Exploring the Doctrine of Ultra Vires within the Framework of the Companies Act

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Exploring the Doctrine of Ultra Vires within the Framework of the Companies Act


In the realm of Company Law, the Doctrine of Ultra Vires stands as a fundamental principle. This doctrine establishes that a company’s actions, as outlined in its Memorandum of Association, must not go beyond the limits prescribed by the law. In essence, if a company engages in an action or enters into a contract that exceeds the authority of its directors or the company itself, that action or contract is legally void and not binding on the company.

The term “Ultra Vires” translates to “Beyond Powers.” In legal terms, it pertains to actions that go beyond the legal authority of the doer, operating under the assumption that corporate powers are limited in nature. Since the Doctrine of Ultra Vires restricts a company to the specific objectives outlined in its memorandum, it can be restrained from using its funds for purposes other than those specified or from engaging in activities beyond its designated scope.

One crucial aspect to note is that a company cannot enforce an ultra vires transaction, nor can it be compelled to uphold it. If the company offers goods or services or lends money based on an ultra vires contract, it cannot seek payment. However, if a lender extends funds to a company under an ultra vires contract to repay a legitimate loan, the lender is entitled to recover the loan from the company. In some cases, an ultra vires act can be rectified by the company’s shareholders through ratification.

Historical Roots of the Doctrine of Ultra Vires

The Doctrine of Ultra Vires was first articulated in the landmark case of Ashbury Railway Carriage and Iron Co. Ltd. v. Riche (1878). In this case, the company and M/s. Riche entered into a contract for the financial construction of a railway line. Subsequently, the company’s directors renounced the contract, arguing that it was ultra vires the company’s memorandum. Riche sued the company for damages.

The pivotal issue in this case revolved around the interpretation of the words “general contracts” in the company’s objects clause. Riche contended that these words encompassed any type of contract, giving the company the authority to enter into such contracts. Despite the majority of shareholders ratifying the contract, the House of Lords ruled that the contract was ultra vires the company’s memorandum and, therefore, null and void. It established that the memorandum of the company cannot be retrospectively amended, and an ultra vires act cannot be ratified.

Rationale Behind the Doctrine of Ultra Vires

The primary purpose of the Doctrine of Ultra Vires is to safeguard the interests of creditors and shareholders by ensuring that a company’s funds are allocated solely for the purposes specified in the company’s memorandum. Misappropriation of a company’s assets could lead to insolvency, resulting in non-payment to shareholders. This doctrine prevents a company from straying beyond the boundaries set by its directors’ authority.

Distinguishing Ultra Vires from Illegal Acts

It is important to differentiate between an ultra vires act and an illegal act. An ultra vires act pertains to actions outside the company’s specified objectives, as defined in the memorandum, while an illegal act involves actions that are inherently unlawful, leading to civil liabilities or contravention of the law. Something that is ultra vires may or may not be illegal, but both types of actions are void ab initio.

Doctrine of Ultra Vires in the Companies Act, 2013

Under Section 4(1)(c) of the Companies Act, 2013, a company’s memorandum must articulate all the objectives of incorporation and any other matters necessary for its furtherance. Section 245(1)(b) of the Act empowers members and depositors to seek legal recourse if they believe that a company’s affairs are conducted in a manner prejudicial to the company’s interests or its members or depositors. This can be done to prevent the company from violating the provisions of its memorandum or articles.

Basic Principles of the Doctrine of Ultra Vires

  • Shareholders cannot sanction an ultra vires act or contract.
  • In cases where one party has fully performed their part of a contract, the defense of ultra vires is often barred by estoppel.
  • When both parties have completely fulfilled the contract, it cannot be challenged based on the doctrine of ultra vires.
  • Any party to a contract can invoke the defense of ultra vires.
  • If a contract has been partially performed, but not enough to trigger estoppel, a suit can be initiated to recover the benefits provided.

Development of the Doctrine of Ultra Vires

Eley v The Positive Government Security Life Assurance Company, Limited (1875-76): This case established that articles do not form a contract between the company and the plaintiff but may bind the directors.

The Directors of the Ashbury Railway Carriage and Iron Company (Limited) v Hector Riche (1874-75): In this landmark case, it was determined that a contract for railway construction was ultra vires the company’s memorandum, and it could not be retroactively ratified.

Shuttleworth v Cox Brothers and Company (Maidenhead), Limited (1927): This case clarified that a contract subject to legal alteration powers within the articles, made in good faith and for the company’s benefit, would not be a breach.

Re New British Iron Company (1898): This case ranked directors as ordinary creditors for their remuneration during the winding-up of the company.

Rayfield v Hands and Others (1957): This case dealt with the requirement for directors to buy shares from a member, establishing the relationship between members and directors.

Case Laws Relating to the Doctrine of Ultra Vires in India

In India, the concept of ultra vires was first recognized in the case of Jahangir R. Modi vs Shamji Ladha, where a shareholder sued directors for unauthorized transactions. The Bombay High Court ruled in favor of the shareholder, stating that a shareholder can sue directors to restore funds to the company when they engage in transactions beyond their authority.

Another significant case is A. Lakshmanswamy Mudaliar vs Life Insurance Company, where directors’ donations to a charitable organization were deemed unauthorized and directors were held personally liable.


In summary, while companies rely on borrowing funds for their operations, it is imperative to safeguard the interests of creditors and shareholders. The Doctrine of Ultra Vires establishes clear boundaries within which directors can act. Any borrowing or actions beyond these boundaries are considered ultra vires and, therefore, void from the outset. Directors must exercise caution when obtaining funds to avoid personal liability and protect the interests of investors and creditors.

Frequently asked questions

What is the Doctrine of Ultra Vires in Company Law?

The Doctrine of Ultra Vires dictates that a company can only act within the confines of its Memorandum of Association. Any actions or contracts that go beyond the powers specified in the Memorandum are considered void and not legally binding on the company.

What does “Ultra Vires” mean in legal terms?

“Ultra Vires” translates to “Beyond Powers” in legal terms. It refers to actions or contracts that exceed the legal authority of the entity performing them, operating under the assumption that powers are limited.

Can a company ratify an ultra vires act or contract?

An ultra vires act or contract cannot be ratified by a company itself. However, if the ultra vires act is beyond the authority of the directors or the company’s articles, it can be ratified by the shareholders.

Are there legal provisions related to the Doctrine of Ultra Vires in the Companies Act (2013)?

Yes, the Companies Act (2013) in India contains relevant provisions. Section 4(1)(c) requires companies to state their objects of incorporation in the Memorandum, and Section 245(1)(b) empowers members and depositors to take action if they believe the company’s affairs are conducted in a manner prejudicial to its interests.

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