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Unilateral Arbitrator Appointment: Smaash Leisure Case Insights


In the realm of arbitration, the case of Smaash Leisure Ltd. v. Ambience Commercial Developers Private Limited has emerged as a touchstone, delving into the intricate dynamics of unilateral appointments and the imperative adherence to statutory provisions within the framework of the Arbitration and Conciliation Act of 1996. This landmark decision transcends the routine scrutiny of unilateral appointments, casting a discerning eye on a critical facet of arbitration proceedings—the composition of the arbitration panel. The court's resolute ruling challenges conventional norms, signalling a departure from the traditional paradigm and advocating for diversity and inclusivity as indispensable elements in the arbitration landscape. This exploration navigates through the legal intricacies and contextualizes the significance of the case within the broader spectrum of arbitration jurisprudence.

Factual Background:

The legal saga unfolded with Smaash Leisure Ltd. (“Petitioner”) entering into a lease deed with Ambience Commercial Developer Pvt Ltd. (“Respondent) on August 1, 2012, for premises in Ambience Mall, Vasant Kunj, New Delhi. Later, due to the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic and the imposition of lockdown by the government, the Petitioner was unable to operate its entertainment centre from March 2020 onwards and consequently could not pay the rent to the Respondent. The Petitioner's financial distress led to the termination of the lease deed triggering the dispute resolution mechanism under Clause 25.

Unilateral Appointment and Subsequent Proceedings:

In response to the dispute, the Respondent proposed three former judges of the Delhi High Court as arbitrators, initiating a sequence of events. Despite the Petitioner's explicit rejection of the proposed arbitrators, the Respondent unilaterally appointed an arbitrator. The ensuing proceedings witnessed the Petitioner's objection, withdrawal, and non-participation, culminating in the arbitrator passing awards challenged under Section 34 of the Act.

Grounds of Challenge and Respondent’s Defense:

The Petitioner's challenge rested on the unilateral and allegedly illegal appointment, emphasizing the breach of party autonomy and established legal principles. The Respondent countered, asserting waiver due to the Petitioner's selective participation, unfairness in late-stage challenges, and the inapplicability of Section 34 to legality-related challenges.

Legal Framework:

The case revolves around Section 12 of the Arbitration and Conciliation Act, which provides grounds to challenge the appointment of an arbitrator. Notably, Section 12 (3) stipulates that an arbitrator may be challenged only if circumstances exist that give rise to justifiable doubts as to their independence or impartiality, or if they do not possess the qualifications agreed to by the parties.

Section 12 (5) of the Act introduces the requirement of an 'express agreement' in writing, stating that any person falling under the categories specified in the Seventh Schedule shall be ineligible to be appointed as an arbitrator. The Seventh Schedule defines ineligible arbitrators based on their relationship with the parties, counsel, or the subject matter of the dispute.

Court's Analysis:

Examination of Unilateral Appointment:

The High Court meticulously examined the Respondent's unilateral appointment and highlighted the failure to seek a Court appointment under Section 11 (5) and (6) of the Act when objections were raised. The court rejected the Respondent's waiver argument, emphasizing that mere participation or statements during proceedings don't substitute the 'express agreement' in writing mandated by Section 12 (5).

Clarification on Ineligible Arbitrators and Void Awards:

Crucially, the High Court clarified that awards rendered by an ineligible arbitrator are void. This pronouncement reinforces the significance of adhering to eligibility criteria laid out in the Seventh Schedule, underlining the potential consequences of appointing arbitrators with specified relationships to the parties or the dispute.

Broad-Based Panels:

The Delhi High Court's decisive stance highlights the critical nature of panel composition. The court unequivocally declared that a panel comprising merely three individuals does not meet the criteria of being broad-based. This landmark decision challenges the traditional notion of arbitration panels, emphasizing the need for diversity and inclusivity.

Legal Rationale and Judicial Precedent:

The ruling is rooted in the recognition that a broad-based panel, encompassing individuals with diverse expertise and perspectives, is indispensable for a comprehensive understanding of matters in dispute. The legal perspective aligns with the evolving nature of arbitration, emphasizing inclusivity and fairness as fundamental to the legitimacy of the process. The decision sets a precedent that resonates beyond the specific case, reshaping the expectations and standards for arbitration panels.

Setting Aside the Award and Preserving Parties' Rights:

In alignment with its analysis, the High Court set aside the award, preserving the parties' right to re-agitate their claims before another tribunal. This judicial stance reflects a commitment to uphold both procedural formalities and substantive justice, striking a delicate balance in the arbitration landscape.

Harmonizing Perspectives for Future Arbitration Practices

This case from the Delhi High Court offers valuable insights into the evolving landscape of arbitration in India. On the one hand, the emphasis on broad-based panels reflects a commitment to fairness, inclusivity, and the acknowledgement of diverse expertise. On the other hand, the scrutiny of unilateral appointments underscores the importance of strict adherence to statutory provisions, particularly those safeguarding the parties' right to a fair and impartial arbitration process.

The Way Forward:

Recognising the need to continuously refine arbitration practice, the delicate balance between inclusivity and adherence to legal frameworks ensures the legitimacy of the arbitration process. Moving forward, parties engaging in arbitration should approach panel composition with diligence, considering the broader implications for fairness and impartiality.

Holistic Examination of Complex Issues:

The implications of adopting a broad-based arbitration panel are multifaceted. Foremost, such a panel facilitates a holistic examination of complex issues by bringing together diverse expertise. This inclusivity ensures that every party involved in the arbitration process has a platform for their concerns to be thoroughly considered.

Bolstering Legitimacy:

Furthermore, the legitimacy of arbitration proceedings receives a substantial boost when the panel is perceived as balanced and impartial. The diverse backgrounds and skills of arbitrators act as a countermeasure against concerns of bias, enhancing the overall credibility of the arbitration process. This becomes especially critical in cases involving intricate disputes where a comprehensive analysis is imperative.

Safeguarding Autonomy:

A noteworthy aspect highlighted by the Delhi High Court ruling is the protection of parties' autonomy. By drawing attention to the right of parties to avoid compulsion into arbitration panels that do not meet the criteria of being broad-based, the court establishes a legal safeguard. This ensures that parties can actively participate in a dispute resolution process grounded in principles of fairness and inclusivity.


In conclusion, the Delhi High Court's decisive stance in the case of Smaash Leisure Ltd. vs. Ambience Commercial Developers Private Limited marks a watershed moment in the trajectory of arbitration practices in India. By meticulously dissecting the complexities of unilateral appointments and emphasizing the inadequacy of a three-member panel, the court has not merely adjudicated a dispute but has set in motion a transformative wave. The ruling's impact extends beyond the immediate case, resonating as a judicial precedent that demands a recalibration of expectations and standards concerning arbitration panels.

This case serves as a beacon for future arbitration practices, harmonizing the dual imperatives of inclusivity and adherence to legal frameworks. The delicate balance struck by the court ensures the legitimacy of the arbitration process, affirming the parties' right to a fair and impartial resolution of their disputes. As the arbitration landscape continues to evolve, this decision encourages a nuanced approach to panel composition, where parties, arbitrators, and legal practitioners must navigate the complex terrain while upholding the principles of fairness, inclusivity, and adherence to statutory provisions. The judgment, therefore, not only sets aside an award but also paves the way for a more holistic, legitimate, and refined arbitration process in India.


  • The article navigates the legal intricacies of unilateral appointments, dissecting Section 12 of the Arbitration Act
  • In this case, the court redefines arbitration norms, emphasizing diversity and inclusivity in panel composition.
  • The court's decisive stance not only sets aside the award but also initiates a transformative wave, recalibrating expectations and standards for future arbitration practices in India.


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