The Supreme Court Bench comprising Justices Dr Dhananjaya Y Chandrachud and Hima Kohli was hearing an Appeal on Tuesday and held that Section 138 of the Negotiable Instruments Act would be applicable only where a legally enforceable debt exists on the date mentioned in the cheque.
On 10 April 2014, the Appellant issued a statutory notice under Section 138 of the Act to the first respondent-accused. It was alleged that the first respondent borrowed a sum of rupees twenty lakhs from the appellant on 16 January 2012 and to discharge the liability, issued a cheque dated 17 March 2014 bearing cheque No. 877828 for the said sum. It was further alleged that the cheque when presented on 2 April 2014 was dishonoured due to insufficient funds. The appellant issued the notice calling the first respondent to pay the legally enforceable debt of Rs. 20,00,000.
On 25 April 2014, the first respondent addressed his response to the statutory notice where he alleged that the Appellant lent the first respondent a loan of rupees forty lakhs. There was an oral agreement between the parties that the first respondent would pay rupees one lakh every three months by cheque and rupees eighty thousand in cash to the appellant. Two cheques were given to the appellant for security. It was agreed that the appellant would return both cheques when the sum lent was paid in full
On 12 May 2014, the appellant filed a criminal complaint against the first respondent for the offence under Section 138 of the Act. On 19 May 2014, the first respondent issued another reply to the legal notice.
Trial Court acquitted the first respondent of the offence under Section 138 on the ground that the first respondent paid the appellant a sum of rupees 40,93,015 between 8 April 2012 and 30 December 2013 partly discharging his liability in respect of the debt of rupees twenty lakhs. Trial Court observed that the Appellant has failed to prove that he was owed a legally enforceable debt of rupees twenty lakhs
The Appellant filed an appeal against the judgment of the Trial Court before the High Court of Gujarat. On 10 October 2019, the first respondent moved an application before the High Court of Gujarat seeking to place on record the amended reply dated 19 May 2014. By an order dated 11 October 2018, the High Court allowed the application for placing the additional evidence on record. The High Court by its judgment dated 12 January 2022 dismissed the appeal, thereby upholding the judgment of the Trial Court acquitting the first respondent. The High Court affirmed the finding of fact by the Trial Court that a part of the debt owed by the first respondent to the appellant was discharged and thus the notice of demand issued under Section 138 of the Act was not valid.
The Appellant contended that the purpose of Section 138 of the Act would be defeated if the dishonour of the cheque issued for security is not included within the purview of Section 138 where the payment of a part of the cheque amount is made. It was contended that it would lead to a possibility where the drawer of the cheque could evade prosecution under Section 138 by paying a small amount of the debt while defaulting on the remaining payment. Section 56 stipulates that if there is an endorsement on a negotiable instrument that a part of the sum mentioned in the cheque has been paid, then the instrument may be negotiated for the balance.
Section 138 indicates that an offence under the provision arises if the cheque represents a legally enforceable debt on the date of maturity. The offence under Section 138 is tipped by the dishonour of the cheque when it is sought to be encashed. Though a post-dated cheque might be drawn to represent a legally enforceable debt at the time of its drawing, for the offence to be attracted, the cheque must represent a legally enforceable debt at the time of encashment. If there has been a material change in the circumstance such that the sum in the cheque does not represent a legally enforceable debt at the time of maturity or encashment, then the offence under Section 138 is not made out.
Supreme Court in the case of Indus Airways, held that for the commission of the offence under Section 138, there must have been a debt on the date of issuance of the cheque. However, later judgments adopt a more nuanced position while discussing the validity of proceedings under Section 138 on the dishonour of post-dated cheques. The Supreme Court since Sampelly Satyanarayana Rao v. Indian Renewable Energy Development Agency Limited, REED 2016 SC 09002, has consistently held that there must be a legally enforceable debt on the date mentioned in the cheque, which is the date of maturity.
The Supreme Court in NEPC Micon Ltd. v. Magna Leasing Ltd., AIR 1995 SC 1952, held that the Courts must interpret Section 138 with reference to the legislative intent to suppress the mischief and advance the remedy. The objective of the Act in general and Section 138 specifically is to enhance the acceptability of cheques and to inculcate faith in the efficacy of negotiable instruments for the transaction of business.
The Supreme Court noted that the notice of demand which requires the drawer of the cheque to make payment of the whole amount represented in the cheque despite receiving part repayment against the sum, before the issue of notice, cannot be valid under Section 138(b) of the Act.
Under Section 56 read with Section 15 of the NI Act, an endorsement may be made by recording the part-payment of the debt in the cheque or in a note appended to the cheque. When such an endorsement is made, the instrument could still be used to negotiate the balance amount. If the endorsed cheque when presented for encashment of the balance amount is dishonoured, then the drawee can take recourse to the provisions of Section 138. Thus, when a part-payment of the debt is made after the cheque was drawn but before the cheque is encashed, such payment must be endorsed on the cheque under Section 56 of the Act. The cheque cannot be presented for encashment without recording the part payment. If the unendorsed cheque is dishonoured on presentation, the offence under Section 138 would not be attracted since the cheque does not represent a legally enforceable debt at the time of encashment.
The primary contention of the first respondent is that the offence under Section 138 was not committed since the amount that was payable to the appellant, as on the date the cheque was presented for encashment, was less than the amount that was represented in the cheque. The question before the Supreme Court was whether Section 138 of the Act would still be attracted when the drawer of the cheque makes a part payment towards the debt or liability after the cheque is drawn but before the cheque is encashed, for the dishonour of the cheque which represents the full sum.
It must be noted that when a part-payment is made after the issuance of a post-dated cheque, the legally enforceable debt at the time of encashment is less than the sum represented in the cheque. A part-payment or a full payment may have been made between the date when the debt has accrued to the date when the cheque is sought to be encashed. Thus, it is crucial that we refer to the law laid down by this Court on the issuance of post-dated cheques and cheques issued for the purpose of security. In Indus Airways Private Limited v. Magnum Aviation Private Limited2, the issue before a two-Judge Bench of this Court was whether dishonour of post-dated cheques which were issued by the purchasers towards ‘advance payment’ would be covered by Section 138 of the Act if the purchase order was cancelled subsequently. It was held that Section 138 would only be applicable where there is a legally enforceable debt subsisting on the date when the cheque is drawn. In Sampelly Satyanarayana Rao v. Indian Renewable Energy Development Agency Limited, REED 2016 SC 09002, the respondent advanced a loan for setting up a power project and post-dated cheques were given for security. The cheques were dishonoured and a complaint was instituted under Section 138. Distinguishing Indus Airways (supra), it was held that the test for the application of Section 138 is whether there was a legally enforceable debt on the date mentioned in the cheque. It was held that if the answer is in the affirmative, then the provisions of Section 138 would be attracted. In Sripati Singh v. State of Jharkand, REED 2021 SC 10005, this Court observed that if a cheque is issued as security and if the debt is not repaid in any other form before the due date or if there is no understanding or agreement between the parties to defer the repayment, the cheque would mature for presentation.
Based on the above analysis of precedent, the following principles emerge:
Where the borrower agrees to repay the loan within a specified timeline and issues a cheque for security but defaults in repaying the loan within the timeline, the cheque matures for presentation. When the cheque is sought to be encashed by the debtor and is dishonoured, Section 138 of the Act will be attracted
However, the cardinal rule when a cheque is issued for security is that between the date on which the cheque is drawn to the date on which the cheque matures, the loan could be repaid through any other mode. It is only where the loan is not repaid through any other mode within the due date that the cheque would mature for presentation; and
If the loan has been discharged before the due date or if there is an ‘altered situation’, then the cheque shall not be presented for encashment.
In Sunil Todi v. State of Gujarat, a two-judge Bench of the Supreme Court expounded the meaning of the phrase ‘debt or other liability’. It was observed that the phrase takes within its meaning a ‘sum of money promised to be paid on a future day by reason of a present obligation’. The court observed that a post-dated cheque issued after the debt was incurred would be covered within the meaning of ‘debt’. The court held that Section 138 would also include cases where the debt is incurred after the cheque is drawn but before it is presented for encashment.
In view of the discussion above, the Supreme Court summarised the following findings:
For the commission of an offence under Section 138, the cheque that is dishonoured must represent a legally enforceable debt on the date of maturity or presentation;
If the drawer of the cheque pays a part or whole of the sum between the period when the cheque is drawn and when it is encashed upon maturity, then the legally enforceable debt on the date of maturity would not be the sum represented on the cheque;
When a part or whole of the sum represented on the cheque is paid by the drawer of the cheque, it must be endorsed on the cheque as prescribed in Section 56 of the Act. The cheque endorsed with the payment made may be used to negotiate the balance if any. If the cheque that is endorsed is dishonoured when it is sought to be encashed upon maturity, then the offence under Section 138 will stand attracted;
The first respondent made part-payments after the debt was incurred and before the cheque was encashed upon maturity. The sum of rupees twenty lakhs represented on the cheque was not the ‘legally enforceable debt’ on the date of maturity. Thus, the first respondent cannot be deemed to have committed an offence under Section 138 of the Act when the cheque was dishonoured for insufficient funds; and
The notice demanding the payment of the ‘said amount of money’ has been interpreted by judgments of this Court to mean the cheque amount. The conditions stipulated in the provisos to Section 138 need to be fulfilled in addition to the ingredients in the substantive part of Section 138. Since in this case, the first respondent has not committed an offence under Section 138, the validity of the form of the notice need not be decided.
For the reasons indicated above, the Appeal against the judgment of the High Court of Gujarat dated 12 January 2022 was dismissed.