Protecting shareholders’ rights

In light of recent events, I thought this would be a good time to refresh and get relevant about Company Law and as the title suggests, shareholders’ rights in a company. Shareholders, being investors of the company, pour their money into a company in hopes to get a return on investment from the company so what can they do if they find RM2.6 billion appear in one of the directors’ bank account?

At its most fundamental level, what determines the rights of shareholders depends on the types of shares they hold but this needs to be spelt out in the constitution. The shares may confer preferential rights to distributions of capital or income, confer special, limited or conditional voting rights and also not confer voting rights (known as preferential shares).

Section 71 of the Companies Act 2016 provides that a company share, other than preference shares, confers on the shareholder the following rights:

(a) the right to attend, participate and speak at a meeting

(b) the right to vote on a show of hands on any resolution of the company

(c) the right to one vote for each share on a poll on any resolution of the company

(d) the right to an equal share in the distribution of the surplus assets of the company, or

(e) the right to an equal share in dividends.

  1. The right to vote at the AGM

By law, all public companies are required to have an Annual General meeting once a year and failure to do so is a contravention to the law (s340). The change to the Companies Act 2016 has done away with the compulsory need for private companies to have one.

This is perhaps the most fundamental and powerful right of a shareholder– the power to influence the decisions of the company (#GE14). No shareholders should be denied the right to vote unless the share held doesn’t give the right to do so or other extraordinary reasons.

A key case dates back to the 19th century in Pender v Lushington wherein the Articles of Association, no one is allowed to vote on more than 100 shares in any meeting. Mr Pender who held 1000 shares split his votes and registered them under the names of a number of nominees. The Directors refused to have his votes counted. The court allowed an injunction for the votes to be counted. In a meeting, you cannot look behind the ownership. A right to vote is a property right and an individual right in respect of which the member can sue. (Ps, this also allows a personal claim against the Directors for refusing to let you vote).

(2) Statutory derivative action

A derivative action is made by a member of the company in respect of a cause of action vested in the company and in which relief is sought on behalf of the company. This is because the company is incapable of taking action against the directors who are controlling the actions of the company hence an action is brought by the concerned shareholders. As with the rule under Foss v Harbottle, the proper plaintiff in the action is the company and not individual shareholders.

Of course, if you’ve done Company law, the courts there have been creating exceptions to the Foss v Harbottle rule where it assumes the appropriate body to decide whether litigation should be brought is the shareholders in a general meeting and leaves minimal scope for shareholders to commence derivative litigation (Kershaw). However, the new Company Act 2016 has done away with Common Law Derivative action and we only have the Statutory Derivative Action under the Act under section 347.

Therefore, Derivative proceedings can only be brought with leave of court and it will consider if (a) the complainant is acting in good faith; and (b) it appears prima facie to be in the best interest of the company that the application for leave is granted. Complainant is defined under s345.

It appears to give wide discretion to the courts whether leave will be granted. In Mohd Shuaib Ishak v Celcom (Malaysia) Berhad (the first reported case under S181A Companies Act 1965 which was the statutory derivative action then) Indeed there was no need to prove ‘wrongdoer control’, doesn’t exclude negligence and no set bar to the claim. This case serves as a wake-up call for directors to carefully consider how they handle a company’s affairs as their decisions can be subject to scrutiny by minority shareholders who have a statutory right to challenge the same in court if the requirements under section 181A of the Act are satisfied.

In Ranjeet Singh Sidhu & Anor v Zavarco plc & Ors, it was clear that Malaysia still recognises Multiple Derivative Action to protect the shareholders’ interest and that the new Company Act 2016 did not do away with it as it did with common law derivative claims. Under the Act, the complainant needed to be a member of the company in order to bring a derivation action but such requirement would be counterproductive in certain circumstances as Waddington v Chan which was heavily relied upon by the court.

(3) Oppressive action

The difference between Oppressive action and Derivative action is that for the latter, any damages reaped after litigation will go to the company instead of the member of the company. In other words, a derivative action is brought when the member does it (out of the goodness/ anger/ dissatisfaction of his heart OR) when the company is unable to sue for any wrongdoings done against itself.

An oppressive action is where your rights and interests as a shareholder are affected and hence you would want to bring an action to protect those rights. Therefore, you would sue in your own name and any damages obtained goes directly to you instead.

This means that you can bring an action against the directors of the company (or whoever is exerting the oppressive force). First, you would be required to prove 2 things to the court: that there was an element of unfairness and that it has affected your interest as members, shareholders or debenture holders of the company.

This is a remedy to allow you to bring an action when you have suffered a personal wrong. The courts will look at any agreements between you and the directors to see if there had been any understandings or legitimate expectations. If there are any understandings or legitimate expectations, you would have a stronger case for proving oppression.

Examples include where the director has breached its obligations under the company constitution to call an AGM, to allow a shareholder to vote or non-disclosure of company affairs.

In conclusion, the law does give you remedies for when your rights are being infringed and those rights were illegally exercised. It will be also useful to know about what director’s duties are such as promoting the success of the company, duty to exercise independent judgment and duty to exercise reasonable care, skill and diligence are amongst the core duties of company directors. Active participation on the part of shareholders will ensure that directors are held accountable and will not accumulate RM38 billion debt. (Illustrations are inspired by real-life stories hence any similarities may be coincidental)

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