Independent Directors- Are they Independent in their Judgements?

Independent Directors (ID) bring objectivity and an independent opinion to the decisions made by the directors of the company. IDs play a supervisory role and take into account the interests of shareholders, creditors, employees and other stakeholders in general. While IDs generally do not take part in the day-to-day functioning, their acumen should be such that they ask the right set of questions to ensure that the decisions made by the directors are in the best interest of the company, so that concentration of power or special influence can be adequately balanced and in the best interest of the company. IDs will have to take an active interest in the decision-making process not only in the meeting of the Board but also generally take steps to ensure that the interests of all stakeholders are protected.

Kumar Mangalam Birla committee report opines that “Independent Directors are directors who apart from receiving director’s remuneration do not have any other material pecuniary relationship or transaction with the company, its promoters, its management, or its subsidiary, which in the judgment of the Board may affect their independence of judgment”.

Appointment of IDs is mandatory to all public listed companies and unlisted public companies who have (i) share capital more than Rs. 10 crores (ii) turnover of more than Rs.100 crores (iii) total outstanding loans, debentures, deposits is more than Rs 50 crores. In case of private limited companies, where institutional investors or venture capital investors have investments, they usually opt for an independent director to be on the Board.

The Companies Act, 2013 entrusted the governance to the Board of Directors and the Audit Committee for detection and prevention of fraud. The directorship is a fiduciary position and each person on the Board are exposed to many liabilities, not only under Companies Act but under various other legislation. Considering the fact that the IDs being nonexecutives on Board, they themselves cannot play an effective role even though they have a full commitment to ethical practices. Therefore, the executive directors shall have to be proactive and transparent in decision making and it is expected that IDs are informed about all facts, activities, and ongoings, beyond a structured/mandatory sharing of financials and mandatory board meeting agenda items.

IDs once appointed shall be equally responsible for wrongdoings in the Company. Therefore, before taking any directorship, the IDs may pose certain questions to the Company as provided herein below:

(i) Check on conflict of interest, whether such IDs has any pecuniary relationship with the Company directly or indirectly; (ii) The expectations of the Board from ID; (iii) Board Process on decision making, flow of information to its directors etc; (iv) Compliance status under various statutes as may be applicable to the company; (v) Risk and controls in relation to business and measures taken to mitigate such risks; (vi) Adaptability of the promoters towards suggestions of the Board. The expectation is that the executives shall run the show and non-executive board shall act as advisors; (vii) Check on whether the directors have the Directors and Officers Liability insurance policy.

A prima facie question that usually arises prior to taking an ID position is the liabilities. You can access our handbook on Directors here: https://drive.google.com/file//0BytybNhvfzRcb0JfRUFGQVpmaDQ/view?usp=sharing Eligibility Criteria to be an Independent Director

Independent Director shall be a person:`

  • who is not an executive director or nominee director;
  • who shall possess appropriate skills, experience, and knowledge in one or more fields of finance, law, management, sales, marketing, administration, research, corporate governance, technical operations or other disciplines related to the company’s business.
  • who is or was not a promoter of the Company or its holding, subsidiary company or associate company and shall not be related to any of these persons;
  • who including his relatives has or had no pecuniary relationship with the company, its holding, subsidiary or associate company, or their promoters, or directors, in last two preceding financial years or during the current financial year;
  • who holds together with his relatives two percent. or more of the total voting power of the company;
  • who, neither himself nor any of his relatives—
    • holds or has held the position of a key managerial personnel or is or has been an employee of the company or its holding, subsidiary or associate company in any of the three financial years preceding the financial year;
    • is or has been an employee or proprietor or a partner, in any of the three financial years immediately preceding the financial year in which he is proposed to be appointed, to:
      • a firm of auditors or company secretaries in practice or cost auditors of the company or its holding, subsidiary or associate company; or
      • any legal or a consulting firm that has or had any transaction with the company, its holding, subsidiary or associate company amounting to ten percent. or more of the gross turnover of such firm;
  • holds together with his relatives two per cent. or more of the total voting power of the company; or
  • is a Chief Executive or director, by whatever name called, of any non-profit organization that receives twenty-five percent. or more of its receipts from the company, any of its promoters, directors or its holding, subsidiary or associate company or that holds two percent. or more of the total voting power of the company; or

Are they really Independent in their Judgements?

Most of the Companies in India are family run business, where a majority of the decisions are taken by the promoters (without consulting any other non-executive directors). Further, these promoters hold a majority of the shares in the company, thereby the interest of these promoters are influenced in every such decision. Though, under law the shareholders appoint the independent director, but the process of selection of the independent director, is the existing directors who nominate the independent candidates for the post of the independent non-executive director, that too in consultation with the promoters and the shareholders accepts the nomination on the basis of the recommendation of the Board.

So, the very appointment is dependent on the recommendation being provided by the promoters, it would be hard to explain that the IDs do in fact exercise complete independence.

Despite many fallouts in the real world on the transparency of board’s decisions in their presence, IDs are the only hope to uplift the discipline/ transparency, provided their independence is not being compromised and decisions are taken professionally. If they are no more independent then their appointment in a company will have limited benefit as IDs. (of course, their business acumen and domain expertise is always of value).

Even if one or two of them are independent of their judgment and takes a fair and prudent view, they may be compromised by the decision of the majority. So, in some sense, are the independent directors actually dependents? This is a very strong question and we believe that the way the legislation is proposing for appointment and remuneration of the independent directors, should be re-evaluated.

Author: Ashwin Bhat, is a Junior Partner at NovoJuris Legal

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