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Securities Appellate Tribunal, Mumbai: The Coram of Justice Tarun Agarwala (Presiding Officer) and Justice M.T. Joshi (Judicial Member) while addressing a matter whether a Chartered Accountant could be held guilty by SEBI for lack of due diligence, held that,

Lack of due diligence can only lead to professional negligence which would amount to a misconduct which could be taken up only by ICAI.

Background

An appeal was filed against the order passed by the Whole Time Member of Securities and Exchange Board of India whereby the appellant who was a statutory auditor/chartered accountant had been prohibited from issuing any certificate of audit and had been restrained from rendering any other auditing services to any listed companies and intermediaries for a period of one year.

Factual Matrix

Deccan Chronicle Holdings Limited, its promoters, directors, and Chartered Accountant (appellant) were issued show cause notice after investigation, wherein it was alleged that the company had understated its outstanding loans to the tune of Rs 1339.17 crores in the year 2008-9 and had also wrongly disclosed the difference between the actual and reported outstanding loans for the FYs 2009-10 and 2010-11.

Misleading Financial Information

Further, it was alleged that the company had manipulated its financials and failed to make necessary disclosure and that the promoters of the company wrongly transferred loans on the last day of the FY and reverted it on the first day of the financial year, thus misleading financial information.

In view of the above, show cause notice alleged that the appellant had violated Section 12A(a), (b) and (c) of the Securities and Exchange Board of India Act, 1992 read with Regulation 3(a), (b), (c) and (d) and Regulation 4(1), 4(2)(f), (k) and (r) of the Securities and Exchange Board of India (Prohibition of Fraudulent and Unfair Trade Practices relating to Securities Market) Regulations, 2003.

WTM’s Conclusion

WTM concluded stating that the company had made wrong misleading or inadequate disclosures to the stock exchange and had understated the outstanding loans and interest and financial changes in the annual returns.

Further, it held that the appellant under Sections 224 and 227 of the Companies Act, 1956 owes an obligation towards the shareholders to report true and correct facts about the financials of the company and audit is caused to report correctly and faithfully under Section 227 of the Companies Act.

Additionally, the WTM held that the appellant overlooked the reporting of the outstanding loans and that he was not diligent and cautious and that it was his obligation to check the details of the outstanding loan from the bank and through other independent sources which he failed to do so and thereby did not adhere to the Auditing Assurance Standard (AAS)  and consequently allowed the fudging of the books of accounts by the company which suggested that the appellant colluded with the other notices.

Analysis, Law and Decision

Tribunal held that the impugned order could not be sustained for the following reasons:

In the Bombay High Court decision of Price Waterhouse Co. v. SEBI, WP No. 5249 of 2010, it was held that while exercising the powers under the SEBI Act, it is not open to SEBI to encroach upon the powers vested with the Institute under Chartered Accountant Act, 1949.

However, in a given case, if there is material against the C.A. to the effect that he was instrumental in preparing false and fabricated accounts in connivance, then SEBI is entitled to pass appropriate orders under Section 11(4) of the SEBI Act in the interest of the investors or securities market and is entitled to take measures as prescribed in the said section.

Further, SAT in its decision of Price Waterhouse Co. v. SEBI, Appeal No. 6 of 2018, found that the scope of the enquiry was only restricted to the charge of professional negligence since the C.A/C.A Firm were not dealing directly in the securities. This Tribunal held that in absence of inducement, fraud was not proved nor there was connivance or collusion by the C.A.s and therefore, the provision of section 12 (A) of SEBI Act and Regulation 3 & 4 of PFUTP Regulations are not applicable.

In the present matter, A.O. found that due diligence was not carried out by the appellant and there was no finding that the appellants were instrumental in preparing false and fabricated accounts or have connived in preparation or falsification of the books of account. Additionally, the Coram found that the appellants had manipulated the books of accounts with knowledge and intention, in the absence of which, there was no deceit or inducement by the appellants.

In the absence of any inducement, the question of fraud committed by the appellants does not arise.

Tribunal found that the appellant as a statutory auditor was not responsible for the preparation and falsification of the books of accounts, the financials of the company and the balance sheet of the company.

Concluding the matter, Coram held that once CA was not found responsible for the preparation of financials of company, merely because he was not cautious will not suggest that he colluded with the promoters and directors of the company.

In view of the above discussion, Tribunal allowed the appeal, and the impugned order did not sustain so far as it concerned the appellant (CA). [Mani Oommen v. SEBI, 2022 SCC OnLine SAT 60, decided on 18-2-2022]


Advocates before the Tribunal:

Mr. Chetan Kapadia, Advocate with Mr. Rahul Sarda, Mr. KRCV Seshachalam, Ms. Sabeena Mahadik, Mr. Aayush Kothari, Mr. Sagar Hate, Advocates i/b. Visesha Law Services for the Appellant.

Mr. Pradeep Sancheti, Senior Advocate with Mr. Abhiraj Arora, Mr. Karthik Narayan, Mr. Harshvardhan Nankani, Mr. Shourya Tanay, Advocates i/b. ELP for the Respondent.

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Customs, Excise and Services Tax Appellate Tribunal (CESTAT): The Coram of Dilip Gupta (President) and C.J. Mathew (Technical Member) allowed an appeal which was filed against the order passed by Principal Commissioner of Central Excise, New Delhi, by which the demand of service tax had been confirmed with interest and penalty.

Appellant had been engaged in rendering air travel agent and other tour related services and during the period of dispute the appellant was rendering air travel agent services to the Embassy of the United States of America. The appellant claimed that it was the sole and exclusive service provider for the US Embassy and operated from a desk set up within the premises of the US Embassy. On such services, the appellant was availing exemption from payment of service tax in terms of Notification dated 23-05-2007 till 30-06-2012 and, thereafter, under Notification dated 20-06-2012. These Notifications exempted services rendered to diplomatic mission or consular posts in India from payment of service tax. In 2014, an investigation was initiated and audit of the records of the appellant was conducted in terms of rule 5A of the Service Tax Rules, 19944. During the audit, it was observed that the appellant was incorrectly availing exemption on services rendered to the US Embassy. The audit resulted into issuance of a show cause notice dated 16.04.2014 proposing to deny the exemption as a result of which a demand of service tax amounting to Rs. 81,11,575 was made. Principal Commissioner had passed the impugned order dated 30-09-2015 denying the exemption to the appellant and confirming the demand of service tax with penalty.

The four issues framed by the Principal Commissioner were:

(a) Whether the exemption contained in the Notification dated 23.05.2007 upto 30.06.2012 and Notification dated 20.06.2012 w.e.f. 01.07.2012 is available to the appellant for the services provided by it to the US Embassy despite the non-fulfillment of the conditions laid down in the said Notifications and whether, the service tax can be recovered and demanded from the appellant in the event it is not entitled to the exemption?

(b) Whether the appellant fulfilled its duty for amending the changed address in the Registration Certificate as per the provisions of Act and if not so, whether penalty is leviable?

(c) Whether the extended time period can be invoked?

(d) If yes, whether the appellant is liable for payment of interest & penalty under the provisions of Act/Rules, as alleged in the show cause notice?”

Bare perusal of the Notification in issue dated 23-05-2007 indicated that the following conditions have to be satisfied:

  1. Services must have been rendered to a diplomatic mission or consular post in India;
  2. The Protocol Division of the Ministry of External Affairs11 must issue a certificate to the specified diplomatic mission or consular post in India stating that it is entitled to claim exemption from payment of service tax;

iii. The diplomatic mission or consular office must provide the taxable service provider an authenticated copy of such certificate along with an original undertaking (signed and serially numbered) stating that the services have been received for official purpose; and

  1. The invoice raised by the service provider must carry the date and serial number of the undertaking.

In the present case the first condition was fulfilled second condition states that the Protocol Division must issue a certificate to the diplomatic/consular post in India. In this regard, the US Embassy was issued certificates from the Protocol Division and this has not been disputed by the Department and third condition relates to providing certificates and original undertakings by the diplomatic mission/ consular post in India to the service provider. Fourth condition to the Exemption Notification mentions that the invoices issued by the service provider must carry the serial number and date of the undertaking. The purpose of this condition is to ensure proper correlation between the services rendered and the exemption claimed by the service provider. The show cause notice has alleged that the invoices did not carry the serial number of the undertakings. The exemption was sought to be denied on this ground and the impugned order has also confirmed such denial.

Counsel for the appellant submitted that from the entire chain of the aforesaid documents there was no room to doubt that the services were rendered by the appellant to the US Embassy and such services were exempted by virtue of the undertaking and certificate provided by the US Embassy to the appellant.

The Tribunal explained that Notifications was issued by the Central Government of India in the public interest to exempt taxable services provided to a foreign diplomatic mission or consular post in India. As is evident from clause (i) of both the Notifications, the underlying purpose is to uphold the principle of reciprocity amongst the nations. It is only to ensure that there is no evasion of tax and that services have been rendered specifically to those diplomatic missions/ consular officers to whom a certificate has been issued by the Protocol Officer that the Notifications require a correlation to be established between the invoices and the undertakings. Once these two documents can be correlated, though not in a manner provided for, the substantive conditions to the Exemption Notifications stand fulfilled and the exemption cannot be denied and considered the judgments in Lakshmiratan Engineering Works Ltd. v. Assistant Commr. (Judicial) l Sales Tax, 1967 (9) TMI 116, J.K. Manufacturers Ltd. v. Sales Tax Officer, 1969 (5) TMI 54 and Chunni Lal Parshadi Lal v. Commr. of Sales Tax, 1986 (3) TMI 297.

The Tribunal further made it clear that even when an assessee has suppressed facts, the extended period of limitation can be invoked only when “suppression‟ or “collusion” is wilful with an intent to evade payment of duty. The invocation of the extended period of limitation, therefore, cannot be sustained.

The appeal was allowed by the Tribunal.[SOTC Travels Services (P) Ltd. v. Principal Commr. Of CE, 2021 SCC OnLine CESTAT 2574, decided on 20-09-2021]


Suchita Shukla, Editorial Assistant has reported this brief.

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Competition Commission of India (CCI): Coram of Ashok Kumar Gupta (Chairperson) and Sangeeta Verma and Bhagwant Singh Bishnoi, Members found no cartelization in respect to the skyrocketing prices by the airlines during the Jat Agitation.

Informant had alleged that Jet Airways, Spice Jet and Indigo had contravened the provisions of Section 3 of the Competition Act.

Informant’s Submissions

During the month of February 2016 when Jat Agitation was going on, domestic airlines had skyrocketed their rates particularly between the Delhi-Chandigarh and Delhi-Amritsar routes.

From the above instance, it was noted that the aviation industry had been exploiting the passengers during such conditions as the same was observed during the Chennai Floods and Nepal Earthquake.

Preliminary Conference

Commission on noting the allegations and submission by the Informant held a preliminary conference and made a reference to the Director-General of Civil Aviation in terms of Section 21 A of the Act, later the Commission sought certain information from 5 airlines.

What did the Commission note?

Commission noted that with the use of algorithms, there exists a high possibility of collusion with or without the need of human intervention or coordination between competitors.

Therefore, Commission opined that there was a need for investigation of the algorithms used by airlines, so as to determine whether the fares set by the airlines during the alleged period were an outcome of collusion or not?

 Hence, on 9-11-2018 an order was passed to cause an investigation to be made.

 DG in its investigation report concluded that no contravention of Section 3(3) read with Section 3(1) of the Act was found against the conduct of Spice Jet, Air India, Go Air and Indigo during the period of ‘Jat’ Agitation, but in regard to Jet Airways, DG excluded the same from its purview of investigation since the airline was grounded in April 2019 and due to grounding of Jet Airways and un-availability of any employee/personnel, the Resolution Professional could not provide any price data, booking dates, capacity of flight, number of passengers flown and the number of price buckets used by Jet Airways during the period of ‘Jat’ Agitation.

After the objections and suggestions were filed, parties were directed to appear for a final hearing on the investigation report on 23-02-2021.

On the fixed date of hearing, Commission noted that neither the informant nor its counsel appeared before the Commission.

Further, Commission considered the matter in its ordinary meeting and decided to pass an appropriate order.

What did the investigation try to ascertain?

It was ascertained whether the increase in air-ticket prices during the period of Jat Agitation was the result of an agreement between the OPs?

Whether the price data suggested any uniformity in prices indicative of price parallelism?

DG found no contravention of Section 3(3) read with Section 3(1) of the Act against the conduct of Spice Jet, Air India, Go Air and Indigo during the period of Jat Agitation.

Analysis and Decision

Commission noted that the existence of an ‘agreement’ is sine qua non before ascertaining whether the same is anti-competitive or not in terms of the scheme of Section 3 of the Act.

Definition of ‘agreement’ as given in Section 2(b) of the Act requires inter alia any arrangement or understanding or action in concert whether or not formal or in writing or intended to be enforceable by legal proceedings.

The establishment of ‘agreement’ would require some explicit or tacit arrangement amongst the parties wherefrom a concert between them can be deciphered. This may include, amongst others, exchange of information in the form of communications/ e-mails or in any other form of communication amongst the competitors, whether – explicit or tacit, oral or in writing, formal or informal including through parallel conduct which cannot be otherwise explained etc.

 In the instant matter, no such emails were found which could show any exchange of information among the airlines establishing any form of collusion during or after the period of Jat Agitation.

The investigation did not reveal any price parallelism or identical pricing of tickets by the airlines.

Further, elaborating more, Commission noted that widespread usage of algorithms in price determination by individual firms could pose possible anti-competitive effects by making it easier for firms to achieve and sustain collusion without any formal agreement or human interaction.

Based on DG’s investigation, Commission noted that airlines were using different software’s for the pricing of tickets in different fare bucket.

No evidence on record was found to establish a cartel amongst the airlines during the period of Jat Agitation.

Hence, no case of contravention of the provisions of Section 3(1) of the Competition Act was made out against the airlines. [Shikha Roy v. Jet Airways (India) Ltd., 2021 SCC OnLine CCI 31, decided on 3-06-2021]


Advocates before the Court:

For SpiceJet Limited: Mr. Abhishek Sharma, Advocate along with Mr. Shashi Shekhar, Executive (Legal) of OP-2

For InterGlobe Aviation Limited: Mr. Raj Shekhar Rao, Senior Advocate with Mr. Sagardeep Rathi, Mr. Pranjal Prateek and Mr. Ebaad Nawaaj Khan, Advocates

For Go Airlines (India) Limited: Mr. Vihang Virkar and Mr. Karun Jhangiani, Advocates along with Mr. Prashant Shinde, Senior General Manager (Legal) of OP-4

For Air India Limited: Mr. Pratik Majumdar, DGM of OP-5

National Consumer Disputes Redressal Commission
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National Consumer Disputes Redressal Commission (NCDRC): C. Viswanath (Presiding Member) expressed that:

Law is settled that illegal and forceful means cannot be adopted by Banks to seize any property.

The present revision petition was filed by the petitioners against the order dated 31-10-2011 of the West Bengal State Consumer Disputes Redressal Commission wherein the appeal filed by the petitioners was dismissed.

Complainant had purchased a ten-wheeler truck financed by OP 1 and accordingly OP 1 through OP 2. Further, the complainant entered into an agreement with OP 1and accordingly both OP 1and 2 sanctioned a loan of Rs 9,15,000.  The Complainant was supposed to repay a sum of Rs 11,57,700 in 47 instalments.

Thereafter, when it came to the notice of the Complainant that the Registration Certificate bore the name of Opposite Party 3 as a joint registered owner, on enquiry, Opposite Party 3 informed him that he had incurred an expenditure of Rs 45,000 from his own pocket in order to get the loan sanctioned in favour of the Complainant and as and when the Complainant would repay the same, he would take necessary steps to remove his name from the Registration Certificate.

Later, although the Complainant paid Rs 45,000 to Opposite Party 3 in two instalments, Opposite Party 3 took no steps to delete his name from the Registration Certificate. Further, Opposite Party 3 detained the vehicle by force and removed its tyres to render it defunct. According to the Complainant, Opposite Parties, in collusion with each other, seized the vehicle.

Decision

Bench stated that it is not understood as to why respondent 2/OP 3 took possession of the vehicle and removed its tyres and later on said to have voluntarily handed over the possession of the vehicle to the petitioners.

The Petitioners could not place any evidence as to any notice having been given to the Complainant for seizure of the vehicle nor any notice of auction of the vehicle.

Commission expressed that District Forum rightly held “we do not see any reason to accept the contention of Opposite Party 2 that they did not take possession of the vehicle in question by force.”

State Commission observed that the vehicle was auctioned without issuing any prior notice to the Complainant.

Law is settled that illegal and forceful means cannot be adopted by Banks to seize any property. Due notice had to be given for seizure of the vehicle and following the established procedure the vehicle could be seized and later auctioned.

 While concluding the bench decided that the petitioners in collusion with respondent 2/OP 3 adopted illegal and unfair means in seizure of the vehicle which amounted to unfair trade practice.

Jurisdiction of this Commission under Section 21 (b) is very limited. This Commission is not required to re-appreciate and reassess the evidences and reach its own conclusion. The Court can intervene only when the petitioner succeeds in showing that the Fora below has wrongly exercised its jurisdiction or there is a miscarriage of justice.

 Referring to the decision of Supreme Court in Rubi (Chandra) Dutta v. United India Insurance Co. Ltd. (2011) 11 SCC 269 and Lourdes Society Snehanjali Girls Hostel v. H&R Johnson (India) Ltd., (2016) 8 SCC 286, Commission did not find any infirmity or illegality in the impugned order. [Manager, IndusInd Bank Ltd. v. Abani Kanta Das,  2021 SCC OnLine NCDRC 14, decided on 11-01-2021]


Advocates for the parties:

For the Petitioner: Rana Ranjit, Advocate
For the Respondent 1: Somraj Gangopadhyay, Advocate

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Customs, Excise and Services Tax Appellate Tribunal (CESTAT): A Division Bench of Anil Choudhary (Judicial Member) and C.L. Mahar (Technical Member), allowed an appeal filed by the appellant who was an employee, “H‟ Cardholder working with Customs House Agent — Commercial Clearing Agencies Pvt. Limited, at the relevant time. In the impugned order against the importer, it was held that they have mis-declared in the Bill of Entry and prohibited goods were ordered to be confiscated absolutely and other goods allowed to be redeemed on payment of fine, along with demand of custom duty and penalty.

On specific information that Brij Enterprises were indulging into the smuggling of goods by misdeclaration of description, nature and quantity of the goods. The customs officer detained one container which was imported from Singapore. As per the bill of entry filed through CHA – M/s Commercial Clearing Agencies Pvt. Limited, the declared goods were 144 air conditioners as per the bill of entry. However, on inspection, it was found to contain 65 air conditioners, 940 cylinders of “Refrigerant 22” gas (prohibited goods) and 315 Sony Play Stations. Counsel for the appellant, Ms Reena Rawat urged that no case of collusion or aiding and abetting is made out against the appellant – employee of the CHA company. At best, the appellant has been working as an employee and no case is made out against him, for making any personal gain over and above his salary. Further, the non-joining of the investigation by the Director of the CHA company speaks that the CHA company is responsible and not this appellant.

The Tribunal while allowing the appeal set aside the penalty imposed under Section 112 (a) of the Customs Act and stated that no case of aiding and abetting is made out against this appellant. Appellant as an employee of the CHA company was working as per the instructions given to him by his senior. There is no case made out of any abnormal gain by the appellant to indicate any collusion or abetment on his part with the importer of the consignment under dispute Shri Goyal and/or Shri Brijesh Mishra. [Rajesh Gaba v. Commr. of Customs, 2020 SCC OnLine CESTAT 164, decided on 10-09-2020]


Suchita Shukla, Editorial Assistant has put this story together

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Competition Commission of India: A four-member bench comprising of Devender Kumar Sikri, Chairperson and Sudhir Mital, Augustine Peter and U.C. Nahata, Members, ordered the matter filed under Section 19(1)(a) of Competition Act 2002, to be closed forthwith holding that no case of contravention of provisions of the Act was made out against the makers of the movies ‘Padmavat’ and ‘Padman’ (opposite parties).

The informants alleged that the opposite parties (OPs) had violated Section 3(3) of the Act. The informants were primarily aggrieved by the fact that the OPs, makers of the above named two movies, colluded to share the market by scheduling different dates/time frames for releasing their respective movies, resulting in controlling the supply of movies in the market. It was informed to the Commission that in a joint press conference, makers of the movie ‘Padman’ announced the postponing of the release date of their movie on request of makers of the movie ‘Padmavat’. As per the informants, sharing and allocation of time frame for movie release was a collusion between filmmakers that fell within the ambit of Section 3(3)(c) of the Act, and thus impermissible.

After perusing the information and noting the facts, the Commission observed that releasing of a movie is a strategic and tactical business decision taken by the producers. In the instant matter, the release of ‘Padmavat’ was delayed due to severe protests by a certain section of the society, and not by collusion with any other party. Moreover, the decision of not releasing both the movies at the same date was taken due to non-availability of a sufficient number of screens, which would have caused loss to producers of both the movies. The CCI held that such decision, being a result of market outcome, was a legitimate business decision rather than an anti-competitive practice. In absence of any evidence regarding a concerted action by the OPs, the CCI held that the anti- competitive conduct alleged against them was not established. The matter was accordingly directed to be closed forthwith. [Kshitiz Arya v.  Viacom 18 Media (P) Ltd.,2018 SCC OnLine CCI 41, dated 01.06.2018]

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Competition Commission of India (CCI): The CCI has passed final order in two cases involving bid rigging/collusion in three tenders floated by Pune Municipal Corporation for Design, Supply, Installation, Commissioning, Operation and Maintenance of Municipal Organic and Inorganic Solid Waste Processing Plant(s). These cases were taken up by CCI suo motu under Section 19 of the Act based on the disclosure by firms under Section 46 of the Competition Act, 2002 (‘the Act’) read with the Competition Commission of India (Lesser Penalty) Regulations, 2009 (‘Lesser Penalty Regulations’). All firms in these cases had approached CCI as lesser penalty applicants.

While in one case, the tenders pertained to Financial Year 2013-14, in other case the tender pertained to Financial Year 2014-15. From the evidence gathered during investigation, CCI found that there was bid rigging/collusive bidding in the Tender Nos. 21 and 29 of 2013 and Tender No. 59 of 2014 floated by Pune Municipal Corporation for Solid Waste Processing Plant(s), in contravention of Section 3(3)(d) read with Section 3(1) of the Act by way of submitting proxy/ cover bids.

In case involving tender floated in Financial Year 2013-14 penalty was imposed on four firms in terms of Section 27(b) of the Act at the rate of 10 percent of their average turnover for the years 2011-12, 2012-13 and 2013-14 i.e. three years preceding the year in which collusion took place. An amount of INR 46.45 Lakhs was imposed on Saara Traders Pvt. Ltd. (Saara), INR 33 Lakhs on Ecoman Enviro Solutions Pvt. Ltd. (‘Ecoman’), INR 11 Lakhs on Fortified Security Solutions (‘Fortified’) and INR 26.40 Lakhs on Raghunath Industry Pvt. Ltd. (‘Raghunath’). The penalty was also imposed on individual officials of three firms, namely, Saara, Ecoman and Raghunath at the rate of 10 percent of their average income for the same three years. No penalty was imposed on individual of Fortified as it is a proprietorship firm. Further, in view of penalty already levied in Case No. 50 of 2015 for infringement during the period 2014-15, no penalty was levied in case involving tender floated in financial year 2014-15.

Keeping in view the modus operandi of the cartel, the stage at which the lesser penalty application was filed, the evidences gathered by the DG independent of lesser penalty application and co-operation extended in conjunction with the value addition provided in establishing the existence of cartel, CCI granted 50 percent reduction in penalty to Saara and its individuals than otherwise leviable. Pursuant to reduction, penalty imposed on Saara was INR 23.22 Lakh and INR 74,513 on its individual. [In re, Cartelization in Tender Nos. 21 and 28 of 2013 of Pune Municipal Corporation for Solid Waste Processing, Suo Motu Cases Nos. 03 and 04 of 2016, decided on 31.5.2018]