Inside a court room in India. (Source: Supreme Court Website)

Bankruptcies Are Booming in India, But Where Are the Judges?

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(Bloomberg) -- India’s revamped bankruptcy process is in full swing and investors from Blackstone Group LP to Oaktree Capital Group LLC are salivating over an estimated $210 billion of stressed assets that are up for grabs. But the courtrooms handling the thousands of bankruptcies are lacking a key component: Judges.

Ten benches with a combined 26 judges and technical staff are hearing more than 2,500 insolvency cases, the latest official data show. Based on the workload a year ago, researchers estimated India needs about 80 benches over five years. That estimate is starting to look conservative, as tighter rules introduced by the banking regulator in February are poised to tip hordes of additional deadbeat borrowers into bankruptcy.

A streamlined bankruptcy process is crucial for Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s attempts to come to grips with a simmering banking crisis that’s sucking energy out of India’s economy. Any failure to resolve the shortage of judges also has implications for large global investors who are lining up to chase bargains across industries ranging from steel to cement.

“The National Company Law Tribunal appears to be understaffed and ill-equipped to deal with the increasing volume,” said Punit Dutt Tyagi, Delhi-based executive partner at Lakshmikumaran & Sridharan Attorneys, referring to the court system set up to handle bankruptcies. “This situation is unlikely to get better with time.”

Oaktree is following India’s insolvency process and says may open a local office “under the right circumstances”

The NCLT was set up in June 2016 and gained full powers in January 2017, when India’s new bankruptcy laws took effect. Electrosteel Steels Ltd. last week became the first large defaulter to complete the revamped bankruptcy process, missing the initial 180-day deadline for resolution but just about meeting the 270-day outer limit.

On Feb. 12, the banking regulator ordered banks to take defaulters straight to the NCLT if they can’t come up with a repayment plan within six months. That will likely accelerate the buildup of cases in court, which stood at 9,073 on Jan. 31, including 2,511 instances of insolvency, 1,630 cases of merger and amalgamation, and 4,932 cases under other sections of the Companies Act, lawmakers were told last month.

Moreover, the bankruptcy process risks getting complicated by challenges to the court’s orders. Renaissance Steel, one of the companies that bid to buy Electrosteel under the bankruptcy process, plans to appeal the decision to award Electrosteel to Vedanta Ltd., the Economic Times reported this week, citing an official it didn’t identify.

The government is aware of the shortage of judges and is in the process of appointing more though numbers can’t be confirmed immediately, said a person with knowledge of the matter, asking not to be identified as the information isn’t public. Three new benches of the NCLT will also be set up, the person said.

Read why the challenges to the NCLT may ultimately be good for India

The accumulation of bankruptcy cases means that it sometimes takes about six months just to get a new insolvency case admitted to court, said Shardul S. Shroff, executive chairman of Delhi-based law firm Shardul Amarchand Mangaldas & Co.

“These courts don’t have time to hear company law related matters as they say the insolvency cases are taking up all their time,” Shroff added. “In the absence of more judges it will be difficult for them to deal with the workload.”

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.

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