Larsen and Toubro Limited Scomi Engineering BHD v. Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority, MANU/SC/1151/2018
Case Details: Arbitration Petition (C) No. 28 of 2017
Bench: Rohinton Fali Nariman and Navin Sinha, JJ.
Disputes arose between the parties under the monorail contract and the petitioners filed the application under Section 11 of the 1996 Act. The Contractor was the unincorporated consortium consisting of Larsen and Toubro Ltd. (L&T), was an Indian company, and Scomi Engineering Bhd (Scomi), a Malaysian company. The L&T and Scomi were jointly and severally liable under the contract with the Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority (MMRDA). The consortium had its office in Mumbai.
- Whether the arbitration was an “international commercial arbitration” and consequently whether the Supreme Court had jurisdiction to entertain the petition?
- Whether an unincorporated consortium was an association of persons for the purposes of Section 2(1)(f) of the 1996 Act (as amended)?
- When would an arbitration be an “international commercial arbitration” where the dispute is invoked by the contractor consortium, in which one of the members is a foreign company?
Relevant legal Provisions
Section 2(1)(f), which defined the phrase “international commercial arbitration”, was amended by virtue of the Arbitration and Conciliation (Amendment) Act, 2015 and the amended provision read:
“"international commercial arbitration" means an arbitration relating to disputes arising out of legal relationships, whether contractual or not, considered as commercial under the law in force in India and where at least one of the parties is—
(i) an individual who is a national of, or habitually resident in, any country other than India; or
(ii) a body corporate which is incorporated in any country other than India; or
(iii) an association or a body of individuals whose central management and control is exercised in any country other than India; or
(iv) the Government of a foreign country;”
The court rejected the petitioner’s contention that this was an “international commercial arbitration wherein the Supreme Court had the power to appoint the arbitrator and held on facts that the central management of the consortium was in India and therefore the arbitration was not an “international commercial arbitration. The Supreme Court’s decision is summarised below:
- In view of the final decision of the Bombay High Court, L&T and Scomi could only raise disputes as a single entity. Therefore, Section 2(1)(f)(ii) will not be applicable and Section 2(1)(f)(iii) will be applicable.
- Section 2(1)(f)(iii) speaks of “association” or “body” of persons. This is akin to the definition of “person” under Section 2(31) of the Income Tax Act, 1961, which includes an association of persons, whether incorporated or not. As such “association of persons” forms a separate category and is distinct from “body of persons”.
- The Indian company, L&T, is the lead partner in the consortium as per the consortium agreement and the supervisory board constituted as per the consortium agreement empowers L&T to have the lead voice in the appointment of the chairman of the said board. The consortium agreement provides that the lead partner shall lead the arbitration proceedings. The office of the consortium is in Mumbai. All these factors point out that the central management and consortium are in India
The court concluded that the arbitration was not an “international commercial arbitration and dismissed the petition
Implications and Critique
The decision is significant because it explains the determination of an international commercial arbitration when one of the parties to the arbitration proceedings is a consortium and where one of the members of the consortium is an Indian party. The decision clarifies that a consortium is really an association of persons and provides guidance on the factors determinative of determining whether the central management and control is in India.
Given that classifying the Indian seated arbitration as “international commercial arbitration” and otherwise has implications on many aspects, including, especially the scope of interference into the arbitral award, the determination of the international character of the arbitration is of utmost importance.
Case comments on the decision have not evoked adverse critique or have cited past decisions. Even the Bombay High Court seems to have cited past decisions on the subject. Perhaps, the High Court need not have as the issue before it was slightly different. But the very same question in respect of a consortium of parties was raised before the Supreme Court in Reliance Industries Limited v. Union of India. The court passed three crucial orders, viz., orders dt. 31.03.2014, 02.04.2014 and 29.04.2014 in the matter. Of these, the last two orders merely modify the operative portion relating to the identity of the arbitrator. The order dt. 31.03.2014, reported in 'MANU/SC/0257/2014, is virtually on the same question where the SS Nijjar, J., acting as the designate of the Chief Justice, reached the opposite result, that the arbitration invoked by the consortium through its operator was an international commercial arbitration for the purposes of Section 2(1)(f). Similarities between the two cases are striking and are listed below:
- Both related to a consortium, named as “contractor” in the contract, and some of the members of the consortium were Indian companies and some were non-Indian.
- In both, the lead member (or the operator) who was empowered to act on behalf of the consortium was the Indian company.
- The benefit of success or failure in the arbitration would have been to all the members of the consortium.
Of course, some would argue that Section 11 decisions pre-2015 amendments were not binding precedents. But then, is it really true? There are umpteen number of decisions have considered Section 11 determinations pre-23.10.2015 to be de facto binding. Even the Supreme Court in this very case (dt. 03.10.2018) stated: “This was for the reason that the judgment of this Court, in TDM Infrastructure Private Ltd. v. UE Development India Private Ltd.” (emphasis supplied). The Delhi High Court. in GMR Energy Limited vs. Doosan Power Systems India Private Limited and Ors. (14.11.2017 - DELHC) : MANU/DE/3689/2017 and the Madhya Pradesh High Court in Sasan Power Limited vs. North American Coal Corporation India Private Limited have held that the observations in TDM Infrastructure (para 36) that the observations of the court were in order to determine the court’s jurisdiction and not for other purpose meant that the decision was not a binding precedent. The High Courts are wrong. The observation in TDM does not mean that the decision should not be cited as precedent; rather, it means that the observations cannot be treated as observations on the merits of the case before the arbitrator or otherwise. This is pretty standard in Section 11 petitions and such observations are pretty common even in the decisions by the High Court designates. The Delhi High Court and the Madhya Pradesh High Court in the aforesaid cases seem to have misconstrued this observation in TDM Infrastructure.
Therefore we have two sets of decisions on whether an Indian seated arbitration invoked by a contractor-consortium consisting of a foreign party against an Indian party would be an international commercial arbitration. L&T mentions the “office of the consortium” as if to signify that distinct from the offices of the individual members of the consortium, the consortium had a separate office. This, coupled with the final decision of the Bombay High Court in L&T could be construed by future courts to be determinative factors in choosing from among the two opposite views of the Supreme Court.