Defence of dispute in Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code, 2016

Existence of  dispute

Necessity of Court or Arbitration Proceedings in defence:

Relevant provisions of the Code insofar as operational creditors and their corporate debtors are concerned.

“3. Definitions. In this Code, unless the context otherwise requires,— xxx xxx xxx (12) “default” means non-payment of debt when whole or any part or instalment of the amount of debt has become due and payable and is not repaid by the debtor or the corporate debtor, as the case may be;

5. Definitions. In this Part, unless the context otherwise requires,— (6) “dispute” includes a suit or arbitration proceedings relating to—

(a) the existence of the amount of debt;

(b) the quality of goods or service; or

(c) the breach of a representation or warranty; xxx xxx xxx (20) “operational creditor” means a person to whom an operational debt is owed and includes any person to whom such debt has been legally assigned or transferred;

(21) “operational debt” means a claim in respect of the provision of goods or services including employment or a debt in respect of the repayment of dues arising under any law for the time being in force and payable to the Central Government, any State Government or any local authority;

Meaning of ‘and’ in section 8(2)(a):

8. Insolvency resolution by operational creditor. (1) An operational creditor may, on the occurrence of a default, deliver a demand notice of unpaid operational debt or copy of an invoice demanding payment of the amount involved in the default to the corporate debtor in such form and manner as may be prescribed.

(2) The corporate debtor shall, within a period of ten days of the receipt of the demand notice or copy of the invoice mentioned in sub-section (1) bring to the notice of the operational creditor—

(a) existence of a dispute, if any, and record of the pendency of the suit or arbitration proceedings filed before the receipt of such notice or invoice in relation to such dispute;

(b) the repayment of unpaid operational debt—

(i) by sending an attested copy of the record of electronic transfer of the unpaid amount from the bank account of the corporate debtor; or

(ii) by sending an attested copy of record that the operational creditor has encashed a cheque issued by the corporate debtor.

Explanation.—For the purposes of this section, a “demand notice” means a notice served by an operational creditor to the corporate debtor demanding repayment of the operational debt in respect of which the default has occurred.

9. Application for initiation of corporate insolvency resolution process by operational creditor. (1) After the expiry of the period of ten days from the date of delivery of the notice or invoice demanding payment under sub-section (1) of section 8, if the operational creditor does not receive payment from the corporate debtor or notice of the dispute under sub-section (2) of section 8, the operational creditor may file an application before the Adjudicating Authority for initiating a corporate insolvency resolution process.

(2) The application under sub-section (1) shall be filed in such form and manner and accompanied with such fee as may be prescribed.

(3) The operational creditor shall, along with the application furnish—

(a) a copy of the invoice demanding payment or demand notice delivered by the operational creditor to the corporate debtor;

(b) an affidavit to the effect that there is no notice given by the corporate debtor relating to a dispute of the unpaid operational debt;

(c) a copy of the certificate from the financial institutions maintaining accounts of the operational creditor confirming that there is no payment of an unpaid operational debt by the corporate debtor; and

(d) such other information as may be specified.

(4) An operational creditor initiating a corporate insolvency resolution process under this section, may propose a resolution professional to act as an interim resolution professional. (5) The Adjudicating Authority shall, within fourteen days of the receipt of the application under sub-

section (2), by an order—

(i) admit the application and communicate such decision to the operational creditor and the corporate debtor if,—

(a) the application made under sub-section (2) is complete;

(b) there is no repayment of the unpaid operational debt;

(c) the invoice or notice for payment to the corporate debtor has been delivered by the operational creditor;

(d) no notice of dispute has been received by the operational creditor or there is no record of dispute in the information utility; and

(e) there is no disciplinary proceeding pending against any resolution professional proposed under sub-section (4), if any.

(ii) reject the application and communicate such decision to the operational creditor and the corporate debtor, if—

(a) the application made under sub-section (2) is incomplete;

(b) there has been repayment of the unpaid operational debt;

(c) the creditor has not delivered the invoice or notice for payment to the corporate debtor;

(d) notice of dispute has been received by the operational creditor or there is a record of dispute in the information utility; or

(e) any disciplinary proceeding is pending against any proposed resolution professional:

Provided that Adjudicating Authority, shall before rejecting an application under sub-clause (a) of clause (ii) give a notice to the applicant to rectify the defect in his application within seven days of the date of receipt of such notice from the Adjudicating Authority.

(6) The corporate insolvency resolution process shall commence from the date of admission of the application under sub-section (5) of this section.”

Conclusion:

It is, thus, clear that so far as an operational creditor is concerned, a demand notice of an unpaid operational debt or copy of an invoice demanding payment of the amount involved must be delivered in the prescribed form. The corporate debtor is then given a period of 10 days from the receipt of the demand notice or copy of the invoice to bring to the notice of the operational creditor the existence of a dispute, if any. We have also seen the notes on clauses annexed to the Insolvency and Bankruptcy Bill of 2015, in which “the existence of a dispute” alone is mentioned. Even otherwise, the word “and” occurring in Section 8(2)(a) must be read as “or” keeping in mind the legislative intent and the fact that an anomalous situation would arise if it is not read as “or”. If read as “and”, disputes would only stave off the bankruptcy process if they are already pending in a suit or arbitration proceedings and not otherwise. This would lead to great hardship; in that a dispute may arise a few days before triggering of the insolvency process, in which case, though a dispute may exist, there is no time to approach either an arbitral tribunal or a court. Further, given the fact that long limitation periods are allowed, where disputes may arise and do not reach an arbitral tribunal or a court for upto three years, such persons would be outside the purview of Section 8(2) leading to bankruptcy proceedings commencing against them. Such an anomaly cannot possibly have been intended by the legislature nor has it so been intended. We have also seen that one of the objects of the Code qua operational debts is to ensure that the amount of such debts, which is usually smaller than that of financial debts, does not enable operational creditors to put the corporate debtor into the insolvency resolution process prematurely or initiate the process for extraneous considerations. It is for this reason that it is enough that a dispute exists between the parties.

It is settled law that the expression “and” may be read as “or” in order to further the object of the statute and/or to avoid an anomalous situation.

It is clear, therefore, that once the operational creditor has filed an application, which is otherwise complete, the adjudicating authority must reject the application under Section 9(5)(2)(d) if notice of dispute has been received by the operational creditor or there is a record of dispute in the information utility. It is clear that such notice must bring to the notice of the operational creditor the “existence” of a dispute or the fact that a suit or arbitration proceeding relating to a dispute is pending between the parties. Therefore, all that the adjudicating authority is to see at this stage is whether there is a plausible contention which requires further investigation and that the “dispute” is not a patently feeble legal argument or an assertion of fact unsupported by evidence. It is important to separate the grain from the chaff and to reject a spurious defence which is mere bluster. However, in doing so, the Court does not need to be satisfied that the defence is likely to succeed. The Court does not at this stage examine the merits of the dispute except to the extent indicated above. So long as a dispute truly exists in fact and is not spurious, hypothetical or illusory, the adjudicating authority has to reject the application.

[Source: Mobilox Innovations Private Ltd vs Kirusa Software Private Ltd, decided by SC on 21 September, 2017]

 

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