Supreme Court: Explaining the law relating to vicarious liability of the Directors of a company under Sections 138 and 141 of the Negotiable Instruments Act, 1881, the bench of Ajay Rastogi* and Abhay S. Oka, JJ has held that if, at the time the offence was committed, the person accused was in charge of, and responsible for the conduct of business of the company and and if statutory compliance of Section 141 of the NI Act has been made, the High Court cannot quash the proceedings against the person accused under Section 482 CrPC.
It can, however, do so, if
“… it comes across some unimpeachable, incontrovertible evidence which is beyond suspicion or doubt or totally acceptable circumstances which may clearly indicate that the Director could not have been concerned with the issuance of cheques and asking him to stand the trial would be abuse of process of Court. Despite the presence of basic averment, it may come to a conclusion that no case is made out against the particular Director for which there could be various reasons.”
In S.M.S. Pharmaceuticals Ltd. v. Neeta Bhalla, (2005) 8 SCC 89, while dealing with an offence under Section 138 of the NI Act, the Court explained the duty of a Magistrate while issuing process and his power to dismiss a complaint under Section 203 without even issuing process. It held,
“5. … 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 the Magistrate as well as the 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 charge-sheet do not constitute an offence against a person, the complaint is liable to be dismissed.”
The same judgment then went on to explain the requirements under Section 141 of the NI Act:
(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. Without this averment being made in a complaint, the requirements of Section 141 cannot be said to be satisfied.
(b) 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 the 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 managing director or joint managing director would be admittedly in charge of the company and responsible to the company for the 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 the signatory of a cheque which is dishonoured is concerned, he is clearly responsible for the incriminating act and will be covered under subsection (2) of Section 141.
In the case at hand, the Court was concerned with Directors who were not signatories to the cheques. So far as Directors who are not the signatories to the cheques or who are not Managing Directors or Joint Managing Directors are concerned, it is necessary to aver in the complaint filed under Section 138 read with Section 141 of the NI Act that at the relevant time when the offence was committed, the Directors were in charge of and were responsible for the conduct of the business of the company. This averment assumes importance because it is the basic and essential averment which persuades the Magistrate to issue process against the Director.
In the present case, the Court noticed that the allegations in the complaint are that at the time at which the cheques were issued by the Company and dishonoured by the Bank, the appellants were the Directors of the Company and were responsible for its business and all the appellants were involved in the business of the Company and were responsible for all the affairs of the Company.
“It may not be proper to split while reading the complaint so as to come to a conclusion that the allegations as a whole are not sufficient to fulfil the requirement of Section 141 of the NI Act.”
Since the complaint specifically refers to the point of time when the cheques were issued, their presentment, dishonour and failure to pay in spite of notice of dishonour, the High Court was right in not exercising its power under Section 482 of CrPC.
[Ashutosh Ashok Parasrampuriya v. Gharrkul Industries Pvt. Ltd., CRIMINAL APPEAL NO(S). 1206 OF 2021, decided on 08.10.2021]