Juristic Personality of Societies and Clubs

Saji Koduvath, Advocate.

1. Provisions of the Societies Registration Act, 1860:

  • 5. Property of society how vested
  • The property, movable and immovable belonging to a society registered under this Act, if not vested in trustees, shall be deemed to be vested, for the time being, in the governing body of such society, and in all proceedings civil and criminal, may be described as the property of the governing body of such society for their proper title.

6. Suits by and against societies

  • Every society registered under this Act may sue or be sued in the name of the president, chairman, or principal secretary, or trustees, as shall be determined by the rules and regulations of the society, and, in default of such determination, in the name of such person as shall be appointed by the governing body for the occasion.
  •      Provided that it shall be competent for any person having a claim or demand against the society, to sue the president or chairman, or principal secretary or the trustees thereof, if on application to the governing body some other officer or person be not nominated to be the defendant.

2. Introduction

Salmond reads:

  • “Legal persons, being the arbitrary creations of the law, may be of as many kinds as the law pleases”.[1]

‘Persons’ are of two kinds: human beings and legal persons.

  • The second class is the institutions and associations of persons upon which the law incorporates or attributes legal personality. They are formed either on registration under a statute like Companies Act, or under a particular enactment such as English East India Company, Municipal Corporations, Life Insurance Corporation, Oil and Natural Gas Commission, etc. Apart from companies, corporations etc. our system accept idols in temples also as legal persons.  Though the legal personality of an unregistered association may not be a matter in dispute, the legal status of registered associations under Societies Registration Act remained as a potential question for quite long time. 

The enquiry as to the legal personality of an association of persons is essentially the enquiry whether it has the right of perpetuity in its own name, apart from its members.The basic tests to be applied for determining the same are the following:

  • (i)   Whether it can sue or be sued in its own name.
  • (ii)  Whether its property vests in itself.

Applying these tests authoritative decisions have definitively held that even the registered societies are also not juridical persons in law.

3. Registered Society is not a Juristic Person:

Unani Tibia College Case: The Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court had unequivocally held in the celebrated Unani Tibia College Case[2] that a registered society was not a corporation and that the provisions of the Societies Registration Act, 1860 gave only certain privileges to a society registered under that Act. It is held that (i) the society, being unincorporated, is unable to sue or be sued in its own name and (ii) the phrase ‘property belonging to a society’in Sec. 5 of the Societies Registration Act, 1860 did not give the society a corporate status as this phrase merely described the property which had been vested in trustees or governing body.It had been held by several High Courts earlier, giving undue importance to the expression ‘property belonging to a society’ in Sec. 5, that the registered societies possess juristic personality or status.[3] It was held in Unani Tibia College Case as under:

  • “We have, therefore, come to the conclusion that the provisions aforesaid do not establish the main essential characteristic of a corporation aggregate, namely, that of an intention to incorporate the society. We may further observe that the scheme and provisions of the Societies Registration Act, 1860 are very similar to those of the Friendly Societies Act, 1896 (59 and 60 Vict. C. 25), as amended in certain respects by subsequent enactments. It is appropriate to quote here what Dennis Lloyd has said in his ‘Law relating to Unincorporated Associations’ (1938 Edn. at page 59) in respect of the provisions of the Friendly Societies Act, 1896 as modified by subsequent enactments. He has said:
    • ‘The modern legislation still maintains the policy of the older Acts in withholding corporate status from friendly societies. Registration does not result in incorporation, but merely entitles the society so registered to enjoy the privileges conferred by the Act. These privileges are of considerable importance and certain of them go a long way towards giving registered societies…. a status in many respects analogous to a corporation strictly so-called, but without being technically incorporated. Thus something in the nature of perpetual succession is conceded by the provision that the society’s property is to vest in the trustees for the time being of the society for the use and benefit of the society and its members and of all persons claiming through the members according to the society’s rules, and further (and this is the most noteworthy provision) that the property shall pass to succeeding trustees without assignment or transfer. In the same way, though the society, being unincorporated, is unable to sue and be sued in its own name, it is given the statutory privilege of suing and being sued in the name of its trustees.’
  • We think that these observations made with regard to similar provisions of the Friendly Societies Act, correctly and succinctly summarise the legal position in respect of the several provisions of the Societies Registration Act, 1860. Those provisions undoubtedly give certain privileges to a society registered under that Act and the privileges are of considerable importance and some of those privileges are analogous to the privileges enjoyed by a corporation, but there is really no incorporation in the sense in which that word is legally understood.”
  • “…… Section 5, however, states that the property belonging to the society, if not vested in trustees, shall be deemed to be vested in the governing body of the society and in all proceedings, civil and criminal, the property will be described as the property of the governing body. The section talks of property belonging to the society; but the property is vested in the trustees or in the governing body for the time being. The expression “property belonging to the society” does not give the society a corporate status in the matter of holding or acquiring property, it merely describes the property which vests in the trustees or governing body for the time being……..”

Century Club Vs. State of Mysore: It is held by the Karnataka High Court (KS Hegde, J.) in Century Club Vs. State of Mysore[4]that the Societies Registration Act did not say that the society could sue in its own name which would have been the position in the case of an incorporated society or in the case of a juridical person. Following questions were considered in this case:

  • (i) Do the registered clubs (registered under the So. Regn. Act) have legal personality of their own apart from their members,
  • (ii) do the registered clubs stand in the same position as the unregistered clubs as regards holding properties
  • (iii) can registered clubs sue or be sued and do they have competence to enter into agreement not only with outsiders but even with their own members and
  • (iv) are the clubs the legal owners of their properties and transfer the properties even to their members.

Referring to the provisions of the Societies Registration Act, which (i) permits a registered society to sue or be sued in the name of the persons mentioned therein;(ii) provides for continuation of suits and proceedings despite the person suing or sued on behalf of the society, dying, or ceasing to hold the office, which he held at the time of the institution of the suit; (iii) prescribes that judgements passed in suits instituted have to be enforced only against the property of the society and not against the property of the person suing or sued; (iv) enables to sue its members in respect of the specified transactions;and (v) places the members in the same position as strangers as regards the offences mentioned therein, it was observed in this case as under: 

  • “If a registered society is a complete legal entity or a juridical person, these provisions are wholly superfluous. … The very fact that the Legislature thought it necessary to enact these provisions shows, that registered clubs are not juridical persons or complete legal entities but they have been merely conferred with certain attributes of legal entities. … The weight of judicial authority, English and Indian, is against the view contended for by the learned Advocate-General.”[5] 

Illachi Devi Vs. Jain Society: The law on this point is further expounded by our Apex Court in Illachi Devi Vs. Jain Society[6] as under:

  • i) The mere fact of registration will not make a society distinct from association of persons. (Para 20)
  • ii) A Society registered under the Societies Regn. Act is not a body-corporate as is the case in respect of a company registered under the Companies Act. In that view of the matter, a Society registered under the Societies Registration Act is not a juristic person.  (Para 21)
  • iii) A society, whether registered or unregistered, may not be prosecuted in criminal court, nor is it capable of ownership of any property or of suing or being sued in its own name. (Para 22)
  • iv) Vesting of property does not take place in the Society. Similarly, the society cannot sue or be sued. It must sue or be sued through a person nominated in that behalf. (Para 26)

4. Legal Personality of Firms & Trusts

Under the general law, a firm is not a distinct legal entity or a juridical person like a body corporate; but a compendious name for all its partners;[7] but, firms are regarded as a quasi-independent entity,[8] or as legal personae for limited purposes.[9]By virtue of Order XXX, CPC a firm is enabled to sue and defend suits in the manner provided. Every partner of the firm is capable of representing the entire firm. He acts for all and is an agent as such.[10] If a partner dies, whether before the institution or during the pendency of any suit, it shall not be necessary to join the legal representative of the deceased as a party to the suit.[11]

Going by the definitions of trust, including that in the Indian Trusts Act,[12] 1882, it is clear that ‘trust’ is neither an institution nor an association of persons; but, it is an ‘obligation’ annexed to the ownership of property. Though, in the eye of law, trust is a concept and it cannot be a juristic person,[13] generally, while dealing with tax matters, such institutions administered by trustees are considered as juristic persons.[14]

Societies, both registered and unregistered, are also dealt with in the same manner.In Swami Satchitanand Vs. The 2nd Addl. IncomeTax Officer, Kozhikode[15]the Kerala High Court observed that, despite the fact that a Society is styled as an ‘association of persons’, tax imposed on a registered society is that on the society itself and not on its members.

5. Privileges on Registration

See Blog: Effect of Registration of Societies and Incorporation of Clubs

6. Is Unregistered Society a ‘living-person’ under S. 5 of the TP Act 

See Blog: Vesting of Property in Trusts

7. Can transfer of property be made to or by Unregistered Associations

See Blog: Vesting of Property in Societies and Clubs

8. Regd. Societies – Not Corporate Body & No Common Seal 

A society registered under the Societies Registration Act, 1960 is not a body corporate having perpetual succession and common seal.[16] 

9. Co-operative Societies are Juristic Persons & ‘Liability Limited’

Co-operative Societies Acts provide for juristic personality to Co-operative societies. In Daman Singh Vs. State of Punjab and Haryana[17] our Apex Court held that ‘a co-operative society is a corporation as commonly understood’ inasmuch as the same has the status of a body corporate having perpetual succession and a common seal, with power to hold property, enter into contracts, institute and defend suits and other legal proceedings and to do all things necessary for the purposes for which it is constituted.[18]

Co-operative societies being creatures of the statute, once a Co-operative Society is formed and registered, the rights of the society and that of its members stand abridged by the provisions of the Act. The activities of the societies are controlled by the statute. Therefore, there cannot be any objection to statutory interference with their composition or functioning merely on the ground of contravention of individual’s right of freedom of association by statutory functionaries.[19]

Ninety Seventh Amendment of our Constitution provided constitutional status to the Co-operative Societies and it has brought out radical changes in the concept of Co-operative Societies. Democratic functioning and autonomy have now become the core constitutional values of a Co-operative Society.

10. How Can a Society or a Club Acquire Property and Enter into a Contract?

See Blog: Vesting of Property in Societies and Clubs

11. No Legal Impediment in Treating the Church as a Person

It is held by the High Court of Kerala in James Chinnamma Vs.  Joseph Abraham[20], when a question came whether a Catholic church can claim to be “an agriculturist” under a Debt Relief Act, that the church being capable of holding property (of course, acting through human agency) there was no legal impediment in treating the church as a person and it can claim to be “agriculturist”. The judge considered the postulation whether the church could be a voluntary association. It also referred to the theory that the church was under the authority of a corporation-sole, either Vicar or Bishop.

Are Churches and Dioceses Juridic persons it being so accepted in Canon Law

As shown by Salmond and explained by the Supreme Court in Shriomani Gurudwara Prabandhak Committee, Amritsar Vs. Shri Som Nath Dass, the law may, if it pleases, regard a church, a hospital, a university or a library as a legal person.

In Major Arch Bishop Vs. Lalan Tharakan (2016  AIR CC 2593; ILR 2016-4 Ker 51) it is observed that the (parish) church is a legal person.

But, in M.  Siddiq v. Mahant Suresh Das (Ayodhya Case – 2020-1 SCC 1) our apex Court held that Mosque is not a legal person. The Apex Court rejected the the contention that mosque was held to be a juristic person by the Privy Council in Masjid Shahid Ganj v. Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee, Amritsar, AIR 1940 P C 116. In the light of the Supreme Court decision on Mosque, legally it is difficult to support the the view that churches are juristic persons.

Law may, if it pleases‘ being the basis for determining a body or entity as a legal person, it is definite that the dioceses can never be treated as a juridic persons even though the Canon declares so.

Even if a (parish) church can be taken as comparable to a temple or Gurudwara, as they are accepted by our law as juristic persons, a Diocese can never be taken as a juristic person; especially in the light of our Apex Court decision, Illachi Devi v. Jain Society, AIR 2003 SC 3397, which authoritatively held that even a Society registered under the Societies Registration Act is not a juristic person.  Parish churches and trusts created for the benefit of a Church are public religious trusts.

Read Blog: Legal Personality of Temples, Gurudwaras, Churches and Mosques

Merely because Cannon law declares a church or a diocese as a legal person, it cannot be assumed that the courts that deal with the matters of those entities will be bound by the assertion. It is a jurisprudential issue reigned by the common law. In the light of the principles laid down in State of Madhya Pradesh Vs. Mother Superior, Convent School (AIR 1958 MP 362) it is illogical to go deep to search an authority to see whether the church or diocese is a legal person for it is so described in the Canon.

[1]      12th Edn., Page 305.

[2]      Board of Trustees, Ayurvedic & UnaniTibia College Vs. TheState: AIR 1962 SC 458.

[3]      See: Benares Hindu University Vs. Gauri DuttJoshir AIR 1950 All 196. Also see: K.C. Thomas Vs. R.B. Gadaook: AIR 1970 Pat 163; Inder Chand Vs. Arya Pratinidhi Sabha: AIR 1977 Del 34.

[4]      AIR 1967 Kar 25.                

[5]      The court referred the following decisions: Queen’s Bench decision in Graff vs. Evans: (1882) 8 Q. B. D. 373; Metford Vs. Edwards ([1915] 1 K. B. 172 ); Trebanog Working men’s Club and Institute Ltd. Vs. Macdonald: [1940] 1 K. B. 576; [1940] 1 All E. R. 454; National Association of Local Government Officers Vs. Watkins: (1934) 18 Tax Cas. 499; Farrar’s case: (1888)40 Ch. D. 395. Indian Cases: Deputy Commercial Tax Officer Vs. Cosmopolitan Club: AIR1954 Mad 1144 , Young Men’s Indian Association Vs. Joint Commercial Tax Officer: AIR 1964 Mad 63; Bengal Nagpur Cotton Mills Club, Rajnandgaon Vs. Sales Tax Officer: [1957] 8 S. T. C. 781;  Board of Trustees Vs. State of Delhi , AIR1962 SC 458; BoppanaRukminamma Vs. Maganti Venkata Ramadas: AIR 1940 Mad. 949;  Satyavart Sidhantalankar Vs. Arya Samaj, Bombay: AIR 1946 Bom 516; Krishnan Vs. Sundaram: AIR 1941 Bom. 312: Rukminamma Vs. Venkata Ramadas: AIR 1940 Mad 949; NA Nannier Vs. Official Assignee, Madras: AIR 1951 Mad 875.

[6]      Illachi  Devi  Vs. Jain Society:  AIR 2003 SC 3397;         See also Tata Vs. Tata: AIR 2010 SC 2943.

[7]      V Subramaniam Vs. Rajesh Raghuvandra Rao: AIR  2009 SC 1858, Murarilal Mahabir Prasad Vs. B R Vad: AIR 1976 SC 313, State Bank of India Vs. Simko Engineering Works: AIR 2005 P&H 63, Lieya Vs. Kaliappa Chettiar: AIR1996 Ker 218, Firm Narain Das Mangal Sen Vs. Anand Behari Mishra: AIR 1958MP 408.

[8]    Kerala State Civil Supplies Corporation Vs. AVK Traders:2012-115 AIC 677: 2012-2 CivCC 755; 2012-2 KerLJ 534: 2012-2 KerLT 332.

[9]    Dena Bank Vs. Bhikhabhai Prabhudas Parekh & Co: AIR 2000 SC 3654; Suwalal Anandilal Jain Vs. Commissioner of Income Tax, Bihar: AIR 1997 SC 1279.

[10]   G.P.C. Co-op. Union Vs. Krishna Rao: AIR 1974 Bom 52

[11]    Sohan Lal Vs. Amin Chand: : AIR 1973 SC 2572; Upper India Cable Co. Vs. BalKishan, 1984-3 SCC 462; Anokhe Lal Vs. Radhamohan Bansal: 1996-6 SCC 730.

[12]    Sec. 3 of the Indian Trusts Act, 1882

[13]    See: Ramdass Trust Vs. Damodardas 1967 Raj LW 273; It is referred to in Sagar Sharma Vs. AddlComr: 2011-239 CTR 169: 2011-336  ITR 611. Duli Chand Vs. Mahabir Pershad Trilok Chand Charitable Trust: AIR 1984 Del  145; Thiagesar Dharma Vanikam Vs.  CIT: [1963] 50 ITR 798  (Mad); Kishorelal Asera Vs. Haji Essa: 2003-3 Mad LW 372: 2003-3 CCC367, Thanthi Trust Vs. Wealth Tax Officer: (1989)78 CTR 54: (1989) 45 TAXMAN 121: (1989) 178  ITR 28.

[14]    Section 2(15) of the Income Tax Act, 1961 defines “charitable purpose”.

[15]    AIR 1964 Ker 118

[16]    Captain Jagdish Chandra Varshney Vs. Smt. Muni Varshney : AIR 2006 All 347

[17]    AIR 1985 SC 973

[18]    Daman Singh Vs. State of Punjab and Haryana AIR 1985 SC 973, See also:  R Jaivel Vs. State of Tamil Nadu: AIR  2006 Mad 215. State of Punjab Vs. Kesari Chand: AIR 1987 P&H 216; Sonepat Co-op. Sugar Mills Ltd Vs. Presiding Officer Labour Court:   AIR  1986 P&H 386; Mulshanker Kunverji Gor Vs.Juvansinhji ShivubhaJadeja: AIR 1980 Guj 62.

[19]    AP Dairy Develpmt. Corpn. Vs. B Narasimha Reddy: AIR 2011 SC 3298.

[20]    1962 Ker LT 240.

Read in this Cluster:

Civil Procedure Code

Power of attorney

Title, ownership and Possession

Principles and Procedure

Land Laws

Evidence Act – General

Contract Act


Stamp Act


Book No. 2: A Handbook on Constitutional Issues

Book No. 3: Common Law of CLUBS and SOCIETIES in India

Book No. 4: Common Law of TRUSTS in India

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