Historically, because companies are artificial persons created by operation of law, the law
prescribed what the company could and could not do. Usually this was an expression of the
commercial purpose which the company was formed for, and came to be referred to as the
company'sobjects, and the extent of the objects are referred to as the company's capacity. If an
activity fell outside of the company's capacity it was said to be ultra vires and void.
By way of distinction, the organs of the company were expressed to have various corporate
powers. If the objects were the things that the company was able to do, then the powers were the
means by which it could do them. Usually expressions of powers were limited to methods of
raising capital, although from earlier times distinctions between objects and powers have caused
lawyers difficulty. Most jurisdictions have now modified the position by statute, and companies
generally have capacity to do all the things that a natural person could do, and power to do it in
any way that a natural person could do it.
However, references to corporate capacity and powers have not quite been consigned to the
dustbin of legal history. In many jurisdictions, directors can still be liable to their shareholders if
they cause the company to engage in businesses outside of its objects, even if the transactions are
still valid as between the company and the third party. And many jurisdictions also still permit
transactions to be challenged for lack of "corporate benefit", where the relevant transaction has
no prospect of being for the commercial benefit of the company or its shareholders.
As artificial persons, companies can only act through human agents. The main agent who deals
with the company's management and business is the board of directors, but in many jurisdictions
other officers can be appointed too. The board of directors is normally elected by the members,
and the other officers are normally appointed by the board. These agents enter into contracts on
behalf of the company with third parties.
Although the company's agents owe duties to the company (and, indirectly, to the shareholders)
to exercise those powers for a proper purpose, generally speaking third parties' rights are not
impugned if it transpires that the officers were acting improperly. Third parties are entitled to
rely on the ostensible authority of agents held out by the company to act on its behalf. A line of
common law cases reaching back to Royal British Bank v Turquand established in common law
that third parties were entitled to assume that the internal management of the company was being
conducted properly, and the rule has now been codified into statute in most countries.
Accordingly, companies will normally be liable for all the act and omissions of their officers and
agents. This will include almost all torts, but the law relating to crimes committed by
companies is complex, and varies significantly between countries.
Corporate governance is primarily the study of the power relations between the board of
directors and those who elect them (shareholders in the "general meeting" and employees). It
also concerns other stakeholders, such as creditors, consumers, the environment and
the community at large. One of the main differences betwe