Ultra Vires Case Study

Ultra vires is a Latinphrase meaning "beyond the powers". If an act requires legal authority and it is done with such authority, it is characterised in law as intra vires ("within the powers"). If it is done without such authority, it is ultra vires. Acts that are intra vires may equivalently be termed "valid" and those that are ultra vires "invalid".

Legal issues relating to ultra vires can arise in a variety of contexts:

  • Companies and other legal persons sometimes have limited legal capacity to act, and attempts to engage in activities beyond their legal capacity may be ultra vires.[3] Most countries have restricted the doctrine of ultra vires in relation to companies by statute.
  • Similarly, statutory and governmental bodies may have limits upon the acts and activities which they legally engage in.[4]
  • Subordinate legislation which is purported passed without the proper legal authority may be invalid as beyond the powers of the authority which issued it.[5][6]

Corporate law[edit]

See also: Corporate law

In corporate law, ultra vires describes acts attempted by a corporation that are beyond the scope of powers granted by the corporation's objects clause, articles of incorporation or in a clause in its Bylaws, in the laws authorizing a corporation's formation, or similar founding documents. Acts attempted by a corporation that are beyond the scope of its charter are void or voidable.

  1. An ultra vires transaction cannot be ratified by shareholders, even if they wish it to be ratified.
  2. The doctrine of estoppel usually precluded reliance on the defense of ultra vires where the transaction was fully performed by one party.
  3. A fortiori, a transaction which was fully performed by both parties could not be attacked.
  4. If the contract was fully executory, the defense of ultra vires might be raised by either party.
  5. If the contract was partially performed, and the performance was held to be insufficient to bring the doctrine of estoppel into play, a suit for quasi-contract for recovery of benefits conferred was available.
  6. If an agent of the corporation committed a tort within the scope of his or her employment, the corporation could not defend on the ground the act was ultra vires.

Several modern developments relating to corporate formation have limited the probability that ultra vires acts will occur. Except in the case of non-profit corporations (including municipal corporations), this legal doctrine is obsolescent; within recent years, almost all business corporations are chartered to allow them to transact any lawful business. The Model Business Corporation Act of the United States states that: "The validity of corporate action may not be challenged on the ground that the corporation lacks or lacked power to act." The doctrine still has some life among non-profit corporations or state-created corporate bodies established for a specific public purpose, such as universities or charities.

United States[edit]

According to American laws, the concept of ultra vires can still arise in the following kinds of activities in some states:

  1. Charitable or political contributions
  2. Guaranty of indebtedness of another
  3. Loans to officers or directors
  4. Pensions, bonuses, stock option plans, job severance payments, and other fringe benefits
  5. The power to acquire shares of other corporations
  6. The power to enter into a partnership

United Kingdom[edit]

See also: United Kingdom company law

Historically all companies in the United Kingdom were subject to the doctrine of ultra vires and any act which was outside of the objects specified in a company's memorandum of association would be ultra vires and void.[3] That result was commercially unpalatable, and led to companies being formed with extremely wide and generic objects clauses permitting a company to engage in all manner of commercial activities.[7]

The position was changed by statute by the Companies Act 1985 which largely abolished the doctrine in relation to commercial companies. The position is now regulated by the Companies Act 2006, sections 31 and 39, which similarly greatly reduces the applicability of ultra vires in corporate law, although it can still apply in relation to charities and a shareholder may apply for an injunction, in advance only, to prevent an act which is claimed to be ultra vires.

In many jurisdictions, such as Australia, legislation provides that a corporation has all the powers of a natural person[8] plus others; also, the validity of acts which are made ultra vires is preserved.[9]

Constitutional law[edit]

Under constitutional law, particularly in Canada and the United States, constitutions give federal and provincial or state governments various powers. To go outside those powers would be ultra vires; for example, although the court did not use the term in striking down a federal law in United States v. Lopez on the grounds that it exceeded the Constitutional authority of Congress, the Supreme Court still declared the law to be ultra vires.[10]

According to Article 15.2 of the Irish constitution, the Oireachtas (parliament) is the sole lawmaking body in the Republic of Ireland. In the case of CityView Press v AnCo, however, the Irish Supreme Court held that the Oireachtas may delegate certain powers to subordinate bodies through primary legislation, so long as these delegated powers allow the delegatee only to further the principles and policies laid down by the Oireachtas in primary legislation and not craft new principles or policies themselves. Any piece of primary legislation that grants the power to make public policy to a body other than the Oireachtas is unconstitutional; however, as there is a presumption in Irish constitutional law that the Oireachtas acts within the confines of the Constitution, any legislation passed by the Oireachtas must be interpreted in such a way as to be constitutionally valid where possible.

Thus, in a number of cases where bodies other than the Oireachtas were found to have used powers granted to them by primary legislation to make public policy, the impugned primary legislation was read in such a way that it would not have the effect of allowing a subordinate body to make public policy. In these cases, the primary legislation was held to be constitutional, but the subordinate or secondary legislation, which amounted to creation of public policy, was held to be ultra vires the primary legislation and was struck down.

In UK constitutional law, ultra vires describes patents, ordinances and the like enacted under the prerogative powers of the Crown that contradict statutes enacted by the Crown-in-Parliament. Almost unheard of in modern times, ultra vires acts by the Crown or its servants were previously a major threat to the rule of law.

Boddington v British Transport Police is an example of an appeal heard by House of Lords that contested that a bylaw was beyond the powers conferred to it under section 67 of the Transport Act 1962.[6]

Administrative law[edit]

In administrative law, an act may be judicially reviewable for ultra vires in a narrow or broad sense. Narrow ultra vires applies if an administrator did not have the substantive power to make a decision or it was wrought with procedural defects. Broad ultra vires applies if there is an abuse of power (e.g., Wednesbury unreasonableness or bad faith) or a failure to exercise an administrative discretion (e.g., acting at the behest of another or unlawfully applying a government policy) or application of discretionary powers in irrational and wrong way.[11] Either doctrine may entitle a claimant to various prerogative writs, equitable remedies or statutory orders if they are satisfied.

United Kingdom[edit]

In the seminal case of Anisminic v Foreign Compensation Commission,[12] Lord Reid is accredited with formulating the doctrine of ultra vires. However, ultra vires, together with unreasonableness, was mentioned much earlier by Lord Russell in the well known case, Kruse v Johnson,[13] regarding challenging by-laws and other rules. Anisminic is better known for not depriving courts of their jurisdiction to declare a decision a nullity, even if a statute expressly prevents the decision being subject to judicial review. Further cases such as Bromley LBC v Greater London Council[14] and Council of Civil Service Unions v Minister for the Civil Service[15] have sought to refine the doctrine.

In Hammersmith and Fulham London Borough Council v Hazell[16] the House of Lords held that interest rate swaps entered into by local authorities (a popular method of circumventing statutory restrictions on local authorities borrowing money at that time) were all ultra vires and void, sparking a raft of satellite litigation.

See also[edit]


  1. ^Evelina Munteanu (25 November 2014). "Top 5 US States For Company Formations". Inc Plan (USA). Retrieved 7 November 2017. 
  2. ^Francis Pileggi (4 September 2012). "Abolishment of Ultra Vires Doctrine with Exceptions". Retrieved 7 November 2017. 
  3. ^ abAshbury Railway Carriage and Iron Co Ltd v Riche (1875) LR 7 HL 653
  4. ^Hazell v Hammersmith and Fulham LBC [1992] 2 AC 1
  5. ^Woolwich Equitable Building Society v IRC [1993] AC 70
  6. ^ abBoddington v British Transport Police[1998] UKHL 13
  7. ^Rolled Steel Products (Holdings) Ltd v British Steel Corp [1986] Ch 246
  8. ^Sn 124 Legal capacity and powers of a Company, Corporations Act 2001, Commonwealth Consolidated Acts
  9. ^Sn 125 Constitution may limit powers and set out objectives, Corporations Act 2001, Commonlwealth Consolidated Acts
  10. ^United States v. Lopez, 514U.S.549, 567 (1995).
  11. ^Örücü Esin, The Liability of administration in England and main principles applied in judicial review, in Onar Armagani, Fakulteler Matbaasi, Istanbul 1977, p.660
  12. ^[1969] 2 WLR 163
  13. ^[1898]
  14. ^[1983] AC 768 (see Lord Wilberforce's judgment)
  15. ^[1985] AC 374 (see Lord Diplock's judgment)
  16. ^[1992] 2 AC 1


  • Robert W. Hamilton. The Law of Corporation 4th Edition, 1996 West Group

Discuss the doctrine of ultra vires and its effect in Malaysian Company Law. According to s18 Contract Act 1965, every company formed should have a memorandum printed and divided into paragraph and with the date stated. In s18 (b) Contract Act 1965, it shows that the requirement of the Memorandum of Association (M/A) required a statement of object clause. The object clause can be used to describe the nature of the business such as manufacturing business, merchandising business or service business. Besides, it also show the company power, its purpose and the legal capacity of the company.[1] Furthermore, the purpose of the object of M/A should be lawful as stated in s14 (1) Company Act 1965. The consequence of unlawful purpose and incompatible to peace, welfare, security, public order, good order or morality in Malaysia will be Registrar of Company will refuse for the registration of the company as followed to s16(8)(a) Company Act 1965. As it has been stated that object of M/A function as recognize the legal capacity of the company, in the same time, it has limited the company which it require the company to act based on the statement. If the operation of the company is different with the object of M/A, ultra vires will be recognized. Ultra means “beyond” whereas vires means “power” where ultra vires happened when an act is against the object clause. Although the company want to ratify the act, the act is void at initio. This can be further explained by the common law and statue. However, if the company wants to prevent ultra vires, the company must alter the object clause. There are certain requirement as stated s28 Company Act 1965. In s28 (1) Company Act 1965, it stated that alteration can be made based on a special resolution. Besides, by holding this special resolution, members and debentures holder of the company should be given 21days of notification to the special resolution as according to s28 (2) Company Act 1965.Common Law The doctrine of ultra vires under common law refers to the rules that company must act within their objects clause that is stated in the memorandum of association. Any activity that is outside from the company capacity is void. Neither the company nor the third party could enforce this. In other words, ultra vires act is void and the contract cannot be ratified even if the company wishes to. Under common law, the company’s contract is void due to internal or external context. Externally, when a third party contracting with a company, if the contract was not fulfill the objects of company that stated in memorandum of association, then the contract was ultra vires and void. Internally, if the company and the director enter into an ultra vires contract, the company may immediately stop the act of the director and claim damages from the director who breach his fiduciary duties by entering into the contract which is outside from the company’s capacity. If the company could not fulfill the main object in their memorandum, then they would have to be wound up. According to Ashbury Railway Carriage & Iron Company v Riche (1875) LR 7HL653, the case stated that the company’s objects in their memorandum was to make, sell and hire railway carriages. The company entered into contract with Riche and the contract was approved by the shareholders at general meeting, then the company agreed to give Riche and his brother a loan to build a railway in Belgium. After that, the company changed their mind and refused the agreement. Riche sued the company. The court held that the construction of a railway was ultra vires, because construct a railway was not stated in their company’s memorandum of association. Thus, the contract is void because the construction of a railway is outside from the company capacity. Furthermore, since it is outside from the company capacity, so the company could not ratify the contract. Therefore, ultra vires exist and the contract is void even if all of the shareholders approved the contract. From Ashbury Railway Carriage case, we can see that the company could not sue or be sued by the third party for not performing the contract. This is because the contract is null and void. Thus, the company could avoid for not performing the contract and could not be sued by the third party because it is outside form the company’s capacity. Although it seems unfair for the other party but the object clause of a company is available at public for inspection. The other party should have checked whether the company has the capacity to enter into contract with them or not. Need to say if company itself can sue the director and SH? Shareholders pay less concerned on the corporation on how the director corporate as long as the business generates dividend to them. However this will put the creditor in high risk. This is because if the creditors credit sales the goods and services to the particular company, and the company has insolvent in later dates, the creditor could not claim any debts. Common law stated that an ultra vires act is null and void to protect the member or the creditors of the company who has invested the money into the company and expect the investment is only used for the company’s business. According to Cotman v Brougham (1918) A.C. 514, the objects clause of company contained 30 sub clauses, however, the first sub clause stated the company to develop rubber plantations. In the fourth clause, it empowered the company to deal in any shares of any company. Besides, the memorandum also stated that each sub clauses acts as the independent objects for the company. The company underwrote and had allotted to it shares in an oil company. After that, the oil company wound up and their company was on the list of contributories. The question arose is that whether this is intra vires the company’s objects. The court held that the 30 independent object clause in the rubber company’s memorandum was an independent. Hence, the power to deal with the share in an oil company was within the legal power. Therefore, the company is liable for the underwriting. From the Cotman case, the company did not clearly specify the main object where constitution of Memorandum are not limited by using plain business language. Companies could no longer avoid a contract based on the grounds that it was beyond the company objects which they have been done in the traditional ultra vires doctrine. This has increased a wider range of object clauses in the Memorandum as a result of each sub clause is independent which are not interrelated with the main clause. Hence, the object are not restricted to review on the main clause. This has rendered the companies to introduce a standard type of object clause to render almost all potential commercial objectives intra vires. Position under Companies Act 1965 According to s20 (1) of Companies Act 1965, any act or transfer of property that made by the company shall not be invalid with the reason that company don't have the power or capacity to do act. The effect for this section is transaction will become irrelevant with the fact that the company did not have the capacity to enter into it, even though a certain transaction is otherwise valid. Besides, the company can sued or be sued as acts against its object clause. In order to protect the interest of the shareholders and creditors, s20 (2) Companies Act 1965 has provided the remedies to restrain the ultra vires act. According to s20 (2) (a) Companies Act 1965, company is liable if a member of the company or the company itself has issued the debentures are available with a floating charge. The shareholders and debenture holders can sue the company for the taking any action outside the company and they can claimed the compensation from it. Besides, it also stated that the relief of s20 Companies Act 1965, the ultra vires only apply to specific person and not an outsider as refer to Pamaron Holdings Sdn Bhd v Ganda Holdings Bhd [1988] 3 MLJ 346. According to Pamaron Holdings Sdn Bhd v Ganda Holdings Bhd case, the Plaintiff and the Defendant entered into an agreement for sale and purchase of shares in a private limited company. The Defendant defaulted in the payment of the purchase price and the plaintiff applied for summary judgment against it. In opposing the application, the defendant proclaim that among the transaction was ultra vires the plaintiff company. Allowing the application, the court held that under s.20 a person other than a debenture holder or the minister may not raise ultra vires. The defendant being an outsider and not a debenture holder or the minister had no right under the section. The Defendant was liable for not being able to settle the payment of the purchase price. The Defendant also didn't purchase any shares or debentures from the Plaintiff Company, thus it cannot raise ultra vires. Defendant should purchase the shares or debenture from the plaintiff in order for the defendant have the right to raise ultra vires. From this case, only the person that are sufficient proximate to the company can apply ultra vires. Ultra vires is an action This act will only available to the contract that has been entered, yet to be completed as refer to the Hawkesbury Development Co Ltd v Landmark Finance Pty Ltd ( 1969 ) 2 NSWR 786. According to Hawkesbury Development Co. Ltd v Ladmark Finance Pty Ltd case, Plaintiff holds all of the shares in the Landmark Finance Pty Ltd. Landmark Finance has issued two debentures to United Dominion Corp (UDC). A request has been sent to court by Plaintiff about declaring both debentures to be invalid due that it is a company object ultra vires. Plaintiff also request that the court to prohibit the enforcement of UDC of the debentures. However, application that request by the plaintiff is rejected and the approval of court to void the declaration of the UDC had failed to be obtained. Due that the plaintiffs are the shareholders of the Landmark Finance, the application should make to Landmark Finance instead of UDC is a third party. If the company is make the act of ultra vires by issuing the debentures to the outsiders, the shareholders or debenture holders have the right to sue the company. However, s20 (2) (a) Companies Act 1965 does not given its protection to debentures holders that secured by float charge and creditors who did not have any charge. According to s20 (2) (b) Companies Act 1965, officers are personally liable for any action taken by member of the company or the company itself. The shareholders or the company itself can sue the officers either former or current that who committed any Ultra Vires transactions which must be completed and realized. However, if any law suit against the officer will not affect the validity as stated in s20 (1) CA 1965, the act will be valid to the ground. According to s20 (2) (c) Companies Act 1965, any petition that may conducted by the Minister to the court to wind up the company that had committed ultra vires actions. The court will conducted its discretion when the company has changed the business totally from its original business. According to s20 (3) Companies Act, if any party has suffered any damage or loss due to the unauthorized act or transfer is yet to be performed and to be restrained under s20 (2) Companies Act 1965, the parties who have sustained the damage can be compensated. By comparing the common law and Companies Act 1965, under the doctrine of ultra vires, it is prefer to go for common law. This is because, under common law, the act of ultra vires is null and void, so the company could avoid for not performing the contract which is outside from their capacity. Besides, the company could not sue or be sued by others party just because they did not perform the contract. However, under the Companies Act 1965, it provides completed transactions remain valid as between the company and the third party and both of the party may sue each other. Let’s compare the case of Ashbury Railway Carriage & Iron Company v Riche under common law and the case of Hawkesbury Development Co Ltd v Landmark Finance Pty Ltd under Companies Act 1965, we can see that under Ashbury case, the ultra vires are meant to protect the company by voiding the contract because it is outside the company’s capacity. The other party could not sue the company although they had entered into the contract because ultra vires exist. Whereas, under the Hawkesbury case, the plaintiff failed to declare the debentures to the third party although it is a company object ultra vires because the plantiff are the shareholders of the Landmark Finance and it should make declaration to Landmark Finance instead of the third party. Conclusion For under the common law, the contract entered by the director of the company or the company itself is ultra vires, the contract is considered void due that it is beyond the company's capacity to perform it. If the contract made by the company with the third party is not fulfill the objects of the company that stated in memorandum of association also considered as ultra vires thus become void. When the contract has become void, the company could not sue or be sued by the third party for not performing the contract. For under the Companies Act 1965, any act that made by the company cannot be declared as invalid by using incapable to perform the act as an excuse. The transactions still remain valid between both the company and the third party that they may able to sue or be sued by each other. Thus, both companies and the third party should consider the capabilities of the company to perform the any act from the contract in order to avoid any ultra vires that may happen and cause the loss to the creditors, shareholders, debenture holders or any related parties.

[1] Pg 205 principle of business law and corporation

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