Legal Blog: "Lease" and "Licence" Differentiated : Supreme Court

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Thursday, March 10, 2011

"Lease" and "Licence" Differentiated : Supreme Court

Justice Raveendran
The Supreme Court in Bharat Petroleum Corporation Ltd. v. Chembur Service Station, has examined the difference between Lease and Licence. While discussing various judicial pronouncements on the subject, the Supreme Court held as under;

18. Licence is defined in section 52 of the Indian Easements Act, 1882 as under :

"52. `License' defined :

Where one person grants to another, or to a definite number of other persons, a right to do, or continue to do, in or upon the immovable property of the grantor, something which would, in the absence of such right, be unlawful, and such right does not amount to an easement or an interest in the property, the right is called a license."

The definition of licence makes it clear that a licence granted by the owner enables a licensee a right to do or continue to do certain specified things in or upon an immovable property.

19. In Associated Hotels of India Ltd. v. R.N. Kapoor (AIR 1959 SC 1262) this Court referred to the difference between a lease and licence.:

"There is a marked distinction between a lease and a licence. Section 105 of the Transfer of Property Act defines a lease of immovable property as a transfer of a right to enjoy such property made for a certain time in consideration for a price paid or promised. Under Section 108 of the said Act, the lessee is entitled to be put in possession of the property. A lease is therefore a transfer of an interest in land. The interest transferred is called the leasehold interest. The lessor parts with his right to enjoy the property during the term of the lease, and it follows from it that the lessee gets that right to the exclusion of the lessor......" After referring to the definition of licence in Section 52 of the Easement Act, this court held:

"Under the aforesaid section, if a document gives only a right to use the property in a particular way or under certain terms while it remains in possession and control of the owner thereof, it will be a licence. The legal possession, therefore, continues to be with the owner of the property, but the licensee is permitted to make use of the premises for a particular purpose. But for the permission, his occupation would be unlawful. It does not create in his favour any estate or interest in the property. There is, therefore, clear distinction between the two concepts. The dividing line is clear though sometimes it becomes very thin or even blurred. At one time it was thought that the test of exclusive possession was infallible and if a person was given exclusive possession of a premises, it would conclusively establish that he was a lessee. But there was a change and the recent trend of judicial opinion is reflected in Errington v. Errington [1952] 1 All E.R. 149, wherein Lord Denning reviewing the case law on the subject summarizes the result of his discussion thus at p. 155 :

"The result of all these cases is that, although a person who is let into exclusive possession is, prima facie, to be considered to be tenant, nevertheless he will not be held to be so if the circumstances negative any intention to create a tenancy."

"...The following propositions may, therefore, be taken as well-established : (1) To ascertain whether a document creates a licence or lease, the substance of the document must be preferred to the form; (2) the real test is the intention of the parties - whether they intended to create a lease or a licence; (3) if the document creates an interest in the property, it is a lease; but, if it only permits another to make use of the property, of which the legal possession continues with the owner, it is a licence; and (4) if under the document a party gets exclusive possession of the property, prima facie, he is considered to be a tenant; but circumstances may be established which negative the intention to create a lease..." In C.M. Beena vs. P.N. Ramachandra Rao - 2004 (3) SCC 595, this Court explained a Licence thus :

"Only a right to use the property in a particular way or under certain terms given to the occupant while the owner retains the control or possession over the premises results in a licence being created; for the owner retains legal possession while all that the licensee gets is a permission to use the premises for a particular purpose or in a particular manner and but for the permission so given the occupation would have been unlawful."

20. Licences can be of different kinds. Some licences with reference to use of immovable property may be very wide, virtually bordering upon leases. Some licences can be very very narrow, giving a mere right enabling a person to visit a premises - say a museum or a lecture hall or an exhibition. In between are the licences of different hues and degrees. All licences can not be treated on the same footing. We may refer to some illustrations to highlight the difference.

Illustration (A):

An owner of a property enters into a lease thereof, but to avoid the rigours of Rent Control legislation, calls it as a licence agreement. Though such a lease is captioned as a `licence agreement', the terms thereof show that it is in essence, a lease. Such a licence agreement which puts the licensee in exclusive possession of the premises, untrammeled by any control, and free from any directions from the licensor (instead of conferring only a bare personal privilege to use the premises) will be a lease, even if described as licence. For example, if the exclusive possession of an apartment or a flat or a shop is delivered by the owner for a monthly consideration without retaining any manner of control, it will be a lease irrespective of whether the arrangement is called by the owner as a `lease', or `licence'. As far as the person who is let into exclusive possession, the quality and nature of his rights in respect of the premises will be that of a lease or a tenant and not that of a licensee. Obviously such a `licensee' cannot be `evicted' or `dispossessed' or prevented from using the premises without initiating legal action in accordance with law.

Illustration (B):

The owner of a land constructs a shopping mall with hundred shops. The owner of the mall earmarks different shops for different purposes, that is sale of different types of goods/merchandise, that is shops for exclusive clothing for men, shops for exclusive clothing for women, shops for hosieries, shops for watches, shops for cameras, shops for shoes, shops for cosmetics and perfumes, shops for watches, shops for sports goods, shops for electronic goods, shops for books, shops for snacks and drinks etc. The mall owner grants licences in regard to individual shops to licensees to carry on the identified or earmarked business. The licensor controls the hours of business, regulates the maintenance, manner of display, cleanliness in the shops. The ingress and egress to the shop licensed to the licensee is through the corridors in the mall leading from three or four common access points/entrances which are under the control of the licensor. The licensee is however entitled to stock the shop with brands of his choice though he does not have the right to change the earmarked purpose, entertain any clientale or customers of his choice and fix the prices/terms for his goods. He can also lock the shop at the end of the business hours and open it whenever he wants. No one else can trade in that shop. In such a case, in spite of the restrictions, controls and directions of the licensor, and in spite of the grant being described as licence, the transaction will be a lease or tenancy and the licensee cannot be dispossessed or evicted except by recourse of law. 

Illustration (C):

In a shopping complex or in a mall the owner gives a licence to a person to use a counter to sell his goods in consideration of a fee. The access is controlled by the licensor and there is no exclusive use of any specific space by the licensee. At the end of the day, the licensee can close the counter. The space around the counter is visited and used by customers to the mall and not exclusively by the customers of the licensee. In such a case, if the licence is terminated, the licensor can effectively prevent the licensee from entering upon his premises and the licensee will have no right to use the counter except to remove his belongings. In such a licence it may not be necessary for the licensor to sue the licensee for `possession' or `eviction'.

Illustration (D):

A much narrower version of a licence is where an exhibitor of cinematograph films, or a theatre owner permits a `customer' or `guest' to visit an entertainment hall to view and enjoy a movie or a show for the price of a ticket. The licensee is permitted to occupy a seat in the theatre exclusively for the period of the show. Or a cloakroom with toilet facilities in a public building permits a visitor to use the toilet/closet facilities on payment of a fee. The licensee is permitted to use the toilet/closet exclusively to relieve himself. In such cases, the licence is for a specific purpose and for a specific period. The licensee has no other right to enter the premises, nor the right to continue to occupy the seat in the theatre or use the toilet/closet continuously. Such a licensee can be forcibly removed by the licensor if the licensee overstays or continues to occupy the seat beyond the show, or refuses to leave the cloakroom. It is not necessary for the licensor to sue the licensee. Illustration (E):

A reputed manufacturer of textiles owns several retail outlets in different parts of the country. The outlets are housed in premises owned by the manufacturer or premises taken by it on lease. The manufacturer employs a sales manager on salary for each outlet to manage the outlet and sell its products and entrust him with the keys of the premises, so that he can open the outlet for business and close the outlet at the end of the day. Or the manufacturer, instead of engaging a sales manager, appoints an agent who is permitted to sell only the products of the manufacturer in the retail outlet, and receive a commission on the turnover of sales. The manufacturer stipulates the manner of sale, and the terms of sale including the prices at which the goods are sold. The manufacturer also checks the products sold periodically to ensure that only its products (and not fakes) are sold. The manufacturer also reserves the right to terminate the services of the sales manager/agent. In such cases on termination of the services of the employee/agent, the manufacturer can physically prevent the sales manager/agent from entering the retail outlet and make alternative arrangements for running the outlet. There is no need to approach a court to `evict' the sales manager/agent.

21. Where an employer or principal permits the use of its premises, by its employee or agent, such use, whether loosely referred to as `possession' or `occupation' or `use' by the employee or the agent, is on behalf of the employer/principal. In other words, the employer/principal continues to be in possession and occupation and the employee/agent is merely a licensee who is permitted to enter the premises for the limited purpose of selling the goods of the employer/principle. The employee/agent cannot claim any `possession' or `occupation' or `right to use' independent of the employer/principal who is the licensor. In such cases if the employee is terminated from service, he cannot obviously contend that he is in "occupation" of the premises and that he can be evicted or dispossessed only by initiating action in a court of law. Similarly the agent who is permitted to enter the premises every day to sell the goods cannot, on termination of the agency, contend that he continues to be in exclusive occupation of the premises and unless evicted through a court of law entitled to continue in occupation. This is because licence that is granted to the employee/agent is a limited licence to enter upon and use the premises, not for his own purposes or his own business, but for the purposes of the employer/principal, to sell its goods in the manner prescribed by the employer/principal and subject to the terms and conditions stipulated in the contract of employment/agency in regard to the manner of sales, the prices at which the goods are to be sold or the services to be rendered to the customers. In such cases, when the employment or agency is terminated and the employer/principal informs the employee/agent that his services are no longer required and he is no longer the employee/agent, the licence granted to such employee/agent to enter the retail outlet stands revoked and the ex- employee/ex-agent ceases to have any right to enter the premises. On the other hand, the employer/principal who continues to have possession will be entitled to enter the premises, or appoint another employee or agent, or legitimately prevent the ex-employee/ex-agent from entering upon the premises or using the premises. In such cases, there is no need for the licensor (that is the employer or the principal) to file a suit for eviction or injunction against the ex-employee or ex-agent. The licensor can protect or defend its possession and physically prevent the licensee (employee/agent) from entering the outlet.

22. In this behalf we may refer to the decision of this court in Southern Roadways Ltd. Madurai v. SM Krishnan (1989) 4 SCC 603. In that case, Southern Roadways appointed the respondent as its commission agent for carrying on its business in Madras city. Southern Roadways took on lease a godown and put it in the possession of the respondent for the purpose of carrying on the agency business. The agreement between the parties provided that Southern Roadways could remove the agent at any time without notice and upon removal, it could occupy the godown and also use the services of the employees engaged by the agent. In the course of audit, mismanagement and misappropriation by the agent was discovered and as a result Southern Roadways terminated the agency and took possession of the godown and appointed another person as agent. The respondent prevented the new agent and the appellant from carrying on the business in the godown premises. Therefore the appellant filed a suit for injunction against the respondent. A learned Single Judge granted a temporary injunction. On an appeal by the ex-agent, the division bench of the Madras High Court vacated the injunction which was challenged before this court by Southern Roadways. This Court allowed the appeal. This court held:

"At the outset, we may state that we are not so much concerned with the rival claims relating to actual possession of the suit premises. Indeed, that is quite irrelevant for the purpose of determining the rights of the company to carry on its business. Mr. Venugopal, learned Counsel for the appellant also discreetly did not advert to that controversy. He, however, rested his case on certain facts which are proved or agreed. They may be stated as follows : The company was and is the tenant of the suit premises and has been paying rent to the owner. The lease in respect of the premises has been renewed up to November 22, 1993. It was the company which has executed the lease and not the respondent. The respondent as agent was allowed to remain in possession of the premises. It was only for the purpose of carrying on company's business. His agency has been terminated and his authority to act for the company has been put an end to. These facts are indeed not disputed. On these facts the contention of counsel is that when the agency has been terminated, the respondent has no legal right to remain in the premises or to interfere with the business activities of the company. The principal has right to carry on business as usual after the removal of his agent. The Courts are rarely willing to imply a term fettering such freedom of the principal unless there is some agreement to the contrary. The agreement between the parties in this case does not confer right on the respondent to continue in possession of the suit premises even after termination of agency. Nor does it preserve right for him to interfere with the company's business. On the contrary, it provides that the respondent could be removed at any time without notice and after removal the company could carry on its business as usual. The company under the terms of the agreement is, therefore, entitled to assert and exercise its right which cannot be disputed or denied by the respondent.

...under law, revocation of agency by the principal immediately terminates the agent's actual authority to act for the principal unless the agent's authority is coupled with an interest as envisaged under Section 202 of the Indian Contract Act. When agency is revoked, the agent could claim compensation if his case falls under Section 205 or could exercise a lien on the principal's property under Section 221. The agent's lien on principal's property recognised under Section 221 could be exercised only when there is no agreement inconsistent with the lien. In the present case the terms of the agreement by which the respondent was appointed as agent, expressly authorises the company to occupy the godown upon revocation of agency. Secondly, the lien in any event, in our opinion, cannot be utilised or taken advantage of to interfere with principal's business activities.

The crux of the matter is that an agent holds the principal's property only on behalf of the principal. He acquires no interest for himself in such property. He cannot deny principal's title to property. Nor he can convert it into any other kind or use. His possession is the possession of the principal for all purposes.


  1. very good information....thank you for sharing

  2. Thanks.Good information about leased line define and description.this post is effective for me

  3. Examples made it much more clear and understandable....


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