Supreme court orders banks to seize assets of defaulting company promotors
Fact and Issue of the case
The common question which arises in all these cases concerns the vires and validity of a notification dated 15.11.2019 issued by the Central Government (hereafter called “the impugned notification”). Other reliefs too have been claimed concerning the validity of the Insolvency and Bankruptcy (Application to Adjudicating Authority for Insolvency Resolution Process for Personal Guarantors to Corporate Debtors) Rules, 2019 issued on 15.11.2019. Likewise, the validity of regulations challenged by the Insolvency and Bankruptcy Board of India on 20.11.2019 are also the subject matter of challenge. However, during the course of submissions, learned counsel for the parties stated that the challenge would be confined to the impugned notification.
All writ petitioners before the High Courts, arrayed as respondents in the transferred cases before this Court, as well as the petitioners under Article 32 claim to be aggrieved by the impugned notification. At some stage or the other, these petitioners (compendiously termed as “the writ petitioners”) had furnished personal guarantees to banks and financial institutions which led to release of advances to various companies which they (the petitioners) were associated with as directors, promoters or in some instances, as chairman or managing directors. In many cases, the personal guarantees furnished by the writ petitioners were invoked, and proceedings are pending against companies which they are or were associated with, and the advances for which they furnished bank guarantees. In several cases, recovery proceedings and later insolvency proceedings were initiated. The insolvency proceedings are at different stages and the resolution plans are at the stage of finalization. In a few cases, the resolution plans have not yet been approved by the adjudicating authority and in some cases, the approvals granted are subject to attack before the appellate tribunal.
All the writ petitioners challenged the impugned notification as having been issued in excess of the authority conferred upon the Union of India (through the Ministry of Corporate Affairs) which has been arrayed in all these proceedings as parties. The petitioners contend that the power conferred upon the Union under Section 1(3) of the Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code, 2016 (hereafter referred to as “the Code”) could not have been resorted to in the manner as to extend the provisions of the Code only as far as they relate to personal guarantors of corporate debtors. The impugned notification brought into force Section 2(e), Section 78 (except with regard to fresh start process), Sections 79, 94-187 (both inclusive); Section 239(2)(g), (h) & (i); Section 239(2)(m) to (zc); Section 239 (2)(zn) to (zs) and Section 249. After publication of the impugned notification, many petitioners were served with demand notices proposing to initiate insolvency proceedings under the Code. These demand notices were based on various counts, including that recovery proceedings were initiated after invocation of the guarantees. This led to initiation of insolvency resolution process under Part-III of the Code against some of the petitioners. The main argument advanced in all these proceedings on behalf of the writ petitioners is that the impugned notification is an exercise of excessive delegation. It is contended that the Central Government has no authority – legislative or statutory – to impose conditions on the enforcement of the Code. It is further contended as a corollary, that the enforcement of Sections 78, 79, 94-187 etc. in terms of the impugned notification of the Code only in relation to personal guarantors is ultra vires the powers granted to the Central Government.
Observation of the Court
The argument that the insolvency processes, application of moratorium and other provisions are incongruous, and so on, in the opinion of this court, are insubstantial. The insolvency process in relation to corporate persons (a compendious term covering all juristic entities which have been described in Sections 2 [a] to [d] of the Code) is entirely different from those relating to individuals; the former is covered in the provisions of Part II and the latter, by Part III. Section 179, which defines what the Adjudicating authority is for individuals66 is “subject to” Section 60. Section 60(2) is without prejudice to Section 60(1) and notwithstanding anything to the contrary contained in the Code, thus giving overriding effect to Section 60(2) as far as it provides that the application relating to insolvency resolution, liquidation or bankruptcy of personal guarantors of such corporate debtors shall be filed before the NCLT where proceedings relating to corporate debtors are pending. Furthermore, Section 60(3) provides for transfer of proceedings relating to personal guarantors to that NCLT which is dealing with the proceedings against corporate debtors. After providing for a common adjudicating forum, Section 60(4) vests the NCLT “with all the powers of the DRT as contemplated under Part III of this Code for the purpose of sub-section (2)”. Section 60 (4) thus (a) vests all the powers of DRT with NCLT and (b) also vests NCLT with powers under Part III. Parliament therefore merged the provisions of Part III with the process undertaken against the corporate debtors under Part II, for the purpose of Section 60(2), i.e., proceedings against personal guarantors along with corporate debtors. Section 179 is the corresponding provision in Part III. It is “subject to the provisions of Section 60”. Section 60 (4) clearly incorporates the provisions of Part III in relation to proceedings before the NCLT against personal guarantors.
It is clear from the above analysis that Parliamentary intent was to treat personal guarantors differently from other categories of individuals. The intimate connection between such individuals and corporate entities to whom they stood guarantee, as well as the possibility of two separate processes being carried on in different forums, with its attendant uncertain outcomes, led to carving out personal guarantors as a separate species of individuals, for whom the Adjudicating authority was common with the corporate debtor to whom they had stood guarantee. The fact that the process of insolvency in Part III is to be applied to individuals, whereas the process in relation to corporate debtors, set out in Part II is to be applied to such corporate persons, does not lead to incongruity. On the other hand, there appear to be sound reasons why the forum for adjudicating insolvency processes – the provisions of which are disparate- is to be common, i.e through the NCLT. As was emphasized during the hearing, the NCLT would be able to consider the whole picture, as it were, about the nature of the assets available, either during the corporate debtor’s insolvency process, or even later; this would facilitate the CoC in framing realistic plans, keeping in mind the prospect of realizing some part of the creditors’ dues from personal guarantors In view of the above discussion, it is held that the impugned notification is not an instance of legislative exercise, or amounting to impermissible and selective application of provisions of the Code. There is no compulsion in the Code that it should, at the same time, be made applicable to all individuals, (including personal guarantors) or not at all.
There is sufficient indication in the Code- by Section 2(e), Section 5(22), Section 60 and Section 179 indicating that personal guarantors, though forming part of the larger grouping of individuals, were to be, in view of their intrinsic connection with corporate debtors, dealt with differently, through the same adjudicatory process and by the same forum (though not insolvency provisions) as such corporate debtors. The notifications under Section 1(3), (issued before the impugned notification was issued) disclose that the Code was brought into force in stages, regard being had to the categories of persons to whom its provisions were to be applied. The impugned notification, similarly inter alia makes the provisions of the Code applicable in respect of personal guarantors to corporate debtors, as another such category of persons to whom the Code has been extended. It is held that the impugned notification was issued within the power granted by Parliament, and in valid exercise of it. The exercise of power in issuing the impugned notification under Section 1(3) is therefore, not ultra vires; the notification is valid. The other question which parties had urged before this court was that the impugned notification, by applying the Code to personal guarantors only, takes away the protection afforded by law; reference was made to Sections 128, 133 and 140 of the Contract Act; the petitioners submitted that once a resolution plan is accepted, the corporate debtor is discharged of liability.
As a consequence, the guarantor whose liability is co-extensive with the principal debtor, i.e. the corporate debtor, too is discharged of all liabilities. It was urged therefore, that the impugned notification which has the effect of allowing proceedings before the NCLT by applying provisions of Part III of the Code, deprives the guarantors of their valuable substantive rights. All creditors and other classes of claimants, including financial and operational creditors, those entitled to statutory dues, workers, etc., who participate in the resolution process, are heard and those in relation to whom the CoC accepts or rejects pleas, are entitled to vent their grievances before the NCLT. After considering their submissions and objections, the resolution plan is accepted and approved. This results in finality as to the claims of creditors, and others, from the company (i.e. the company which undergoes the insolvency process). The question which the petitioners urge is that in view of this finality, their liabilities would be extinguished; they rely on Sections 128, 133 and 140 of the Contract Act to urge that creditors cannot therefore, proceed against them separately.
In Vijay Kumar Jain v. Standard Chartered Bank, this court, while dealing with the right of erstwhile directors participating in meetings of Committee of Creditors observed that Section 31(1) of the Code would make it clear that such members of the erstwhile Board of Directors, who are often guarantors, are vitally interested in a resolution plan as such resolution plan then binds them. Such plan may scale down the debt of the principal debtor, resulting in scaling down the debt of the guarantor as well, or it may not. The resolution plan may also scale down certain debts and not others, leaving guarantors of the latter kind of debts exposed for the entire amount of the debt. The regulations also make it clear that these persons are vitally interested in resolution plans as they affect them. The rationale for allowing directors to participate in meetings of the CoC is that the directors’ liability as personal guarantors persists against the creditors and an approved resolution plan can only lead to a revision of amount or exposure for the entire amount. Any recourse under Section 133 of the Contract Act to discharge the liability of the surety on account of variance in terms of the contract, without her or his consent, stands negated by this court, in V. Ramakrishnan where it was observed that the language of Section 31 makes it clear that the approved plan is binding on the guarantor, to avoid any attempt to escape liability under the provisions of the Contract Act.
In view of the above discussion, it is held that approval of a resolution plan does not ipso facto discharge a personal guarantor (of a corporate debtor) of her or his liabilities under the contract of guarantee. As held by this court, the release or discharge of a principal borrower from the debt owed by it to its creditor, by an involuntary process, i.e. by operation of law, or due to liquidation or insolvency proceeding, does not absolve the surety/guarantor of his or her liability, which arises out of an independent contract.
The Supreme court ruled in favour of the petitioner. For the foregoing reasons, it is held that the impugned notification is legal and valid. It is also held that approval of a resolution plan relating to a corporate debtor does not operate so as to discharge the liabilities of personal guarantors (to corporate debtors).
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