For a long time, corporations in India were not held liable for criminal offences due to the requirement of mens rea or the intention to commit the offence and inability to award imprisonment or arrest, etc. However, corporations are no longer immune.
Laying the Theoretical Framework: Corporate Criminal Liability
The recognition of the company as a separate legal entity is the basic cornerstone of laws relating to corporate liability around the world. However, courts struggled in attempting to fasten liability over companies for acts which were considered criminal offences. The courts had historically struggled on two main fronts in this regard
(1) to assign mens rea, i.e. a criminal intent factor to fictional entities such as companies, and
(2) to punish corporates where statutory punishments were mostly corporal in nature, i.e. requiring punishment via imprisonment.
On the face of this need, emerged the doctrine of corporate criminal liability, which basically enables the courts to single out individuals responsible for criminal acts committed in the name of companies. For offences which did not require the proof of mens rea, the simple answer that courts came up with was to introduce a modified version of the Doctrine of Vicarious Liability through which the controlling persons of the company would be made liable[i]. But soon company directors were also brought to answer for the criminal acts for which criminal intent was also necessary to be proven[ii]. This was called the theory of ‘Identification’ or ‘Attribution’, a modified form of vicarious liability, where for the purpose of the criminal act, the person in control of the affairs of the company (that is to say its directors and managers) and the company were considered one and the same.
Gone are the times when the world viewed Indian Companies as ‘family businesses’. With time, the structures adopted in Indian companies have grown increasingly specialized and complex, with specific directors being nominated to take charge of specified activities of the Company. As we will see, the provisions for making the direction and management of a company liable are mostly deeming provisions. However, there can be an opinion amongst stakeholders while dividing duties amongst the board members that in case criminal liability arises against the company then the director nominated for overlooking that aspect of its business shall also be held criminally liable. The legal approach, though, is a little more complex than that.
Earlier, the courts in India only recognized that companies can act through their managers and directors, but the law as it stands now however, consolidates the position that companies are as culpable as any living person and can be prosecuted and punished for the same, this is governed by two major decisions in this regard. First is the case of Standard Chartered Bank v. Directorate of Enforcement[iii] wherein the constitution bench of the Supreme Court held that a company can be prosecuted and convicted for an offence requiring minimum imprisonment. And secondly, in Iridium India Telecom Ltd. v. Motorola Inc[iv], wherein the issue was whether a company could be held liable under Section 420 of the Indian Penal Code, 1860, the Apex Court answered in the affirmative and clarified further, that even if the offence would require the proof of mens rea, a company can be made liable to the act as the guilty mind of the person in control of the company’s affairs is ‘attributed’ to the company as well.
Director’s Liability under India’s Legislative Framework
Certain legislations have a provision titled as ‘Offences by Companies’, which makes the person in charge of and responsible at the time of commission of the offence liable for that offence along with the company unless the person proves that the offence was committed without his knowledge or that he exercised all due diligence to prevent the commissioning of such offence. Under the said provision, the director, manager, secretary or any other official of the company may also be held liable if it is shown that the offence was committed with his consent or connivance.
The Companies Act, 1956 employed the concept of “officer who is in default”, to impose the liability for defaults by a company over officers responsible for its management. However, penalties under the Companies Act, 1956 were seen as largely ineffective against cases of serious internal frauds committed by the promoters and senior management of companies. But, with the enactment of the Companies Act, 2013 ( the “Act”), came also the statutory recognition of the duties of a director, such as exercise of due and reasonable care, skill, diligence, and independent judgement. Earlier, by virtue of their positions, only the MD, whole-time directors, and company secretaries used to fall within the scope of “officer who is in default”, but the Act has significantly expanded this scope to include any person who would, in the given scenario, have had superintendence/ control/ direction/ management over the affairs of the company. Under the Act, independent directors can also be made answerable for lapses in performing their duties. The Act also includes the elements of knowledge and intent in determining who is an officer who is in default. Moreover, section 447 of the Act, which deals with fraud, makes persons liable who act or abuse their position with intent to deceive, to gain undue advantage, or to injure the legitimate interests of others (company/ shareholders/ creditor/ persons) whether or not there is wrongful gain or loss. Nevertheless, it is necessary to prove intent and knowledge in most cases.
Apart from the Companies Act, 2013, offences by companies are also stipulated under various other legislations. These provisions extend the liability for contravening the provisions under the relevant statute to companies, and the persons in charge of and responsible for the conduct of the business of the company. Further, these provisions typically provide for a non-obstante clause which stipulates that if it is proved that the director, manager, secretary or other officer of the company connived, consented to the offence or can be attributed to the negligence, then such director, manager, secretary or other officer shall also be deemed guilty and proceeded and punished accordingly.
Some of the legislations that contain the above-mentioned provision would be as follows:-
- the Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1981;
- the Water (Prevention & Control of Pollution) Act, 1974;
- the Prevention of Money Laundering Act, 2002;
- the Securities Contracts (Regulation) Act, 1956;
- the Securities Exchange Board of India Act, 1992;
- the Competition Act, 2002; and
- the Income Tax Act, 1961.
Supreme Court on Liability of Corporations and its Officials
The law on this aspect has evolved over time. Now, a corporation can be convicted of offences involving mens rea by applying the doctrine of attribution. Thus, the corporation can be held responsible for offences committed in relation to the business of the corporation by the persons in control of its affairs. The legal position in the US and UK has also crystallised to ensure a corporation can be held liable for crimes of intent. In the UK, the courts have adopted the doctrine of attribution to the corporation liable for acts committed by the directing mind, i.e., the directors and managers.
It is now clear that the criminal intention of the company’s directors or officials can be attributed to the company to make the company liable. However, the question then arises whether the reverse is possible – i.e. whether the officials of the company can be held responsible for acts of the company? This question was recently answered by the Supreme Court of India in Sunil Bharti Mittal v. Central Bureau of Investigation ((2015) 4 SCC 609). The Apex Court in this case in no uncertain terms held that an individual who has perpetrated the commission of an offence on behalf of a company can be made accused, along with the company. However, to make an individual liable, there must be sufficient evidence of his active role coupled with criminal intent and/or a provision must be specifically incorporated into the statutory regime that attracts the doctrine of vicarious liability. It may thus be noted that when the company is the offender, vicarious liability of the directors cannot be imputed automatically, in the absence of any statutory provision to this effect.
The question that arises basis the above discussion, then, is whether any person simply designated as an officer in default by the Company, can be held criminally liable.
In Sunil Bharti Mittal v. Central Bureau of Intelligence[v] the Supreme Court gave recognition to the theory of attribution/ identification in determining whether a director or person in charge of the company can be prosecuted for an offence by the company. The court stated that the person upon whom the acts of the company must be attributed must be the ‘alter-ego’ of the company, that is the degree of identity between the acts of the company and the ‘directing mind and will’ of the responsible persons must be high enough for the courts to infer them as one and the same. Moreover, just because a person is at the helm of the affairs, that would not make him/her liable for crimes requiring intent. In this case, the Supreme Court held that the special court was right to not accept charge sheet against the managing director just because he was the head of the company.
The discerning criteria thus is whether the proof of intent is required to prove an offence. An officer who is in default for contraventions which do not require proof of intent, may, thus, be prosecuted by virtue of his/her position, but the same is simply not tenable in offences where proof of intent is required.
An example of a statute which allows the nomination of person-in-charge for the obligations under a legislation is under section 66 of the Food Safety and Standards Act, 2006,. The provision in this enactment state that a director or manager can be nominated to be responsible for any contraventions of the provisions of the respective enactments.
It is to be noted, that only when the legislation permits the nomination of the responsible director, and such nomination is made before the commission of the offence, only then a director specifically nominated for offences under an act can be prosecuted, even if there is no direct intent[vi].
The thumb rule is thus that unless it is specifically provided in a statute, a director may be made criminally liable only if there is existing proof of intent against the director. The directors must ensure that they diligently avoid the commission of such offences in the name of the Company, the onus shall nevertheless remain upon them to prove that the offence was committed without their knowledge or consent[vii].
Who can be held liable?
It is worth clarifying that a person cannot be held liable merely on the basis of the designation. No presumption can be drawn against the person occupying the position of a chairman or managing director only on the basis of their position. There is no universal rule that a director of a company is in charge of its everyday affairs. A person should fulfil the ‘legal requirement’ of being a person in law (under the statute governing companies) responsible to the company for the conduct of the business of the company and also fulfil the ‘factual requirement’ of being a person in charge of the business of the company.
The concept of vicarious liability of corporate officials has evolved substantially over the past decade. It is worth noting that it has become a tendency to implead the senior management officials of the company along with the company to exert pressure on the company to settle. In a lot of instances, such senior officials may also be summoned by the investigating authorities. There is almost unanimous judicial opinion that a clear case needs to be spelt out against the person in the complaint before fastening criminal liability.
Furthermore, in case the court is required to issue summons, there has to be strict compliance with statutory requirements. Summoning is a serious issue and criminal law cannot be set in motion as a matter of routine, and summons should only be issued after recording reasons in writing. The Indian Courts have so far been very cautious in their approach and have generally protected the corporate officials from harassment by the investigating agencies unless there is enough material against the official concerned.
It may be interesting to note that the above provision attaching liability to the directors, etc., is similar to the law in the UK to some extent wherein the corporate officials can be held liable if they consented, connived or neglected in their duties. Consent and connivance both presuppose knowledge.
Similarly, in the US, the corporate officials are held liable under the ‘Responsible Corporate Officer Doctrine’, which holds a corporate officer criminally liable for the criminal violations committed by a subordinate where the said officer occupies a position of responsibility and authority in the company and has the power to prevent such a violation, but fails to do so.
However, it must be noted that as opposed to the US and UK, there is no provision for Deferred Prosecution Agreements (DPA) in India, wherein the company can reach any settlement with the prosecution to avoid criminal sanctions.
To the comfort of corporates, so far we have seen that courts have taken a balanced view. They have not shied away from acting against the senior official if it is established that the official was responsible for the crime. At the same time, however, they have protected senior officials where their personal involvement could not be proved. Having said that, the need of the hour is to take certain deterrent measures to impose costs or punish complainants for initiating frivolous proceedings.
 Doctrine of Attribution– The doctrine of attribution implies that the criminal intent of the “alter ego” of the company / body corporate, i.e., the person or group of person that guide the business of the company, would be imputed to the corporation. Mens rea is attributed to the company on the basis of the alter ego of the company.
[i] Queen v. Great North of England Railways Co.,  9 QB 315; State v. Morris & Essex Rail Co.,23 N.J.L. 360 (1852); Commonwealth v. Proprietors of New Bedford Bridge, 68 Mass (2 Gray) 339 (1854)
[ii] New York Central and Hudson River Rail Road Co. v. United States, 212 US 431 (1909); Moussell Brothers Ltd. v. London & North West Railway Co Ltd,  2 KB 836; Lennard’s Carrying Co Ltd v. Asiatic Petroleum Co Ltd,  AC 705
[iii] AIR 2005 SC 2622
[iv] (2011) 1 SCC 74
[v] AIR 2015 SC 923
[vi] R. Banerjee v. H.D. Dubey, MANU/SC/0731/1992
[vii] Ministry of Agriculture v. Mayhco Monsanto Biotech (India) Limited, (2016) 137 SCL 373 [CCI]