GMR Energy: The Delhi High Court on ‘international’ agreements, and privity of arbitration clauses.

I have reported before on the relevance of lex curia /curial law and other lex causae decisions to be made in the arbitration context. I have also reported on the qualification of ‘international‘ for conflict of law /private international law purposes. And finally of course privity of choice of court and -law is no stranger in my postings either. All these considerations apply in the arbitration context, too.

Thank you Herbert Smith for flagging CS(COMM) 447/2017 GMR Energy, in which all these issues featured in the arbitration context. The judgment would not seem to add anything new (mostly applying precedent) however it is a usual reminder of the principles. As reported by HS (and with further factual background there), GMR Energy argued

  • on the plain reading of the arbitration clauses, Singapore was not the seat of arbitration but only the chosen place or venue for hearings; Not so, the High Court found: reference to SIAC rules and to Singapore  points to Singapore as the curial seat;
  • the parties being Indian, choice of a foreign seat for arbitration would be in contravention of Section 28 of the Indian Contract Act 1872 which provides that agreements which restrain parties’ rights to commence legal proceedings are void (save for those which do so by way of an arbitration agreement) – GMR Energy contended that an agreement between Indian parties to arbitrate offshore would fall foul of this provision. This, too, the High Court rejected: per precedent, offshore arbitration is compatible with the Act. (It is also particularly useful for Indian subsidiaries of foreign companies); and
  • for two Indian parties to choose an overseas seat for their arbitration (thereby disapplying Part I of the Arbitration Act) would amount to a derogation from Indian substantive law, and therefore would not be permissible. This, the High Court ruled, is not a decision to make at the stage of jurisdictional disputes between the parties.

Further, on  the issue of privity, Doosan India ‘contended that GMR Energy should be party to the SIAC Arbitration proceedings by virtue of common family ownership and governance, lack of corporate formalities between the companies, common directorships, logos and letterheads, and GMR Energy’s past conduct in making payments towards GCEL’s debts’ (I am quoting HS’s briefing here). This is referred to as the alter ego doctrine and the High Court upheld it. Liability for affiliated undertakings’ actions is to be discussed on the merits (here: by the arbitral tribunal). But a the level of jurisdiction (including reference to arbitration), Doosan India’s arguments were upheld: the common ownership between the entities; the non-observance of separate corporate formalities and co-mingling of corporate funds; and GMR Energy’s undertaking to discharge liabilities of GCEL (and the fact that it had made part payments towards the same) all conspire to the conclusion that GMR Energy is bound by the arbitration agreement.

An interesting confirmation of precedent and ditto application of the alter ego doctrine.

Geert.

 

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