Mohori Bibee v. Dhurmodas Ghose [1903 PC]

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On July 20, 1895, the respondent, Dharmodas Ghose, executed a mortgage in favour of Brahmo Dutt, a money-lender carrying on business at Calcutta and elsewhere, to secure the repayment of Rs. 20,000 at 12 per cent interest on some houses belonging to the respondent. At that time the respondent was an infant; and he did not attain twenty-one until the month of September following. Throughout the transaction Brahmo Dutt was absent from Calcutta, and the whole business was carried through for him by his attorney, Kedar Nath Mitter. While considering the proposed advance, Kedar Nath received information that the respondent was still a minor; and on July 15, 1895, the following letter was written and sent to him by Bhupendra Nath Bose, an attorney:

“Dear Sir, I am instructed to give you notice, which I hereby do, that the said Babu Dharmodas Ghose is still an infant under the age of twenty-one, and any one lending money to him will do so at his own risk and peril.”

Kedar Nath positively denied the receipt of any such letter; but the Court of first instance and the Appellate Court both held that he did personally receive it on July 15; and the evidence is conclusive upon the point.

On the day on which the mortgage was executed, Kedar Nath got the infant to sign a long declaration, which he had prepared for him, containing a statement that he came of age on June 17; and that Babu Dedraj and Brahmo Dutt, relying on his assurance that he had attained his majority, had agreed to advance to him Rs. 20,000. Both Courts below have held that Kedar Nath did not act upon, and was not misled by, that statement, and was fully aware at the time the mortgage was executed of the minority of the respondent.

On September 10, 1895, the infant, by his mother and guardian as next friend, commenced this action againt Brahmo Dutt, stating that he was under age when he executed the mortgage, and praying for a declaration that it was void and inoperative, and should be delivered up to be cancelled.

Defendant, Brahmo Dutt, put in a defence that the plaintiff was of full age when he executed the mortgage; that neither he nor Kedar Nath had any notice that the plaintiff was then an infant, that, even if he was a minor, the declaration as to his age was fraudulently made to deceive the defendant, and disentitled the plaintiff to any relief; and that in any case the Court should not grant the plaintiff any relief without making him repay the moneys advanced.

The appellants’ counsel contended that the plaintiff is estopped by s. 115 of the Indian Evidence Act from setting up that he was an infant when he executed the mortgage. The section is as follows:

“Estoppel: When one person has by his declaration act or omission intentionally caused or permitted another person to believe a thing to be true, and to act upon such belief, neither he nor his representative shall be allowed in any suit or proceeding between himself and such person or his representative to deny the truth of that thing.”

Their Lordships consider it clear that the section does not apply to a case like the present, where the statement relied upon is made to a person who knows the real facts and is not misled by the untrue statement. There can be no estoppel where the truth of the matter is known to both parties, and their Lordships hold, in accordance with English authorities, that a false representation, made to a person who knows it to be false, is not such a fraud as to take away the privilege of infancy. The same principle is recognised in the explanation to s. 19 of the Indian Contract Act, in which it is said that a fraud or misrepresentation which did not cause the consent to a contract of the party on whom such fraud was practised, or to whom such misrepresentation was made, does not render a contract voidable.

The point most pressed, however, on behalf of the appellants was that the Courts ought not to have decreed in the respondent’s favour without ordering him to repay to the appellants the sum of Rs. 10,500, said to have been paid to him as part of the consideration for the mortgage. And in support of this contention s. 64 of the Contract Act was relied on:

It is necessary, to consider carefully the terms of the Contract Act; but before doing so it may be convenient to refer to the Transfer of Property Act, s. 7 of which provides that every person competent to contract and entitled to transferable property … is competent to transfer such property …. That is the Act under which the present mortgage was made, and it is merely dealing with persons competent to contract; and s. 4 of that Act provides that the chapters and sections of that Act which relate to contracts are to be taken as part of the Indian Contract Act, 1872. The present case, therefore, falls within the provisions of the latter Act.

The Act makes it essential that all contracting parties should be “competent to contract,” and expressly provides that a person who by reason of infancy is incompetent to contract cannot make a contract within the meaning of the Act. This is clearly borne out by later sections in the Act. Sec. 68 provides that, “If a person incapable of entering into a contract, is supplied by another person with necessaries suited to his condition in life, the person who has furnished such supplies is entitled to be reimbursed from the property of such incapable person.”

It is beyond question that an infant falls within the class of persons here referred to as incapable of entering into a contract; and it is clear from the Act that he is not to be liable even for necessaries, and that no demand in respect thereof is enforceable against him by law, though a statutory claim is created against his property.

The question whether a contract is void or voidable presupposes the existence of a contract within the meaning of the Act, and cannot arise in the case of an infant. Their Lordships are, therefore, of opinion that in the present case there is not any such voidable contract as is dealt with in s. 64.

A new point was raised here by the appellants’ counsel, founded on s. 65 of the Contract Act. It is sufficient to say that this section, like s. 64, starts from the basis of there being an agreement or contract between competent parties, and has no application to a case in which there never was, and never could have been, any contract.

In their Lordships’ opinion the Act, so far as it goes, is exhaustive and imperative, and does provide in clear language that an infant is not a person competent to bind himself by a contract of this description.

Another enactment relied upon as a reason why the mortgage money should be returned is s. 41 of the Specific Relief Act, which is as follows: “On adjudging the cancellation of an instrument the Court may require the party to whom such relief is granted to make any compensation to the other which justice may require.” Sec. 38 provides in similar terms for a case of rescission of a contract. These sections, no doubt, do give a discretion to the Court; but the Court of first instance, and subsequently the Appellate Court, in the exercise of such discretion, came to the conclusion that under the circumstances of this case justice did not require them to order the return by the respondent of money advanced to him with full knowledge of his infancy, and their Lordships see no reason for interfering with the discretion so exercised.

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