‘Section 138 NI Act proceeding a “civil sheep” in a “criminal wolf’s” clothing’; quasi criminal proceedings against corporate debtor covered under Section 14(1)(a) IBC : SC

Supreme Court: The 3-judge bench of RF Nariman*, Navin Sinha and KM Joseph, JJ has, analysing various provisions under the Negotiable Instruments Act, the Court concluded that the proceedings under Section 138 are “quasi-criminal” in nature.

The Court held that

“a Section 138/141 proceeding against a corporate debtor is covered by Section 14(1)(a) of the IBC.”

In a 120-pages long verdict, the Supreme Court tackled the following issues to reach at the aforementioned conclusion:

OBJECT AND INTERPRETATION OF SECTION 14 OF THE IBC

The expression “institution of suits or continuation of pending suits” is to be read as one category, and the disjunctive “or” before the word “proceedings” would make it clear that proceedings against the corporate debtor would be a separate category.

“What throws light on the width of the expression “proceedings” is the expression “any judgment, decree or order” and “any court of law, tribunal, arbitration panel or other authority”. Since criminal proceedings under the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973 are conducted before the courts mentioned in Section 6, CrPC, it is clear that a Section 138 proceeding being conducted before a Magistrate would certainly be a proceeding in a court of law in respect of a transaction which relates to a debt owed by the corporate debtor.”

A quasi-criminal proceeding which would result in the assets of the corporate debtor being depleted as a result of having to pay compensation which can amount to twice the amount of the cheque that has bounced would directly impact the corporate insolvency resolution process in the same manner as the institution, continuation, or execution of a decree in such suit in a civil court for the amount of debt or other liability.

“Judged from the point of view of this objective, it is impossible to discern any difference between the impact of a suit and a Section 138 proceeding, insofar as the corporate debtor is concerned, on its getting the necessary breathing space to get back on its feet during the corporate insolvency resolution process.”

Hence, the width of the expression “proceedings” cannot be cut down so as to make such proceedings analogous to civil suits.

THE INTERPLAY BETWEEN SECTION 14 AND SECTION 32A OF THE IBC

“A section which has been introduced by an amendment into an Act with its focus on cesser of liability for offences committed by the corporate debtor prior to the commencement of the corporate insolvency resolution process cannot be so construed so as to limit, by a sidewind as it were, the moratorium provision contained in Section 14, with which it is not at all concerned.”

If the expression “prosecution” in the first proviso of Section 32A(1) refers to criminal proceedings properly so-called either through the medium of a First Information Report or complaint filed by an investigating authority or complaint and not to quasi-criminal proceedings that are instituted under Sections 138/141 of the Negotiable Instruments Act against the corporate debtor, the object of Section 14(1) of the IBC gets subserved, as does the object of Section 32A, which does away with criminal prosecutions in all cases against the corporate debtor, thus absolving the corporate debtor from the same after a new management comes in.

NATURE OF PROCEEDINGS UNDER CHAPTER XVII OF THE NEGOTIABLE INSTRUMENTS ACT

“Section 138 contains within it the ingredients of the offence made out. The deeming provision is important in that the legislature is cognizant of the fact that what is otherwise a civil liability is now also deemed to be an offence, since this liability is made punishable by law.”

It is important to note that the transaction spoken of is a commercial transaction between two parties which involves payment of money for a debt or liability. The explanation to Section 138 makes it clear that such debt or other liability means a legally enforceable debt or other liability. Thus, a debt or other liability barred by the law of limitation would be outside the scope of Section 138. This, coupled with fine that may extend to twice the amount of the cheque that is payable as compensation to the aggrieved party to cover both the amount of the cheque and the interest and costs thereupon, would show that it is really a hybrid provision to enforce payment under a bounced cheque if it is otherwise enforceable in civil law.

Further, as the proviso gives an opportunity to the drawer of the cheque, stating that the drawer must fail to make payment of the amount within 15 days of the receipt of a notice, it becomes clear that the real object of the provision is not to penalise the wrongdoer for an offence that is already made out, but to compensate the victim.

Under Section 139, a presumption is raised that the holder of a cheque received the cheque for the discharge, in whole or in part, of any debt or other liability. To rebut this presumption, facts must be adduced which, on a preponderance of probability (not beyond reasonable doubt as in the case of criminal offences), must then be proved.

Section 140 states that it shall not be a defence in a prosecution for an offence under Section 138 that the drawer had no reason to believe when he issued the cheque that the cheque may be dishonoured on presentment for the reasons stated in that Section, thus making it clear that strict liability will attach, mens rea being no ingredient of the offence.

Section 141 makes Directors and other persons statutorily liable, provided the ingredients of the section are met. Interestingly, for the purposes of this Section, explanation (a) defines “company” as meaning any body corporate and includes a firm or other association of individuals.

A cursory reading of Section 142 makes clear that the procedure under the CrPC has been departed from. First and foremost, no court is to take cognizance of an offence punishable under Section 138 except on a complaint made in writing by the payee or the holder in due course of the cheque – the victim. Further, the language of Section 142(1) (b) would again show the hybrid nature of these provisions inasmuch as a complaint must be made within one month of the date on which the “cause of action” under clause (c) of the proviso to Section 138 arises.

“The expression “cause of action” is a foreigner to criminal jurisprudence, and would apply only in civil cases to recover money. Chapter XIII of the CrPC, consisting of Sections 177 to 189, is a chapter dealing with the jurisdiction of the criminal courts in inquiries and trials. When the jurisdiction of a criminal court is spoken of by these Sections, the expression “cause of action” is conspicuous by its absence.”

Under Section 143, it is lawful for a Magistrate to pass a sentence of imprisonment for a term not exceeding one year and a fine exceeding INR 5,000/- summarily. Hence,

“… the payment of compensation is at the heart of the provision in that a fine exceeding INR 5000/-, the sky being the limit, can be imposed by way of a summary trial which, after application of Section 357 of the CrPC, results in compensating the victim up to twice the amount of the bounced cheque.”

Under Section 144, the mode of service of summons is done as in civil cases, eschewing the mode contained in Sections 62 to 64 of the CrPC. Likewise, under Section 145, evidence is to be given by the complainant on affidavit, as it is given in civil proceedings, notwithstanding anything contained in the CrPC. Most importantly, by Section 147, offences under this Act are compoundable without any intervention of the court, as is required by Section 320(2) of the CrPC.

CONCLUSION

“The gravamen of a proceeding under Section 138, though couched in language making the act complained of an offence, is really in order to get back through a summary proceeding, the amount contained in the dishonoured cheque together with interest and costs, expeditiously and cheaply.”

The Court, hence, concluded that a quasi-criminal proceeding that is contained in Chapter XVII of the Negotiable Instruments Act would, given the object and context of Section 14 of the IBC, amount to a “proceeding” within the meaning of Section 14(1)(a), the moratorium therefore attaching to such proceeding.

[P. Mohanraj v. Shah Brother Ispat Pvt. Ltd., 2021 SCC OnLine SC 152, decided on 01.03.2021]


*Judgment by: Justice RF Nariman

Know Thy Judge| Justice Rohinton F. Nariman

Appearances before the Court by:

For Appellants: Senior Advocate Jayanth Muth Raj

For Respondent: Advocate Jayant Mehta

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