1.1 Separate legal entity that has its own powers
As far as the law is concerned, a company has a separate legal existence that is distinct from that of its owners, managers, operators, employees and agents. A company has its own property, its own rights and its own obligations. A company's money and other assets belong to the company and must be used for the company's purposes.
A company has the powers of an individual, including the powers to:
• own and dispose of property and other assets
• enter into contracts
• sue and be sued.
Once a company is registered, its separate legal status, property, rights and liabilities continue until ASIC (Australian Securities and Investments Commission) deregisters the company.
[sections 119, 124--125, 601AA--601AD]
1.2 Limited liability of shareholders
Shareholders of a company are not liable (in their capacity as shareholders) for the company's debts. As shareholders, their only obligation is to pay the company any amount unpaid on their shares if they are called upon to do so. However, particularly if a shareholder is also a director, this limitation may be affected by other laws and the commercial practices discussed in 1.3 and 1.4.
1.3 Director's liability for company's debts
A director of a company may be liable for debts incurred by the company at a time when the company itself is unable to pay those debts as they fall due.
A director of a company may be liable to compensate the company for any losses the company suffers from a breach of certain of the director's duties to the company (see 5.3).
In addition to having liability for the company's debts or to pay compensation to the company, a director may also be subject to a civil penalty.
If a company holds property on trust, a director of the company may be liable in some circumstances for liabilities incurred by the company as trustee.
[sections 197, 344, 588G, 588J, 588M, 1317H]
1.4 Director's liability as guarantor/security over personal assets
As a matter of commercial practice, a bank, trade creditor or anyone else providing finance or credit to a company may ask a director of the company:
• for a personal guarantee of the company's liabilities; and
• for some form of security over their house or personal assets to secure the performance by the company of its obligations.
The director of a company may, for example, be asked by a bank to give a mortgage over their house to secure the company's repayment of a loan. If the company does not repay the loan as agreed with the bank, the director may lose the house.
1.5 Continuous existence
A company continues to exist even if 1 or more of its shareholders or directors sells their shares, dies or leaves the company. If a company has only 1 shareholder who is also the only director of the company and that person dies, their personal representative is able to ensure that the company continues to operate.
[sections 119, 224A]
1.6 Rules for the internal management of a company
The Corporations Act contains a basic set of rules for the internal management of a company (appointments, meetings etc.).
Some of these rules are mandatory for all companies. There are a few special rules for single shareholder/single director companies.
Other internal management rules in the Corporations Act are replaceable rules. The replaceable rules do not apply to:
• a single shareholder/single director company; or
• a company that had a constitution before the introduction of the replaceable rules regime and has not repealed it.
A company does not need to have a separate constitution of its own; it can simply take advantage of the rules in the Corporations Act. The company will need a constitution only if it wants to displace, modify or add to the replaceable rules.
[sections 134-141 and 198E]
1.7 How a company acts
A company does not have a physical existence. It must act through other people.
Individual directors, the company secretary, company employees or agents may be authorised to enter into contracts that bind the company (see 7).
In some circumstances, a company will be bound by something done by another person (see 1.8).
The directors of a company are responsible for managing the company's business. It is a replaceable rule (see 1.6) that generally the directors may exercise all the powers of the company except a power that the Corporations Act, a replaceable rule or a provision of the company's constitution (if any) requires the company to exercise in general meeting.
The only director of a company who is also the only shareholder is responsible for managing the company's business and may exercise all of the company's powers.
The Corporations Act sets out rules dealing with the calling and conduct of directors' meetings. Directors must keep a written record (minutes) of their resolutions and meetings.
There are 2 ways that directors may pass resolutions:
• at a meeting; or
• by having all of the directors record and sign their decision.
If a company has only 1 director, the sole director may also pass a resolution by recording and signing their decision.
[sections 198A, 198E, 202C, subsection 202F(1), sections 248A- 248G, 251A]
The shareholders of a company own the company, but the company has a separate legal existence and the company's assets belong to the company.
Shareholders can make decisions about the company by passing a resolution, usually at a meeting. A "special resolution" usually involves more important questions affecting the company as a whole or the rights of some or all of its shareholders.
There are 2 ways that shareholders may pass a resolution:
• at a meeting; or
• by having all of the shareholders record and sign their decision.
If a meeting is held, an ordinary resolution must be passed by a majority of the votes cast by shareholders of the company entitled to vote on the resolution at the meeting in person or by proxy (if proxies are allowed). A special resolution must be passed by at least 75% of the votes cast by shareholders of the company entitled to vote on the resolution and who vote at the meeting in person or by proxy (if proxies are allowed).
The sole shareholder of a company may pass a resolution by recording and signing their decision.
A company must keep a written record (minutes) of the members' resolutions and meetings.
[sections 9 ( special resolution ), 249A, 249B, 249L, 251A]
1.10 What others can assume about the company
Anyone who does any business with the company is entitled to assume that the company has a legal right to conduct that business unless the person knows, or suspects, otherwise. For example, an outsider dealing with the company is entitled to assume:
• that a person who is shown in a notice lodged with ASIC as being the director or company secretary of a company has been properly appointed and is authorised to act for the company; and
• that a person who is held out by the company to be a director, company secretary or agent of the company has been properly appointed and is authorised to act for the company.