company’s Memorandum of Association. They are the essential conditions of incorporation, and as such they must not only be stated, but the policy of the legislature has made them with certain exceptions unalterable.
The most important of these five conditions is the third, and its importance consists in this, that the objects defined in the memorandum circumscribe the sphere of the company’s activities. This principle, which is one of public policy and convenience, and is known as the “ultra vires doctrine,” carries with it important consequences, because every act done or contract made by a company ultra vires, i.e. in excess of its powers, is absolutely null and void. The policy, too, is a sound one. Shareholders contribute their money on the faith that it is to be employed in prosecuting certain objects, and it would be a violation of good faith if the company, i.e. the majority of shareholders, were to be allowed to divert it to something quite different. So strict is the rule that not even the consent of every individual shareholder can give validity to an ultra vires act.
The articles of association are the regulations for internal management of the company—the terms of the partnership agreed upon by the shareholders among themselves. A model or specimen set of articles known as Table A was given by the Companies Act 1862, and is appendedArticles of Association. in a revised form to the Companies (Consolidation) Act 1908. When a company is to be registered the memorandum of association accompanied by a copy of the articles is taken to the office of the registrar of joint stock companies at Somerset House, together with the following documents:—
1. A list of persons who have consented to be directors of the company (fee stamp 5s.).
2. A statutory declaration by a solicitor of the High Court engaged in the formation of the company, or by a person named in the articles of association as a director or secretary of the company, that the requisitions of the act in respect of registration and of matters precedent and incidental thereto have been complied with (fee stamp 5s.).
3. A statement as to the nominal share capital (stamped with an ad valorem duty of 5s. per £100).
4. If no prospectus is to be issued, a company must now (Companies Act 1907, s. 1; Consolidation Act 1908, s. 82) in lieu thereof file with the registrar a statement, in the form prescribed by the 1st schedule to the act, of all the material facts relating to the company. Till this has been done the company cannot allot any shares or debentures.
If these documents are in order the registrar registers the company and issues a certificate of incorporation (see Companies (Consolidation) Act 1908, sect. 82); on registration, the memorandum and articles of association become public documents, and any person may inspect them on payment of a fee of one shilling. This has important consequences, because every person dealing with the company is presumed to be acquainted with its constitution, and to have read its memorandum and articles. The articles also, upon registration, bind the company and its members to the same extent as if each member had subscribed his name and affixed his seal to them.
The total cost of registering a company with a capital of £1000 is about £7; £10,000 about £34; £100,000 about £280.
The capital which is required to be stated in the memorandum of association, and which represents the amount which the company is empowered to issue, is what is known as the nominal capital. This nominal capital must be distinguished from the subscribed capital. Subscribed capitalCapital. is the aggregate amount agreed to be paid by those who have taken shares in the company. Under the Companies Act 1900, Companies Act 1908, s. 85, a “minimum subscription” may be fixed by the articles, and if it is the directors cannot go to allotment on less: if it is not, then the whole of the capital offered for subscription must be subscribed. A company may increase its capital, consolidate it, subdivide it into shares of smaller amount and convert paid-up shares into stock. It may also, with the sanction of the court, otherwise reorganize its capital (Companies Act 1907, s. 39; Companies (Consolidation) Act 1908, s. 45), and for this purpose modify its Memorandum of Association; but a limited company cannot reduce its capital either by direct or indirect means without the sanction of the court. The inviolability of the capital is a condition of incorporation—the price of the privilege of trading with limited liability, and by no subterfuge will a company be allowed to evade this cardinal rule of policy, either by paying dividends out of capital, or buying its own shares, or returning money to shareholders. But the prohibition against reduction means that the capital must not be reduced by the voluntary act of the company, not that a company’s capital must be kept intact. It is embarked in the company’s business, and it must run the risks of such business. If part of it is lost there is no obligation on the company to replace it and to cease paying dividends until such lost capital is repaid. The company may in such a case write off the lost capital and go on trading with the reduced amount. But for this purpose the sanction of the court must be obtained by petition.
A share is an aliquot part of a company’s nominal capital. The amount may be anything from 1s. to £1000. The tendency of late years has been to keep the denomination low, and so to appeal to a wider public. Shares of £100, orShares. even £10, are now the exception. The most common amount is either £1 or £5. Shares are of various kinds—ordinary, preference, deferred, founders’ and management. Into what classes of shares the original capital of the company shall be divided, what shall be the amount of each class, and their respective rights, privileges and priorities, are matters for the consideration of the promoters of the company, and must depend on its special circumstances and requirements.
A company may issue preference shares even if there is no mention of them in the Memorandum of Association, and any preference or special privilege so given to a class of shares cannot be interfered with on any reorganization of capital except by a resolution passed by a majority of shareholders of that class representing three-fourths of the capital of that class (Companies (Consolidation) Act 1908, s. 45). The preference given may be as to dividends only, or as to dividends and capital. The dividend, again, may be payable out of the year’s profits only, or it may be cumulative, that is, a deficiency in one year is to be made good out of the profits of subsequent years. Prima facie, a preferential dividend is cumulative. For issuing preference shares the question for the directors is, what must be offered to attract investors. Preference shareholders are given by the Companies Act 1907, s. 23; Companies (Consolidation) Act 1908, s. 114, the right to inspect balance sheets. Founders’ shares—which originated with private companies—are shares which usually take the whole or half the profits after payment of a dividend of 7 or 10% to the ordinary shareholders. They are much less in favour than they used to be.
The machinery of company formation is generally set in motion by a person known as a promoter. This is a term of business, not law. It means, to use Chief Justice Cockburn’s words, a person “who undertakes to form a company with reference to a given project and toPromoters and promotion. set it going, and who takes the necessary steps to accomplish that purpose.” Whether what a person has done towards this end constitutes him a promoter or not, is a question of fact; but once an affirmative conclusion is reached, equity clothes such promoter with a fiduciary relation towards the company which he has been instrumental in creating. This doctrine is now well established, and its good sense is apparent when once the position of the promoter towards the company is understood. Promoters—to use Lord Cairns’s language in Erlanger v. New Sombrero Phosphate Co., 3 A. C. 1236—“have in their hands the creation and moulding of the company. They have the power of defining how and when and in what shape and under what supervision it shall start into existence and begin to act as a trading corporation.” Such a control over the destinies of the company involves correlative obligations towards it, and one of these obligations is that the promoter must not take advantage of the company’s helplessness. A promoter