Doctrine of Lifting Of or Piercing the Corporate Veil
The separate personality of a company is a statutory privilege and it must be used for legitimate business purposes only. Where a fraudulent and dishonest use is made of the legal entity, the individuals concerned will not be allowed to take shelter behind the corporate personality. The Court will break through the corporate shell and apply the principle/doctrine of what is called as “lifting of or piercing the corporate veil”. The Court will look behind the corporate entity and take action as though no entity separate from the members existed and make the members or the controlling persons liable for debts and obligations of the company
The corporate veil is lifted when in defence proceedings, such as for the evasion of tax, an entity relies on its corporate personality as a shield to cover its wrong doings. [BSN (UK) Ltd. v. Janardan Mohandas Rajan Pillai  86 Com Cases 371 (Bom).]
However, the shareholders cannot ask for the lifting of the veil for their purposes. This was held in Premlata Bhatia v. Union of India (2004) 58 CL 217 (Delhi) wherein the premises of a shop were allotted on a licence to the individual licencee. She set up a wholly owned private company and transferred the premises to that company without Government consent. She could not remove the illegality by saying that she and her company were virtually the same person.
Statutory Recognition of Lifting of Corporate Veil
The Companies Act, 2013 itself contains some provisions [Sections 7(7), 251(1) and 339] which lift the corporate veil to reach the real forces of action. Section 7(7) deals with punishment for incorporation of company by furnishing false information; Section 251(1) deals with liability for making fraudulent application for removal of name of company from the register of companies and Section 339 deals with liability for fraudulent conduct of business during the course of winding up.
Lifting of Corporate Veil under Judicial Interpretation
Ever since the decision in Salomon v. Salomon & Co. Ltd., (1897) A.C. 22, normally Courts are reluctant or at least very cautious to lift the veil of corporate personality to see the real persons behind it. Nevertheless, Courts have found it necessary to disregard the separate personality of a company in the following situations:
(a) Where the corporate veil has been used for commission of fraud or improper conduct. In such a situation, Courts have lifted the veil and looked at the realities of the situation.
In Jones v. Lipman, (1962) I. W.L.R. 832
A agreed to sell certain land to B. Pending completion of formalities of the said deal, A sold and transferred the land to a company which he had incorporated with a nominal capital of £100 and of which he and a clerk were the only shareholders and directors. This was done in order to escape a decree for specific performance in a suit brought by B. The Court held that the company was the creature of A and a mask to avoid recognition and that in the eyes of equity A must complete the contract, since he had the full control of the limited company in which the property was vested, and was in a position to cause the contract in question to be fulfilled.
(b) Where a corporate facade is really only an agency instrumentality.
In Re. R.G. Films Ltd. (1953) 1 All E.R. 615
An American company produced a film in India technically in the name of a British Company, 90% of whose capital was held by the President of the American company which financed the production of the film. Board of Trade refused to register the film as a British film which stated that English company acted merely as the nominee of the American corporation.
(c) Where the conduct conflicts with public policy, courts lifted the corporate veil for protecting the public policy.
In Connors Bros. v. Connors (1940) 4 All E.R. 179
The principle was applied against the managing director who made use of his position contrary to public policy. In this case the House of Lords determined the character of the company as "enemy” company, since the persons who were de facto in control of its affairs, were residents of Germany, which was at war with England at that time. The alien company was not allowed to proceed with the action, as that would have meant giving money to the enemy, which was considered as monstrous and against “public policy”.
(d) Further, In Daimler Co. Ltd. v. Continental Tyre & Rubber Co., (1916) 2 A.C. 307, it was held that a company will be regarded as having enemy character, if the persons having de facto control of its affairs are resident in an enemy country or, wherever they may be, are acting under instructions from or on behalf of the enemy.
(e) Where it was found that the sole purpose for which the company was formed was to evade taxes the Court will ignore the concept of separate entity and make the individuals concerned liable to pay the taxes which they would have paid but for the formation of the company.
Re. Sir Dinshaw Manakjee Petit, A.I.R. 1927 Bombay 371
The facts of the case are that the assessee was a wealthy man enjoying large dividend and interest income. He formed four private companies and agreed with each to hold a block of investment as an agent for it. Income received was credited in the accounts of the company but the company handed back the amount to him as a pretended loan. This way he divided his income in four parts in a bid to reduce his tax liability.
But it was held “the company was formed by the assessee purely and simply as a means of avoiding supertax and the company was nothing more than the assessee himself. It did no business, but was created simply as a legal entity to ostensibly receive the dividends and interests and to hand them over to the assessee as pretended loans”. The Court decided to disregard the corporate entity as it was being used for tax evasion.
(f) Avoidance of welfare legislation is as common as avoidance of taxation and the approach in considering problems arising out of such avoidance has necessarily to be the same and, therefore, where it was found that the sole purpose for the formation of the new company was to use it as a device to reduce the amount to be paid by way of bonus to workmen, the Supreme Court upheld the piercing of the veil to look at the real transaction.
The Workmen Employed in Associated Rubber Industries Limited, Bhavnagar v. The Associated Rubber Industries Ltd., Bhavnagar and another, A.I.R. 1986 SC 1.
The facts of the case were that a new company was created wholly by the principal company with no assets of its own except those transferred to it by the principal company, with no business or income of its own except receiving dividends from shares transferred to it by the principal company i.e. only for the purpose of splitting the profits into two hands and thereby reducing the obligation to pay bonus. The Supreme Court of India held that the new company was formed as a device to reduce the gross profits of the principal company and thereby reduce the amount to be paid by way of bonus to workmen. The amount of dividends received by the new company should, therefore, be taken into account in assessing the gross profit of the principal company.
(g) Another instance of corporate veil arrived at by the Court arose in Kapila Hingorani v. State of Bihar
Kapila Hingorani v. State of Bihar, 2003(4) Scale 712
In this case, the petitioner had alleged that the State of Bihar had not paid salaries to its employees in PSUs etc. for long periods resulting in starvation deaths. But the respondent took the stand that most of the undertakings were incorporated under the provisions of the Companies Act, 1956, hence the rights etc. of the shareholders should be governed by the provisions of the Companies Act and the liabilities of the PSUs should not be passed on to the State Government by resorting to the doctrine of lifting the corporate veil. The Court observed that the State may not be liable in relation to the day-to-day functioning of the PSUs but its liability would arise on its failure to perform the constitutional duties and the functions of these undertakings. It is so because, “life means something more than mere ordinal existence. The inhibition against deprivation of life extends to all those limits and faculties by which life is enjoyed”.
(h) Where it is found that a company has abused its corporate personality for an unjust and inequitable purpose, the court would not hesitate to lift the corporate veil. Further, the corporate veil could be lifted when acts of a corporation are allegedly opposed to justice, convenience and interests of revenue or workmen or are against public interest.
Thus, in appropriate cases, the Courts disregard the separate corporate personality and look behind the legal person or lift the corporate veil.
Lifting the Corporate Veil of Small Scale Industry
Where small scale industries were given certain exemptions and the company owning an industry was controlled by some group of persons or companies, it was held that it was permissible to lift the veil of the company to see whether it was the subsidiary of another company and, therefore, not entitled to the proposed exemptions. [Inalsa Ltd. v. Union of India, (1996) 87 Com Cases 599 (Delhi).]
Use of Corporate Veil for Hiding Criminal Activities
Where the defendant used the corporate structure as a device or facade to conceal his criminal activities (evasion of customs and excise duties payable by the company), the Court could lift the corporate veil and treat the assets of the company as the realisable property of the shareholder.
For example, in a case, there was a prima facie case that the defendants controlled the two companies, the companies had been used for the fraudulent evasion of excise duty on a large scale, the defendant regarded the companies as carrying on a family business and that they had benefited from companies’ cash in substantial amounts and further no useful purpose would have been served by involving the companies in the criminal proceedings. In all these circumstances it was therefore appropriate to lift the corporate veil and treat the stock in the companies’ warehouses and the companies’ motor vehicles as realisable property held by the defendants. The court said that the excise department is not to be criticized for not charging the companies. The more complex commercial activities become, the more vital it is for prosecuting authorities to be selective in whom and what they charge, so that issues can be presented in as clear and short form as possible. In the present case, it seemed that no useful purpose would have been served by initiating criminal proceedings. [H. and Others (Restraint Order : Realisable Property), Re, (1996) 2 BCLC 500 at 511, 512 (CA).]