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Sunday, November 27, 2011

Resignation of Directors and their Liability in Cheque Bounce Cases : The Law

P Sathasivam
Supreme Court of India
The Supreme Court in Anita Malhotra Vs. Apparel Export Promotion Council had the occasion to examine the liability of a director for issuance of a cheque by a Company, in the light of the fact that the said Director had resigned prior to the relevant date of issue. We have already covered a post on the Liability of Directors in Cheque Bounce Cases. The relevant extracts from the judgment are reproduced hereinbelow;

10. Mr. Akhil Sibal by taking us through the relevant provisions of the Companies Act, 1956, particularly, Sections 159, 163 and 610(3) contended that the Annual Return dated 30.09.1999 is a public document and the same is reliable and legally acceptable insofar as the contents of the same are concerned. The said Sections are reproduced hereunder: 

159. Annual return to be made by company having a share capital.— 

(1) Every company having a share capital shall within sixty days from the day on which each of the annual general meetings referred to in section 166 is held, prepare and file with the Registrar a return containing the particulars specified in Part I of Schedule V, as they stood on that day, regarding— 

(a) its registered office, (b) the register of its members, (c) the register of its debenture-holders,  (d) its shares and debentures, (e) its indebtedness, (f) its members and debenture-holders, past and present, and (g) its directors, managing directors, managers and secretaries, past and present: Provided that any of the five immediately preceding returns has given as at the date of the annual general meeting with reference to which it was submitted, the full particulars required as to past and present members and the shares held and transferred by them, the return in question may contain only such of the particulars as relate to persons ceasing to be or becoming members since that date and to shares transferred since that date or to changes as compared with that date in the number of shares held by a member. 

Xxx xxxx" 163. Place of keeping and inspection of, registers and returns.— 

(1) The register of members commencing from the date of the registration of the company, the index of members, the register and index of debenture-holders, and copies of all annual returns prepared under sections 159 and 160, together with the copies of certificates and documents required to be annexed thereto under sections 160 and 161, shall be kept at the registered office of the company: 

Xxx xxxx" 610. Inspection, production and evidence of documents kept by Registrar. Xxxx xxx Xxxx xxx 

(3) A copy of, or extract from, any document kept and registered at any of the officers for the registration of 1companies under this Act, certified to be a true copy under the hand of the Registrar (whose official position it shall not be necessary to prove), shall, in all legal proceedings, be admissible in evidence as of equal validity with the original document." 

11. A reading of the above provisions make it clear that there is a statutory requirement under Section 159 of the Companies Act that every Company having a share capital shall have to file with the Registrar of Companies an annual return which include details of the existing Directors. The provisions of the Companies Act require annual return to be made available by a company for inspection (S. 163) as well as Section 610 which entitles any person to inspect documents kept by the Registrar of Companies. The High Court committed an error in ignoring Section 74 of the Indian Evidence Act, 1872. Sub-section (1) of Section 74 refers to public documents and sub- section (2) provides that public documents include "public records kept in any State of private documents". A conjoint reading of Sections 159, 163 and 610(3) of the Companies Act, 1956 read with sub-section (2) of Section 74 of the Indian Evidence Act, 1872 make it clear that a certified copy of annual return is a public document and the contrary conclusion arrived at by the High Court cannot be sustained. Annual Return dated 30.09.1999 which provides the details about the existing Directors clearly show that the appellant was not a Director at the relevant time. Had the High Court considered the contents of the certified copy of the annual return dated 30.09.1999 filed by the Company which clearly shows that the appellant herein (A3) has not been shown as Director of the Company, it could have quashed the criminal proceedings insofar as A3 is concerned. 

12. In DCM Financial Services Limited vs. J.N. Sareen and Another, (2008) 8 SCC 1, this Court, while considering Sections 138 and 141 of the Act came to the following conclusion which is relevant for our purpose: 
"21. The cheque in question was admittedly a post-dated one. It was signed on 3-4-1995. It was presented only sometime in June 1998. In the meantime the first respondent had resigned from the directorship of the Company. The complaint petition was filed on or about 20-8- 1998. Intimation about his resignation was given to the complainant in writing by the first respondent on several occasions. The appellant was, therefore, aware thereof. Despite having the knowledge, the first respondent was impleaded as one of the accused in the complaint as a Director in charge of the affairs of the Company on the date of commission of the offence, which he was not. If he was proceeded against as a signatory to the cheques, it should have been disclosed before the learned Judge as also the High Court so as to enable him to apply his mind in that behalf. It was not done. Although, therefore, it may be that as an authorised signatory he will be deemed to be person in-charge, in the facts and circumstances of the case, we are of the opinion that the said contention should not be permitted to be raised for the first time before us. A person who had resigned with the knowledge of the complainant in 1996 could not be a person in charge of the Company in 1998 when the cheque was dishonoured. He had no say in the matter of seeing that the cheque is honoured. He could not ask the Company to pay the amount. He as a Director or otherwise could not have been made responsible for payment of the cheque on behalf of the Company or otherwise. [See also Saroj Kumar Poddar v. State (NCT of Delhi), Everest Advertising (P) Ltd. v. State, Govt. of NCT of Delhi and Raghu Lakshminarayanan v. Fine Tubes." 
13. In Harshendra Kumar D. vs. Rebatilata Koley and Others, (2011) 3 SCC 351, while considering the very same provisions coupled with the power of the High Court under Section 482 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973 (in short `the Code') for quashing of the criminal proceedings, this Court held: 
"25. In our judgment, the above observations cannot be read to mean that in a criminal case where trial is yet to take place and the matter is at the stage of issuance of summons or taking cognizance, materials relied upon by the accused which are in the nature of public documents or the materials which are beyond suspicion or doubt, in no circumstance, can be looked into by the High Court in exercise of its jurisdiction under Section 482 or for that matter in exercise of revisional jurisdiction under Section 397 of the Code. It is fairly settled now that while exercising inherent jurisdiction under Section 482 or revisional jurisdiction under Section 397 of the Code in a case where complaint is sought to be quashed, it is not proper for the High Court to consider the defence of the accused or embark upon an enquiry in respect of merits of the accusations. However, in an appropriate case, if on the face of the documents -- which are beyond suspicion or doubt -- placed by the accused, the accusations against him cannot stand, it would be travesty of justice if the accused is relegated to trial and he is asked to prove his defence before the trial court. In such a matter, for promotion of justice or to prevent injustice or abuse of process, the High Court may look into the materials which have significant bearing on the matter at prima facie stage." 
As rightly stated so, though it is not proper for the High Court to consider the defence of the accused or conduct a roving enquiry in respect of merit of the accusation, but if on the face of the document which is beyond suspicion or doubt placed by the accused and if it is considered the accusation against her cannot stand, in such a matter, in order to prevent injustice or abuse of process, it is incumbent on the High Court to look into those document/documents which have a bearing on the matter even at the initial stage and grant relief to the person concerned by exercising jurisdiction under Section 482 of the Code. 

14. Inasmuch as the certified copy of the annual return dated 30.09.1999 is a public document, more particularly, in view of the provisions of the Companies Act, 1956 read with Section 74(2) of the Indian Evidence Act, 1872, we hold that the appellant has validly resigned from the Directorship of the Company even in the year 1998 and she cannot be held responsible for the dishonour of the cheques issued in the year 2004. 

15. This Court has repeatedly held that in case of a Director, complaint should specifically spell out how and in what manner the Director was in charge of or was responsible to the accused Company for conduct of its business and mere bald statement that he or she was in charge of and was responsible to the company for conduct of its business is not sufficient. [Vide National Small Industries Corporation Limited vs. Harmeet Singh Paintal and Another, (2010) 3 SCC 330]. In the case on hand, particularly, in para 4 of the complaint, except the mere bald and cursory statement with regard to the appellant, the complainant has not specified her role in the day to day affairs of the Company. We have verified the averments as regard to the same and we agree with the contention of Mr. Akhil Sibal that except reproduction of the statutory requirements the complainant has not specified or elaborated the role of the appellant in the day to day affairs of the Company. On this ground also, the appellant is entitled to succeed.

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  1. As per the observations of the APex court in Sadanandan Bhadran v. Madhvan Sunil Kumar, AIR 1998 SC 3043. A cheque can be presented any number of times during the period of its validity;
    NI act has been treated as a recovery tool for being quasi criminal in nature.

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