Corporate law (also known as business law or enterprise law or sometimes company law) is the body of law governing the rights, relations, and conduct of persons, companies, organizations and businesses. The term refers to the legal practice of law relating to corporations, or to the theory of corporations. Corporate law often describes the law relating to matters which derive directly from the life-cycle of a corporation. It thus encompasses the formation, funding, governance, and death of a corporation.
While the minute nature of corporate governance as personified by share ownership, capital market, and business culture rules differ, similar legal characteristics - and legal problems - exist across many jurisdictions. Corporate law regulates how corporations, investors, shareholders, directors, employees, creditors, and other stakeholders such as consumers, the community, and the environment interact with one another. Whilst the term company or business law is colloquially used interchangeably with corporate law, business law often refers to wider concepts of commercial law, that is, the law relating to commercial or business related activities. In some cases, this may include matters relating to corporate governance or financial law. When used as a substitute for corporate law, business law means the law relating to the business corporation (or business enterprises), i.e. capital raising (through equity or debt), company formation, registration, etc.
The law of business organizations originally derived from the common law of England, and has evolved significantly in the 20th century. In common law countries today, the most commonly addressed forms are:
- Limited company
- Unlimited company
- Limited liability partnership
- Limited partnership
- Not-for-profit corporation
- Company limited by guarantee
- Sole Proprietorship
The proprietary limited company is a statutory business form in several countries, including Australia. Many countries have forms of business entity unique to that country, although there are equivalents elsewhere. Examples are the limited liability company (LLC) and the limited liability limited partnership (LLLP) in the United States. Other types of business organizations, such as cooperatives, credit unions and publicly owned enterprises, can be established with purposes that parallel, supersede, or even replace the profit maximization mandate of business corporations.
There are various types of company that can be formed in different jurisdictions, but the most common forms of company are:
- a company limited by guarantee. Commonly used where companies are formed for non-commercial purposes, such as clubs or charities. The members guarantee the payment of certain (usually nominal) amounts if the company goes into insolvent liquidation, but otherwise they have no economic rights in relation to the company .
- a company limited by guarantee with a share capital. A hybrid entity, usually used where the company is formed for non-commercial purposes, but the activities of the company are partly funded by investors who expect a return.
- a company limited by shares. The most common form of company used for business ventures.
- an unlimited company either with or without a share capital. This is a hybrid company, a company similar to its limited company (Ltd.) counterpart but where the members or shareholders do not benefit from limited liability should the company ever go into formal liquidation.
There are, however, many specific categories of corporations and other business organizations which may be formed in various countries and jurisdictions throughout the world.
Corporate legal personality
One of the key legal features of corporations are their separate legal personality, also known as "personhood" or being "artificial persons". However, the separate legal personality was not confirmed under English law until 1895 by the House of Lords in Salomon v. Salomon & Co. Separate legal personality often has unintended consequences, particularly in relation to smaller, family companies. In B v. B  Fam 181 it was held that a discovery order obtained by a wife against her husband was not effective against the husband's company as it was not named in the order and was separate and distinct from him. And in Macaura v. Northern Assurance Co Ltd a claim under an insurance policy failed where the insured had transferred timber from his name into the name of a company wholly owned by him, and it was subsequently destroyed in a fire; as the property now belonged to the company and not to him, he no longer had an "insurable interest" in it and his claim failed.
Separate legal personality allows corporate groups flexibility in relation to tax planning, and management of overseas liability. For instance in Adams v. Cape Industries plc it was held that victims of asbestos poisoning at the hands of an American subsidiary could not sue the English parent in tort. Whilst academic discussion highlights certain specific situations where courts are generally prepared to "pierce the corporate veil", to look directly at, and impose liability directly on the individuals behind the company; the actually practice of piercing the corporate veil is, at English law, non-existent. However, the court will look beyond the corporate form where the corporation is a sham or perpetuating a fraud. The most commonly cited examples are:
- where the company is a mere façade
- where the company is effectively just the agent of its members or controllers
- where a representative of the company has taken some personal responsibility for a statement or action
- where the company is engaged in fraud or other criminal wrongdoing
- where the natural interpretation of a contract or statute is as a reference to the corporate group and not the individual company
- where permitted by statute (for example, many jurisdictions provide for shareholder liability where a company breaches environmental protection laws)
Capacity and powers
Historically, because companies are artificial persons created by operation of law, the law prescribed what the company could and could not do. Usually this was an expression of the commercial purpose which the company was formed for, and came to be referred to as the company's objects, and the extent of the objects are referred to as the company's capacity. If an activity fell outside the company's capacity it was said to be ultra vires and void.
By way of distinction, the organs of the company were expressed to have various corporate powers. If the objects were the things that the company was able to do, then the powers were the means by which it could do them. Usually expressions of powers were limited to methods of raising capital, although from earlier times distinctions between objects and powers have caused lawyers difficulty. Most jurisdictions have now modified the position by statute, and companies generally have capacity to do all the things that a natural person could do, and power to do it in any way that a natural person could do it.
However, references to corporate capacity and powers have not quite been consigned to the dustbin of legal history. In many jurisdictions, directors can still be liable to their shareholders if they cause the company to engage in businesses outside its objects, even if the transactions are still valid as between the company and the third party. And many jurisdictions also still permit transactions to be challenged for lack of "corporate benefit", where the relevant transaction has no prospect of being for the commercial benefit of the company or its shareholders.
As artificial persons, companies can only act through human agents. The main agent who deals with the company's management and business is the board of directors, but in many jurisdictions other officers can be appointed too. The board of directors is normally elected by the members, and the other officers are normally appointed by the board. These agents enter into contracts on behalf of the company with third parties.
Although the company's agents owe duties to the company (and, indirectly, to the shareholders) to exercise those powers for a proper purpose, generally speaking third parties' rights are not impugned if it transpires that the officers were acting improperly. Third parties are entitled to rely on the ostensible authority of agents held out by the company to act on its behalf. A line of common law cases reaching back to Royal British Bank v Turquand established in common law that third parties were entitled to assume that the internal management of the company was being conducted properly, and the rule has now been codified into statute in most countries.
Accordingly, companies will normally be liable for all the act and omissions of their officers and agents. This will include almost all torts, but the law relating to crimes committed by companies is complex, and varies significantly between countries.
Corporate governance is primarily the study of the power relations among a corporation's senior executives, its board of directors and those who elect them (shareholders in the "general meeting" and employees), as well as other stakeholders, such as creditors, consumers, the environment and the community at large. One of the main differences between different countries in the internal form of companies is between a two-tier and a one tier board. The United Kingdom, the United States, and most Commonwealth countries have single unified boards of directors. In Germany, companies have two tiers, so that shareholders (and employees) elect a "supervisory board", and then the supervisory board chooses the "management board". There is the option to use two tiers in France, and in the new European Companies (Societas Europaea).
Recent literature, especially from the United States, has begun to discuss corporate governance in the terms of management science. While post-war discourse centred on how to achieve effective "corporate democracy" for shareholders or other stakeholders, many scholars have shifted to discussing the law in terms of principal–agent problems. On this view, the basic issue of corporate law is that when a "principal" party delegates his property (usually the shareholder's capital, but also the employee's labour) into the control of an "agent" (i.e. the director of the company) there is the possibility that the agent will act in his own interests, be "opportunistic", rather than fulfill the wishes of the principal. Reducing the risks of this opportunism, or the "agency cost", is said to be central to the goal of corporate law.
In most jurisdictions, directors owe strict duties of good faith, as well as duties of care and skill, to safeguard the interests of the company and the members. In many developed countries outside the English speaking world, company boards are appointed as representatives of both shareholders and employees to "codetermine" company strategy. Corporate law is often divided into corporate governance (which concerns the various power relations within a corporation) and corporate finance (which concerns the rules on how capital is used).
Directors also owe strict duties not to permit any conflict of interest or conflict with their duty to act in the best interests of the company. This rule is so strictly enforced that, even where the conflict of interest or conflict of duty is purely hypothetical, the directors can be forced to disgorge all personal gains arising from it. In Aberdeen Ry v. Blaikie (1854) 1 Macq HL 461 Lord Cranworth stated in his judgment that,
"A corporate body can only act by agents, and it is, of course, the duty of those agents so to act as best to promote the interests of the corporation whose affairs they are conducting. Such agents have duties to discharge of a fiduciary nature towards their principal. And it is a rule of universal application that no one, having such duties to discharge, shall be allowed to enter into engagements in which he has, or can have, a personal interest conflicting or which possibly may conflict, with the interests of those whom he is bound to protect... So strictly is this principle adhered to that no question is allowed to be raised as to the fairness or unfairness of the contract entered into..."
However, in many jurisdictions the members of the company are permitted to ratify transactions which would otherwise fall foul of this principle. It is also largely accepted in most jurisdictions that this principle should be capable of being abrogated in the company's constitution.
The standard of skill and care that a director owes is usually described as acquiring and maintaining sufficient knowledge and understanding of the company's business to enable him to properly discharge his duties. This duty enables the company to seek compensation from its director if it can be proved that a director has not shown reasonable skill or care which in turn has caused the company to incur a loss. In many jurisdictions, where a company continues to trade despite foreseeable bankruptcy, the directors can be forced to account for trading losses personally. Directors are also strictly charged to exercise their powers only for a proper purpose. For instance, were a director to issue a large number of new shares, not for the purposes of raising capital but in order to defeat a potential takeover bid, that would be an improper purpose.
Company law theory
Ronald Coase has pointed out, all business organizations represent an attempt to avoid certain costs associated with doing business. Each is meant to facilitate the contribution of specific resources - investment capital, knowledge, relationships, and so forth - towards a venture which will prove profitable to all contributors. Except for the partnership, all business forms are designed to provide limited liability to both members of the organization and external investors. Business organizations originated with agency law, which permits an agent to act on behalf of a principal, in exchange for the principal assuming equal liability for the wrongful acts committed by the agent. For this reason, all partners in a typical general partnership may be held liable for the wrongs committed by one partner. Those forms that provide limited liability are able to do so because the state provides a mechanism by which businesses that follow certain guidelines will be able to escape the full liability imposed under agency law. The state provides these forms because it has an interest in the strength of the companies that provide jobs and services therein, but also has an interest in monitoring and regulating their behaviour.
Members of a company generally have rights against each other and against the company, as framed under the company's constitution. However, members cannot generally claim against third parties who cause damage to the company which results in a diminution in the value of their shares or others membership interests because this is treated as "reflective loss" and the law normally regards the company as the proper claimant in such cases.
In relation to the exercise of their rights, minority shareholders usually have to accept that, because of the limits of their voting rights, they cannot direct the overall control of the company and must accept the will of the majority (often expressed as majority rule). However, majority rule can be iniquitous, particularly where there is one controlling shareholder. Accordingly, a number of exceptions have developed in law in relation to the general principle of majority rule.
- Where the majority shareholder(s) are exercising their votes to perpetrate a fraud on the minority, the courts may permit the minority to sue
- members always retain the right to sue if the majority acts to invade their personal rights, e.g. where the company's affairs are not conducted in accordance with the company's constitution (this position has been debated because the extent of a personal right is not set in law). Macdougall v Gardiner and Pender v Lushington present irreconcilable differences in this area.
- in many jurisdictions it is possible for minority shareholders to take a representative or derivative action in the name of the company, where the company is controlled by the alleged wrongdoers
Through the operational life of the corporation, perhaps the most crucial aspect of corporate law relates to raising capital for the business to operate. The law, as it relates to corporate finance, not only provides the framework for which a business raises funds - but also provides a forum for principles and policies which drive the fundraising, to be taken seriously. Two primary methods of financing exists with regard to corporate financing, these are:
- Equity financing; and
- Debt financing
Each has relative advantages and disadvantages, both at law and economically. Additional methods of raising capital necessary to finance its operations is that of retained profits Various combinations of financing structures have the capacity to produce fine-tuned transactions which, using the advantages of each form of financing, support the limitations of the corporate form, its industry, or economic sector. A mix of both debt and equity is crucial to the sustained health of the company, and its overall market value is independent of its capital structure. One notable difference is that interest payments to debt is tax deductible whilst payment of dividends are not, this will incentivise a company to issue debt financing rather than preferred stock in order to reduce their tax exposure.
Shares and share capital
A company limited by shares, whether public or private, must have at least one issued share; however, depending on the corporate structure, the formatting may differ. If a company wishes to raise capital through equity, it will usually be done by issuing shares. (sometimes called "stock" (not to be confused with stock-in-trade)) or warrants. In the common law, whilst a shareholder is often colloquially referred to as the owner of the company - it is clear that the shareholder is not an owner of the company but makes the shareholder a member of the company and entitles them to enforce the provisions of the company's constitution against the company and against other members. A share is an item of property, and can be sold or transferred. Shares also normally have a nominal or par value, which is the limit of the shareholder's liability to contribute to the debts of the company on an insolvent liquidation. Shares usually confer a number of rights on the holder. These will normally include:
- voting rights
- rights to dividends (or payments made by companies to their shareholders) declared by the company
- rights to any return of capital either upon redemption of the share, or upon the liquidation of the company
- in some countries, shareholders have preemption rights, whereby they have a preferential right to participate in future share issues by the company
Companies may issue different types of shares, called "classes" of shares, offering different rights to the shareholders depending on the underlying regulatory rules pertaining to corporate structures, taxation, and capital market rules. A company might issue both ordinary shares and preference shares, with the two types having different voting and/or economic rights. It might provide that preference shareholders shall each receive a cumulative preferred dividend of a certain amount per annum, but the ordinary shareholders shall receive everything else. Corporations will structure capital raising in this way in order to appeal to different lenders in the market by providing different incentives for investment. The total value of issued shares in a company is said to represent its equity capital. Most jurisdictions regulate the minimum amount of capital which a company may have, although some jurisdictions prescribe minimum amounts of capital for companies engaging in certain types of business (e.g. banking, insurance etc.). Similarly, most jurisdictions regulate the maintenance of equity capital, and prevent companies returning funds to shareholders by way of distribution when this might leave the company financially exposed. Often this extends to prohibiting a company from providing financial assistance for the purchase of its own shares.