|Justice Tarun Chatterjee|
Supreme Court of India
The Supreme Court Celina Coelho Pereira Vs. Ulhas Mahabaleshwar Kholkar has carefully examined the meaning, scope and ingredients of 'Sub-Letting' under various rent control legislations in India. Justice Tarun Chatterjee has succinctly summarized the broad principles / guidelines to be followed in cases involving sub-letting of the premises by the tenant. The relevant extracts from this judgment are reproduced hereinbelow;
18. In the case of Associated Hotels of India Ltd., Delhi v. S.B. Sardar Ranjit Singh AIR 1968 SC 933, this Court held that when eviction is sought on the ground of subletting, the onus to prove subletting is on the landlord. It was further held that if the landlord prima facie shows that the third party is in exclusive possession of the premises let out for valuable consideration, it would then be for the tenant to rebut the evidence.
19. The aforesaid legal position was also noticed by this Court in the case of Smt. Krishnawati v. Hans Raj (1974) 1 SCC 280.
20. In Helper Girdharbhai v. Saiyed Mohmad Mirasaheb Kadri & Others (1987) 3 SCC 538, this Court held that in a case where a tenant becomes a partner of a partnership firm and allows the firm to carry on business in the demised premises while he himself retains legal possession thereof, the act of the landlord does not amount to subletting. It was held that whether there is genuine partnership or not must be judged in the facts of each case in the light of the principles applicable to partnership.
21. While dealing with the mischief contemplated under Section 14(1)(b) of the Delhi Rent Control Act, 1958 providing for eviction on the ground of subletting, this Court in the case of Jagan Nath (Deceased) through LRs. vs. Chander Bhan And Ors. (1988) 3 SCC 57 held:
"The question for consideration is whether the mischief contemplated under Section 14(1)(b) of the Act has been committed as the tenant had sublet, assigned, or otherwise parted with the possession of the whole or part of the premises without obtaining the consent in writing of the landlord. There is no dispute that there was no consent in writing of the landlord in this case. There is also no evidence that there has been any subletting or assignment. The only ground perhaps upon which the landlord was seeking eviction was parting with possession. It is well settled that parting with possession meant giving possession to persons other than those to whom possession had been given by the lease and the parting with possession must have been by the tenant; user by other person is not parting with possession so long as the tenant retains the legal possession himself, or in other words there must be vesting of possession by the tenant in another person by divesting himself not only of physical possession but also of the right to possession. So long as the tenant retains the right to possession there is no parting with possession in terms of clause (b) of Section 14(1) of the Act. Even though the father had retired from the business and the sons had been looking after the business, in the facts of this case, it cannot be said that the father had divested himself of the legal right to be in possession. If the father has a right to displace the possession of the occupants, i.e., his sons, it cannot be said that the tenant had parted with possession"
22. The question whether the tenant has assigned, sublet or otherwise parted with the possession of the whole or any part of the premises without the permission of the landlord within the meaning of Section 13(1)(e) of the Rajasthan Premises (Control of Rent and Eviction) Act, 1950, fell for consideration in Gopal Saran vs. Satyanarayana (1989) 3 SCC 56. This Court held:
"Sub-letting means transfer of an exclusive right to enjoy the property in favour of the third party. In this connection, reference may be made to the decision of this Court in Shalimar Tar Products Ltd. v. H.C. Sharma [(1988) 1 SCC 70] where it was held that to constitute a sub-letting, there must be a parting of legal possession, i.e., possession with the right to include and also right to exclude others and whether in a particular case there was sub-letting was substantially a question of fact. In that case, a reference was made at page 77 of the report to the Treatise of Foa on Landlord and Tenant, 6th edn., at page 323, for the proposition that the mere act of letting other persons into possession by the tenant, and permitting them to use the premises for their own purposes, is not, so long as he retains the legal possession himself, a breach of covenant. In paragraph 17 of the report, it was observed that parting of the legal possession means possession with the right to include and also right to exclude others. In the last mentioned case, the observations of the Madras High Court in Gundalapalli Rangamannar Chetty v. Desu Rangiah (AIR 1954 Mad 182) were approved by this Court in which the legal position in Jackson v. Simons [(1923) 1 Ch 373) were relied upon. The Madras High Court had also relied on a judgment of Scrutton L.J. in Chaplin v. Smith [(1926) 1 KB 198] at page 211 of the report where it was said : He did not assign, nor did he underlet. He was constantly on the premises himself and kept the key of them. He did business of his own as well as business of the company. In my view he allowed the company to use the premises while he himself remained in possession of them. This position was also accepted in Vishwa Nath v. Chaman Lal (AIR 1975 Del. 117) wherein it was observed that parting with possession is understood as parting with legal possession by one in favour of the other by giving him an exclusive possession to the ouster of the grantor. If the grantor had retained legal possession with him it was not a case of parting with possession."
The court also reiterated that to prove sub-tenancy, two ingredients have to be established, firstly, the tenant must have exclusive right of possession or interests in the premises or part of the premises in question and secondly, the right must be in lieu of payment of some compensation or rent.
23. In the case of G.K. Bhatnagar (Dead) By LRs. v. Abdul Alim (2002) 9 SCC 516, this Court held as follows:
"A conjoint reading of these provisions shows that on and after 9-6-1952, sub-letting, assigning or otherwise parting with the possession of the whole or any part of the tenancy premises, without obtaining the consent in writing of the landlord, is not permitted and if done, the same provides a ground for eviction of the tenant by the landlord. However, inducting a partner in his business or profession by the tenant is permitted so long as such partnership is genuine. If the purpose of such partnership may ostensibly be to carry on the business or profession in partnership, but the real purpose be sub-letting of the premises to such other person who is inducted ostensibly as a partner, then the same shall be deemed to be an act of sub-letting attracting the applicability of clause (b) of sub- section (1) of Section 14 of the Act."
24. A three-Judge Bench of this Court in Parvinder Singh v. Renu Gautam and Others (2004) 4 SCC 794 commented upon the device adopted by tenants many a time in creating partnership as a camouflage to circumvent the provisions of the Rent Control Act. The following observations are worth noticing:
"The rent control legislations which extend many a protection to the tenant, also provide for grounds of eviction. One such ground, most common in all the legislations, is sub- letting or parting with possession of the tenancy premises by the tenant. Rent control laws usually protect the tenant so long as he may himself use the premises but not his transferee inducted into possession of the premises, in breach of the contract or the law, which act is often done with the object of illegitimate profiteering or rack-renting. To defeat the provisions of law, a device is at times adopted by unscrupulous tenants and sub-tenants of bringing into existence a deed of partnership which gives the relationship of tenant and sub-tenant an outward appearance of partnership while in effect what has come into existence is a sub-tenancy or parting with possession camouflaged under the cloak of partnership. Merely because a tenant has entered into a partnership he cannot necessarily be held to have sub-let the premises or parted with possession thereof in favour of his partners. If the tenant is actively associated with the partnership business and retains the use and control over the tenancy premises with him, maybe along with the partners, the tenant may not be said to have parted with possession. However, if the user and control of the tenancy premises has been parted with and deed of partnership has been drawn up as an indirect method of collecting the consideration for creation of sub- tenancy or for providing a cloak or cover to conceal a transaction not permitted by law, the court is not estopped from tearing the veil of partnership and finding out the real nature of transaction entered into between the tenant and the alleged sub-tenant. A person having secured a lease of premises for the purpose of his business may be in need of capital or finance or someone to assist him in his business and to achieve such like purpose he may enter into partnership with strangers. Quite often partnership is entered into between the members of any family as a part of tax planning. There is no stranger brought on the premises. So long as the premises remain in occupation of the tenant or in his control, a mere entering into partnership may not provide a ground for eviction by running into conflict with prohibition against sub-letting or parting with possession. This is a general statement of law which ought to be read in the light of the lease agreement and the law governing the tenancy. There are cases wherein the tenant sub-lets the premises or parts with possession in defiance of the terms of lease or the rent control legislation and in order to save himself from the peril of eviction brings into existence, a deed of partnership between him and his sub-lessee to act as a cloak on the reality of the transaction. The existence of deed of partnership between the tenant and the alleged sub- tenant would not preclude the landlord from bringing on record material and circumstances, by adducing evidence or by means of cross-examination, making out a case of sub- letting or parting with possession or interest in tenancy premises by the tenant in favour of a third person. The rule as to exclusion of oral by documentary evidence governs the parties to the deed in writing. A stranger to the document is not bound by the terms of the document and is, therefore, not excluded from demonstrating the untrue or collusive nature of the document or the fraudulent or illegal purpose for which it was brought into being. An enquiry into reality of transaction is not excluded merely by availability of writing reciting the transaction........."
25. In yet another decision, a three-Judge Bench of this Court in Mahendra Saree Emporium (II) v. G.V. Srinivasa Murthy (2005) 1 SCC 481 considered earlier decisions, few of which have been referred above, while dealing with a matter relating to subletting of the premises within the meaning of Section 21(1)(f) of Karnataka Rent Control Act, 1961 and observed as follows :
"The term "sub-let" is not defined in the Act - new or old. However, the definition of "lease" can be adopted mutatis mutandis for defining "sub-lease". What is "lease" between the owner of the property and his tenant becomes a sub-lease when entered into between the tenant and tenant of the tenant, the latter being sub-tenant qua the owner- landlord. A lease of immovable property as defined in Section 105 of the Transfer of Property Act, 1882 is a transfer of a right to enjoy such property made for a certain time for consideration of a price paid or promised. A transfer of a right to enjoy such property to the exclusion of all others during the term of the lease is sine qua non of a lease. A sub-lease would imply parting with by the tenant of the right to enjoy such property in favour of his sub-tenant. Different types of phraseology are employed by different State Legislatures making provision for eviction on the ground of sub-letting. Under Section 21(1)(f) of the old Act, the phraseology employed is quite wide. It embraces within its scope sub-letting of the whole or part of the premises as also assignment or transfer in any other manner of the lessee's interest in the tenancy premises. The exact nature of transaction entered into or arrangement or understanding arrived at between the tenant and alleged sub-tenant may not be in the knowledge of the landlord and such a transaction being unlawful would obviously be entered into in secrecy depriving the owner-landlord of the means of ascertaining the facts about the same. However still, the rent control legislation being protective for the tenant and eviction being not permissible except on the availability of ground therefor having been made out to the satisfaction of the court or the Controller, the burden of proving the availability of the ground is cast on the landlord i.e. the one who seeks eviction. In Krishnawati v. Hans Raj [(1974) 1 SCC 289] reiterating the view taken in Associated Hotels of India Ltd. v. S.B. Sardar Ranjit Singh [(1968) 2 SCR 548] this Court so noted the settled law: (SCC p. 293, para 6)
"[T]he onus to prove sub-letting is on the landlord. If the landlord prima facie shows that the occupant who was in exclusive possession of the premises let out for valuable consideration, it would then be for the tenant to rebut the evidence."
Thus, in the case of sub-letting, the onus lying on the landlord would stand discharged by adducing prima facie proof of the fact that the alleged sub-tenant was in exclusive possession of the premises or, to borrow the language of Section 105 of the Transfer of Property Act, was holding right to enjoy such property. A presumption of sub-letting may then be raised and would amount to proof unless rebutted. In the context of the premises having been sub-let or possession parted with by the tenant by adopting the device of entering into partnership, it would suffice for us to notice three decisions of this Court. Murlidhar v. Chuni Lal (1970 Ren CJ 922) is a case where a shop was let out to a firm of the name of Chuni Lal Gherulal. The firm consisted of three partners, namely, Chuni Lal, Gherulal and Meghraj. This partnership closed and a new firm by the name of Meghraj Bansidhar commenced its business with partners Meghraj and Bansidhar. The tenant firm was sought to be evicted on the ground that the old firm and the new firm being two different legal entities, the occupation of the shop by the new firm amounted to sub-letting. This Court discarded the contention as "entirely without substance" and held that a partnership firm is not a legal entity; the firm name is only a compendious way of describing the partners of the firm. Therefore, occupation by a firm is only occupation by its partners. The two firms, old and new, had a common partner, namely, Meghraj, who continued to be in possession and it was fallacious to contend that earlier he was in possession in the capacity of partner of the old firm and later as a partner of the new firm. The landlord, in order to succeed, has to prove it as a fact that there was a sub- letting by his tenant to another firm. As the premises continued to be in possession of one of the original tenants, Meghraj, then by a mere change in the constitution of the firm of which Meghraj continued to be a partner, an inference as to sub-letting could not be drawn in the absence of further evidence having been adduced to establish sub-letting. In Helper Girdharbhai v. Saiyed Mohd. Mirasaheb Kadri [(1987) 3 SCC 538] the tenant had entered into a partnership and the firm was carrying on business in the tenancy premises. This Court held that if there was a partnership firm of which the appellant was a partner as a tenant, the same would not amount to sub-letting leading to forfeiture of the tenancy; for there cannot be a sub-letting unless the lessee parted with the legal possession. The mere fact that another person is allowed to use the premises while the lessee retains the legal possession is not enough to create a sub-lease. Thus, the thrust is, as laid down by this Court, on finding out who is in legal possession of the premises. So long as the legal possession remains with the tenant the mere factum of the tenant having entered into partnership for the purpose of carrying on the business in the tenancy premises would not amount to sub-letting. In Parvinder Singh v. Renu Gautam [(2004) 4 SCC 794] a three-Judge Bench of this Court devised the test in these terms: (SCC p. 799, para 8) "If the tenant is actively associated with the partnership business and retains the use and control over the tenancy premises with him, maybe along with the partners, the tenant may not be said to have parted with possession. However, if the user and control of the tenancy premises has been parted with and deed of partnership has been drawn up as an indirect method of collecting the consideration for creation of sub-tenancy or for providing a cloak or cover to conceal a transaction not permitted by law, the court is not estopped from tearing the veil of partnership and finding out the real nature of transaction entered into between the tenant and the alleged sub- tenant"."
26. In Vaishakhi Ram and Others v. Sanjeev Kumar Bhatiani (2008) 14 SCC 356, one of us (Tarun Chatterjee, J.), in a case of subletting under Section 14(1)(b) of Delhi Rent Control Act, held:
"A plain reading of this provision would show that if a tenant has sub-let or assigned or otherwise parted with the possession of the whole or any part of the premises without obtaining the consent in writing of the landlord, he would be liable to be evicted from the said premises. That is to say, the following ingredients must be satisfied before an order of eviction can be passed on the ground of sub-letting:
(1) the tenant has sub-let or assigned or parted with the possession of the whole or any part of the premises;
(2) such sub-letting or assigning or parting with the possession has been done without obtaining the consent in writing of the landlord." .............."It is well settled that the burden of proving sub- letting is on the landlord but if the landlord proves that the sub- tenant is in exclusive possession of the suit premises, then the onus is shifted to the tenant to prove that it was not a case of sub-letting."
27. In Nirmal Kanta (Dead) Through LRs. v. Ashok Kumar and Another (2008) 7 SCC 722 , this Court held thus :
"What constitutes sub-letting has repeatedly fallen for the consideration of this Court in various cases and it is now well-established that a sub-tenancy or a sub-letting comes into existence when the tenant inducts a third party stranger to the landlord into the tenanted accommodation and parts with possession thereof wholly or in part in favour of such third party and puts him in exclusive possession thereof. The lessor and/or a landlord seeking eviction of a lessee or tenant alleging creation of a sub-tenancy has to prove such allegation by producing proper evidence to that effect. Once it is proved that the lessee and/or tenant has parted with exclusive possession of the demised premises for a monetary consideration, the creation of a sub-tenancy and/or the allegation of sub-letting stands established."
28. The legal position that emerges from the aforesaid decisions can be summarised thus:
(i) In order to prove mischief of subletting as a ground for eviction under rent control laws, two ingredients have to be established, (one) parting with possession of tenancy or part of it by tenant in favour of a third party with exclusive right of possession and (two) that such parting with possession has been done without the consent of the landlord and in lieu of compensation or rent.
(ii) Inducting a partner or partners in the business or profession by a tenant by itself does not amount to subletting. However, if the purpose of such partnership is ostensible and a deed of partnership is drawn to conceal the real transaction of sub-letting, the court may tear the veil of partnership to find out the real nature of transaction entered into by the tenant.
(iii) The existence of deed of partnership between tenant and alleged sub-tenant or ostensible transaction in any other form would not preclude the landlord from bringing on record material and circumstances, by adducing evidence or by means of cross- examination, making out a case of sub-letting or parting with possession in tenancy premises by the tenant in favour of a third person.
(iv) If tenant is actively associated with the partnership business and retains the control over the tenancy premises with him, may be along with partners, the tenant may not be said to have parted with possession.
(v) Initial burden of proving subletting is on landlord but once he is able to establish that a third party is in exclusive possession of the premises and that tenant has no legal possession of the tenanted premises, the onus shifts to tenant to prove the nature of occupation of such third party and that he (tenant) continues to hold legal possession in tenancy premises.
(vi) In other words, initial burden lying on landlord would stand discharged by adducing prima facie proof of the fact that a party other than tenant was in exclusive possession of the premises. A presumption of sub-letting may then be raised and would amount to proof unless rebutted.