Pre-Deposit Clauses To Invoke Arbitration Makes Arbitral Process Ineffective And Expensive: SC [Read Judgment]
“Deterring a party to an arbitration from invoking this alternative dispute resolution process by a pre-deposit of 10% would discourage arbitration, contrary to the object of de-clogging the Court system, and would render the arbitral process ineffective and expensive.”
The Supreme Court has observed that pre-deposit clauses to invoke arbitration would render the arbitral process ineffective and expensive.
The bench comprising Justice Rohinton Fali Nariman and Justice Vineet Saran struck down such a clause in a notice inviting tender by Punjab State Water Supply & Sewerage Board.
The case of the company (ICOMM Tele Ltd.) which was awarded the said tender was that the said arbitration clause contained in the tender condition amounts to a contract of adhesion and arbitration being an alternative dispute resolution process, a 10% deposit would amount to a clog on entering the system. As the High court dismissed their challenge against the said clause, they approached the Apex court.
The relevant clause 25(viii) read thus
"viii. It shall be an essential term of this contract that in order to avoid frivolous claims the party invoking arbitration shall specify the dispute based on facts and calculations stating the amount claimed under each claim and shall furnish a "deposit-at-call" for ten percent of the amount claimed, on a schedule bank in the name of the Arbitrator by his official designation who shall keep the amount in deposit till the announcement of the award. In the event of an award in favour of the claimant, the deposit shall be refunded to him in proportion to the amount awarded w.r.t the amount claimed and the balance, if any, shall be forfeited and paid to the other party."
The Apex court bench noted that the 10% "deposit-at-call" before a party can successfully invoke the arbitration clause is on the basis that this is in order to avoid frivolous claims. The bench observed that a frivolous claim can also be dismissed with exemplary costs, and thus it would be open to the party who has succeeded before the arbitrator to invoke this principle and it is open to the arbitrator to dismiss a claim as frivolous on imposition of exemplary costs. The court also added that the said clause does not really have any direct nexus to the filing of frivolous claims, as it applies to all claims (frivolous or otherwise) made at the very threshold. It said:
"The important principle established by this case is that unless it is first found that the litigation that has been embarked upon is frivolous, exemplary costs or punitive damages do not follow. Clearly, therefore, a "deposit-at-call" of 10% of the amount claimed, which can amount to large sums of money, is obviously without any direct nexus to the filing of frivolous claims, as it applies to all claims (frivolous or otherwise) made at the very threshold. A 10% deposit has to be made before any determination that a claim made by the party invoking arbitration is frivolous. This is also one important aspect of the matter to be kept in mind in deciding that such a clause would be arbitrary in the sense of being something which would be unfair and unjust and which no reasonable man would agree to. Indeed, a claim may be dismissed but need not be frivolous, as is obvious from the fact that where three arbitrators are appointed, there have been known to be majority and minority awards, making it clear that there may be two possible or even plausible views which would indicate that the claim is dismissed or allowed on merits and not because it is frivolous. Further, even where a claim is found to be justified and correct, the amount that is deposited need not be refunded to the successful claimant."
Justice Nariman further cited an illustration:
"Take for example a claim based on a termination of a contract being illegal and consequent damages thereto. If the claim succeeds and the termination is set aside as being illegal and a damages claim of one crore is finally granted by the learned arbitrator at only ten lakhs, only one tenth of the deposit made will be liable to be returned to the successful party. The party who has lost in the arbitration proceedings will be entitled to forfeit nine tenths of the deposit made despite the fact that the aforesaid party has an award against it. This would render the entire clause wholly arbitrary, being not only excessive or disproportionate but leading to the wholly unjust result of a party who has lost an arbitration being entitled to forfeit such part of the deposit as falls proportionately short of the amount awarded as compared to what is claimed."
The bench also reiterated that arbitration is an important alternative dispute resolution process which is to be encouraged because of high pendency of cases in courts and cost of litigation. It said:
"Any requirement as to deposit would certainly amount to a clog on this process. Also, it is easy to visualize that often a deposit of 10% of a huge claim would be even greater than court fees that may be charged for filing a suit in a civil court.",
While striking down the pre-deposit clause, the bench said:
"Primary object of arbitration is to reach a final disposal of disputes in a speedy, effective, inexpensive and expeditious manner…. Deterring a party to an arbitration from invoking this alternative dispute resolution process by a pre-deposit of 10% would discourage arbitration, contrary to the object of de-clogging the Court system, and would render the arbitral process ineffective and expensive."