4 In the context of company law explain:
(a) the doctrine of separate personality
and its consequences; (6 marks)
(b) the circumstances under which separate
personality will be ignored. (4 marks)
答案：4 This question asks candidates
to consider the doctrine ofseparate personality,
one of the key concepts of company law. It also
requires some consideration of the occasions
when the doctrine will be ignored, and the veil
of incorporation pulled aside. This latter part
will demand consideration of
both statute and common law provisions.
(a) Separate personality
Whereas English law treats a partnership
as simply a group of individuals trading collectively,
the effect of incorporation is
that a company once formed has its own distinct legal
personality, completely separate from its members.
The doctrine of separate or corporate personalityis
an ancient one, but the case usually cited in relation
to separate personality
is: Salomon v Salomon & Co (1897). Salomon had been in
the boot and leather business for some time. Together with other
members of his family he formed a limited company
and sold his previous business to it. Payment
was in the form of cash,
shares and debentures. When the company
was eventually wound up it was argued that
Salomon and the company were
the same, and, as he could not be his own creditor,
his debentures should have no effect.
Although earlier courts had decided
against Salomon, the House of Lords
held that under the circumstances,
in the absence of fraud, his debentures were valid.
The company had been properly constituted and
consequently it was, in law, a distinct legal person,
completely separate from
Salomon. Prior to the Companies Act 2006
(CA 2006) true single person limited companies,
with only one member, could
be formed but these were exceptional and in
the event of the membership of an ordinary
company falling below one, the
remaining member assumed liability for the debts
of the company. Now under s.123 CA 2006,
if the number of members
of a limited company falls to one, all that is
required is that the fact be entered in the
company’s register of members, with
the name and address of the sole member.
A number of consequences flow from the
fact that corporations are treated as having
legal personality in their own right.
(i) Limited liability
No one is responsible for anyone else’s
debts unless they agree to accept such responsibility.
Similarly, at common law,
members of a corporation are not responsible
for its debts without agreement. However,
registered companies, i.e. those
formed under the Companies Acts, are not
permitted unless the shareholders agree
to accept liability for their company’s debts.
In return for this agreement
the extent of their liability is set at a fixed amount.
In the case of a company limitedby shares the level of
liability is the amount remaining unpaid on the
nominal value of the shares held. In the case ofa company
limited by guarantee it is the amount that shareholders
have agreed to pay in the event of the company being
(ii) Perpetual existence
As the corporation exists in its own
right changes in its membership have
no effect on its status or existence. Members
may die, be declared bankrupt or
insane, or transfer their shares without
any effect on the company. As an abstract legal
person the company cannot die, although
its existence can be brought to an end through
the winding up procedure.
(iii) Business property is owned by the company
Any business assets are owned by the company
itself and not the shareholders. This is normally
a major advantage in that the companys assets
are not subject to claims based on the
ownership rights of its members.
It can, however, cause
unforeseen problems as may be seen
in Macaura v Northern Assurance (1925).
The plaintiff had owned a timber estate
and later formed a oneman company
and transferred the estate to it.
He continued to insure the estate in his own name.
When the timber was lost in a fire it was
held that Macaura could not claim on the insurance
as he had no personalinterest in the timber,
which belonged to the company. (iv) Legal capacity
The company has contractual capacity in its
own right and can sue and be
sued in its own name. The extent of the
company’s liability, as opposed to the members,
is unlimited and all its assets may be used to pay off debts. The
company may also be liable in tort for
any injuries sustained as a consequence
of the negligence of its agents or employees.
(iv) The rule in Foss v Harbottle
This states that where a company suffers
an injury, it is for the company,
acting through the majority of the members,
to take the appropriate remedial
action. Perhaps of more importance
is the corollary of the rule which is that anindividual
cannot raise an action in response to a
wrong suffered by the company.
(b) Lifting the veil of incorporation
There are a number of occasions,
both statutory and at common law,
when the doctrine of separate personality will not be
followed. On these occasions it is
said that the veil of incorporation,
which separates the company from its members,
is pierced, lifted or drawn aside.
Such situations arise as follows:
(i) Under the companies legislation
Section 399 of the Companies Act 2006
requires accounts to be prepared
by a group of related companies, thus
recognising the common link
between them as separate corporate
entities. Section 213 of the Insolvency Act 1986
provides for personal liability in relation
to fraudulent trading and s.214
does the same in relation to wrongful trading.
(ii) At common law
As in most areas of law that are
based on the application of policy
decisions it is difficult to predict when the courts will
ignore separate personality.
What is certain is that the courts
will not permit the corporate form to be used for a clearly
fraudulent purpose or to evade
a legal duty. Thus in Gilford Motor
Co Ltd v Horne (1933) an employee
had covenanted not to solicit his former employer’s
customers. After he left their
employment he formed a company to solicit those
customers and it was held
that the company was a sham
and the court would not permit it to be used to avoid the
As would be expected the
courts are prepared to ignore
separate personality in times
of war to defeat the activity of
shareholders who might be
enemy aliens. See Daimler Co Ltd v Continental
Tyre and Rubber Co (GB) Ltd (1917).
Where groups of companies have been
set up for particular business ends the
courts will usually not ignore the separate
existence of the various companies unless
they are being used for fraud. There i
s authority for treating separate
companies as a single group as in
DHN Food Distributors Ltd v Borough
of Tower Hamlets (1976) but later authorities
have cast extreme doubt on this decision.
See Woolfson v Strathclyde RC (1978) and
National Dock Labour Board v Pinn & Wheeler (1989).
The later cases would appear to
suggest that the courts are
becoming more reluctant to ignore
separate personality where the
company has been properly established
(Adams v Cape Industries plc (1990) and Ord
v Belhaven Pubs Ltd (1998)).