Bar of Limitation on Arbitral Proceedings under the MSMED Act

By sudipta choudhury and arnav singh, fourth-year students at nalsar, hyderabad

Introduction

The applicability of the Limitation Act, 1963 (‘Limitation Act) to certain statutes has been a contentious issue in India. One aspect of this issue was recently settled by the Supreme Court in the case of M/s. Silpi Industries etc v. Kerala State Road Transport Corporation &Anr. (2021) where the Court addressed the applicability of the law of limitation on arbitration proceedings initiated under section 18(3) of the Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises Development Act, 2006 (‘MSMED Act’). In holding that the Limitation Act would be applicable to the said arbitral proceedings, the Court upheld and endorsed the reasoning of the Kerala High Court in this regard, dismissing the appeal against it. This article aims to analyse the judgment and unpack its implications.

Legal Issue

The Court in the present case was faced with a two-fold question. Firstly, whether the Indian Limitation Act would be applicable to arbitration proceedings under section 18(3) of the MSMED Act, and secondly, whether it would be possible to maintain a counter-claim in such arbitration proceedings. This article deals with the first issue and attempts to break it down in the context of precedents surrounding it. 

The Apex Court’s Findings


On the question of applicability of the law of limitation to arbitration proceedings initiated under the MSMED Act, the Court noted that a perusal of the provisions of the MSMED Act indicates that in the event of a dispute arising out of a sale agreement between parties, the same shall be referred to the MSME Facilitation Council under sections 17 and 18 of the MSMED Act which lay down the ‘recovery mechanism’. Once such reference is made, it was noted that the MSME Facilitation Council is conferred with the power to initiate arbitration or conciliation or refer the matter to any other alternative dispute resolution body or institution, under sections 18(2) and (3) of the MSMED Act. In any case, the Apex Court observed that such an arbitration or conciliation arising out of the MSMED Act shall be governed by the Arbitration and Conciliation Act, 1996 (‘Arbitration Act’), as though initiated in accordance with an arbitration agreement between the parties, under section 7(1) of the Arbitration Act, or in case of conciliation, it would be applicable as though initiated under part III of the Arbitration Act.

In addition to this, in the case of Andhra Pradesh Power Coordination Committee & Ors. v. LancoKondapalli Power Ltd. & Ors. (‘AP Power’).  the Supreme Court held that the arbitration proceedings conducted under the MSMED Act fall within the scope of the Limitation Act. The reasoning of the Court in the aforementioned case is in consonance with a plain reading of section 43 of the Arbitration Act which lays down that the Limitation Act shall apply to arbitrations, in the same manner as it applies to court proceedings. With due regard to this, the Court in the present case opined that section 43 shall survive in its operation and applicability to arbitration proceedings within the MSMED Act and accordingly, the Limitation Act will apply. Thus, the assailed judgment of the Kerala High Court was upheld, insofar as it placed reliance on the Apex Court’s reasoning in AP Power, and interpreted the impugned provisions of the three Acts to hold that the Limitation Act would be applicable to the proceedings initiated under the MSMED Act.

Analysis

It is important to note that despite the MSMED Act is silent about the applicability of limitations on disputes referred to MSME Facilitation Councils, the Court’s reasoning is largely hinged upon the arbitration proceedings being governed by the Arbitration Act, and thus, being subject to the operation of the Limitation Act. However, it is also pertinent to not be remiss of the fact that section 2(4) of the Arbitration Act bars the application of the Limitation Act under section 43 to proceedings initiated under an enactment. The MSMED Act, being one such enactment, gives way to a plethora of questions and confusion. The question of applicability of the Limitation Act to the arbitration proceedings under the MSMED Act has thus been mired in ambiguities that have been addressed by the Courts in a catena of decisions.

A perusal of the initial judgments in the area shows that the Courts were faced with the question of applicability and the prevalent argument was that there were two remedies under the MSMED Act: one, before the MSME Facilitation Council and another, before a civil court. Thus, for the sake of consistency in proceedings, it was argued that if the Limitation Act is applicable in court proceedings, it shall also apply to disputes before the MSME Facilitation Councils.

This came up before the Bombay High Court squarely in the case of Delton Electricals v. Maharashtra State Electricity Board, along with the question of section 2(4) of the Limitation Act explicitly excluding arbitration proceedings arising out of an Act from its ambit. On the first question, the Court took note of the availability of two separate trajectories under the MSMED Act, and observed that if one resolution mechanism before the civil court is subjected to the Limitation Act, while another resolution mechanism before the MSME Facilitation Council is not, it will lead to an “incongruous situation.” On the question of express exclusion of statutory arbitration, the High Court noted that the provisions of the Arbitration Act are made applicable to arbitral proceedings arising out of the MSMED Act, and no specific exception is made therein for section 43 of the Arbitration Act which lays down that the Limitation Act shall be applicable to arbitrations in the same manner as it applies to court proceedings. Thus, it was held that the provisions of the Limitation Act would be applicable to arbitrations under section 18(3) of the MSMED Act, in the same manner as they would apply to arbitrations arising out of an arbitration agreement between parties under section 7(1) of the Arbitration Act.

Further, in AP Power, the Apex Court dealt with a dispute arising out of the Electricity Act, 2003, which provides for statutory arbitration before the Electricity Commission. The issue that arose before the Court was whether, in the absence of a limitation provision in the Electricity Act, the same had to be presumed in order to ensure uniformity with arbitral or civil court proceedings. This was so because otherwise the parties concerned stood a chance of getting enriched in a manner, not contemplated in the pursuance of an ordinary suit, due to the operation of the bar of limitation. Further, the Court noted that no right was vested through the Electricity Act that could permit claims otherwise barred by limitation. Therefore, such a claim will not survive because it is not recoverable as an ordinary suit owing to being time-barred. The Court, placing reliance on the object and the intent of the Electricity Act, further observed that “not only because it appears to be more just but also because unlike Labour laws and Industrial Disputes Act, the Electricity Act has no peculiar philosophy or inherent underlying reasons requiring adherence to a contrary view(para 29)

Thus, a primary view of the Court’s reasoning points to its inclination to examine the legislative intent behind an Act, in addition to the rights it seeks to confer, and the “philosophy” it follows, indicating a purposive and well-rounded interpretation of the enactment.

In consonance with the Court’s rationale in AP Power, it is submitted that the legislative intent and the philosophy of the MSMED Act should also be taken into account while considering whether it should be subjected to the Limitation Act. A perusal of the MSMED Act’s Statement and Objects reveals that it is aimed at the expeditious resolution of disputes and legislative intervention is intended to secure an efficacious remedy for timely payment. Thus, the MSMED Act should be interpreted in a manner which allows it to facilitate timely payment to suppliers. The author submits that instead of recognising new rights which are not expressly conferred by the statute, the MSMED Act should be interpreted in a manner which allows the facilitation of timely payment to suppliers. This is in consonance with the principle that disallows claims from ordinary suits on account of being time barred, unless it is explicitly allowed in the statute. 

Thus, it is submitted that the present case, in so far as it addresses the first issue, correctly applies the rationale laid down in the AP Power, and places due reliance on the legislative intent behind the MSMED Act, effectively bringing its objects to full fruition by ensuring that there is uniformity in the adjudication proceedings across civil courts and arbitration tribunals. It has done so by engaging in a purposive reading of the statute that allows the applicability of the Limitation Act to arbitration proceedings arising out of the MSMED Act.

Conclusion

The Supreme Court has laid the matter to rest by discerning the scope of the Limitation Act vis-à-vis arbitration proceedings under the MSMED Act. It has ensured that claims under MSMED Act would be subject to limitation, like any other commercial claim, while also effectuating the legislative intent of the MSMED Act, which is aimed at providing a speedy redressal of disputes. Although a welcome development, the matter remains to be a subject for debate as the question of the extent of applicability of the Arbitration Act, especially in the event of clashes with the MSMED Act, remains ambiguous. For instance, section 18(5) of the MSMED Act lays down that every reference shall be decided within 90 days, in contrast with the Arbitration Act, which stipulates the time period for passing an award as twelve months from the date of completion of pleadings under section 23(4).

However, the Court’s reasoning in subjecting the proceedings to the bar of limitation is in consonance with the larger intent of the MSMED Act, and fits with the scheme of other civil and arbitral proceedings. Thus, it largely remains successful in settling the dispute and interpreting the provisions involved.

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