation Ltd. v. Pampa Hotels Ltd. [(2010) 5 SCC 425], and Alva Aluminium Ltd., Bangkok v. Gabriel India Ltd., stated that while entertaining a section 11 application, the CJI was bound to decide on:
a) The existence of an arbitration agreement; and
b) Whether the party applying under such an agreement was a party to that agreement.
The issues which the CJI had the option of deciding are:
a) Whether the claim is barred by time; and
b) Whether the parties have concluded the contract/transaction by recording satisfaction of their mutual rights and obligation or by receiving the final payment without objection.
Issues which are to be left for decision by the tribunal are:
a) Whether a particular claim falls outside the scope of the arbitration clause; and
b) Merits of any claim involved in the arbitration.
Therefore, existence of the arbitration agreement itself is a question which must be decided by the CJI in the first instance, since without the existence of an arbitration agreement, a reference under section 11 of the Act cannot be made.
The Court, in light of the material on record already stated above, ruled in favour of Petitioner that the MoU had been extended by actions of the parties. Therefore, the arbitration clause was in existence, and did merit appointment of arbitrators under Section 11 of the Act. The Supreme Court further observed, relying on Everest Holding Ltd. v. Shyam Kumar Shrivastava and Ors., that irrespective of continued existence of the MoU, the arbitration clause would survive. This is in view of section 16(1)(a) of the Act, which reiterates the independent existence of an arbitration clause in a contract, separate from the main contract. Invalidation of the parent contract does not automatically entail invalidation of the arbitration clause, as evident from Section 16(1)(b) of the Act. Since disputes arising between the parties clearly related to subject matter of the contract, they must be adjudicated upon, through the arbitration agreement in that contract.

Conclusion

Thus, although section 16 of the Act, incorporating the principle ofCompetence-Competence, empowers the arbitral tribunal to adjudicate on matters pertaining to its own jurisdiction, under Indian law it is well-settled that when the Chief Justice is approached (whether for a domestic or international arbitration) to appoint arbitrators, he holds the power of making a preliminary determination of whether there exists an arbitration agreement at all.
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