The expression “actually” makes it clear that in fact a debt must be due and payable notwithstanding the law of limitation.
|Case name:||B.K. Educational Services Private Limited Versus Parag Gupta And Associates|
|Case number:||CIVIL APPEAL NO.23988 OF 2017|
|Court:||THE SUPREME COURT OF INDIA|
|Bench:||R.F. Nariman J. Navin Sinha J.|
|Decided on:||October 11, 2018.|
|Relevant Act/Sections:||The Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code, 2016|
BRIEF FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY:
- In all these cases, concerning the issue mentioned below, the Appellate Authority has held that the Limitation Act, 1963 does not so apply. Even on the assumption that Article 137 of the Limitation Act, 1963 is attracted to such applications, in any case, such applications being filed only on or after commencement of the Code on 01.12.2016, since three years have not elapsed since this date, all these applications, in any event, could be said to be within time. Having held this, by the impugned order dated 07.11.2017 in Civil Appeal No.23988 of 2017, the Appellate Tribunal went on to hold:
- “68. In view of the settled principle, while we hold that the Limitation Act, 1963 is not applicable for initiation of ‘Corporate Insolvency Resolution Process’, we further hold that the Doctrine of Limitation and Prescription is necessary to be looked into for determining the question whether the application under Section 7 or Section 9 can be entertained after long delay, amounting to laches and thereby the person forfeited his claim.
- If there is a delay of more than three years from the date of cause of action and no laches on the part of the Applicant, the Applicant can explain the delay. Where there is a continuing cause of action, the question of rejecting any application on the ground of delay does not arise.
- Therefore, if it comes to the notice of the Adjudicating Authority that the application for initiation of ‘Corporate Insolvency Resolution Process’ under section 7 or Section 9 has been filed after long delay, the Adjudicating Authority may give opportunity to the Applicant to explain the delay within a reasonable period to find out whether there are any laches on the part of the Applicant.
- The stale claim of dues without explaining delay, normally should not be entertained for triggering ‘Corporate Insolvency Resolution Process’ under Section 7 and 9 of the ‘I&B Code’.
- However, the aforesaid principle for triggering an application under Section 10 of the ‘I&B Code’ cannot be made applicable as the ‘Corporate Applicant’ does not claim money but prays for initiation of ‘Corporate Insolvency Resolution Process’ against itself, having defaulted to pay the dues of creditors. In so far it relates to filing of claim before the ‘Insolvency Resolution Professional’, in case of stale claim, long delay and in absence of any continuous cause of action, it is open to resolution applicant to decide whether such claim is to be accepted or not, and on submission of resolution plan, the Committee of Creditors may decide such question. If any adverse decision is taken in regard to any creditor disputing the claim on ground of delay and laches, it will be open to the aggrieved creditor to file objection before the Adjudicating Authority against resolution plan and for its necessary correction who may decide the same in accordance with the observations as made above.”
- By reason of this finding, the order of the Tribunal was set aside, and the matter was remanded for a hearing on all points other than the point of limitation.
ISSUE BEFORE THE COURT:
Whether the Limitation Act, 1963 will apply to applications that are made under Section 7 and/or Section 9 of the Code on and from its commencement on 01.12.2016 till 06.06.2018?
RATIO OF THE COURT
- It may also be noticed that under Section 434(1)(c) of the Companies Act, all proceedings under the Companies Act, including the proceedings relating to winding up of companies, pending immediately before such date, before any District Court or High Court, shall stand transferred to the Tribunal and the Tribunal may proceed to deal with such proceedings from the stage before they are transferred. This Section is also important in that it indicates that proceedings under the Companies Act relating to arbitration, compromise, arrangements and reconstruction and winding up of companies, that were pending before the District Court or the High Court, may now be transferred to the Tribunal.
- Each of these proceedings would directly be governed by the Limitation Act as they are proceedings before Courts. Obviously, upon transfer of such proceedings to the Tribunal, it cannot be stated that because these proceedings are now before the Tribunal, the Limitation Act will cease to apply. Also, in fresh applications that are made after the Code comes into force, it cannot be said that to such applications, the Limitation Act will not apply, but to applications that are transferred from the District Court or the High Court, the provisions of the Limitation Act will apply. In particular, winding up proceedings pending before a High Court are liable to be transferred to the NCLT for further decision by applying the Code and not the Companies Act.
- Given the fact that the “procedure” that would apply to the NCLT would be the procedure contained inter alia in the Limitation Act, it is clear that the NCLT would have to decide applications made to it under the Code in the same manner as it exercises its other jurisdiction under the Companies Act. This being the position in law, it is clear that when various provisions of the Companies Act were amended by the Eleventh Schedule to the Code, it was unnecessary to apply and adapt Section 433 of the Companies Act to the Code, as was done to various other Sections of the Companies Act.]
- In M.P. Steel Corporation v. CCE, (2015) 7 SCC 58, this Court held:
“54. It is settled law that periods of limitation are procedural in nature and would ordinarily be applied retrospectively. This, however, is subject to a rider. Though periods of limitation, being procedural law, are to be applied retrospectively, yet if a shorter period of limitation is provided by a later amendment to a statute, such period would render the vested right of action contained in the statute nugatory as such right of action would now become time-barred under the amended provision.
- In State of Kerala v. V.R. Kalliyanikutty, (1999) 3 SCC 657, (“V.R. Kalliyanikutty”), this Court dealt with whether a time-barred debt can be recovered by resorting to recovery proceedings under the Kerala Revenue Recovery Act of 1968. In stating that the said Act cannot extend to recovery of a timebarred debt, this Court stated in paragraph 8,
“8. …… In every case the exact meaning of the word “due” will depend upon the context in which that word appears.” It was held in that case that Section 17(3) of the Kerala Revenue Recovery Act, 1968 made it clear that a person making payment under protest will have a right to institute a suit for refund of the whole or part of the sum paid by him under protest. It was thus held that when the right to file such a suit is expressly preserved, there is a necessary implication that the shield of limitation available to a debtor in a suit is also preserved, as a result of which, a wide interpretation of the expression “amount due” to include time-barred debts would destroy an important defence available to a debtor in a suit against him by the creditor, and may fall foul of Article 14 of the Constitution of India.
- In the present case also, it is clear that the amendment of Section 238A would not serve its object unless it is construed as being retrospective, as otherwise, applications seeking to resurrect time-barred claims would have to be allowed, not being governed by the law of limitation.
- In SBI v. V. Ramakrishnan, (2018) SCC Online SC 963, where this Court, after referring to the selfsame Insolvency Law Committee Report, held that the amendment made to Section 14 of the Code, in which the moratorium prescribed by Section 14 was held not to apply to guarantors, was held to be clarificatory, and therefore, retrospective in nature, the object being that an overbroad interpretation of Section 14 ought to be set at rest by clarifying that this was never the intention of Section 14 from the very inception.
- Again in Bombay Dyeing & Mfg. Co. Ltd. v. State of Bombay, 1958 SCR 1122 (“Bombay Dyeing”), the Court was concerned with the Bombay Labour Welfare Fund Act in which the well-known distinction between the loss of a right and the loss of a remedy was reiterated thus: “It will be observed that the definition of “unpaid accumulations” takes in only payments due to the employees remaining unpaid within a period of three years after they become due. The intention of the Legislature obviously was that claims of the employees which are within time should be left to be enforced by them in the ordinary course of law, and that it is only when they become time-barred and useless to them that the State should step in and take them over. On this, the question arises for consideration whether a debt which is time-barred can be the subject of transfer, and if it can be, how it can benefit the Board to take it over if it cannot be realised by process of law. Now, it is the settled law of this country that the statute of Limitation only bars the remedy but does not extinguish the debt. Section 28 of the Limitation Act provides that when the period limited to a person for instituting a suit for possession of any property has expired, his right to such property is extinguished. And the authorities have held — and rightly, that when the property is incapable of possession, as for example, a debt, the section has no application, and lapse of time does not extinguish the right of a person thereto. Under Section 25(3) of the Contract Act, a barred debt is good consideration for a fresh promise to pay the amount. When a debtor makes a payment without any direction as to how it is to be appropriated, the creditor has the right to appropriate it towards a barred debt. (Vide Section 60 of the Contract Act). It has also been held that a creditor is entitled to recover the debt from the surety, even though a suit on it is barred against the principal debtor.”
- Relying upon Section 60 and 61 of the Contract Act, these Sections also recognize the fact that limitation bars the remedy but not the right. In the context in which Section 60 appears, it is interesting to note that Section 60 uses the phrase “actually due and payable to him….” whether its recovery is or is not barred by the limitation law. The expression “actually” makes it clear that in fact a debt must be due and payable notwithstanding the law of limitation. From this, it is very difficult to infer that in the context of the Contract Act, the expression “due and payable” by itself would connote an amount that may be due even though it is time-barred, for otherwise, it would be unnecessary for Section 60 to contain the word “actually” together with the later words, “whether its recovery is or is not barred by the law in force for the time being as to the limitation of suits”.
- Similarly, in Sir Harilal Nemchand Gosalia ,the expression used is “amount of debts due and owing from the deceased, payable by law out of the estate” which appeared in the third schedule of the Court Fee Act, 1870. It was held that an executor of a will is entitled to pay time-barred debts and cannot be confused with a creditor who may sue the executor in relation to those debts. The creditor would fail in his action because although the debt subsists, the remedy has been extinguished due to the law of limitation. Since the executor is duty bound to pay the amounts due and owing under the will without going to Court, he is entitled to pay a time-barred debt.
- In Andhra Pradesh Power Coordination Committee and Ors. v. Lanco Kondapalli Power Ltd. and Ors., (2016) 3 SCC 468, refused to apply the principle of these cases stating: “30. …… In the absence of any provision in the Electricity Act creating a new right upon a claimant to claim even monies barred by law of limitation, or taking away a right of the other side to take a lawful defence of limitation, we are persuaded to hold that in the light of nature of judicial power conferred on the Commission, claims coming for adjudication before it cannot be entertained or allowed if it is found legally not recoverable in a regular suit or any other regular proceeding such as arbitration, on account of law of limitation. We have taken this view not only because it appears to be more just but also because unlike labour laws and the Industrial Disputes Act, the Electricity Act has no peculiar philosophy or inherent underlying reasons requiring adherence to a contrary view.”
- The expression “debt due” in the definition sections of the Code would obviously only refer to debts that are “due and payable” in law, i.e., the debts that are not time-barred. That this is the case has already been held by us in the Innoventive Industries Ltd. (supra) as follows: “28. When it comes to a financial creditor triggering the process, Section 7 becomes relevant. Under the Explanation to Section 7(1), a default is in respect of a financial debt owed to any financial creditor of the corporate debtor — it need not be a debt owed to the applicant financial creditor. Under Section 7(2), an application is to be made under sub-section (1) in such form and manner as is prescribed, which takes us to the Insolvency and Bankruptcy (Application to Adjudicating Authority) Rules, 2016. Under Rule 4, the application is made by a financial creditor in Form 1 accompanied by documents and records required therein. Form 1 is a detailed form in 5 parts, which requires particulars of the applicant in Part I, particulars of the corporate debtor in Part II, particulars of the proposed interim resolution professional in Part III, particulars of the financial debt in Part IV and documents, records and evidence of default in Part V. Under Rule 4(3), the applicant is to dispatch a copy of the application filed with the adjudicating authority by registered post or speed post to the registered office of the corporate debtor. The speed, within which the adjudicating authority is to ascertain the existence of a default from the records of the information utility or on the basis of evidence furnished by the financial creditor, is important. This it must do within 14 days of the receipt of the application. It is at the stage of Section 7(5), where the adjudicating authority is to be satisfied that a default has occurred, that the corporate debtor is entitled to point out that a default has not occurred in the sense that the “debt”, which may also include a disputed claim, is not due. A debt may not be due if it is not payable in law or in fact. The moment the adjudicating authority is satisfied that a default has occurred, the application must be admitted unless it is incomplete, in which case it may give notice to the applicant to rectify the defect within 7 days of receipt of a notice from the adjudicating authority. Under sub-section (7), the adjudicating authority shall then communicate the order passed to the financial creditor and corporate debtor within 7 days of admission or rejection of such application, as the case may be.”
xxx xxx xxx
“30. On the other hand, as we have seen, in the case of a corporate debtor who commits a default of a financial debt, the adjudicating authority has merely to see the records of the information utility or other evidence produced by the financial creditor to satisfy itself that a default has occurred. It is of no matter that the debt is disputed so long as the debt is “due” i.e. payable unless interdicted by some law or has not yet become due in the sense that it is payable at some future date. It is only when this is proved to the satisfaction of the adjudicating authority that the adjudicating authority may reject an application and not otherwise.”
- It will be seen from a reading of Section 8(2)(a) that the corporate debtor shall, within a period of 10 days of the receipt of the demand notice, bring to the notice of the operational creditor the existence of a “dispute”. It is seen that “dispute” as defined in Section 5(6) includes a suit or arbitration proceeding relating to certain matters. Again, under Section 8(2)(a), the corporate debtor may, in the alternative, disclose the pendency of a suit or arbitration proceedings filed before the receipt of the demand notice. It is clear therefore, that at least in the case of an operational creditor, “default” must be non-payment of amounts that have become due and payable in law. The “dispute” or pendency of a suit or arbitration proceedings would necessarily bring in the Limitation Act, for if a suit or arbitration proceeding is time-barred, it would be liable to be dismissed. This again is an important pointer to the fact that when the expression “due” and “due and payable” occur in Sections 3(11) and 3(12) of the Code, they refer to a “default” which is non-payment of a debt that is due in law, i.e., that such debt is not barred by the law of limitation. It is well settled that where the same word occurs in a similar context, the draftsman of the statute intends that the word bears the same meaning throughout the statute (see Bhogilal Chunilal Pandya v. State of Bombay, 1959 Supp. (1) SCR 310 at 313-314). It is thus clear that the expression “default” bears the same meaning in Sections 7 and 8 of the Code, making it clear that the corporate insolvency resolution process against a corporate debtor can only be initiated either by a financial or operational creditor in relation to debts which have not become time-barred.
DECISION HELD BY COURT
- It is thus clear that since the Limitation Act is applicable to applications filed under Sections 7 and 9 of the Code from the inception of the Code, Article 137 of the Limitation Act gets attracted. “The right to sue”, therefore, accrues when a default occurs. If the default has occurred over three years prior to the date of filing of the application, the application would be barred under Article 137 of the Limitation Act, save and except in those cases where, in the facts of the case, Section 5 of the Limitation Act may be applied to condone the delay in filing such application.
- In view of finding that the Limitation Act has in fact been applied from the inception of the Code, it is unnecessary for us to go into the arguments based on the doctrine of laches. The appeals are therefore remanded to the NCLAT to decide the appeals afresh in the light of this judgment.