Section 34 Arbitration Act Gives No Power To Modify Arbitral Award; Appellate Court Can Only Set Aside Or Remand: Supreme Court

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Case: Project Director, National Highways vs. M. Hakeem

Coram: Justices RF Nariman and BR Gavai

Case No: CIVIL APPEAL NO. 2797 OF 2021

Court Observation: What is important to note is that, far from Section 34 being in the nature of an appellate provision, it provides only for setting aside awards on very limited grounds, such grounds being contained in sub-sections (2) and (3) of Section 34. Secondly, as the marginal 18 note of Section 34 indicates, “recourse” to a court against an arbitral award may be made only by an application for setting aside such award in accordance with sub-sections (2) and (3). “Recourse” is defined by P Ramanatha Aiyar’s Advanced Law Lexicon (3rd Edition) as the enforcement or method of enforcing a right. Where the right is itself truncated, enforcement of such truncated right can also be only limited in nature.

What is clear from a reading of the said provisions is that, given the limited grounds of challenge under sub-sections (2) and (3), an application can only be made to set aside an award. This becomes even clearer when we see subsection (4) under which, on receipt of an application under subsection (1) of Section 34, the court may adjourn the Section 34 proceedings and give the arbitral tribunal an opportunity to resume the arbitral proceedings or take such action as will eliminate the grounds for setting aside the arbitral award. Here again, it is important to note that it is the opinion of the arbitral tribunal which counts in order to eliminate the grounds for setting aside the award, which may be indicated by the court hearing the Section 34 application.

It can therefore be said that this question has now been settled finally by at least 3 decisions of this Court. Even otherwise, to state that the judicial trend appears to favour an interpretation that would read into Section 34 a power to modify, revise or vary the award would be to ignore the previous law contained in the 1940 Act; as also to ignore the fact that the 1996 Act was enacted based on the UNCITRAL Model Law on International Commercial Arbitration, 1985 which, as has been pointed out in Redfern and Hunter on International Arbitration, makes it clear that, given the limited judicial interference on extremely limited grounds not dealing with the merits of an award, the ‘limited remedy’ under Section 34 is coterminus with the ‘limited right’, namely, either to set aside an award or remand the matter under the circumstances mentioned in Section 34 of the Arbitration Act, 1996.

Also, to assimilate the Section 34 jurisdiction with the revisional jurisdiction under Section 115 of the Code of Civil Procedure, 1908 [the “CPC”], is again fallacious. Section 115 of the CPC expressly sets out the three grounds on which a revision may be entertained and then states that the High Court may make ‘such order as it thinks fit’. These latter words are missing in Section 34, given the legislative scheme of the Arbitration Act, 1996. Quite obviously if one were to include the power to modify an award in Section 34, one would be crossing the Lakshman Rekha and doing what, according to the justice of a case, ought to be done. In interpreting a statutory provision, a Judge must put himself in the shoes of Parliament and then ask whether Parliament intended this result. Parliament very clearly intended that no power of modification of an award exists in Section 34 of the Arbitration Act, 1996. It is only for Parliament to amend the aforesaid provision in the light of the experience of the courts in the working of the Arbitration Act, 1996, and bring it in line with other legislations the world over.


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