Belmont Finance Corporation Ltd -v- Williams Furniture Ltd (No 2); 1980

It had been alleged that there had been a conspiracy involving the company giving unlawful financial assistance for the purchase of its own shares.
Held: Dishonesty is not a necessary ingredient of liability in an allegation of a ‘knowing receipt’. The court was not swayed by the parties having obtained counsel’s advice that the scheme was lawful, apparently on the basis that: ‘if all the facts which make the transaction unlawful were known to the parties . . ignorance of the law will not excuse them’ and ‘A limited company is of course not a trustee of its own funds: it is their beneficial owner; but in consequence of the fiduciary character of their duties the directors of a limited company are treated as if they were trustees of those funds.’
Brown-Wilkinson LJ: ‘. . . If a transaction falls within the objects, and therefore the capacity, of the company, it is not ultra vires the company and accordingly it is not absolutely void. (5) If a company enters into a transaction which is intra vires (as being within its capacity) but in excess or abuse of its powers, such transaction will be set aside at the instance of the shareholders. (6) A third party who has notice – actual or constructive – that a transaction, although intra vires the company, was entered into in excess or abuse of the powers of the company cannot enforce such transaction against the company and will be accountable as constructive trustee for any money or property of the company received by the third party. (7) The fact that a power is expressly or impliedly limited so as to be exercisable only ‘for the purposes of the company’s business’ (or other words to that effect) does not put a third party on inquiry as to whether the power is being so exercised, i.e. such provision does not give him constructive notice of excess or abuse of such power.’
Buckley LJ: ‘In my judgment, the alleged conspiracy is established in respect of these three defendants, and they are not exempt from liability on account of counsel’s opinion or because they may have believed in good faith that the transaction did not transgress s 54. If all the facts which make the transaction unlawful were known to the parties, as I think they were, ignorance of the law will not excuse them: see Churchill v Walton ([1967] 2 AC 224 at 237). That case was one of criminal conspiracy, but it seems to me that precisely similar principles must apply to a conspiracy for which a civil remedy is sought. Nor, in my opinion, can the fact that their ignorance of, or failure to appreciate, the unlawful nature of the transaction was due to the unfortunate fact that they were, as I think, erroneously advised excuse them (Cooper v Simmons, and see Shaw v Director of Public Prosecutions, where the appellant had taken professional legal advice).
If they had sincerely believed in a factual state of affairs which, if true, would have made their actions legal, this would have afforded a defence (Kamara v Director of Public Prosecutions ([1974] AC 104 at 119)); but on my view of the effect of s 54 in the present case, even if £500,000 had been a fair price for the share capital of Maximum and all other benefits under the agreement, this would not have made the agreement legal.’
Waller LJ: ‘A person is a party to a conspiracy if he knows the essential facts to constitute that conspiracy even though he does not know that they constitute an offence (see Churchill v Walton). Since there was a breach of s 54 and the defendants through their directors made all the arrangements and knew all the facts constituting the breach, it would follow that they conspired together to contravene s 54, the object of their conspiracy being Belmont, and if Belmont suffered damage they are liable.’

Date: 01-Jan-1980
Judges: Buckley LJ, Browne-Wilkinson LJ, Waller LJ
Statutes: Companies Act 1948 54
References: [1980] 1 All ER 393,
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