Directors’ Vicarious Liability in the Current Legal Landscape of the Negotiable Instruments Act

Directors’ Vicarious Liability in the Current Legal Landscape of the Negotiable Instruments Act: A Review of Developing Judicial Precedents


Section 138 of the Negotiable Instruments Act, 1881 (“NI Act”) holds individuals criminally liable for dishonoring a cheque. This provision aims to enhance the efficiency of banking operations and ensure trustworthiness in transactions involving cheque [i] Given that many transactions and payments involve companies, a similar intent is evident in Section 141 of the NI Act, which extends vicarious criminal liability to officers associated with these companies or firms. Over time, the interpretation of Section 141 has been clarified, with the primary guiding principle being the director’s involvement in the day-to-day affairs of the company. However, it is crucial to closely examine the nuances that determine the extent of liability.

Section 141 of the Negotiable Instruments Act and the Scope of Vicarious Liability: Understanding the Essentials

The established legal principle dictates that for initiating a prosecution under Section 141 against a director, the complaint must specifically allege the director’s role in the transaction. Additionally, the complaint should contain clear and unambiguous allegations, explaining how the directors are in charge of and responsible for the company’s conduct[ii]These requirements were elucidated in the landmark decision of S.M.S. Pharmaceuticals Ltd. v. Neeta Bhalla [iii]. In this case, the Supreme Court emphasized that a director cannot be held liable solely based on their position; it must be proven that they were in charge of and responsible for the company’s affairs at the time of the offense. Furthermore, individuals holding the positions of “Managing Director” or “Joint Managing Director” are inherently considered responsible for the company’s conduct and can be held liable under Section 141.

Establishment of a Legal Fiction and Rigorous Statutory Interpretation

Section 141 of the NI Act establishes constructive liability on directors on behalf of the company, creating a legal fiction [iv]. This legal fiction implies that a person, though not personally responsible for the offense, can be held vicariously liable [v] To impose this vicarious liability correctly, strict compliance with the provisions and requirements of Section 141 is essential [vi]

In a recent decision in Dilip Hariramani v. Bank of Baroda [vii].  the Supreme Court clarified that Section 141 imposes vicarious liability through a legal fiction, assuming the company or firm committed the offense as a principal accused. Therefore, unless the company or firm is held liable, the individuals mentioned in Section 141 cannot be convicted [viii] .This aligns with the 2014 judgment in Anil Gupta v. Star India (P) Ltd [ix]., where the Court ruled that directors cannot face criminal proceedings under Section 141 if such proceedings were quashed for the company.

Contemporary Developments and the Common Approach to the Requirement Provision

The legal principles established in SMS Pharmaceuticals [x] have endured, with courts largely adhering to the same parameters. Specific pleading regarding the directors’ roles has been consistently emphasized as crucial for prosecution[xi].

In a recent decision in Sunita Palita v. M/s Panchami Stone Quarry[xii].  the Supreme Court made notable observations. While reiterating the importance of specific allegations concerning directors’ roles, the Court stated that no specific averments are required when a person holds the title of “Managing Director” since this implies, they are in charge of the company [xiii]However, an exception was noted: individuals in directorial roles in Human Resources or Personnel cannot be automatically assumed liable solely based on their designation if they have no connection to the issuance or dishonor of the cheque [xiv].  The Court referred to its decisions in National Small Industries Corporation Ltd. v. Harmeet Singh Painta[xv] and Pooja Ravinder Devidasani v. State of Maharashtra[xvi]emphasizing that merely stating that directors are in charge of the company’s business, without additional evidence, does not fulfill Section 141 requirements.

Evaluation and Drawn Conclusions

The Supreme Court’s interpretation of Section 141 of the NI Act consistently demands specific allegations regarding the director’s role and their responsibility for the company’s daily activities. Courts are cautious about prosecuting individuals in directorial roles without examining the nature of their responsibilities, which should demonstrate knowledge or awareness of the company’s day-to-day operations, thereby establishing vicarious liability. Recent decisions also reflect a trend of not holding non-executive directors vicariously liable under this provision.

Furthermore, in 2020, the Ministry of Finance recommended decriminalizing minor economic offenses, including Sections 138 and 143(1) of the NI Act, to alleviate the high court caseload. While this proposal has not been implemented yet, it is seen as a progressive step to address the backlog of such cases in the judicial system, which is generally welcomed within the legal community.

i. Modi Cements Ltd. v. Kuchil Kumar Nandi, (1998) 3 SCC 249.

ii. N.K. Wahi v. Shekhar Singh, (2007) 9 SCC 481

iii. (2005) 8 SCC 89.

iv. DCM Financial Services Ltd. v. J.N. Sareen, (2008) 8 SCC 1.

v. Sabitha Ramamurthy v. R.B.S. Channabasavaradhya, (2006) 10 SCC 581.

vi. Ibid; a similar emphasis on care to be taken while proceeding against a director as a consequence of creation of a legal fiction was seen in the matter of Kirshna Texport & Capital Markets Ltd. v. Ila A. Agrawal, (2015) 8 SCC 28, wherein the court held that it was essential that the director be given separate notice so they have an opportunity to rectify the mistake before being made vicariously liable. See also B. Raman, 2006 SCC OnLine Mad 757.

vii. 2022 SCC OnLine SC 579.

viii. Ibid.

ix. (2014) 10 SCC 373; see also Anil Hada v. Indian Acrylic Ltd, (2000) 1 SCC 1.

x. Supra note (iii).

xi. Standard Chartered Bank v. State of Maharashtra, (2016) 6 SCC 62.

xii. Supreme Court judgment dated August 1, 2022 in SLP (Crl.) No. 10396 of 2019.

xiii. Ibid, at Para 30.

xiv. Ibid, at Para 42.

xv. (2010) 3 SCC 330

xvi. (2014) 16 SCC 1

Vivek Tyagi

Vivek Tyagi

This Article is authored by, Advocate Vivek Tyagi, a legal professional specializing in the field of Civil and Criminal Litigation. Currently working as an Associate Advocate at CHESTLAW Advocates & Solicitors.

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