Section 18 of the Limitation Act 1963 (the Limitation Act) provides for extension of the limitation period where there is an acknowledgement of the debt by a borrower. In various cases, it has been held that an entry in the financials of a borrower to the effect that there is an amount due to a debtor amounts to such an acknowledgement. However, recently the NCLAT has set a cat amongst the pigeons as it were by holding that Insolvency & Bankruptcy Code, 2016 (IBC) would in effect be an exception to this general rule laid down by various other judicial authorities. There is a bit of a history to this pronouncement.
On August 17, 2018, the Second Amendment to IBC was made. This amendment added section 238A to the IBC, effectively making the provision of section 18 of the Limitation Act to all insolvency proceedings. The Second Amendment was made effective from June 6, 2018.
The Saga of the Second Amendment
The Second Amendment came on the heels of a debate over the applicability of limitation to proceedings under the IBC. Recall that ordinarily, a money debt can be claimed anytime within 3 years of the debt being due and payable. Beyond this period of 3 years, statutory limitation would come to apply such that a claimant couldn't then assert her rights over the debt due. Paraphrasing the Supreme Court, the rationale behind having such limitation period is to prevent disturbance of a right acquired in equity and justice by long enjoyment by the debtor1. Essentially, via a period of limitation of 3 years, the law ensures that if the lender has not acted or claimed the debt for a period of 3 years then the borrower acquires the right to enjoy it forever due to long enjoyment and should not be deprived of it under the principles of equity and justice.
Prelude to the Saga
Now, prior to the Second Amendment, the highest quasi-judicial authority dealing with insolvency matters had arrived at certain judgements holding that the Limitation Act did not apply to IBC proceedings.2 This was on the basis that the IBC was not a law for recovery of money but for resolution of insolvency3 and attendant liquidation (if resolution doesn't materialize). The NCLAT then went on to state that if there is a debt including interest due and there is default of debt and has a continuous cause of action, the argument that the claim of money is barred by limitation cannot be accepted.4
Amongst the rationale given by NCLAT was also that IBC is a complete code in itself. It does not provide for, or indeed incorporate any reference to the Limitation Act. Hence, per the NCLAT, before the Second Amendment Act came into effect, Limitation Act could not have applied to proceedings under the IBC.5
These pronouncements, collectively, had the effect of allowing a 'right to sue' to keep running for a creditor indefinitely.
What happened next
Needless to add, there were various cases where the debate regarding limitation cropped up. The decision in Speculum Plast Pvt. Ltd.6 was pronounced on November 7, 2017. Wheels, however, were already in motion in relation to, amongst other such questions, the question of limitation elsewhere. The Injeti Srinivas led Insolvency Law Committee (the Committee) was set up on November 16, 2017.
Its report (the Report) was submitted to the Union Minister of Finance and Corporate Affairs on March 26, 2018. Doubtless, there were several issues that were deliberated upon by the Committee. One amongst the issue was also in relation to limitation that is the subject matter of this document. Thought the topic of limitation was not mentioned in the Preface to the Report issued, the application of Limitation Act to IBC first finds mention at page 72 as a summary of its detailed recommendation and then again at Chapter 28 of the Report. In about three paragraphs and just about one page of space, the Report succinctly states that the intent was not to package the IBC as "a fresh opportunity for creditors and claimants who did not exercise their remedy under existing laws within the prescribed limitation period"7. And thus, came to be inserted section 238A into the IBC Code on August 17, 2018 (with effect from June 6, 2020).
Supreme Court on applicability of limitation
With the question of applicability of Limitation Act to IBC now settled, the pages turned quickly to BK Educational Services Pvt. Ltd. v. Parag Gupta & Associates8. This case was culmination of various appeals filed against various NCLAT judgements on limitation before the Report had been released - one amongst them the case law of Speculum Plast Pvt. Ltd.9. On various grounds, the Supreme Court proceeded to decide that Limitation Act is indeed applicable to the IBC - this was the decision of the Supreme Court even without recourse to the Second Amendment10. However, the Supreme Court also noted that such applicability would be only from the inception of the IBC, i.e. in the same vein as the Speculum Plast Pvt. Ltd.11 (i.e. section 137 of the Limitation Act would be relevant).
Subsequently, the Apex Court in K. Sashidhar v. Indian Overseas Bank12 reiterated the ratio laid down in B.K. Educational Services Case.
Then came Jignesh Shah v. Union of India13 where three judges of the Supreme Court were faced with a winding up petition filed by IL&FS Financial Services Ltd. against La-Fin Financial Services Pvt. Ltd. Such winding up petitions after enactment of the IBC were converted to section 7 proceedings under IBC.
Above decision, while holding that a winding up petition was time-barred, having been filed beyond three years, made a passing observation that an "acknowledgment of liability under Section 18 of the Limitation Act would certainly extend the limitation period". This therefore, neatly brings us to the controversy at hand - extension of limitation period under section 18 of the Limitation Act.
Recall that in the beginning of this article, the authors had referred to section 18 of the Limitation Act. This provision provides for a fresh period of limitation, where there is 'acknowledgment of liability', which is to be computed from the date of 'acknowledgment'.14
The Saga Continues
It has been held in several cases15 that an entry in the balance sheet amounts to an acknowledgement of the debt. Therefore, if any entry is indeed made, then a fresh period of limitation under section 18 of the Limitation Act would begin from the date of such accounts. With the Second Amendment, the question of applicability of the Limitation Act to proceedings under IBC was put to rest in that Limitation Act would indeed apply.
However, what was intended to be a final settlement of the issue of applicability of limitation to IBC threw up a vexed problem. The latter would need some explanation - what usually occurs is that even though the 'date of default' as per the records of financial creditors occurs upon the happening for certain pre-defined events, filing of a petition under IBC is delayed beyond a period of 3 years from such date of default. One such case was that of Babulal Gurjar v. Veer Gurjar Aluminium Industries Pvt. Ltd.16. In this case, the bank had proceeded against the corporate debtor in 2011 after its accounts were declared non-performing assets in a proceeding under the RDBFI Act17. Suffice it to say that a case came to be filed before the NCLT in March 2018 (note that the default had occurred in 2011, well beyond 3 years earlier). The NCLT admitted the application and the process under IBC commenced. However, not to be outdone, Mr. Babulal Gurjar who was one of the directors of the company, appealed to the NCLAT. One amongst his pleas was to do with limitation - i.e. having been filed well after 3 years' time, the case filed in the NCLT was barred by limitation. The NCLAT dismissed his appeal summarily. Mr. Gurjar being of a strong bent of mind, approached the Supreme Court against the NCLAT order where he contended that the NCLAT shouldn't have summarily rejected his appeal and instead, at the least, heard him on the various issues he had raised, including that of limitation. The Supreme Court agreed with the point of view regarding limitation and directed the NCLAT to hear the matter again, specifically in relation to limitation.
The NCLAT, under the Supreme Court's express orders thereafter, re-heard the matter, and came to the conclusion that its earlier decision was correct. It based its decision on the fact that limitation would be counted only from December 2016, i.e. when the IBC came into effect, and also that even otherwise, there were mortgaged properties that were involved, the limitation for invocation of which is anyways 12 years.
Mr. Gurjar, being of a resilient bent of mind, approached the Supreme Court a second time against this pronouncement of the NCLAT. The Supreme Court on August 14, 2020 stated that the application filed by the creditors was barred by limitation as it had been filed after the period of 3 years had expired from the date of default as mentioned in the application itself. The Supreme Court also held that there is no basis to the assertion that limitation would commence only from the date on which IBC was enacted.
Now, it must be pointed out here that in the above case, the books of the corporate debtor did reflect that it owed the amounts in question to the bank / financial institution. However, the Supreme Court, having been apprised of this particular quirk of the case, said that since the application itself records the date of default as July 8, 2011, the records of the corporate debtor would not be of assistance in extending the limitation period.
As it would transpire, before the judgement of the Supreme Court in Babulal Vardharju Gurjar's case could have been pronounced, the NCLAT had already arrived at a conclusion even more far reaching.
This was the seminal judgement rendered in V. Padmakumar Vs. Stressed Assets Stabilization Fund (SASF)18 (the "First Padmakumar case") by the NCLAT.
Decision in the case of Padmakumar Case (supra) was rendered by a 4:1 majority, which in itself was a result of reference to a Larger Bench to resolve conflicting decisions of coordinate benches19 of the NCLAT. Majority decision had held that balance sheets / annual returns being mandatory requirements under the CA'13, cannot amount to acknowledgement under section 18 of the Limitation Act.
The NCLAT observed that the Apex Court and various High Courts have consistently held that an entry made in the company's balance sheet amounts to an acknowledgment of debt under section 18 of the Limitation Act. Accordingly, reference was made to a larger bench to reconsider the Padmakumar Case (supra).
Soon however, a matter came to be heard in the NCLAT - Yogeshkumar Jashwantlal Thakkar v. Indian Overseas Bank20 where the date of default mentioned in the application was January 1, 2016 but the application for commencement of proceedings under IBC was filed on April 1, 2019 (i.e. 3 months beyond the 3 year limitation, to the day). What makes this case stand apart is the fact that the bank in question had obtained a "debit confirmation" from the borrower on March 31, 2017. This "debit confirmation" was seen by the NCLAT as the acknowledgement of debt under section 18 of the Limitation Act. Thus, the NCLAT held in this case on September 14, 2020, that the application, even though having been filed on April 1, 2019, was well within 3 years from March 31, 2017, i.e. the date of "debit confirmation". This case, as is wont, has been challenged before the Supreme Court and is pending as on date of going to press.
Despite the aforesaid judgement being pending in appeal before the Supreme Court, on September 25, 2020, a three-member bench of the NCLAT in Bishal Jaiswal vs. Asset Reconstruction Company (India) Ltd. & Anr.21, "with the great respect to the Hon'ble Members of the Judgement" (sic) in the First Padmakumar case, thought it fit to refer the First Padmakuma case for reconsideration.
The NCLAT in reference proceedings initiated in Bishal Jiswal (supra), observed that the majority decision in First Padmakumar case (supra) had dealt with the conflict between the decision of the coordinate benches22, and had observed that Ugro (supra) cannot be relied upon as Apex Court's decisions were not brought to the notice of the bench during the proceedings. Accordingly, the NCLAT dismissed the reference, and held that the date of default with regard to application under Section 7 of the Code is the date of classification of the account as NPA. Most importantly it observed that limitation cannot be impacted by an acknowledgement of liability under section 18 of Limitation Act to keep the 'debt' alive for the purpose of insolvency proceedings.23 This decision on reference was rendered by the NCLAT on December 22, 2020.
This order of reference was challenged before the Supreme Court24, which rendered its ruling on April 15, 2021. The Bench comprising of Justices RF Nariman, BR Gavai and Hrishikesh Roy, while answering the legal question of 'Whether acknowledgement of debts in the balance sheet will be considered for Section 18 of Limitation Act", held that balance sheets can amount to an acknowledgement of debt for insolvency matters.
The court also examined the provisions under the Companies Act, 2013 qua any compulsion of law for filing of balance sheets and acknowledgements made therein25. It observed that there is no doubt that the filing of balance sheet is mandatory, violations of which being punishable under law. However, Section 134(7) of the Companies Act expressly recognises the auditor's report and notes annexed to the said financial statement, which may provide for caveats with regard to 'acknowledgements' made in the books of account / balance sheet. In relation to the same, the Court appreciated the law laid down by the Bengal Silk Mills Co. v. Ismail Golam Hossain Ariff26. In the said judgment, the court had held that though the filing of a balance sheet is by compulsion of law, the acknowledgement of a debt is not necessarily so. In fact, it is not uncommon to have an entry in a balance sheet with notes annexed to or forming part of such balance sheet, or in the auditor's report, which must be read along with the balance sheet.
Now therefore, coming to the central question posed by this article.
Whither balance sheet entries for extension of limitation in insolvency matters?
While the application of Article 137 of the Limitation Act to IBC matters has been consistently upheld by the NCLAT and the Supreme Court, there was still confusion that whether balance sheet entries constitutes a valid 'acknowledgment' for extending the limitation period. Pursuant to the aforesaid judgment of April 15, 2021, the Supreme Court has clarified that entries in the balance sheet of the corporate debtor shall qualify as an 'acknowledgement' in terms of section 18 of the Limitation Act.
Therefore, the position as of date appears to be that if a Corporate Debtor has acknowledged a 'debt' in the form of a balance sheet entry, such entry would extend the period of limitation for the purposes of IBC. However, it is to be noted that the Supreme Court also observed that treatment of an entry in corporate debtor's balance sheet as an 'acknowledgment', would depend on facts of each case as to whether a balance sheet entry qua any particular creditor is unequivocal or is saddled with caveats. Then, the said balance sheet entries along with caveats, if any, would have to be examined on a case to case basis in order to establish the extension of limitation under section 18 of the Limitation Act. In fact, while doing so, the Supreme Court has itself put a 'caveat' to the law regarding the treatment of balance sheet entries as a valid 'acknowledgment' under IBC. However, this also gives rise to some practical issues, some of which the author has summarised hereunder:
- Where the corporate debtor has not put a caveat to the balance sheet entries of previous financial year, then in such a situation, whether such entries would constitute a valid 'acknowledgement'. Also, prior to the April 15, 2021 judgment of the Supreme Court, balance sheet entries were held to be not a valid acknowledgement as per the NCLAT's five-member bench's decision27.
- How does it impact the operational debt owed by the corporate debtor to its suppliers of goods and services. In situations, where such operational creditor fails to demand the due amount within 3 years, then whether the balance sheet entries would extend the limitation under IBC.
It remains to be seen how courts answer the aforesaid questions.
One of the key takeaway from the Supreme Court's decision is that it casts a responsibility on the key managerial personnel along with the secretarial and audit officers to examine each loan transaction(s) entered by the corporate debtor. Accordingly, balance sheet and reports prepared and authenticated by the management of corporate debtor would ultimately determine the admissibility of IBC petitions. Hence, it may prudent to put in place a mechanism to examine each and every loan transaction(s) in order to put proper caveats. To illustrate, where the normal period of limitation i.e. 3 years have elapsed, the corporate debtor(s) may while acknowledging the debt, may put caveat to the effect that a particular debt is beyond the period of limitation.
Abhishek Dutta, Partner with inputs from Yatin Sharma, Partner and Manish Parmar, Senior Associate.