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Monday, June 05, 2023

Who is litigating cheque bounce cases?

by Siddarth Raman.

Cheque bounce cases under Section 138 of the Negotiable Instruments Act are an important source of case load at the Indian judiciary. This has inspired many attempts at modifying laws and court procedures so as to reduce the burden. In this journey, empirical evidence about the nature of the litigants is required. In this article, we establish a dataset about these matters, and measure the shares of financial firms, non-financial firms and individuals. We find that in Mumbai, financial firms filed 52% of cases, and that 83% of cases were against individuals. Cases filed by financial firms are likely to be disposed quicker than those filed by individuals. We explore how the cheque is used as a means of credit, and why financial firms accept them as collateral / security. It appears that financial firms are using cheques and Section 138 as a coping mechanism for poor civil remedies. While there is a need for legal system reform in the context of S.138 of the N.I. Act, it would also be useful to find solutions in banking regulation and personal bankruptcy law. We conclude with a recommendation of caution. Just as the amendment in 1988 has led to certain behaviours and industry practices, new solutions will alter the equilibrium, creating new incentives and new behaviours. The patterns seen in Mumbai are not present in regions of lower economic activity like Jhabua-Nimar. We need to be aware of the wide differences across different districts and states of India, and be mindful of complexity, as we proceed on the path to legal system reform.


Section 138 of the Negotiable Instruments Act, which was introduced in 1988, creates the possibility of imprisonment for upto two years, a fine upto twice the amount of the cheque, or both, in response to cheque bouncing. The Act prescribes a six month time horizon for disposing these cases. This 1988 amendment is widely used as an example of the need for judicial impact assessment: The legislative action substantially enhanced the load upon the judicial branch, but there was a lack of commensurate operational planning and resourcing to deal with the enhanced case load.

What fraction of the pending cases or the flow of new cases emanates from this? A precise answer to this is not feasible under the present state of legal system data in India, but it is likely to be about 15 per cent (Chapter 3, Law Commission of India, 2014 [1] ; Supreme Court in Makwana Mangaldas Tulsidas vs The State Of Gujarat, 2018 [2] ; Mahadik D, 2018 [3] ). An important paper in this literature, Damle and Gulati, 2022 [4] examines 363,720 cases across 8 States and 2 Union Territories and estimates that cheque dishonour cases represent 13.2% of the courts' workload and take 395 days for disposal.

One pathway to legal system reform lies in an 80:20 analysis, in a vertical approach of finding solutions that are specific to certain classes of matters. Many thinkers have proposed making progress on S.138 of the N.I. Act as a component of legal system reform (Law Commission of India, 2008 [5] ; Law Commission of India, 2009 [6] ). Alongside this is the proposal for decriminalisation of cheque bouncing, broadly drawing on the concept that debtors prisons are not how modern economies operate. All these discussions require more knowledge about the nature of litigants in these matters, which is presently lacking.

This article seeks to fill this gap. In their paper, Damle and Gulati, 2022 [4] establish that the impact of Section 138 cases on caseload, pendency and time to disposal varies by State. We ask the questions: Who are the litigants in Section 138 cases? Does the nature of cases vary based on who the participants are? Do these characteristics vary based on location?


The e-courts database for district courts was used to build a dataset about pending and disposed cases relating to Section 138 of the Negotiable Instruments Act. This was done for India's most advanced region (Bombay). For a comparison, this was also done for the group of districts (termed "homogeneous region" by CMIE) with the highest share of households in agriculture. This is the "Jhabua-Nimar" homogeneous region, which comprises six districts in Madhya Pradesh - Alirajpur, Barwani, Burhanpur, Dhar, East Nimar (Khandwa), Jhabua, West Nimar (Khargone). These two datasets thus show the full range from the old India to the new India.

Litigants were classified into three groups:

  • Financial Firms
  • Non-Financial Firms
  • Individuals

This was done through a process of looking for keywords in the name:

  1. Financial Firms typically have the terms bank, finance, invest, loan, and related keywords and variations.
  2. Non Financial Firms have terms like ltd, pvt, corporation.
  3. Non Financial Firms may contain common nouns from the English Language.
  4. Litigants with the term proprietor in the name were categorised as individuals.
  5. Those that did not fit these criteria were categorised as individuals.

This classification heuristic requires a standard corpus of English words. We used the NLTK Wordnet corpus and identified all words in the names of litigants that overlapped. A manual cleanup was required as the corpus contained some proper nouns. We assessed the words which made up 95% of the instances of overlap with the corpus and eliminated names and common nouns that could be Indian names ("Rout", "Harsh", "Baby", etc.). In Mumbai, we found 8133 unique words appearing 763,593 times. The 95% filter resulted in 1,165 unique words in Mumbai. For Jhabua-Nimar, we found 1,006 unique words appearing 19,974 times. The 95% filter resulted in 345 unique words.

These heuristics will of course engage in a small rate of misclassification. Some names like Banku and Chitra containing the terms Bank and Chit could be classified incorrectly. We do not account for firms that have common nouns in their name from languages other than English. In many cases, an individual proprietorship may have the term company or finance in their name. The methodology does not take into account spelling errors.

In order to assess the accuracy of the work, it is important to estimate the defect rates associated with these heuristics. We manually analysed a random sample of 100 cases (and 200 litigants) in each district, in order to measure the error rate. We found two errors in our Mumbai analysis. They are:

  1. Ms M. D. Vora Co. is a non-financial firm categorized as an individual.
  2. Alexander Xavier Dsouza is an individual categorized as a non-financial firm. Alexander is present in the wordnet corpus, and appears 16 time in the dataset which puts it in the bottom 3% of words by frequency, which is why it was excluded in the manual cleanup.

Similarly, we found seven errors in our Jhabua-Nimar analysis. They are:

    Two cases where non-financial firms with names in Hindi were misclassified as individuals:

  1. Shri Krishna Prajapati Sakh Sahkari Sanstha Maryadit.
  2. Shubhalakshmi Sakh Sahkari Sastha Mrya. Dhamnod By Nitesh Bhawsar.

    Two cases where financial firms with typos were misclassified as individuals:


    One case of an individual misclassified as a financial firm:

  1. Kashish Finance H.U.F Propriter Vijay Rathore.

    Two cases where the State was a party. The State was misclassified as a non-financial firm.

This suggests a defect rate of 1% for Mumbai and 3.5% for Jhabua-Nimar. This gives us a sense of the extent to which the estimates presented ahead should be treated with caution.


In Mumbai, we have a dataset of 417,437 cases. Of these, 317,225 are disposed, and 99,712 cases are pending.

Table 1: Section 138, NI Act cases in Mumbai district courts classified by Type of Litigant

Respondents →
Petitioners ↓
Financial firm Non-financial
Individual Total
Financial firm 0.2% 6.5% 46.2% 52.8%
Non-financial firm 0.1% 7.0% 21.3% 28.4%
Individual 0.2% 4.8% 13.8% 18.8%
Grand Total 0.5% 18.3% 81.2% 100.0%

This yields the facts:

  • Finance firms filed 53% of cases, non-financial firms 28%, and individuals 19%.
  • 81% of cases were filed against individuals, 18% against non-financial firms and less than 0.5% against financial firms.
  • The biggest chunk of cases are financial firms vs individuals - 46%, followed by non-financial vs individuals - 21%.

In Jhabua-Nimar, we have a dataset of 22,564 cases. Of these, 14,130 are disposed, and 8,434 cases are pending.

Table 2: Section 138, NI Act cases in Jhabua-Nimar district courts classified by Type of Litigant

Respondents →
Petitioners ↓
Financial firm Non-financial
Individual Total
Financial firm 0.0% 0.2% 12.3% 12.5%
Non-financial firm 0.0% 0.6% 5.2% 5.8%
Individual 0.1% 2.1% 79.5% 81.2%
Grand Total 0.1% 2.9% 97.0% 100.0%

  • Individuals filed 82% of cases, finance firms 12%, and non-financial firms 6%.
  • 97% of cases were filed against individuals, 3% against non-financial firms.
  • The biggest chunk of cases are individuals vs individuals - 80%, followed by finance firms vs individuals - 12%.

At an overall level, disposal rates in Mumbai are close to 90%+ for years before 2015, from where we see a steady decline in share of cases disposed. Thus today's pending cases are largely those that began after 2015.

Figure 1: Total Cases by Year and % of Cases disposed as of April 2023

In Figure 1 above, the blue bars on the chart are the total number of cases filed. The orange line depicts the % of the cases filed in that year which stand disposed as of April 2023 when the data was analysed.

In Mumbai, we see an interesting pattern when we compare the disposal rates of cases filed by financial firms, non-financial firms and cases filed by individuals.

Table 3: Share of cases filed in a specific year that stand disposed as of 2023

Year Financial
2015 74.0% 65.9% 66.9%
2016 61.1% 60.7% 66.4%
2017 77.8% 50.8% 51.1%
2018 75.9% 47.9% 41.1%
2019 48.8% 42.8% 28.9%
2020 75.3% 35.0% 27.6%
2021 42.2% 25.5% 19.6%

This table shows the share of cases that were filed in Mumbai in a certain year that are now disposed. An important finding here is that cases filed by financial firms have a much higher likelihood of getting disposed in 2-3 years compared with cases filed by individuals.

Figure 2: Cases filed between 2015-2021 by Status and Type of Litigant

In Figure 2 above, we see that Financial Firms account for 60% of the total cases filed, but constitute ~70% of the cases that have been disposed, and account for only 50% of the pending cases.

We see no such patterns in Jhabua-Nimar with disposal rates not being dependent on the nature litigant filing the case.


We now have new facts about litigation associated with the S.138 of the NI Act. What have we learned? How does this change our mind? What are the downstream implications of this new knowledge?

Most attempts at reforming Section 138 have focused on on improving the processing speed within courts. Little has been done towards preventing cases emerging in the first place. Our data shows that financial firms are the main petitioners in Mumbai, with a higher disposal rate than individual litigants or non-financial firms. This may reflect greater organisational capability in financial firms. Cases filed by individuals or non-financial firms vary based on the nature of contract entered into by the two parties. We speculate that cases filed by financial firms are mostly related to loans.

Financial firms often use cheques as an alternative form of collateral. This can help individuals with poor credit ratings to access loans. Should there be a loan default, there is the choice of filing a criminal case. This process is expedited by Section 138 that requires petitioners to file a case within 45 days of the cheque bounce. Banking regulations may also be a contributor. In December 2016, the Supreme Court ruled that officers of private banks are to be treated as public servants under the Prevention of Corruption Act. Financial firms have practices to ensure that a debt is indeed irrecoverable before they can classify it as bad debt. The large volume of cases from banks may be a mechanism to check against petty corruption from branch officials and comply with regulatory requirements.

Filing a Section 138, NI Act case not only allows a bank official to demonstrate effort and intent, it also allows the lender access to the coercive power of the State. The police arriving with a non-bailable warrant at your doorstep is a persuasive means of negotiating with a borrower. Petitioners in a Section 138 case are using this to recover dues. Are there better civil alternatives to debt recovery? How does their efficiency in terms of time to disposal compare with those in Section 138 cases? As we think of improving processes, we should consider the possibility that making Section 138 cases more efficient may prevent litigants from considering civil recourse. The combination of slow civil courts and under-developed credit markets make Section 138 cases an attractive proposition for financial firms. Accepting cheques as security may have developed as an industry practice because it allows financial firms to be less diligent when making loans as they can now rely on the criminal justice system to coerce settlement. In addition to court processes and legislative changes, remedies to the burden of Section 138 on the Indian courts may also lie in the realm of banking regulation, credit practices, and personal bankruptcy law.

The introduction of Section 138 has resulted in some discernable behaviors from financial firms. Future changes to the status quo will invariably alter incentives resulting in different behavioral patterns among litigants. The variation in litigant composition between different regions illustrates that litigation patterns are shaped by local context. The patterns observed in a metro like Mumbai, largely influenced by financial firms, don't find a parallel in areas such as Jhabua-Nimar. Attempts at legal system reform must account for the disparities across the various states and districts of India. We caution against one-size-fits-all solutions and suggest that solutions be crafted keeping in mind the local context.


[1] 245th Report On Arrears And Backlog - Law Commission of India, 2014 . Retrieved from 20th Law Commission of India.

[2] Makwana Mangaldas Tulsidas vs The State Of Gujarat , Order dated 5 March, 2020. Retrieved from Supreme Court of India.

[3] Mahadik D, 2018. Analyses of Causes for Pendency in High Courts and Subordinate Courts in Maharashtra. Retrieved from Department of Justice.

[4] Damle D, Gulati K et al. 2022. Characterizing Cheque Dishonor Cases in India: Causes for Delays and Policy Implications. SSRN.

[5] 213th Report on Fast Track Magisterial Courts for Dishonoured Cheque Cases, 2008. Retrieved from 18th Law Commission of India.

[6] 230th Report on Reforms in the Indian Judiciary - Some Suggestions, 2009. Retrieved from 18th Law Commission of India.

Siddarth Raman is a researcher at XKDR Forum.

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