The concept of minority is dealt with differently in law. The laws for minors are different than those of adults. In India, a minor is a person who has not attained the age of 18 years. Minority is distinguished because it is a general belief that those who have not attained a certain maturity level do not possess the cognitive capacity to perform certain acts or certain duties. Generally, this maturity level is presumed to be over the age of 18, i.e. a person who has attained the age of 18 has acquired a certain level of reasoning. Though it may not always be true, the law sets the age of 18 as a barrier, and be it criminal law, civil law, contract law etc., a minor cannot qualify for certain responsibilities.
The contract law of India, in the form of the Indian Contract Act of 1872, says that a person is incompetent to enter into a contract if he has not attained the age of majority, i.e. the age of 18 years. This means that if a person who, at the point of entering into a contract, was a minor, then that contract will be void, which means that it will not have any legal standing and it cannot be enforced in a court of law. No person can submit that contract and get his/her rights enforced or liabilities sustained. Several times, the courts of India have affirmed this stance, and one such case was Mohori Bibee v Dharmodas Ghose, which came as an early example, and is discussed in the following text.
Facts of Mohori Bibee v Dharmodas Ghose Case
Dharmodas Ghose, the respondent in this case, was a minor, and the sole owner of his immovable property, that was located in Calcutta. His mother was the sole guardian of that property. On 20th July, 1895, the respondent executed a mortgage deed in favour of the plaintiff, Brahmo Dutt and secured an amount of Rs. 20,000 along with 12 per cent interest. At the time of making the mortgage, the respondent had not attained the age of majority. When Brahmo Dutt was away, the transaction of the mortgage was carried out by his attorney Kedar Nath Mitter, and the money was given by his manager Dedraj. As supposedly contended by the respondent’s mother Smt. Jogendranandini Dasi, while the transaction was in consideration, she had sent a letter to Mr. Kedar Nath Mitter, through her attorney Mr. Bhupendra Nath Bose, wherein the minority of the respondent was stated, and she said that the amount lent would be at the lender’s risk, and Dharmodas Ghose would not be responsible. Kedar Nath was aware of the respondent’s minority, nevertheless, he furthered the mortgage, and also enclosed it with a declaration by the respondent which stated that the respondent had attained the age of majority, after providing them assurance.
However, on 10th September 1895, an action was brought against Brahmo Dutt by Dharmodas Ghose and his mother, which called for the declaration of the mortgage as void, owing to the respondent’s minority.
Judgement of Mohori Bibee v Dharmodas Ghose Case
The Court of First Instance heard the case and granted relief to the minor. The case was then appealed by Brahmo Dutt in the Appellate Court, but it was dismissed. When the case went to the Privy Council, Brahmo Dutt had passed away, and was succeeded by his wife, Mohori Bibee, as well as Mr. Kedar Nath Mitter and Mr. Dedraj.
The appellants’ side, now Mohori Bibee, contended that the respondent, Dharmodas Ghose, had, in fact, attained the age of majority during the execution of the mortgage, but he had concealed this fact and now presented himself to be a minor at that time. At this point, it is important to note that there were only a few months left before Dharmodas would have attained the age of majority, thus the contention by the appellants. It was also contended that the appellant, Brahmo Dutt, had no knowledge of the minority of the respondent, and that this knowledge as being imputed to Mr. Kedar Nath should not automatically be imputed to Mr. Dedraj, since he was acting on behalf of Brahmo Dutt and not Kedar Nath. Further, the rule of estoppel was put forth by the appellants, which did not allow the respondent to claim what he was not, at the time of entering into the contract. The relief sought was that the respondent was himself not entitled to any relief, and on the contrary, he was liable to pay the amount advanced, as per the Indian Contract Act and the Specific Relief Act, 1877.
The respondents simply reiterated their stand regarding the minority of Dharmodas Ghose, and also said that Mr. Kedar Nath as well as Mr. Dedraj was aware of the fact that the respondent was a minor at the time of making the contract. They contended that the declaration of the mortgage agreement be stated as void.
The fact that Mr. Dedraj and Mr. Kedar Nath were acting together on behalf of Brahmo Dutt was pointed out by the Privy Council, and it stated that this point in itself proved that the imputation of the knowledge of minority to Mr. Dedraj is valid.
Section 115 of the Indian Evidence Act states the rule of estoppel, but the Privy Council held that this provision could not be applicable to the instant case since both the parties were aware of the minority of the respondent. Had the appellants been unaware of this fact, the rule of estoppel would have come into force. The Council also cited the case of Nelson v. Stocker, where the rule of estoppel could not be enforced in cases of minority. Their Lordships also took into account the provision of Section 19 of the Indian Contract Act, which talks about the voidability of those agreements where the consent taken is not free. They stated that if fraud or misrepresentation does not affect the consent to the agreement, then such an agreement cannot be made voidable when in fact, it is void.
Section 64 of the Contract Act, as pleaded by the appellants, states that if a party to a contract, at whose option the contract is voidable, opts to rescind the contract, then it must restore the benefits to the other party, if received any. Their Lordships held that this provision was applicable where the contract was entered into by persons competent to contract, and not by minors. Thus, the Privy Council upheld the decision of the lower court in the respondent’s favour, whereby he was not liable to return the money advanced by the appellants.
The mortgage, in this case, was executed under the Transfer of Property Act, 1882, but the Act itself states, under Section 7, that a person can only transfer a property when he/she is competent to contract. Moreover, Section 4 states that those provisions that require entering into contracts by parties form a part of the Indian Contract Act. The case, even though instituted on the basis of the provisions of the Indian Contract Act, actually fell under the Transfer of Property Act.
The Privy Council went on to observe that the combined interpretation of Sections 2, 10 and 11 of the Indian Contract Act made it clear that all parties to a contract should be competent to contract. Minority of a person is considered an incompetency, and a minor’s agreement is void ab initio. Thus, there arises no question of the agreement being void or voidable, when the agreement at the initial point was invalid. A minor is not even liable for necessaries under the Contract Law; the Partnership Law also allows the minor to enjoy only the benefits of a partnership, and cannot be made personally liable for any obligations thereunder.
The relief that the appellants sought regarding the repayment of the amount advanced by them was also rejected by the Privy Council, as it relied on the case of Thurston v. Nottingham Permanent Benefit Building Society where it was held that a Court of Equity cannot compel a person to pay any amount of a transaction which has been declared by the Legislature as void, against that person only.
Overview of Mohori Bibee v Dharmodas Ghose
The age of majority in India is governed by the Indian Majority Act of 1875, which sets the age of majority and minority for people having their domicile in India. In Kashiba v. Shripat, it was held that the competency to enter into a contract under the Indian Contract Act was determined by the law of domicile. However, this viewpoint has been applied as well as overlooked by the courts. The diverse view on this point shows that the law of domicile is more applicable in cases of immovable property where the minority of a party is in question, and not in cases of mercantile contracts.
However, there are still three major exceptions to the rule of incompetency of a minor to contract:
- A minor cannot be a promisor, but he can be a promisee in a contract. Therefore, if the minor has performed his part of the promise but the other party refuses to, or simply hasn’t performed their part, then the minor, in the capacity of a promisee, can enforce the contract.
- A minor, in almost all cases, has a guardian with him/her to fulfil certain requirements on behalf of the minor. Such a guardian may be a natural guardian of the minor, such as a parent, or the court may appoint a person fit for guardianship of the minor. It may so happen that a guardian may enter into a contract which is for the benefit of the minor. In such a situation, it is in fact the minor who has entered into the contract, but for the purposes of competency, the guardian acts on behalf of the minor.
- Under the Indian Apprenticeship Act of 1850, a contract of apprentice entered into by a guardian acting on behalf of the minor is valid and binds the minor.
The contract entered into by a minor is void from the starting. A minor is considered as incapable of contracting, and as a result, the contract cannot be enforced in a court of law. The sole purpose of this law is to accord protection to minors because a person who has not attained a certain level of understanding and distinction between correct and incorrect can be defrauded easily. Often, minors are the sole owners of large estates or finances, and as a result, they can become the prey of those who look for illegal ways of earning money or assets. Minors are accorded protection under the Infants Relief Act of 1874 as well.
Frequently Asked Questions
What was the decision of the Privy Council in Mohori Bibee v Dharmodas Ghose?
The Privy Council upheld the decision of the lower court and held that since the respondent Dharmodas Ghose was a minor during the execution of the mortgage deed, the contract was void and no relief could be sought by the appellants since they were aware of the minority of the respondent.
What is the rationale behind incompetency of a minor to contract?
A minor is considered incapable of contracting. The sole purpose of this law is to accord protection to minors because a person who has not attained a certain level of understanding and distinction between correct and incorrect can be defrauded easily. Often, minors are the sole owners of large estates or finances, and as a result, they can become the prey of those who look for illegal ways of earning money or assets. As a result, the contract by a minor cannot be enforced in a court of law.
As per recent trends, the demand is to lower the age of majority, with popular opinions that the age of majority be changed to 16 years. Will this point prove to be beneficial or destructive?
If we were to take into account the present trends, then no doubt the youth of today is much advanced than what it was before. The innovation of social media and the advancements in technology have made the youth much more aware in contrast to their adults. However, the incompetency or competency cannot be deemed as universal for all. Lowering the age to 16 years may be beneficial for some, but in a country like India, where the unprivileged are more in number than the privileged ones, it can become a disaster. Minors are protected under law, and reducing the age would simply expose them to the perils that legal agreements and obligations bring. Thus, as far as possible, minors should be kept out of the umbrella of legal procedures.
 The Indian Contract Act, 1872 (Act No. 9 of 1872), s. 11.
 (1903) 30 Cal. 539.
 4 De G. and J. 458 (1859).
 L. R. (1902) 1 Ch. 1(1901); on appeal L. R. (1903) App. Cas. 6.
 (1895) ILR 19 Bom. 697.
 Supra note 2.