The concept of ‘Company’ or ‘Corporation’ in business is not new but was dealt with, in 4th century BC itself during ‘Arthashastra’ days. Its’ shape got revamped over a period of time according to the needs of business dynamics. Company form of business has certain distinct advantages over other forms of businesses like Sole Proprietorship/Partnership etc. It includes features such as Limited Liability, Perpetual Succession etc.
After reading this lesson, you would be able to understand the historical development in the evolution of corporate law in India and England, emerging regulatory aspects including Companies Act, 2013, besides dealing with basic characteristics of the company and how it differs from other forms of businesses.
Meaning of a Company
The word ‘company’ is derived from the Latin word (Com=with or together; panis =bread), and it originally referred to an association of persons who took their meals together. In the leisurely past, merchants took advantage of festive gatherings, to discuss business matters. Nowadays, the business matters have become more complicated and cannot be discussed at festive gatherings. Therefore, the company form of organization has assumed greater importance. It denotes a joint-stock enterprise in which the capital is contributed by several people. Thus, in popular parlance, a company denotes an association of likeminded persons formed for the purpose of carrying on some business or undertaking. A company is a corporate body and a legal person having status and personality distinct and separate from the members constituting it.
It is called a body corporate because the persons composing it are made into one body by incorporating it according to the law and clothing it with legal personality. The word ‘corporation’ is derived from the Latin term ‘corpus’ which means ‘body’. Accordingly, ‘corporation’ is a legal person created by a process other than natural birth. It is, for this reason, sometimes called an artificial legal person. As a legal person, a corporation is capable of enjoying many of the rights and incurring many of the liabilities of a natural person.
An incorporated company owes its existence either to a special Act of Parliament or to company law. Public corporations like Life Insurance Corporation of India, SBI etc., have been brought into existence by special Acts of Parliament, whereas companies like Tata Steel Ltd., Reliance Industries Limited have been formed under the Company law i.e. Companies Act, 1956 which is being replaced by the Companies Act, 2013.
Definition of Company
In the legal sense, a company is an association of both natural and artificial persons (and is incorporated under the existing law of a country). In terms of the Companies Act, 2013 (Act No. 18 of 2013) a “company” means a company incorporated under this Act or under any previous company law [Section 2(20)]. In common law, a company is a “legal person” or “legal entity” separate from, and capable of surviving beyond the lives of its members. However, an association formed not for profit also acquires a corporate character and falls within the meaning of a company by reason of a license issued under Section 8(1) of the Act.
A company is not merely a legal institution. It is rather a legal device for the attainment of the social and economic end. It is, therefore, a combined political, social, economic and legal institution. Thus, the term company has been described in many ways. “It is a means of cooperation and organization in the conduct of an enterprise”. It is “an intricate, centralized, economic and administrative structure run by professional managers who hire capital from the investor(s)”.
Lord Justice Lindley has defined a company as “ an association of many persons who contribute money or money’s worth to common stock and employ it in some trade or business and who share the profit and loss arising therefrom. The common stock so contributed is denoted in money and is the capital of the company.
The persons who contributed in it or form it, or to whom it belongs, are members. The proportion of capital to which each member is entitled is his “share”. The shares are always transferable although the right to transfer them may be restricted.”
From the foregoing discussion, it is clear that a company has its own corporate and legal personality distinct which is separate from its members. A brief description of the various attributes is given here to explain the nature and characteristics of the company as a corporate body.
NATURE AND CHARACTERISTICS OF A COMPANY
Since a corporate body (i.e. a company) is the creation of law, it is not a human being, it is an artificial juridical person (i.e. created by law); it is clothed with many rights, obligations, powers, and duties prescribed by law; it is called a ‘person’. Being the creation of law, it possesses only the powers conferred upon it by its Memorandum of Association which is the charter of the company. Within the limits of powers conferred by the charter, it can do all acts as a natural person may do. The most striking characteristics of a company are:
(i) Corporate personality
A company incorporated under the Act is vested with a corporate personality so it redundant bears its own name, acts under a name, has a seal of its own and its assets are separate and distinct from those of its members. It is a different ‘person’ from the members who compose it. Therefore it is capable of owning property, incurring debts, borrowing money, having a bank account, employing people, entering into contracts and suing or being sued in the same manner as an individual. Its members are its owners however they can be its creditors simultaneously. A shareholder cannot be held liable for the acts of the company even if he holds virtually the entire share capital.
The shareholders are not the agents of the company and so they cannot bind it by their acts. The company does not hold its property as an agent or trustee for its members and they cannot sue to enforce its rights, nor can they be sued in respect of its liabilities. Thus, ‘incorporation’ is the act of forming a legal corporation as a juristic person. A juristic person is in law also conferred with rights and obligations and is dealt with in accordance with law. In other words, the entity acts like a natural person but only through a designated person, whose acts are processed within the ambit of law [Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee v. Shri Sam Nath Dass AIR 2000 SCW 139].
Salomon v. Salomon and Co. Ltd., (1897) A.C. 22 case has clearly established the principle that once a company has been validly constituted under the Companies Act, it becomes a legal person distinct from its members and for this purpose it is immaterial whether any member holds a large or small proportion of the shares, and whether he holds those shares as beneficially or as a mere trustee.
In the case, Salomon had, for some years, carried on a prosperous business as a leather merchant and boot manufacturer. He formed a limited company consisting of himself, his wife, his daughter and his four sons as the shareholders, all of whom subscribed to 1 share each so that the actual cash paid as capital was £7.
Salomon sold his business (which was perfectly solvent at that time), to the Company formed by him for the sum of £38,782. The company’s nominal capital was £40,000 in £1 shares. In part payment of the purchase money for the business sold to the company, debentures of the amount of £10,000 secured by a floating charge on the company’s assets were issued to Salomon, who also applied for and received an allotment of 20,000 £ 1 fully paid shares. The remaining amount of £8,782 was paid to Salomon in cash. Salomon was the managing director and two of his sons were other directors.
The company soon ran into difficulties and the debenture holders appointed a receiver and the company went into liquidation. The total assets of the company amounted to £6050, its liabilities were £10,000 secured by debentures, £8,000 owing to unsecured trade creditors, who claimed the whole of the company’s assets, viz., £6,050, on the ground that, as the company was a mere ‘alias’ or agent for Salomon, they were entitled to payment of their debts in priority to debentures. They further pleaded that Salomon, as a principal beneficiary, was ultimately responsible for the debts incurred by his agent or trustee on his behalf.
Their Lordships of the House of Lords observed:
“…the company is a different person altogether from the subscribers of the memorandum; and though it may be that after incorporation the business is precisely the same as before, the same persons are managers, and the same hands receive the profits, the company is not, in law, their agent or trustee. The statute enacts nothing as to the extent or degree of interest, which may be held by each of the seven or as to the proportion of interest, or influence possessed by one or majority of the shareholders over others. There is nothing in the Act requiring that the subscribers to the memorandum should be independent or unconnected, or that they or any of them should take a substantial interest in the undertakings, or that they should have a mind or will of their own, or that there should be anything like a balance of power in the constitution of company.”
Company as a person
A Company is an artificial person created by law. It is not a human being but it acts through human beings. It is considered as a legal person which can enter into contracts, possess properties in its own name, sue and can be sued by others etc. It is called an artificial person since it is invisible, intangible, existing only in the contemplation of law. It is capable of enjoying rights and being subject to duties.
(ii) Limited Liability
“The privilege of limited liability for business debts is one of the principal advantages of doing business under the corporate form of organization.” The company, being a separate person, is the owner of its assets and bound by its liabilities. The liability of a member as a shareholder extends to the contribution to the capital of the company up to the nominal value of the shares held and not paid by him. Members, even as a whole, are neither the owners of the company’s undertakings nor liable for its debts. In other words, a shareholder is liable to pay the balance, if any, due on the shares held by him, when called upon to pay and nothing more, even if the liabilities of the company far exceed its assets. This means that the liability of a member is limited.
For example, if A holds shares of the total nominal value of `1,000 and has already paid `500/- (or 50% of the value) as part payment at the time of allotment, he cannot be called upon to pay more than ` 500/-, the amount remaining unpaid on his shares. If he holds fully-paid shares, he has no further liability to pay even if the company is declared insolvent. In the case of a company limited by guarantee, the liability of members is limited to a specified amount of the guarantee mentioned in the memorandum.
Buckley, J. in Re. London and Globe Finance Corporation, (1903) 1 Ch.D. 728 at 731, has observed: ‘The statutes relating to limited liability have probably done more than any legislation of the last fifty years to further the commercial prosperity of the country. They have, to the advantage of the investor as well as of the public, allowed and encouraged aggregation of small sums into large capitals which have been employed in undertakings of “great public utility largely increasing the wealth of the country”.
Exceptions to the principle of limited liability
- Where a company has been got incorporated by furnishing any false or incorrect information or representation or by suppressing any material fact or information in any of the documents or declaration filed or made for incorporating such company or by any fraudulent action, the Tribunal may, on an application made to it, on being satisfied that the situation so warrants, direct that liability of the members of such company shall be unlimited. [Section 7(7)(b)(Section 7(7) is yet to be notified]
- Further under section 339(1), wherein the course of winding up it appears that any business of the company has been carried on with an intent to defraud creditors of the company or any other persons or for any fraudulent purpose, the Tribunal may declare the persons who were knowingly parties to the carrying on of the business in the manner aforesaid as personally liable, without limitation of liability, for all or any of the debts/liabilities of the company.[Section 339 is yet to be notified]
- When the company is incorporated as an Unlimited Company under Section 3(2)(c) of the Act
- Under Section 35(3), where it is proved that a prospectus has been issued with intent to defraud the applicants for the securities of a company or any other person or for any fraudulent purpose, every person who was a director at the time of issue of the prospectus or has been named as a director in the prospectus or every person who has authorised the issue of prospectus or every promoter or a person referred to as an expert in the prospectus shall be personally responsible, without any limitation of liability, for all or any of the losses or damages that may have been incurred by any person who subscribed to the securities on the basis of such prospectus.
- As per section 75(1), where a company fails to repay the deposit or part thereof or any interest thereon referred to in section 74 within the time specified or such further time as may be allowed by the Tribunal and it is proved that the deposits had been accepted with intent to defraud the depositors or for any fraudulent purpose, every officer of the company who was responsible for the acceptance of such deposit shall, without prejudice to other liabilities, also be personally responsible, without any limitation of liability, for all or any of the losses or damages that may have been incurred by the depositors.
- Section 224(5) states that where the report made by an inspector states that fraud has taken place in a company and due to such fraud any director, key managerial personnel, another officer of the company or any other person or entity, has taken undue advantage or benefit, whether in the form of an asset, property or cash or in any other manner, the Central Government may file an application before the Tribunal for appropriate orders with regard to disgorgement of such asset, property, or cash, and also for holding such director, key managerial personnel, officer or other person liable personally without any limitation of liability.
(iii) Perpetual Succession
An incorporated company never dies, except when it is wound up as per law. A company, being a separate legal person is unaffected by death or departure of any member and it remains the same entity, despite the total change in the membership. A company’s life is determined by the terms of its Memorandum of Association. It may be perpetual, or it may continue for a specified time to carry on a task or object as laid down in the Memorandum of Association. Perpetual succession, therefore, means that the membership of a company may keep changing from time to time, but that shall not affect its continuity.
The membership of an incorporated company may change either because one shareholder has sold/transferred his shares to another or his shares devolve on his legal representatives on his death or he ceases to be a member under some other provisions of the Companies Act. Thus, perpetual succession denotes the ability of a company to maintain its existence by the succession of new individuals who step into the shoes of those who cease to be members of the company. Professor L.C.B. Gower rightly mentions,
“Members may come and go, but the company can go on forever. During the war, all the members of one private company, while in general meeting, were killed by a bomb, but the company survived — not even a hydrogen bomb could have destroyed it”.
(iv) Separate Property
A company is a legal person and entirely distinct from its members, is capable of owning, enjoying and disposing of property in its own name. The company is the real person in which all its property is vested, and by which it is controlled, managed and disposed of. Their Lordships of the Madras High Court in R.F. Perumal v. H. John Deavin, A.I.R. 1960 Mad. 43 held that “no member can claim himself to be the owner of the company’s property during its existence or in its winding-up”. A member does not even have an insurable interest in the property of the company.
(v) Transferability of Shares
The capital of a company is divided into parts, called shares. The shares are said to be movable property and, subject to certain conditions, freely transferable, so that no shareholder is permanently or necessarily wedded to a company. When the joint stock companies were established, the object was that their shares should be capable of being easily transferred, [In Re. Balia and San Francisco Rly., (1968) L.R. 3 Q.B. 588].
Section 44 of the Companies Act, 2013 enunciates the principle by providing that the shares held by the members are movable property and can be transferred from one person to another in the manner provided by the articles. If the articles do not provide anything for the transfer of shares and the Regulations contained in Table “F” in Schedule I to the Companies Act, 2013, are also expressly excluded, the transfer of shares will be governed by the general law relating to the transfer of movable property.
A member may sell his shares in the open market and realize the money invested by him. This provides liquidity to a member (as he can freely sell his shares) and ensures stability to the company (as the member is not withdrawing his money from the company). The Stock Exchanges provide adequate facilities for the sale and purchase of shares.
Further, as of now, in most of the listed companies, the shares are also transferable through Electronic mode i.e. through Depository Participants in dematerialized form instead of physical transfers.
However, there are restrictions with respect to transferability of shares of a Private Limited Company which are dealt in chapter 2.
(vi) Common Seal
Upon incorporation, a company becomes a legal entity with perpetual succession and a common seal. Since the company has no physical existence, it must act through its agents and all contracts entered into by its agents must be under the seal of the company. The Common Seal acts as the official signature of a company. The name of the company must be engraved on its common seal. A rubber stamp does not serve the purpose. A document not bearing a common seal of the company, when the resolution passed by the Board, for its execution requires the common seal to be affixed is not authentic and shall have no legal force behind it. However, a person duly authorized to execute documents pursuant to a power of attorney granted in his favour under the common seal of the company may execute such documents and it is not necessary for the common seal to be affixed to such documents.
The person, authorized to use the seal, should ensure that it is kept under his personal custody and is used very carefully because any deed, instrument or a document to which seal is improperly or fraudulently affixed will involve the company in legal action and litigation.
(VII) Capacity to sue or be sued
A company is a body corporate, can sue and be sued in its own name. To sue means to institute legal proceedings against (a person) or to bring a suit in a court of law. All legal proceedings against the company are to be instituted in its name. Similarly, the company may bring an action against anyone in its own name.
A company’s right to sue arises when some loss is caused to the company, i.e. to the property or the personality of the company. Hence, the company is entitled to sue for damages in libel or slander as the case may be [Floating Services Ltd. v. MV San Fransceco Dipaloa (2004) 52 SCL 762 (Guj)]. A company, as a person distinct from its members, may even sue one of its own members. A company has a right to seek damages where a defamatory material published about it, affects its business.
Where video cassettes were prepared by the workmen of a company showing, their struggle against the company’s management, it was held to be not actionable unless shown that the contents of the cassette would be defamatory. The court did not restrain the exhibition of the cassette. [TVS Employees Federation v. TVS and Sons Ltd., (1996) 87 Com Cases 37]. The company is not liable for contempt committed by its officer. [Lalit Surajmal Kanodia v. Office Tiger Database Systems India (P) Ltd., (2006) 129 Com Cases 192 Mad].
(viii) Contractual Rights
A company, being a legal entity different from its members, can enter into contracts for the conduct of the business in its own name. A shareholder cannot enforce a contract made by his company; he is neither a party to the contract nor be entitled to the benefit derived from of it, as a company is not a trustee for its shareholders. Likewise, a shareholder cannot be sued on contracts made by his company. The distinction between a company and its members is not confined to the rules of privity but permeates the whole law of contract. Thus, if a director fails to disclose a breach of his duties towards his company, and in consequence, a shareholder is induced to enter into a contract with the director on behalf of the company which he would not have entered into had there been disclosure, the shareholder cannot rescind the contract.
Similarly, a member of a company cannot sue in respect of torts committed against the company, nor can he be sued for torts committed by the company. [British Thomson-Houston Company v. Sterling Accessories Ltd., (1924) 2 Ch. 33]. Therefore, the company as a legal person can take action to enforce its legal rights or be sued for breach of its legal duties. Its rights and duties are distinct from those of its constituent members.
(ix) Limitation of Action
A company cannot go beyond the power stated in its Memorandum of Association. The Memorandum of Association of the company regulates the powers and fixes the objects of the company and provides the edifice upon which the entire structure of the company rests. The actions and objects of the company are limited within the scope of its Memorandum of Association. In order to enable it to carry out its actions without such restrictions and limitations in most cases, sufficient powers are granted in the Memorandum of Association. But once the powers have been laid down, it cannot go beyond such powers unless the Memorandum of Association, itself altered prior to doing so.
(x) Separate Management
As already noted, the members may derive profits without being burdened with the management of the company. They do not have effective and intimate control over its working and they elect their representatives as Directors on the Board of Directors of the company to conduct corporate functions through managerial personnel employed by them. In other words, the company is administered and managed by its managerial personnel.
(xi) Voluntary Association for Profit
A company is a voluntary association for profit. It is formed for the accomplishment of some stated goals and whatsoever profit is gained is divided among its shareholders or saved for the future expansion of the company. Only a Section 8 company can be formed with no profit motive.
(xii) Termination of Existence
A company, being an artificial juridical person, does not die a natural death. It is created by law, carries on its affairs according to law throughout its life and ultimately is effaced by law. Generally, the existence of a company is terminated by means of winding up. However, to avoid winding up, sometimes companies adopt strategies like reorganization, reconstruction, and amalgamation.
Distinction between Company and Partnership
The principal points of distinction between a company and a partnership firm are as follows:
(1) A company is a distinct legal person. A partnership firm is not distinct from the several persons who form the partnership.
(2) In a partnership, the property of the firm is the property of the individuals comprising it. In a company, it belongs to the company and not to the individuals who are its members.
(3) Creditors of a partnership firm are creditors of individual partners and a decree against the firm can be executed against the partners jointly and severally. The creditors of a company can proceed only against the company and not against its members.
(4) Partners are the agents of the firm, but members of a company are not its agents. A partner can dispose of the property and incur liabilities as long as he acts in the course of the firm’s business. A member of a company has no such power.
(5) A partner cannot contract with his firm, whereas a member of a company can.
(6) A partner cannot transfer his share and make the transferee a member of the firm without the consent of the other partners, whereas a company’s share can ordinarily be transferred.
(7) Restrictions on a partner’s authority contained in the partnership contract do not bind outsiders whereas such restrictions incorporated in the Articles are effective because the public is bound to acquaint themselves with them.
(8) A partner’s liability is always unlimited whereas that of a shareholder may be limited either by shares or a guarantee.
(9) A company has perpetual succession, i.e. the death or insolvency of a shareholder or all of them does not affect the life of the company, whereas the death or insolvency of a partner dissolves the firm, unless otherwise provided.
(10) A company may have any number of members except in the case of a private company which cannot have more than 200 members (excluding past and present employee members). In a public company, there must not be less than seven persons in a private company not less than two. Further, a new concept of one person company has been introduced which may be incorporated with only one person.
(11) A company is required to have its accounts audited annually by a chartered accountant, whereas the accounts of a firm are audited at the discretion of the partners.
(12) A company, being a creation of law, can only be dissolved as laid down by law. A partnership firm, on the other hand, is the result of an agreement and can be dissolved at any time by agreement among the partners.
Distinction between Company and Hindu Undivided Family Business
- A company consists of heterogeneous (varied or diverse) members, whereas a Hindu Undivided Family Business consists of homogenous (unvarying) members since it consists of members of the joint family itself.
- In a Hindu Undivided Family business, the Karta (manager) has the sole authority to contract debts for the purpose of the business, other coparceners cannot do so. There is no such system in a company.
- A person becomes a member of a Hindu Undivided Family business by virtue of birth. There is no provision to that effect in the company.
- No registration is compulsory for carrying on business for gain by a Hindu Undivided Family even if the number of members exceeds twenty [Shyamlal Roy v. Madhusudan Roy, AIR 1959 Cal. 380 (385)]. Registration of a company is compulsory.
DOCTRINE OF LIFTING OF OR PIERCING THE CORPORATE VEIL
The separate personality of a company is a statutory privilege and it must be used for legitimate business purposes only. Where a fraudulent and dishonest use is made of the legal entity, the individuals concerned will not be allowed to take shelter behind the corporate personality. The Court will break through the corporate shell and apply the principle/doctrine of what is called “lifting of or piercing the corporate veil”.
The Court will look behind the corporate entity and take action as though no entity separate from the members existed and make the members of the controlling persons liable for debts and obligations of the company
The corporate veil is lifted when in defense proceedings, such as for the evasion of tax, an entity relies on its corporate personality as a shield to cover its wrongdoings. [BSN (UK) Ltd. v. Janardan Mohandas Rajan Pillai  86 Com Cases 371 (Bom).]
However, the shareholders cannot ask for the lifting of the veil for their purposes. This was held in Premlata Bhatia v. Union of India (2004) 58 CL 217 (Delhi) wherein the premises of a shop were allotted on a license to the individual licensee. She set up a wholly owned private company and transferred the premises to that
company without Government consent. She could not remove the illegality by saying that she and her company were virtually the same people.
Statutory Recognition of Lifting of Corporate Veil
The Companies Act, 2013 itself contains some provisions [Sections 7(7), 251(1) and 339] which lift the corporate veil to reach the real forces of action. Section 7(7) deals with punishment for incorporation of a company by furnishing false information; Section 251(1) deals with liability for making a fraudulent application for removal of the name of company from the register of companies and Section 339 deals with liability for fraudulent conduct of business during the course of winding up.
Lifting of Corporat e Veil under Judicial Interpretation
Ever since the decision in Salomon v. Salomon & Co. Ltd., (1897) A.C. 22, normally Courts are reluctant or at least very cautious to lift the veil of corporate personality to see the real persons behind it. Nevertheless, Courts have found it necessary to disregard the separate personality of a company in the following situations:
(a) Where the corporate veil has been used for the commission of fraud or improper conduct. In such a situation, Courts have lifted the veil and looked at the realities of the situation.
In Jones v. Lipman, (1962) I. W.L.R. 832:- A agreed to sell certain land to B. Pending completion of formalities of the said deal, A sold and transferred the land to a company which he had incorporated with a nominal capital of £100 and of which he and a clerk were the only shareholders and directors. This was done in order to escape a decree for specific performance in a suit brought by B. The Court held that the company was the creature of A and a mask to avoid recognition and that in the eyes of equity A must complete the contract, since he had the full control of the limited company in which the property was vested, and was in a position to cause the contract in question to be fulfilled.
(b) Where a corporate facade is really only an agency instrumentality.
In Re. R.G. Films Ltd. (1953) 1 All E.R. 615:- An American company produced a film in India technically in the name of a British Company, 90% of whose capital was held by the President of the American company which financed the production of the film. Board of Trade refused to register the film as a British film which stated that English company acted merely as the nominee of the American corporation.
(c) Where the conduct conflicts with public policy, courts lifted the corporate veil for protecting the public policy.
In Connors Bros. v. Connors (1940) 4 All E.R. 179:- The principle was applied against the managing director who made use of his position contrary to public policy. In this case, the House of Lords determined the character of the company as “enemy” company, since the persons who were de facto in control of its affairs, were residents of Germany, which was at war with England at that time. The alien company was not allowed to proceed with the action, as that would have meant giving money to the enemy, which was considered as monstrous and against “public policy”.
(d) Further, In Daimler Co. Ltd. v. Continental Tyre & Rubber Co., (1916) 2 A.C. 307, it was held that a company will be regarded as having enemy character, if the persons having de facto control of its affairs are resident in an enemy country or, wherever they may be, are acting under instructions from or on behalf of the enemy.
(e) Where it was found that the sole purpose for which the company was formed was to evade taxes the Court will ignore the concept of a separate entity and make the individuals concerned liable to pay the taxes which they would have paid but for the formation of the company.
Re. Sir Dinshaw Manakjee Petit, A.I.R. 1927 Bombay 371
The facts of the case are that the assessee was a wealthy man enjoying large dividend and interest income. He formed four private companies and agreed with each to hold a block of investment as an agent for it. Income received was credited in the accounts of the company but the company handed back the amount to him as a pretended loan. This way he divided his income into four parts in a bid to reduce his tax liability.
But it was held “the company was formed by the assessee purely and simply as a means of avoiding supertax and the company was nothing more than the assessee himself. It did no business, but was created simply as a legal entity to ostensibly receive the dividends and interests and to hand them over to the assessee as pretended loans”. The Court decided to disregard the corporate entity as it was being used for tax evasion.
(f) Avoidance of welfare legislation is as common as avoidance of taxation and the approach in considering problems arising out of such avoidance has necessarily to be the same and, therefore, where it was found that the sole purpose for the formation of the new company was to use it as a device to reduce the amount to be paid by way of bonus to workmen, the Supreme Court upheld the piercing of the veil to look at the real transaction.
The Workmen Employed in Associated Rubber Industries Limited, Bhavnagar v. The Associated Rubber Industries Ltd., Bhavnagar and another, A.I.R. 1986 SC 1. The facts of the case were that a new company was created wholly by the principal company with no assets of its own except those transferred to it by the principal company, with no business or income of its own except receiving dividends from shares transferred to it by the principal company i.e. only for the purpose of splitting the profits into two hands and thereby reducing the obligation to pay bonus. The Supreme Court of India held that the new company was formed as a device to reduce the gross profits of the principal company and thereby reduce the amount to be paid by way of bonus to workmen. A number of dividends received by the new company should, therefore, be taken into account in assessing the gross profit of the principal company.
(g) Another instance of corporate veil arrived at by the Court arose in Kapila Hingorani v. State of Bihar.
Kapila Hingorani v. State of Bihar, 2003(4) Scale 712:- In this case, the petitioner had alleged that the State of Bihar had not paid salaries to its employees in PSUs etc. for long periods resulting in starvation deaths. But the respondent took the stand that most of the undertakings were incorporated under the provisions of the Companies Act, 1956, hence the rights etc. of the shareholders should be governed by the provisions of the Companies Act and the liabilities of the PSUs should not be passed on to the State Government by resorting to the doctrine of lifting the corporate veil. The Court observed that the State may not be liable in relation to the day-to-day functioning of the PSUs but its liability would arise on its failure to perform the constitutional duties and the functions of these undertakings.
It is so because “life means something more than mere ordinal existence. The inhibition against deprivation of life extends to all those limits and faculties by which life is enjoyed”.
(h) Where it is found that a company has abused its corporate personality for an unjust and inequitable purpose, the court would not hesitate to lift the corporate veil. Further, the corporate veil could be lifted when acts of a corporation are allegedly opposed to justice, convenience and interests of revenue or workmen or are against public interest.
Thus, in appropriate cases, the Courts disregard the separate corporate personality and look behind the legal person or lift the corporate veil.
Lifting the Corporate Veil of Small Scale Industry
Where small-scale industries were given certain exemptions and the company owning an industry was controlled by some group of persons or companies, it was held that it was permissible to lift the veil of the company to see whether it was the subsidiary of another company and, therefore, not entitled to the proposed exemptions. [Inalsa Ltd. v. Union of India, (1996) 87 Com Cases 599 (Delhi).]
Use of Corporate Veil for Hiding Criminal Activities
Where the defendant used the corporate structure as a device or facade to conceal his criminal activities (evasion of customs and excise duties payable by the company), the Court could lift the corporate veil and treat the assets of the company as the realizable property of the shareholder.
For example, in a case, there was a prima facie case that the defendants controlled the two companies, the companies had been used for the fraudulent evasion of excise duty on a large scale, the defendant regarded the companies as carrying on a family business and that they had benefited from companies’ cash in substantial amounts and further no useful purpose would have been served by involving the companies in the criminal proceedings. In all these circumstances it was, therefore, appropriate to lift the corporate veil and treat the stock in the companies’ warehouses and the companies’ motor vehicles as realizable property held by the defendants. The court said that the excise department is not to be criticized for not charging the companies.
The more complex commercial activities become, the more vital it is for prosecuting authorities to be selective in whom and what they charge so that issues can be presented in as clear and short form as possible. In the present case, it seemed that no useful purpose would have been served by initiating criminal proceedings. [H. and Others (Restraint Order: Realisable Property), Re, (1996) 2 BCLC 500 at 511, 512 (CA).]
Corporations as citizens
Although it is generally accepted that corporations are not citizens in the same way that “real” citizens are – they cannot hold passports or vote in elections, for example – it has been recognized that they do share in some of the same or similar practices, such as paying taxes, engaging in free speech, and expecting certain protections from the state. There is a concern, however, that extending the scope of citizenship to incorporated corporations may infringe upon democracy and equality have given their access to substantial power and resources.
Is Company a Citizen?
The company, although a legal person, is not a citizen under the Citizenship Act, 1955 or the Constitution of India. In State Trading Corporation of India Ltd. v. C.T.O., A.I.R. 1963 S.C. 1811, the Supreme Court held that the State Trading Corporation although a legal person was not a citizen and can act only through natural persons.
Nevertheless, it is to be noted that certain fundamental rights enshrined in the Constitution for protection of “person”, e.g., right to equality (Article 14) etc. are also available to a company. Section 2(f) of Citizenship Act, 1955 expressly excludes a company or association or body of individuals from citizenship.
In R.C. Cooper v. Union of India, AIR 1970 SC 564:- In this case, the Supreme Court held that where the legislative measures directly touch the company of which the petitioner is a shareholder, he can petition on behalf of the company, if by the impugned action, his rights are also infringed. In that case, the court entertained the petition under Article 32 of the Constitution at the instance of a director as a shareholder of a company and granted relief. It is, therefore, to be noted that an individual’s right is not lost by reason of the fact that he is a shareholder of the company.
Bennet Coleman Co. v. Union of India, AIR 1973 SC 106:- In this case, the Supreme Court stated that: “It is now clear that the Fundamental Rights of shareholders as citizens are not lost when they associate to form a company. When their Fundamental Rights as shareholders are impaired by State action, their rights as shareholders are protected. The reason is that the shareholders’ rights are equally and necessarily affected if the rights of the company are affected.”
Nationality and Residence of a Company
Though it is established through judicial decisions that a company cannot be a citizen, yet it has nationality, domicile, and residence. In Gasque v. Inland Revenue Commissioners, (1940) 2 K.B. 88, Macnaghten. J. held that a limited company is capable of having domicile and its domicile is the place of its registration and that domicile clings to it throughout its existence. He observed in this case:
“It was suggested that a body corporate has no domicile. It is quite true that a body corporate cannot have a domicile in the same sense as an individual. But by analogy with a natural person, the attributes of residence, domicile, and nationality can be given to a body corporate.”
In Tulika v. Parry and Co., (1903) I.L.R. 27 Mad. 315, Kelly C.B. observed:
“A joint stock company resides where its place of incorporation is, where the meetings of the whole company or those who represent it are held and where its governing body meets in bodily presence for the purposes of the company and exercises the powers conferred upon it by statute and by the Articles of Association.”
In order to prevent the mischief arising from large trading undertakings being carried on by large fluctuating bodies so that persons dealing with them did not know with whom they were contracting, the law has put a ceiling on the number of persons constituting an association or partnership. An unincorporated company, association or partnership consisting of a large number of persons has been declared illegal. Rule 10 of Companies( Miscellaneous) Rules, 2014 prescribes 50 persons in this regard.
By virtue of section 464 of the Companies Act, 2013, no association or partnership consisting of more than such number of persons as may be prescribed shall be formed for the purpose of carrying on any business that has for its object the acquisition of gain by the association or partnership or by the individual members thereof, unless it is registered as a company under this Act or is formed under any other law for the time being in force. The number of persons which may be prescribed under this section shall not exceed 100.
Section 464 of the Act does not apply to the case of a Hindu undivided family carrying on any business whatever may be the number of its members. However, this section is also not applicable to an association or partnership, if it is formed by professionals who are governed by special Acts.
Since, the law does not recognize it, an illegal association:
(i) cannot enter into any contract;
(ii) cannot sue any member, or outsider, not even if the company is subsequently registered;
(iii) cannot be sued by a member, or an outsider for recovery of any debts;
(iv) cannot be wound up by an order of the Court. In fact, the Court cannot entertain a petition for its winding up as an unregistered company, for if it did, it would be indirectly according to recognition to the illegal association (Raghubar Dayal v. Sarafa Chamber A.I.R. 1954 All. 555).
However, an illegal association is liable to be taxed [Kumara Swamy Chattiar v. Income Tax Officer (1957) I.T.R. 457].
The members of an illegal association are individually liable in respect of all acts or contracts made on behalf of the association; they cannot either individually or collectively, bring an action to enforce any contract so made, or to recover any debt due to the association [Wilkinson v. Levison (1925) 42 T.L.R. 97].
Under sub-section (3) of section 464, every member of an illegal association shall be punishable with fine which may extend to one lakh rupees and shall also be personally liable for all liabilities incurred in such business.
By – Mayank Shekhar
Faculty of Law, DU
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