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Account Statements And IT Returns Relied On By Arbitral Tribunal, Have Evidentiary Value : Delhi High Court

Parina Katyal
7 Aug 2022 12:17 PM GMT
Account Statements And IT Returns Relied On By Arbitral Tribunal, Have Evidentiary Value : Delhi High Court
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The Delhi High Court has ruled that the arbitral award cannot be set aside on the ground that the material relied upon by the Arbitral Tribunal does not measure up to the standards under the Indian Evidence Act, 1872.

The Bench, consisting of Justices Vibhu Bakhru and Amit Mahajan, held that an award passed by the Arbitral Tribunal, by relying upon the Bank Account statements and the Income Tax Return furnished by the Claimant, cannot be said to be an unreasoned award or an award based on no evidence.

The respondent/lessor Kanta Batra entered into a Lease Deed with the appellant/ lessee M/s. Scholastic India Pvt. Ltd. After a fire broke out in the leased premises, the appellant terminated the lease on the ground that it constituted a force majeure event.

Alleging that the fire broke out on account of the negligence of the appellant/lessee, the respondent contended that the appellant was not entitled to terminate the lease during the lock-in period. Thus, the respondent/lessor claimed that the appellant was liable to pay the lease rentals for the remaining period as well as the cost of repairs incurred by the respondent. The lessee raised a counter claim that it was entitled to the refund of the security deposit, deposited by it as per the terms of the Lease Deed.

The disputes between the parties were referred to arbitration and the Arbitral Tribunal found that the fire had broken out as a result of the failure of the appellant to maintain its electrical equipment and hence, the respondent/lessor was entitled to the cost of repairs and damages. For quantification of the damages payable to the lessor, the Tribunal relied on the bank statements of the lessor which indicated the amounts spent by it on the repairs of the leased premises. Accordingly, the Tribunal passed an award that the lessor was entitled to a certain sum in view of the expenditure incurred by it on the re-construction of the leased premises.

Challenging the arbitral award, the appellant Scholastic India filed an application under Section 34 of the Arbitration and Conciliation Act, 1996 (A&C Act) before the Commercial Court. The Commercial Court held that the Arbitral Tribunal had grossly erred in relying on the Income Tax Return and the bank statements furnished by the respondent, since the same were not supported by a certificate under Section 65B of the Indian Evidence Act, 1872. Holding that no person can be saddled with any liability on the basis of any entries in the books of accounts, the Commercial Court ruled that the award was based on no evidence and hence, it suffered from patent illegality. However, the Commercial Court rejected the contention of the appellant that it was entitled to the refund of the security deposit.

Both the parties challenged the order passed by the Commercial Court by filing an appeal under Section 37 of the A&C Act before the Delhi High Court. The appellant/lessee Scholastic India challenged the order of the Commercial Court rejecting its claim for refund of the security deposit. The respondent/lessor Kanta Batra challenged the order of the Commercial Court on the ground that the Commercial Court had re-appreciated the evidence regarding the quantification of damages awarded to the respondent by the Arbitral Tribunal, which was being beyond the scope of Section 34 of the A&C Act.

The Delhi High Court noted that under Section 34 of the A&C Act, the scope of interference with an arbitral award is limited. Holding that a court cannot reappreciate or re-evaluate the evidence and supplant its opinion over that of the Arbitral Tribunal, the High Court ruled that the Commercial Court had committed an error by re-appreciating and re-evaluating the evidence in the proceedings under Section 34 of the A&C Act.

Observing that the Indian Evidence Act, 1872 does not apply to the proceedings before an Arbitral Tribunal, the Court held that an arbitral award cannot be faulted on the ground that it is non-compliant with the Indian Evidence Act.

The Court further noted that Section 19 (1) of the A&C Act expressly provides that the Arbitral Tribunal would not be bound by the Indian Evidence Act or the Code of Civil Procedure, 1908.

"In view of the above, an arbitral award cannot be faulted on the ground that it is non-compliant with the said statutes. Having stated the above, it is necessary to clarify that there may be instances where an arbitral award may be faulted as being in conflict with the public policy of India or on the ground of patent illegality, including that it falls foul of the most basic principles underlying the Indian Evidence Act, 1872. But that does not mean that in all cases where the material relied upon by the Arbitral Tribunal does not measure up to the standards under the Indian Evidence Act 1872, the arbitral award would be liable to be set aside.", the Court said.

The Court added that an arbitral award, which is based on no material or evidence at all, may be vitiated by patent illegality, however, an award cannot be set aside on the ground of insufficiency of evidence or material.

Noting that there was material available on record to substantiate the claims of the respondent/lessor regarding the expenses incurred on the repairs of the leased premises, the Court held that the Income Tax return furnished by the respondent clearly indicated the expenditure incurred and claimed by the respondent. Additionally, the Court observed that the bank statements submitted by the respondent reflected the payments made by it to certain entities, which, allegedly, were towards the expenditure incurred on the repairs of the premises.

"Undeniably, the income tax return furnished by the Lessor for the assessment year 2015-16 was material evidence to establish that the Lessor had claimed that she had incurred certain expenditure for repairs of the premises. Indisputably, this could not be stated to be irrelevant to the Lessor's claim before the Arbitral Tribunal.", the Court held.

Ruling that the Bank Account statements relied on by the lessor were relevant material, the Court held that the award passed by the Arbitral Tribunal, by relying upon the said bank statements and the Income Tax Return, as furnished by the lessor, cannot be said to be an unreasoned award or an award based on no evidence.

The Court ruled that the Commercial Court, by re-evaluating the sufficiency of the evidence in material produced by the respondent/lessor and by holding that the Arbitral Tribunal had incorrectly appreciated the sufficiency of the said material, had clearly acted outside the ambit of Section 34 of the A&C Act.

Thus, the Court allowed the appeal of the respondent/lessor and dismissed the appeal of the appellant/lessee.

Case Title: M/s Scholastic India Pvt. Ltd. & Anr. versus Kanta Batra (FAO (COMM) 112/2022)

AND

Kanta Batra versus M/s Scholastic India Pvt. Ltd. & Anr.

Citation: 2022 LiveLaw (Del) 763

Dated: 04.08.2022 (Delhi High Court)

Counsel for the Appellant- Scholastic India Pvt. Ltd.: Mr Vishesh Issar and Ms Krishna Parkhani, Advocates

Counsel for the Respondent- Kanta Batra: Mr Rajeev Saxena, Mr Sumit K. Batra, Mr Shrey Chathaly and Mr Kshitij Chhabra, Advocates.

Click Here To Read/Download Order

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