Cheque Bounce Case: A Person cannot be held Vicariously Liable under Section 141 NI Act For Merely Being partner in the Firm that took the Loan (Supreme Court)
Facts and Issue of the case
The issues raised in this appeal by the appellant, Dilip Hariramani, challenging his conviction under Section 1381 read with Section 141 of the Negotiable Instruments Act, 1881 are covered by the decisions of this Court on the aspects of (i) vicarious criminal liability of a partner; and (ii) whether a partner can be convicted and held to be vicariously liable when the partnership firm is not an accused tried for the primary/substantive offence.
Observation of the court
Court does not required to refer to the facts extensively. Suffice it is to notice that the respondent before us – Bank of Baroda, had granted term loans and cash credit facility to a partnership firm – M/s. Global Packaging on 04th October 2012 for Rs. 6,73,80,000/-. It is alleged that in part repayment of the loan, the Firm, through its authorized signatory, Simaiya Hariramani, had issued three cheques of Rs. 25,00,000/- each on 17th October 2015, 27th October 2015 and 31st October 2015. However, the cheques were dishonored on presentation due to insufficient funds. On 04th November 2015, the Bank, through its Branch Manager, issued a demand notice to Simaiya Hariramani under Section 138 of the NI Act. On 07th December 2015, the respondent Bank, through its Branch Manager, filed a complaint under Section 138 of the NI Act before the Court of Judicial Magistrate, Balodabazar, Chhattisgarh, against Simaiya Hariramani and the appellant. The Firm was not made an accused. Simaiya Hariramani and the appellant, as per the cause title, were shown as partners of the Firm.
The respondent Bank had produced as witness – Prashant Kumar Gartia (PW-1), who was posted as the Branch Manager of the respondent and had deposed that the Firm was a partnership firm with Simaiya Hariramani as its partner. The Firm had availed term loans and cash credit and gave three cheques of Rs. 25,00,000/- each, which were dishonoured due to ‘insufficient funds’. Even after the demand notice (Exhibit P-04), the accused had not deposited the amount. Thereby, a complaint under Section 138 of the NI Act was filed. In his cross-examination, PW-1 admitted that the demand notice had not been issued to the Firm and that no loan had been obtained by Dilip Hariramani an Simaiya Hariramani in their individual capacity.
By judgment dated 19th February 2019, the appellant and Simaiya Hariramani were convicted by the Judicial Magistrate First Class, Balodabazar, Chhattisgarh, under Section 138 of the NI Act and sentenced to imprisonment for six months. They were also asked to pay Rs. 97,50,000/- as compensation under Section 357(3)4 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973 and, in default, suffer additional imprisonment for one month. An appeal preferred by the appellant and Simaiya Hariramani challenging their conviction was dismissed by the Sessions Judge, Balodabazar, Chhattisgarh, vide judgment dated 21st November 2019, albeit the appellate court modified the sentence awarded to imprisonment till the rising of the court and at the same time, enhanced the compensation amount under Section 357(3) from Rs. 97,50,000/- to Rs. 1,20,00,000/- with the stipulation that the appellant and Simaiya Hariramani shall suffer additional imprisonment for three months in case of failure to pay.
The appellant and Simaiya Hariramani challenged the judgment before the High Court of Chhattisgarh, which has been dismissed by the impugned judgment dated 12th October 2020. The impugned judgment primarily relies upon the decision of this Court in Monaben Ketanbhai Shah and Another v. State of Gujarat and Others and observes that the liability under the NI Act is only upon the partners who are responsible for the firm for conduct of its business. In the present case, both the appellant and Simaiya Hariramani had furnished guarantees of the amount borrowed by the Firm from the Bank.
Before court refers to the pertinent legal ratio in the case of Aneeta Hada v. Godfather Travels and Tours Private Ltd.,6 we would like to refer to an earlier apposite judgment of this Court in State of Karnataka v. Pratap Chand and Others,7 in which case prosecution had been initiated under the Drugs and Cosmetics Act, 1940 against a partnership firm and its partners. Reference was made to Section 348 of the Drugs and Cosmetics Act, which is pari materia to Section 141 of the NI Act. Sub-section (1) to Section 141 of the NI Act states that where a company commits an offence, every person who at the time the offence was committed was in charge of and was responsible to the company for the conduct of the business, as well as the company itself, shall be deemed to be guilty of the offence. The expression ‘every person’ is wide and comprehensive enough to include a director, partner or other officers or persons. At the same time, it follows that a person who does not bear out the requirements of ‘in charge of and responsible to the company for the conduct of its business’ is not vicariously liable under Section 141 of the NI Act. The burden is on the prosecution to show that the person prosecuted was in charge of and responsible to the company for conduct of its business. The proviso, which is in the nature of an exception, states that a person liable under sub- section (1) shall not be punished if he proves that the offence was committed without his knowledge or that he had exercised all due diligence to prevent the commission of such offence. The onus to satisfy the requirements and take benefit of the proviso is on the accused. Still, it does not displace or extricate the initial onus and burden on the prosecution to first establish the requirements of sub-section (1) to Section 141 of the NI Act. The proviso gives immunity to a person who is otherwise vicariously liable under sub-section (1) to Section 141 of the NI Act.9
Sub-section (2) to Section 141 of the NI Act states that notwithstanding anything contained in sub-section (1), where a company has committed any offence under the Act, and it is proved that such an offence has been committed with the consent or connivance of, or is attributable to any neglect on the part of any director, manager, secretary or other officers of the company, then such director, manager, secretary or other officers of the S.M.S. Pharmaceuticals Ltd. v. Neeta Bhalla and Another, (2005) 8 SCC 89, para 4 and 9. company shall also be deemed to be guilty of that offence and shall be liable to be proceeded against and punished accordingly. Sub-section (2) to Section 141 of the NI Act does not state that the persons enumerated, which can include an officer of the company, can be prosecuted and punished merely because of their status or position as a director, manager, secretary or any other officer, unless the offence in question was committed with their consent or connivance or is attributable to any neglect on their part. The onus under sub-section (2) to Section 141 of the NI Act is on the prosecution and not on the person being prosecuted.
In Pratap Chand (supra), specific reference was made to the Explanation to Section 34 of the Drugs and Cosmetics Act, which states that for Section 34, a ‘company’ means a body corporate and includes a firm or association of individuals, and a ‘director’ in relation to a firm means a partner in the firm. Thereafter, the conviction of the second respondent, one of the partners in the firm therein, was quashed on the ground that he cannot be convicted merely because he has the right to participate in the firm’s business in terms of the partnership deed. Thus, notwithstanding the legal position that a firm is not a juristic person, a partner is not vicariously liable for an offence committed by the firm, unless one of the twin requirements are satisfied and established by the prosecution. We would also refer to the summarization of law on Section 141 by this Court in National Small Industries Corporation Limited v. Harmeet Singh Paintal and Another. In the present case, we have reproduced the contents of the complaint and the deposition of PW-1. It is an admitted case of the respondent Bank that the appellant had not issued any of the three cheques, which had been dishonored, in his personal capacity or otherwise as a partner. In the absence of any evidence led by the prosecution to show and establish that the appellant was in charge of and responsible for the conduct of the affairs of the firm, an expression interpreted by this Court in Girdhari Lal Gupta v. D.H. Mehta and Another to mean ‘a person in overall control of the day-to-day business of the company or the firm’, the conviction of the appellant has to be set aside.12 The appellant cannot be convicted merely because he was a partner of the firm which had taken the loan or that he stood as a guarantor for such a loan. The Partnership Act, 1932 creates civil liability. Further, the guarantor’s liability under the Indian Contract Act, 1872 is a civil liability. The appellant may have civil liability and may also be liable under the Recovery of Debts Due to Banks and Financial Institutions Act, 1993 and the Securitisation and Reconstruction of Financial Assets and Enforcement of Security Interest Act, 2002. However, vicarious liability in the criminal law in terms of Section 141 of the NI Act cannot be fastened because of the civil liability. Vicarious liability under sub-section (1) to Section 141 of the NI Act can be pinned when the person is in overall control of the day- to-day business of the company or firm. Vicarious liability under sub-section (2) to Section 141 of the NI Act can arise because of the director, manager, secretary, or other officer’s personal conduct, functional or transactional role, notwithstanding that the person was not in overall control of the day-to-day business of the company when the offence was committed. Vicarious liability under sub-section (2) is attracted when the offence is committed with the consent, connivance, or is attributable to the neglect on the part of a director, manager, secretary, or other officer of the company.
The demand notice issued on 04th November 2015 by the Bank, through its Branch Manager, was served solely to Simaiya Hariramani, the authorised signatory of the Firm. The complaint dated 07th December 2015 under Section 138 of the NI Act before the Court of Judicial Magistrate, Balodabazar, Chhattisgarh, was made against Simaiya Hariramani and the appellant. Thus, in the present case, the Firm has not been made an accused or even summoned to be tried for the offence.
The judgment in Dayle De’souza v. Government of India through Deputy Chief Labour Commissioner (C) and Another,13 answered the question of whether a director or a partner can be prosecuted without the company being prosecuted. Reference in this regard was made to the views expressed by this Court in State of Madras v. C.V. Parekh and Another14 on the one hand and the divergent view expressed in Sheoratan Agarwal and Another v. State of Madhya Pradesh15 and Anil Hada v. Indian Acrylic Ltd.16 This controversy was settled by a three Judge Bench of this Court in Aneeta Hada (supra) The provisions of Section 141 impose vicarious liability by deeming fiction which presupposes and requires the commission of the offence by the company or firm. Therefore, unless the company or firm has committed the offence as a principal accused, the persons mentioned in sub-section (1) or (2) would not be liable and convicted as vicariously liable. Section 141 of the NI Act extends vicarious criminal liability to officers associated with the company or firm when one of the twin requirements of Section 141 has been satisfied, which person(s) then, by deeming fiction, is made vicariously liable and punished. However, such vicarious liability arises only when the company or firm commits the offence as the primary offender. This view has been subsequently followed in Sharad Kumar Sanghi v. Sangita Rane,17 Himanshu v. B. Shivamurthy and Another,18 and Hindustan Unilever Limited v. State of Madhya Pradesh.19 The exception carved out in Aneeta Hada (supra),20 which applies when there is a legal bar for prosecuting a company or a firm, is not felicitous for the present case. No such plea or assertion is made by the respondent.
The court allowed the present appeal and set aside the appellant’s conviction under Section 138 read with Section 141 of the NI Act. The impugned judgment of the High Court confirming the conviction and order of sentence passed by the Sessions Court, and the order of conviction passed by the Judicial Magistrate First Class were set aside.DILIP-HIRARAMANI