15 Nov 2010

Liability of Corporations: The law revisited

The creation of a legal entity with a separate personality from an individual owning it has led to development of considerable jurisprudence on the nature and extent of liabilities of artificial persons. One such development in field of law is the liability for criminal offences committed by corporations wherein most cases the punishment is both "imprisonment and fine". There is no doubt that corporates cannot be imprisoned and thus it had been argued that the corporate should not be held liable at all as the law cannot be interpreted to do the impossible whereas the word "and" requires both imprisonment along with fine. This contention prevailed for long unless the hyper-techniques of interpretation were set aside by a Constitutional Bench of the Supreme Court in Standard Chartered Bank

In this post we bring to you a recent decision of the Supreme Court in Iridium India Telecom Ltd. v. Motorola Incorporated wherein the Supreme Court inter alia has revisited the law relating to liability of corporations. The Supreme Court in this context observed as under;
35. We are of the considered opinion that there is much substance in the submission of Mr. Jethmalani that virtually in all jurisdictions across the world governed by the rule of law, the companies and corporate houses can no longer claim immunity from criminal prosecution on the ground that they are incapable of possessing the necessary mens rea for the commission of criminal offences. The legal position in England and the United States has now crystallized to leave no manner of doubt that a corporation would be liable for crimes of intent. In the year 1909, the United 34 [1992 Crl. L.J. 1448] States Supreme Court in New York Central & Hudson River Railroad Co. Vs. United States, stated the principle thus:- 
“It is true that there are some crimes which, in their nature, cannot be committed by corporations. But there is a large class of offences, of which rebating under the federal statutes is one, wherein the crime consists in purposely doing the things prohibited by statute. In that class of crimes we see no good reason why corporations may not be held responsible for and charged with the knowledge and purposes of their agents, acting within the authority conferred upon them. If it were not so, many offences might go unpunished and acts be committed in violation of law where, as in the present case, the statute requires all persons, corporate or private, to refrain from certain practices, forbidden in the interest of public policy.
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We see no valid objection in law, and every reason in public policy, why the corporation, which profits by the transaction, and can only act through its agents and officers, shall be held punishable by fine because of the knowledge and intent of its agents to whom it has entrusted authority to act in the subject-matter of making and fixing rates of transportation, and whose knowledge and purposes may well be attributed to the corporation for which the agents act. While the law should have regard to the rights of all, and to those of corporations no less than to those of individuals, it cannot shut its eyes to the fact that the great majority of business transactions in modern times are conducted through these bodies, and particularly that inter-State commerce is almost entirely in their hands, and to give them immunity from all punishment because of the old and exploded doctrine that a corporation cannot commit a crime would virtually take away the only means of effectually controlling the subject-matter and correcting the abuses aimed at.”
The aforesaid sentiment is reiterated in the 19 American Jurisprudence 2d para 1434 in the following words:- 
“Lord Holt is reported to have said (Anonymous, 12 Mod 559, 88 Eng Reprint 1164) that ‘a corporation is not indictable, but the particular members of it are’. On the strength of this statement it was said by the early writers that a corporation is not indictable at common law, and this view was taken by the courts in some of the earlier cases. The broad general rule is now well established, however, that a corporation may be criminally liable. This rule applies as well to acts of misfeasance as to those of nonfeasance, and it is immaterial that the Act constituting the offence was ultra vires. It has been held that a de facto corporation may be held criminally liable. As in case of torts the general rule prevails that a corporation may be criminally liable for the acts of an officer or agent, assumed to be done by him when exercising authorized powers, and without proof that his act was expressly authorized or approved by the corporation. A specific prohibition made by the corporation to its agents against violation of the law is no defence. The rule has been laid down, however, that corporations are liable, civilly or criminally, only for the acts of their agents who are authorized to act for them in the particular matter out of which the unlawful conduct with which they are charged grows or in the business to which it relates.”
Again in 19 Corpus Juris Secundum, para 1363 it has been observed as under:-
“A corporation may be criminally liable for crimes which involve a specific element of intent as well for those which do not, and, although some crimes require such a personal, malicious intent, that a corporation is considered incapable of committing them, nevertheless, under the proper circumstances the criminal intent of its agent may be imputed to it so as to render it liable, the requisites of such imputation being essentially the same as those required to impute malice to corporations in civil actions.” 
36. The Courts in England have emphatically rejected the notion that a body corporate could not commit a criminal offence which was an outcome of an act of will needing a particular state of mind. The aforesaid notion has been rejected by adopting the doctrine of attribution and imputation. In other words, the criminal intent of the “alter ego” of the company / body corporate, i.e., the person or group of person that guide the business of the company, would be imputed to the corporation. It may be appropriate at this stage to notice the observations made by the MacNaghten, J. in the case of Director of Public Prosecutions Vs. Kent and Sussex Contractors Ltd.:
“A body corporate is a ‘person’ to whom, amongst the various attributes it may have, there should be imputed the attribute of a mind capable of knowing and forming an intention — indeed it is much too late in the day to suggest the contrary. It can only know or form an intention through its human agents, but circumstances may be such that the knowledge of the agent must be imputed to the body corporate. Counsel for the respondents says that, although a body corporate may be capable of having an intention, it is not capable of having a criminal intention. In this particular case the intention was the intention to deceive. If, as in this case, the responsible agent of a body corporate puts forward a document knowing it to be false and intending that it should deceive, I apprehend, according to the authorities that Viscount Caldecote, L.C.J., has cited, his knowledge and intention must be imputed to the body corporate.”
The principle has been reiterated by Lord Denning in the case of H.L.Bolton (Engg.) Co. Ltd. Vs. T.J.Graham & Sons in the following words:-
“A company may in many ways be likened to a human body. They have a brain and a nerve centre which controls what they do. They also have hands which hold the tools and act in accordance with directions from the centre. Some of the people in the company are mere servants and agents who are nothing more than hands to do the work and cannot be said to represent the mind or will. Others are directors and managers who represent the directing mind and will of the company, and control what they do. The state of mind of these managers is the state of mind of the company and is treated by the law as such. So you will find that in cases where the law requires personal fault as a condition of liability in tort, the fault of the manager will be the personal fault of the company. That is made clear in Lord Haldane’s speech in Lennard’s Carrying Co. Ltd. Vs. Asiatic Petroleum Co. Ltd. (AC at pp. 713, 714). So also in the criminal law, in cases where the law requires a guilty mind as a condition of a criminal offence, the guilty mind of the directors or the managers will render the company themselves guilty.”
37. The aforesaid principle has been firmly established in England since the decision of House of Lords in Tesco Supermarkets Ltd. Vs. Nattrass. In stating the principle of corporate liability for criminal offences, Lord Reid made the following statement of law:-
“I must start by considering the nature of the personality which by a fiction the law attributes to a corporation. A living person has a mind which can have knowledge or intention or be negligent and he has hands to carry out his intentions. A corporation has none of these; it must act through living persons, though not always one or the same person. Then the person who acts is not speaking or acting for the company. He is acting as the company and his mind which directs his acts is the mind of the company. There is no question of the company being vicariously liable. He is not acting as a servant, representative, agent or delegate. He is an embodiment of the company or, one could say, he hears and speaks through the persona of the company, within his appropriate sphere, and his mind is the mind of the company. If it is guilty mind then that guilt is the guilt of the company. It must be a question of law whether, once the facts have been ascertained, a person in doing particular things is to be regarded as the company or merely as the company’s servant or agent. In that case any liability of the company can only be a statutory or vicarious liability.” 
38. From the above it becomes evident that a corporation is virtually in the same position as any individual and may be convicted of common law as well as statutory offences including those requiring mens rea. The criminal liability of a corporation would arise when an offence is committed in relation to the business of the corporation by a person or body of persons in control of its affairs. In such circumstances, it would be necessary to ascertain that the degree and control of the person or body of persons is so intense that a corporation may be said to think and act through the person or the body of persons. The position of law on this issue in Canada is almost the same. Mens rea is attributed to corporations on the principle of ‘alter ego’ of the company
39. So far as India is concerned, the legal position has been clearly stated by the Constitution Bench judgment of this Court in the case of Standard Chartered Bank Vs. Directorate of Enforcement. On a detailed consideration of the entire body of case laws in this country as well as other jurisdictions, it has been observed as follows:
“There is no dispute that a company is liable to be prosecuted and punished for criminal offences. Although there are earlier authorities to the effect that corporations cannot commit a crime, the generally accepted modern rule is that except for such crimes as a corporation is held incapable of committing by reason of the fact that they involve personal malicious intent, a corporation may be subject to indictment or other criminal process, although the criminal act is committed through its agents.”
This Court also rejected the submission that a company could avoid criminal prosecution in cases where custodial sentence is mandatory. Upon examination of the entire issue, it is observed as follows:-
“27. In the case of Penal Code offences, for example under Section 420 of the Indian Penal Code, for cheating and dishonestly inducing delivery of property, the punishment prescribed is imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to seven years and shall also be liable to fine; and for the offence under Section 417, that is, simple cheating, the punishment prescribed is imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to one year or with fine or with both. If the appellants’ plea is accepted then for the offence under Section 417 IPC, which is an offence of minor nature, a company could be prosecuted and punished with fine whereas for the offence under Section 420, which is an aggravated form of cheating by which the victim is dishonestly induced to deliver property, the company cannot be prosecuted as there is a mandatory sentence of imprisonment.
28. So also there are several other offences in the Indian  Penal Code which describe offences of serious nature whereunder a corporate body also may be found guilty, and the punishment prescribed is mandatory custodial sentence. There are a series of other offences under various statutes where the accused are also liable to be punished with custodial sentence and fine.
30. As the company cannot be sentenced to imprisonment, the court has to resort to punishment of imposition of fine which is also a prescribed punishment. As per the scheme of various enactments and also the Indian Penal Code, mandatory custodial sentence is prescribed for graver offences. If the appellants’ plea is accepted, no company or corporate bodies could be prosecuted for the graver offences whereas they could be prosecuted for minor offences as the sentence prescribed therein is custodial sentence or fine.
31. As the company cannot be sentenced to imprisonment, the court cannot impose that punishment, but when imprisonment and fine is the prescribed punishment the court can impose the punishment of fine which could be enforced against the company. Such a discretion is to be read into the section so far as the juristic person is concerned. Of course, the court cannot exercise the same discretion as regards a natural person. Then the court would not be passing the sentence in accordance with law. As regards company, the court can always impose a sentence of fine and the sentence of imprisonment can be ignored as it is impossible to be carried out in respect of a company. This appears to be the intention of the legislature and we find no difficulty in construing the statute in such a way. We do not think that there is a blanket immunity for any company from any prosecution for serious offences merely because the prosecution would ultimately entail a sentence of mandatory imprisonment. The corporate bodies, such as a firm or company undertake a series of activities that affect the life, liberty and property of the citizens. Large-scale financial irregularities are done by various corporations. The corporate vehicle now occupies such a large portion of the industrial, commercial and sociological sectors that amenability of the corporation to a criminal law is essential to have a peaceful society with stable economy.
32. We hold that there is no immunity to the companies from prosecution merely because the prosecution is in respect of offences for which the punishment prescribed is mandatory imprisonment (sic and fine). We overrule the views expressed by the majority in Velliappa Textiles on this point and answer the reference accordingly. Various other contentions have been urged in all appeals, including this appeal, they be posted for hearing before an appropriate Bench.”
40. These observations leave no manner of doubt that a company / corporation cannot escape liability for a criminal offence, merely because the punishment prescribed is that of imprisonment and fine. We are of the considered opinion that in view of the aforesaid Judgment of this Court, the conclusion reached by the High Court that the respondent could not have the necessary mens rea is clearly erroneous.

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