DOCTRINE OF ULTRA VIRES
Doctrine of ultra vires: The meaning of the term ultra vires is simply “beyond (their) powers”. The legal phrase “ultra vires” is applicable only to acts done in excess of the legal powers of the doers. This presupposes that the powers in their nature are limited.
It is a fundamental rule of Company Law that the objects of a company as stated in its memorandum can be departed from only to the extent permitted by the Act, thus far and no further. In consequence, any act done or a contract made by the company which travels beyond the powers not only of the directors but also of the company is wholly void and inoperative in law and is therefore not binding on the company. On this account, a company can be restrained from employing its fund for purposes other than those sanctioned by the memorandum. Likewise, it can be restrained from carrying on a trade different from the one it is authorised to carry on.
The impact of the doctrine of ultra vires is that a company can neither be sued on an ultra vires transaction, nor can it sue on it. Since the memorandum is a “public document”, it is open to public inspection. Therefore, when one deals with a company one is deemed to know about the powers of the company. If in spite of this you enter into a transaction which is ultra vires the company, you cannot enforce it against the company.
Example: If you have supplied goods or performed service on such a contract or lent money, you cannot obtain payment or recover the money lent. But if the money advanced to the company has not been expended, the lender may stop the company from parting with it by means of an injunction; this is because the company does not become the owner of the money, which is ultra vires the company. As the lender remains the owner, he can take back the property in specie. If the ultra vires loan has been utilised in meeting lawful debt of the company then the lender steps into the shoes of the debtor paid off and consequently he would be entitled to recover his loan to that extent from the company.
An act which is ultra vires the company being void, cannot be ratified by the shareholders of the company. Sometimes, act which is ultra vires can be regularised by ratifying it subsequently. For instance, if the act is ultra vires the power of the directors, the shareholders can ratify it; if it is ultra vires the articles of the company, the company can alter the articles; if the act is within the power of the company but is done irregularly, shareholder can validate it.
The leading case through which this doctrine was enunciated is that of Ashbury Railway Carriage and Iron Company Limited v. Riche-(1875).
The facts of the case are:
The main objects of a company were:
(a) To make, sell or lend on hire, railway carriages and wagons;
(b) To carry on the business of mechanical engineers and general contractors.
(c) To purchase, lease, sell and work mines.
(d) To purchase and sell as merchants or agents, coal, timber, metals etc.
The directors of the company entered into a contract with Riche, for financing the construction of a railway line in Belgium, and the company further ratified this act of the directors by passing a special resolution. The company however, repudiated the contract as being ultra-vires. And Riche brought an action for damages for breach of contract. His contention was that the contract was well within the meaning of the word general contractors and hence within its powers. Moreover it had been ratified by a majority of shareholders. However, it was held by the Court that the contract was null and void. It said that the terms general contractors was associated with mechanical engineers, i.e. it had to be read in connection with the company’s main business. If, the term general contractor’s was not so interpreted, it would authorize the making of contracts of any kind and every description, for example, marine and fire insurance.
An ultra vires contract can never be made binding on the company. It cannot become “Intravires” by reasons of estoppel, acquiescence, Iapse of time, delay or ratification. The whole position regarding the doctrine of ultra vires can be summed up as:
(i) When an act is performed, which though legal in itself, is not authorized by the object clause of the memorandum, or by the statute, it is said to be ultravires the company, and hence null and void.
(ii) An act which is ultravires, the company cannot be ratified even by the unanimous consent of all the shareholders.
(iii) An act which is ultravires the directors, but intravires the company can be ratified by the members of the company through a resolution passed at a general meeting.
(iv) If an act is ultravires the Articles, it can be ratified by altering the Articles by a Special Resolution at a general meeting.
However, the disadvantages of this doctrine outweigh its main advantage, namely to provide protection to the shareholders and creditors. Although it may be useful to members in restraining the activities of the directors, it is only a nuisance in so far as it prevents the company from changing its activities in a direction which is agreed by all. Again, the purpose of doctrine of ultravires has been defeated as now the object clause can be easily altered, by passing just a special resolution of the shareholders.