Last Updated :
This article titled “Introduction to Company Law: Meaning, Nature and Characteristics” deals with an overview of Company Law and it also discusses the distinction between Company and Partnership; Company and Hindu Undivided Family Business.
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.
I. 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, 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.
II. 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.
III. 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.
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. There are various exceptions to the principle of limited liability.
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.
(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 a 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.
IV. Distinction between Company and Partnership
The principal points of distinction between a company and a partnership firm are as follows:
- A company is a distinct legal person. A partnership firm is not distinct from the several persons who form the partnership.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- A partner cannot contract with his firm, whereas a member of a company can.
- 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.
- 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.
- A partner’s liability is always unlimited whereas that of a shareholder may be limited either by shares or a guarantee.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
V. 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 a 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.