Allen v Gold Reefs of West Africa Ltd [1900]

Allen v Gold Reefs of West Africa Ltd [1900] 1 Ch 656 is a landmark case in UK company law, and it indeed established the principle that the court would not interfere with alterations to a company's articles of association unless the changes were not made bona fide for the benefit of the company as a whole. This principle served as a form of protection for minority shareholders, albeit a somewhat limited one, before the development of more specific unfair prejudice remedies.

Gold Reefs of West Africa Ltd had articles that granted the company a first and paramount lien on partly paid shares held by any member in case of a debt owed to the company. Mr Zuccani held some partly paid up shares as well as the only fully paid up shares issued by the company. After Mr Zuccani's death, the company, through a special resolution, altered its articles to create a lien on all fully paid shares, removing the previous restriction to partly paid shares. Mr Allen, one of the executors of Mr Zuccani's estate, contested the alteration and sued to recover the value of the fully paid shares.

Kekewich J at the first instance held that the company could not enforce the lien on fully paid shares. However, the company appealed, and Lord Lindley MR, delivering the judgment in the Court of Appeal, held that the alteration of the company's articles was valid.

Lord Lindley emphasised that the power to alter articles must be exercised in accordance with general principles of law and equity applicable to majority powers that bind minorities. This includes exercising the power bona fide for the benefit of the company as a whole and not exceeding the limits of the power granted. While the law required adherence to the proper legal process for altering articles, the substantive limitation was that the alteration had to be for the benefit of the company.

Lord Lindley expressed that the regulation of how shares are transferred and whether the company has a lien on them is a matter properly addressed by a company's articles of association. He noted that in certain circumstances, a member might have acquired special rights against the company through contract or otherwise, which could exclude them from the impact of a subsequently altered article.

In this case, Lord Lindley found that the altered articles applied uniformly to all holders of fully paid shares without distinction. He held that the directors could not be accused of bad faith in making the alteration, and the change was valid since it was for the benefit of the company as a whole.

This case established the principle that alterations to a company's articles of association would generally be upheld by the courts as long as they were made bona fide for the benefit of the company. This principle served as a form of protection for minority shareholders before the development of more specific unfair prejudice remedies in company law.
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