11 Mar 2010

Shares of public company freely transferable: High Court

In a recently delivered decision, the Bombay High Court has ruled that shareholders by agreement cannot restrict the free transferability of the shares of a public limited company which is guaranteed by the Companies Act, 1956. Setting aside an arbitral award which had accepted that shareholders by agreement could create preemptive rights over the transfer of shares by other shareholders to third parties, the High Court declared that such a restriction for a public limited company was not permissible. 

The High Court inter alia observed;
53. The provision contained in the law for the free transferability of shares in a public Company is founded on the principle that members of the public must have the freedom to purchase and, every shareholder, the freedom to transfer. The incorporation of a Company in the public, as distinguished from the private, realm leads to specific consequences and the imposition of obligations envisaged in law. Those who promote and manage public companies assume those obligations. Corresponding to those obligations are rights, which the law recognizes as inhering in the members of the public who subscribe to shares. The principle of free transferability must be given a broad dimension in order to fulfill the object of the law. Imposing restrictions on the principle of free transferability, is a legislative function, simply because the postulate of free transferability was enunciated as a matter of legislative policy when Parliament introduced Section 111A into the Companies’ Act, 1956. That is a binding precept which governs the discourse on transferability of shares. The word “transferable” is of the widest possible import and Parliament by using the expression “freely transferable”, has reinforced the legislative intent of allowing transfers of shares of public companies in a free and efficient domain. 
54. The effect of Clause 7 of the Protocol Agreement is to create a right of preemption between the Petitioner and the Respondent in the event that either of them seeks to part with or transfer its shareholding in MSL. In that event, the party desirous to transfer its shareholding is obligated to furnish a first option to the other for the purchase of the shares at such rate, as may be agreed to between the parties or decided upon by arbitration. The consequence of Clause 7 of the Protocol Agreement, which has been incorporated in the Articles of Association, is to preclude sale to or purchase by the members of the public of the shares, which are offered for sale if the offer is accepted by the Petitioner, or as the case may be, by the Respondent within thirty days of the receipt of the notice. The effect of a clause of preemption is to impose a restriction on the free transferability of the shares by subjecting the norms of transferability laid down in Section 111A to a preemptive right created by the agreement between the parties. This is impermissible. Section 9 of the Companies’ Act, 1956 gives overriding force and effect to the provisions of the Act, notwithstanding anything to the contrary contained in the Memorandum or Articles of a Company or in any agreement executed by it or for that matter in any resolution of the Company in general meeting or of its Board of Directors. A provision contained in the Memorandum, Articles, Agreement or Resolution is to the extent to which it is repugnant to the provisions of the Act, regarded as void.

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