Validity & Existence of an Arbitration Clause in an Unstamped Agreement
By Kunal Kumar
January 8, 2024
In a recent ruling, a seven-judge bench of the Supreme Court of India in its judgment in re: Interplay between arbitration agreements under the Arbitration & Conciliation Act 1996 and the Indian Stamp Act 1899, overruled the constitutional bench decision of the Supreme Court of India in N. N. Mercantile Private Limited v. Indo Unique Flame Ltd. & Ors. and has settled the issue concerning the validity and existence of an arbitration clause in an unstamped agreement. (‘N. N. Global Mercantile (P) Ltd. v. Indo Unique Flame Ltd. – III’)
Background to N. N. Global Mercantile (P) Ltd. v. Indo Unique Flame Ltd. – III
One of the first instances concerning the issue of the validity of an unstamped agreement arose in the case of SMS Tea Estate Pvt. Ltd. v. Chandmari Tea Company Pvt. Ltd. In this case, the Hon’ble Apex Court held that if an instrument/document lacks proper stamping, the exercising Court must preclude itself from acting upon it, including the arbitration clause. It further emphasized that it is imperative for the Court to impound such documents/instruments and must accordingly adhere to the prescribed procedure outlined in the Indian Stamp Act 1899.
With the introduction of the 2015 Amendment, Section 11(6A) was inserted in the Arbitration & Conciliation Act 1996 (A&C Act) which stated whilst appointing an arbitrator under the A&C Act, the Court must confine itself to the examination of the existence of an arbitration agreement.
In the case of M/s Duro Felguera S.A. v. M/s Gangavaram Port Limited, the Supreme Court of India made a noteworthy observation, affirming that the legislative intent behind the 2015 Amendment to the A&C Act was necessitated to minimise the Court's involvement during the stage of appointing an arbitrator and that the purpose embodied in Section 11(6A) of A&C Act, deserves due acknowledgement & respect.
In the case of Garware Wall Ropes Ltd. v. Cosatal Marine Constructions & Engineering Ltd., a divisional bench of the Apex Court reaffirmed its previous decision held in SMS Tea Estates (supra) and concluded that the inclusion of an arbitration clause in a contract assumes significance, emphasizing that the agreement transforms into a contract only when it holds legal enforceability. The Apex Court observed that an agreement fails to attain the status of a contract and would not be legally enforceable unless it bears the requisite stamp as mandated under the Indian Stamp Act 1899. Accordingly, the Court concluded that Section 11(6A) read in conjunction with Section 7(2) of the A&C Act and Section 2(h) of the Indian Contract Act 1872, clarified that the existence of an arbitration clause within an agreement is contingent on its legal enforceability and that the 2015 Amendment of the A&C Act to Section 11(6A) had not altered the principles laid out in SMS Tea Estates (supra).
Brief Factual Matrix – N. N. Global Mercantile (P) Ltd. v. Indo Unique Flame Ltd.
Indo Unique Flame Ltd. (‘Indo Unique’) was awarded a contract for a coal beneficiation/washing project with Karnataka Power Corporation Ltd. (‘KPCL’). In the course of the project, Indo Unique entered into a subcontract in the form of a Work Order with N.N. Global Mercantile Pvt. Ltd. (‘N.N. Global’) for coal transportation, coal handling and loading. Subsequently, certain disputes arose with KPCL, leading to KPCL invoking Bank Guarantees of Indo Unique under the main contract, after which Indo Unique invoked the Bank Guarantee of N. N. Global as supplied under the Work Order.
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Subsequently, N.N. Global initiated legal proceedings against the cashing of the Bank Guarantee in a Commercial Court. In response thereto, Indo Unique moved an application under Section 8 of the A&C Act, requesting that the Parties to the dispute be referred for arbitration. The Commercial Court dismissed the Section 8 application, citing the unstamped status of the Work Order as one of the grounds. Dissatisfied with the Commercial Court's decision on 18 January 2018, Indo Unique filed a Writ Petition before the High Court of Bombay seeking that the Order passed by the Commercial Court be quashed or set aside. The Hon’ble Bombay High Court on 30 September 2020 allowed the Writ Petition filed by Indo Unique, aggrieved by which, N.N. Global filed a Special Leave Petition before the Supreme Court of India.
N. N. Global Mercantile Pvt. Ltd. v. Indo Unique Flame Ltd. – I
The issue in the matter of M/s N.N. Global Mercantile Pvt. Ltd. v. M/s Indo Unqiue Flame Ltd. & Ors. came up before a three-bench of the Supreme Court of India i.e. in a situation when an underlying contract is not stamped or is insufficiently stamped, as required under the Indian Stamp Act 1899, would that also render the arbitration clause as non-existent and/or unenforceable (‘N.N. Global Mercantile Pvt. Ltd. v. Indo Flame Ltd. – I’).
The Hon’ble Supreme Court of India whilst emphasizing the 'Doctrine of Separability' of an arbitration agreement held that the non-payment of stamp duty on the commercial contract would not invalidate, vitiate, or render the arbitration clause as unenforceable, because the arbitration agreement is considered an independent contract from the main contract, and the existence and/or validity of an arbitration clause is not conditional on the stamping of a contract. The Hon’ble Supreme Court further held that deficiency in stamp duty of a contract is a curable defect and that the deficiency in stamp duty on the work order, would not affect the validity and/or enforceability of the arbitration clause, thus applying the Doctrine of Separability. The arbitration agreement remains valid and enforceable even if the main contract, within which it is embedded, is not admissible in evidence owing to lack of stamping.
The Hon’ble Apex Court, however, considered it appropriate to refer the issue i.e. whether unstamped instrument/document, would also render an arbitration clause as non-existent, unenforceable, to a constitutional bench of five-bench of the Supreme Court.
N. N. Global Mercantile (P) Ltd. v. Indo Unique Flame Ltd. – II
On 25 April 2023, a five-judge bench of the Hon’ble Supreme Court of India in the matter of N. N. Mercantile Private Limited v. Indo Unique Flame Ltd. & Ors. held that (1) An unstamped instrument containing an arbitration agreement cannot be said to be a contract which is enforceable in law within the meaning of Section 2(h) of the Indian Contract Act 1872 and would be void under Section 2(g) of the Indian Contract Act 1872, (2) an unstamped instrument which is not a contract nor enforceable cannot be acted upon unless it is duly stamped, and would not otherwise exist in the eyes of the law, (3) the certified copy of the arbitration agreement produced before a Court, must clearly indicate the stamp duty paid on the instrument, (4) the Court exercising its power in appointing an arbitration under Section 11 of the A&C Act, is required to act in terms of Section 33 and Section 35 of the Indian Stamp Act 1899 (N. N. Global Mercantile (P) Ltd. v. Indo Unique Flame Ltd. – II).
N. N. Global Mercantile (P) Ltd. v. Indo Unique Flame Ltd. – III
A seven-judge bench of the Supreme Court of India on 13 December 2023 in its recent judgment in re: Interplay between arbitration agreements under the Arbitration & Conciliation Act 1996 and the Indian Stamp Act 1899, (1) Agreements lacking proper stamping or inadequately stamped are deemed inadmissible as evidence under Section 35 of the Stamp Act. However, such agreements are not automatically rendered void or unenforceable ab initio; (2) non-stamping or insufficient stamping of a contract is a curable defect, (2) the issue of stamping is not subject to determination under Sections 8 or 11 of the A&C Act by a Court. The concerned Court is only required to assess the prima facie existence of the arbitration agreement, separate from concerns related to stamping, and (3) any objections pertaining to the stamping of the agreement would fall within the jurisdiction of the arbitral tribunal. Accordingly, the decision in N. N. Global Mercantile (P) Ltd. v. Indo Unique Flame Ltd. – II and SMS Tea (supra) was overruled, by the seven-judge bench of the Supreme Court of India.
Kunal is a qualified lawyer with more than nine years of experience and has completed his LL.M. in Dispute Resolution (specialisation in International Commercial Arbitration) from Straus Institute for Dispute Resolution, Pepperdine University, California.
Kunal currently has his own independent practice and specializes in commercial/construction arbitration as well as civil litigation. He has handled several matters relating to Civil Law and arbitrations (both domestic and international) and has appeared before the Supreme Court of India, High Court of Delhi, District Courts of Delhi and various other tribunals.
Disclaimer: The views or opinions expressed are solely of the author.
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