Supreme Court: The 3-judge bench of SA Bobde, CJ and AS Bopanna and V. Ramasubramanian*, JJ has held that the proceedings for winding up of a company are actually proceedings in rem to which the entire body of creditors is a party and the words “party or parties” appearing in the 5th proviso to Clause (c) of Sub-section(1) of Section 434 the Companies Act, 2013 would take within its fold any creditor of the company in liquidation.
Scheme of Section 434
- For the purpose of transfer, Section 434 classifies the winding up proceedings pending before the High Courts into two categories namely:
(a)Proceedings for voluntary winding up where notice of resolution by advertisement has been given under Section 485(1) of the Companies Act, 1956, but the company has not been dissolved before 01.04.2017; and
(b) Other types of winding up proceedings.
- The first of the above 2 categories of cases are covered by the fourth proviso under Clause (c) of Subsection (1) of Section 434, which states:
“Provided also that proceedings relating to cases of voluntary winding up of a company where notice of the resolution by advertisement has been given under subsection (1) of section 485 of the Companies Act, 1956 but the company has not been dissolved before the 1st April, 2017 shall continue to be dealt with in accordance with provisions of the Companies Act, 1956 and the Companies (Court) Rules, 1959”.
- Such cases of voluntary winding up covered by the above proviso shall continue to be dealt with by the High court. It is only (i) cases of voluntary winding up falling outside the scope of the 4th Proviso and (ii) other types of winding up proceedings, that can be transferred by the High Courts to the Tribunal, subject however to the Rules made by the Central Government under Section 434 (2).
- The transferability, by operation of law, of winding up proceedings, other than those covered by the 4th Proviso, depends upon the stage at which they are pending before the Company Court. But this is left by the law makers to be determined through subordinate legislation, in the form of Rules.
- Apart from providing for the transfer of certain types of winding up proceedings by operation of law, Section 434 (1)(c) also gives a choice to the parties to those proceedings to seek a transfer of such proceedings to the NCLT. This is under the fifth proviso to Clause (c).
- The 5th proviso uses the words “any party or parties to any proceedings relating to the winding up of companies pending before any Court. Hence, the right to invoke the 5th proviso is specifically conferred only upon the parties to the proceedings. Therefore, on a literal interpretation, such a right should be held to be confined only to “the parties to the proceedings.”
Scheme of Companies (Transfer of Pending Proceedings) Rules, 2016
The pending proceedings for winding up are classified into three types namely:
- proceedings for voluntary winding up covered by the fourth proviso to Clause (c) of Subsection (1) of Section 434, which shall continue to be dealt with in accordance with the provisions of the 1956 Act;
- proceedings for winding up on the ground of inability to pay debts; and
- proceedings for winding up on grounds other than inability to pay debts.
The transferability of a winding up proceeding, both under Rule 5 as well as under Rule 6, is directly linked to the service of the winding up petition on the respondent under Rule 26 of the Companies (Court) Rules, 1959. The normal requirement of Rule 26 is that the copy of the petition under the Act shall be served on the respondent along with the notice of the petition, unless otherwise ordered. The notice of the petition, required under Rule 26 to be served along with the copy of the petition, should be in Form No.6, due to the mandate of Rule 27.
If the winding up petition has already been served on the respondent in terms of Rule 26 of the 1959 Rules, the proceedings are not liable to be transferred. But if service of the winding up petition on the respondent in terms of Rule 26 had not been completed, such winding up proceedings, whether they are under Clause (c) of Section 433 or under Clauses (a) and (f) of Section 433, shall peremptorily be transferred to the NCLT.
“Rules 5 and 6 of the Companies (Transfer of Pending Proceedings) Rules 2016, fix the stage of service of notice under Rule 26 of the Companies (Court) Rules, 1959, as the stage at which a winding up proceeding can be transferred. This is because the first proviso under Clause (c) of Sub-section (1) of Section 434 enables the Central Government to prescribe the stage at which proceedings for winding up can be transferred and subsection (2) of section 434 confers rule making power on the Central Government.”
Further, the restriction under Rules 5 and 6 of the 2016 Rules relating to the stage at which a transfer could be ordered, has no application to the case of a transfer covered by the 5th proviso to clause (c) of sub-section (1) of Section 434.
Who can be a “party to the proceedings”?
There are certain clues inherently available in the Companies Act, 1956, to indicate who can be a “party to the proceedings”. The provisions which contain such clues are as follows:
(i) Section 447 of the Companies Act, 1956, which is equivalent to Section 278 of the Companies Act, 2013 states that an order for winding up shall operate in favour of all the creditors and of all the contributories of the company as if it has been made on the joint petition of a creditor and of a contributory. There is a small change between the wording of Section 278 of the 2013 Act and the wording of Section 447 of the 1956 Act. Section 278 of the 2013 Act shows that any petition by a single creditor or contributory is actually treated as a joint petition of creditors and contributories, so that the order of winding up operates in favour of all the creditors and all the contributories.
(ii) Under Section 454(6) of the 1956 Act, any person stating himself in writing to be a creditor shall be entitled to inspect the statement of affairs submitted to the official liquidator. If the claim of such a person to be a creditor turns out to be untrue, such a person is liable to be punished under Section 454(7) of the 1956 Act.
(iii) The powers of the liquidator are enumerated in Section 457 of the 1956 Act. Section 457 actually divides the powers of a liquidator into two categories namely (i) those available with the sanction of the Tribunal and (ii) those generally available to the liquidator. But Section 290 of the 2013 Act has done away with such a distinction. However, the 1956 Act, as well as 2013 Act make the exercise of the powers by the liquidator, subject to the overall control of the Tribunal. This is made clear by Section 457(3) of the 1956 Act and Section 290(2) of the 2013 Act. Additionally, Section 457(3) of the 1956 Act enables any creditor or contributory to apply to the Court with respect to the exercise by the Liquidator, of any of the powers conferred by Section 457.
(iv) Section 460 of the 1956 Act and Section 292 of the 2013 Act make it clear that in the administration of the assets of the Company and the distribution thereof among its creditors, the liquidator should have regard to any directions given by resolution of creditors at any general meeting. If the liquidator does something, in exercise of his powers, any person aggrieved by such Act or decision of the liquidator, is entitled to apply to the Company Court, under Section 460(6) of the 1956 Act and Section 292(4) of the 2013 Act.
(v) Section 466(1) of the 1956 Act enables any creditor to apply for stay of all proceedings in relation to the winding up. This right can be exercised by any creditor at any time after the making of a winding up order.
Hence, the proceedings for winding up of a company are actually proceedings in rem to which the entire body of creditors is a party. Such proceeding might have been initiated by one or more creditors, but by a deeming fiction the petition is treated as a joint petition. The official liquidator acts for and on behalf of the entire body of creditors. Therefore, the word “party” appearing in the 5th proviso to Clause (c) of Sub-section (1) of section 434 cannot be construed to mean only the single petitioning creditor or the company or the official liquidator.
“If any creditor is aggrieved by any decision of the official liquidator, he is entitled under the 1956 Act to challenge the same before the Company Court. Once he does that, he becomes a party to the proceeding, even by the plain language of the section. Instead of asking a party to adopt such a circuitous route and then take recourse to the 5th proviso to section 434(1)(c), it would be better to recognise the right of such a party to seek transfer directly.”
[Kaledonia Jute and Fibres Pvt. Ltd v. Axis Nirman and Industries Ltd, 2020 SCC OnLine SC 943, decided on 19.11.2020]
*V. Ramasubramanian has penned this judgment
Advocates who appeared in the matter
For appellant: Senior Advocate Huzefa Ahmadi,
For 1st respondent: Senior Advocate A.N.S. Nadkarni
For Official Liquidator: Advocate-on-Record Gp. Capt. Karan Singh Bhati