Settling a much-litigated issue, the Supreme Court of India (“Court”) recently decided that two Indian parties can choose a foreign (non-Indian) seat of arbitration. Some courts had previously held that at least one party had to be a non-Indian person or company for such a clause to be effective. The Court clarified the position and held that an award issued by an arbitral tribunal in such circumstances would be enforceable in India and that the parties could also seek interim relief in India. The decision brings welcome certainty particularly for Indian subsidiaries of international companies that have negotiated contracts providing for offshore arbitration in jurisdictions like Singapore, London, Hong Kong and others.

Background

The judgment, in PASL Wind Solutions Private Limited v. GE Power Conversion India Private Limited, followed from an appeal from a decision of the Gujarat High Court (which we covered here). It involved two Indian companies, one a subsidiary of a French company, that had entered into an agreement for the sale of converters. The agreement provided for arbitration in Zurich under the ICC Rules and was governed by Indian substantive law. The Tribunal issued an award and GE Power applied to enforce it in Gujarat. The Gujarat High Court held that the award was enforceable notwithstanding that the two Indian parties had chosen a foreign seat, but also held that parties to such an arbitration would not be entitled to interim relief in the Indian courts. PASL Wind Solutions appealed to the Court.

The Judgment

Meaning of ‘Foreign’ Award

Part II of the Indian Arbitration and Conciliation Act 1996 (the “Arbitration Act”) applies to the enforcement of foreign awards in India. One question before the Court was how the term ‘foreign award’ should be interpreted.

The appellant argued that the definition turns on the nationality of the parties, and that an award could not be considered ‘foreign’ because it involved two Indian parties. The Court rejected this argument and held that there were four criteria for an award to be considered a foreign award: (i) the dispute must be considered to be a commercial dispute under the law in force in India, (ii) it must be made pursuant to a written arbitration agreement, (iii) the dispute must arise between “persons” (without regard to their nationality, residence, or domicile), and (iv) the arbitration must be conducted in a New York Convention country.

The Court held that these criteria were met by the award in question. Section 44 of the Arbitration Act (which defines foreign awards) was “party-neutral” and the key factor is the place of arbitration.

The appellant also argued that the term ‘foreign award’ in Part II must be understood by reference to terms used in Part I (which deals with domestic or India-seated arbitrations). The Court rejected this argument and held that it was not possible to interpret the provisions of one part of the Arbitration Act using provisions of another part, following its earlier decision in Bharat Aluminium Co. v. Kaiser Aluminium Technical Services.

Public policy

Another issue before the Court was whether an agreement between two Indian parties to arbitrate in a foreign seat was against the provisions of the Indian Contract Act 1872. In particular it was argued that this was against Section 23, which makes agreements against public policy void, and Section 28, which provides that agreements in restraint of legal proceedings are void.

On public policy, the Court found that on balance there was no harm to the public in allowing two Indian parties to resolve their disputes offshore: “The balancing act between freedom of contract and clear and undeniable harm to the public must be resolved in favour of freedom of contract as there is no clear and undeniable harm caused to the public…”. Where issues of fundamental Indian public policy where involved, the Court found that there were adequate safeguards in the Arbitration Act and under conflict of laws rules.

The Court also echoed its previous judgments which held that party autonomy was “the brooding and guiding spirit of arbitration” and that there were no grounds on which to restrict this autonomy by preventing Indian parties from arbitrating abroad.

Interim Relief

Finally, the Court overruled the Gujarat High Court’s finding that interim relief would not be available for arbitrations between Indian parties seated abroad. The Court found that this was based on an erroneous reading of the provisions of Parts I and II of the Arbitration Act.

Comment

The Court’s judgment will be a welcome clarification on an issue that has divided many High Courts in India including those in Delhi, Bombay and Gujarat. For contracts entered into before this question was widely litigated, parties will welcome the clarity. Looking ahead, for parties now negotiating contracts, the Court’s decision offers a wider menu of available forums in which to resolve their disputes, which is consistent with the global reach of Indian businesses.