Case BriefsSupreme Court

   

Supreme Court: In an appeal against a judgment passed by the Calcutta High Court dismissing the Criminal Revision Application filed by the appellants for quashing the proceedings under Sections 138 and 141 of the Negotiable Instruments (NI) Act,1881, the division bench of Indira Banerjee* and J.K. Maheshwari has held that the requirement of Section 141 of the NI Act is that the person sought to be made liable should be in charge of and responsible for the conduct of the business of the company and specific averments must be made in the pleadings to substantiate the contention in the complaint, that such Director was in charge of and responsible for conduct of the business of the Company. Thus, the Court set aside the High Court's Judgment and quashed the Criminal Case against the appellants i.e., independent non-executive Directors of the accused company, under Sections 138 and 141 of the NI Act.

In this case the accused company placed orders on the respondent (PSQ) on different dates for purchase of Stone Dust and Stone Aggregate, specifying the materials required to be supplied, along with the rates and quantity. Further, pursuant to the aforesaid purchase orders, PSQ supplied materials to the accused Company, and raised bills totaling Rs.2,31,60,674/- on the accused company. In discharge of its liability against the bills the accused company had issued an account payee cheque dated 15.03.2017 for a sum of Rs.1,71,08, 512/-.Alleging that the accused company had not paid the amount of the dishonoured cheque to PSQ within the time stipulated, PSQ filed the aforesaid complaint under Section 138 read with Section 141 of the NI Act. Thereafter, the appellants filed petitions under Sections 205 and 305 of the CrPC, however, the Court in their absence rejected the said petitions.

Further, the appellants filed a Criminal Revision Application in the High Court under Section 482 of the Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC) for quashing the said proceedings, claiming that they are independent non-executive Directors of the accused company, who are in no way responsible for the day-to-day affairs of the company. However, the High Court rejected the said application.

The Court noted that the appellants have submitted that Section 205 of the CrPC confers discretion on the Court to exempt personal appearance of an accused, till such time as his appearance may be considered necessary, and Section 305 of the Cr.P.C. provides how a body corporate, made accused in a criminal case, can be represented; and how the Magistrate overlooked the fact that the accused company was being represented by an authorized officer. It further submitted that Section 141 of the NI Act must be strictly construed, as it is a penal provision creating vicarious liability.

The Court took note of the ruling in K.K. Ahuja v. V.K. Vora, (2009) 10 SCC 48 , wherein the Court discussed the principles of the vicarious liability of the officers of a company in respect of dishonour of a cheque and held that “if the accused is the Managing Director or a Joint Managing Director, it is not necessary to make an averment in the complaint that he is in charge of, and is responsible to the company, for the conduct of the business of the company”. Further, the director of the company who signed the cheque renders himself liable in case of dishonour and other officers of a company can be made liable only under sub-section (2) of Section 141 of the NI Act by averring in the complaint, their position and duties in the company, and their role regarding the issue and dishonour of the cheque, disclosing consent, connivance or negligence.

Further, it also took note of the ruling in Pooja Ravinder Devidasani v. State of Maharashtra, (2014) 16 SCC 1, wherein the Court held that “Section 141 is a penal provision creating vicarious liability and must be strictly construed. Thus, it is not sufficient to make a bald cursory statement in a complaint that the director is in charge of and responsible for the conduct of the business of the company, but the complaint should spell out as to how and in what manner the respondent was in charge of or was responsible to the accused company for the conduct of its business. This is in consonance with strict interpretation of penal statutes, especially, where such statutes create vicarious liability”

The Court further noted that the National Company Law Tribunal (NCLT) admitted the application of a Financial Creditor of the accused company for appointment of an Interim Resolution Professional (IRP) to administer the accused company, as a result of which the appellants were suspended by operation of law. Thus, when statutory notice of dishonour was sent to the appellants, the management of the accused company had been taken over by the IRP.

The Court observed that it is true that inherent jurisdiction under Section 482 should be exercised sparingly, carefully and with caution and only when such exercise is justified by the tests specially laid down in Section and when the interest of justice so requires. It was also observed that the High Court rightly held that when a complaint was filed against the Director of a company, a specific averment that such person was in charge of and responsible for the conduct of business of the company was an essential requirement of Section 141 of the NI Act and merely being a Director of the company is not sufficient to make the person liable under the said Section.

Further, it was observed that the High Court rightly held that the Managing Director or Joint Managing Director would admittedly be in charge of the company and responsible to the company for the conduct of its business by virtue of the office they hold, also a signatory of a cheque is clearly liable under Sections 138, 141 of the NI Act, however, the High Court failed to note that none of these appellants were Managing Director or Joint Managing Director of the accused company nor were they signatories of the cheque which was dishonoured.

Moreover, the Court viewed that the High Court was right in holding that neither a hyper technical approach should be adopted, to quash complaint, nor it must be read with a pedantically hyper technical approach to deny relief under Section 482 of the CrPC to those impleaded as accused, who do not have any criminal liability in respect of the offence alleged in the complaint. Further, it was viewed that there can be no doubt that in deciding a Criminal Revision Application under Section 482 of the CrPC for quashing a proceeding under Sections 138, 141 of the NI Act, the laudable object of preventing bouncing of cheques and sustaining the credibility of commercial transactions resulting in enactment of the said Sections must be borne in mind. Further, the said provisions of the NI Act create a statutory presumption of dishonesty on the part of the signatory of the cheque, and when the cheque is issued on behalf of a company, also those persons in charge of or responsible for the company or the business of the company and every person connected with the company does not fall within the ambit of Section 141 of the NI Act.

Placing reliance on S.M.S. Pharmaceuticals Ltd. v. Neeta Bhalla, (2005) 8 SCC 89 , the Court observed that a director of a company who was not in charge or responsible for the conduct of the business of the company at the relevant time, will not be liable under those provisions and the liability depends on the role one plays in the affairs of a company and not on designation or status alone. It also took note of the decision in Pooja Ravinder Devidasani (Supra) and observed that when a complaint is filed against a director of the company, who is not the signatory of the dishonoured cheque, specific averments must be made in the pleadings to substantiate the contention in the complaint, that such Director was in charge of and responsible for conduct of the business of the Company, unless such director is the designated Managing Director or Joint Managing Director who would obviously be responsible for the company and its business.

The Court viewed that the High Court was correct in observing that three categories of persons were covered by Section 141 of the NI Act — the company who committed the offence as alleged; everyone who was in-charge of or was responsible for the business of the company and any other person who was a Director or a Manager or a Secretary or Officer of the Company with whose connivance or due to whose neglect the company had committed the offence.

However, while the High Court deprecated the adoption of a hyper technical approach in construing pleadings and to quash criminal proceeding, it adopted a hyper technical approach in rejecting the application under Section 482 of the CrPC, on a cursory reading of the formalistic pleadings in the complaint, endorsing the contents of Section 141 of the NI Act, without any particulars and it overlooked the contention of these appellants that they were non-Executive Independent Directors of the accused company, based on unimpeachable materials on record.

The Court referred to the decision in the National Small Industries Corpn. Ltd. v. Harmeet Singh Paintal, (2010) 3 SCC 330 , and Pooja Ravinder Devidasani (Supra) wherein the Court held that the impleadment of all Directors of an accused company based on a statement that they are in charge of and responsible for the conduct of the business of the company, without anything more, does not fulfil the requirements of Section 141 of the NI Act. Further, it placed reliance on the ruling in Pepsi Foods Ltd. v. Special Judicial Magistrate, (1998) 5 SCC 749 and observed that there could be no justification for not dispensing with the personal appearance of the appellants, when the Company had entered appearance through an authorized officer. Thus, the Court set aside the High Court's Judgment and quashed the Criminal Case.

[Sunita Palita v. Panchami Stone Quarry, 2022 SCC OnLine SC 945 , decided on 1.09.2022]

Judgment by: *Justice Indira Banerjee

Case BriefsSupreme Court

Supreme Court: Explaining the law on vicarious liability under the Negotiable Instruments Act, 1881, the bench of Ajay Rastogi and Sanjiv Khanna*, JJ has held that while Section 141 of the NI Act extends vicarious criminal liability to officers associated with the company or firm when one of the twin requirements of Section 141 has been satisfied, which person(s) then, by deeming fiction, is made vicariously liable and punished, such vicarious liability arises only when the company or firm commits the offence as the primary offender.

The Court explained that the provisions of Section 141 NI Act impose vicarious liability by deeming fiction which presupposes and requires the commission of the offence by the company or firm. Therefore, unless the company or firm has committed the offence as a principal accused, the persons mentioned in sub-section (1) or (2) would not be liable and convicted as vicariously liable.

Sub-section (2) to Section 141 of the NI Act does not state that the persons enumerated, which can include an officer of the company, can be prosecuted and punished merely because of their status or position as a director, manager, secretary or any other officer, unless the offence in question was committed with their consent or connivance or is attributable to any neglect on their part. The onus under sub-section (2) to Section 141 of the NI Act is on the prosecution and not on the person being prosecuted.

It was further observed that the Partnership Act, 1932 creates civil liability. Further, the guarantor’s liability under the Contract Act, 1872 is a civil liability. The Partner may have civil liability and may also be liable under the Recovery of Debts Due to Banks and Financial Institutions Act, 1993 and the Securitisation and Reconstruction of Financial Assets and Enforcement of Security Interest Act, 2002. However, vicarious liability in the criminal law in terms of Section 141 of the NI Act cannot be fastened because of the civil liability.

“Vicarious liability under sub-section (1) to Section 141 of the NI Act can be pinned when the person is in overall control of the day-to-day business of the company or firm. Vicarious liability under sub-section (2) to Section 141 of the NI Act can arise because of the director, manager, secretary, or other officer’s personal conduct, functional or transactional role, notwithstanding that the person was not in overall control of the day-to-day business of the company when the offence was committed. Vicarious liability under sub-section (2) is attracted when the offence is committed with the consent, connivance, or is attributable to the neglect on the part of a director, manager, secretary, or other officer of the company.”

In the case at hand, even the Bank of Baroda had admitted that the appellant had not issued any of the three cheques, which had been dishonoured, in his personal capacity or otherwise as a partner. Hence, in the absence of any evidence led by the prosecution to show and establish that the appellant was in charge of and responsible for the conduct of the affairs of the firm, the conviction of the appellant had to be set aside.

“The appellant cannot be convicted merely because he was a partner of the firm which had taken the loan or that he stood as a guarantor for such a loan.”

[Dilip Hariramani v. Bank of Baroda, 2022 SCC OnLine SC 579, decided on 09.05.2022]


*Judgment by: Justice Sanjiv Khanna

Case BriefsHigh Courts

Delhi High Court: Asha Menon, J., held that if no offence is attributed to the company, its Directors and other persons responsible for the conduct of its business cannot be saddled with any liability.

The petitioner had filed a complaint under Section 138 of the Negotiable Instruments Act, 1881 against the respondent. It was stated that, the commercial space owned by the petitioner had been let out upon terms and conditions in the Rent Agreement.

The above-said rent agreement was executed between the petitioner and the respondent’s company. Further, in March-April, 2013 the respondent was alleged to have issued five cheques duly signed by the Managing Director to discharge the company’s liability to pay the rent.

The above-said cheques were bounced; hence the complaint was filed.

Analysis and Decision

High Court observed that the Company upon which the primary liability rests and a person who is sought to be made vicariously liable for an offence of which the principal accused is a company, would need to have a role to play in relation to the incriminating act.

Section 141 of the N.I. Act operates only when the offence under Section 138 of the N.I. Act is committed by a company.

Further, Court stated that the Company being the primary accused must be found to have committed an offence. Thereafter, through the legal fiction created by Section 141 of the N.I. Act, the Directors and other persons responsible for the conduct of its business also become vicarious liable.

In the present matter, all the averments were against the respondent, who was described as Managing Director.

There was no pleading which suggested that the Company had committed any offence.

When no offence is attributable to the Company, it is not possible to attach liability on the Managing Director by the deeming provisions of Section 141 of the N.I. Act.

Bench added that, amendments of simple technical infirmities alone can be allowed but not the filing of a fresh complaint with improved pleadings in the garb of the amendment.

Hence, in view of the above discussion, Court denied grant permission to amend the complaint.

Therefore, the petition was dismissed. [Hari Shamsher Kaushik v. Jasbir Singh, 2022 SCC OnLine Del 1379, decided on 9-5-2022]


Advocates before the Court:

For the Petitioner: Mahesh K. Mehta, Advocate

For the Respondent: None

Case BriefsSupreme Court

Supreme Court: Explaining the law relating to vicarious liability of the Directors of a company under Sections 138 and 141 of the Negotiable Instruments Act, 1881, the bench of Ajay Rastogi* and Abhay S. Oka, JJ has held that if, at the time the offence was committed, the person accused was in charge of, and responsible for the conduct of business of the company and and if statutory compliance of Section 141 of the NI Act has been made, the High Court cannot quash the proceedings against the person accused under Section 482 CrPC.

It can, however, do so, if

“… it comes across some unimpeachable, incontrovertible evidence which is beyond suspicion or doubt or totally acceptable circumstances which may clearly indicate that the Director could not have been concerned with the issuance of cheques and asking him to stand the trial would be abuse of process of Court. Despite the presence of basic averment, it may come to a conclusion that no case is made out against the particular Director for which there could be various reasons.”

In S.M.S. Pharmaceuticals Ltd. v. Neeta Bhalla, (2005) 8 SCC 89, while dealing with an offence under Section 138 of the NI Act, the Court explained the duty of a Magistrate while issuing process and his power to dismiss a complaint under Section 203 without even issuing process. It held,

“5. … a complaint must contain material to enable the Magistrate to make up his mind for issuing process. If this were not the requirement, consequences could be far-reaching. If a Magistrate had to issue process in every case, the burden of work before the Magistrate as well as the harassment caused to the respondents to whom process is issued would be tremendous. Even Section 204 of the Code starts with the words ‘if in the opinion of the Magistrate taking cognizance of an offence there is sufficient ground for proceeding’. The words ‘sufficient ground for proceeding’ again suggest that ground should be made out in the complaint for proceeding against the respondent. It is settled law that at the time of issuing of the process the Magistrate is required to see only the allegations in the complaint and where allegations in the complaint or the charge-sheet do not constitute an offence against a person, the complaint is liable to be dismissed.”

The same judgment then went on to explain the requirements under Section 141 of the NI Act:

(a) It is necessary to specifically aver in a complaint under Section 141 that at the time the offence was committed, the person accused was in charge of, and responsible for the conduct of business of the company. Without this averment being made in a complaint, the requirements of Section 141 cannot be said to be satisfied.

(b) Merely being a director of a company is not sufficient to make the person liable under Section 141 of the Act. A director in a company cannot be deemed to be in charge of and responsible to the company for the conduct of its business. The requirement of Section 141 is that the person sought to be made liable should be in charge of and responsible for the conduct of the business of the company at the relevant time. This has to be averred as a fact as there is no deemed liability of a director in such cases.

(c) The managing director or joint managing director would be admittedly in charge of the company and responsible to the company for the conduct of its business. When that is so, holders of such positions in a company become liable under Section 141 of the Act. By virtue of the office they hold as managing director or joint managing director, these persons are in charge of and responsible for the conduct of business of the company. Therefore, they get covered under Section 141. So far as the signatory of a cheque which is dishonoured is concerned, he is clearly responsible for the incriminating act and will be covered under subsection (2) of Section 141.

In the case at hand, the Court was concerned with Directors who were not signatories to the cheques. So far as Directors who are not the signatories to the cheques or who are not Managing Directors or Joint Managing Directors are concerned, it is necessary to aver in the complaint filed under Section 138 read with Section 141 of the NI Act that at the relevant time when the offence was committed, the Directors were in charge of and were responsible for the conduct of the business of the company. This averment assumes importance because it is the basic and essential averment which persuades the Magistrate to issue process against the Director.

In the present case, the Court noticed that the allegations in the complaint are that at the time at which the cheques were issued by the Company and dishonoured by the Bank, the appellants were the Directors of the Company and were responsible for its business and all the appellants were involved in the business of the Company and were responsible for all the affairs of the Company.

“It may not be proper to split while reading the complaint so as to come to a conclusion that the allegations as a whole are not sufficient to fulfil the requirement of Section 141 of the NI Act.”

Since the complaint specifically refers to the point of time when the cheques were issued, their presentment, dishonour and failure to pay in spite of notice of dishonour, the High Court was right in not exercising its power under Section 482 of CrPC.

[Ashutosh Ashok Parasrampuriya v. Gharrkul Industries Pvt. Ltd., 2021 SCC OnLine SC 915, decided on 08.10.2021]


Counsels

For appellants: Senior Advocate Sidhartha Dave, Advocate Arundhati Katju

For respondents: Senior Advocate Pallav Shishodia


*Judgment by: Justice Ajay Rastogi

Know Thy Judge | Justice Ajay Rastogi

Case BriefsHigh Courts

Allahabad High Court: Ravi Nath Tilhari, J., addressed a matter wherein a person being the director of the company signed a cheque on behalf of the company and since the said cheque got dishonoured, he was made liable, without the company being made liable under the offence of Section 138 of Negotiable Instruments Act, 1881.

The instant petition was filed under Section 482 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973 for quashing of summoning order passed by Additional Chief Judicial Magistrate under Section 138 of the Negotiable Instruments Act.

Facts as stated by the applicant

Applicant has been stated to be the Director of a Company and complainant/OP 2, an employee in the railways, by giving assurance of contract of road construction from his superior officers in favour of applicant’s company obtained post-dated cheque of 5 lakh rupees in terms of security money.

Complainant had assured the applicant that once he starts earning profits from the said contract work he would return the post-dated cheques.

However, applicant without any prior notice to the company, complainant presented the cheque in the bank which was dishonoured due to non-availability of funds. One of the legal notice, though was not received by the applicant, but the second notice was served.

Points that arose for consideration:

High Court formulated the following points of consideration:

  • Whether criminal prosecution against the person in charge of, and responsible for conduct of the business of the company under Section 138 NI Act, can be maintained, in the absence of any prosecution of the Company for such offence and without making the company an accused, in view of Section 141 of the NI Act?
  • Whether the cheque in question was issued by the applicant in his personal capacity or in the capacity of director of the company?
  • Whether the orders under challenge and the criminal proceedings against the applicant deserve to be quashed in the exercise of jurisdiction under Section 482 CrPC?

Analysis of the above points:

In order to consider the first point, Court referred to Sections 138 and 141 of the Negotiable Instruments Act, 1881.

On perusal of the said provisions, the essential ingredients of offence under Section 138 NI Act as laid down by the Bench were:

  • The person drew a cheque on an account maintained by him with the banker
  • When such a cheque is presented to the bank is returned by the bank unpaid
  • such cheque was presented to the bank within a period of six months from the date it was drawn or within the period of its validity, whichever is earlier;
  • the payee demanded in writing from the drawer of the cheque the payment of the amount of money due under the cheque to the payee
  • Such a notice of payment is made within a period of 30 days from the date of the receipt of the information by the payee from the bank regarding return of the cheque, as unpaid and
  • Inspite of the demand notice the drawer of the cheque failed to make the payment within a period of 15 days from the date of receipt of the demand notice

For the offence to be constituted under Section 138 NI Act, all the above ingredients need to co-exist.

Supreme Court decision in Aneeta Hada v. Godfather Travels and Tours (P) Ltd., (2012) 5 SCC 661, held that Section 141 of NI Act is concerned with the offences by the company. It makes the other persons, vicariously liable for commission of an offence on the part of the company.

The vicarious liability gets attracted when the condition precedent laid down in Section 141 NI Act stands satisfied. There can be no vicarious liability unless there is a prosecution against the company. For maintaining a prosecution under Section 141 NI Act, arraying of the company as an accused is imperative.

 In Supreme Court’s decision of Standard Chartered Bank v. State of Maharashtra, (2016) 6 SCC 62, it was held that there cannot be any vicarious liability unless there was a prosecution against the Company.

In Harihara Krishnan v. J Thomas, (2018) 13 SCC 663, Supreme Court held that Section 141 stipulates the liability for the offence punishable under Section 138 NI Act when the person committing such an offence happens to be a company.

In Aneeta Hada v. Godfather Travels and Tours (P) Ltd., (2012) 5 SCC 661, it was settled that for maintaining a prosecution against the person in charge of and responsible for conduct of the business of the company under Section 138 NI Act, arraigning of the Company as an accused is imperative in view of Section 141 of the Act, as such a person can only be held vicariously liable.

With regard to point 1, hence Court held that such a person, cannot be prosecuted unless there was prosecution of the company.

Second Point

 Whether the cheque in question was issued by the applicant in his personal capacity or in the capacity of the Director of the Company?

The above-stated question can be determined from perusal of the cheque itself. It is one of the essential ingredients to constitute an offence under Section 138 NI Act, that the person drew a cheque on an account maintained with the Banker and the existence of this ingredient is to be proved from the document itself, i.e. the cheque, and for its proof no other evidence is required. Hence, Court could determine if the cheque was issued as authorized signatory or in personal capacity by the applicant by exercising its jurisdiction under Section 482 CrPC.

On perusal of the copy f the cheque it was found that the said was signed by Sanjay Singh, the applicant for Udit Infraheights Private Limited, as its authorized signatory.

Hence the cheque was not issued in the applicant’s personal capacity.

In the absence of the company, as accused, any offence was not made out, even prima facie, against the applicant for his summoning under Section 138 read with Section 141 of the NI Act.

While referring to the Supreme Court decision in Ashoke Bafna v. Upper India Steel Manufacturing and Engineering Company Ltd., (2018) 14 SCC 202, it was held that before summoning an accused under Section 138 NI Act, the Magistrate is expected to examine the nature of the allegations made in the complaint and the evidence, both oral and documentary, in support thereof, and then to proceed further with the proper application of mind to the legal principle of the issue.

Last Point

 With regard to the last point of consideration, Bench referred to the decision of Supreme Court in Rishipal Singh v. State of U.P., (2014) 7 SCC 215, Supreme Court, while considering the scope of Section 482 CrPC held that when a prosecution at the initial stage is asked to be quashed, the test to be applied is as to whether the uncontroverted allegations as made in the complaint prima facie establish the case.

In Pooja Ravinder Devidasani v. State of Maharshtra, (2015) 88 ACC 613, Supreme Court held that the Superior Court should maintain purity in the administration of justice and should not allow the abuse of process of the Court.

Therefore, Court opined that the complaint was not filed against the company, as the company was not made a party accused and no vicarious liability could be imposed upon the accused applicant.

Since, the cheque was not signed by the applicant in his personal capacity, the complaint could not have proceeded against him and no offence could be made out against the applicant.

Petition was allowed and the orders challenged were quashed. [Sanjay Singh v. State of U.P., 2021 SCC OnLine All 120, decided on 10-02-2021]

Case BriefsHigh Courts

Madras High Court: G.K. Ilathiraiyan, J., while addressing the instant matter, observed that, a person who is inducted as the Non-Executive Director of an accused company and not responsible for the day-to-day affairs of the company, he/she cannot be vicariously liable for the offence committed by the company.

Petitioners Counsel submitted that the petitioner was arrayed as Accused 3 on the complaint filed by the respondents for the offences punishable under Section 138 of Negotiable Instruments Act, 1881.

Magistrate took cognizance as against the petitioner when there was absolutely no specific allegation against the petitioner to attract the offences under Section 141 of NI Act and issued summon without application of mind.

Petitioner being merely Director of the company was not liable to be prosecuted for the offences under Section 141 of NI Act.

Further, it was stated that the respondent cannot presume every Director knows about the transaction while fastening criminal liability as against the Director of the Company.

To attract the offences under Section 141 of NI Act as against the petitioner, the complainant should have specifically averred in the complaint that at the time of offence the petitioner was in charge of and responsible for the conduct and the business of the company.

Adding to its contention, it was also stated that if a person who was in charge of the day to day management of the company or by stating that he / she was in charge of affairs of the company cannot be vicariously made liable under Section 141(1) of NI Act.

Counsel for the petitioner Nithyaesh Natraj and Counsel for the respondent R. Prasanna Vineeth Durai.

Dishonour of Cheque

On the Complaint lodged, in total there were 4 accused of the offences punishable under Sections 138 and 141 of NI Act. It was alleged that the accused persons had already availed term loan from the complainant to the tune of Rs 65 lakhs. Accused towards partial discharge of their liability issued eight cheques in favour of the respondent but the same were returned dishonoured on being presented for the reason “account closed”.

Respondent after serving statutory notice under Section 138 of NI Act, initiated proceedings for the offences punishable under Sections 138 and 141 of NI Act against the accused persons.

Respondent made allegation foisting liability on the petitioner in the complaint as follows:

“the second accused being the Managing Director and the third accused being one of the Director who are respectively in charge of the managing all such business activities of the first accused company and also running the day to day affairs naturally aware about their liability”.

Analysis and Decision

Bench stated that Section 141 of the NI Act does not make all the Directors liable for the offence. The person sought to be made liable should be in charge and responsible for the conduct of the business of the company at the relevant time.

Therefore, it was stated that there is no deemed liability of the Director in such case.

Several Supreme Court decisions have held that the complaint has to specifically say as to how and in what manner Director was responsible for the conduct of the business of the company.

Court held that unfortunately, in the impugned complaint, the allegation did not satisfy the requirements of Section 141 of the NI Act.

Further, on perusal of the complaint, Court observed that the petitioner was inducted as the Non-Executive Director of the first accused company, therefore the petitioner was not responsible for the day to day affairs of the company and hence cannot be made liable vicariously for the offence committed by the company.

Therefore, the Court, in order to secure ends of justice, opined to necessarily interfere with the proceedings in exercise of its jurisdiction under Section 482 of CrPC.

Hence, the Criminal Original Petitions were allowed and the proceedings on the file of Metropolitan Magistrate were ordered to be quashed as far as the petitioner was concerned, whereas, for other accused, the trial court has been directed to complete the trial. [Vijaya Arun v. New Link Overseas Finance Ltd., Crl. OP Nos. 5, 8 & 11 of 2020, decided on 18-08-2020]

Case BriefsHigh Courts

Allahabad High Court: While deciding a petition filed under Article 227 of the Constitution of India, Suresh Kumar Gupta, J., dismissed the same and declined to interfere in the judgment delivered by Sessions Court.

The present petition has been filed by the petitioner to set aside the impugned orders dated 31-10-2018 passed by Additional Court No. 3, Agra in Complaint No. 1500 of 2011 (Nepal Singh v. Dhirendra Singh) under Section 138 of Negotiable Instruments Act, 1881(Hereinafter referred as N.I. Act) and the order dated 6-02-2020 passed by Additional Sessions Judge, Agra in Criminal Revision No. 552 of 2018 (Dhirendra v. State of U.P. ) and to quash the summoning order dated 28-3-2012 as well as an entire proceeding of Complaint Case No. 1500 of 2011 pending in the Additional Court No. 3, Agra.

The factual matrix in the instant case is such that the present petitioner borrowed Rs 1,00,000 from respondent 2 and handed over cheques bearing Nos. 850213 & 850214 for repayment of the borrowed amount. However, the cheques were dishonoured by the bank due to insufficient amount in the account subsequent to which respondent 2 served a notice to the petitioner on 18-10-2011. Later, on 08-11-2011, respondent 2 filed a complaint case no. 1500 of 2011 (Nepal Singh v. Dhirendra Singh) under Section 138 of N.I. Act against the petitioner in the trial court. The trial court vide its order dated 28-3-2012 has taken cognizance and summoned the petitioner.

Counsel for the petitioner, Deepak Kumar Kulshrestha has relied on Section 138 of the N.I. Act, submitting that the complainant/respondent is incompetent to lodge the prosecution as the cheques were issued by the firm Rashmi Arosole & Chemicals and the petitioner is the proprietor of this firm but the firm is not arraigned as an accused. He relied on the judgments delivered in the cases of Aneeta Hada v. Godfather Travels & Tours (P) Ltd., (2012) 5 SCC 661 and Devendra Kumar Garg v. State of U.P., 1990 SCC OnLine All 806 and added that until and unless company or firm is arraigned as an accused director or the other officer of the company/firm cannot be prosecuted/punished in the complaint.

Counsel for the respondent, S.B. Maurya attempted to refute these contentions by submitting that the cheques were drawn by the petitioner in his personal capacity and were given by way of security for payment of money. The circumstances do not warrant the arraignment of the aforementioned firm as a party.

The Court perused the cheques closely and concluded that the cheques bear the petitioner’s signature and that there is no dispute with regard to the fact that the petitioner is the sole proprietor of Rashmi Arosole & Chemicals. Also, on perusal of the registration certificate of the firm, it can be established that the petitioner is the sole proprietor of the firm namely Rashmi Arosole & Chemicals.

Upon careful consideration of the facts, circumstances and arguments advances, the Court observed that-

“While a partnership results in the collective identity of a firm coming into existence, a proprietorship is nothing more than a cloak or a trade name acquired by an individual or a person for the purpose of conducting a particular activity. With or without such trade name, it (sole proprietary concern) remains identified to the individual who owns it. It does not bring to life any new or other legal identity or entity. No rights or liabilities arise or are incurred, by any person (whether natural or artificial), except that otherwise attach to the natural person who owns it. Thus it is only a ‘concern’ of the individual who owns it. The trade name remains the shadow of the natural person or a mere projection or an identity that springs from and vanishes with the individual. It has no independent existence or continuity.”

The Court was able to conclude that in a sole proprietary concern, vicarious liability cannot arise because there’s only one person involved. The identity of the sole proprietor and his concern remain one, even if the sole proprietor may adopt a different name for his concern. Hence, there is no defect in the complaint lodged by the respondent. The sole proprietorship firm need not be impleaded for the respondent to realise his claim against the petitioner.

In view of the above, the petition has been dismissed for lack of merit. The Court found no reason to interfere in the orders dated 31-10-2018 passed by Additional Court No. 3, Agra and the order dated 6-2-2020 passed by Additional Sessions Judge against the petitioner. [Dhirendra Singh v. State of U.P., 2020 SCC OnLine All 1130, decided on 13-10-2020]


Yashvardhan Shrivastav, Editorial Assistant has put this story together

Case BriefsSupreme Court

Supreme Court: On the question of liability to be proceeded with for offence under Section 68 of FERA, 1973, the bench of Ashok Bhushan and R. Subhash Reddy, JJ has held that the same depends on the role one plays in the affairs of the company and not on mere designation or status. The Court explained,

“for proceeding against a Director of a company for contravention of provisions of FERA, 1973, the necessary ingredient for proceeding shall be that at the time offence was committed, the Director was in charge of and was responsible to the company for the conduct of the business of the company.”

Drawing correlation between Section 141 of the Negotiable Instruments Act, 1981 and Section 68 of FERA, 1973, the Court explained that Section 141 of NI Act contains the same conditions for a person to be proceeded with and punished for offence as contained in Section 68 of FERA, 1973. While coming to the aforementioned conclusion, the Court noticed that Section 141(1) of NI Act uses the same expression “every person, who, at the time the offence was committed, was in charge of and was responsible to the company for the conduct of the business of the company, as well as the company, shall be deemed to be guilty of the offence”. It, hence, said that Section 68 of FERA, 1973 as well as Section 141 of the Negotiable Instruments Act deals with the offences by the companies in the same manner.

The bench noticed that Section 68 of FERA, 1973 deals with “Offences by companies” and Section 68(1) creates a legal fiction, i.e., “shall be deemed to be guilty”. The legal fiction triggers on fulfilment of conditions as contained in the section. The words “every person who, at the time of the contravention was committed, was in charge of, and was responsible to, the company for the conduct of business” has to be given some meaning and purpose.

“The provision cannot be read to mean that whosoever was a Director of a company at the relevant time when contravention took place, shall be deemed to be guilty of the contravention. Had the legislature intended that all the Directors irrespective of their role and responsibilities shall be deemed to be guilty of contravention, the section could have been worded in different manner. When a person is proceeded with for committing an offence and is to be punished, necessary ingredients of the offence as required by Section 68 should be present.”

The bench agreed with the submission that FERA, 1973 does not contemplate any complaint but the Scheme of the Act indicates that a person, who is to be proceeded with has to be made aware of the necessary allegations, which may constitute an offence on his part. It said that though a person in the commercial world having a transaction with company is entitled to presume that the Directors of the company are in charge of the affairs of the company, the presumption of a person in the commercial world is a rebuttable presumption and when adjudicating authority proceeds to impose a penalty for a contravention of FERA, 1973, essential ingredients constituting an offence under the FERA read with Section 68 has to be communicated to the person proceeded with to enable him to make effective representation in the matter.

It further explained that in FERA, 1973 for imposing a penalty under Section 50, the adjudicating officer is required to hold an enquiry after giving the person a reasonable opportunity for making a representation in the matter. Even though, FERA, 1973 does not contemplate filing of a written complaint but in proceedings as contemplated by Section 51, the person, who has to be proceeded with has to be informed of the contravention for which penalty proceedings are initiated. The expression “after giving that person a reasonable opportunity for making a representation in the matter” as occurring in Section 51 itself contemplate due communication of the allegations of contravention and unless allegations contains complete ingredients of offence within the meaning of Section 68, it cannot be said that a reasonable opportunity for making a representation in the matter has been given to the person, who is to be proceeded with.

[Shailendra Swarup v. Deputy Director, Enforcement Directorate, 2020 SCC OnLine SC 600 , decided on 27.07.2020]


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Case BriefsHigh Courts

Madhya Pradesh High Court: Rajendra Kumar Srivastava, J., while addressing a matter with regard to dishonour of cheque held that, Director/Managing Director/Joint Director/other officers and employees of company can not be prosecuted under Section 138 of NI Act unless the company is impleaded as an accused

Petitioner is aggrieved with the Order passed against him by JMFC framing a charge under Section 138 of Negotiable Instruments Act, 1881.

Complaint was filed by respondent-trade firm against the petitioner wherein it was mentioned that on account of business relations between the parties petitioner had borrowed an amount of Rs 2,00,000 from respondent, which was to be returned by within a period of four months.

In November 2017, petitioner handed over a cheque amounting to Rs 2,00,000 which when the respondent submitted in January, 2018 was dishonoured due to “stop payment” by the petitioner.

On the above-event’s occurrence respondent had sent a legal notice to the petitioner which was ignored by the petitioner and thus a complaint before JMFC was filed.

Petitioners Contention

Respondent had given the amount in question for business purpose and the petitioner had given the said cheque under the capacity of chairman of company namely ‘Well Built Industry India Ltd.’ but the respondent did not implead the company as a party in the complaint case.

The respondent/complainant also failed to specify the role of present petitioner on behalf of the company. Hence, in view of the provision of Section 141 NI Act, the proceedings under Section 138 NI Act are bad in law and deserves to be quashed. With the aforesaid, he prayed to allow this petition.

Section 138 NI Act: Dishonour of cheque for insufficiency, etc. of funds in the account.

Section 141 NI Act: Offences by Companies

“…if an offence is committed by a company under Section 138 of the Act, every person, at the time, the offence was committed, was in-charge and responsible to the company in the conduct of the business of the company, is liable along with the company to be proceeded against and punished accordingly.”

S.M.S Pharmaceuticals Ltd. v. Neeta Bhalla, (2005) 8 SCC 89

“…Necessary averments ought to be contained in a complaint before a person can be subjected to criminal process. A liability under Section 141 NI Act is sought to be fastened vicariously on a person connected with a company, principal accused being the company itself. It is a departure from the rule in criminal law against vicarious liability. A clear case should be spelled out in the complaint against the person sought to be made liable.”

Bench while referring to several decisions held that the person (Director/Managing Director/Joint Director/other officers and employees) of company can not be prosecuted under Section 138 of NI Act unless the company is impleaded as an accused.

Thus, in the present matter it is to be noted that a demand notice was served only on the petitioner/accused, there was no demand notice against company, therefore, without arraying the company as an accused in complaint case, the petitioner can not be prosecuted for the offence of Section 138 NI Act.

Hence the present petition was allowed.[Bhupendra Suryawanshi v. Sai Traders, 2020 SCC OnLine MP 1277 , decided on 09-06-2020]

Kerala High Court
Case BriefsHigh Courts

Kerala High Court: B Sudheendra Kumar, J. allowed the petition and quashed the complaint and further proceedings against the petitioners which were filed by the Respondent 2.

In the instant case, Respondent 2, Branch Manager, had filed a complaint against the petitioners, trustees of a trust, alleging offence under Section 138 of the Negotiable Instruments Act, 1881. Hence, the instant criminal cases had been filed by petitioners, praying for quashing the complaint and further proceedings against them. The Court appointed Advocate Jamshed Hafiz as amicus curiae.

The learned counsel for the petitioners, Shaji Chirayath had argued that no successful prosecution against the petitioners, invoking the provisions under Section 141 of the NI Act, could be sustained, as the “Trust” was not an “association of individuals”. The learned counsel for the Respondent 2, Salil Narayanan K.A. argued that the “Trust” was an “association of individuals” and hence, the petitioners were vicariously liable under Section 141 of the NI Act. The learned amicus curiae, Jamshed Hafiz submitted that the “Trust” will not come within the ambit of “association of individuals” and hence, the provisions of Section 141 of the NI Act could not be made applicable to prosecute the petitioners under Section 138 of the NI Act.

The first issue involved in the instant case was that the “trust” was a body corporate or not. As per the Sections 3,11,13,47 and 48 of the NI Act, it was clear that the trustees were the owners of the property and were bound to maintain and defend all suits for the preservation of the trust. Thus it appeared that the “Trust” was not capable of suing and being sued in a Court of law. Therefore, a “Trust” was not a juristic person and was not like a body corporate, which had a legal existence of its own.

The second issue involved was that the “trust” was an “association of individuals” or not. For this, the Court placed reliance on Ramanlal Bhailal Patel v. State of Gujarat, (2008) 5 SCC 449, in which it was held that an “association of persons/body of individuals” was one in which two or more persons join in a common purpose and common action to achieve some common benefit. As per Section 3 of the NI Act, the trustees do not get benefit out of the trust. Therefore, it could not be said that the trustees were persons joined together for a common action to achieve some common benefit. Since, the common purpose of the “Trust” was not to achieve benefit to the trustees, the “Trust” could not be said to be an “association of persons/body of individuals”.

In view of the above, it was held that the “Trust” was neither a “body corporate” nor an “association of individuals” as provided in the explanation to Section 141 of the NI Act. Therefore, no prosecution against the petitioners, the trustees, invoking the provisions under Section 141 of the NI Act could be maintained. Consequently, no successful prosecution against the petitioners, invoking the provisions of Section 141 of the NI Act, could be sustained as the petitioners did not sign the cheque involved in the instant case. The complaint and further proceedings against the petitioners in the instant case were quashed.[N.M. Nabeesa v. State of Kerala, 2019 SCC OnLine Ker 2481, decided on 06-02-2019]