Written by Sankalp Udgata & Hetal Doshi, National Law University (NUSRL), Ranchi
The choice of arbitration as the default system of resolution of commercial disputes, which was initially restricted to the foreign parties is now being reciprocated by even the Indian parties, thus setting the stage for India being a global hub for commercial arbitration. Surprising as it is, commercial agreements worth billions have but a succinct recording of a seat of arbitration. Sloppy as they are, these poorly drafted dispute resolution clauses open the doors to a tsunami of litigation which simply intervene and delay the entire resolution process thereby defeating the very virtue arbitrations proclaim to instil.
Since arbitrations are out-of-court proceedings, they do not by themselves command the authority of the sovereign. Therefore, every arbitration must be guided and overseen by a Court that has supervisory jurisdiction over it. This Court is the Juridical Seat of the arbitration as determined by the parties and the most important concept that the territorial situs of the Seat denotes. In absence of a positive determination by the parties in the arbitration agreement, the Tribunal or a Court whose supervisory jurisdiction is sought must first determine the Seat and consequently whether it has the jurisdiction, as the Juridical Seat, to hear the matter.
However, arbitration in India has been a Hornet’s nest if not a Pandora’s box to say the least. Admittedly, the vast majority of problems associated with international commercial arbitrations taking place in India revolve around the uncertainty in the Courts’ approach to determination of the seat when the parties have failed to choose one. The Indian Courts, much rather the Supreme Court of India (“SCI”) has shown a consistent disparity in applying any particular method for determination of the Seat in such situations. This article aims to reconcile the various tests that the Supreme Court of India has applied over the years and attempts to plot their reasoning into three distinct methods for determination of a seat when the arbitration agreement fails to explicitly document one. This article also discusses the various factors relevant in each method with examples and can therefore serve as a catalogue for practitioners as well as valuable literature to the academia.
I. Seat <=> Venue Method
Representing the most widely accepted view, this method is applicable when parties have at least chosen a particular geographic location as the venue for the arbitration to take place without specifically designating a Seat. Finally, setting the clock straight and reconciling to the globally accepted rules, the SCI in Soma JV case held that the venue of arbitration shall be the default Seat in absence of any contrary indica. (¶63)
For it to be the default Seat, the venue must exist in absence of any of the following factors that, over the years, the Court has found to be contrary indications to venue being the Seat.
- Designation of an alternate place as Seat
When there is an express designation of the arbitration venue, combined with a supranational body of rules governing the arbitration the venue shall be the seat unless the parties have designated any alternative place as the seat. (Shashoua, ¶34,42)
- Existence of a national set of lex arbitri or proper law
Despite having designated London as the venue of arbitration, the SCI held Bombay to be the Seat in the 2014 Enercon Case. In making this determination, the Court was heavily swayed by the fact that the laws specifically chosen by the parties in the contract to apply to different aspects of the dispute were Indian laws.
- Existence of an alternate place of making of award
Since it is necessary for the arbitral award to be made and signed at the place of arbitration as determined by Section 20 of the 1996 Arbitration Act (“Act”), an award made at one of the two designated venues resulted in the venue where the award was not signed was not the Seat in the Soma JV case.
- Venue of an arbitration proceeding
The Court has on several occasions differentiated between the venue of arbitration proceedings from the venue of an arbitration proceeding for the later cannot be construed as anything but a convenient location for the conduction of a meeting. (2012 Enercon case)
II. Inverse Closest & Most Real Connection Method (“Inverse-CMRC”)
The globally acclaimed CMRC test is used to determine either lex arbitri or the proper law governing the arbitration agreement when the place of arbitration has been decided as the same would be the law most closely connected to the choice of place. While the English Courts in Peruvian Insurance Case applied the law of the place of arbitration as the lex arbitri, in the Sulamerica Case, applied it to the proper law governing the arbitration agreement as they had the most real connection to the place chosen by the parties. India has also used the test in a peculiar way to apply the lex arbitri to the whole of the agreement. This proximity is essentially based on the legal localisation of the place.
However, India has been applying the above test somewhat inversely based on the geographic localisation of the law instead. Bemusing everyone, the SCI in Enercon Case applied the Inverse CMRC Method to determine the Seat to be India as it was most closely and intimately connected to the lex arbitri and the proper law of the contract, both of which were Indian. The Indian model seems to presume that the parties could not have contemplated a delocalised lex arbitri or proper law. Be that as it may, where a supranational set lex arbitri or proper law exists, the first method will prevail as these laws will not be sufficient contrary indications.
III. Cause of Action Method
This is an unsuitable method of determination of seat. In this case, if the arbitration agreement does not reveal a Seat then the Courts of the place where the cause of action arose will be considered as the Juridical Seat of the arbitration. This is derived from the definition of ‘Court’ under Section 2(1)(e) of the Act which also includes the Court that would have jurisdiction over the question if it formed the subject matter of a suit.
Understanding this to mean that the legislature has intended to give jurisdiction to both the Court of arbitration and the Court having territorial jurisdiction over the place where the cause of action arose, concurrently, the SCI has caused tremendous controversy by in Paragraph 96 of BALCO judgment. However, when read wholly and not in isolation, BALCO judgment very distinctly states that if concurrent jurisdiction were to be the order of the day, despite the seat having been located and specifically chosen by the parties, party autonomy would suffer and therefore Courts were intended to exercise supervisory jurisdiction to the exclusion of other Courts as provided under Section 42. (Soma JV case, ¶51)
Therefore, since the application referred to under Section 42 can only be legitimately made to the Court of the Seat, this method is only useful where seat could not be determined by any of the above methods maybe owing to lack of any territorial nexus.
The contradictory judgments of the English and Indian Courts over the determination of Seat in the Enercon case caused a delay of two years and has painted a Medusa of how the incongruous views of Courts across jurisdictions terrorise the development of international commercial arbitration. Therefore, arbitrations anchored in India or involving Indian parties must be planned in a manner eliding with the recent set of “pro-arbitration” trends in determination of Seat.
Although there is no specific order of precedence for application of these methods, their very nature and the manner of their application till date suggest that the Seat-Venue method takes precedence over the other two owing to its strong territorial nexus. Ideally thus, upon failure of this method owing to the presence of a sufficient contrary indica, should the Inverse-CMRC method be applied followed by the Cause of Action method as the last resort in this three-fold method for determination of Seat.