Del HC | Vicarious liability under S. 138 NI Act. What is proper stage of raising defence of absence of knowledge by the accused being held vicariously liable for offence committed by company? Explained

Delhi High Court: Rajnish Bhatnagar, J., held that:

“Once a cheque is issued by a person, it must be honored and if it is not honoured, the person is given an opportunity to pay the cheque amount by issuance of a notice and if he still does not pay, he is bound to face the criminal trial and consequences.”

Accused 2, 3 and 4 had approached Respondent 2 in January 2009 and allured him into investing Rs 50 lacs in their company with the assurance that the same would be doubled in 5 years and relying on such assurances, he invested his lifetime savings with them.

Accused persons failed to return the principal amount with interest being total of Rs 1 Crore but then he was further inducted to invest Rs 20 lacs more with the promise to return Rs 2 crores on or before March 2019 and that MoU dated 26-07-2018 was executed, whereby accused persons undertook to pay the complainant a sum of Rs 47,53,519 and a cheque was also issued; and that later MoU dated 05-05-2019 was executed and it was promised that the complainant would be made a partner in the business and receipt of Rs 50 lacs as principal amount was retained with the promise that it would be safe and secure with them and it would become Rs 2 crores in 2019.

On 18-02-2019 another Promissory Note was issued by accused 2 in favour of the complainant and his wife acknowledging liability to pay an amount of Rs 2,47,53,000/- payable to the complainant and his wife on or before 30-06-2019.

Later, in July 2019 nine cheques were issued and the said cheques were dishonored and while cheque at Sr No. 1 was dishonored for the reasons “account closed”, the bank returning memos in respect of other cheques from Sr Nos. 2 to 9 came with the remarks “kindly contact drawer”.

Respondent 2 served a legal notice upon the accused persons, which were duly served upon but since no payment was made under the cheque, the complaint was filed by respondent 2.

Accused 4/ Petitioner was summoned by the MM for offences under Section 138 of the Negotiable Instruments Act.

Petitioner sought quashing of the present proceedings on the grounds that neither she was a Director nor she had signed the cheques in question nor she ever participated in any of the meeting or negotiations with the complainant with regard to the transactions in question nor she ever executed any document, hence she had no role in the offence.

Analysis, Law and Decision

“…Negotiable Instruments Act, provides sufficient opportunity to a person who issues the cheque.”

Bench stated that the High Court cannot usurp the powers of the Metropolitan Magistrate and entertain a plea of an accused, as to why he should not be tried under Section 138 of the N.I. Act.

The plea regarding why he should not be tried under Section 138 NI Act is to be raised by the accused before the Court of Metropolitan Magistrate.

Further, the High Court expressed that an offence under Section 138 of the N.I. Act is technical in nature and defences, which an accused can take, are inbuilt; for instance, the cheque was given without consideration, the accused was not a Director at that time, accused was a sleeping partner or a sleeping Director, cheque was given as a security etc., etc., the onus of proving these defences is on the accused alone, in view of Section 106 of the Indian Evidence Act, 1872

Burden of Proving

Offence under Section 138 NI Act is an offence in the personal nature of the complainant and since it is within the special knowledge of the accused as to why he is not to face trial under Section 138 NI Act, he alone had to take the plea of defense and the burden cannot be shifted to complainant.

“…no presumption that even if an accused fails to bring out his defense, he is still to be considered innocent.”

If an accused has a defense against dishonour of the cheque in question, it is he alone who knows the defense and responsibility of spelling out this defense to the Court and then proving this on the accused.

In the instant case, respondent 2/complainant stated that under Section 138 of N.I. Act has made specific averments that while Accused’s 2 and 3 were directors of the company, accused 4 had been handling finance and accounts of the accused 1 company and responsible for its day to day operations alongwith other accused persons.

Court stated that the plea raised for the petitioner that Summy Bhasin never participated in any negotiations with the complainant cannot be considered at this preliminary stage since such defense can only be considered during the trial stage.

Prosecution under Section 138 of the Act can be launched for vicarious liability against any person, who at the time of commission of offence was in charge and responsible for the conduct of the business of the accused company.

Petitioners plea that the offences were committed without his knowledge cannot be considered at this stage considering the fact that the Complainant specifically averred that negotiations had taken place with him along with other co-accused persons and they were prima facie aware about the whole series of transaction.

Lastly, Bench expressed that the deal with the complainant was not a trivial or a routine case of marketing, sale or purchase of goods or services.

When such a huge investment was being sought from the complainant and applied for the running of the affairs of the company, it is not fathomable that the accused persons were unaware of the financial implications for themselves and for the accused company.

In exercise of jurisdiction under Section 482 CrPC, Court cannot go into the truth or otherwise of the allegations made in the complaint or delve into the disputed questions of facts.

Therefore, it can be concluded from the above discussion that, Section 138 of the NI Act spells out the ingredients of the offence and the said ingredients are to be satisfied mainly on the basis of documentary evidence, keeping in mind the presumptions under Sections 118 and 139 of NI Act and Section 27 of the General Clauses Act as well as the provisions of Section 146 of the Act.

“…trial that alone can bring out the truth so as to arrive at a just and fair decision for the parties concerned.”[Summy Bhasin v. State of NCT of Delhi, 2021 SCC OnLine Del 1189, decided 10-03-2021]

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