Power of Arbitrator to Punish for Contempt

(In the following post, Ms Renu Gupta, Advocate, considers the law on the power of an arbitral Tribunal to enforce its orders and punish for contempt)

The more popular legal understanding is that the orders of an arbitrator are toothless since the arbitrator has no power to enforce them. Accordingly, intervention of a Court to obtain enforceable orders, even in a pending arbitration, becomes inevitable.
This article is aimed at disproving this proposition by elaborating that an arbitrator is vested with the power of contempt (just like the Court), under the [Indian] Arbitration and Conciliation Act, 1996 (hereinafter, the “Arbitration and Conciliation Act”), and has full powers of enforcing its own orders without intervention of any Court.
Arbitrator not a “Court”
An arbitrator under the Arbitration and Conciliation Act exercises various powers similar to that of the Court, for instance, the power to grant interim relief under Section 17. Even though an arbitrator is an adjudicating authority under the Arbitration and Conciliation Act and has to conduct itself judicially, an arbitrator is not a Court.
Premised on the same rationale, under Section 17 of the Arbitration and Conciliation Act, an arbitrator is not bound by the principles of the Code of Civil Procedure, 1908 and the Indian Evidence Act, 1872 (hereinafter, the “Evidence Act”). Even the definition of “Court” under Section 2 of the Evidence Act expressly excludes an arbitrator. Hence, it is evident that an arbitrator is not a “Court”.
Since an arbitral tribunal is not a “Court” and is a creature of a contract between the parties, it has no power to punish a disobedient party for contempt of its orders, either under the Constitution of India or under the [Indian] Contempt of Courts Act, 1971.
Supreme Court of India on arbitrator’s power to enforce its orders
The Supreme Court of India, in the case titled MD, Army Welfare Housing Organisation v, Sumangal Services (P) Ltd. at paragraph 59, while dealing with the provisions of the old Arbitration Act, 1940, made certain observations (which at best could constitute obiter dicta), regarding the power of an arbitrator to enforce its orders under Section 17 of the Arbitration and Conciliation Act, which vests a power in the arbitral tribunal to grant interim relief to the parties, during the pendency of the arbitration proceedings. The Court observed that even under Section 17, no power is conferred upon the arbitral tribunal to enforce its order nor does it provide for any judicial enforcement.
Even in a case titled Sundaram Finance Ltd. v. NEPC India Ltd., the Supreme Court of India has held that although Section 17 gives the arbitral tribunal the power to grant interim relief, such orders cannot be enforced as orders of a Court. Accordingly, Section 9 gives a concurrent power to the Court to pass interim orders even during the arbitration proceedings.
Section 27 (5) of the Arbitration and Conciliation Act
In the author’s view, the decisions of the Supreme Court fail to take notice of Section 27 (5) of the Arbitration and Conciliation Act, which expressly confers the power on the arbitral tribunal to punish for its contempt.
Section 27 (5) specifies that “[P]ersons failing to attend in accordance with such process, or making any other fault, or refusing to give their evidence, or guilty of any contempt to the arbitral tribunal during the conduct of arbitral proceedings, shall be subject to the like disadvantages, penalties and punishments by order of the Court on the representation of the arbitral tribunal as they would incur for the like offences is suits tried before the Court”.
Delhi High Court on interpretation of Section 27 (5) of Arbitration and Conciliation Act
In a case titled Sri Krishan v. Anand, reported at (2009) 3 ArbLR 447 (Del): MANU/DE/1828/2009 (a search at the Delhi High Court website did not disclose any appeal having been filed against the judgment), the Delhi High Court was seized of the question whether a whether a petition under Section 9 of the Arbitration and Conciliation Act would lie for the same interim measure which has already been granted by the arbitral tribunal under Section 17.
The petitioner had sought to justify the petition under Section 9 on the ground that orders passed by an arbitral tribunal are toothless and unenforceable.
Justice R.S Endlaw of the Delhi High Court while rejecting the contention of the petitioner held that the legislative intent of enacting Section 17 of the Arbitration and Conciliation Act is to make the arbitral tribunal a complete forum not only for finally adjudicating the disputes between the parties but to also order interim measures. The Court further held that no purpose would be served in approaching the arbitral tribunal under Section 17, if for enforcing orders under Section 17, a separate petition under Section 9 has to be filed subsequently.

The Court held that under Section 27 (5) of the Arbitration and Conciliation Act, any person failing to comply with the order of the arbitral tribunal would be deemed to be “making any other default” or “guilty of any contempt to the arbitral tribunal during the conduct of the proceedings”.

Accordingly, the remedy of aggrieved party in a case of disobedience of the order of the arbitral tribunal is to apply to the tribunal for making a representation to the Court to meet out such punishment to the disobedient party, as would have been warranted for contempt of Court. The arbitral tribunal should make such a representation to the Court only upon being satisfied that the defaulter is in default or in contempt.

Once such a representation is received by the Court from the arbitral tribunal, the Court is competent to deal with such disobedient party as if in contempt of order of the Court. This could be either under the provisions of the Contempt of Courts Act or under the provisions of Order 39 Rule 2A of the Code of Civil Procedure, 1908, which provides for consequences of disobedience or breach of injunction.

This position of law has been upheld by a subsequent judgment of the Delhi High Court in the case of India Bulls Financial Services Limited v. Jubilee Plots and Housing Private Limited, reported at MANU/DE/1829/2009.

Relying upon the afore-mentioned judgments of the Supreme Court of India, all the courts in the country have held that the arbitral tribunals have no power to enforce their own orders. This author has only been able to find two dissenting judgments by the same judge.

When parties are required to take recourse to Courts for assistance despite having agreed to arbitration, the benefits and attractiveness of arbitration gets significantly diminished.

Giving due meaning to Section 27 (5) of the Arbitration and Conciliation Act by the Courts would act as a deterrent to litigants for filing separate proceedings for the same relief under Section 9 and Section 17 of the Arbitration and Conciliation Act, and would also be consistent with the objectives of the Arbitration and Conciliation Act, in reducing interference of Courts in arbitration proceedings.

Owing to Article 141 of the Constitution of India, the decisions of the Supreme Court of India, continue to be the “law of the land” and are binding on all other Courts in the country. However, in light of Section 27 (5) of the Arbitration and Conciliation Act and the decisions of the Delhi High Court, the law on this subject needs to be revisited.

About the author

V. Niranjan


  • this field is covered by contempt of courts act…and hence any other interpretation de hors the Act and Article 215 and Article 129 of the Constitution of India would be out of sync with the Constitution. Under the Constitution only High Court and Supreme Court have the power to punish for contempt and the Act has been made in furtherance of the said mandate. I disagree that arbitrator or for that matter any quasi judicial body has the power to punish someone for contempt.

  • This write-up is seen to make for an interesting and impressive reading. A clever attempt has been made to have a new look into the subject point, notwithstanding that it has by far been considered, wrongly so in one’s view, to have been concluded once for all. What is commendable is that the attempt is a clean departure from the largely observed temptation amongst the legal circles to take the easy-to-follow short cut i.e. the proverbial ‘beaten track’.
    No doubt, as a general proposition, any view taken / ruling on any issue by the apex court,-particularly if it is a pure "question of law", – has to be taken to be the 'law of the land' and binding on all the 'subordinate authorities'. The said term is, by and large, taken to include, rightly so for obvious reasons, not only 'courts' and other ‘judicial authorities’ such as ‘tribunals’, but also quasi judicial authorities such as regulatory authorities, including local authorities. But that is not the end or could be rightly regarded to be the only aspect for coming to any conclusion.
    To dilate:
    In a given case, while the disputing parties canvass for or against applying, or when courts decide to follow, the said proposition, more often than not, there comes to be overlooked a very fundamental, rather the most crucial aspect of all. That is on the question of appreciating in proper light the validity or otherwise of adopting the said proposition as one of universal application. Invariably, courts (including the apex court) prefer to deciding any such or like matter by applying the doctrine of STARE DECISIS on the ground that otherwise it will result in chaos in administration of justice and open up the proverbial Pandora’s box (of uncertainty).
    Be that as it may, on this very same aspect (that is, of applying the said doctrine) one will find a contradicting opinion given by the apex court itself. A clinical analysis of this aspect may be found to have been attempted in the published article – TAX TREATIES AND AAR- A CRITIQUE (2008) 166 TAXMAN 72.

  • S 27(5)implies that a court could punish the defaulting party for non-compliance of the IM ordered by the tribunal under S 17. However, this is a process that might take some time. However, wouldn't disobedience of the order of the tribunal lead to the tribunal awarding some kind of costs or even pass an award against the defaulting party? Is there any discussion by courts in India or abroad on how the arbitrator should deal with such situations?

  • @ Badrinath – The two Delhi High Court judgments mentioned by me discuss this aspect. Pehaps if you read these judgments, you will get a better idea of the discussion, they are self explanatory.

  • @ Badrinath – If you look at the simple cases of contempt before Indian courts, the courts have the power to ensure discotinuance of the contemptuous act. A fine in a civil contempt could be an accompaniment, but not the primary mode of the contempt court exercising its jurisdiction.
    If you look at the two Delhi High Court, this aspect has been discussed, and it would be of use.

  • @ Renu the judgements do not discuss in detail the law pertaining to awarding of costs by the tribunal in case of disobedience of tribunal's orders under S 17. Right from Sundaram v NEPC (1999?)courts have mentioned that parties wouldn't want to antagonize the tribunal by disobeying its orders. But what would or can the tribunal do in case of such circumstance? Have the apex court or the High Courts discussed this aspect? In such a case, the tribunal has to assess, for example, how much costs need to be imposed. would such costs be restricted to the value of subject matter or costs be punitive?

  • Is Section 27 (5) wide enough to allow the Arbitrator to make representation to the concerned High Court in cases where either of the parties has engaged in wilful humiliation or disrespect of the Arbitrator through written words in an application, calling him incompetent to deal with the case. What is the remedy available via Sec 27 (5) ?

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