Explained| Can Chairman, Directors, Managers, etc. be automatically summoned in a criminal case involving the company?

Supreme Court: The bench of MR Shah* and AS Bopanna, JJ has held that merely because someone is the Chairman/Managing Director/Executive Director/Deputy General Manager/Planner & Executor, automatically they cannot be held vicariously liable, unless there are specific allegations and averments against them with respect to their individual role in a criminal case.

Factual Background

The Court was dealing with a case wherein it was alleged that all the accused had conspired with common intention to lay the pipeline beneath the schedule properties belonging to the complainant without any lawful authority and right whatsoever.

It is pertinent to note that original accused no.1 was a company incorporated under the Companies Act, original accused nos. 2 & 3 being Chairman and Managing Director of Accused no.1- company and accused no.4 was arrayed as an accused being Deputy General Manager (Civil & Env.) of accused no.1. Accused No.5 was the Planner and Executor of the project work of accused no.1. Likewise, accused no. 6 was also a company incorporated under the Companies Act, accused nos. 7 & 8 were arrayed as an accused being Chairman and Executive Director respectively of accused no.6. Accused no.9 was the Site Supervisor of accused no.6 and accused no.10 was the Sub-Contractor under accused no.6 and accused nos. 11 to 13 were the employees of accused no.10.

Accused No.1 intended to lay water pipeline by the side of Mangalore-Bajpe Old Airport Road abutting the schedule properties. Accused No.2 on behalf of accused No.1 appointed accused No.6 as a contractor for execution of the said project of laying the water pipe line. Accused No.6 in turn authorized accused Nos. 7 and 8 to execute and oversee the said work. They in turn had appointed accused No.9 as site supervisor and the accused No.10 being the sub-contractor engaged accused Nos. 11 to 13 as labourers. Accused Nos. 4 and 5 were entrusted the work of supervision and overseeing the pipeline works carried out by accused Nos. 6, 7 and 8 through accused Nos. 9 and 10 to 13. Accused Nos. 6 to 8 had put into service heavy machineries and excavators and their vehicles for carrying out the work. It was contended that accused Nos. 2 to 5 and 7 to 13 had conspired with common intention to lay the pipeline beneath the schedule properties belonging to the complainant without any lawful authority and right whatsoever. In furtherance thereof, they had trespassed over the schedule properties 3 and demolished the compound wall which was having the height of 7 feet and foundation of 2 feet to a distance of 500 metres. They had cut and destroyed 100 valuable trees and laid pipeline beneath the schedule properties.

It was contended that

“… the accused have committed the act of mischief and waste and caused pecuniary loss of more than Rs.27 lakhs to the complainant. All the accused are jointly and severally liable to make good the loss to the complainant.”

Analysis

The bench noticed that except the bald statement that accused nos. 2 to 5 and 7 & 8 have conspired with common intention to lay the pipeline within the schedule properties belonging to the complainant, without any lawful authority and right whatsoever and in furtherance they have committed to trespass into the schedule properties of the complainant and demolished the compound wall, there were no other allegations that at that time they were present.

There were no further allegations that at the command of A2 to A5 and A7 & A8, the demolition of the compound wall has taken place. All of them are merely arrayed as an accused as Chairman, Managing Director, Deputy General Manager (Civil & Env.), Planner & Executor, Chairman and Executive Director respectively.

“Therefore, as such, in absence of any specific allegations and the specific role attributed to them, the learned Magistrate was not justified in issuing process against accused nos. 1 to 8 for the offences punishable 12 under Sections 427, 447, 506 and 120B read with Section 34 IPC.”

The Court held that issuing summons/process by the Court is a very serious matter and therefore unless there are specific allegations and the role attributed to each accused more than the bald statement, the Magistrate ought not to have issued the process.

Here are some authorities on the power of the magistrate of summoning of an accused in a criminal case:

Sunil Bharti Mittal v. Central Bureau of Investigation, (2015) 4 SCC 609

“No doubt, a corporate entity is an artificial person which acts through its officers, Directors, Managing Director, Chairman, etc. If such a company commits an offence involving mens rea, it would normally be the intent and action of that individual who would act on behalf of the company. It would be more so, when the criminal act is that of conspiracy. However, at the same time, it is the cardinal principle of criminal jurisprudence that there is no vicarious liability unless the statute specifically provides so.

(…)

When the company is the offender, vicarious liability of the Directors cannot be imputed automatically, in the absence of any statutory provision to this effect.”

Read more: Order issuing summons to Sunil Mittal and others in 2G Scam case by Special Judge, CBI, set aside

GHCL Employees Stock Option Trust v. India Infoline Limited, (2013) 4 SCC 505

In the order issuing summons, the learned Magistrate has to record his satisfaction about a prima facie case against the accused who are Managing Director, the Company Secretary and the Directors of the Company and the role played by them in their respective capacities which is sine qua non for initiating criminal proceedings against them.

Maksud Saiyed v. State of Gujarat, (2008) 5 SCC 668

“13. Where a jurisdiction is exercised on a complaint petition filed in terms of Section 156(3) or Section 200 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, the Magistrate is required to apply his mind. The Penal Code does not contain any provision for attaching vicarious liability on the part of the Managing Director or the Directors of the Company when the accused is the company. The learned Magistrate failed to pose unto himself the correct question viz. as to whether the complaint petition, even if given face value and taken to be correct in its entirety, would lead to the conclusion that the respondents herein were personally liable for any offence. The Bank is a body corporate. Vicarious liability of the Managing Director and Director would arise provided any provision exists in that behalf in the statute. Statutes indisputably must contain provision fixing such vicarious liabilities. Even for the said purpose, it is obligatory on the part of the complainant to make requisite allegations which would attract the provisions constituting vicarious liability.”

Pepsi Foods Ltd. v. Special Judicial Magistrate, (1998) 5 SCC 749

“28. Summoning of an accused in a criminal case is a serious matter. Criminal law cannot be set into motion as a matter of course. It is not that the complainant has to bring only two witnesses to support his allegations in the complaint to have the criminal law set into motion. The order of the 14 Magistrate summoning the accused must reflect that he has applied his mind to the facts of the case and the law applicable thereto. He has to examine the nature of allegations made in the complaint and the evidence both oral and documentary in support thereof and would that be sufficient for the complainant to succeed in bringing charge home to the accused. It is not that the Magistrate is a silent spectator at the time of recording of preliminary evidence before summoning of the accused. The Magistrate has to carefully scrutinise the evidence brought on record and may even himself put questions to the complainant and his witnesses to elicit answers to find out the truthfulness of the allegations or otherwise and then examine if any offence is prima facie committed by all or any of the accused.”

[Ravindranatha Bajpe v. Mangalore Special Economic Zone Ltd, 2021 SCC OnLine SC 806, decided on 27.09.2021]

_________________________________________________________________________

Counsels:

For original complainant: Advocate Shailesh Madiyal

For accused persons: Advocates Nishanth Patil and P.P. Hegde


*Judgment by: Justice MR Shah

Know Thy Judge | Justice M. R. Shah

Join the discussion

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.