After providing the reference of more than 50 cases about legality of virtual currency from across the world in its 180-page-long judgement, the Supreme Court, on March 4th, 2020 lifted the RBI notification prohibiting banking services to Virtual Currency (VC) business.
‘Cryptocurrency’ means “a math-based, decentralised convertible Virtual Currency Protected by cryptography by relying on public and private keys to transfer value from one person to another and signed cryptographically each time it is transferred.”
“‘Virtual currency (VC)’ as the name suggests is a digital representation of value that can be traded digitally and functioning as (1) a medium of exchange; and/or (2) a unit of account; and/or (3) a store of value, but not having a legal tender status.” 
On a global level, regulatory responses to cryptocurrency have ranged from a complete clamp down in some jurisdictions to a comparatively ‘light-touch regulatory approach.
Though cryptocurrency may not currently pose systemic risks, its increasing popularity leading to price bubbles raises serious concerns for consumer and investor protection and market integrity. The cryptocurrency eco-system may affect the existing payment and settlement system which could, in turn, influence the transmission of monetary policy.
It was in 2013, for the first time, RBI had noted and discussed the risks of the development of technology and VCs in its Financial Stability Report. In the report, RBI had mentioned VCs as unregulated money and that regulators were studying the impact of the same. A press release was thereafter issued by RBI on the potential impact and risks associated with VCs. Later that year newspapers reported about the first-ever raid in India by enforcement authorities on two Bitcoin firms.
On 01-02-2017, RBI again issued a Press Release cautioning users, vendors and holders of VCs. Closely on the heels of the Press Release, the Ministry of Finance constituted an Interdisciplinary committee and the committee gave its report on 25-07-2017. The committee recommended issuing warnings to the general public that the Government does not support cryptocurrencies and those offering to buy or sell these currencies must stop such activities. However, it was clarified that there was no restriction on the use of blockchain technology.
RBI issued a “Statement on Developmental and Regulatory Policies” followed by a circular dated April 6, 2018, directing the entities regulated by it (i) not to deal in virtual currencies nor to provide services for facilitating any person or entity in dealing with or settling virtual currencies and (ii) to exit the relationship with such persons or entities, if they were already providing such services to them. It appears that at around the same time (April 2018), the Inter-Ministerial Committee submitted its initial report, (or a precursor to the report) along with a draft bill known as ‘Banning of Cryptocurrency and Regulation of Official Digital Currency Bill, 2019’.
Challenging the said Statement and Circular and seeking a direction to the RBI not to restrict or restrain banks and financial institutions regulated by RBI from providing access to banking services to those engaged in transactions in crypto assets, these writ petitions were filed. The petitioner in the first writ petition is a specialized industry body known as the ‘Internet and Mobile Association of India’ which represents the interests of the online and digital services industry. The petitioners in the second writ petition comprise a few companies which run online crypto assets exchange platforms, the shareholders/founders of these companies, and a few individual crypto-assets traders.
After detailed analysis, the Hon’ble Supreme Court bench comprising of Hon’ble Justices R.F. Nariman, Aniruddha Bose, and V. Ramasubramanian set aside the impugned circular issued by RBI on “directing the entities regulated by RBI (i) not to deal in virtual currencies nor to provide services for facilitating any person or entity in dealing with or settling virtual currencies and (ii) to exit the relationship with such persons or entities, if they were already providing such services to them.” 
There were two main issues raised before the Hon’ble Supreme Court.
- Whether RBI had the power to prohibit the activities of trading in VCs?
No power at all:
One of the major contention raised by the Petitioners is that RBI has no power to prohibit VC as it is neither a legal tender nor comes within the credit system of the country so as to enable RBI to act upon the power conferred in it. Also, that, it does not have any characteristics of money for RBI to have the power to regulate the same.
RBI in its counter-argument agreed to the fact that VC does not satisfy with being acknowledged as currency, however, stated that VCs do not have any formal or structured mechanism for handling consumer disputes/ grievances. Further, due to its anonymity/pseudo-anonymity characteristic, it is capable of being used for illegal activities. Increased use of VCs would eventually erode the monetary stability of the Indian currency and the credit system. Therefore, RBI has every power to regulate and control the activities of trading in VCs.
With regard to the above contentions and arguments, the Supreme Court after analyzing opinions and definitions of various legislations observed that though VCs are not recognized as legal tender, they are capable of performing some or most of the functions of real currency. The statutory obligation that RBI has, as a central bank, is (i) to operate the currency and credit system, (ii) to regulate the financial system, and (iii) to ensure the payment system of the country to be on track, would compel them naturally to address all issues that are perceived as potential risks to the monetary, currency, payment, credit and financial systems of the country. Therefore, anything that may pose a threat to or have an impact on the financial system of the country can be regulated or prohibited by RBI, despite the said activity not forming part of the credit system or payment system. and concluded that the users and traders of virtual currencies carry on an activity that falls squarely within the purview of the RBI.
If at all power, only to regulate:
Another contention made by the Petitioners was that, if at all RBI is conferred with any power it is only to regulate, but not to prohibit. It was contended by petitioners that the power to prohibit something as res extra commercium was always a legislative policy and that therefore the same could not be done through executive fiat. In support of its contention, the petitioners referred to the definition of the expression “payment system” under the Payment and Settlement Act and contented that VC Exchanges do not operate any payment system and that since the power to issue directions under Section 18 of the Payment and settlement systems Act was only to regulate payment systems, the invocation of the said power to something that did not fall within the purview of payment system was arbitrary.
RBI in its counter-argument stated that the impugned decision of RBI was legislative in character and was in the realm of an economic policy decision taken by an expert body warranting a hands-off approach from the Court.
In this regard, the Supreme Court observed that the power of RBI was not merely curative but also preventive. Further, in any case, the projection of the impugned decisions of RBI as a total prohibition of activity altogether, might not be correct. The impugned Circular did not impose a prohibition on the use of or the trading in VCs. It merely directed the entities regulated by RBI not to provide banking services to those engaged in the trading or facilitating the trading in VCs. The fact that the functioning of VC Exchanges automatically got paralyzed or crippled because of the impugned Circular, was no ground to hold that it tantamounted to total prohibition.
Supreme court in this issue held that in the overall scheme of the Payment and Settlement Systems Act, 2007, it was impossible to say that RBI did not have the power to frame policies and issue directions to banks who are system participants, with respect to transactions that would fall under the category of payment obligation or payment instruction, if not a payment system. Hence, the argument revolving around Section 18 failed.
- If RBI has the power to deal with carrying out activities related to VCs, whether this impugned circular was a proper exercise of that power?
The second issue raised was regarding the mode of exercise of power and the court-tested its appropriateness and validity based on certain well-established parameters.
No application of mind
One of the major contentions by the petitioner was that RBI had not adequately applied its mind. However, SC was of the view that RBI had been brooding over the issue for almost five years without taking any extreme step. RBI had even issued a press release titled “RBI cautions users of Virtual Currencies against Risks”. Therefore, RBI could hardly be held guilty of non-application of mind.
Malice in law
Another contention made by petitioners was that the impugned Circular was a colorable exercise of power and tainted by malice in law, in as much as it sought to achieve an object completely different from the one for which the power was entrusted.
However, SC observed that in order to constitute colorable exercise of power, the act must have been done in bad faith and the power must have been exercised not with the object of protecting the regulated entities or the public in general, but with the object of hitting those who form the target. To constitute malice in law, the act must have been done wrongfully and wilfully without reasonable or probable cause which is not the case here. Hence, SC rejected the argument.
Violative of Article 19 and proportionality
The next ground of issue raised before the Supreme Court was on the basis of Article 19(1)(g) of the Constitution. It was contended by the Petitioners that since access to banking was the equivalent of the supply of oxygen in any modern economy, the denial of such access to those who carry on a trade which was not prohibited by law, was not a reasonable restriction, rather it was extremely disproportionate. It was further contended that the right to access the banking system was actually integral to the right to carry on any trade or profession and therefore legislation, subordinate or otherwise whose effect or impact severely impairs the right to carry on a trade or business, not prohibited by law, would be violative of Article 19(1)(g).
RBI raised two fundamental objections in this regard. The first was that corporate bodies/entities that had come up with the challenge were not ‘citizens’ and hence, not entitled to maintain a challenge under Article 19(1)(g). Secondly, there was no fundamental right to purchase, sell, transact and/or invest in VCs and that therefore, the petitioners could not invoke Article 19(1)(g).
The SC, however, objected to the contentions of RBI for two reasons namely, (i) that at least some of the petitioners are not claiming any right to purchase, sell or transact in VCs, but claiming a right to provide a platform for facilitating an activity of trading in VCs between individuals/entities who want to buy and sell VCs) which is not yet prohibited by law and (ii) that in any case, the impugned Circular does not per se prohibit the purchase or sale of VCs.
SC observed that, despite the fact that the users and traders of VCs are also prevented by the impugned Circular from accessing the banking services, the circular has not paralyzed many of the other ways in which crypto-currencies can still find their way to or from the market. It was further noted by the apex court that if a central authority like RBI, on a conspectus of various factors perceive the trend as the growth of a parallel economy and severs the umbilical cord that virtual currency has with fiat currency, the same cannot be very lightly nullified as offending Article 19(1)(g).
On the question of proportionality, the petitioners relied upon the four-pronged test summed up in the opinion of the majority in Modern Dental College and Research Centre v. State of Madhya Pradesh. These four tests were (i) that the measure was designated for a proper purpose (ii) that the measures were rationally connected to the fulfillment of the purpose (iii) that there were no alternative less invasive measures and (iv) that there was a proper relation between the importance of achieving the aim and the importance of limiting the right.
SC observed that the impugned circular was issued with the aim of prohibiting the trade in VCs. The object of hitting at trading in VCs was to ensure (i) consumer protection (ii) prevention of violation of money laundering laws (iii) curbing the menace of financing of terrorism and (iv) safeguarding of the existing monetary/payment/credit system from being polluted. However, in the process, it has hit VC Exchanges and not the actual trading of VCs, consequently, the volume of transactions in VCs (perhaps through VCEs alone) is stated to have come down.
SC further observed that at the time when the impugned Circular was issued, RBI had not obviously addressed many of the issues flagged by the writ petitioners. SC held that RBI failed to pass the test of proportionality due to the following reasons:
- Even though RBI states that it can adversely impact its regulated entities, consumers, and the economy, RBI has not so far found, in the past 5 years or more, the activities of VC exchanges to have actually impacted adversely, the way the entities regulated by RBI function. Before taking any pre-emptive action against VCs, the RBI is required to show some semblance of any damage suffered to it or regulated entities. Since they don’t have any substantial evidence to show damage, RBI failed in the test of proportionality.
- Secondly, despite coming out with various circulars, statements against cryptocurrency, RBI has consistently taken the stand that it has not prohibited VCs in the country. Therefore, RBI’s position is still murky.
- Thirdly, the Government of India is unable to take a call despite several committees coming up with several proposals including two bills. It is also worthwhile to mention that the draft bills also take opposite stands where one bill tries to ban cryptocurrency while the other bill tries to regulate them.
In light of answering the final issue, SC held that petitioners are entitled to succeed, and the impugned Circular dated 06-04-2018 is liable to be set aside on the ground of proportionality.
It is only in the last leg that the apex court held against the respondent RBI and ordered to set aside the circular. The ruling was based on the reasons that- (i) RBI has failed to provide any empirical evidence to show that VCs have negatively impacted the banking sector or other entities regulated by the RBI; (ii) the inconsistencies in proposals made by Govt and; (iii) RBIs consistent position that they have not banned VC.
However, notably, this judgement lost the opportunity to answer crucial questions or take a definitive stand on cryptocurrency. The Court could take measures to legalize cryptocurrencies or direct the RBI to come up with more documentation and legal backing to ban the same.
Even though this judgement held in favour of the cryptocurrency communities, we cannot conclude that that the apex court is for VC it in fact empowered RBI to regulate virtual currency clearly confirming the powers of RBI in this regard.
Till this judgement, RBI wasn’t very sure about whether it has the power to hit VC directly. With that dilemma, RBI issued this impugned (now banned) Circular by ring-fencing them. This judgement now paves a way for RBI to take a decision on whether to completely ban VC or should it come up with alternate solution capable of dealing with virtual currencies for the stability of the financial system. Though the judgement set aside the RBI circular, it in fact empowered RBI to regulate and even ban VC’s in the future. You can now expect some fresh regulatory steps from RBI or from the government.
 FATF REPORT on Virtual Currencies Key Definitions and Potential AML/CFT Risks(2014) pp.4 Available at : https://www.fatf-gafi.org/media/fatf/documents/reports/Virtual-currency-key-definitions-and-potential-aml-cft-risks.pdf
 Ibid n1 pp5
 RBI: Annual Report for the year 2017-2018 Available at https://rbidocs.rbi.org.in/rdocs/AnnualReport/PDFs/0ANREPORT201718077745EC9A874DB38C991F580ED14242.PDF pp 48
 RBI: Financial Stability RBI, June 2013, Available at : https://rbidocs.rbi.org.in/rdocs//PublicationReport/Pdfs/FSPI260613FL.pdf
 Press Release can be available at : https://rbidocs.rbi.org.in/rdocs/PressRelease/PDFs/PR205413F23C955D8C45C4A1F56349D1B8C457.PDF
 RBI Statement on Developmental and Regulatory Policies can be accessed at : https://rbidocs.rbi.org.in/rdocs/PressRelease/PDFs/PR264270719E5CB28249D7BCE07C5B3196C904.PDF
 RBI circular dated April 6 2018 can be accessed at: https://rbidocs.rbi.org.in/rdocs/notification/PDFs/NOTI15465B741A10B0E45E896C62A9C83AB938F.PDF
 The draft bill can be accessed at : https://www.prsindia.org/sites/default/files/bill_files/Draft%20Banning%20of%20Cryptocurrency%20%26%20Regulation%20of%20Official%20Digital%20Currency%20Bill%2C%202019.pdf
Image Credits: Photo by André François McKenzie on Unsplash
This judgment lost the opportunity to answer crucial questions or take a definitive stand on cryptocurrency. The Court could take measures to legalize cryptocurrencies or direct the RBI to come up with more documentation and legal backing to ban the same.