Muskan Dadia, Government Law College, Chruchgate
CRIMINAL LIABILITY OF CORPORATE FIRMS IN INDIA
A corporation is
defined as a ‘group of persons who are deemed in law to be a single legal
entity. The corporate entity is legally distinct from its members; it has a
legal personality and can hold property, sue and be sued in its own name as if
it were a natural person.’ [i] It
is a unique entity, separate from its owners. It enjoys the rights and freedoms
of an individual, i.e. enter contracts, hire employees, own property etc. Corporate firms are known to possess an
essential element called limited liability which enables shareholders to enjoy
profits through dividends and stock appreciation but dissolves their personal
liability for the company’s debts.
arises when an act, forbidden by law , is committed voluntarily. A crime
consists of two important facets- Actus Reas and Mens Rea. While actus reas
signifies the physical aspect of the crime, mens rea, deals with mental state
and intentions of the criminal. Actus reus has been defined as ‘such result of
human conduct as the law seeks to prevent. An act may be positive or negative
Mens rea is defined as ‘the intention or knowledge of wrongdoing that
constitutes part of a crime, as opposed to the action or conduct of the
accused.’ Therefore , for any act to have a criminal liability , it must be
proven that the act was committed voluntarily with a guilty mind.
liability can be defined as ‘a crime which has been committed by individual or
association of individuals who for pursuing a common purpose or make business
gain in course of their occupation commit such acts or omission which is
forbidden by law and with guilty mind where it is for the benefit of the
corporation or any individual out of the association of individuals.’ [iii] Corporate
crime is “the conduct of a corporation or of its employees acting on behalf of
the corporation, which is prescribed and punished by law.”- J. Braithwaite
Earlier, a firm
could not be held liable under the pretext that it was an artificial legal
person that lacked mens rea and could not
be imprisoned. However, many developments took place thereafter and the criminal liability of corporate firms
advanced as a concept .
Of The Concept Of Criminal Liability In India
One of the
earliest landmark cases relating to criminal liability in India was Zee
telefilms Ltd. Vs. Sahara Co. Corp. Ltd. ( 2004 Cri LJ 1576) , wherein a
complaint was filed against Zee under section 500 of the Indian Penal Code. It
was alleged that Zee had defamed Sahara by telecasting a program which was
based on falsehood. The court however ruled that mens rea was an essential
element of committing a crime and that a corporate body like zee , being an
artificial legal person, lacked the same.
Due to the
same concept of not attributing mens rea
to an artificial legal person ( in this case corporate firms) a lot of complex
legal issues started springing up. Therefore, it was suggested by the Law
Commission Of India to amend section 62 of the Indian Penal Code which stated ‘Forfeiture
of property in respect of offenders punishable with death, transportation or
Unfortunately, the bill was not passed. However, the courts changed their
perspective on this concept which was proven
in the landmark case of Standard Chartered Bank and Ors. v. Directorate
of Enforcement. The bank was prosecuted for violating the provisions of the
Foreign Exchange Regulation Act, 1973. The Supreme Court in its Judgement, did
not go by the strict penal provisions and decided instead that the corporation
can be held liable irrespective of the mandatory punishment under the statute.
In the case of
Iridium Vs Motorola , Iridium filed a complaint against Motorola under the
sections 120 and 420 of the Indian Penal Code for conspiracy and cheating
respectively. The high court ruled that a company is incapable of having
malafide intentions and so it lacks mens rea, thereby stating that there was no
case of cheating. When Iridium appealed to the Supreme court, a new dimension
to the case was discovered. The supreme court decided on two issues, first ,
whether mens rea can be attributed to companies for criminal liability and
second, what is the criminal liability for misstatements in the context of
securities offerings made to specific investors on a private basis.
The question of attaching
mens rea to corporate firms was solved by way of the principle of attribution,
which is invoked to decide whose mental element shall be taken into
consideration while foisting criminal liability on the company. In this judgement , the court also ruled
that, the person who is in direct control and in charge of the affairs of the
company and the intensity and degree of the control is so high that the company
is said to act through the person, is instrumental in attributing criminal
liability to the company. It also ruled that rigid test of identification
of the directing mind of the company has to be followed in determining the
requisite mental element.
In another similar
case of State Of Maharashtra Vs Syndicate Transport Company , the Bombay High
Court held that a corporate body ought to be liable for the omissions of its
directors and agents, whether or not mens rea is involved.
For Establishing Corporate Liability
Acting within scope of
employment- The employee must be acting under the scope of
his employment, i.e. performing acts authorized by the parent company.
Benefit to the
corporation- The second requirement is that the agent’s
behaviour must, in some way, benefit the corporation. The corporation need not
actually directly receive the benefits nor must the benefit be enjoyed
completely by the company, but the illegal act must not be contrary to
corporate interests. This has been elaborated on because it is extremely rare
that an employee commits an illegal act selflessly, with no intention to make
any personal gain.
Mental culpability of a
corporation – The following are methods by which mental culpability of a body
is established :-
The collective blindness
doctrine- Corporations have been found
to be liable without a single individual being at fault. The sum knowledge of
the employees is taken into consideration in this case. The reasoning behind
this is to prevent corporations from compartmentalizing
their duties in such a way to escape criminal liability when prosecuted,
defending themselves under the pretext
doctrine- Corporations are made
criminally liable if they knowingly turn a blind eye to ongoing criminal
activities. If a corporate agent becomes suspicious of some ongoing illegal
acts but to avoid culpability, he takes no action to mitigate the damage or
investigate further or bring the offender to book, the corporation becomes
conspiracy is defined in law as ‘ When two or more persons agree to do, or
cause to be done,
(1) an illegal act, or
(2) an act which is not illegal by
illegal means, such an agreement is designated a criminal conspiracy:
Provided that no agreement except an
agreement to commit an offence shall amount to a criminal conspiracy unless
some act besides the agreement is done by one or more parties to such agreement
in pursuance thereof.’ [v]
Corporate firms can be made liable for
criminal conspiracies amongst its employees or by one of the employees
accompanied by others who are not on a payroll by the company .
Mergers, dissolutions and
liability – Corporate bodies can be made liable for the criminal wrongs and
violations of another company with which it has merged or consolidated. It will
have to defend itself against the predecessor company’s charges . It is not
necessary that a corporation can evade charges by performing dissolution before
the filing of charges. Sometimes even defunct corporations have to defend
themselves against the charges , subject to the law of the land .
Misprision of felony
– A corporation can be held liable if it
misprisions felony, that is conceals or fails to report a felony. The following
four elements are required to form misprision
the principal committed a felony
the defendant knew about said felony
the defendant failed to notify the concerned authorities at the earliest, and
the defendant took proactive steps for the concealment of the felonious act.[vi]
to notify the authorities or merely having the intent to conceal the felony
does not count as misprision of felony.
Doctrine Of Vicarious
Liability – According to the doctrine of vicarious liability , the master is
held vicariously liable for the acts of his servant. Similarly, in in the case
of Ranger v. The Great Western Railway Company it was held that the company is
held vicariously liable for the acts committed by its employees if it is done
in the course of its employment. Furthermore, the act and intent of the
employee has to me imputed.
identification – This doctrine emphasizes on the concept of the corporate firms
taking responsibility for the decision making authority and not the employees
implementing them. The main purpose of the doctrine is to detect the guilty
Doctrine of attribution –
As mentioned earlier, the doctrine of attribution in imprisonment or sentencing
someone for omission or violation of an act, attributes mens rea ( a guilty
intent) to the directing mind of the corporation . Although the doctrine was formed in the
United Kingdom , it is widely used in India today.
Doctrine of Alter ego-
Doctrine of alter ego means a personality hidden or latent to others. Under
this doctrine, the owners, directors and people who manage the affairs of the
business are criminally liable for the wrongs the company because the directors
become the mind and will of the company
that does not have its own body, mind or soul.
Corporate Criminal Liability As
Recognised Under The Companies Act, 2013.
The Companies Act of India has recognized
corporate criminal liability . The Companies Act 1956, was replaced by the
Company’s Act 2013. The latter, deepened the charges on not just directors but
also on the officers in default, who are instructed by the directors and key
managerial personnel and carry out tasks
without raising any objections.
Section 53-Prohibition of shares at a
Section 118(12)-Minutes of proceedings of
General Meeting, Meeting of Board of Directors and other meetings and
resolutions passed by Postal Ballot.
Section 128(6)-Books of Account, etc, to
be kept by Company.
Section 129(7)- Financial Statement.
Section 134- Financial Statement, Boards
Section 188(5)- Related Party
Section 57-Punishment for personation of
Section 58(6)- Refusal for registration
and appeal against refusal.
Section 182(4)- Prohibitions and
restrictions regarding Political Contributions.
Section 184(4)- Disclosure of Interest by
Section 187(4)- Investments of the Company
to be held in own name.
Section 447- Punishment for fraud.[vii]
Models of Corporate Criminal
Identification Doctrine- This English
doctrine tries to identify the directing mind and will of the company to
attribute to its conduct.
Organisation Model – India mainly follows this model. Corporate cultures many a
times provide an environment that would incite commission of crime.
Derivative Model – The liability foisted on the corporation is called derived
liability in cases where the individuals committing the crime are related to or
in connection with the company.
Faced By The Prevailing Concept Of Corporate Criminal Liability
occasions , the concept of corporate criminal liability is questioned. There is
no general answer for how the issue of
‘corporate criminals’ should be dealt with because each case has to be
examined differently in order to decide upon the liability .
bring up the following two issues of contention to buttress their point of
view. One , that fining the corporation for the crime committed is futile
because the act is performed by the persons working in the firm and the not the
firm itself and second, the punitive damages are borne by the shareholders and
consumers by decreasing the price of shares and increasing the price of the
behind the first point of contention is that in today’s mind boggling
complexity of corporations it is difficult to pin point individual responsibility. Moreover, individual responsibility would only
encourage the ‘ don’t ask, don’t tell’ attitude and the top tier managers would
continue making profits through illegal acts.
In the second
point of contention, the critics fail to understand that the shareholders are
aware of the risks involved with investing in a company and themselves enjoy
the huge profits reaped through illegal means and so it is only fair to have
the shareholders bear a part of the loss by paying the fines duly imposed. Moreover, most companies are unlikely to pass
the burden of the fine to the consumers by increasing the prices of the
products as this would only lead to the consumers switching to other brands,
thus reducing the former company’s profit. This could be in most cases a
gateway to irreparable harm and bankruptcy.
The concept of
corporate criminal liability has fast advanced in India. Corporate governance
is now being enough thought and understanding to prevent criminal liability on
corporations. Lord Reid’s words truly sum up the concept of corporate criminal
‘A living person has a mind which can have knowledge or intention or be negligent and he has hands to carry out his intentions. A corporation has none of these; it must act through a living person, though not always one or the same person. Then the person who acts is not speaking or acting for the company. He is acting as the company and his mind which directs his act is the mind of the company. There is no question of the company being vicariously liable. He is not acting as a servant, representative, agent or delegate. He is an embodiment of the company or, one could say, he hears and speaks through the persons of the company, within his appropriate sphere, and his mind is the mind of the company. If it is a guilty mind then that guilt is the guilt of the company. It must be a question of law whether, once the facts have been ascertained, a person in doing particular things is to be regarded as the company or merely as the company’s servant or agent. In that case the liability of the company can only be a statutory or vicarious liability’[viii]
[i] Available at :- https://legal-dictionary.thefreedictionary.com/corporation,
last accessed on 2nd April, 2021.
[ii] Available at :- .legalserviceindia.com/legal/article-2506-general-principles-of-criminal-liability-mens-rea-and-actus-reus-mens-rea-in-statutory-offences-joint-and-constructive-liability.html#:~:text=Criminal%20liability%20arises%20when%20a,acts%20which%20amount%20to%20offences,
last accessed on 2nd April, 2021.
[iii] Available at :- http://www.legalserviceindia.com/legal/article-521-corporate-criminal-liability-white-collar-crime.html#:~:text=Corporate%20criminal%20liability%20can%20be,for%20the%20benefit%20of%20the
, last accessed on 2nd April, 2021.
[v] Available on :- https://www.indiacode.nic.in/show-data?actid=AC_CEN_5_23_00037_186045_1523266765688§ionId=45856§ionno=120A&orderno=126#:~:text=1%5B120A.,1)%20an%20illegal%20act%2C%20or,
last accessed on 3rd April, 2021.
[vi] Available at :- lawctopus.com/academike/corporate-criminal-liability/#:~:text=This%20doctrine%20states%20that%20a,their%20actual%20or%20apparent%20authority,
last accessed on 3rd April, 2021.
[vii] Available at :- http://www.legalserviceindia.com/legal/article-521-corporate-criminal-liability-white-collar-crime.html,
Last accessed on 3rd April, 2021.
[viii] Available at – https://www.lawctopus.com/academike/corporate-criminal-liability/#:~:text=This%20doctrine%20states%20that%20a,their%20actual%20or%20apparent%20authority.,
last accessed on 4th April, 2021.