State Bank of India and Ors. vs. Rajesh Agarwal and Ors. - (Supreme Court) (27 Mar 2023)
Lender banks have to provide an opportunity of hearing to the borrowers before classifying their account as fraud
The civil appeals arise out of a challenge to the Reserve Bank of India (Frauds Classification and Reporting by Commercial Banks and Select FIs) Directions, 2016 issued by the Reserve Bank of India, these directions were challenged before different High Courts primarily on the ground that, no opportunity of being heard is envisaged to borrowers before classifying their accounts as fraudulent. The High Court has held in the impugned judgment that, the principles of natural justice must be read into the provisions of the Master Directions on Frauds. The decision has been assailed by the RBI and lender banks through present civil appeals.
The rule of audi alteram partem ought to be read in Clauses 8.9.4 and 8.9.5 of the Master Directions on Fraud. Consistent with the principles of natural justice, the lender banks should provide an opportunity to a borrower by furnishing a copy of the audit reports and allow the borrower a reasonable opportunity to submit a representation before classifying the account as fraud. A reasoned order has to be issued on the objections addressed by the borrower. On perusal of the facts, it is indubitable that the lender banks did not provide an opportunity of hearing to the borrowers before classifying their accounts as fraud. Therefore, the impugned decision to classify the borrower account as fraud is vitiated by the failure to observe the rule of audi alteram partem.
No opportunity of being heard is required before an FIR is lodged and registered. Classification of an account as fraud not only results in reporting the crime to investigating agencies, but also has other penal and civil consequences against the borrowers. Debarring the borrowers from accessing institutional finance under Clause 8.12.1 of the Master Directions on Frauds results in serious civil consequences for the borrower. Such a debarment under Clause 8.12.1 of the Master Directions on Frauds is akin to blacklisting the borrowers for being untrustworthy and unworthy of credit by banks. This Court has consistently held that an opportunity of hearing ought to be provided before a person is blacklisted.
The application of audi alteram partem cannot be impliedly excluded under the Master Directions on Frauds. In view of the time frame contemplated under the Master Directions on Frauds as well as the nature of the procedure adopted, it is reasonably practicable for the lender banks to provide an opportunity of a hearing to the borrowers before classifying their account as fraud. The principles of natural justice demand that the borrowers must be served a notice, given an opportunity to explain the conclusions of the forensic audit report, and be allowed to represent by the banks/ JLF before their account is classified as fraud under the Master Directions on Frauds. In addition, the decision classifying the borrower’s account as fraudulent must be made by a reasoned order. Since the Master Directions on Frauds do not expressly provide an opportunity of hearing to the borrowers before classifying their account as fraud, audi alteram partem has to be read into the provisions of the directions to save them from the vice of arbitrariness. The judgment of the Division Bench of the High Court is upheld. Appeals disposed of.
Tags : MASTER DIRECTIONS NATURAL JUSTICE LEGALITY