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Thursday, October 26, 2023

Reducing challenges to arbitration awards: lessons from court data

by Madhav Goel, Akshay Jaitly, Renuka Sane and Anjali Sharma.

Contracts form the bedrock of economic activity in the formal economy. As an economy grows, so does its reliance on contracts. Delays and friction in contract enforcement erode trust in contracts and inhibit the pace of economic growth. In India, contract enforcement generally falls in the jurisdiction of the civil court system, which, according to the National Judicial Data Grid, has more than 11 million pending cases and takes, on an average, more than three years to dispose of a case. One of the solutions to an increasingly overburdened court system in India has been to move certain types of matters to a different judicial forum, either a specialised court or tribunal or by using an alternate dispute resolution (ADR) mechanism. Arbitration is one such alternative mechanism, the framework for which is provided by the Arbitration and Conciliation Act, 1996 (A and C Act).

Contract enforcement by private persons against the state in India brings its own set of problems. Increasingly, government contracts provide for dispute resolution by arbitration. However, anecdotal evidence suggests that the state consistently challenges adverse arbitration awards. In this article, we use Delhi High Court data on challenges to arbitration awards for matters in which the National Highways Authority of India (NHAI) was a party. We analyse the grounds on which these awards were challenged and the manner in which the court dealt with these challenges.

Our main finding is that both the NHAI and the private parties challenge adverse arbitration awards, most often on the merits, even though the A and C Act specifically prohibits this. We also find that the court generally does not interfere with arbitral awards, which is in line with the legislative intent. However, this does not deter such challenges. This may be for a variety of reasons, such as the relatively low cost of litigation vis-a-vis the award value or the incentives of decision makers within the state.

Our analysis adds to the intersection of two growing bodies of recent work in India on the subject. The first that studies government contracting, both from a public administration lens and from the lens of how the government impacts ease of doing business and business outcomes (Chitgupi and Thomas (2023), Burman and Manivannan (2022), Mehta and Thomas (2022), Manivannan and Zaveri (2021), Shah (2021), Roy and Sharma (2020)). The second studies the functioning of courts and the manner in which they deal with a variety of matters (Manivannan et. al. (2021), Damle et. al. (2021), Sharma and Zaveri (2020), Gulati and Sane (2021), Bhatia et. al. (2019)).

The organisation of this article is as follows. We first provide an overview of the legislative and judicial framework to challenge an arbitral award, i.e., Sections 34 and 37 of the A and C Act. We then describe our data set and our methodology for analysis. This is followed by our findings and some recommendations on the way forward.

An overview of Sections 34 and 37 of the A and C Act

The design of the A and C Act allows for a two-stage sequential challenge to outcomes of arbitration proceedings, first under Section 34 and then under Section 37 of the Act. Section 34 provides 5 procedural and jurisdictional grounds, along with 3 additional grounds to set aside an arbitral award. These are:

  • Procedural and Jurisdiction:
    • The party was under some incapacity while entering into the arbitration agreement;
    • The arbitration agreement was not valid under the law to which the parties have subjected it;
    • The party making the application was not given proper notice of appointment of arbitrator or of arbitral proceedings, or was otherwise unable to present its case;
    • The arbitral award dealt with a dispute not contemplated by or not falling within the terms of the submission to arbitration, or it contained decisions on matters beyond the scope of the submission to arbitration; or
    • The composition of the arbitral tribunal or the arbitral procedure was not in accordance with the agreement of the parties or the A and C Act, as the case may be.
  • Additional Grounds:
    • The subject matter of the dispute was not capable of settlement by arbitration;
    • The award is in conflict with the public policy of India, i.e., award is affected by fraud or corruption, or is against the fundamental policy of Indian law, or is in conflict with the most basic notions of morality or justice; or
    • The award is vitiated by patent illegality appearing on the face of the award.

It is useful to note that Section 34 proceedings are not appeals (Delhi Airport Metro Express (P) Ltd. v. DMRC (2022)), and the grounds for challenge are limited by the A and C Act itself (Union of India v. Annavaram Concrete Pvt. Ltd. (2021)). Under the scheme of Section 34, an arbitral award cannot be set aside on merits, that is, on the grounds of erroneous application of law or by re-appreciation of evidence (MMTC Limited v. Vendanta Limited (2019); PSA SICAL Terminals (P) Ltd. v. Board of Trustees of V.O. Chidambranar Port Trust Tuticorin (2021)). Therefore, unless an arbitral award is set aside under the grounds laid down in Section 34, it is ready for execution as a civil court decree against the award debtor. Section 37 of the A and C Act, on the other hand, is an avenue of appeal against an order under Section 34 of the Act. Accordingly, proceedings under Section 37 are governed by the Code of Civil Procedure, 1908 (CPC) and are in the form of an appeal. However, through consistent judicial pronouncements, the grounds for appeal under Section 37 have been restricted, even as compared to the grounds under Section 34 (Mahanagar Telephone Nigam Limited vs. Applied Electronics Ltd. (2014)).

While the A and C Act is, to a large extent, modeled on the UNCITRAL Model Law on International Commercial Arbitration, 1985, it deviates from the Model Law in two important ways. First, it introduces an additional ground to challenge an arbitral award: patent illegality appearing on the face of the award. Second, it provides for a two-stage appeal process, where Section 37(1)(c) of the Act allows an appeal against an order under Section 34 setting aside or refusing to set aside the arbitral award. These two deviations from the Model Law have implications for the efficacy of the arbitration framework in India. The ground of patent illegality introduces ambiguity and discretion in the otherwise procedural nature of the process of challenging awards. The two-stage appeal process adds to this ambiguity and discretion, and introduces delays in the enforcement of the award. Section 36 of the A and C Act, under which an award is enforced as a decree, adds to these challenges. Section 36(2) specifically gives the court the power to stay the enforceability of an award. Section 36(3) specifies the conditions under which the court may grant such a stay.

Data and methodology

For our analysis, we collected judgments from Delhi High Court for the years 2018 and 2019 pertaining to matters where the NHAI is a party. Our choice of Delhi High Court is due to its importance as a court for arbitration matters, as well as because NHAI matters are likely to be brought before it.

Our choice of the years 2018 and 2019 is driven by three factors. First, the arbitration framework has undergone significant legislative change since 2015 and more recent data reflects the current framework. Second, the period from 2020-2022 was marked by disruptions in the judicial system due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and therefore, may not represent the ordinary course of dispute resolution. Finally, the choice of 2018 and 2019 allows for the possibility of extending our analysis to studying the entire life-cycle of such litigation all the way to the Supreme Court.

We focus on the NHAI because of its status as an autonomous, specialised statutory body that has been tasked with development, maintenance and management of India's national highways. NHAI is also one of the largest contracting bodies within government, accounting for nearly 10 percent of the total union government expenditure on public procurement (Sharma and Thomas (2021), Chitgupi, Gorsi and Thomas, (2022)).

We find 96 judgments in Delhi High Court where NHAI is a party. Of these, 82 pertain to matters under Sections 34 and 37 of the A and C Act (details can be found by clicking here) From these 82 judgments, we collect the following details:

  1. The nature and quantum of claims filed before the arbitral tribunal;
  2. The party that won the arbitration;
  3. The time taken between filing the petition under Section 34 or 37 of the A and C Act to the final judgment;
  4. The nature of disputes and grounds for the petition under Section 34 or 37; and
  5. Which party won, and the quantification of the claims that were upheld/set aside by the Court.


Our main finding is in regards to the win-loss record for a challenge to an arbitral award under Sections 34 and 37 of the A and C Act, i.e., the likelihood of success in challenging the arbitral award (Table 1).

Table 1: Outcome of Section 34 and 37 Challenges

Categories 2018 2019 Total

Petitioner won 4 4 8
Petitoner lost 44 30 74

Total 48 34 82

Source: Delhi High Court judgments

We find that in 74 of the 82 cases (90.2%) involving NHAI, the court refused to interfere with the arbitral award, irrespective of whether the party challenging the award was the NHAI or the private party. This suggests two things. First, the Delhi High Court's action of ordinarily not setting aside the arbitral award is in line with the legislative intent of Sections 34 and 37 of the A and C Act. Second, despite the court not interfering with the award, parties continue to mount such challenges. This is especially so for NHAI, which is the petitioner in 67 out of the 82 matters.

When we look at the grounds under which awards are being challenged in court (Table 2), we observe that the bulk of the challenges, 77 out of 82 (93.9%), are under Section 34(2A), which is unlike the provisions of the UNCITRAL Model Law, and is an Indian innovation that allows the award to be reviewed on the basis of the substantive merits of the case. Patent illegality is a subjective formulation whose treatment may change from case to case and from court to court.

Table 2: Nature of Section 34 challenges

Provision 2018 2019 Total

S. 34(1) 2 1 3
S. 34(2) - - -
S. 34(2A) 45 32 77
S. 34(3) 1 1 2

Source: Delhi High Court judgments

The findings from Tables 1 and 2 together indicate that award debtors routinely challenge arbitral awards on substantive merits, even though the courts routinely turn down such challenges.

We also find that, on average, it takes the court 805 days (2.2 years) to dispose of a Section 34 challenge and 208 days (0.6 years) to dispose of a Section 37 challenge. A matter in which both Section 34 and 37 challenges are brought will be in court for about 3 years after the award has been made by the arbitral tribunal.

In 36 of the 82 matters, we get data for the size of the claim. The total value of claims, across these 36 cases, is Rs. 17.5 billion and the average per case claim value is Rs. 485 million. While these may not be significant for an entity of NHAI's scale, for private parties dealing with NHAI, these may be consequential. And so may be the additional time of three years and the cost of litigation to secure these claims.

Some simple calculations also give us a sense of what these challenges with minimal chance of success mean for the government. At an interest rate of 8% per annum (MCLR during 2018 and 2019 was in this range), compounded annually, after the three year litigation challenging the arbitral award, the government will have to bear an additional interest cost of Rs. 4.5 billion on these awards. This does not take into account the cost and time consumed by the litigation.

Why do parties challenge arbitral awards?

There may be two main reasons why parties continue to appeal even though the chances of the award being overturned are low:

  • Low costs: for large value awards, the cost of the litigation challenging the arbitral award is lower than the expected benefit to the award debtor even at low probability of the award being overturned (Mehta and Thomas (2022) supra). Additionally, for the government, the economic considerations around litigation costs may not be as relevant as for private litigants. Empanelled lawyers for the government and its agencies are often remunerated far less than lawyers representing private parties. Further, incentives of the bureaucracy are often such that they do not accept adverse outcomes in contractual disputes and litigate till the last available forum, regardless of cost.

  • Delaying the enforcement: parties may resort to challenging the award to delay enforcement. Filing a petition under Section 34 of the A and C Act often forces the award holder to delay an execution petition under Section 36 of the Act. This could be because of the uncertainty regarding the outcome of the challenge, and due to potentially wasteful litigation costs, should the award be stayed or overturned. Anecdotal evidence shows that the executing court is often cognizant of the filing of a petition under Section 34 while taking substantive decisions under Section 36 of the Act. The executing court typically awaits the outcome of proceedings under Section 34 or 37 before taking any coercive action against the award debtor. Therefore, it is likely that much of the litigation under Sections 34 and 37 is a means of delaying enforcement of the award, and not because the litigants expect to succeed.

Legislative solutions

Disincentivising litigants from challenging arbitral awards on merits, especially if the litigant is the government, is important to ensure that the A and C Act remains relevant as an alternate dispute resolution mechanism. This can be achieved through two levers. First, that courts take up Section 34 challenges only in cases where there is a high likelihood of the challenge succeeding. Second, the cost of challenging the award either under Section 34 or Section 37 are high enough to alter the economic incentives of the award debtor. To this effect, we suggest three legislative solutions:

  1. Amending Sections 34 and 37 of the A and C Act to introduce a prima facie test of satisfaction: As the law stands currently, the courts must hear petitions under Sections 34 or Section 37 and decide them on merits, irrespective of the grounds of challenge and the chances of success. This takes up significant resources. Introducing a prima facie test of satisfaction will enable the Court to dismiss the petition at the pre-notice stage itself, unless the petitioner is able to satisfy the court that it has a good case on merits. This will be similar to the procedure adopted by the Supreme Court while hearing fresh special leave petitions under Article 136 of the Constitution of India. The decision of the court to entertain a petition under Section 34 or Section 37, based on a prima facie view of the merits, has cost advantages to the litigants as well as the court. Dismissal at the pre-notice stage means that the litigants do not bear the cost of a full appeal and the court also spends less time and resources in deciding the petition on merits (Shavell (2010)). Further, deciding the merits at the pre-notice stage may also reduce time and costs during the full appeal as part of the assessment of the merit will already have been done by the court.

  2. Amending of Sections 34 and 37 of the A and C Act to introduce a mandatory pre-deposit of fees proportionate to the arbitral award for the admission of petitions to set aside arbitral awards: As pointed out earlier, the economic incentives are stacked in favour of a challenge to the award. One way of counteracting this would be to increase the cost of a challenge. This can be achieved by adopting a mandatory pre-deposit of a proportion of the award value with the court before a challenge can be instituted. Such a pre-deposits can be tiered, with a higher proportion being required under Section 37 as compared to Section 34.

  3. Another way of achieving this outcome will be to amend Section 82 of the Act to introduce a clarification that empowers the courts to frame rules to introduce barriers to unmeritorious challenges. These could include, as suggested above, a prima facie test or a mandatory pre-deposit of a proportion of the award value under challenge. This method leaves the discretion of framing such rules, and the substance of these rules with each High Court which could take into account local conditions while framing them. Further, the desired objective will be achieved without hard coding too much detail in the statute itself, which might make it inflexible and require more amendments going forward.

    In October, 2021, the General Financial Rules, 2017 (GFR), the procurement rules for union government and its agencies, were amended to introduce Rule 227A which requires government departments challenging arbitral awards to pay 75% of the award value into an escrow account, to be used sequentially for the settlement of lender's dues, project completion and then as payment to the contractor. However, the impact of this change is in respect of of government challenges to arbitral awards. Our analysis shows that even private parties routinely challenge arbitral awards, and hence an amendment to the A and C Act introducing a pre-deposit may be desirable.

  4. Amending Section 37(1)(c) to remove the second challenge avenue for the award debtor: Section 37(1)(c) of the A and C Act permits an appeal of the order of the court either setting aside or refusing to set aside an arbitral award under Section 34. This affords the award debtor a second avenue to continue litigation and stave off enforcement of the award. Our analysis shows that while courts generally uphold the award even during this challenge, both time and resources of the court and the litigants are consumed. Further, even at this stage courts may adjudicate the matter on merits, despite this already having been done at the award stage and at the Section 34 stage. Further, as mentioned earlier, no analogous provision to Section 37(1)(c) exists even in the Model Law as well as the United Nations Convention on the Recognition and Enforcement of Foreign Arbitral Awards.

    One possibility is to completely remove Section 37(1)(c) from the A and C Act and align the framework for challenging an arbitral award with the Model Law. Alternatively, Section 37(1)(c) could be amended to remove the appeal available to the award debtor, but retain the appeal available to the award holder. This will protect against frivolous appeals by the award debtor, while providing adequate remedy in matters where an award has been erroneously overturned under Section 34.


In India, delays of the court system have increasingly led both government and private parties to opt for ADR mechanisms such as arbitration to resolve contractual disputes. However, for arbitration to be used effectively, it is important that challenges to the outcome of arbitration are limited to the procedural and jurisdictional grounds laid down in the A and C Act. Our analysis shows that this may not be so, and that both government and private parties routinely challenge arbitral awards on merits. Challenges to arbitration awards appear to have become a way of delaying enforcement. The Delhi High Court has been sanguine in the manner of its dealing with these challenges, most often refusing to interfere with the arbitration outcome. However, this does not seem to have deterred challenges, especially from government agencies.

One way of disincentivising such challenges is to amend the A and C Act to remove the legislative loopholes. These include: (i) introducing a prima facie test of the merits of the challenge, (ii) seeking a pre-deposit of a part of the award value before allowing a challenge, and (iii) removing the second challenge permitted under the Act. These changes could go a long way in curbing the litigious behaviour of parties to delay enforcement of high value awards.

Contract enforcement is hard when there exists an imbalance of power and resources between the parties to a contract or where the incentives of one of the parties are not driven entirely by commercial considerations, as in the case of government contracting with private parties. Creating legislative boundaries against strategic actions by parties, whether government or private, is one way of dealing with this challenge. There are other ways, that seek to change the behaviour of government departments and agencies, through measures such as a National Litigation Policy or the government procurement rules.


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Madhav Goel, Renuka Sane and Anjali Sharma are with the TrustBridge Rule of Law Foundation. Akshay Jaitly is the co-founder of TrustBridge Rule of Foundation and Partner, Trilegal. We thank Karan Gulati, Ajay Shah and two anonymous referees for their inputs and comments.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting analysis. To add on to the discussion around Arbitration, it would be an interesting analysis to know who sits as the arbiter. In many a cases I have seen, a retired senior official of the same govt organisation (e.g. NHAI) would become arbiter. The ethical standards among arbiters is a major area of concern.


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