Author: Ritika Dembla, a student at G.H Raisoni Law University, Amravati.


This article examines the Foss v. Harbottle rule’s relevance in Indian corporate law. The rule, which has its roots in English law, upholds the rights of minority shareholders while safeguarding majority rule. However, its implementation in India is complicated due to different corporate governance frameworks and regulatory intricacies. The article addresses the fundamental principles, exceptions, and legal remedies available to minority shareholders. It adds that, while the rule provides a framework, its application in India demands careful consideration of legal complexities in order to achieve fair and equitable corporate governance.


The Foss v. Harbottle rule, a foundation of company law drawn from English jurisprudence, discusses the notion of majority rule and its implications for minority shareholder rights. As a result of the famous 1843 decision of Foss v. Harbottle, it is now established that the corporation itself, is the rightful complainant in cases of purported misconduct against a firm rather than individual shareholders. This theory is based on the idea that the firm is better suited to pursue claims for injury done to it as a separate legal entity, which will prevent many derivative lawsuits and ensure effective corporate governance.

However, there are several ambiguities and complexities when applying the Foss v. Harbottle rule to Indian corporate law. Since the colonial era, India’s legal system has seen significant change. The Companies Act of 2013 brought about important reforms that improved accountability, transparency, and shareholder protection. However, the question still stands: how much does the Foss v. Harbottle ruling fit within India’s contemporary corporate setting?

The application of the Foss v. Harbottle rule in India is not an easy proposition and instead requires a thorough grasp of company law concepts, court decisions, and changing regulatory dynamics. This research hopes to add to the current conversation on corporate governance reform in India by illuminating the subtleties and complexity present in the meeting point of English legal doctrine and Indian corporate jurisprudence.


The rule established in the case of Foss v. Harbottle includes two basic principles:

  1. The “Proper Plaintiff Rule” states that the firm should file a lawsuit on its own behalf when it experiences a loss or harm due to the conduct of its directors. This theory is founded on the idea that a company is a separate legal entity from its shareholders, hence individual shareholders cannot sue on behalf of the firm.
  2. The second part of the rule concerns the majority’s authority. It says minority shareholders are usually precluded from bringing a suit if a decision is approved by the majority of shareholders or if they have the authority to ratify it.

This idea was established in the well-known case of Foss v. Harbottle in 1843, when two shareholders sued the directors for several fraudulent activities that resulted in losses for the company. The court decided that because the majority might approve the transactions, the minority shareholders could not file a lawsuit. As a result, the corporation, acting via its shareholders, was declared the proper plaintiff to redress the misconduct.

Jenkins, L.J. reaffirmed the essentially procedural aspect of the “rule in Foss v. Harbottle” in Edwards v. Halliwell. He said that, in most cases involving allegations of wrongdoing against a firm, the company is the proper plaintiff. Additionally, where the alleged wrongdoing could be validated by a simple majority of shareholders, individual shareholders are not permitted to bring legal action, as decisions ratified by the majority are generally deemed beyond challenge.


The rights of minority members are protected by statutory measures, and the rule in the cited case is not completely applicable in the context of Indian corporate law. In India, the Company Law Board is the legal body to which one can turn if there is mismanagement or oppression in a corporation. Subject to certain restrictions, the Board has the power to step in and address problems within the organization in order to stop oppression and mismanagement.

The Supreme Court observed in Rajamundhry Electric Supply Corpn. v. A. Nageshwar Rao that the defendants’ alleged behavior damages the company as a whole in addition to the plaintiffs. As a result, the usual rule states that the corporation, acting in its corporate role, must bring legal action. Since the law distinguishes between a company and its collective members, individual members of the corporation do not possess the ability to sue in the name of the corporation.

Similarly, in ICICI v. Parasrampuria Synthetic Ltd, the Delhi High Court stated that applying the Foss v. Harbottle rule mechanically to Indian corporate reality would be both incorrect and misleading. Indian corporate entities frequently rely extensively on state-supported finance systems, with large financial contributions coming from state-controlled institutions, in contrast to the circumstances under which the principle arose. In such cases, simply prioritizing majority shareholder power, especially if it is controlled by financial organizations that have a substantial government interest, would be unjust and impractical.

Therefore, Indian courts do not apply the Foss v. Harbottle rule mechanically, recognizing the specific dynamics of Indian corporate governance and the need to ensure justice and equity, especially given the substantial government involvement in corporate financing.


Despite the overall upholding of majority rule, there are certain exceptions. The Foss v. Harbottle principle is applicable in cases where firms have the ability to rectify managerial errors. Still, a majority of shareholders cannot authorize certain acts. Any shareholder could bring a lawsuit in these situations to enforce the company’s duties on behalf of its interests. In American legal literature, this kind of action is referred to as “derivative actions” and it directly helps the company. Furthermore, shareholders can sue corporate officers who are liable for unauthorized spending.

  1. Acts ultra vires

A shareholder has the right to sue a company and its officers over matters that go beyond the firm’s authority and cannot be approved by a majority of shareholders. The rule set forth in Foss v. Harbottle is only applicable when the business is operating within its permitted parameters. The case of Bharat Insurance Company Ltd v. Kanhaiya Lal provides a relevant illustration of this: a shareholder protested to the company’s investments being made without adequate security, in violation of the terms stated in the company’s memorandum. In these situations, a single shareholder may bring a lawsuit to clarify the interpretation of relevant articles.

It’s crucial for the plaintiff’s conduct to be appropriate, considering that minority shareholder actions are intended to serve the company’s interests. If the plaintiff’s behavior is tainted or there is an unjustified delay in bringing legal action, the court may find them incompetent to file the case.

In Narcombe v. Narcombe, for instance, the wife, a minority shareholder, sued her husband, a director, for wrongful actions. But because she knew of her husband’s wrongdoing throughout their divorce and those earnings were taken into account in their settlement, it was decided that she wasn’t qualified to file a derivative action.

  1. Fraud on minority

When the majority of a company’s members abuse their authority to cheat or oppress the minority, even a single shareholder can challenge their activities. It is not necessary for this wrongdoing to be considered a tort under common law; rather, it must involve a blatant misuse of the majority’s power that results in financial loss or unfair treatment of the minority. In Menier v. Hooper’s Telegraph Works Ltd., the majority shareholder attempted to benefit by transferring government concessions to another business, which led to the minority shareholders’ oppression. This case serves as an example of this idea. Minorities can seek recourse through the legal system because courts recognize these kinds of duty breaches as fraud on the minority. The judiciary’s proactive approach to providing minorities with protection is especially beneficial when there are no laws pertaining to this issue.

  1. Acts requiring special majority

Certain acts can only be carried out by passing a special resolution at a general meeting of shareholders. Any member or members may lawfully challenge the majority if it tries to carry out such measures through an ordinary resolution or fails to approve a special resolution as required by law. This was exemplified in cases like Dhakeswari Cotton Mills v. Nil Kamal Chakravarty and Nagappa Chettiar v. Madras Race Club.

  1. Wrongdoers in control

In cases where company wrongdoings are evident but controlling shareholders prevent legal action against the wrongdoer, any member or members can initiate legal proceedings in the company’s name to protect its interests. In Foss v. Harbottle, Lord Cottenham supported this idea by stressing the value of fairness over technicalities in commercial lawsuits. In Glass v. Atkin, it was established that control exists if calling a general meeting would be useless due to the wrongdoers’ influence. This Foss v. Harbottle exception is applicable whenever defendants use their influence to prevent corporate action. It has been proposed that when a director breaches fiduciary duty, any shareholder should be authorized to bring legal action.

  1. Individual membership rights

Each shareholder holds specific personal rights against the company and his shareholders. Many of these rights are granted by legislation or the company’s articles of association. These rights, termed individual membership rights, are not subject to the rule of majority control.

  1. Oppression and mismanagement

In Kanika Mukherjee v. Rameshwar Dayal Dubey, Sinha J of the Calcutta High Court highlighted that the principle outlined in Sections 397 and 398 of the Indian Companies Act, which aim to prevent oppression and mismanagement, differs from the principle established in Foss v. Harbottle, which upholds the supremacy of the majority rule.


Company law, provides protections for minority shareholders whose rights are violated by the majority. However, the significance of individual shareholdings is vital in corporate matters. If a single shareholder with a majority of shares supports a scheme of arrangement, it becomes binding on the other shareholders. While majority leadership does not always win out, the rule in Foss v. Harbottle applies when corporate actions harm the minority, allowing the majority to escape accountability solely on the basis of numerical advantage. Consequently, the principles from this case cannot be applied mechanically in India.

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