Interest republicae ut sit finis litium, meaning it is in the interest of the State that there should be an end to litigation. In pursuance of this objective, the Indian legal regime adopted various alternative forms of adjudicatory mechanism. The capital market regulator, Securities and Exchange Board of India (hereinafter referred as ‘SEBI’) introduced the consent mechanism efficacy of which has been discussed in this article.
The Code of Civil Procedure, 1908 and the Criminal Procedure Code, 1973 enumerate concepts of ‘compromise’ and ‘compounding of offences’ respectively. Similarly, under Section 15-JB of the Securities and Exchange Board of India Act, 1992 is vested with the power to settle cases of securities law violation in the capital market. The idea was adopted from the success of its US counterpart, the Securities and Exchange Commission. Initially, the consent mechanism was proposed vide circular, Circular No. EFD/ED/Cir-1/2007 that enumerated the Guidelines for Consent Orders, introduced in 2007. The mechanism has evolved over the past years to take the form of the Settlement Regulations, 2018.
The consent mechanism may be defined as “a proceeding in which the regulator and the alleged violator, may at any stage of the proceeding negotiate a settlement in lieu of administrative/civil proceeding, in the process saving cost, time and efforts for the parties involved. The mechanism does not require admission or denial of findings.”
Interpreting settlement orders
To test the proposition in respect of the success of this mechanism, a few cases of settlement have been analysed. The vital question that arises is “Where the interest of investors is at stake, is settlement a viable solution?”
The recent settlement order passed by SEBI in the matter of HDFC AMC (hereinafter referred to as ‘the applicant’) provides insight to the above question. The applicant was served with a show-cause notice for violation of the SEBI (Mutual Funds) Regulations, 1996. The applicant had invested in the debt instruments of Essel group of companies through its various mutual fund schemes. As per the show-cause notice, the investment made did not adhere to the (Mutual Funds) Regulations, 1996 as it failed to maintain proper due diligence that led to the loss of the unit-holders. In furtherance of the notice, the applicant filed a settlement application with SEBI and the High Powered Committee (constituted under the Settlement Regulations, 2018) agreed to settle the matter. As a part of the settlement terms, the applicant ensured that the unit-holders were compensated along with redressal of their complaints. Further, it was agreed that the settlement amount would be paid by the funds of the applicant.
Certainly, the above order was in the interest of the investors and the regulator. The alleged violations were committed in May 2019, and within a span of a year, the settlement process has been concluded. Settlement in the present case indeed served as an expeditious solution contrary to the prolonged administrative/legal proceedings.
One major concern that has hindered the growth of the settlement mechanism is the conundrum surrounding the settlement of serious offences like insider trading and fraudulent unfair trade practices. It is pertinent to note here that such offences were a part of the initial guidelines issued under the circular in 2007. Subsequently, the amended Settlement Regulations, 2014 removed serious offences based on the severity of such offences. However, the Committee set up under the chairmanship of Justice Dave that drafted the Settlement Regulations, 2018, undertook an alternative approach by vesting discretion with the Board to decide based on facts and circumstances of each case than make it principle based by creating an absolute bar to settle such offences.
The question that requires attention is that “Has the discretion vested with the Board regarding the nature of offences to be settled been exercised wisely by it?”
On observation of previously adjudicated cases that have been settled, it was noticed that only those cases where market interests and market impact was limited and loss to the investors was minuscule, were taken through the settlement route. In Abhay Gandhi and Kiran Abhay Gandhi, the CEO of Ranbaxy Laboratories Limited, was charged under the Prohibition of Insider Trading Regulations, 2015 for selling shares while in possession of Unpublished Price Sensitive Information, the matter was settled by remitting an amount of Rs Thirty-five lakhs, that would have been evaluated considering the profit made by the applicants, the multiplier for deciding penalty as provided in Chapter VI of the Settlement Proceedings Regulations, 2018.
Settlement – An Antidote to Litigation?
On considering the above proposition, it raises two further questions.
1. Will SEBI in all cases allow the settlement process?
2. Is the settlement mechanism a full proof mechanism where the interests of SEBI, stakeholders and investors can be balanced?
To answer the former, the essential grounds for the basis of the settlement are laid down exhaustively under the purview of Regulation 10 of the Settlement Regulations, 2018. The Board established under Section 5 of the Act may reject matters for settlement that have a wide impact on investors, are repetitive in their defaults or the person making the application is a wilful defaulter. SEBI has adopted a stringent approach in accepting applications for Consent Orders. For instance, NSE was alleged to have deals with brokers and unduly favouring and assisting them in unauthorised trading, and it applied for settlement. SEBI rejected the NSE settlement application and ordered disgorgement by asking them to pay over INR 1000 Crores.
After the infamous IL&FS scam where credit rating agencies were under the scanner for not changing the credit rating of the instruments before the default, SEBI based on a reasoned order categorically stated that the matter involved wide market impact including an adverse effect on the interest of the investors thereby questioned the integrity of the market, and rejected ICRA’s application for settlement.
To answer the latter, no mechanism can be a panacea, it comes with its fragilities. In the author’s opinion, the biggest drawback of this mechanism is that it may undermine the problem which may in a certain point of time be the tip of the iceberg. To illustrate, in the case of Yes Bank, it was charged for violating the disclosure norms prescribed in Regulation 30 of the SEBI (Listing Obligations and Disclosure Requirements) Regulations, 2015, that required the disclosure of material information.
Yes Bank as per the settlement order made selective disclosure of divergence and partially concealed the report the issued by RBI and its settlement then, concluded the matter but all those along with a gamut of other issues including a liquidity crisis and failure of the corporate governance bounced back together and led to its collapse. Therefore, in certain cases, it may not be possible for the regulator to see through and understand the actual reasons behind the violation, divergence.
The way ahead
The increasing role of the consent mechanism can be witnessed from the fact that an average of ten settlement orders were passed in the year 2019. It is evident that the Settlement Regulations, 2019 have ushered a fresh air in the arena of ‘Consent Orders’. Certain key features of the regulations are that transparency is ensured by vesting limited discretion with the Board. The penalty payable by the applicant is derived based on a comprehensive multiplier on consideration of the number of defaults, the stage of proceedings along with the stage at which settlement is introduced. It will not be a misnomer to say that capital market regulations in India have evolved tremendously along with the market and provided an effective adjudication process that serves the need of the hour. In cases where all three chords of prompt action, investor interest, and effective enforcement are struck, it is only then the underlying objective of consent orders will be achieved in its essence.
*Legal professional, with an avid interest in Securities Law and previously worked with KPMG as a part of the Forensic Investigation Team.