The IBC prevails over The Customs Act, to the extent that once moratorium is imposed in terms of Sections 14 or 33(5) of the IBC as the case may be, the respondent authority only has a limited jurisdiction to assess/ determine the quantum of customs duty and other levies. The respondent authority does not have the power to initiate recovery of dues by means of sale/ confiscation, as provided under the Customs Act.
In SUNDARESH BHATT, LIQUIDATOR OF ABG SHIPYARD vs. CENTRAL BOARD OF INDIRECT TAXES AND CUSTOMS, the Supreme Court held that the Customs Act and the IBC act in their own spheres. In case of any conflict, the IBC overrides the Customs Act.
The Court pointed out that it has to ascertain as to whether there is a conflict in the operation of two different statutes in the given circumstances. As the first effort, this Court is mandated to harmoniously read the two legislations, unless this Court finds a clear conflict in its operation.
It noted that the demand notices issued by the customs authorities were plainly in the teeth of Section 14 of the IBC as they were issued after the initiation of the CIRP proceedings. Moratorium under Section 14 of the IBC was imposed when insolvency proceedings were initiated on 01.08.2017. The first notice sent by the respondent authority was on 29.03.2019. Further, when insolvency resolution failed and the liquidation process began, the NCLT passed an order on 25.04.2019 imposing moratorium under Section 33(5) of the IBC. It is only after this order that the respondent issued a notice under Section 72 of the Customs Act against the Corporate Debtor. The various demand notices have therefore clearly been issued by the respondent after the initiation of the insolvency proceedings, with some notices issued even after the liquidation moratorium was imposed.
The Court expressed the clear opinion that the demand notices to seek enforcement of custom dues during the moratorium period would clearly violate the provisions of Sections 14 or 33(5) of the IBC, as the case may be. This is because the demand notices are an initiation of legal proceedings against the Corporate Debtor.
The Court also examined the extent of powers which the customs authority can exercise during the moratorium period under the IBC.
It also highlighted the inconsistency of the Customs Act visàvis the IBC during the moratorium period. The demand notice dated 11.07.2019 was issued by the respondent under Section 72 of the Customs Act, in clear breach of the moratorium imposed under Section 33(5) of the IBC. Issuing a notice under Section 72 of the Customs Act for nonpayment of customs duty falls squarely within the ambit of initiating legal proceedings against a Corporate Debtor. Even under the liquidation process, the liquidator is given the responsibility to secure assets and goods of the Corporate Debtor under Section 35(1)(b) of IBC.
It emphasized that the Customs Act and IBC can be read in a harmonious manner wherein authorities under the Customs Act have a limited jurisdiction to determine the quantum of operational debt – in this case, the customs duty – in order to stake claim in terms of Section 53 of the IBC before the liquidator. However, the authority does not have the power to execute its claim beyond the ambit of Section 53 of the IBC. Such harmonious construction would be in line with the ruling in Gujarat Urja Vikas Nigam Ltd. v. Amit Gupta, (2021) 7 SCC 209, wherein a balance was struck by this Court between the jurisdiction of the NCLT under the IBC and the potential encroachment on the legitimate jurisdiction of other authorities.
It was held that the NCLT and NCLAT cannot usurp the legitimate jurisdiction of other Courts, Tribunals and fora when the dispute does not arise solely from or relating to the insolvency of the corporate debtor. In the instant case, the Corporate Debtor had abandoned the imported goods in the Customs warehouses for several years and failed to pay the import duty and other charges and had not taken any steps to take possession of those goods for several years. Therefore, the importer had lost his right to the imported goods. Consequently, Customs Authorities are fully empowered under Section 72 of the Act to sell those goods to recover the Government dues. Liquidator has no right to take into possession over those goods for which the Corporate Debtors title is deemed relinquished by implication of law. Even before initiating the Corporate Insolvency Resolution Process, the Corporate Debtor company could not have secured the possession of the imported goods except by paying the Customs duty. Resolution Professional/liquidator, who virtually represents the company, cannot stand on a better footing than the Corporate Debtor itself.”
It was held that such interpretation of the NCLT clearly ignores the fact that there was no “abandonment of goods” which would authorize the Customs Authorities to initiate the adjudicatory process to transfer title to themselves. Before any goods can be declared to have been “abandoned”, the same must be adjudged by some authority after due notice. The position cannot be assumed or deemed.
As no such adjudication or notice has been placed on record to suggest that such abandonment of the warehoused goods had taken place prior to the imposition of the moratorium.
The Supreme Court held that the NCLAT, by deciding the question of passing of title from the Corporate Debtor to the respondent authority, has clearly ignored the mandate of Section 72(2) of the Customs Act relating to sale. This interpretation of the NCLAT clearly ignores the effects of the moratorium under Sections 14 and 33(5) of the IBC. The fact is that the duty demand notice and notice under Section 72(2) of the Customs Act, were issued during the moratorium period, which has been completely ignored by NCLAT and has resulted in rendering the moratorium otiose.
It was also held that the interpretation provided by the NCLAT, regarding the deemed transfer of title of the goods from the assessee to the Customs Authority under Section 72 of the Customs Act, would fly in the face of Section 14 of the IBC, read with Sections 25 and 33(5). Moreover, such deemed transfer cannot be countenanced in law as the same would be in breach of Article 300A of the Constitution, as properties are deemed to be transferred to the Customs Authority without there being adequate hearing or any adjudication of any form. Such an interpretation cannot be accepted by this court.
Ultimately, the Supreme Court summed up its conclusions as follows:
a) Whether the provisions of the IBC would prevail over the Customs Act, and if so, to what extent?
The IBC would prevail over The Customs Act, to the extent that once moratorium is imposed in terms of Sections 14 or 33(5) of the IBC as the case may be, the respondent authority only has a limited jurisdiction to assess/determine the quantum of customs duty and other levies. The respondent authority does not have the power to initiate recovery of dues by means of sale/ confiscation, as provided under the Customs Act.
b) Whether the respondent could claim title over the goods and issue notice to sell the goods in terms of the Customs Act when the liquidation process has been initiated? answered in negative.
i) Once moratorium is imposed in terms of Sections 14 or 33(5) of the IBC as the case may be, the respondent authority only has a limited jurisdiction to assess/determine the quantum of customs duty and other levies. The respondent authority does not have the power to initiate recovery of dues by means of sale/confiscation, as provided under the Customs Act.
ii) After such assessment, the respondent authority has to submit its claims (concerning customs dues/operational debt) in terms of the procedure laid down, in strict compliance of the time periods prescribed under the IBC, before the adjudicating authority.
iii) In any case, the IRP/RP/liquidator can immediately secure goods from the respondent authority to be dealt with appropriately, in terms of the IBC.