29 January 2024

Clarity Amidst Complexity: 'Group Of Companies' Doctrine In An Arbitration Agreement

King, Stubb & Kasiva


King Stubb & Kasiva (KSK) - Advocates & Attorneys is a full-service law firm in India that has been operating since 2005 based in Delhi, Mumbai, Bengaluru, Chennai, Hyderabad, Kochi, & Italy with 120+ professionals. We specialise in M&A, litigation, arbitration, employment, labour, banking, finance, e-commerce, and emerging technology practices.
In a recent landmark decision, the Supreme Court of India (the "Court") has cleared up years of legal confusion surrounding the "Group of Companies" doctrine ("Doctrine").
India Litigation, Mediation & Arbitration
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In a recent landmark decision, the Supreme Court of India (the "Court") has cleared up years of legal confusion surrounding the "Group of Companies" doctrine ("Doctrine"). The recent decision in Cox and Kings Ltd. v. SAP India Private Ltd. ("Cox and Kings"), delivered by a five-judge bench, lays down clear guidelines on when arbitration agreements can apply to non-signatory group companies.1 This follows the landmark Chloro Controls case, which shifted the legal landscape by challenging the old reluctance to arbitrate disputes involving non-signatories.2 However, the broad use of the Doctrine came under scrutiny in the Cox and Kings case, leading the Court to set specific guidelines. This update briefly highlights the Court's reasoning, marking a significant step forward for multi-party and multi-contract arbitrations in India.

Broadly Understanding the Court's Reasoning

Introducing the Decision

The Court highlighted the significance of consent as the foundation of arbitrations and keeping this in mind, proceeded with the analysis to examine the applicability of the 'Group of Companies' Doctrine under Indian law.

Consent and Non-signatory Parties

  • The Court considered Section 7 of the Arbitration and Conciliation Act 1996 ("Act") for defining arbitration agreements.
  • As per this section, the arbitration agreement should be in writing but there is no mandatory requirement for signatures; an exchange of communication can constitute a valid arbitration agreement.
  • Thus, the Court observed that the Act does not prohibit the joinder of a party who is non-signatory to an arbitration agreement, provided there is a defined legal relationship between the non-signatory and the parties to the arbitration agreement, and that the non-signatory party has consented, either expressly or impliedly, thus focusing on identifying the real parties involved.
  • The need to adopt a modern approach to consent to align with the reality of complex transactions was highlighted.

The 'Group of Companies' Doctrine

  • The Court observed that the function of this Doctrine is to identify the common intention of parties to bind a non-signatory by analyzing the corporate affiliation of entities.
  • This is to be distinguished from the doctrine of "alter ego," and the Court clarified that this Doctrine does not disregard the separate legal identity of a corporation.
  • The Court noted that this Doctrine is rather a means to ascertain true intentions without piercing the corporate veil.

Application of the Doctrine

  • The Court emphasized a cumulative consideration of factors laid down in Oil and Natural Gas Corporation Ltd Discovery Enterprises.3
  • These factors include mutual intent, relationship of a non-signatory to a signatory, commonality of subject matter, composite nature of transactions, and contract performance.
  • At the same time, the Court stated that this evaluation is fact-specific and must be carried out in accordance with the principles of company law and intricacies of modern commercial transactions.

Distinction: "Party" v. "Claiming Through or Under"

  • The Court critiqued the Chloro Controls case for tracing the Doctrine's existence to the phrase "claiming through or under."
  • It was clarified that the Group of Companies Doctrine is rather based on the mutual intent of parties and not derivative capacity.
  • The Court explained that entities "claiming through or under" refer to successors-in-interest andnot corporations with independent legal personalities, albeit from the same group.

Referral stage: Standard of Determination

  • The Court laid significant emphasis on minimal judicial intervention and held that courts are to only determine the "prima facie" validity of arbitration agreements during referral applications.
  • Any detailed analysis must be left to arbitral tribunals, avoiding interference with their jurisdiction and power.
  • The Court also held that even for the appointment of arbitrators, the Court's scope is limited and confined to an examination of the arbitration agreement.

Concluding Remarks

The Cox and Kings decision signifies a landmark moment in India's arbitration jurisprudence while aligning national practices with international standards prelavent in jurisdictions like and the United States, England, Singapore, Germany, etc. It upholds the validity and utility of the Group of Companies Doctrine in India and clarifies that in a group, interrelated transactions and actions may imply consent to be bound by an arbitration agreement. Thus, the decision emphasizes the need to exercise caution in structuring and undertaking transactions within corporate groups, especially when the intent is only for the signatory company to be bound. In addition, while affirming the validity of the Doctrine, the Court also acknowledged challenges such as case-specific application of the Doctrine and safeguarding the interests of non-signatories. Addressing these concerns requires a balanced and nuanced approach, thus highlighting the need for ongoing dialogue between India and international arbitration communities. The judgment enhances India's arbitration credibility in the global fora and a step forward for cementing further faith in the Indian arbitral system.



2. Chloro Controls India (P) Ltd. v. Severn Trent Water Purification Inc., (2013) 1 SCC 641.

3. Oil and Natural Gas Corporation Ltd v. Discovery Enterprises, (2022) 8 SCC 42.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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