SC expounds when can 330 day CIRP deadline be extended

The Hon’ble Supreme Court, on 15th November 2019, in the matter of Committee of Creditors of Essar Steel India Limited Through Authorised Signatory vs. Satish Kumar Gupta & Ors. while striking down the word mandatorily in the recently added 2nd proviso to Section 12(3) of the IBC pronounced that the 330 day time limit of CIRP can be extended if it can be shown to the Adjudicating Authority and/or Appellate Tribunal that only a short period is left for completion of the insolvency resolution process beyond 330 days, and that it would be in the interest of all stakeholders that the corporate debtor be put back on its feet instead of being sent into liquidation and that the time taken in legal proceedings is largely due to factors owing to which the fault cannot be ascribed to the litigants before the Adjudicating Authority and/or Appellate Tribunal

Key Observations of the Hon’ble Supreme Court

…….On the role of resolution applicants, resolution professionals, the Committee of Creditors that are constituted under the Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code, 2016

The resolution professional is a person who is not only to manage the affairs of the corporate debtor as a going concern from the stage of admission of an application under Sections 7, 9 or 10 of the Code till a resolution plan is approved by the Adjudicating Authority, but is also a key person who is to appoint and convene meetings of the Committee of Creditors, so that they may decide upon resolution plans that are submitted in accordance with the detailed information given to resolution applicants by the resolution professional. (Para 27)

Another very important function of the resolution professional is to collect, collate and finally admit claims of all creditors, which must then be examined for payment, in full or in part or not at all, by the resolution applicant and be finally negotiated and decided by the Committee of Creditors. (Para 27)

The role of the resolution professional under the Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code, 2016 and Insolvency and Bankruptcy Board of India (Liquidation Process) Regulations, 2016 is not adjudicatory but administrative. (Para 27)

Under the IBC, 2016, the prospective resolution applicant has a right to receive complete information as to the corporate debtor, debts owed by it, and its activities as a going concern, prior to the admission of an application under section 7, 9 or 10 of the Code. For this purpose, it has a right to receive information contained in the information memorandum as well as the evaluation matrix mentioned in Regulation 36-B of Insolvency and Bankruptcy Board of India (Liquidation Process) Regulations, 2016. Once it evinces an expression of interest, what follows is laid down in Regulation 36-A(7). (Para 29)

Sections 5(26), 14(2), 20(1), 20(2)(d) and (e) of the Code read with Regulations 37 and 38 of the 2016 Regulations all speak of the corporate debtor running as a going concern during the insolvency resolution process. Workmen need to be paid, electricity dues need to be paid, purchase of raw materials need to be made, etc. (Para 45)

There is no doubt whatsoever that the ultimate discretion of what to pay and how much to pay each class or sub-class of creditors is with the Committee of Creditors, but, the decision of such Committee must reflect the fact that it has taken into account maximising the value of the assets of the corporate debtor and the fact that it has adequately balanced the interests of all stakeholders including operational creditors. (Para 46)

…….On the jurisdiction of the National Company Law Tribunal (NCLT) and the National Company Law Appellate Tribunal (NCLAT), qua resolution plans that have been approved by the Committee of Creditors.

Section 60(5)(c) is in the nature of a residuary jurisdiction vested in the NCLT so that the NCLT may decide all questions of law or fact arising out of or in relation to insolvency resolution or liquidation under the Code. Such residual jurisdiction does not in any manner impact Section 30(2) of the Code which circumscribes the jurisdiction of the Adjudicating Authority when it comes to the confirmation of a resolution plan, as has been mandated by Section 31(1) of the Code. A harmonious reading, therefore, of Section 31(1) and Section 60(5) of the Code would lead to the result that the residual jurisdiction of the NCLT under Section 60(5)(c) cannot, in any manner, whittle down Section 31(1) of the Code, by the investment of some discretionary or equity jurisdiction in the Adjudicating Authority outside Section 30(2) of the Code, when it comes to a resolution plan being adjudicated upon by the Adjudicating Authority.  (Para 43)

While the Adjudicating Authority cannot interfere on merits with the commercial decision taken by the Committee of Creditors, the limited judicial review available is to see that the Committee of Creditors has taken into account the fact that the corporate debtor needs to keep going as a going concern during the insolvency resolution process; that it needs to maximise the value of its assets; and that the interests of all stakeholders including operational creditors has been taken care of. If the Adjudicating Authority finds, on a given set of facts, that the aforesaid parameters have not been kept in view, it may send a resolution plan back to the Committee of Creditors to re-submit such plan after satisfying the aforesaid parameters. The reasons given by the Committee of Creditors while approving a resolution plan may thus be looked at by the Adjudicating Authority only from this point of view, and once it is satisfied that the Committee of Creditors has paid attention to these key features, it must then pass the resolution plan, other things being equal. (Para 46)

Indeed, if an “equality for all” approach recognising the rights of different classes of creditors as part of an insolvency resolution process is adopted, secured financial creditors will, in many cases, be incentivised to vote for liquidation rather than resolution, as they would have better rights if the corporate debtor was to be liquidated rather than a resolution plan being approved. This would defeat the entire objective of the Code which is to first ensure that resolution of distressed assets takes place and only if the same is not possible should liquidation follow. (Para 54)

There is a difference in payment of the debts of financial and operational creditors, operational creditors having to receive a minimum payment, being not less than liquidation value, which does not apply to financial creditors. The amended Regulation 38 of Insolvency and Bankruptcy Board of India (Liquidation Process) Regulations, 2016 does not lead to the conclusion that financial and operational creditors, or secured and unsecured creditors, must be paid the same amounts, percentage wise, under the resolution plan before it can pass muster. Fair and equitable dealing of operational creditors’ rights under the said Regulation involves the resolution plan stating as to how it has dealt with the interests of operational creditors, which is not the same thing as saying that they must be paid the same amount of their debt proportionately. (Para 56)

The fact that the operational creditors are given priority in payment over all financial creditors does not lead to the conclusion that such payment must necessarily be the same recovery percentage as financial creditors. (Para 56)

So long as the provisions of the Code and the Regulations have been met, it is the commercial wisdom of the requisite majority of the Committee of Creditors which is to negotiate and accept a resolution plan, which may involve differential payment to different classes of creditors, together with negotiating with a prospective resolution applicant for better or different terms which may also involve differences in distribution of amounts between different classes of creditors. (Para 56)

Secured creditors as a class are subsumed in the class of financial creditors. (Para 57)

The Code and the Regulations, read as a whole, together with the observations of expert bodies and Supreme Court’s judgment, all lead to the conclusion that the equality principle cannot be stretched to treating unequals equally, as that will destroy the very objective of the Code – to resolve stressed assets. Equitable treatment is to be accorded to each creditor depending upon the class to which it belongs: secured or unsecured, financial or operational. (Para 57)

There is no residual jurisdiction with the adjudicating authority not to approve a resolution plan on the ground that it is unfair or unjust to a class of creditors, so long as the interest of each class has been looked into and taken care of. (Para 58)

When it comes to approving a resolution plan under Section 30(4), there is no doubt whatsoever that this power also cannot be delegated to any other body as it is the Committee of Creditors alone that has been vested with this important business decision which it must take by itself. However, this does not mean that sub-committees cannot be appointed for the purpose of negotiating with resolution applicants, or for the purpose of performing other ministerial or administrative acts, provided such acts are in the ultimate analysis approved and ratified by the Committee of Creditors. (Para 62)

A successful resolution applicant cannot suddenly be faced with “undecided” claims after the resolution plan submitted by him has been accepted as this would amount to a hydra head popping up which would throw into uncertainty amounts payable by a prospective resolution applicant who successfully take over the business of the corporate debtor. All claims must be submitted to and decided by the resolution professional so that a prospective resolution applicant knows exactly what has to be paid in order that it may then take over and run the business of the corporate debtor. (Para 67)

Bad faith, in the sense of improper motives, cannot be ascribed to a legislature making laws. (Para 73)

…….On the constitutional validity of Sections 4 and 6 of the Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code (Amendment) Act, 2019.

While leaving the provision otherwise intact, the word “mandatorily” used in 2nd proviso of Section 12(3) of IBC, 2016 is struck down as being manifestly arbitrary under Article 14 of the Constitution of India and as being an excessive and unreasonable restriction on the litigant’s right to carry on business under Article 19(1)(g) of the Constitution. (Para 79)

The effect of this declaration is that ordinarily the time taken in relation to the corporate resolution process of the corporate debtor must be completed within the outer limit of 330 days from the insolvency commencement date, including extensions and the time taken in legal proceedings. However, on the facts of a given case, if it can be shown to the Adjudicating Authority and/or Appellate Tribunal under the Code that only a short period is left for completion of the insolvency resolution process beyond 330 days, and that it would be in the interest of all stakeholders that the corporate debtor be put back on its feet instead of being sent into liquidation and that the time taken in legal proceedings is largely due to factors owing to which the fault cannot be ascribed to the litigants before the Adjudicating Authority and/or Appellate Tribunal, the delay or a large part thereof being attributable to the tardy process of the Adjudicating Authority and/or the Appellate Tribunal itself, it may be open in such cases for the Adjudicating Authority and/or Appellate Tribunal to extend time beyond 330 days. Even under the newly added proviso to Section 12, if by reason of all the aforesaid factors the grace period of 90 days from the date of commencement of the Amending Act of 2019 is exceeded, there again a discretion can be exercised by the Adjudicating Authority and/or Appellate Tribunal to further extend time keeping the aforesaid parameters in mind. It is only in such exceptional cases that time can be extended, the general rule being that 330 days is the outer limit within which resolution of the stressed assets of the corporate debtor must take place beyond which the corporate debtor is to be driven into liquidation. (Para 79)

When it comes to the validity of the substitution of Section 30(2) (b) by Section 6 of the Amending Act of 2019, it is clear that the substituted Section 30(2)(b) gives operational creditors something more than was given earlier as it is the higher of the figures mentioned in sub-clauses (i) and (ii) of sub-clause (b) that is now to be paid as a minimum amount to operational creditors. (Para 80)

There is no residual equity jurisdiction in the Adjudicating Authority or the Appellate Tribunal to interfere in the merits of a business decision taken by the requisite majority of the Committee of Creditors, provided that it is otherwise in conformity with the provisions of the Code and the Regulations (Para 81)

The Committee of Creditors does not act in any fiduciary capacity to any group of creditors. On the contrary, it is to take a business decision based upon ground realities by a majority, which then binds all stakeholders, including dissentient creditors. (Para 93)

Copy of judgement: Judgement_15-Nov-2019

-Adv. Tushar Kaushik

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