Peter’s American Delicacy Co Ltd v Heath [1939]

Peter’s American Delicacy Co Ltd v Heath [1939] 61 CLR 457 is an Australian company law case concerning the articles of association of a company that introduced a conflict regarding the distribution of profits.

One provision indicated that dividends would be distributed based on the amount paid up on shares, while another provision allowed for the distribution of bonus shares according to the number of shares held. The majority of shareholders chose to cancel the provision related to bonus shares, leading to a challenge by minority shareholders.

The High Court of Australia, in its judgment, dismissed the challenge. Chief Justice Latham articulated several principles guiding the alteration of articles. The Allen Principle was emphasised, asserting that the power to alter articles must be exercised in good faith and generally for the benefit of the company as a whole. Importantly, Latham advocated for a subjective approach, stating that the court should refrain from imposing its ideas on what is beneficial for the company, allowing shareholders to determine the benefits of alterations.

Moreover, Latham highlighted that the benefit of the company cannot serve as a sole criterion, especially in cases involving the relative rights of different classes of shareholders. Shareholders, according to the judgment, are not trustees for the company or for each other, but their power to alter articles is limited by the rule that it must not be exercised fraudulently or to oppress a minority.

In applying these principles to the current case, the judgment concluded that the special resolution altering the articles could not be declared invalid solely because it deprived certain shareholders of special rights or because voting shareholders were interested in the alteration to the detriment of others. Instead, the resolution could only be held invalid if passed fraudulently, oppressively, or if it was so extravagant that no reasonable person could believe it was for the benefit of the company.

This case establishes a comprehensive framework for evaluating the validity of alterations to a company's articles, emphasising good faith, shareholder authority, and the avoidance of fraud or oppression. The nuanced approach recognises the complexities involved in decisions affecting different classes of shareholders. Additionally, the enduring relevance of this case is underscored by its citation with approval by the English Court of Appeal in Re Charterhouse Capital Ltd [2015], further solidifying its importance in the legal landscape.
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