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S.M.S. Pharmaceuticals Ltd. Vs. Neeta Bhalla and Anr [2005] Insc 500 (20 September 2005)

Y.K. Sabharwal,Arun Kumar & B.N. Srikrishna

J U D G M E N T With S.L.P.(Crl.)Nos. 2286/2002, 1926-1927/2003, 2090- 2091/ 2003, 2214/2003, 4795/2004, 4992/ 2004, 5073/2004, 5097/2004, 5130/2004, 612/2005, 613/2005, 614/2005, 615/2005 and 616/2005 ARUN KUMAR, J:

This matter arises from a reference made by a two Judge Bench of this Court for determination of the following questions by a larger Bench:

"(a) whether for purposes of Section 141 of the Negotiable Instruments Act, 1881, it is sufficient if the substance of the allegation read as a whole fulfill the requirements of the said section and it is not necessary to specifically state in the complaint that the persons accused was in charge of, or responsible for, the conduct of the business of the company.

(b) whether a director of a company would be deemed to be in charge of, and responsible to, the company for conduct of the business of the company and, therefore, deemed to be guilty of the offence unless he proves to the contrary.

(c) even if it is held that specific averments are necessary, whether in the absence of such averments the signatory of the cheque and or the Managing Directors of Joint Managing Director who admittedly would be in charge of the company and responsible to the company for conduct of its business could be proceeded against. "The controversy has arisen in the context of prosecutions launched against officers of Companies under Sections 138 and 141 of the Negotiable Instruments Act of 1881 (hereinafter referred to as the "Act"). The relevant part of the provisions are quoted as under:

"Section 138:

Dishonour of cheque for insufficiency, etc., of funds in the account Where any cheque drawn by a persons on an account maintained by him with a banker for payment of any amount of money to another persons from out of that account for the discharge, in whole or in part, of any debt or other liability, is returned by the bank unpaid, either because of the amount of money standing to the credit of that account is insufficient to honour the cheque or that it exceeds the amount arranged to be paid from that account by an agreement made with that bank, such person shall be deemed to have committed an offence and shall, without prejudice to any other provisions of this Act, be punished with imprisonment for a term which may be extended to two years, or with fine which may extend to twice the amount of the cheque, or with both:

Provided that nothing contained in this section shall apply unless

(a) the cheque has been presented to the bank within a period of six months from the date on which it is drawn or within the period of its validity, whichever us earlier.

(b) the payee or the holder in due course of the cheque, as the case may be, makes a demand for the payment of the said account of money by giving a notice in writing, to the drawer of the cheque, within thirty days of the receipt of information by him from the bank regarding the return of the cheque as unpaid; and

(c)the drawer of such cheque fails to make the payment of the said amount of money to the payee or, as the case may be, to the holder in due course of the cheque, within fifteen days of the receipt of the said notice.

Explanation For the purposes of this section, "debt or other liability" means a legally enforceable debt or other liability.

Section 141 :

Offences by companies

[1] If the person committing an offence under section 138 is a company, 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 and shall be liable to be proceeded against and punished accordingly:

Provided that nothing contained in this sub-section shall render any person liable to punishment if he proves that the offence was committed without his knowledge, or that he had exercised all due diligence to prevent the commission of such offence.

Provided

[2] Notwithstanding anything contained in sub-section (1), where any offence under this Act has been committed by a company and it is proved that the offence has been committed with the consent or connivance of, or is attributable to, any neglect on the part of, any director, manager, secretary or other officer of the company, such director, manager, secretary or other officer shall also be deemed to be guilty of that offence and shall be liable to be proceeded against and punished accordingly." It will be seen from the above provisions that Section 138 casts criminal liability punishable with imprisonment or fine or with both on a person who issues a cheque towards discharge of a debt or liability as a whole or in part and the cheque is dishonoured by the Bank on presentation.

Section 141 extends such criminal liability in case of a Company to every person who at the time of the offence, was incharge of, and was responsible for the conduct of the business of the Company. By a deeming provision contained in Section 141 of the Act, such a person is vicariously liable to be held guilty for the offence under Section 138 and punished accordingly.

Section 138 is the charging section creating criminal liability in case of dishonour of a cheque and its main ingredients are :

(i) Issuance of a cheque.

(ii) Presentation of the cheque

(iii) Dishonour of the cheque

(iv) Service of statutory notice on the person sought to be made liable, and

(v) Non-compliance or non-payment in pursuance of the notice within 15 days of the receipt of the notice.

Sections 138 and 141 of the Act form part of Chapter XVII introduced in the Act by way of an amendment carried out by virtue of Act 66 of 1988 effective from 1st April, 1989. These provisions were introduced with a view to encourage the culture of use of cheques and enhancing the credibility of the instruments. The legislature has sought to inculcate faith in the efficacy of banking operations and use of negotiable instruments in business transactions. The penal provision is meant to discourage people from not honouring their commitments by way of payment through cheques.

Section 139, occurring in the same Chapter of the Act creates a presumption that the holder of a cheque receives the cheque in discharge, in whole or in part, of any debt or other liability.

In the present case, we are concerned with criminal liability on account of dishonour of cheque. It primarily falls on the drawer company and is extended to officers of the Company. The normal rule in the cases involving criminal liability is against vicarious liability, that is, no one is to be held criminally liable for an act of another. This normal rule is, however, subject to exception on account of specific provision being made in statutes extending liability to others. Section 141 of the Act is an instance of specific provision which in case an offence under Section 138 is committed by a Company, extends criminal liability for dishonour of cheque to officers of the Company. Section 141 contains conditions which have to be satisfied before the liability can be extended to officers of a company. Since the provision creates criminal liability, the conditions have to be strictly complied with. The conditions are intended to ensure that a person who is sought to be made vicariously liable for an offence of which the principal accused is the Company, had a role to play in relation to the incriminating act and further that such a person should know what is attributed to him to make him liable. In other words, persons who had nothing to do with the matter need not be roped in. A company being a juristic person, all its deeds and functions are result of acts of others. Therefore, officers of a Company who are responsible for acts done in the name of the Company are sought to be made personally liable for acts which result in criminal action being taken against the Company. It makes every person who, at the time the offence was committed, was incharge of, and was responsible to the Company for the conduct of business of the Company, as well as the Company, liable for the offence. The proviso to the sub-section contains an escape route for persons who are able to prove that the offence was committed without their knowledge or that they had exercised all due diligence to prevent commission of the offence.

Section 203 of the Code empowers a Magistrate to dismiss a complaint without even issuing a process. It uses the words "after considering" and "the Magistrate is of opinion that there is no sufficient ground for proceeding". These words suggest that the Magistrate has to apply his mind to a complaint at the initial stage itself and see whether a case is made out against the accused persons before issuing process to them on the basis of the complaint. For applying his mind and forming an opinion as to whether there is sufficient ground for proceeding, a complaint must make out a prima facie case to proceed. This, in other words, means that 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 Magistrates as well as 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 chargesheet do not constitute an offence against a person, the complaint is liable to be dismissed.

As the points of reference will show, the question for consideration is what should be the averments in a complaint under Sections 138 and 141.

Process on a complaint under Section 138 starts normally on basis of a written complaint which is placed before a Magistrate. The Magistrate considers the complaint as per provisions of Sections 200 to 204 of the Code of Criminal Procedure. The question of requirement of averments in a complaint has to be considered on the basis of provisions contained in Sections 138 and 141 of the Negotiable Instruments Act read in the light of powers of a Magistrate referred to in Sections 200 to 204 of the Code of Criminal Procedure. The fact that a Magistrate has to consider the complaint before issuing process and he has power to reject it at the threshold, suggests that a complaint should make out a case for issue of process.

As to what should be the averments in a complaint, assumes importance in view of the fact that, at the stage of issuance of process, the Magistrate will have before him only the complaint and the accompanying documents. A person who is sought to be made accused has no right to produce any documents or evidence in defence at that stage. Even at the stage of framing of charge the accused has no such right and a Magistrate cannot be asked to look into the documents produced by an accused at that stage, State of Orissa vs. Debendra Nath Padhi [2005 (1) SCC 568].

The officers responsible for conducting affairs of companies are generally referred to as Directors, Managers, Secretaries, Managing Directors etc. What is required to be considered is: is it sufficient to simply state in a complaint that a particular person was a director of the Company at the time the offence was committed and nothing more is required to be said? For this, it may be worthwhile to notice the role of a director in a company.

The word 'director' is defined in Section 2 (13) of the Companies Act, 1956 as under:

" "director" includes any person occupying the position of director, by whatever name called" ;

There is a whole chapter in the Companies Act on directors, which is Chapter II. Sections 291 to 293 refer to powers of Board of Directors. A perusal of these provisions shows that what a Board of Directors is empowered to do in relation to a particular company depends upon the role and functions assigned to Directors as per the Memorandum and Articles of Association of the company. There is nothing which suggests that simply by being a director in a Company, one is supposed to discharge particular functions on behalf of a company. It happens that a person may be a director in a company but he may not know anything about day-to-day functioning of the company. As a director he may be attending meetings of the Board of Directors of the Company where usually they decide policy matters and guide the course of business of a company. It may be that a Board of Directors may appoint sub-committees consisting of one or two directors out of the Board of the Company who may be made responsible for day-to- day functions of the Company. These are matters which form part of resolutions of Board of Directors of a Company. Nothing is oral. What emerges from this is that the role of a director in a company is a question of fact depending on the peculiar facts in each case. There is no universal rule that a director of a company is in charge of its everyday affairs. We have discussed about the position of a Director in a company in order to illustrate the point that there is no magic as such in a particular word, be it Director, Manager or Secretary. It all depends upon respective roles assigned to the officers in a company. A company may have Managers or Secretaries for different departments, which means, it may have more than one Manager or Secretary. These officers may also be authorised to issue cheques under their signatures with respect to affairs of their respective departments. Will it be possible to prosecute a Secretary of Department-B regarding a cheque issued by the Secretary of Department-A which is dishonoured? The Secretary of Department-B may not be knowing anything about issuance of the cheque in question. Therefore, mere use of a particular designation of an officer without more, may not be enough by way of an averment in a complaint. When the requirement in Section 141, which extends the liability to officers of a company, is that such a person should be in charge of and responsible to the company for conduct of business of the company, how can a person be subjected to liability of criminal prosecution without it being averred in the complaint that he satisfies those requirements ? Not every person connected with a Compnay is made liable under Section 141.

Liability is cast on persons who may have something to do with the transaction complained of. A person who is in charge of and responsible for conduct of business of a Company would naturally know why the cheque in question was issued and why it got dishonoured.

The position of a Managing Director or a Joint Managing Director in a company may be different. These persons, as the designation of their office suggests, are in charge of a company and are responsible for the conduct of the business of the company. In order to escape liability such persons may have to bring their case within the proviso to Section 141 (1), that is, they will have to prove that when the offence was committed they had no knowledge of the offence or that they exercised all due diligence to prevent the commission of the offence.

While analysing Section 141 of the Act, it will be seen that it operates in cases where an offence under Section 138 is committed by a company.

The key words which occur in the Section are "every person". These are general words and take every person connected with a company within their sweep. Therefore, these words have been rightly qualified by use of the words " 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 etc." What is required is that the persons who are sought to be made criminally liable under Section 141 should be at the time the offence was committed, in charge of and responsible to the company for the conduct of the business of the company. Every person connected with the company shall not fall within the ambit of the provision. It is only those persons who were in charge of and responsible for conduct of business of the company at the time of commission of an offence, who will be liable for criminal action.

It follows from this that if a director of a Company who was not in charge of and was not responsible for the conduct of the business of the company at the relevant time, will not be liable under the provision. The liability arises from being in charge of and responsible for conduct of business of the company at the relevant time when the offence was committed and not on the basis of merely holding a designation or office in a company. Conversely, a person not holding any office or designation in a Company may be liable if he satisfies the main requirement of being in charge of and responsible for conduct of business of a Company at the relevant time. Liability depends on the role one plays in the affairs of a Company and not on designation or status. If being a Director or Manager or Secretary was enough to cast criminal liability, the Section would have said so. Instead of "every person" the section would have said "every Director, Manager or Secretary in a Company is liable"..etc. The legislature is aware that it is a case of criminal liability which means serious consequences so far as the person sought to be made liable is concerned.

Therefore, only persons who can be said to be connected with the commission of a crime at the relevant time have been subjected to action.

A reference to sub-section (2) of Section 141 fortifies the above reasoning because sub-section (2) envisages direct involvement of any Director, Manager, Secretary or other officer of a company in commission of an offence. This section operates when in a trial it is proved that the offence has been committed with the consent or connivance or is attributable to neglect on the part of any of the holders of these offices in a company. In such a case, such persons are to be held liable. Provision has been made for Directors, Managers, Secretaries and other officers of a company to cover them in cases of their proved involvement.

The conclusion is inevitable that the liability arises on account of conduct , act or omission on the part of a person and not merely on account of holding an office or a position in a company. Therefore, in order to bring a case within Section 141 of the Act the complaint must disclose the necessary facts which make a person liable.

The question of what should be averments in a criminal complaint has come up for consideration before various High Courts in the country as also before this Court. Secunderabad Health Care Ltd. and others v. Secunderabad Hospitals Pvt. Ltd. and others [1999 (96) C.C.(AP) 106] was a case under the Negotiable Instruments Act specifically dealing with Sections 138 and 141 thereof. The Andhra Pradesh High Court held that every Director of a company is not automatically vicariously liable for the offence committed by the company. Only such Directors or Director who were in charge of or responsible to the company for the conduct of business of the company at the material time when the offence was committed alone shall be deemed to be guilty of the offence. Further it was observed that the requirement of law is that "there must be clear, unambiguous and specific allegations against the persons who are impleaded as accused that they were in charge of and responsible to the company in the conduct of its business in the material time when the offence was committed." The same High Court in v. Sudheer Reddy v. State of Andhra Pradesh and others [2000 (99) CC (AP)107] held that "the purpose of Section 141 of the Negotiable Instruments Act would appear to be that a person who appears to be merely a director of the Company cannot be fastened with criminal liability for an offence under Section 138 of the Negotiable Instruments Act unless it is shown that he was involved in the day-today affairs of the company and was responsible to the company." Further, it was held that allegations in this behalf have to be made in a complaint before process can be issued against a person in a complaint. To same effect is the judgment of the Madras High Court in R. Kannan v. Kotak Mahindra Finance Ltd. 2003 (115) CC (Mad) 321. In Lok Housing and Constructions Ltd. v. Raghupati Leasing and Finance Ltd. and another [2003 (115) CC (Del) 957], the Delhi High Court noticed that there were clear averments about the fact that accused No.2 to 12 were officers in charge of and responsible to the company in the conduct of day-to-day business at the time of commission of offence. Therefore, the Court refused to quash the complaint. In Sunil Kumar Chhaparia v. Dakka Eshwaraiah and another [2002 (108) CC (AP) 687, the Andhra Pradesh High Court noted that there was a consensus of judicial opinion that " a director of a company cannot be prosecuted for an offence under Section 138 of the Act in the absence of a specific allegation in the complaint that he was in charge of and responsible to the company in the conduct of its business at the relevant time or that the offence was committed with his consent or connivance." The Court has quoted several judgments of various High Courts in support of this proposition. We do not feel it necessary to recount them all.

Cases have arisen under other Acts where similar provisions are contained creating vicarious liability for officers of a company in cases where primary liability is that of a company. State of Karnataka v. Pratap Chand and others 1981 (2) SCC 335 was a case under the Drugs and Cosmetics Act, 1940. Section 34 contains a similar provision making every person in charge of and responsible to the company for conduct of its business liable for offence committed by a company. It was held that a person liable for criminal action under that provision should be a person in overall control of day-to-day affairs of the company or a firm. This was a case of a partner in a firm and it was held that a partner who was not in such overall control of the firm could not be held liable. In Municipal Corporation of Delhi v. Ram Kishan Rohtagi and others [1983 (1) SCC 1], the case was under the Prevention of Food Adulteration Act. It was first noticed that under Section 482 of the Criminal Procedure Code in a complaint, the order of a Magistrate issuing process against the accused can be quashed or set aside in a case where the allegation made in the complaint or the statements of the witnesses recorded in support of the same taken at their face value make out absolutely no case against the accused or the complaint does not disclose the essential ingredients of an offence which is arrived at against accused. This emphasises the need for proper averments in a complaint before a person can be tried for the offence alleged in the complaint.

In State of Haryana v. Brij Lal Mittal and others 1998 (5) SCC 343 it was held that vicarious liability of a person for being prosecuted for an offence committed under the Act by a company arises if at the material time he was in charge of and was also responsible to the company for the conduct of its business. Simply because a person is a director of a company, it does not necessarily mean that he fulfils both the above requirements so as to make him liable. Conversely, without being a director a person can be in charge of and responsible to the company for the conduct of its business.

K.P.G. Nair v. Jindal Menthol India Ltd. [2001 (10) SCC 218] was a case under the Negotiable Instruments Act. It was found that the allegations in the complaint did not in express words or with reference to the allegations contained therein make out a case that at the time of commission of the offence, the appellant was in charge of and was responsible to the company for the conduct of its business. It was held that requirement of Section 141 was not met and the complaint against the accused was quashed. Similar was the position in Katta Sujatha v. Fertilizers & Chemiucals Travancore Ltd. and another [ 2002 (7 SCC 655]. This was a case of a partnership. It was found that no allegations were contained in the complaint regarding the fact that the accused was a partner in charge of and was responsible to the firm for the conduct of business of the firm nor was there any allegation that the offence was made with the consent and connivance or that it was attributable to any neglect on the part of the accused. It was held that no case was made out against the accused who was a partner and the complaint was quashed. The latest in the line is the judgment of this Court in Monaben Ketanbhai Shah and another v. State of Gujarat and others [2004 (7) SCC 15]. It was observed as under:

"4. .It is not necessary to reproduce the language of Section 141 verbatim in the complaint since the complaint is required to be read as a whole. If the substance of the allegations made in the complaint fulfil the requirements of Section 141, the complaint has to proceed and is required to be tried with. It is also true that in construing a complaint a hypertechnical approach should not be adopted so as to quash the same. The laudable object of preventing bouncing of cheques and sustaining the credibility of commercial transactions resulting in enactment of Sections 138 and 141 has to be borne in mind.

These provisions create a statutory presumption of dishonesty, exposing a person to criminal liability if payment is not made within the statutory period even after issue of notice. It is also true that the power of quashing is required to be exercised very sparingly and where, read as a whole, factual foundation for the offence has been laid in the complaint, it should not be quashed.

All the same, it is also to be remembered that it is the duty of the court to discharge the accused if taking everything stated in the complaint as correct and construing the allegations made therein liberally in favour of the complainant, the ingredients of the offence are altogether lacking. The present case falls in this category as would be evident from the facts noticed hereinafter." It was further observed:

"6 .The criminal liability has been fastened on those who, at the time of the commission of the offence, were in charge of and were responsible to the firm for the conduct of the business of the firm. These may be sleeping partners who are not required to take any part in the business of the firm; they may be ladies and others who may not know anything about the business of the firm. The primary responsibility is on the complainant to make necessary averments in the complaint so as to make the accused vicariously liable. For fastening the criminal liability, there is no presumption that every partner knows about the transaction. The obligation of the appellants to prove that at the time the offence was committed they were not in charge of and were not responsible to the firm for the conduct of the business of the firm, would arise only when first the complainant makes necessary averments in the complaint and establishes that fact. The present case is of total absence of requisite averments in the complaint." To sum up, there is almost unanimous judicial opinion that necessary averments ought to be contained in a complaint before a persons can be subjected to criminal process. A liability under Section 141 of the Act is sought to be fastened vicariously on a person connected with a Company, the 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.

Section 141 of the Act contains the requirements for making a person liable under the said provision. That respondent falls within parameters of Section 141 has to be spelled out. A complaint has to be examined by the Magistrate in the first instance on the basis of averments contained therein. If the Magistrate is satisfied that there are averments which bring the case within Section 141 he would issue the process. We have seen that merely being described as a director in a company is not sufficient to satisfy the requirement of Section 141. Even a non director can be liable under Section 141 of the Act. The averments in the complaint would also serve the purpose that the person sought to be made liable would know what is the case which is alleged against him. This will enable him to meet the case at the trial.

In view of the above discussion, our answers to the questions posed in the Reference are as under:

(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. This averment is an essential requirement of Section 141 and has to be made in a complaint. Without this averment being made in a complaint, the requirements of Section 141 cannot be said to be satisfied.

(b) The answer to question posed in sub-para (b) has to be in negative.

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 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 answer to question (c ) has to be in affirmative. The question notes that the Managing Director or Joint Managing Director would be admittedly in charge of the company and responsible to the company for 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 signatory of a cheque which is dishonoured is concerned, he is clearly responsible for the incriminating act and will be covered under sub-section (2) of Section 141.

The Reference having been answered, individual cases may be listed before appropriate Bench for disposal in accordance with law.

 

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