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The much debated question with respect to the interpretation of what amounts to “existence of a dispute” has been finally answered by the Supreme Court in the (Mobilox vs. Kirusa) judgment. The interpretation of “existence of dispute” was seen in the context of initiation of CIRP of corporate debtors under the Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code, 2016.
The Corporate Insolvency Resolution Process (CIRP) can be initiated by the operational creditor in cases of payment default, through an application filed in the NCLT. Prior to such application, a demand notice (demanding the payment of the amount) needs to served upon the corporate debtor under Section 8 (1) of the Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code, 2016.
The appellant (Mobilox) was engaged in a Star TV program “NachBaliye” conducting telephonic voting mechanism. The appellant engaged the respondent company (Kirusa) for providing various services relating to the TV program, and the parties also executed a non-disclosure agreement. The NDA stipulated certain conditions such as confidentiality obligations towards Mobilox. During the time period Kirusa raised necessary monthly invoices for the rendered services. However, Mobilox informed Kirusa about the payments that were subsequently withheld due to breach of the NDA obligations.
Kirusa senta demand notice to Mobiloxunder Section 8 of the Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code, due to non- payment. Mobilox’s response to the demand notice stated that there was a bona fide and serious dispute between the parties, inclusive of the breach of obligations mentioned under the NDA.
Kirusa subsequently filed an application before the NCLT, Mumbai under section 9 for the initiation of Corporate Insolvency Resolution process (CIRP) of Mobilox. NCLT rejected the application on the grounds that Mobilox had issued a notice of dispute to the operational creditor.
An appeal against the order of NCLT was subsequently filed by Kirusa stating that mere dispute to the demand notice by the operational creditor does not amount to a valid ground for rejection of application under Section 9 of the ‘I & B Code’. The question before the Appellate Tribunal was with respect to the clarification of meaning of “dispute” and “existence of dispute” for the purposes of application under Section 9 of the Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code.
Section 8 provides for the requirements which should be complied with prior to filing an application under Section 9 of ‘I & B Code’.
Under Section 8 (2) of the I & B Code, once the demand notice is served upon the corporate debtor by the operational creditor, the corporate debtor needs to inform the creditor about the payment of the debt or dispute if any, within 10 days of receiving the notice.
Section 9 enshrines the right to file an application for the initiation of corporate insolvency resolution process after the expiry of 10 days from the date of delivery of demand notice.
NCLAT allowed Kirusa’s appeal on the groundthat the reply to the Demand Notice by the Mobilox cannot be seen within the purview of Section 8(2) and Section 5(6) of the Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code. It stated that the defense raised by Mobilox was vague and motivated as the debt demanded was not in connection with the non-disclosure agreement. Further NCLAT stressed upon the interpretation of “dispute” stating the a dispute would not be limited to only arbitration proceedings or suits but shall include any proceedings initiated before any tribunal, consumer court, labour court etc.
Mobilox went in appeal before the Hon’ble Supreme Court against the order passed by NCLAT.
1. The Hon’ble Supreme Court allowed the appeal by Mobilox, while interpreting the expression “existence of a dispute” under Section 8(2) (a) of the Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code. The Hon’bleSupreme Court was of the opinion that the breach of NDA was sufficient to construe the existence of a dispute to invalidate the CIRP application filed by the operational creditor.
2. Interpretation of Section 8 (2) (a): “The word “and” occurring in Section 8 (2) (a) must be read as “or”. According to the earlier interpretation,the Code provides that a dispute between operational creditor and corporate debtor would only be valid if a suit or an arbitration proceeding with respect to the dispute has been filed prior to the receipt of demand notice. The Supreme Court was of the opinion that such an understanding shall lead to “great hardship” as the corporate debtor would then be able to stave off the bankruptcy process provided a dispute is already pending in a suit or arbitration proceedings”. An important point was highlighted by the Hon’bleSupreme Court stating that, if the “and” mentioned under Section 8(2)(a) is not read as “or”, such persons shall be excluded from the ambit of Section 8 (2) and application of CIRP shall be easily obtained which was not the intent of the legislature.
3. Pre-existing Dispute: The Hon’bleSupreme Court held that the existence of the dispute and/or suit or arbitration proceeding necessarily be “pre-existing”, that is to say, it should exist prior to receipt of the Demand Notice.
4. Plausible Contention Test: The Hon’ble Supreme Court while deciding the matter scrutinized the background of IB Code. It observed that the Insolvency and Bankruptcy Bill 2015 defined “dispute” as “a bona fide suit or arbitration proceedings”. However, when the Bill was passed the term “dispute” under Section 5 (6) was dropped from the definition. The Supreme Court stressed upon the interpretation that the previous jurisprudence with respect to the definition “dispute” does not apply to the current IB code. Instead the Hon’bleSupreme Court provided a new test “plausible contention” to determine the “existence of dispute”.
5. Questions to be seen by the Adjudicating Authority while examining any application under Section 9 of the I &B Code
6. Whether there is an “operational debt” of more than One Lakh?
7. Whether the documentary evidence provided with the application shows the debt is due and payable and has not yet been paid?
8.Whether there is an existence of a dispute between the concerned parties or any record of pendency of suit or arbitration proceeding filed before the receipt of Demand Notice.?
If any one of the conditions is not satisfied, NCLT must reject the application.
There appears to be no doubt that the interpretation with respect to “dispute” and “existence of a dispute” has been quite in debate since the inception of IB Code. Conflicting interpretations have been provided by different benches of NCLT. However, a conclusive ruling by the Supreme Court has finally provided a settled position.
It would be interesting to note as to how various NCLT’s would interpret and apply this landmark ruling relating to “plausible contention” test. Moreover, the Supreme Court has been vigilant to highlight the strict adherence to the time lines provided under the Code. The Supreme Court has clarified the object of the code keeping in mind the legislative intent. The court through this judgment has provided a balance between the rights of the creditors and also the remedies to the debtor companies.