Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Significance of Framing an Issue of Trademark Invalidity under Section 124 of the Trademarks Act, 1999

In the last post, I discussed the purpose and import of framing of issues in a civil suit under Order 14 of the Code of Civil procedure. I took the view that the framing of an issue under Order 14 does not tantamount to the Court taking a position with respect to the contentions of parties on a material question of fact or law. It is a mere act of charting the trajectory and contours of the trial so that the progress of the trial is not waylaid by irrelevant or immaterial issues which have no bearing on the adjudication of the rights and liabilities of the parties. 

The question that I shall address as part of this post is whether there is a difference between the framing of an issue under Order 14 of the CPC and framing of an issue with respect to the invalidity of a trademark registration under Section 124(1)(a or b)(ii) of the Trademarks Act, 1999. Under the said provision of the Trademarks Act, one of the condition precedents for the grant of a stay on a suit for trademark infringement is that a Court must form a prima facie opinion that a party’s contention regarding the invalidity of the other party’s trademark registration is tenable. Should such an opinion be formed, the Court shall raise an issue regarding the same and adjourn the case for a period of three months from the date of the framing of the issue in order to enable the challenging party to apply to the IPAB for rectification/removal of the registered trademark.

This brings out the first distinction between an issue framed under Order 14 of the CPC and an issue framed under Section 124 of the Trademarks Act. While an issue under Order 14 is framed to merely identify material propositions of law or fact on which the parties differ so that the suit may be determined, an issue framed under Section 124 goes a step further because it requires the Court to form a prima facie opinion of the tenability of the contention of trademark invalidity. In other words, while under Order 14 a Court need not and cannot express its prima facie opinion on the strength of the parties’ contentions, it must necessarily do so under Section 124 on the question of trademark invalidity.

Secondly, it follows that in forming such a prima facie opinion under Section 124, the Court has to give reasons for holding in favour of either party, which is the settled law with respect to the standard of reasoning expected from prima facie findings. Although the Delhi High Court in its Full Bench decision in Data Infosys v. Infosys Technologies does not expressly endorse this view, a reading of Paragraphs 31 and 32 of the judgement reflects the Court’s implicit endorsement of the need for reasoning in assessing tenability.

Thirdly, while under Order 14 issues are framed when the stage arrives, an issue under Section 124 may be framed even before the stage of framing of issues for trial. This has been clarified by the Delhi High Court in Data Infosys. Extracted below is the relevant excerpt from Paragraph 31 of the judgement:

"31......The court is of the opinion that Parliamentary intendment is clear that if at the stage of filing of the suit, a rectification application is "pending" before IPAB, there is no choice for the court, but to adjourn the infringement suit. However, if no such application is pending, the court which is later approached with an infringement suit (which "tries" it) has to appraise prima facie tenability of the invalidity plea, whenever taken. It could be urged even by way of amendment. Nevertheless, there cannot be an automatic stay, in view of the express phraseology of Section 124 (1) (ii) which mandates exercise of discretion. To postpone the consideration at the stage of framing issues would be a narrow interpretation, undermining the broad basic distinction between the two contingencies envisioned by Section 124 (1) (b).

Finally, the consequence of an issue framed under Order 14 is vastly different from that of an issue framed under Section 124. While an issue under the former merely captures an aspect of the dispute on which evidence must be led by the parties in trial and judgement must be pronounced by the Court ultimately, an issue under Section 124 decides the very progress of the suit since if the Court does frame an issue of invalidity post a prima facie analysis, the inevitable consequence is a stay on the suit for infringement (unless the party challenging the trademark registration fails to approach the IPAB for rectification within three months from the framing of the issue).

Therefore, it is evident that not only is the object of Order 14 different from that of Section 124, the standard and rigour of analysis called for under the latter is significantly higher than the former.

In the next post, I will discuss a few more aspects of Section 124. 

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

What is the Purpose and Significance of framing of issues in Civil Suits?

Framing of issues in a civil suit seems like a routine thing and perhaps this is why its actual purpose and significance is sometimes lost or misunderstood in the “routine” of practice. Once in a while it helps to take a step back and ask oneself the true meaning of a certain procedure which is taken for granted. Setting aside preconceived notions as to the object of and procedure for framing of issues, let’s try to cull it out from Order 14 of the CPC.

The title of the Order reads “Settlement of Issues and Determination of Suit on Issues of Law or on Issues Agreed Upon”. Therefore, a suit is determined based on issues of law or other issues agreed upon by parties in a suit. But what is an “issue”? Although the CPC does not define the term, sub-rule 1 of Rule 1 of Order 14 says that issues arise when a material proposition of fact or law is affirmed by one party and denied by the other. In other words, both parties must disagree on a material proposition of fact or law.

Additionally, the Evidence Act also defines “Facts in issue” to mean and include any fact which, either by itself or in connection with other facts, has a bearing on a right or liability asserted or denied in a suit. The Explanation to the definition further says that when a Court records an issue of fact under the CPC, the fact to be asserted or denied in response to such as issue, too would be treated as a fact in issue.

As to what constitutes a material proposition giving rise to an issue, Sub-rule 2 of Rule 1 states that material propositions are those propositions of law or facts which a plaintiff must allege in order to show a right to sue or a defendant must allege in order to constitute his defence. Simply put, a material proposition is one which advances a party’s case factually or legally. Sub-rule 3 mandates that each material proposition on which the parties disagree shall be framed as a distinct issue. Therefore, it could be said that propositions of fact or law which do not further a party’s case are not material and therefore ought not to be framed as issues. However, what is the consequence when a proposition of fact or law, although material, is not framed as an issue despite the parties being at variance with each other?

On this, the Supreme Court has held that non-framing of an issue does not vitiate the proceedings as long as the pleadings of parties bear out that the issue exists and both parties have led evidence at trial to prove their respective contentions on the issue. In other words, a Court can rule on an issue even if it has not been specifically framed, so long as it is material to the determination of the suit.

How does a Court go about framing an issue? Sub-rule 5 of Rule 1 lays down the procedure for this. It says that at the first hearing of a suit, the Court shall, after reading the plaint and the written statement, and after examination under Order 10 Rule 2 and after hearing the parties or their counsels, ascertain upon what material propositions of fact or law the parties are at variance, and shall thereupon proceed to frame and record the issues on which the right decision of the case appears to depend. What does this mean? It simply means that a Court shall understand the respective contentions of parties based on their written pleadings and oral submissions (both being pleonasms) and distil only those propositions of fact and law on which the parties differ and which are “material” for the adjudication of the suit. It is to be understood that the materiality being referred to in sub-rule 5 does not mean evaluation of the tenability of the contentions of parties on factual or legal propositions. It simply refers to testing an issue for its relevance to the determination of the case.

For instance, in a suit for patent infringement, if there is no dispute between the parties as to the ownership of the patent by the plaintiff, there is no point in framing an issue on it since the parties are not at issue on the question of ownership. Therefore, the question of ownership is not a material proposition on which the parties disagree. If, however, in a given case the plaintiff claims to be an exclusive licensee of the patentee and the defendant disputes the assertion on factual and legal grounds, the maintainability of the plaintiff’s action against the defendant has to be framed as an issue (under the Patents Act only a patentee or the exclusive licensee may institute a suit for infringement). Clearly, the issue is material to the enforcement of the patent and hence the adjudication of the suit.

The procedure of framing of an issue needs to be understood with clarity since sometimes there is a tendency to read more into the mere framing of an issue under Order 14 than is warranted. Framing of an issue under Order 14 does not tantamount to the Court taking a position with respect to the contentions of parties on a material question of fact or law. It is a mere act of charting the trajectory and contours of the trial so that the progress of the trial is not waylaid by a slugfest on irrelevant or immaterial issues which have no bearing on the adjudication of the rights and liabilities of the parties. A good decision to read on framing of issues is Makhanlal Bangal v. Manas Bhunia which although delivered by the Supreme Court in the context of the Representation of the People Act, 1951, is relevant since the procedure under the CPC applies to the statute.

Having discussed the procedure and significance of framing of issues under Order 14 of the CPC, in the next post I will compare and contrast it with the framing of an issue under Section 124 of the Trademarks Act in relation to the invalidity of a trademark registration.

Friday, April 22, 2016

Evolving a Culture of Damages

On the first of this month, I had the opportunity to address IP academics and researchers as part of NLU Delhi’s Fifth Annual IP Teaching Workshop on criminal law and intellectual property. During the course of my talk, I happened to touch upon certain aspects of civil IP litigation, in particular the issue of damages in suits for IP infringement. In this post, I shall share the gist of my talk on the topic.

In suits for IP infringement, while parties routinely duke it out on interim injunctions and other interlocutory reliefs, the enthusiasm and appetite for earnest and expeditious prosecution of trial is largely found wanting. But then I guess this could be said of civil litigation in India in general, with contractual litigation being a possible exception to this norm. Perhaps an attitudinal change to civil litigation may be brought about if Indian Courts evolved a rigorous culture of damages. After all, if parties know that they are bound to recover their legal costs and more should they succeed, there is no reason to assume that their vision and legal strategy will not go beyond the T20 round of interim reliefs. So how does one bring about a culture of damages?

I believe that the best of judicial outcomes are the product of sound assistance from the Bar. Therefore, if parties, through counsels, lead cogent evidence on damages by practically applying the various theories of damages, instead of merely parroting a handful of oft-quoted principles or blindly reproducing their pleadings, Courts might find it easier to award damages on a rational basis. In the absence of hard evidence or a reasoned basis, a Court has no other option but to award an arbitrary and nominal figure or nothing. More often than not, evidence affidavits of parties contain very little by way of explanation and evidence for the damages sought. It is erroneously assumed that the evidentiary burden on parties is limited to proving their respective substantive contentions on validity and infringement of a right, even when damages have been prominently sought as one of the reliefs in the suit.

It is almost as though Section 12 of the Evidence Act, 1872 does not exist. According to the provision, in suits in which damages are claimed, any fact which enables the Court to determine the amount of damages which ought to be awarded, is relevant. And relevant facts on the relief of damages have to be proved by the party claiming it. One decision which discusses damages in some detail in the context of copyright infringement is IPRS v. Debashis Patnaik by the Delhi High Court. This judgement is a must-read since it contains a fair degree of discussion on nominal, compensatory and exemplary/punitive damages based on a host of decisions from the UK, US and a few Indian decisions. That said, the reality is that such judgements aren’t the norm and this needs to change. One possible reason as to why our damages jurisprudence hasn’t matured much is because our law schools do not equip students with the empirical tools they need to apply theories of damages to the factual matrix of a case. It would help if IP practitioners, academics and researchers could come together to find workable solutions for such practical challenges.

Comments and suggestions are welcome.

Thursday, March 31, 2016

Delhi High Court Rules on the CCI’s Jurisdiction over Patent-related Market Abuse

This is my first post of the year and I am happy that I get to start on a positive note. Yesterday i.e. March 30, 2016, Justice Vibhu Bakhru of the Delhi High Court delivered a 161-page decision in a batch of Writ Petitions wherein the central issue before the Court was the jurisdiction of the Competition Commission of India (CCI) on abuse of dominant position flowing from ownership and exercise of patent rights. Since I was part of the team which worked on the matter, I will not comment on the facts of the case. That said, one wouldn’t be wrong in saying that the Court’s findings on certain questions of law are significant milestones in the evolution of Indian Intellectual Property and anti-trust jurisprudence.

On a personal note, I can safely say that the Court’s findings on the interplay between (a) the jurisdictions of a civil court seized of a suit for patent infringement, (b) the Controller of Patents under the compulsory licensing mechanism (Section 84 of the Patents Act) and (c) the Competition Commission of India, resonate with my analysis in several posts in this blog, which were subsequently discussed by the Centre for Internet and Society. In fact, I had undertaken a comprehensive analysis of the statutory allocation of responsibilities between civil courts, Controller of patents and Competition Commission in my paper “Patents and Competition Law: Identifying Jurisdictional Metes and Bounds in the Indian Context” which was submitted last year for publication in the National Law School of India Review (NLSIR) and will hopefully be published in the next few days. This paper is based on my talk delivered last May in the 8th National Symposium on Competition Law at the National Law School, Bangalore.

Extracted below are a few excerpts from the paper:

“Abstract
The primary object of this article is to understand the relationship between patent rights and competition law under the existing Indian legal framework. It has become imperative to elucidate the legal position on the interplay between the two, in light of growing antitrust concerns arising out of the exercise of patent rights. The Author has employed conventional principles of statutory interpretation to the relevant provisions of the Patents Act, 1970 and the Competition Act, 2002 to arrive at his conclusions, with Expert Committee Reports playing a corroborative role, primarily because the nature of enquiry undertaken in this article is predominantly legal and not policy-related. Additionally, this is due to the fact that there is a lack of guidance on the issue from Indian Courts.

1. INTRODUCTION
Intellectual Property Rights (IPRs) and Competition law are usually perceived as sharing an uneasy relationship given their seemingly contrasting goals. However, to pit one against the other without qualifications and riders may not do justice to the nuances of their respective natures, roles and goals. The system of IPRs is premised on the assumption that grant of exclusive rights for a limited term is desirable to promote dynamic competition, which pushes the envelope of innovation and thereby contributes to enlarging the basket of choices available to consumers. In other words, in theory, incentivising innovation through IPRs elevates the level of competition from static to dynamic, which is in contrast to the adversarial perception of IPRs and competition law. That being said, in practice, even the most stringently regulated right is susceptible to abuse at the hands of a determined and motivated right owner to the detriment of healthy competition. This necessitates the existence of a safety valve in the form of competition law.

Simply put, the goal of competition law with respect to IPRs is to ensure that the said species of rights are exercised within the limits prescribed by law and in a manner which is beneficial to consumers and which promotes competition. Therefore, an IP owner runs into conflict with competition law only in the event of a transgression in his capacity as an IP owner if such transgression distorts competition. The validity of this general proposition in the Indian context will be examined and tested in specific relation to patent rights in the ensuing portions of this article. The aim is to ascertain if the Competition Act, 2002 (hereinafter referred to as “the Competition Act”) has indeed been vested with the power to check restrictive and abusive trade practices resorted to by a patentee, and if so, to what extent.

6. CONCLUSION

IP statutes, without a doubt, provide for internal corrective mechanisms to address inequities arising out of non-use or abuse of IP rights. However, the scope of analysis undertaken under these mechanisms is limited to verification/examination of achievement of the specific objectives of IP statutes. In other words, these mechanisms lack the sweep and depth of a market-based assessment of the actions of an IP owner under the Competition Act. No single IP regulator, be it the Controller of Patents or the Copyright Board, is charged with the duties of the Commission as reflected in Section 18 of the Competition Act, or is vested with the vast powers of the Commission to deal with market mischief. Therefore, given that the specific object of the Competition Act is to foster sustainable competition in the market, protect the interest of consumers and to ensure freedom of trade, the Competition Commission must be allowed to fulfil its mandate unhindered.”

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

How Will the Commercial Courts Ordinance Affect Patent and Design Suits?

The Commercial Courts, Commercial Division and Commercial Appellate Division of High Courts Ordinance, 2015 came into force on October 23, 2015 and the Delhi High Court (Amendment) Act, 2015 came into force on October 26, 2015. Vide notification dated November 24, 2015, the following directions were issued by the Delhi High Court:

1.       All suits or other proceedings pending in the Delhi High Court on the Original Side up to the value of rupees one crore, excepting those cases in which final judgments have been reserved, shall be transferred to the jurisdictional subordinate courts.
2.       All suits or other proceedings the value of which exceeds rupees one crore but does not exceed rupees two crores, other than those relating to commercial disputes the specified value of which is not less than rupees one crore (as defined in The Commercial Courts, Commercial Division and Commercial Appellate Division of High Courts Ordinance, 2015), pending in the Delhi High Court on the Original Side, excepting those cases in which final judgments have been reserved, shall be transferred to the jurisdictional subordinate courts.

While the effect of this notification on pending suits relating to Intellectual Property depends on the interpretation of the First Proviso to Section 7 of the Ordinance (which is pending in a writ petition filed before the High Court of Delhi), the position with respect to certain patent and design suits appears to be relatively clear thanks to the Second Proviso. Section 7 reads as under:

All suits and applications relating to commercial disputes of a Specified value filed in a High Court having ordinary original civil jurisdiction shall be heard and disposed of by the Commercial Division of that High Court.
Provided that all suits and applications relating to commercial disputes, stipulated by an Act to lie in a court not inferior to a District Court, and filed on the original side of the High Court, shall be heard and disposed of by the Commercial Division of the High Court.
Provided further that all suits and applications transferred to the High Court by virtue of sub-section (4) of Section 22 of the Designs Act, 2000 or section 104 of the Patents Act, 1970 shall be heard and disposed of by the Commercial Division of the High Court in all the areas over which the High Court exercises ordinary original civil jurisdiction.

The reference in the Second Proviso is to suits and applications which have been “transferred” to the High Court by virtue of Section 104 of the Patents Act and Section 22(4) of the Designs Act, both of which relate to situations where the validity of the patent and design have been challenged respectively. Simply put, suits which have been transferred to a High Court by virtue of the said provisions will be transferred to the Commercial Division of the High Court regardless of the valuation of the Suit and counter-claim.

This position was recently taken by a Single Judge of the Delhi High Court in Novartis v. Cipla wherein it was held as under:

22. It is an undisputed fact that the present High Court exercises Ordinary Original Civil Jurisdiction. Before passing of the Ordinance, the suit for infringement of patent and designs which were being filed before the District Judge(s) of District Courts have been transferred to this Court, once the patent is challenged in the written statement by the defendants as a defence or by filing of the counter-claim under the Patents Act, 1970 and under Section 22(4) of the Designs Act, 2000. Various matters had been transferred by the District Courts from time to time to the High Court, who had received the same after pleading the defence in the written statement or a separate counter-claim filed by the defendants. Under these circumstances, it is quite clear that under any circumstances, such matters have to be heard and disposed of by the Commercial Division of the High Court which has the Ordinary Original Civil Jurisdiction irrespective of their pecuniary value.

Although the law appears to have been correctly applied in the facts of the decision, the question that remains is this- the reference in the Second Proviso is to High Courts which exercise ordinary original civil jurisdiction. Does this mean that the Second Proviso does not apply to Courts which do not exercise such a jurisdiction? What would be the consequence of such a reading? Would it mean that in High Courts which do not exercise such jurisdiction, there will not be a transfer of such suits to the commercial divisions of the High Courts? Then what happens to such suits? Would they remain unaffected by the Commercial Courts Ordinance and continue to be prosecuted the way they currently are?

It is important to address this issue because according to Section 21 of the Ordinance, the Ordinance shall prevail over any other law in force. Comments and corrections are welcome!

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Indian Patent Office Releases Guidelines for Examination of Computer Related Inventions

By an order dated August 21, 2015, the Controller General of Patents, Designs and Trademarks released the latest guidelines for examination of patent applications dealing with computer related inventions. The guidelines are available here. This post is merely an update on this development. I hope to undertake an analysis of the Guidelines soon.

Paragraph 3 of the Guidelines contains definitions of algorithm, computer, computer network, computer programme, computer system, data, firmware, function, hardware, "per se", software and a few more similar and relevant terms. Para 4.5 of the Guidelines deals with determination of excluded subject-matter in patent applications, with specific sub-heads separately dealing with determination of various categories of subject-matter excluded under Section 3(k) of the Patents Act, 1970. Extracted below are some of the relevant portions:

4.5 Determination of excluded subject matter relating to CRIs 
Since patents are granted to inventions, whether products or processes, in all fields of technology, it is important to ascertain from the nature of the claimed CRI whether it is of a technical nature involving technical advancement as compared to the existing knowledge or having economic significance and is not subject to exclusion under Section 3 of the Patents Act. The sub-section 3(k) excludes mathematical methods or business methods or computer programme per se or algorithms from patentability. Computer programmes are often claimed in the form of algorithms as method claims or system claims with some „means‟ indicating the functions of flow charts or process steps. It is well-established that, in patentability cases, the focus should be on the underlying substance of the invention, not the particular form in which it is claimed. What is important is to judge the substance of claims taking whole of the claim together. If the claims in any form such as method/process, apparatus/system/device, computer program product/ computer readable medium fall under the said excluded categories, they would not be patentable. However, if in substance, the claims, taken as whole, do not fall in any of the excluded category, the patent should not be denied. 

4.5.4 Claims directed at Computer Programme per se: 
The computer programme per se is excluded from patentability under section 3 (k) apart from mathematical or business method and algorithm. Claims which are directed towards computer programs per se are excluded from patentability, like (i) Claims directed at computer programmes/ set of instructions/ Routines and/or Sub-routines written in a specific language (ii) Claims directed at “computer programme products” / “Storage Medium having instructions” / “Database” / “Computer Memory with instruction” i.e. computer programmes per se stored in a computer readable medium The legislative intent to attach suffix per se to computer programme is evident by the following view expressed by the Joint Parliamentary Committee while introducing Patents (Amendments) Act, 2002:

“In the new proposed clause (k) the words ''per se" have been inserted. This change has been proposed because sometimes the computer programme may include certain other things, ancillary thereto or developed thereon. The intention here is not to reject them for grant of patent if they are inventions. However, the computer programmes as such are not intended to be granted patent. This amendment has been proposed to clarify the purpose.” 

The JPC report holds that the computer programmes as such are not intended to be granted patent. It uses the phrase “ … certain other things, ancillary thereto or developed thereon…..”. The term “ancillary” indicates something essential to give effect to the main subject. In respect of CRIs, the term “ancillary thereto” would mean the “things” which are essential to give effect to the computer programme. The clause “developed thereon” in the JPC report may be understood as any improvement or technical advancement achieved by such development. Therefore, if a computer programme is not claimed by “in itself” rather, it has been claimed in such manner so as to establish industrial applicability of the invention and fulfills all other criterion of patentability, the patent should not be denied. In such a scenario, the claims in question shall have to be considered taking in to account whole of the claims. 

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Supreme Court's Interpretation of Special Jurisdiction Provisions in IPRS v. Sanjay Dalia

On July 1, 2015, the Supreme Court pronounced its verdict in the much awaited case of IPRS v. Sanjay Dalia where the issue was the interpretation of the special jurisdiction provisions, namely Section 62 of the Copyright Act, 1957 and 134 of the Trademarks Act, 1999. The Court held that if the cause of action incidentally arises at a place where the principal office of the plaintiff is located, the plaintiff cannot rely upon Sections 62/134 to institute a suit at a place where its branch office is located.

Reproduced below are the provisions in question:

62. Jurisdiction of court over matters arising under this Chapter. --          
(1) Every suit or other civil proceeding arising under this Chapter in respect of the infringement of copyright in any work or the infringement of any other right conferred by this Act shall be instituted in the district court having jurisdiction. 
(2) For the purpose of sub-section (1), a "district court having jurisdiction" shall, notwithstanding anything contained in the Code of Civil Procedure, 1908 (5 of 1908), or any other law for the time being in force, include a district court within the local limits of whose jurisdiction, at the time of the institution of the suit or other proceeding, the person instituting the suit or other proceeding or, where there are more than one such persons, any of them actually and voluntarily resides or carries on business or personally works for gain.” 
134. Suit for infringement, etc., to be instituted before District Court. -- 
(1) No suit-- (a) for the infringement of a registered trade mark; or (b) relating to any right in a registered trade mark; or (c) for passing off arising out of the use by the defendant of any trade mark which is identical with or deceptively similar to the plaintiff's trade mark, whether registered or unregistered, shall be instituted in any court inferior to a District Court having jurisdiction to try the suit. 
(2) For the purpose of clauses (a) and (b) of sub-section (1), a "District Court having jurisdiction" shall, notwithstanding anything contained in the Code of Civil Procedure, 1908 (5 of 1908) or any other law for the time being in force, include a District Court within the local limits of whose jurisdiction, at the time of the institution of the suit or other proceeding, the person instituting the suit or proceeding, or, where there are more than one such persons any of them, actually and voluntarily resides or carries on business or personally works for gain. 

It is clear from both provisions, which are identical in all material respects, that they provide additional jurisdictional remedies over and above the conventional options available to a plaintiff under Section 20 of the Code of Civil Procedure, 1908. The central issue before the Court was the interpretation of the phrase “carries on business” used in both provisions, which has a bearing on the following scenarios:

1.       Can a place where the branch office of the plaintiff is located, in the absence of a cause of action which has arisen in such place, be treated as a place where the plaintiff corporation “carries on business”?
2.       In a situation where a cause of action has arisen at the place where the branch office is located, is the plaintiff barred from instituting a suit at a place where he has his registered/principal office because no cause of action has arisen there? In other words, does the Plaintiff not have the option of choosing between the principal/registered place of business, and the branch office where the cause of action has arisen in whole or in part?

In order to address these scenarios, it is imperative to understand the construal of the Explanation to Section 20 of the CPC since it spells out the meaning of “carries on business”. Reproduced below is Section 20 with the Explanation:

20. Other suits to be instituted where defendants reside or cause of action arises.- Subject to the limitations aforesaid, every suit shall be instituted in a Court within the local limits of whose jurisdiction—
(a) The defendant, or each of the defendants where there are more than one, at the time of the commencement of the Suit, actually and voluntarily resides, or carries on business, or personally works for gain; or
(b) any of the defendants, where there are more than one, at the time of the commencement of the suit, actually and voluntarily resides, or carries on business, or personally works for gain, provided that in such case either the leave of the Court is given, or the defendants who do not reside, or carry on business, or personally work for gain, as aforesaid, acquiesce in such institution; or
(c) the cause of action, wholly or in part, arises.

Explanation: A corporation shall be deemed to carry on business at its sole or principal office in India or, in respect of any cause of action arising at any place where it has also a subordinate office, at such place.

The phrase “carries on business” in the Explanation has been interpreted in two other decisions of the Supreme Court, namely Patel Roadways v. Prasad Trading and New Moga Transport v. United India Assurance. In Para 10 of New Moga Transport, the Court held thus:

“10. On a plain reading of the Explanation to Section 20 CPC it is clear that the Explanation consists of two parts: (i) before the word “or” appearing between the words “office in India” and the words “in respect of”, and (ii) the other thereafter. The Explanation applies to a defendant which is a corporation, which term would include even a company. The first part of the Explanation applies only to such corporation which has its sole or principal office at a particular place. In that event, the court within whose jurisdiction the sole or principal office of the company is situate will also have jurisdiction inasmuch as even if the defendant may not actually be carrying on business at that place, it will be deemed to carry on business at that place because of the fiction created by the Explanation. The latter part of the Explanation takes care of a case where the defendant does not have a sole office but has a principal office at one place and has also a subordinate office at another place. The expression “at such place” appearing in the Explanation and the word “or” which is disjunctive clearly suggest that if the case falls within the latter part of the Explanation it is not the court within whose jurisdiction the principal office of the defendant is situate but the court within whose jurisdiction it has a subordinate office which alone has the jurisdiction “in respect of any cause of action arising at any place where it has also a subordinate office”.”

In light of this ratio and after having extensively reviewed the object of Sections 62/134, the Supreme Court in IPRS rightly observed that these special jurisdiction provisions are exceptions to Section 20 of the CPC only in so far as they permit the plaintiff to sue at a place of his residence or where he works for gain or carries on business. In other words, the provisions are not to be construed as granting cartes blanches to the plaintiff since there are limitations/riders which apply to the plaintiff’s ability to sue even under Sections 62/134. This sentiment finds express endorsement in Para 16 of the decision.

In reading in limitations into the provisions, the Court relied upon the spirit of convenience of parties which is embodied in the Explanation to Section 20. According to the Court, keeping with the spirit of the Explanation, unless a cause of action arises at a place where the branch office of the plaintiff is located, it cannot be deemed as a place where the plaintiff “carries on business” for the purposes of Sections 62/134. In the absence of such a qualification, plaintiff corporations with branch offices in far flung places could harass defendants by suing them at such places despite the cause of action not having arisen there. Simply put, the convenience of defendants has not been entirely done away with by Sections 62/134 since balance is struck by using cause of action as the parameter to determine jurisdiction in so far as the branch office of the plaintiff is concerned.

Viewed from another angle, the underlying rationale is that a branch office has not been accorded the same status under law as a principal place of business for the purposes of jurisdiction. Consequently, a branch office needs to be supplemented by a cause of action for it to be deemed in law as a place where the plaintiff "carries on business". In fact, under Sections 62/134, the place where the branch office is located is the only appropriate place for the plaintiff to sue when the cause of action has accrued there. This approach strikes a balance between the convenience of the plaintiff and the defendant since the assumption is that the branch office makes it convenient for the plaintiff to sue, and the accrual of the cause of action in that place means the defendant’s goods are being sold there and therefore it is not inconvenient for him to defend himself.

Based on this logic, following are the practical jurisdictional consequences:
1.       If the principal place of business of the plaintiff is at X, and the cause of action has arisen at Y where there is no branch of office, Plaintiff may sue at X based on Sections 62/134, and at Y based on Section 20(c) of the CPC.
2.       If the principal place of business of the plaintiff is at X, and the cause of action has arisen at Y where there is a branch office, Plaintiff may sue only at Y, not X, if the suit relates to the said cause of action.
3.       If the principal place of business of the plaintiff is at X, and the cause of action has arisen at Y, and branch office is at Z, then plaintiff may rely on Sections 62/134 to sue at X and Section 20(c) of the CPC to sue at Y, but cannot sue at Z under any circumstances invoking Sections 62/134 or Section 20.

There is another scenario which is possible. The plaintiff could have its principal place of business at X and a single defendant may give rise to two causes of action simultaneously at Y (where there is a branch office), and Z (where there is no branch office). In so far as Y is concerned, the plaintiff cannot sue at X or Z, going by the ratio of the IPRS. Further, with respect to the cause of action at Z, the plaintiff may sue either at X based on Sections 62/134 or Z based on Section 20(c). However, both causes of action, namely with respect to Y and Z, cannot be combined in a composite suit since the ratio of the Supreme Court’s decision in Dhodha House would come in the way.

Comments and clarifications are welcome.