Friday 21 May 2021

Whether prosecution for dishonour of cheque is maintainable against Corporate debtor after the declaration of Moratorium as per S14 IBC?


102. As far as the Directors/persons in management or control of the corporate debtor are concerned, a Section 138/141 proceeding against them cannot be initiated or continued without the corporate debtor - see Aneeta Hada (supra). This is because Section 141 of the Negotiable Instruments Act speaks of persons in charge of, and responsible to the company for the conduct of the business of the company, as well as the company. The Court, therefore, in Aneeta Hada (supra) held as under:

51. We have already opined that the decision in Sheoratan Agarwal [(1984) 4 SCC 352 : 1984 SCC (Cri) 620] runs counter to the ratio laid down in C.V. Parekh [(1970) 3 SCC 491 : 1971 SCC (Cri) 97] which is by a larger Bench and hence, is a binding precedent. On the aforesaid ratiocination, the decision in Anil Hada [(2000) 1 SCC 1 : 2001 SCC (Cri) 174] has to be treated as not laying down the correct law as far as it states that the Director or any other officer can be prosecuted without impleadment of the company. Needless to emphasise, the matter would stand on a different footing where there is some legal impediment and the doctrine of lex non cogit ad impossibilia gets attracted.”

xxx xxx xxx

56. We have referred to the aforesaid passages only to highlight that there has to be strict observance of the provisions regard being had to the legislative intendment because it deals with penal provisions and a penalty is not to be imposed affecting the rights of persons, whether juristic entities or individuals, unless they are arrayed as accused. It is to be kept in mind that the power of punishment is vested in the legislature and that is absolute in Section 141 of the Act which clearly speaks of commission of offence by the company. The learned counsel for the respondents have vehemently urged that the use of the term “as well as” in the Section is of immense significance and, in its tentacle, it brings in the company as well as the Director and/or other officers who are responsible for the acts of the company and, therefore, a prosecution against the Directors or other officers is tenable even if the company is not arraigned as an accused. The words “as well as” have to be understood in the context.”

xxx xxx xxx

58. Applying the doctrine of strict construction, we are of the considered opinion that commission of offence by the company is an express condition precedent to attract the vicarious liability of others. Thus, the words “as well as the company” appearing in the Section make it absolutely unmistakably clear that when the company can be prosecuted, then only the persons mentioned in the other categories could be vicariously liable for the offence subject to the averments in the petition and proof thereof. One cannot be oblivious of the fact that the company is a juristic person and it has its own respectability. If a finding is recorded against it, it would create a concavity in its reputation. There can be situations when the corporate reputation is affected when a Director is indicted.

59. In view of our aforesaid analysis, we arrive at the irresistible conclusion that for maintaining the prosecution under Section 141 of the Act, arraigning of a company as an accused is imperative. The other categories of offenders can only be brought in the drag-net on the touchstone of vicarious liability as the same has been stipulated in the provision itself. We say so on the basis of the ratio laid down in C.V. Parekh [(1970) 3 SCC 491 : 1971 SCC (Cri) 97] which is a three-Judge Bench decision. Thus, the view expressed in Sheoratan Agarwal [(1984) 4 SCC 352 : 1984 SCC (Cri) 620] does not correctly lay down the law and, accordingly, is hereby overruled. The decision in Anil Hada [(2000) 1 SCC 1 : 2001 SCC (Cri) 174] is overruled with the qualifier as stated in para 51. The decision in Modi Distillery [(1987) 3 SCC 684 : 1987 SCC (Cri) 632] has to be treated to be restricted to its own facts as has been explained by us hereinabove.”

103. Since the corporate debtor would be covered by the moratorium provision contained in Section 14 of the IBC, by which continuation of Section 138/141 proceedings against the corporate debtor and initiation of Section 138/141 proceedings against the said debtor during the corporate insolvency resolution process are interdicted, what is stated in paragraphs 51 and 59 in Aneeta Hada (supra) would then become applicable. The legal impediment contained in Section 14 of the IBC would make it impossible for such proceeding to continue or be instituted against the corporate debtor. Thus, for the period of moratorium, since no Section 138/141 proceeding can continue or be initiated against the corporate debtor because of a statutory bar, such proceedings can be initiated or continued against the persons mentioned in Section 141(1) and (2) of the Negotiable Instruments Act. This being the case, it is clear that the moratorium provision contained in Section 14 of the IBC would apply only to the corporate debtor, the natural persons mentioned in Section 141 continuing to be statutorily liable under Chapter XVII of the Negotiable Instruments Act.

In the Supreme Court of India

(Before R.F. Nariman, Navin Sinha and K.M. Joseph, JJ.)

Civil Appeal No. 10355 of 2018

P. Mohanraj and Others Vs Shah Brothers Ispat Pvt. Ltd. 

Citation: 2021 SCC OnLine SC 152

Read full Judgment here: Click here

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