Vicarious Liability of Non-Executive Directors - A Case for Reform of Law

Context:

The vicarious liability provisions have been evolving ever since the evolution of law of torts. “Offence by companies” is a standard vicarious liability provision in most statutes, which is often used to fasten the liability on directors for the acts and omissions of the company. These vicarious liability provisions are borrowed from colonial-era laws and incorporated in our domestic legislations. As a rule, there is no concept of vicarious liability in criminal law. Such provisions imposing liability on directors for acts/ omissions of the company are present in most statutes.

The vicarious liability provisions have a standard language providing that the person-in-charge of and responsible for the conduct of the business of the company at the time of the commission of the offence, as well as other officers are liable for that offence. However, those provisions do not make a distinction between Managing Directors (“MDs”)/ Executive Directors (“EDs”) and Non-Executive Directors (“NEDs”)/ Independent Directors (“IDs”).
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Arm’s Length Pricing -Navigational Tools for the Audit Committee

India has one of the most detailed set of laws and regulations governing disclosures and approvals of related party transactions (RPT) regulating both listed and unlisted companies. The provisions of Section 188 of the Companies Act, 2013 (the Act) are applicable if:

  1. a company enters into a transaction with a ‘related party’ as defined under Section 2(76) of the Act;
  2. such transaction falls under any of the categories specified under sub-clause (a) to (g) of Section 188(1) of the Act, an approval of the board of directors will be required prior to entering into such transaction; and
  3. such transaction exceeds the monetary thresholds prescribed under Rule 15(3) of the Companies (Meeting of Board and its Powers) Rules, 2014, prior approval of the shareholders will also be required by way of an ordinary resolution.

Regulation 23 of the SEBI (Listing Obligations and Disclosure Requirements) Regulations, 2015 (LODR) provides that all material RPTs require shareholder approval through an ordinary resolution and no related party entity shall vote to approve such resolutions whether the entity is a related party to the particular transaction or not. However, all RPTs, whether material or not, require approval of the audit committee.
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Corporate Frauds – Emerging Legal Architecture & Judicial Trends

Corporate scandals and frauds in India are as old as the hills. The 1950s witnessed the infamous LIC/ Mundhra scam, which was the first major financial fraud of the independent India. Frauds continued with an alarming regularity thereafter in every decade – the infamous Harshad Mehta, Ketan Parekh, Sahara, and Satyam scams are just a few of them. These frauds were investigated by the law enforcement agencies under the relevant provisions of the Indian Penal Code, 1860 (IPC). The Companies Act, 1956 did not have any separate definition of ‘fraud’. Legally, it was not necessary to have a separate one as Lord Macaulay’s IPC adequately dealt with all such crimes. The Companies Bill, 2008 was the original legislative proposal to replace the Companies Act, 1956 basis Dr. J.J. Irani Committee Report (Irani Report). The Irani report did not have any recommendation for a provision like Section 447 dealing with frauds. It seems the intervening major corporate scandals of 2007-08 led the Parliamentary Standing Committee to recommend two new legislative changes:
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Striking off Name of a Company - The Jurisdictional Issue

Jurisdiction is not given for the sake of the judge, but for that of the litigant

– Blaise Pascal

Recently the Delhi High Court in Money Market Services (India) Private Ltd. v. Union of India held that an order passed by Registrar of Companies (ROC) striking off the name of a Company can be challenged by way of writ petition only before the High Court, which has territorial jurisdiction over the said ROC.[1]
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ESOPS as Managerial Remuneration - Do Regulators Need to Revisit Regulatory Architecture

Employee Stock Option Plans (ESOPs) are a well-recognised method of compensating employees and attracting and retaining the best talent. Compensation in the form of equity shares helps in creating a sense of ownership in the mind of employees. Benefit schemes for employees, including ESOPs, have gained popularity, especially in technology start-ups that have limited financial resources in the initial years, but want to attract the best talent. ESOPs are the option or a right, but not an obligation, which is offered by a company to its employees to purchase its shares at a pre-determined price in the future. ESOPs align the interest of the employees with long term interest of the companies and play a vital role in retaining employees at the growing stage of the company.

Section 2(37) of the Companies Act, 2013 (“Act”), defines ‘employees’ stock option’ as the option given to directors, officers or employees of a company or of its holding company or subsidiary company or companies, if any, which gives such directors, officers or employees, the benefit or right to purchase, or to subscribe for, the shares of the company at a future date at a pre-determined price. The Act expressly prohibits ESOPs for Independent Directors[1] as the law makers believe that it compromises the ‘independence’ of such Independent Directors. Section 62(1)(b) of the Act provides for the approval of shareholders by a special resolution. Rule 12 of the Companies (Share Capital & Debentures) Rules, 2014, lays down the legal framework for issuance of ESOPs for unlisted companies. Listed companies having ESOP plans are required to comply with the SEBI (Share Based Employee Benefits) Regulations, 2014 (“ESOP Regulations”).
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The provisions of the Companies Act, 2013 (the Act), and the rules framed thereunder, mandate companies to file requisite documents, including annual returns and financial statements, with the concerned Registrar of Companies (RoC) of their jurisdiction. Non-adherence to such provisions and non-filing of the requisite documents is an offence, exposing non-complaint companies and its directors to severe penal consequences, including fines and prosecution.

However, the records of the Ministry of Corporate Affairs (MCA) and the National Company Law Tribunals (NCLT) would clearly reveal that a lot of companies have been non-compliant with their filings. This non-compliance has been a menace to all the stakeholders involved, including, inter alia, (i) the companies and directors who have to face penal consequences for such non-compliances; (ii) the MCA and its administration who are engaged in the process of updating the records; (iii) the public/ shareholders who do not get access to the records of the companies; and (iv) the NCLT and the office of Regional Directors, which are burdened with compounding cases.


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Claw back clauses in Employment Contracts - A new tool to fight corporate misfeasance

The 2008 financial crisis made it possible to revisit contractual clauses of employees, especially those governing remunerations of executives in financial institutions. One of the clauses that gained prominence was the clause pertaining to ‘clawback’. Broadly speaking, clawback clause refers to an action for recoupment of a loss. It means the refund or return of incentive or compensation after they have been paid. The purpose of such a clause is to claim back unfair enrichment that has happened to an employee. Such a clause acts as a form of insurance and was originally applied in cases of misstatement of financial results or fraudulent acts by employees, but over time, the scope of this clause has gradually expanded.
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The ‘Appointed Date’ Conundrum – Has the MCA Now Resolved This?

‘Appointed Date’ versus ‘Effective Date’

A scheme of arrangement is usually conditional upon the satisfaction of specified conditions. The date on which the conditions to a scheme are satisfied is referred to as the ‘effective date’ of the scheme. Schemes often provide that once all conditions are satisfied, they shall be deemed to have become effective on an identified date (which is not necessarily the same as the effective date) – this is usually referred to as the ‘appointed date’ of the scheme. Accordingly, while the conditions to a scheme are satisfied on an effective date, the transactions under the scheme are deemed to have occurred on an appointed date.
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Vote from Home – A Positive Move for Shareholder Meetings

The Companies Act, 2013 does not contemplate shareholder meetings being held electronically. However, as social distancing becomes de rigueur and the temporary lockdown has been extended to May 3, 2020, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it has become difficult, impractical and illegal in many cases for companies to hold shareholder meetings physically. At the same time, companies need to plough through these difficult times, and crucial decisions on matters such as fund raising and restructuring, all of which require shareholders’ approval, cannot be suspended. Responding to this dilemma, the Ministry of Corporate Affairs (MCA) has issued circulars[1] relaxing the requirement to hold physical general meetings and permitting meetings to be held remotely through electronic means.

The MCA has requested companies to hold general meetings to take decisions of urgent nature (other than for items of ordinary business[2] and items where any person has a right to be heard) through electronic voting or postal ballot, according to the procedure under Section 110 of the Companies Act, 2013 (Companies Act) and Rule 20 of the Companies (Management and Administration) Rules, 2014, and the additional measures prescribed under the circulars.
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Buy-Backs by Listed Companies - Key Considerations

A listed company proposing to undertake a buy-back is required to primarily comply with the provisions of the Companies Act, 2013 (the “Companies Act”) and the Securities and Exchange Board of India (Buy-Back of Securities) Regulations, 2018 (the “SEBI Regulations”). However, a listed company is also required to ensure compliance with the requirements of the Securities and Exchange Board of India (Substantial Acquisition of Shares and Takeovers) Regulations, 2011 (the “SEBI Takeover Regulations”), the Securities and Exchange Board of India (Listing Obligations and Disclosure Requirements) Regulations, 2015, the Foreign Exchange Management Act, 1999, the Securities and Exchange Board of India (Prohibition of Insider Trading) Regulations, 2015 and other applicable securities laws including in other jurisdictions.

As explained in our earlier blog, as prescribed in the SEBI Regulations, a listed company may undertake a buy-back of its shares and other specified securities through any of the following methods: (a) from the existing holders of securities on a proportionate basis through a tender offer; (b) from the open market either through the book building process or through the stock exchange mechanism; or (c) from odd-lot holders.
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