The integrity and effectiveness of arbitration as an alternative dispute resolution mechanism rely on the fair and informed decisions rendered by arbitral tribunals. However, there are instances where arbitral awards fail to address crucial and contentious issues, leading to a miscarriage of justice and violation of public policy. In such cases, the appellate court sets aside the arbitral award delivered by the tribunal without considering a crucial claim, while exercising its powers of setting aside an award under Section 34 (hereinafter ‘Sec. 34’). The continuous affirmation of the same by various High Courts, after the principle was established by the Supreme Court in the case of I-Pay Clearing Services, necessitates the recognition of violation of the basic intent of ‘The Arbitration and Conciliation Act, 1996’ if such awards are not set aside. This article entails a discussion on the infringement of rights in such situations and the aid of Sec. 34, analysing the perspective of various High Courts in dealing with set-aside applications. Further, it has been suggested how remitting such perverse awards back to the tribunal can be an efficient recourse.
PERVERSITY DUE TO DISREGARD OF CONTENTIOUS ISSUE
The general concept in view of various precedents in arbitration law has been that a flaw that can be corrected or removed from the award, shall be referred back to the tribunal for such correction under Sec 34(4), instead of simply setting it aside. But in numerous cases, the flaw is not curable, and the same is caused due to the sheer lackadaisical approach of the tribunal in recognising, acknowledging, and then discussing the major issues related to a dispute. The rights of the parties are so gravely affected that the award cannot be corrected by referring it to the same tribunal. The scope of Sec. 34 is set by the Supreme Court to allow the setting aside of such awards which are ‘perverse’ and patently illegal in nature due to disregard of a contentious issue. The term perverse has been interpreted widely to include a finding based on “no evidence at all or an award which ignores vital evidence” in arriving at its decision would be perverse and liable to be set aside on the grounds of patent illegality.
CREATION OF CONUNDRUM W.R.T CONTENTIOUS ISSUES AND EVIDENCE
The challenges posed by tribunals' ignorance of pertinent issues and evidence manifest in two ways: neglecting crucial evidence despite acknowledging the issue and completely overlooking a pertinent issue in the award. Either the tribunal acknowledges the issue, but fails to base its award on the evidence presented during the proceedings, or it altogether does not recognise a pertinent issue in the award. The former illegality is discussed frequently by courts when crucial evidence is ignored by the tribunal while passing an award. When the parties have put on record certain important aspects of the dispute, which are essential for concluding their rights, but the tribunal neglects such evidence, such award has been termed perverse in several judgements.
In the latter situation, the tribunal is unable to conclusively determine the enforceable rights of the parties, let alone grant a legitimate award. For eg., an issue of limitation in a time-barred dispute would be a contentious aspect of the dispute, and passing an award without considering this issue would render the award patently illegal. If the award is given without any discussion on this issue, it would be unjust for the party against whom the award is passed, since the award holder would have taken advantage of the tribunal’s mistake by enforcing a right that has been statutorily prohibited. Another example is, if a party has surrendered a right and has been estopped from enforcing the same, or the Court has restricted it from raising certain claims during arbitral proceedings, but the unreasonable findings of the tribunal, wholly disregarding the existence of such facts, presents an award that goes against judicial orders of the court.
JUDICIAL APPROACH TOWARDS SUCH AWARDS
The Supreme Court, in the I-Pay Clearing Services case, conclusively decided the question of patent illegality when the tribunal failed to examine certain contentious issues, and held “in absence of any finding on contentious issues, no amount of reasons can cure the defect in the award”. Therefore, in such cases, the award cannot be remitted back to the tribunal for curing the same. This ruling has been followed in numerous High Court judgements.
The Delhi High Court has recognised that such awards would be liable to be set aside under Sec. 34, and stated “While the Arbitral Tribunal had also duly taken notice of the contentious issue, unfortunately, the award is entirely silent on this issue. In the considered opinion of this Court, the Ld. Arbitral Tribunal has committed a manifest error in not coming to any finding on this issue.” It has been held in Inox Air Products (P) Ltd. v. Air Liquide North India (P) Ltd, “The learned arbitrator cannot reconsider his conclusion, or that Sec. 34(4) of the Act cannot be resorted to in a situation where the award itself may change as a result.”
It has also been commented that such awards suffer from ‘incurable defects’ by not dealing with a party’s contentions. Further, “a finding is based on no evidence, or an arbitral tribunal takes into account something irrelevant to the decision which it arrives at; or ignores vital evidence in arriving at its decision, such decision would necessarily be perverse.” The same perspective was also held in the landmark judgement of Ssangyong Engg. & Construction Co. Ltd. v. NHAI.
UNNECESSARY MEDDLING BY COURTS
The author opines that the argument where the arbitrator would not be able to appreciate the evidence a second time if it was ignored the first time, seems vividly exaggerated. If the award is remitted back to the tribunal, the arbitrators would be aware of the missing gaps in the award, and the same can be rectified specifically. Additionally, in numerous cases, arbitrators from non-legal backgrounds are appointed to deal with the technicalities of the subject matter that might be involved in the dispute. They are sometimes not aware of the procedural aspects of the legal system. An opportunity shall be given to them to rectify their errors and learn from the procedure so that they may render better awards in the future, without setting aside the whole award. Further, it has been abundantly established that the intent of Sec. 34 is to eliminate any curable defects from the award, which can only be done by the arbitral tribunal, and not by the court due to the principle of minimal judicial interference. Therefore, it is essential to remit the award back to the tribunal for deciding a pertinent issue.
However, a problem exists where the court has to determine whether the lack of consideration given to certain evidence or contentious issue by the arbitrator renders the award totally incurable, or it can be remitted back to the tribunal for removing flaws. The test of perversity lies in the reasonableness of the decision of the arbitrator. The appellate courts have to determine perversity as follows -: “If a decision is arrived at on no evidence or evidence which is thoroughly unreliable and no reasonable person would act upon it, the order would be perverse. But if there is some evidence on record which is acceptable and which could be relied upon, howsoever compendious it may be, the conclusions would not be treated as perverse and the findings would not be interfered with”.
The ambiguous and wide scope in Sec 34(4) exercised in such cases can create discrepancies in different cases, where the court is burdened with the discretion to decide the contentious issues of the dispute, and whether the same should be referred back to the tribunal owing to their curable/incurable nature. The court’s powers are restricted to determining the same, and not entering the merits of the case that has already been heard at length. Hence, the court is left with the sole alternative of setting aside the award. The approach of determining reasonableness in the award is followed while evaluating perversity, but the same does not have any set standard of rules that govern ‘reasonableness’ in an award. Therefore, the appellate courts have to conclude whether an award is reasonable, and there is sufficient scope correcting the award by remitting it back to the tribunal even where a contentious issue has been omitted. One of the standards for remitting back an award is whether the arbitrator failed to determine an issue because of ‘pure oversight’, and if the same can be corrected, it should be remitted back to the tribunal. This would be a subjective test based on factual circumstances of different cases.
The award should be sent back to the tribunal for the arbitrators to consider the relevant issue or evidence, and alter the award if needed. The same would be based on the legal intent of arbitration, wherein enforcement of awards is given a superior pedestal with due relevance than simply abrogating the award. There might be certain aspects of a dispute which, if ignored, would lead to grave injustice and biases in the award rendered by the arbitrator. The recent developments in the judicial sphere concerning awards omitting ‘contentious issues’ has been inclined towards setting aside such awards. But at the same, the courts must restrain itself from setting aside each award instantly. Striking the right balance between setting aside awards and allowing tribunals to rectify curable defects can uphold the integrity of arbitration and ensure justice prevails.