Legal Blog: Arbitration Agreement - Enforceability of Unregistered and Unstamped Document

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Friday, July 22, 2011

Arbitration Agreement - Enforceability of Unregistered and Unstamped Document

Justice Raveendran
Supreme Court of India
The Supreme Court in a recent decision, in M/s SMS Tea Estates Pvt. Ltd. v. M/s Chandamari Tea Co. Pvt. Ltd. has examined the question of enforceability and validity of an arbitration clause / agreement contained in an unregistered but compulsorily registrable document. While examining the relevant provisions of the Registration Act and the Indian Stamp Act, the Court held as under;

5. On the contentions urged the following questions arise for consideration :

(i) Whether an arbitration agreement contained in an unregistered (but compulsorily registrable) instrument is valid and enforceable? 

(ii) Whether an arbitration agreement in an unregistered instrument which is not duly stamped, is valid and enforceable?

(iii) Whether there is an arbitration agreement between the appellant and respondent and whether an Arbitrator should be appointed? 

Re : Question (i)

6. Section 17(1)(d) of Registration Act and section 107 of TP Act provides that leases of immovable property from year to year, or for any term exceeding one year or reserving a yearly rent, can be made only by a registered instrument. Section 49 of the Registration Act, 1908, sets out the effect of non-registration of documents required to be registered. The said section is extracted below :
49. Effect of non-registration of documents required to be Registered.- No document required by section 17 or by any provision of the Transfer of Property Act, 1882 (4 of 1882)], to be registered shall--
(a) affect any immovable property comprised therein, or (b) confer any power to adopt, or (c) be received as evidence of any transaction affecting such property or conferring such power, unless it has been registered:
provided that an unregistered document affecting immovable property and required by this Act or the Transfer of Property Act, 1882 (4 of 1882), to be registered may be received as evidence of a contract in a suit for specific performance under Chapter II of the Specific Relief Act, 1877 (3 of 1877) as evidence of any collateral transaction not required to be effected by registered instrument.
Section 49 makes it clear that a document which is compulsorily registrable, if not registered, will not affect the immovable property comprised therein in any manner. It will also not be received as evidence of any transaction affecting such property, except for two limited purposes. First is as evidence of a contract in a suit for specific performance. Second is as evidence of any collateral transaction which by itself is not required to be effected by registered instrument. A collateral transaction is not the transaction affecting the immovable property, but a transaction which is incidentally connected with that transaction. The question is whether a provision for arbitration in an unregistered document (which is compulsorily registrable) is a collateral transaction, in respect of which such unregistered document can be received as evidence under the proviso to section 49 of the Registration Act.

7. When a contract contains an arbitration agreement, it is a collateral term relating to the resolution of disputes, unrelated to the performance of the contract. It is as if two contracts -- one in regard to the substantive terms of the main contract and the other relating to resolution of disputes -- had been rolled into one, for purposes of convenience. An arbitration clause is therefore an agreement independent of the other terms of the contract or the instrument. Resultantly, even if the contract or its performance is terminated or comes to an end on account of repudiation, frustration or breach of contract, the arbitration agreement would survive for the purpose of resolution of disputes arising under or in connection with the contract. Similarly, when an instrument or deed of transfer (or a document affecting immovable property) contains an arbitration agreement, it is a collateral term relating to resolution of disputes, unrelated to the transfer or transaction affecting the immovable property. It is as if two documents - one affecting the immovable property requiring registration and the other relating to resolution of disputes which is not compulsorily registrable - are rolled into a single instrument. Therefore, even if a deed of transfer of immovable property is challenged as not valid or enforceable, the arbitration agreement would remain unaffected for the purpose of resolution of disputes arising with reference to the deed of transfer. These principles have now found statutory recognition in sub-section (1) of section 16 of the Arbitration and Conciliation Act 1996 (`Act' for short) which is extracted below;
16. Competence of arbitral tribunal to rule on its jurisdiction. - (1) The arbitral tribunal may rule on its own jurisdiction, including ruling on any objections with respect to the existence or validity of the arbitration agreement, and for that purpose,--
(a) an arbitration clause which forms part of a contract shall be treated as an agreement independent of the other terms of the contract; and (b) a decision by the arbitral tribunal that the contract is null and void shall not entail ipso jure the invalidity of the arbitration clause.
8. But where the contract or instrument is voidable at the option of a party (as for example under section 19 of the Indian Contract Act, 1872), the invalidity that attaches itself to the main agreement may also attach itself to the arbitration agreement, if the reasons which make the main agreement voidable, exist in relation to the making of the arbitration agreement also. For example, if a person is made to sign an agreement to sell his property under threat of physical harm or threat to life, and the said person repudiates the agreement on that ground, not only the agreement for sale, but any arbitration agreement therein will not be binding.

9. An arbitration agreement does not require registration under the Registration Act. Even if it is found as one of the clauses in a contract or instrument, it is an independent agreement to refer the disputes to arbitration, which is independent of the main contract or instrument. Therefore having regard to the proviso to section 49 of Registration Act read with section 16(1)(a) of the Act, an arbitration agreement in an unregistered but compulsorily registrable document can be acted upon and enforced for the purpose of dispute resolution by arbitration.

Re : Question (ii)

10. What if an arbitration agreement is contained in an unregistered (but compulsorily registrable) instrument which is not duly stamped? To find an answer, it may be necessary to refer to the provisions of the Indian Stamp Act, 1899 (`Stamp Act' for short). Section 33 of the Stamp Act relates to examination and impounding of instruments. The relevant portion thereof is extracted below :
33. Examination and impounding of instruments.-(1) Every person having by law or consent of parties authority to receive evidence, and every person in charge of a pubic office, except an officer of police, before whom any instrument, chargeable, in his opinion, with duty, is produced or comes in the performance of his functions, shall, if it appears to him that such instrument is not dull stamped, impound the same. (2) For that purpose every such person shall examine every instrument so chargeable and so produced or coming before him in order to ascertain whether it is stamped with a stamp of the value and description required by the law in force in India when such instrument was executed or first executed :
x x x x &
Section 35 of Stamp Act provides that instruments not duly stamped is inadmissible in evidence and cannot be acted upon. The relevant portion of the said section is extracted below :
35. Instruments not duly stamped inadmissible in evidence, etc. -- No instrument chargeable with duty shall be admitted in evidence for any purpose by any person having by law or consent of parties authority to receive evidence, or shall be acted upon, registered or authenticated by any such person or by any public officer, unless such instrument is duly stamped :
Provided that--
(a) any such instrument shall be admitted in evidence on payment of the duty with which the same is chargeable, or, in the case of an instrument insufficiently stamped, of the amount required to make up such duty, together with a penalty of five rupees, or, when ten times the amount of the proper duty or deficient portion thereof exceeds five rupees, of a sum equal to ten times such duty or portion. x x x x x
Having regard to section 35 of Stamp Act, unless the stamp duty and penalty due in respect of the instrument is paid, the court cannot act upon the instrument, which means that it cannot act upon the arbitration agreement also which is part of the instrument. Section 35 of Stamp Act is distinct and different from section 49 of Registration Act in regard to an unregistered document. Section 35 of Stamp Act, does not contain a proviso like to section 49 of Registration Act enabling the instrument to be used to establish a collateral transaction.

11. The scheme for appointment of arbitrators by the Chief Justice of Guwahati High Court 1996 requires an application under section 11 of the Act to be accompanied by the original arbitration agreement or a duly certified copy thereof. In fact, such a requirement is found in the scheme/rules of almost all the High Courts. If what is produced is a certified copy of the agreement/contract/instrument containing the arbitration clause, it should disclose the stamp duty that has been paid on the original. Section 33 casts a duty upon every court, that is a person having by law authority to receive evidence (as also every arbitrator who is a person having by consent of parties, authority to receive evidence) before whom an unregistered instrument chargeable with duty is produced, to examine the instrument in order to ascertain whether it is duly stamped. If the court comes to the conclusion that the instrument is not duly stamped, it has to impound the document and deal with it as per section 38 of the Stamp Act. Therefore, when a lease deed or any other instrument is relied upon as contending the arbitration agreement, the court should consider at the outset, whether an objection in that behalf is raised or not, whether the document is properly stamped. If it comes to the conclusion that it is not properly stamped, it should be impounded and dealt with in the manner specified in section 38 of Stamp Act. The court cannot act upon such a document or the arbitration clause therein. But if the deficit duty and penalty is paid in the manner set out in section 35 or section 40 of the Stamp Act, the document can be acted upon or admitted in evidence.

12. We may therefore sum up the procedure to be adopted where the arbitration clause is contained in a document which is not registered (but compulsorily registrable) and which is not duly stamped : 

(i) The court should, before admitting any document into evidence or acting upon such document, examine whether the instrument/document is duly stamped and whether it is an instrument which is compulsorily registrable.

(ii) If the document is found to be not duly stamped, Section 35 of Stamp Act bars the said document being acted upon. Consequently, even the arbitration clause therein cannot be acted upon. The court should then proceed to impound the document under section 33 of the Stamp Act and follow the procedure under section 35 and 38 of the Stamp Act. 

(iii) If the document is found to be duly stamped, or if the deficit stamp duty and penalty is paid, either before the Court or before the Collector (as contemplated in section 35 or 40 of the Stamp Act), and the defect with reference to deficit stamp is cured, the court may treat the document as duly stamped.

(iv) Once the document is found to be duly stamped, the court shall proceed to consider whether the document is compulsorily registrable. If the document is found to be not compulsorily registrable, the court can act upon the arbitration agreement, without any impediment.

(v) If the document is not registered, but is compulsorily registrable, having regard to section 16(1)(a) of the Act, the court can de-link the arbitration agreement from the main document, as an agreement independent of the other terms of the document, even if the document itself cannot in any way affect the property or cannot be received as evidence of any transaction affecting such property. The only exception is where the respondent in the application demonstrates that the arbitration agreement is also void and unenforceable, as pointed out in para 8 above. If the respondent raises any objection that the arbitration agreement was invalid, the court will consider the said objection before proceeding to appoint an arbitrator. 

(vi) Where the document is compulsorily registrable, but is not registered, but the arbitration agreement is valid and separable, what is required to be borne in mind is that the Arbitrator appointed in such a matter cannot rely upon the unregistered instrument except for two purposes, that is (a) as evidence of contract in a claim for specific performance and (b) as evidence of any collateral transaction which does not require registration.

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