Part I- Introduction
The trajectory of the process of the appointment of an arbitrator under Section 11 of the Arbitration & Conciliation Act, 1996 (hereinafter ‘Arbitration Act’) operates from a mechanism which gives primacy to the approval of a voluntary, party autonomy-based appointment which is sanctioned by the courts and in the event of a failure of such process, an appointment is made by the judicial system.[i] There has been a long-standing jurisprudence of how an adjudication has to be made by the courts when treating a Section 11 application.[ii] This jurisprudence also includes questions pertaining to the extent to which a court must base its analysis in determining whether the Section 11 application should be dismissed or allowed. The conditions precedent to a Section 11 application is the existence of a valid arbitration clause and an arbitrable dispute between the parties. However, strictly limiting the court’s analysis to these conditions precedent while treating a Section 11 application has often resulted in a procedural imbroglio when this segment involves the applicability of a pre-arbitral mediation in the dispute resolution clause of the contract.
Mediation is predominantly seen as a voluntary procedure in which the parties have significant control not only during the process itself but also beforehand, such as when they need to select a mediator. There are majorly three preferred routes for the appointment of a mediator, the first being the voluntary appointment by the parties, second by submission of the matter to any recognised mediation centre and third, wherein the court orders for commencement of mediation proceedings in a suit under Section 89 of the Code of Civil Procedure, 1908.
In none of these routes do we find the applicability of any of the provisions of the Arbitration Act. However, there is a recent trend in courts where, while adjudicating on a dispute involving the applicability of a “Med-Arb Clause”, the bench has surprisingly not only appointed a mediator in an order Order under Section 11 of the Arbitration Act but has also simultaneously appointed the arbitrator before the commencement of mediation. The orders raise various procedural questions primarily in light of the timeline under Section 23(4) of the Arbitration Act.
In this article, the authors, in Part II, try to decipher the judicial practice regarding the placement of mediation proceedings when the courts allow for mediation before the commencement of arbitration while considering Med-Arb clauses. Simultaneously, the recent deviation from such practice is also discussed. In Part III, the authors analyse the impracticality which arises due to this deviation in light of the mandate under Section 23(4). In Part IV, solutions which suggest a change in approach to the interpretation of the language of Section 23(4) are discussed. Finally in Part V, the authors give a brief yet effective conclusion to the whole article.
Part II- Judicial practice in the treatment of Section 11 applications when there is the presence of a pre-arbitral mediation mechanism
In India, courts have had differing views on the legality of multi-tiered clauses, with some considering them mandatory and others regarding them as voluntary pre-arbitration procedures. The same has been showcased through the treatment they have given to Section 11 applications when there has been a presence of pre-arbitral mediation in the arbitration clause. For example, in the celebrated judgment of Demerara Distilleries (P) Ltd vs Demerara Distillers Ltd, wherein the court, while analysing the problem, had rejected the stand of mediation being mandatory and had gone on to appoint an arbitrator. The Delhi High Court took it up a notch by holding that mere insisting by a party to first initiate the conciliation process before seeking initiation of arbitration would be a failure for appointment of arbitrator and, therefore, the same could be done by the court.[iii] The court, in such instances, rejected the claim for mediation and allowed the petition under Section 11 (6).
However, on the other hand, the courts have also dealt with the same issue through a different set of eyes. For example, inSushil Kumar Bhardwaj vs Union of India,[iv] the Court had dismissed the Section 11 application on the ground that unless in the absence of an averment or a pleading to the effect that the agreed procedure or the procedure prescribed in law has been followed, there would be no option but to reject the application under Section 11(6) of the Arbitration Act as without cause of action and/or premature. In another instance,[v] the court had asked the parties to explore conciliation before turning to arbitration and had disposed of the application under Section 11.
Therefore, from the above discussion, it is clear that the conditions under which a Section 11 application is allowed, and an arbitrator is appointed, cannot include allowing to conduct mediation simultaneously. However, there have been orders, such as in the case of Rao Constructions vs State of Karnataka,[vi] M/s. Hello Verify India Private Limited vs. M/s. Happiest Minds Technologies Private Limited,[vii] and Shreans Daga & Ors. vs. I.B.M. India Private Limited,[viii]wherein the court, while adjudicating on a Section 11 application, appointed an arbitrator to the dispute and not only permitted the mediation process to be followed before the arbitration but also appointed a mediator for such mediation under an application of Section 11. The Court, in both these cases, reasoned that there was an existence of a valid arbitration clause and an arbitrable dispute at hand, and therefore, it warranted the appointment of an arbitrator.
These orders are irregular with respect to the legal process followed in India at multiple levels. Firstly, under no circumstances can a mediator be appointed under a Section 11 application. The scope of the provision is limited to the appointment of arbitrators, and mediation is not even covered by the statute itself. Even if the court were to appoint a mediator to the dispute, the correct procedure would have been a separate civil miscellaneous petition from the parties under which the court would have appointed a mediator.[ix] The appointment of a mediator under the Section 11 of the Arbitration Act is not tenable in law.
Secondly, when the court upheld the mediation process, a pre-emptive appointment of an arbitrator was not the correct procedure to be followed. This is because when a court upholds the validity of such a mediation process before the arbitration, it presumes that the triggering of the arbitral process under the arbitration agreement would happen on a failure of the mediation mechanism.[x] Since the appointment of arbitrators is also a part of the arbitral process, therefore, such an appointment should also occur after the parties have exhausted the route of mediation given under the arbitration agreement to the contract.[xi] It is a settled position of law that, while adjudicating on a Section 11 application, the procedure agreed by the parties and party autonomy has to be given primacy.[xii]
Therefore, if the parties have agreed to a mediation process before the arbitration, such a procedure should be followed while effectuating such adjudication. The appointment of an arbitrator not only frustrates the entire purpose of giving primacy to the procedure agreed upon by the parties but also provides for a practical impossibility to fulfilling the obligation under Section 23(4) of the Arbitration Act, which the authors have discussed in the next part.
Part III- The timeline of Section 23(4) and how it affects this structure
Not only the legal tenability of such orders is questionable, but their enforcement also provides for certain impractical circumstances for the parties. A possible impractical scenario can be considered in the case of the timeline mentioned under Section 23(4) of the Arbitration Act. According to the provision, the statement of claim and defence has to be completed within six months of the date wherein the arbitrators receive the notice of their appointment. When such a timeline mandate is seen in the context of an order where subsequent to an appointment of arbitrators, mediation has to be commenced, and post the failure of the mediation process, the arbitral proceedings will begin, it becomes nearly impossible for the parties to complete the statement of claims and defence within the duration of six months. Consider a situation where the mediation upheld under such an order itself takes six months. In such a case, since the computation of the duration for Section 23(4) will be calculated from the date when the arbitrators would have received the notice of their appointment, the mandate of six months would expire even before the initiation of the actual arbitral process. In addition to this, in the event that the parties try to adhere to this timeline, there is always a risk of an inefficient mediation process.
In this respect, the applicability of the ratio in Geo Miller & Co. (P) Ltd. vs. Rajasthan Vidyut Utpadan Nigam Ltd. also needs to be checked. In this case, it has been categorically held by the Supreme Court that the duration of amicable settlement before the arbitral process would not be counted for the purpose of calculating the limitation period. However, this judgment is inapplicable for our assessment for two-pronged reasons. Firstly, in this judgment, there was no applicability of any pre-arbitral dispute resolution clause; rather, the parties were in the process of an amicable settlement between them. Secondly, this judgment relates to the time mandate under the Limitation Act, 1963 and the timeline under Section 23(4) is a separate time mandate and does not relate to the law of limitation.
Part IV- Solution
Certainly, under no circumstances a situation in the dispute resolution process can exist where a pre-arbitral dispute resolution process is initiated, and at the same time, the application under Section 11 is allowed as well. Such an Order is necessarily untenable in law. However, there is no explicit judgment which holds that a Section 11 application should be dismissed when a pre-arbitral mediation is upheld by the court of law. The judicial decisions in this respect only depict a practice wherein whenever such a dispute resolution mechanism is upheld, the Section 11 application has been dismissed. But, there isn’t any jurisprudence which entails reasoning as to why the courts dismiss a Section 11 application rather than moving forward with other alternatives such as granting a stay etc. Therefore, there is no explicit bar on the passing of such orders. Hence, our first solution would be to judicially forbid the passing of such decisions.
The second solution in this regard would be to give a contextual broader interpretation to the words “receive the notice of their appointment” to mean initiation of proceedings and relax the time limit given under the provision. In the event of the continuation of the passing of such orders, the first hurdle which needs to be resolved is the pacification of the impossibility of complying with the mandate of Section 23(4). The non-compliance of the provision can provide an arbitrary leeway to the respondent party to file for termination of proceedings under Section 25. Therefore, to make the conditions surrounding the proceedings practicable for both parties, the time limit under Section 23(4) has to be relaxed either through a liberal interpretation or by an express relaxation by a judicial decision.
Part V- Conclusion
In conclusion, the treatment of Section 11 applications in cases involving pre-arbitral mediation mechanisms in India has presented a complex legal landscape. While there is no explicit bar on passing orders allowing simultaneous pre-arbitral mediation and Section 11 applications, such orders raise procedural and practical challenges. The judicial practice in this regard has been inconsistent, with some courts appointing an arbitrator and dismissing the Section 11 application when upholding the mediation process, while others have taken a different approach.
To address this issue, it is imperative for the judiciary to establish a clear stance and judicially forbid the passing of orders allowing simultaneous processes of pre-arbitral mediation and Section 11 applications. This would provide clarity and avoid procedural confusion. Additionally, a contextual and broader interpretation of the timeline mentioned in Section 23(4) of the Arbitration Act could be adopted. By considering the initiation of proceedings as the trigger point for calculating the timeline, the practical challenges posed by the simultaneous mediation and arbitration process can be mitigated. Alternatively, a judicial decision explicitly relaxing the time limit under Section 23(4) could also provide a feasible solution.
 Utkarsh Srivastava is a 5th Year Student at Dr Ram Manohar Lohiya National Law University, Lucknow. (firstname.lastname@example.org).  Gaurav Choudhary is a 4th Year Student at Dr Ram Manohar Lohiya National Law University, Lucknow. (email@example.com). [i] Gautam Bhatia, Section 11 of the Arbitration and Conciliation Act of 1996: The Jurisprudence of the Supreme Court and Implications for the Jurisdiction of an Arbitral Tribunal, National Law School of India Review Vol. 21, No. 2 (2009) pp. 67. [ii] Ibid. [iii] Oasis Projects Ltd. v. Managing Director, National Highway and Infrastructure Development Corporation Limited, 2023 SCC OnLine Del 645. [iv] Sushil Kumar Bhardwaj v. Union of India, 2009 SCC OnLine Del 4355. [v] Sanjay Iron and Steel Limited v. Steel Authority of India, 2021 SCC OnLine Del 4566. [vi] Rao Constructions v. State of Karnataka, 2020 SCC OnLine Kar 3498. [vii] M/s. Hello Verify India Private Limited v. M/s. Happiest Minds Technologies Private Limited, Civil Miscellaneous Petition No. 237 of 2020. [viii] Shreans Daga v. IBM India Private Limited, Civil Miscellaneous Petition No. 184 of 2019. [ix] Section 89, Code of Civil Procedure, 1908. [x] Nirman Sindia v. Indal Electromelts Ltd, Coimbatore, 1999 SCC OnLine Ker 149. [xi] Simpark Infrastructure Pvt Ltd v. Jaipur Municipal Corporation, 2012 SCC OnLine Raj 2738. [xii] Supra note 1.