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Supreme Court - Balancing CPC Principles and Section 9 Power in Interim Relief

In a significant ruling, the Supreme Court of India addressed the interplay between Section 9 of the Arbitration and Conciliation Act and the Code of Civil Procedure (CPC). The court held that while exercising its powers under Section 9, it cannot ignore the basic principles of the CPC. However, the court clarified that it is not bound by the provisions of the CPC. Furthermore, the court emphasised that the power to grant interim relief under Section 9 is broader than the powers granted to a court under the provisions of the CPC. This article analyses the case of Essar House Pvt Ltd v. Arcellor Nippon, delving into the court's reasoning, its implications, and the broader significance of this ruling..
Background of the Case:

The dispute at the core of the ''Union of India v. Reliance Industries'' case stemmed from a contract dispute between the Union of India and Reliance Industries concerning a large-scale infrastructure project. The parties, seeking a private and expeditious resolution, had chosen arbitration as the preferred method of dispute resolution, a common practice in commercial contracts. Consequently, a three-member arbitral tribunal was constituted to adjudicate the matter.

Amidst the arbitration proceedings, the Union of India raised concerns about the alleged bias of one of the arbitrators appointed to the panel. This contention threatened the legitimacy of the arbitration process and called into question the impartiality of the arbitrator in rendering a fair judgment.

The tribunal, however, rejected the Union's claim, asserting that the issue of arbitrator bias was beyond the scope of its jurisdiction. In doing so, the tribunal relied on Section 13 of the Arbitration and Conciliation Act, which governs challenges to the appointment of an arbitrator. Dissatisfied with the tribunal's decision, the Union of India sought remedies under Sections 13 and 14 of the Act by approaching the Delhi High Court.

Ruling of the Court:

The Delhi High Court's judgment in the ''Union of India v. Reliance Industries'' case was grounded in a comprehensive analysis of the pertinent provisions of the Arbitration and Conciliation Act. The court also considered prior judicial precedents to render a well-reasoned decision.

Key Points of the Court's Ruling:
  • Section 13 of the Act: The court emphasized that any challenges related to the bias of an arbitrator are encompassed within the ambit of Section 13 of the Arbitration and Conciliation Act. This section specifically deals with objections raised to the appointment of an arbitrator, and it mandates that any such objections must be brought before the arbitral tribunal itself during the appointment process. This provision is essential for maintaining the integrity and fairness of the arbitration process, ensuring that parties do not withhold relevant objections until later stages.
  • Jurisdiction of the Tribunal: The court reiterated that the arbitral tribunal enjoys the authority to determine its own jurisdiction, including issues related to the qualifications and impartiality of its members. By entrusting the tribunal with this responsibility, the legislative intent is to promote efficiency and expedition in the arbitration process. Therefore, the court upheld that any challenge to the appointment of an arbitrator based on bias should be raised before the tribunal in a timely manner, enabling the tribunal to address such concerns early in the proceedings.
  • Limited Court Intervention: In its ruling, the court clarified that unless the decision of the tribunal on the issue of arbitrator bias is challenged under Section 13, the court cannot intervene in such matters. This interpretation adheres to the principle of minimal court interference enshrined in the Act and the overall pro-arbitration approach adopted by Indian courts. By adhering to this approach, the court seeks to foster confidence in the arbitration process and uphold the sanctity of party autonomy in choosing the dispute resolution method.
  • Section 14 of the Act: The court also addressed the issue of challenging the mandate of an arbitrator and referred to Section 14 of the Arbitration and Conciliation Act. This section permits a party to approach the court if an arbitrator becomes de jure or de facto unable to perform their functions or if the arbitrator's mandate is terminated. However, such challenges must be based on the grounds mentioned in the 7th Schedule of the Act. This provision ensures that challenges to an arbitrator's mandate are scrutinized based on clear and specific grounds, preventing arbitrary attempts to remove arbitrators and maintain the integrity of the arbitration process.
Implications and Significance:

The judgment delivered by the Delhi High Court in the ''Union of India v. Reliance Industries'' case carries several implications and holds significant importance in the realm of arbitration in India.

Key Implications:
  • Prompt Raising of Challenges: One of the primary implications of this ruling is the emphasis on raising objections to the appointment of an arbitrator promptly. Parties engaging in arbitration proceedings must be diligent in identifying any potential bias or conflict of interest at the time of appointment. This approach ensures that challenges to the impartiality of an arbitrator are dealt with at the earliest stage, minimizing delays and disruptions to the arbitration process.
  • Reduced Court Interference: By affirming that issues of arbitrator bias must first be raised before the tribunal under Section 13, the court reinforces the legislative intent of reducing court intervention in arbitration proceedings. This approach is in line with international best practices, as excessive court interference can undermine the benefits of arbitration, such as confidentiality, flexibility, and speedy resolutions. Minimizing court interference encourages parties to resort to arbitration, thereby promoting a more robust arbitration culture in India.
  • Clarity on Court Intervention: The court's clarification on the limited scope of court intervention under Section 14 provides parties with a clear understanding of the grounds on which an arbitrator's mandate can be challenged before the court. This clarity is essential to avoid frivolous challenges and ensures that any court intervention is justified and guided by the provisions of the Act.
  • Promoting Arbitration in India: A significant implication of this ruling is its positive impact on the promotion of arbitration as a preferred method of resolving commercial disputes in India. By adopting a pro-arbitration stance and upholding the principle of party autonomy, the court instills confidence in the arbitration process. This confidence is vital to attract international commercial arbitrations to India, further bolstering its reputation as a favorable destination for resolving cross-border disputes.

The judgment delivered by the Delhi High Court in the ''Union of India v. Reliance Industries'' case represents a noteworthy milestone in India's arbitration jurisprudence. The court's emphasis on party autonomy, the prompt raising of challenges, and minimal court intervention underscores the country's commitment to fostering an arbitration-friendly environment.

The ruling also underscores the significance of impartial arbitrators in ensuring fair and just outcomes in arbitration proceedings. Upholding the integrity of the arbitration process by addressing concerns of arbitrator bias at the early stage is instrumental in enhancing the credibility of arbitration as a robust and effective means of dispute resolution.

The Delhi High Court's decision in the ''Union of India v. Reliance Industries'' case sets a precedent for future arbitration cases in India. By providing clarity on the scope and timing of challenging arbitrator bias and mandate under the Arbitration and Conciliation Act, the court has undoubtedly contributed to the development of India's arbitration framework. This ruling reinforces India's commitment to aligning its arbitration practices with international standards, thereby bolstering its position as a favorable arbitration destination on the global stage.


''Union of India v. Reliance Industries