Negotiable Instruments Act, 1881

July 9th, 2012

The Negotiable Instruments Act was passed in 1881. Some provisions of the Act have become redundant due to passage of time, change in methods of doing business and technology changes. However, the basic principles of the Act are still valid and the Act has stood test of time. The Act extends to the whole of India. There is no doubt that the Act is to regulate commercial transactions and was drafted to suit requirements of business conditions then prevailing.

The instrument is mainly an instrument of credit readily convertible into money and easily passable from one hand to another.

Local usage prevails unless excluded – The Act does not affect any local usage relating to any instrument in an oriental language. However, the local usage can be excluded by any words in the body of the instrument, which indicate an intention that the legal relations of the parties will be governed by provisions of Negotiable Instruments Act and not by local usage. [section 1].

Thus, unless specifically excluded, local usage prevails, if the instrument is in regional language.

Bill of exchange and promissory notes excluded from information Technology Act – Section (1)(4)(a) of Information Technology Act provides that the Act will not apply to Bill of Exchange and Promissory Notes. Thus, a Bill of Exchange or Promissory Note cannot be made by electronic means. However, cheque is covered under of Information Technology Act and hence can be made and / or sent by electronic means.

Changes made by Amendment Act, 2002 – (a) Definition of ‘cheque’ and related provisions in respect of cheque amended to facilitate electronic submission and/or electronic clearance of cheque. Corresponding changes were also made in Information Technology Act. (b) Bouncing of cheque – Provisions amended * Provision for imprisonment upto 2 years against present one year * Period for issuing notice to drawer increased from 15 days to 30 days * Government Nominee Directors excluded from liability * Court empowered to take cognizance of offence even if complaint filed beyond one month * Summary trial procedure permitted for imposing punishment upto one year and fine even exceeding Rs 5,000 * Summons can be issued by speed post or courier service * Summons refused will be deemed to have been served * Evidence of complainant through affidavit permitted * Bank’s slip or memo indicating dishonour of cheque will be prima facie evidence unless contrary proved * Offence can be compounded. – – The amendments have been made effective from 6-2-2003.

Transferee can get better title than transferor – Normal principle is that a person cannot transfer better title to property that he himself has. For example, if a person steals a car and sells the same, the buyer does not get any legal title to the car as the transferor himself had no title to the car. The real owner of car can anytime obtain possession from the buyer, even if the buyer had purchased the car in good faith and even if he had no idea that the seller had no title to the car. This provision is no doubt sound, but would make free negotiability of instrument difficult, as it would be difficult to verify title of transferor in many cases. Hence, it is provided that if a person acquires  ‘Negotiable Instrument’ in good faith and without knowledge of defect in title of the transferor, the transferee can get better title to the negotiable instrument, even if the title of transferor was defective. This is really to ensure free negotiability of instrument so that persons can deal in the instrument without any fear.

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Difference between negotiation and transfer/assignment – Difference between “Negotiation’ and assignment/transfer is that in case of negotiation, the transferee can get title better than transferor, which can never happen in assignment/transfer.

Statutory definition of Negotiable instrument A “negotiable instrument” means a promissory note, bill of exchange or cheque payable either to order or to bearer. Explanation (i) : A promissory note, bill of exchange or cheque is payable to order which is expressed to be so payable or which is expressed to be payable to a particular person, and does not contain words prohibiting transfer or indicating an intention that it shall not be transferable. Explanation (ii) : A promissory note, bill of exchange or cheque is payable to bearer which is expressed to be so payable or on which the only or last endorsement is an endorsement in blank. Explanation (iii) : Where a promissory note, bill of exchange or cheque, either originally or by endorsement, is expressed to be payable to the order of a specified person, and not to him or his order, it is nevertheless payable to him or his order at his option. [section 13(1)].  – – A negotiable instrument may be made payable to two or more payees jointly, or it may be made payable in the alternative to one of two, or one or some of several payees. [section 13(2)].

Promissory NoteA “promissory note” is an instrument in writing (not being a bank-note or  a currency-note) containing an unconditional under­taking, signed by the maker, to pay a certain sum of money only to, or to the order of, a certain person, or to the bearer of the instrument. [Section 4].

Bill of Exchange As per statutory definition,  “bill of exchange” is an instrument in writing containing an unconditional order, signed by the maker, directing a certain person to pay a certain sum of money only to, or to the order of, a certain person or to the bearer of the instrument. [Para 1 of section 5]. A cheque is a special type of Bill of Exchange. It is drawn on banker and is required to be made payable on demand.

Drawer, Drawee and payee The maker of a bill of exchange or cheque is called the “drawer”; the person thereby directed to pay is called the “drawee” [section 7 para 1].  –  – The person named in the instrument, to whom, or to whose order the money is by the instrument directed to be paid, is called the “payee” [section 7 para 5]. – – However, a drawer and payee can be one person as he can order to pay the amount to himself.

At sight, On presentment, After sight  – In a promissory note or bill of exchange the expressions “at sight” and “on  presentment” mean ‘on demand’. The expression “after sight” means, in a promissory note, after presentment for sight, and, in a bill of exchange, after acceptance, or noting for non-acceptance, or protest for non-acceptance. [section 21]. – – Thus, in case of document ‘after sight’, the countdown starts only after document is ‘sighted’ by the concerned party.

Stamp duty on Negotiable Instrument – A negotiable instrument is required to be stamped. Stamp duty on Bill of Exchange and Promissory Note is a Union Subject. Hence, stamp duty is same all over India.

Hundi – a local instrumentHundi is an indigenous instrument similar to Negotiable Instrument. The term is derived from Sanskrit word ‘hund’ which means ‘to collect’. If it is drawn in local language, it is governed by local usage and customs.

Provisions in respect of Cheques A “cheque” is a bill of exchange drawn on a specified banker and not expressed to be payable otherwise than on demand. ‘Cheque’ includes electronic image of a truncated cheque and a cheque in electronic form. [section 6].  The definition is amended by Amendment Act, 2002, making provision for electronic submission and clearance of cheque. The cheque is one form of Bill of Exchange. It is addressed to Banker.  It cannot be made payable after some days. It must be made payable ‘on demand’.

Crossing of Cheque – The Act makes specific provisions for crossing of cheques.

Cheque crossed generally Where a cheque bears across its face an addition of the words “and company” or any abbreviation thereof, between two parallel transverse lines, or of two parallel transverse lines simply, either with or without the words “not negotiable”, that addition shall be deemed a crossing, and the cheque shall be deemed to be crossed generally. [section 123]

Cheque crossed specially Where a cheque bears across its face an addition of the name of a banker,  either with or without the words “not negotiable”, that addition shall be deemed a crossing, and the cheque shall be deemed to be crossed specially, and to be crossed to that banker. [section 124].

Payment of cheque crossed generally or specially Where a cheque is crossed generally, the banker on whom it is drawn shall not pay it otherwise than to a banker.  Where a cheque is crossed specially, the banker on whom it is drawn shall not pay it otherwise than to the banker to whom it is crossed, or his agent for collection. [section 126].

Cheque bearing “not negotiable” A person taking a cheque crossed generally or specially, bearing in  either case the words “not negotiable”, shall not have, and shall not be capable of giving, a better title to the cheque than that which the person form whom he took it had. [section 130]. Thus, mere writing words ‘Not negotiable’ does not mean that the cheque is not transferable. It is still transferable, but the transferee cannot get title better than what transferor had.

Electronic Cheque – Provisions of electronic cheque has been made by Amendment Act, 2002. As per Explanation I(a) to section 6, ‘A cheque in the electronic form’ means a cheque which contains the exact mirror image of a paper cheque, and is generated, written and signed by  a secure system ensuring the minimum safety standards with the use of digital signature (with or without biometrics signature) and asymmetric crypto system.

Truncated Cheque – Provisions of electronic cheque has been made by Amendment Act, 2002. As per Explanation I(b) to section 6, ‘A truncated cheque’ means a cheque which is truncated during the clearing cycle, either by the clearing house during the course of a clearing cycle, either by the clearing house or by the bank whether paying or receiving payment, immediately on generation of an electronic image for transmission, substituting the further physical movement of the cheque in writing.

Penalty in case of dishonour of cheques for insufficiency of funds If a cheque is dishonoured even when presented before expiry of 6 months, the payee or holder in due course is required to give notice to drawer of cheque within 30 days from receiving information from bank.. The drawer should make payment within 15 days of receipt of notice. If he does not pay within 15 days, the payee has to lodge a complaint with Metropolitan Magistrate or Judicial Magistrate of First Class, against drawer within one month from the last day on which drawer should have paid the amount. The penalty can be upto two years imprisonment or fine upto twice the amount of cheque or both.  The offense can be tried summarily. Notice can be sent to drawer by speed post or courier.  Offense is compoundable.

It must be noted that even if penalty is imposed on drawer, he is still liable to make payment of the cheque which was dishonoured. Thus, the fine/imprisonment is in addition to his liability to make payment of the cheque.

Return of cheque should be for insufficiency of funds – The offence takes place only when cheque is dishonoured for insufficiency of funds or where the amount exceeds the arrangement. Section 146 of NI Act only provides that once complainant produces bank’s slip or memo having official mark that the cheque is dishonoured, the Court will presume dishonour of the cheque, unless and until such fact is disproved.

Calculation of date of maturity of Bill of Exchange – If the instrument is not payable on demand, calculation of date of maturity is important. An instrument not payable on demand is entitled to get 3 days grace period.

Presentment of Negotiable Instrument – The Negotiable Instrument is required to be presented for payment to the person who is liable to pay. Further, in case of Bill of Exchange payable ‘after sight’, it has to be presented for acceptance by drawee. ‘Acceptance’ means that drawee agrees to pay the amount as shown in the Bill. This is required as the maker of bill (drawer) is asking drawee to pay certain amount to payee. The drawee may refuse the payment as he has not signed the Bill and has not accepted the liability.

In case of Promissory Note, such acceptance is not required, as the maker who has signed the note himself is liable to make payment.  However, if the promissory note is payable certain days ‘after sight’ [say 30 days after sight], it will have to be presented for ‘sight’.

If the instrument uses the expressions “on demand”, “at sight” or “on  presentment”, the amount is payable on demand. In such case, presentment for acceptance is not required. The Negotiable Instrument will be directly presented for payment.

Acceptance and payment for honour and drawee in need – Provisions for acceptance and payment for honour have been made in case when the negotiable instrument is dishonoured.  Bill is accepted for honour when it is dishonoured when presenting for acceptance, while payment for dishonour is made when Bill is dishonoured when presented for payment.

Negotiation of Instrument – The most salient feature of the instrument is that it is negotiable. Negotiation does not mean  a mere transfer. After negotiation, the holder in due course can get a better title even if title of transferor was defective. If the instrument is ‘to order’, it can be negotiated by making endorsement. If the instrument is ‘to bearer’, it can be negotiated by delivery. As per definition of ‘delivery’, such delivery is valid only if made by party making, accepting or indorsing the instrument or by a person authorised by him.

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An instrument can be negotiated any number of times. As per section 118(e), endorsements appearing on the negotiable instrument are presumed to have been made in the order in which they appear on the instrument, unless contrary is proved. [There is no mandatory provision to put date while signing, though advisable to do so].  Section 118(d) provides that there is presumption that the instrument was negotiated before its maturity, unless contrary is proved. As per section 60, Bill can be negotiated even after date of maturity by persons other than maker, drawee or acceptor after maturity. However, person getting such instrument is not ‘holder in due course’ and does not enjoy protections available to ‘holder in due course’.

Liability of parties – Basic liability of payment is as follows – (a) Maker in case of Promissory Note or Cheque and (b) Drawer of Bill till it is accepted by drawee and acceptor after the Bill is accepted . They are liable as ‘principal debtors’ and other parties to instrument are liable as sureties for maker, drawer or acceptor, as the case may be. When document is endorsed number of times, each prior party is liable to each subsequent party as principal debtor. In case of dishonour, notice is required to be given to drawer and all earlier endorsees. 

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Presumptions as to negotiable instruments Until the contrary is proved, the following presumptions shall be made :— (a) of consideration – that every negoticble instrument was made or drawn for consideration, and that every such instrument, when it has been $ accepted, indorsed, negotiated or transferrgd, was accepted, indorsed, negotiated or transferred for consideration; – – (b) as to date – that every negotiable instrument bearing a date was oide or drawn on such date; – – (c) as to time of acceptance – that every accepted bill of exchange was accepted within a reasonable time after its date and before its maturity;  – – (d) as to time of transfer – – that every transfer of a negotiable instrument was made before its maturity; – – (e) as to order of indorsements – that the indorsements appearing upon a negotiable instrument were made in the order in which they appear thereon;  (f) as to stamps – that a lost promissory note, bill of exchange or cheque was duly stamped; – – (g) that holder is a holder in due course – that the holder of a negotiable instrument is a holder in due course : provided  that, where the instrument has been obtained from its lawful owner, or from any person in lawful custody thereof, by means of an offence or fraud, or has been obtained from the maker or acceptor thereof by means of an of­fence or fraud, or for unlawful consideration, the burden of proving that the holder in due course lies upon him. [section 118]

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