Supreme Court: A Division Bench of Indira Banerjee and V. Ramasubramanian, JJ. held that there is no bar in law to amendment of pleadings in an application under Section 7 of the Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code, 2016 or to filing of additional documents apart from those initially filed, at any time until a final order either admitting or dismissing the application has been passed.
The Court also held that an application under Section 7 for imitation of corporate insolvency resolution process against a corporate debtor is not be barred by limitation if there is an acknowledgement of the debt by the corporate debtor before expiry of the limitation period. Such acknowledgment can be by way of statement of accounts, balance sheets, financial statements and offer of one time settlement.
Moreover, a final judgment and/or decree of any court or tribunal or any arbitral award for payment of money, if not satisfied, would fall within the ambit of a financial debt, enabling the creditor to initiate proceedings under Section 7.
Factual Matrix and Timeline
In 2011, Dena Bank sanctioned a term loan of to the Corporate Debtor, which was to be repaid in 24 quarterly installments. The Corporate Debtor defaulted in repayment and their account was declared Non Performing Asset (“NPA”) in December 2013. In 2014, the Bank sent a letter to the Corporate Debtor to repay the outstanding dues. However, no payment was made.
In 2015, the Bank initiated proceedings before the Debts Recovery Tribunal (“DRT”) for recovery of outstanding dues from the Corporate Debtor. By a letter dated 5 January 2015, the Corporate Debtor requested the Bank to restructure the loan. Again, on 3 March 2017, while proceedings were pending before DRT, the Corporate Debtor gave an offer for one time settlement of the term loan account, which was rejected by the Bank. On 27 March 2017, DRT passed an order against the Corporate Debtor for recovery of outstanding dues to the Bank. In May 2017, DRT issued a Recovery Certificate in favour of the Bank. Thereafter in June 2017, the Corporate Debtor once again gave the Bank a proposal for one time settlement to mutually settle the loan amount.
In October 2018, the Bank sought initiation of corporate insolvency resolution process against the Corporate Debtor. It filed a petition under Section 7 of the Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code (“IBC”) before the National Company Law Tribunal, Bengaluru. Thereafter, twice in 2019, the Bank filed applications for permission to place additional documents on record. Both these applications were allowed by NCLT. In March 2019, NCLT passed an order to admit the Section 7 petition filed by the Bank.
The Corporate Debtor challenged the order of NCLT in an appeal under Section 61 IBC before the National Company Law Appellate Tribunal. The NCLAT allowed the appeal reversed the order of NCLT. Aggrieved, the Bank approached the Supreme Court.
Three questions arose for consideration of the Court:
(i) Whether a petition under Section 7 IBC would be barred by limitation, on the sole ground that it had been filed beyond a period of three years from the date of declaration of the loan account of the Corporate Debtor as NPA, even though the Corporate Debtor might subsequently have acknowledged its liability to the appellant Bank, within a period of three years prior to the date of filing of the Section 7 petition, by making a proposal for a one time settlement, or by acknowledging the debt in its statutory balance sheets and books of accounts.
(ii) Whether a final judgment and decree of DRT in favour of financial creditor, or the issuance of a Certificate of Recovery in favour of financial creditor, would give rise to a fresh cause of action to financial creditor to initiate proceedings under Section 7 IBC within three years from the date of the final judgment and decree, and/or within three years from the date of issuance of the Certificate of Recovery.
(iii) Whether there is any bar in law to the amendment of pleadings, in a petition under Section 7 IBC, or to the filing of additional documents, apart from those filed initially, along with the Section 7 petition in Form-1 given in the Annexure to the Insolvency and Bankruptcy (Application to Adjudicating Authority) Rules, 2016 (“2016 Adjudicating Authority Rules”).
Analysis and Observations
Interpretation of the Code
Discussing the object of IBC, the Court observed that it is imperative that provisions of IBC and Rules and Regulations framed thereunder be construed liberally, in a purposive manner to further the objects of enactment of the statute, and not be given a narrow, pedantic interpretation which defeats its purposes.
Permissibility of amending Section 7 petition for filing additional documents
On a careful reading of IBC provisions and in particular the provisions of Section 7(2) to (5) read with the 2016 Adjudicating Authority Rules, the Court reached a conclusion that there is no bar to the filing of documents at any time until a final order either admitting or dismissing the application has been passed.
The Court noted that under Section 7(2) IBC, a financial creditor is required to apply for initiation of corporate insolvency resolution process against a corporate debtor in the prescribed Form-1 under the 2016 Adjudicating Authority Rules. Since a financial creditor is required to apply under Section 7 IBC in statutory Form-1, the financial creditor can only fill in particulars as specified in the various columns of the Form. There is no scope for elaborate pleadings. The Court observed:
“An application to the Adjudicating Authority (NCLT) under Section 7 of the IBC in the prescribed form, cannot therefore, be compared with the plaint in a suit. Such application cannot be judged by the same standards, as a plaint in a suit, or any other pleadings in a Court of law.“
The Court summed up the discussion on this point by mentioning that there is no bar in law to amendment of pleadings in an application under Section 7 IBC, or to filing of additional documents, apart from those initially filed along with application under Section 7 in Form-1. It was observed:
“In the absence of any express provision which either prohibits or sets a time limit for filing of additional documents, it cannot be said that NCLT committed any illegality or error in permitting the Bank to file additional documents. “
However, the Court added that depending on the facts and circumstances of the case, when there is inordinate delay, the adjudicating authority might, at its discretion, decline the request of an applicant to file additional pleadings and/or documents, and proceed to pass a final order.
Lastly, it was clarified that Babulal Vardharji Gurjar v. Veer Gurjar Aluminium Industries (P) Ltd., (2020) 15 SCC 1 is not an authority for the proposition that there can be no amendment of pleadings at the fag end of NCLT proceedings. Moreover, in the instant case, the amendments were not made at the fag end of the proceedings but within 2/3 months of their initiation, before admission of the petition under Section 7 IBC.
Limitation and effect of acknowledgment of debt
Under the scheme of IBC, the insolvency resolution process begins when a default takes place, in the sense that a debt becomes due and is not paid. Before considering the main point, the Court noted that there can be no dispute with the proposition that in terms of Article 137 of Limitation Act, 1963, the period of limitation for making an application under Section 7 IBC is three years from the date of accrual of the right to sue, that is, the date of default.
However, as per Section 18 of Limitation Act, an acknowledgement of present subsisting liability, made in writing in respect of any right claimed by the opposite party and signed by the party against whom the right is claimed, has the effect of commencing a fresh period of limitation from the date on which the acknowledgement is signed. The acknowledgement must be made before the relevant period of limitation has expired. Relying on Sesh Nath Singh v. Baidyabati Sheoraphuli Coop. Bank Ltd., 2021 SCC Online SC 244 and Laxmi Pat Surana v. Union Bank of India, 2021 SCC Online SC 267, the Court reiterated that there is no reason to exclude the effect of Section 18 of the Limitation Act to proceedings initiated under IBC.
Relying further on Asset Reconstruction Co. (India) Ltd. v. Bishal Jaiswal, 2021 SCC Online SC 321, the Court noted that:
“It is well settled that entries in books of accounts and/or balance sheets of a Corporate Debtor would amount to an acknowledgment under Section 18 of the Limitation Act.“
In view of such law, the Court concluded that NCLAT’s finding that there was nothing on record to suggest that the Corporate Debtor acknowledged the debt within three years and agreed to pay debt, was not sustainable in law in view of the statement of accounts/balance sheets/financial statements for the years 2016-2017 and 2017-2018 and the offer of one time settlement including in particular the offer of one time settlement made on 3 March 2017.
In the instant case, Rs 1.11 crore had been paid towards outstanding interest on 28 March 2014 and the offer of one time settlement was within three years thereafter. In any case, NCLAT overlooked the fact that a Certificate of Recovery was issued by DRT in favour of the Bank on 25 May 2017. The Corporate Debtor did not pay dues in terms of the Certificate of Recovery. The Court held:
“The Certificate of Recovery in itself gives a fresh cause of action to the Appellant Bank to institute a petition under Section 7 of IBC. The petition under Section 7 IBC was well within three years from 28th March 2014.“
The Court relied on Jignesh Shah v. Union of India, (2019) 10 SCC 750 for concluding that a final judgment and/or decree of any court or tribunal or any arbitral award for payment of money, if not satisfied, would fall within the ambit of a financial debt, enabling the creditor to initiate proceedings under Section 7 IBC.
Before concluding, the Court considered that when the petition under Section 7 IBC was filed, the date of default was mentioned as 30 September 2013 and the date of declaration of term loan account of the Corporate Debtor as NPA was stated as 31 December 2013. However, according to the Court, it was not correct to say that there was no averment in the petition of any acknowledgment of debt. Such averments were duly incorporated by way of amendment, and NCLT rightly looked into the amended pleadings to admit the petition of Bank. The Court reiterated:
“Even assuming that documents were brought on record at a later stage … the Adjudicating Authority was not precluded from considering the same. The documents were brought on record before any final decision was taken in the petition under Section 7 of IBC.“
For the reasons discussed above, the Supreme Court held that the Section 7 IBC petition filed by Dena Bank was admissible. The impugned judgment of NCLAT was unsustainable which was set aside. [Dena Bank v. C. Shivakumar Reddy, 2021 SCC OnLine SC 543, decided on 4-8-2021]