Setback to Birlas in battle over Priyamvada’s property

April 1st, 2008 - 12:30 am ICT by admin  

New Delhi, March 31 (IANS) The Birla family, one of India’s leading business clans, Monday suffered yet another setback in its legal battle with former employee R.S. Lodha over the business house’s estates worth over Rs.50 billion. The Supreme Court Monday ruled that three members of the Birla family cannot have any say in the authentication of the controversial 1999 will of the late Priyamvada Birla, the widow of late patriarch M.P. Birla, at this juncture.

Authentication of the will after examination of its validity and genuineness by a high court is a legal prerequisite for its execution.

While dismissing the Birla family plea to let them have a say during the authentication of the will by the Calcutta High Court, which was undertaken at the request of their former employee Lodha, a bench of Justice S.B. Sinha also imposed a fine of Rs.250,000 on the three Birla family members for stalling the authentication process at the high court.

The bench, which also included Justice L.S. Panta, directed the three Birlas - Krishna Kumar Birla, Yashovardhan Birla and Basant Kumar Birla - to deposit the money with the member secretary of the West Bengal Legal Service Authority within four weeks.

In its 99-page ruling, the bench also directed the Calcutta High Court to conduct the authentication of the will, also known as probate proceedings, at the earliest.

“We are of the opinion that the probate proceedings should be taken up for hearing by the high court as expeditiously as possible,” the bench ruled.

The apex court ruling, however, appeared to be only a temporary setback to the Birlas as the bench did not negate their right to have a say in the authentication in absolute terms. It merely ruled out the prospect of having their say at present.

This is because while upholding a December 2006 judgement of the Calcutta High Court on a similar bunch of petitions by the three Birla family members, the bench ruled, “In our opinion, the high court was right in opining that a caveatable interest (the right to have a say in a legal proceedings) may arise only after the suit for enforcement of the mutual will is decreed and not prior thereto.”

Incidentally, the bench did not appear impressed with the Birlas’ submission that Lodha was an outsider and cannot have any right over Priyamvada Birla’s property.

“Submission that R.S. Lodha is an outsider and the bequest is unnatural does not appeal to us. Such a question cannot be determined at this stage,” the bench said.

Endorsing late Priayamvada Birla’s right to bequeath her property to anyone she liked, the bench said, “Why an owner of property executes a will in favour of another is matter of his or her choice.”

“One may by a will deprive his close family members, including his sons and daughters. She had a right to do so,” said the bench.

It added: “The court is only concerned about the genuineness of the will. If it is found to be valid, no further question as to why did she do so, would be entertained by the court. A will may be executed in favour of others, including animals.”

The bench ruling came on a bunch of petitions by the Birlas and Lodha, staking claim on the estate worth over Rs.50 billion.

On the basis of the will, chartered accountant Lodha had claimed that the entire Birla estate had been bequeathed to him. He had subsequently moved the Calcutta High Court for mandatory authentication of the will before its execution.

The three Birlas moved the Calcutta High Court, contending that they too should have a say in the authentication and adjudication of Lodha’s probate petition.

But first a single bench and then a division bench of the high court rejected the Birlas’. The Birlas had approached the apex court in February this year.

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