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If SEBI acts capriciously, then exercise of SEBI may be vitiated under Article 14: Bombay High Court

If SEBI fixes the manner of charging fees in an unreasonable or capricious manner; in such case, its legislative (or executive) exercise may be vitiated by arbitrariness eschewed by Article 14 or unreasonable restriction not being covered under Article 19(6) and thus infringing Article 19(1)(g), held, a division bench of MS Karnik J and SC Gupte J, while adjudicating the matter in Purnartha Investment Advisers Private Limited v. SEBI; [WRIT PETITION (L) NO.638 OF 2021].

The petition challenged constitutional validity and vires of Regulation 3(XII) of the Securities and Exchange Board of India (Investment Advisors) (Amendment) Regulations, 2020 (“Amendment Regulations”), by which Regulation 15A was inserted into the Securities and Exchange Board of India (Investment Advisors) Regulations, 2013 and Circular issued in pursuance thereof, providing for modes of charging fees to their clients by Investment Advisors. The challenge is on the footing of both want of legislative power in SEBI (by delegated authority) to make a provision such as regulation 15A or to issue a Circular such as Circular dated 23.09.2020 and breach of fundamental right of Investment Advisors to carry on a profession of their choice by enacting unreasonable restrictions. In 2013, SEBI issued the Securities and Exchange Board of India (Investment Advisors) Regulations, 2013 for regulating the business of Investment Advisors. On 15.01.2020, SEBI circulated a consultation paper for revision of these original regulations amongst various stakeholders and interested parties. On 23.01.2020, the present Petitioner submitted its response to the consultation paper. On 17.02.2020, after taking into account the response received from various stakeholders to the consultation paper, a proposal was formulated and placed for consideration of the Board. The Board approved the proposal and issued the impugned amendment Regulations on 03.07.2020. The Petitioner challenges the Amendment Regulations to the extent that they introduce Regulation 15A into the original SEBI Regulations of 2013. Regulation 15A provides for fees to be charged by Investment Advisors and is in the following terms: – “15A. Investment Advisor shall be entitled to charge fees for providing investment advice from a client in the manner as specified by the Board.”

The Court upon considering the aforesaid facts stated that; “Petitioner herein cannot seek much assistance from this decision. In our case the SEBI Act makes particular provisions empowering the Board to regulate the working of Investment Advisors. The profession or business of Investment Advisor is not a traditional profession having its own customs and conventions. Nothing at least has been pointed out to us by learned counsel for the Petitioner in that behalf. If anything, Investment Advice is a profession/business which has come about as an adjunct of the securities market; the Investment Advisor works because investors need professional advice for participating in the affairs of the securities market. It is the statutory duty of SEBI to protect such investors, and develop and regulate that market inter alia by regulating the working of Investment Advisors. If, for performing such duty, SEBI fixes the manner of charging of fees by Investment Advisors or the maximum permissible fees, such fixation per se cannot be faulted as being violative of Article 14 or 19(1)(g). It is another matter, if, whilst fixing these matters, SEBI acts in an unreasonable or capricious manner; in such case, its legislative (or executive) exercise may be vitiated by arbitrariness eschewed by Article 14 or unreasonable restriction not being covered under Article 19(6) and thus infringing Article 19(1)(g). That, we are afraid, has not been the case here.”

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