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Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Scope of Winding Up Proceedings : The Law

Justice Kapadia
The Bench comprising Chief Justice S.H. Kapadia and K.S. Radhakrishnan, in M/s IBA Health (I) Pvt. Ltd. v. M/s Info-Drive Systems SDN. BHD. has examined the scope of jurisdiction of courts in winding up proceedings. While examining various precedents on the subject, the court held as under;


17. The question that arises for consideration is that when there is a substantial dispute as to liability, can a creditor prefer an application for winding up for discharge of that liability? In such a situation, is there not a duty on the Company Court to examine whether the company has a genuine dispute to the claimed debt? A dispute would be substantial and genuine if it is bona fide and not spurious, speculative, illusory or misconceived. The Company Court, at that stage, is not expected to hold a full trial of the matter. It must decide whether the grounds appear to be substantial. The grounds of dispute, of course, must not consist of some ingenious mask invented to deprive a creditor of a just and honest entitlement and must not be a mere wrangle. It is settled law that if the creditor's debt is bona fide disputed on substantial grounds, the court should dismiss the petition and leave the creditor first to establish his claim in an action, lest there is danger of abuse of winding up procedure. The Company Court always retains the discretion, but a party to a dispute should not be allowed to use the threat of winding up petition as a means of forcing the company to pay a bona fide disputed debt. 

18. In this connection, reference may be made to the judgment of this Court in Amalgamated Commercial Traders (P) Ltd. v. A.C.K. Krishnaswami and another (1965) 35 Company Cases 456 (SC), in which this Court held that "It is well-settled that a winding up petition is not a legitimate means of seeking to enforce payment of the debt which is bona fide disputed by the company. A petition presented ostensibly for a winding up order but really to exercise pressure will be dismissed, and under circumstances may be stigmatized as a scandalous abuse of the process of the court." 

19. The above mentioned decision was later followed by this Court in Madhusudan Gordhandas and Co. v. Madhu Woollen Industries Pvt. Ltd. 1971) 3 SCC 632. The principles laid down in the above mentioned judgment have again been reiterated by this Court in Mediquip Systems (P) Ltd. v. Proxima Medical Systems (GMBH) (2005) 7 SCC 42, wherein this Court held that the defence raised by the appellant-company was a substantial one and not mere moonshine and had to be finally adjudicated upon on the merits before the appropriate forum. The above mentioned judgments were later followed by this Court in Vijay Industries v. NATL Technologies Ltd. (2009) 3 SCC 527. 

20. The principles laid down in the above mentioned cases indicate that if the debt is bona fide disputed, there cannot be "neglect to pay" within the meaning of Section 433(1)(a) of the Companies Act, 1956. If there is no neglect, the deeming provision does not come into play and the winding up on the ground that the company is unable to pay its debts is not substantiated and non-payment of the amount of such a bona fide disputed debt cannot be termed as "neglect to pay" so as to incur the liability under Section 433(e) read with Section 434(1)(a) of the Companies Act, 1956. 


21. Appellant company raised a contention that it is commercially solvent and, in such a situation, the question may arise that the factum of commercial solvency, as such, would be sufficient to reject the petition for winding up, unless substantial grounds for its rejection are made out. A determination of examination of the company's insolvency may be a useful aid in deciding whether the refusal to pay is a result of the bona fide dispute as to liability or whether it reflects an inability to pay, in such a situation, solvency is relevant not as a separate ground. If there is no dispute as to the company's liability, the solvency of the company might not constitute a stand alone ground for setting aside a notice under Section 434 (1)(a), meaning thereby, if a debt is undisputedly owing, then it has to be paid. If the company refuses to pay on no genuine and substantial grounds, it should not be able to avoid the statutory demand. The law should be allowed to proceed and if demand is not met and an application for liquidation is filed under Section 439 in reliance of the presumption under Section 434(1)(a) that the company is unable to pay it debts, the law should take its own course and the company of course will have an opportunity on the liquidation application to rebut that presumption. 

22. An examination of the company's solvency may be a useful aid in determining whether the refusal to pay debt is a result of a bona fide dispute as to the liability or whether it reflects an inability to pay. Of course, if there is no dispute as to the company's liability, it is difficult to hold that the company should be able to pay the debt merely by proving that it is able to pay the debts. If the debt is an undisputedly owing, then it should be paid. If the company refuses to pay, without good reason, it should not be able to avoid the statutory demand by proving, at the statutory demand stage, that it is solvent. In other words, commercial solvency can be seen as relevant as to whether there was a dispute as to the debt, not as a ground in itself, that means it cannot be characterized as a stand alone ground. 


25. We may notice, so far as this case is concerned, there has been an attempt by the respondent company to force the payment of a debt which the respondent company knows to be in substantial dispute. A party to the dispute should not be allowed to use the threat of winding up petition as a means of enforcing the company to pay a bona fide disputed debt. A Company Court cannot be reduced as a debt collecting agency or as a means of bringing improper pressure on the company to pay a bona fide disputed debt. Of late, we have seen several instances, where the jurisdiction of the Company Court is being abused by filing winding up petitions to pressurize the companies to pay the debts which are substantially disputed and the Courts are very casual in issuing notices and ordering publication in the newspapers which may attract adverse publicity. 

Remember, an action may lie in appropriate Court in respect of the injury to reputation caused by maliciously and unreasonably commencing liquidation proceedings against a company and later dismissed when a proper defence is made out on substantial grounds. A creditor's winding up petition implies insolvency and is likely to damage the company's creditworthiness or its financial standing with its creditors or customers and even among the public. 


26. A creditor's winding up petition, in certain situations, implies insolvency or financial position with other creditors, banking institutions, customers and so on. Publication in the Newspaper of the filing of winding up petition may damage the creditworthiness or 20 financial standing of the company and which may also have other economic and social ramifications. Competitors will be all the more happy and the sale of its products may go down in the market and it may also trigger a series of cross-defaults, and may further push the company into a state of acute insolvency much more than what it was when the petition was filed. The Company Court, at times, has not only to look into the interest of the creditors, but also the interests of public at large. 

27. We have referred to the above aspects at some length to impress upon the Company Courts to be more vigilant so that its medium would not be misused. A Company Court, therefore, should act with circumspection, care and caution and examine as to whether an attempt is made to pressurize the company to pay a debt which is substantially disputed. A Company Court, therefore, should be guarded from such vexatious abuse of the process and cannot function as a Debt Collecting Agency and should not permit a party to unreasonably set the law in motion, especially when the aggrieved party has a remedy elsewhere.


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