Arbitration has undergone a significant evolution, emerging as a preeminent mechanism for dispute resolution and despite its ascendancy, persistent challenges have impeded its growth. Notably, a substantial obstacle has revolved around the enforceability of arbitration agreements that are either improperly stamped or entirely unstamped. In a recent landmark judgement, a 7-Judge Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court (“SC”) has definitively resolved this contentious issue, affirming the enforceability of arbitration agreements, even in cases of inadequate stamping. The judgment, resorted to various legal principles, including the doctrine of severability, for conclusively addressing this long-standing controversy. This blog endeavours to dissect the SC’s ruling that offer insights into its ramifications and potential challenges.

Pre-NN Global Legal Landscape and Preceding Precedents

The enforcement of arbitration agreements in India faced a longstanding challenge owing to the stipulations of the Indian Stamp Act, 1899 (“Stamp Act”), which mandates the payment of stamp duty on specific documents. Section 33 and 35 of the Stamp Act place an obligation on the courts to ensure proper stamping, rendering inadequately stamped instruments inadmissible as evidence. This raised concerns regarding the enforceability of arbitration agreements that lacked proper stamping.

In the case of SMS Tea Estates v. Chandmari Tea Company (“SMS Tea Estates”), the SC articulated that an arbitration agreement devoid of proper stamping could not be enforced. Similarly, in Garware Wall Ropes Limited v. Coastal Marine Constructions and Engineering Limited (“Garware Wall Ropes”), the court emphasized the comprehensive application of the Stamp Act to the entire agreement. Consequently, the settled position of law became that an arbitration clause in an unstamped commercial contract could not be independently enforced until the entire contract received proper stamping.

NN Global I: Unravelling the Complexities

The controversy resurfaced in M/s NN Global Mercantile Private Limited v. M/s Indo Unique Flame Limited & Ors. (“NN Global I”), where a dispute over a bank guarantee encashment emerged. The Bombay High Court rejected Indo Unique’s arbitration initiation application, citing insufficient stamp duty. Indo Unique appealed to a three-judge SC bench, which held that the arbitration agreement and the contract were distinct entities, permitting enforceability despite stamp duty deficiencies.

Due to conflicting judgments, the bench referred the matter to a five-judge bench to ascertain the enforceability of inadequately stamped arbitration agreements.

NN Global II: A Source of Dispute

Following the referral by the 3 Judge Bench, a 5 Judge Bench deliberated on whether Section 35 of the Stamp Act should be interpreted to render arbitration agreements in unstamped instruments as non-existent, unenforceable, or invalid as a consequence of pending stamp duty payment on the substantive contract. The majority asserted that contracts, including arbitration clauses, must adhere to the legal enforceability standards outlined in the Indian Contract Act, 1872 (“Contract Act”). They construed Section 35 of the Stamp Act, as not providing exemption to unstamped documents for collateral purposes, deeming them unenforceable until stamped, aligning with the Contract Act’s provisions on void contracts.

The majority dismissed the argument that arbitrators should address stamping issues, underscoring the pivotal role of stamping in ensuring enforceability. Unstamped instruments, including arbitration clauses, cannot be admitted as evidence and, as per Sections 33 and 35 of the Stamp Act these unstamped instruments are considered non-existent and unenforceable unless regularized under the Act. The verdict encountered widespread criticism for introducing practical hindrances and delays in the arbitration process, seemingly conflicting with the legislative intent of arbitration as an expeditious dispute resolution mechanism. Consequently, the matter was referred to a 7 Judge Constitution Bench of the SC for a definitive resolution.

SC’s Final Judgement: Resolving the Dispute

The SC’s verdict on December 13, 2023, aimed at resolving the vexed issue surrounding the applicability of Section 35 of the Stamp Act, 1899 to arbitration agreements in instruments not subject to stamp duty under Section 3 and the Schedule to the Stamp Act. The pivotal question addressed was whether such instruments render the arbitration agreements contained within them as non-existent, unenforceable, or invalid until the stamp duty is paid on the underlying contract.

In a departure from prior rulings in SMS Tea Estates and NN Global II, the Court, while affirming the admissibility of the reference, overturned its stance and declared that inadequately stamped or unstamped agreements, while inadmissible as evidence under Section 35 of the Stamp Act, are not inherently unenforceable or void. The Court characterized inadequate stamping as a ‘rectifiable defect’, clarifying that arbitration agreements or clauses therein, in inadequately stamped agreements, are not void ab initio, as discerned from a harmonious interpretation of the Arbitration and Conciliation Act, 1996 (“Arbitration Act”) the Stamp Act, and the Contract Act. The Court further asserted that objections regarding the stamping of arbitration agreements fall within the purview of the arbitral tribunal, as opposed to being subject to determination by the courts under Section 8 or 11 of the Arbitration Act.

Delving into the nature of stamping, the Court emphasized that Section 35 of the Stamp Act, exclusively pertains to the admissibility of instruments as evidence and does not render unstamped or inadequately stamped instruments invalid. Notably, Section 42 of the Stamp Act, provides for the curability of such defects upon the payment of stamp duty. The Court underscored the distinction between inadmissibility in evidence and the enforceability or voidness of inadequately stamped instruments, affirming their inadmissibility while maintaining their validity and enforceability as agreements.

In upholding the ‘doctrine of severability’, the Court drew upon international legal principles, referencing the practices in the United Kingdom, the United States, and Singapore, as highlighted by Article 16 of the UNCITRAL Model Law on International Commercial Arbitration, 1985 , along with Rule 23 of the UNCITRAL Arbitration Rules, 2021.

The Court affirmed the principle of separability, as recognized in Section 16(1) of the Arbitration Act, granting the arbitral tribunal the jurisdiction to decide on the validity of arbitration agreements independently of the underlying contract. The Court’s recourse to the ‘doctrine of kompetenz-kompetenz’ further affirmed the arbitral tribunal’s authority to address stamping issues, minimizing judicial interference in line with the provisions of the Arbitration Act. Ultimately, the Court’s ruling established the arbitral tribunal’s competence to adjudicate on objections regarding stamping, by precluding intervention by the court under Sections 33 and 35 of the Stamp Act, and as envisaged by the non-obstante clause in Section 5 of the Arbitration Act, which restricts court intervention to grounds stipulated in the Act.


The pro-arbitration trajectory was initiated in the Bharat Aluminium Co. v. Kaiser Aluminium Technical Services case, where the court delineated the extent of judicial authority to grant relief in foreign arbitration. While this trend faced interruptions in subsequent judgments, the recent decision has revitalized and reinstated it. Justice Srikrishna led a high-level committee advocating for the implementation of institutional arbitration in India. Prior to this ruling, the process would have been cumbersome, as arbitral institutions may have faced challenges appointing arbitrators in cases involving unstamped arbitration agreements governed by Indian law.

This marks a pivotal advancement for foreign-seated arbitrations and unstamped agreements executed outside India, but it is still subject to Indian laws. Moreover, there is a notable evolution in the types of agreements, with technological advancements such as electronic signatures altering the execution landscape. This alignment of technology with dispute resolution fosters a harmonious relationship. The judgment emphasizes the importance of the Arbitral Tribunal by affirming its authority to address objections regarding the validity or existence of the arbitration agreement. Granting autonomy to the tribunal encourages proactive management of issues related to such agreements, contributing to a more efficient and expeditious arbitration environment in the country.

Furthermore, the judgment deepens the principle of minimal judicial intervention, a core objective of the Arbitration Act. By overturning NN Global 2, the court clarifies that stamping issues in an arbitration agreement should not be addressed at the pre-arbitral stage. This represents a significant stride towards streamlined dispute resolution, minimizing unnecessary delays and reducing the supervisory role of the courts. So, this judgment commendably acknowledges the doctrine of competence-competence and upholds the practice of limited judicial intervention, reinforcing the autonomy of parties and the arbitral tribunal in pursuit of arbitration’s objectives.


In a recent ground-breaking judgment, the SC aligns seamlessly with India’s legislative vision to position itself as a hub for arbitration, streamlining the arbitral process with a specific focus on the appointment of arbitrators. The SC’s ruling is poised to enhance the effectiveness and enforceability of arbitration agreements, both on a national and international scale, while also offering clarity on the allocation of powers between the court and arbitrators.

This decision marks a significant step forward in realizing India’s aspirations to cultivate a business-friendly environment, further cementing its reputation as a preferred destination for arbitration proceedings.

Author – Namanveer Singh Sodhi, Associate

Co-Author – Bhabesh Satapathy, Intern