18 Feb 2010

Non-controlling directors not liable for cheque bounce: Supreme Court

Saving them from prosecution for bouncing of cheque, the Supreme Court in a recent decision has declared that Directors and such other officers of a company would not be liable for prosecution for bouncing of cheques if they were not in-charge of and also not responsible for the conduct of the company. Reading Section 141 of the Negotiable Instruments Act literally, the Supreme Court declared the law as under;
It is very clear from the above provision that what is required is that the persons who are sought to be made vicariously liable for a criminal offence under Section 141 should be, 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. Every person connected with the company shall not fall within the ambit of the provision. Only those persons who were in-charge of and responsible for the conduct of the business of the company at the time of commission of an offence will be liable for criminal action. It follows from the fact 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 for a criminal offence under the provisions. The liability arises from being in-charge of and responsible for the conduct of the 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. 
10) Section 141 is a penal provision creating vicarious liability, and which, as per settled law, must be strictly construed. It is therefore, not sufficient to make a bald cursory statement in a complaint that the Director (arrayed as an accused) is in charge of and responsible to the company for the conduct of the business of the company without anything more as to the role of the Director. But the complaint should spell out as to how and in what manner Respondent No.1 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. A company may have a number of Directors and to make any or all the Directors as accused in a complaint merely on the basis of a statement that they are in-charge of and responsible for the conduct of the business of the company without anything more is not a sufficient or adequate fulfillment of the requirements under Section 141.
11) In a catena of decisions, this Court has held that for making Directors liable for the offences committed by the company under Section 141 of the Act, there must be specific averments against the Directors, showing as to how and in what manner the Directors were responsible for the conduct of the business of the company.
In this background, the Supreme Court laid down the principles for determining the liability of the Directors as under;
25) From the above discussion, the following principles emerge :
(i) The primary responsibility is on the complainant to make specific averments as are required under the law in the complaint so as to make the accused vicariously liable. For fastening the criminal liability, there is no presumption that every Director knows about the transaction.
(ii) Section 141 does not make all the Directors liable for the offence. The criminal liability can be fastened only on those who, at the time of the commission of the offence, were in charge of and were responsible for the conduct of the business of the company.
(iii) Vicarious liability can be inferred against a company registered or incorporated under the Companies Act, 1956 only if the requisite statements, which are required to be averred in the complaint/petition, are made so as to make accused therein vicariously liable for offence committed by company along with averments in the petition containing that accused were in-charge of and responsible for the business of the company and by virtue of their position they are liable to be proceeded with.
(iv) Vicarious liability on the part of a person must be pleaded and proved and not inferred. 
(v) If accused is Managing Director or Joint Managing Director then it is not necessary to make specific averment in the complaint and by virtue of their position they are liable to be proceeded with.
(vi) If accused is a Director or an Officer of a company who signed the cheques on behalf of the company then also it is not necessary to make specific averment in complaint.
(vii) 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.

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