Discussing the position of law, the High Court observed as under;
8. Coming to the issue of grant of injunction against invocation of Bank Guarantee, the Hon'ble Supreme Court has crystalized the law regarding invocation/encashment of Letter of Credit and Bank Guarantee in its pronouncements such that it admits of no debate or doubt. As far back as in 1970, the Court had in Tarapore and Co., Madras –vs- V.O Tractors Export Moscow, AIR 1970 SC 891 elaborately and perspicuously explained the scope and ambit of judicial interference in matters concerning Letters of Credit and Bank Guarantees in these words--
The scope of an irrevocable letter of credit is explained thus in Halsbury's Laws of England (Vol.34, Paragraph 319 at page 185): ―It is often made a condition of a mercantile contract that the buyer shall pay for the goods by means of a confirmed credit, and it is then the duty of the buyer to procure his bank, known as the issuing or originating bank, to issue an irrevocable credit in favour of the seller by which the bank undertakes to the seller, either directly or through another bank in the seller's country known as the correspondent or negotiating bank, to accept drafts drawn upon it for the price of the goods, against tender by the seller of the shipping documents. The contractual relationship between the issuing bank and the buyer is defined by the terms of the agreement between them under which the letter opening the credit is issued; and as between the seller and the bank, the issue of the credit duly notified to the seller creates a new contractual nexus and renders the bank directly liable to the seller to pay the purchase price or to accept the bill of exchange upon tender of the documents. The contract thus created between the seller and the bank is separate from, although ancillary to, the original contract between the buyer and the seller, by reason of the bank's undertaking to the seller, which is absolute. Thus the bank is not entitled to rely upon terms of the contract between the buyer and the seller which might permit the buyer to reject the goods and to refuse payment therefor; and, conversely, the buyer is not entitled to an injunction restraining the seller from dealing with the letter of credit if the goods are defective.
Chalmers on ―Bills of Exchange explains the legal position in these words ―The modern commercial credit serves to interpose between a buyer and seller a third person of un-questioned solvency, almost invariably a banker of international repute; the banker on the instructions of the buyer issues the letter of credit and thereby undertakes to act as paymaster upon the seller performing the conditions set out in it. A letter of credit may be in any one of a number of specialised forms and contains the undertaking of the banker to honour all bills of exchange drawn thereunder. It can hardly be over-emphasised that the banker is not bound or entitled to honour such bills of exchange unless they, and such accompanying documents as may be required thereunder, are in exact compliance with the terms of the credit. Such documents must be scrutanised with meticulous care, the maxim de minimis non curat lex cannot be invoked where payment is made by the letter of credit. If the seller has complied with the terms of the letter of credit, however, there is an absolute obligation upon the banker to pay irrespective of any disputes there may be between the buyer and the seller as to whether the goods are up to contract or not‖
Similar are the views expressed in `Practice and Law of Banking' by H.B. Sheldon, ―the Law of Bankers Commercial Credits‖ by H.C. Gutteridge,―the Law relating to Commercial Letters of Credit‖ by A.G. Devis' ―the Law Relating to Bankers' Letters of Credit‖ by B.C. Mitra and in several other text books read to us by Mr. Mohan Kumaramangalam, learned Counsel for the Russian Firm. The legal position as set out above was not controverted by Mr. M.C. Satalvad, learned Counsel for the Indian Firm. So far as the Bank of India is concerned it admitted its liability to honour the letter of credit and expressed its willingness to abide by its terms. It took the same position before the High Court. ........
10. A case somewhat similar to the one before us came up for consideration before the Queens Bench Division in England in Hamzeh Walas and Sons v. British Imex Industries Ltd., 1958-2 QB 127. Therein the plaintiffs, a Jordanian firm contracted to purchase from the defendants, a British firm, a large quantity of reinforced steel rods, to be delivered in two instalments. Payment was to be effected by opening in favour of the defendants of two confirmed letters of credit with the Midland Bank Ltd., in London, one in respect of each instalment. The letters of credit were duly opened and the first was realised by the defendants on the delivery of the first instalment. The plaintiffs complained that that instalment was defective and sought an injunction to bar the defendants from realizing the second letter of credit. Donovan, J., the Trial Judge refused the application. In appeal Jenkins, Sellers and Pearce L., JJ. Confirmed the decision of the Trial Judge. In the course of his judgment Jenkins, L.J., who spoke for the Court observed thus:―We have been referred to a number of authorities, and it seems to be plain enough that the opening of a confirmed letter of credit constitutes a bargain between the banker and the vendor of the goods, which imposes upon the banker an absolute obligation to pay, irrespective of any dispute there may be between the parties as to whether the goods are up to contract or not. An elaborate commercial system has been built up on the footing that bankers' confirmed credits are of that character, and, in my judgment, it would be wrong for this Court in the present case to interfere with that established practice.There is this to be remembered, too. A vendor of goods selling against a confirmed letter of credit is selling under the assurance that nothing will prevent him from receiving the price. That is of no mean advantage when goods manufactured in one country are being sold in another. It is, furthermore, to be observed that vendors are often reselling goods bought from third parties. When they are doing that, and when they are being paid by a confirmed letter of credit, their practice is - and I think it was followed by the defendants in this case--to finance the payments necessary to be made to their suppliers against the letter of credit. That system of financing these operations, as I see it, would break down completely if a dispute as between the vendor and the purchaser was to have the effect of ―freezing‖ if I may use that expression the sum in respect of which the letter of credit was opened.In Urquhart Lindsay and Co. Ltd. v. Eastern Bank Ltd., 1922-1 KB 318 the King's Bench held that the refusal of the defendants bank to take and pay for the particular bills on presentation of the proper documents constituted a repudiation of the contract as a whole and that the plaintiffs were entitled to damages arising from such a breach. It may be noted that in that case the price quoted in the invoices was objected to by the buyer and he had notified his objection to the bank. But under the terms of the letter of credit the bank was required to make payments on the basis of the invoices tendered by the seller. The court held that if the buyers had an enforceable claim that adjustment must be made by way of refund by the seller and not by the way of retention by the buyer.11. Similar opinions have been expressed by the American Courts. The leading American case on the subject is Dulien Steel Products Inc., of Washington v. Bankers Trust Co., Federal Reporter 2nd Series, 298 p.836. The facts of that case are as follows: The plaintiffs, Dulien Steel Products Inc., of Washington, contracted to sell steel scrap to the European Iron and Steel Company. The transaction was put through M/s. Marco Polo Group Project, Ltd. who were entitled to commission for arranging the transaction. For the payment of the the commission to Marco Polo, plaintiffs procured an irrevocable letter of credit from Seattle First National Bank. As desired by Marco Polo this letter of credit was opened in favour of one Sica. The defendant-bankers confirmed that letter of credit. The credit stipulated for payment against (1) a receipt of Sica for the amount of the credit and (2) a notification of Seattle Bank to the defendants that the plaintiffs had negotiated documents evidencing the shipment of the goods. Sica tendered the stipulated receipt and Seattle Bank informed the defendants that the Dulien had negotiated documentary drafts. Meanwhile after further negotiations between the plaintiffs and the vendees the price of the goods sold was reduced and consequently the commission payable to Marco Polo stood reduced but the defendants were not informed of this fact. Only after notifying the defendants about the negotiation of the drafts drawn under the contract of sale, the Seattle Bank informed the defendants about the changes underlying the transaction and asked them not to pay Sica the full amount of the credit. The defendants were also informed that Sica was merely a nominee of Marco Polo and has no rights of his own to the sum of the credit. Sica, however, claimed payment of the full amount of the credit. The defendants asked further instructions from Seattle Bank but despite Seattle Bank's instructions decided to comply with Sica's request. After informing Seattle Bank of their intention, they paid Sica the full amount of the credit. Plaintiffs thereupon brought an action in the District Court of New York for the recovery of the moneys paid to Sica. The action was dismissed by the trial Court and that decision was affirmed by the Court of Appeals. That decision establishes the well known principle that the letter of credit is independent of and unqualified by the contract of sale or underlying transaction. The autonomy of an irrevocable letter of credit is entitled to protection. As a rule Courts refrain from interfering with that autonomy.
9. In United Commercial Bank –vs- Bank of India, (1981) 2 SCC 766:AIR 1981 SC 1426 the Apex Court has reiterated that Courts ought not to grant injunctions restraining the performance of the contractual obligations flowing out of a Letter of Credit or a Bank Guarantee between one Bank and another. It observed that -
The opening of a confirmed letter of credit constitutes a bargain between the banker and the vendor of the goods which imposes on the banker an absolute obligation to pay. A banker issuing or confirming an irrevocable credit usually undertakes to honour drafts negotiated, or to reimburse in respect of drafts paid, by the paying or negotiating intermediate banker and the credit is thus in the hands of the beneficiary binding against the banker. A letter of credit constitute the sole contract with the banker and a bank issuing or confirming a letter of credit is not concerned with the underlying contract between the buyer an seller. Duties of a bank under a letter of credit are created by the document itself, but in any case it has the power and is subject to the limitations which are given or imposed by it, in the absence of the appropriate provisions in the letter of credit. The banker owes a duty to the buyer to ensure that the documents tendered by the sellers under a credit are complied with those for which the credit calls and which are embodied in terms of paying or negotiating bank The description of the goods in the relative bill of exchange must be the same description in the letter of credit, that it, the goods themselves must in each be described in identical terms, even though the goods differently described in the two documents are, in fact, the same. It is the description of the goods that is all important and if the description is not identical it is the paying bank's duty to refuse payment.
10. A study of U.P. Coop. Federation –vs- Singh Consultants & Engineers (P) Ltd., (1988) 1 SCC 174 is extremely instructive. The Hon'ble Supreme Court again spoke in these words-
45. The letter of credit has been developed over hundreds of years of international trade. It was most commonly used in conjunction with the sale of goods between geographically distant parties. It was intended to facilitate the transfer of goods between distant and unfamiliar buyer and seller. It was found difficult for the seller to rely upon the credit of an unknown customer. It was also found difficult for a buyer to pay for goods prior to their delivery. The Bank's letter of credit came into existence to bridge this gap. In such transactions, the seller (beneficiary) received payment from issuing bank when he presents a demand as per terms of the documents. The bank must pay if the documents are in order and the terms of credit are satisfied. The bank, however, was not allowed to determine whether the seller had actually shipped the goods or whether the goods conformed to the requirements of the contract. Any dispute between the buyer and the seller must be settled between themselves. The courts, however, carved out an exception to this rule of absolute independence. The courts held that if there has been fraud in the transaction the bank could dishonour beneficiary's demand for payment. The courts have generally permitted dishonour only on the fraud of the beneficiary, not the fraud of somebody else.46. It was perhaps for the first time the said exception of fraud to the rule of absolute independence of the letter of credit has been applied by Shientag, J. in the American case of Sztejn v. J.Henry Schroder Banking Corporation (31 NYS 2d 631). Mr.Sztejn wanted to buy some bristles from India and so he entered into a deal with an Indian seller to sell him a quantity. The issuing Bank issued a letter of credit to the Indian seller that provided that, upon receipt of appropriate documents, the bank would pay for the shipment. Somehow, Mr.Sztejn discovered that the shipment made was not crates of bristles, but creates of worthless material and rubbish. He went to his bank which probably informed him that the letter of credit was an independent undertaking of the bank and it must pay........53. Whether it is a traditional letter of credit or a new device like performance bond or performance guarantee, the obligation of banks appears to be the same. If documentary credits are irrevocable and independent, the banks must pay when demand is made. Since the bank pledges its own credit involving its reputation, it has no defence except in the case of fraud. The bank's obligations of course should not be extended to protect the unscrupulous seller, that is, the seller who is responsible for the fraud. But, the banker must be sure of his ground before declining to pay. The nature of the fraud that the courts talk about is fraud of an egregious nature as to vitiate the entire underlying transaction. It is fraud of the beneficiary, not the fraud of somebody else. If the bank detects with a minimal investigation the fraudulent action of the seller, the payment could be refused. The bank cannot be compelled to honour the credit in such cases. But it may be very difficult for the bank to take a decision on the alleged fraudulent action. In such cases, it would be proper for the bank to ask the buyer to approach the court for an injunction.
11. In Hindustan Steel Works Construction Ltd. –vs- Tarapore & Co., AIR 1996 SC2268:(1996) 5 SCC 34, the following observations have been made:
We are, therefore, of the opinion that the correct position of law is that commitment of banks must be honoured free from interference by the courts and it is only in exceptional cases, that is to say, in case of fraud or in a case where irretrievable injustice would be done if bank guarantee is allowed to be encashed, the court should interfere. In this case fraud has not been pleaded and the relief for injunction was sought by the contractor/Respondent 1 on the ground that special equities or the special circumstances of the case required it. The special circumstances and/or special equities which have been pleaded in this case are that there is a serious dispute on the question as to who has committed breach of the contract, that the contractor has a counter-claim against the appellant, that the disputes between the parties have been referred to the arbitrators and that no amount can be said to be due and payable by the contractor to the appellant till the arbitrators declare their award. In our opinion, these factors are not sufficient to make this case an exceptional case justifying interference by restraining the appellant from enforcing the bank guarantees. The High Court was, therefore, not right in restraining the appellant from enforcing the bank guarantees.
12. In U.P. State Sugar Corporation –vs-. Sumac International Limited, AIR 1997 SC 1644:(1997) 1 SCC 568 the circumstances in which the invocation of a Bank Guarantee or payments made pursuant thereto could be interdicted, had been Restated. While spelling out the essentials of fraud and/or irretrievable injustice in this context, the Apex Court had recorded the following observations:-
12. The law relating to invocation of such bank guarantees is by now well settled. When in the course of commercial dealings an unconditional bank guarantee is given or accepted, the beneficiary is entitled to realize such a bank guarantee in terms thereof irrespective of any pending disputes. The bank giving such a guarantee is bound to honour it as per its terms irrespective of any dispute raised by its customer. The very purpose of giving such a bank guarantee would otherwise be defeated. The courts should, therefore, be slow in granting an injunction to restrain the realization of such a bank guarantee. The courts have carved out only two exceptions. A fraud in connection with such a bank guarantee would vitiate the very foundation of such a bank guarantee. Hence if there is such a fraud of which the beneficiary seeks to take advantage, he can be restrained from doing so. The second exception relates to cases where allowing the encashment of an unconditional bank guarantee would result in irretrievable harm or injustice to one of the parties concerned. Since in most cases payment of money under such a bank guarantee would adversely affect the bank and its customer at whose instance the guarantee is given, the harm or injustice contemplated under this head must be of such an exceptional and irretrievable nature as would override the terms of the guarantee and the adverse effect of such an injunction on commercial dealings in the country. The two grounds are not necessarily connected, though both may coexist in some cases.
.......14. On the question of irretrievable injury which is the second exception to the rule against granting of injunctions when unconditional bank guarantees are sought to be realised the court said in the above case that the irretrievable injury must be of the kind which was the subject-matter of the decision in the Itek Corpn. case, 566 Fed Supp 1210. In that case an exporter in USA entered into an agreement with the Imperial Government of Iran and sought an order terminating its liability on stand by letters of credit issued by an American Bank in favour of an Iranian Bank as part of the contract. The relief was sought on account of the situation created after the Iranian revolution when the American Government cancelled the export licences in relation to Iran and the Iranian Government had forcibly taken 52 American citizens as hostages. The US Government had blocked all Iranian assets under the jurisdiction of United States and had cancelled the export contract. The Court upheld the contention of the exporter that any claim for damages against the purchaser if decreed by the American Courts would not be executable in Iran under these circumstances and realisation of the bank guarantee/letters of credit would cause irreparable harm to the plaintiff. This contention was upheld. To avail of this exception, therefore, exceptional circumstances which make it impossible for the guarantor to reimburse himself if he ultimately succeeds, will have to be decisively established. Clearly, a mere apprehension that the other party will not be able to pay, is not enough. In Itek case (supra) there was a certainty on this issue. Secondly, there was good reason, in that case for the Court to be prima facie satisfied that the guarantors i.e. the bank and its customer would be found entitled to receive the amount paid under the guarantee.15. Our attention was invited to a number of decisions on this issue -- among them, to Larsen & Toubro Ltd. v. Maharashtra SEB, (1995) 6 SCC 68 and Hindustan Steel Workers Construction Ltd. v. G.S. Atwal & Co. (Engineers) (P) Ltd., (1995) 6 SCC 76 as also to National Thermal Power Corpn. Ltd. v. Flowmore (P) Ltd., (1995) 4 SCC 515. The latest decision is in the case of State of Maharashtra v. National Construction Co., (1996) 1 SCC 735 where this Court has summed up the position by stating:"The rule is well established that a bank issuing a guarantee is not concerned with the underlying contract between the parties to the contract. The duty of the bank under a performance guarantee is created by the document itself. Once the documents are in order the bank giving the guarantee must honour the same and make payment ordinarily unless there is an allegation of fraud or the like. The courts will not interfere directly or indirectly to withhold payment, otherwise trust in commerce internal and international would be irreparably damaged. But that does not mean that the parties to the underlying contract cannot settle the disputes with respect to allegations of breach by resorting to litigation or arbitration as stipulated in the contract. The remedy arising ex contractu is not barred and the cause of action for the same is independent of enforcement of the guarantee."
13. Reference may also be made to the observations of B.N.Kirpal, J. (as his Lordship then was) in Dwarikesh Sugar Industries Ltd. –vs- Prem Heavy Engineering Works (P) Ltd., (1997) 6 Supreme Court Cases 450, and the terse deprecation contained therein to the Courts' interdicting the normal operation of Bank Guarantees and Letters of Credit.
21. Numerous decisions of this Court rendered over a span of nearly two decades have laid down and reiterated the principles which the courts must apply while considering the question whether to grant an injunction which has the effect of restraining the encashment of a bank guarantee. We do not think it necessary to burden this judgment by referring to all of them. Some of the more recent pronouncements on this point where the earlier decisions have been considered and reiterated are Svenska Handelsbanken v. Indian Charge Chrome, Larsen & Toubro Ltd. v. Maharashtra SEB, Hindustan Steel Workers Construction Ltd. v. G.S. Atwal & Co. (Engineers) (P) Ltd. and U.P. State Sugar Corpn. v. Sumac International Ltd. The general principle which has been laid down by this Court has been summarised in the case of U.P. State Sugar Corpn. As follows: (SCC p.574, para 12) ―The law relating to invocation of such bank guarantees is by now well settled. When in the course of commercial dealings an unconditional bank guarantee is given or accepted, the beneficiary is entitled to realize such a bank guarantee in terms thereof irrespective of any pending disputes. The bank giving such a guarantee is bound to honour it as per its terms irrespective of any dispute raised by its customer. The very purpose of giving such a bank guarantee would otherwise be defeated. The courts should, therefore, be slow in granting an injunction to restrain the realization of such a bank guarantee. The courts have carved out only two exceptions. A fraud in connection with such a bank guarantee would vitiate the very foundation of such a bank guarantee. Hence if there is such a fraud of which the beneficiary seeks to take the advantage, he can be restrained from doing so. The second exception relates to cases where allowing the encashment of an unconditional bank guarantee would result in irretrievable harm or injustice to one of the parties concerned. Since in most cases payment of money under such a bank guarantee would adversely affect the bank and its customer at whose instance the guarantee is given, the harm or injustice contemplated under this head must be of such an exceptional and irretrievable nature as would override the terms of the guarantee and the adverse effect of such an injunction on commercial dealings in the country.Dealing with the question of fraud it has been held that fraud has to be an established fraud. The following observations of Sir John Donaldson, M.R. In Bolivinter Oil SA v. Chase Manhattan Bank are apposite:―... The wholly exceptional case where an injunction may be granted is where it is proved that the bank knows that any demand for payment already made or which may thereafter be made will clearly be fraudulent. But the evidence must be clear, both as to the fact of fraud and as to the bank's knowledge. It would certainly not normally be sufficient that this rests on the uncorroborated statement of the customer, for irreparable damage can be done to a bank's credit in the relatively brief time which must elapse between the granting of such an injunction and an application by the bank to have it discharged.‖The aforesaid passage was approved and followed by this Court in U.P. Coop. Federation Ltd. v. Singh Consultants and Engineers (P) Ltd.22. The second exception to the rule of granting injunction, i.e., the resulting of irretrievable injury, has to be such a circumstance which would make it impossible for the guarantor to reimburse himself, if he ultimately succeeds. This will have to be decisively established and it must be proved to the satisfaction of the court that there would be no possibility whatsoever of the recovery of the amount from the beneficiary, by way of restitution.‖
14. It will be apposite to make a reference of Federal Bank Limited –vs- V.M. Jog Engineering Limited, (2001) 1 SCC 663 the Apex Court had recorded the following enunciation of law --
In several judgments of this Court, it has been held that courts ought not to grant injunction to restrain encashment of bank guarantees or letters of credit. Two exceptions have been mentioned - (i) fraud, and (ii) irretrievable damage. If the plaintiff is prima facie able to establish that the case comes within these two exceptions, temporary injunction under Order 39 Rule 1 CPC can be issued. It has also been held that the contract of the bank guarantee or the letter of credit is independent of the main contract between the seller and the buyer. This is also clear from Articles 3 and 4 of UCP (1983 Revision). In case of an irrevocable bank guarantee or letter of credit the buyer cannot obtain injunction against the banker on the ground that there was a breach of the contract by the seller. The bank is to honour the demand for encashment if the seller prima facie complies with the terms of bank guarantee or the letter of credit, namely, if the seller produces the documents enumerated in the bank guarantee or the letter of credit. If the bank is satisfied on the face of the documents that they are in conformity with the list of documents mentioned in the bank guarantee or the letter of credit and there is no discrepancy, it is bound to honour the demand of the seller for encashment. While doing so it must take reasonable care. It is not permissible for the bank to refuse payment on the ground that the buyer is claiming that there is a breach of contract. Nor can the bank try to decide this question of breach at that stage and refuse payment to the seller. Its obligation under the document having nothing to do with any dispute as to breach of contract between the seller and the buyer.
15. It is evident that despite the clarity and consistency in the decisions of the Hon'ble Supreme Court injunctions for the encashment of Bank Guarantees and Letters of Credit are nevertheless granted. Very recently in National Highways Authority of India –vs- Ganga Enterprises, (2003) 7 Supreme Court Cases 410, the Apex Court again adumbrated the law on this subject in the following passage:
It is settled law that a contract of guarantee is a complete and separate contract by itself. The law regarding enforcement of an ―on-demand bank guarantee is very clear. If the enforcement is in terms of the guarantee, then courts must not interfere with the enforcement of bank guarantee. The court can only interfere if the invocation is against the terms of the guarantee of if there is any fraud. Courts cannot restrain invocation of an ―on-demand guarantee‖ in accordance with its terms by looking at terms of the underlying contract. The existence or non-existence of an underlying contract becomes irrelevant when the invocation is in terms of the bank guarantee. The bank guarantee stipulated that if the bid was withdrawn within 120 days or if the performance security was not given or if an agreement was not signed, the guarantee could be enforced. The bank guarantee was enforced because the bid was withdrawn within 120 days. Therefore, it could not be said that the invocation of the bank guarantee was against the terms of the bank guarantee. If it was in terms of the bank guarantee, one fails to understand as to how the High Court could say that the guarantee could not have been invoked. If the guarantee was rightly invoked, there was no question of directing refund as has been done by the High Court.
16. From the above discussion, it is manifestly clear that there is no dispute that a Letter of Credit is an independent contract and the Courts are not to interfere with the encashment of the Letter of Credit unless the case falls within the purview of exceptions laid down by the Apex Court. The first exception which has been carved out by the Courts is that the fraud perpetrated must be of egregious nature meaning that the said fraud must be one of gross nature which shakes the conscience of the Court and the said fraud must be known to the parties including the party representing as well as the bank. Under the said circumstances, if the said fraud is established, the Court can interfere with the bank guarantee. In U.P. Cooperation Federation Ltd. (Supra) also it was held that the fraud pleaded must be of an egregious nature so as to vitiate the entire underlying transaction of the Bank Guarantee. It is fraud of the beneficiary and not the fraud of somebody else that would make the Court to grant the Order of injunction as asked for.