Insolvency Oracle

Developments in UK insolvency by Michelle Butler


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50 Things I Hate about the Rules – Part 2: Fees

New Rules, Old Problems

Regrettably, most of the things I hate in this category are the Rules’ ambiguities, so I apologise in advance for failing to provide you with answers.  Nothing is as licence-threatening as fees failures, so it is particularly unfair that the Rules aren’t written in a way that helps us to comply.

In addition, most of these bug-bears were issues under the 1986 Rules.  What a missed opportunity the InsS had to fix them in 2017!  Jo and I had met with InsS staff and tried to attract their attention to many of these issues.  Their answer was that the 2016 Rules were not intended to change the status quo and that, as IPs had evidently coped with the 1986 Rules, surely they could continue to cope!

 

  1. Fee Approval at S100 Meetings

In December last year, out of the blue, I heard an ICAEW webinar raise questions about the validity of fee resolutions passed at S100 virtual meetings.  The speaker said that she was “flag[ging] the risks” only – and, to be fair, it did seem that she was highlighting that most of the risks lay in seeking fee approval via S100-concurrent decision procedures other than at a meeting (about which I have blogged before) – but it worried us enough to alert our clients to the voiced concern.

The speaker’s concern related to the absence of any Rule empowering the director/convener of a S100 meeting to propose a fee-related resolution.  Indeed, such an explicit power is absent, and the drafters of the 2016 Rules saw fit not to reproduce Rs4.51(1) and 4.53, which had set out the resolutions that could be passed at first liquidation meetings – thanks guys!  Presumably, they believed that it was unnecessary to define what resolutions could be proposed at meetings, because I cannot believe that the Insolvency Service wished S100 meetings to be handled any differently from S98s (other than the obvious shift from physical to virtual meetings), especially in light of the fact that they introduced the ability for proposed liquidators to issue fee-related information pre-appointment (R18.16(10)) – why would they do that if the fees could not be approved at the S100 meeting?

In light of the webinar speaker’s observations, if the Rules are considered inadequate to allow a director’s notice of S100 meeting to set out a proposed resolution on the liquidator’s fees, then it seems to me that the argument applies equally to resolutions seeking approval of a pre-CVL fee… and I suspect there may be hundreds of IPs who have drawn fees, either pre or post, on the basis of a S100 meeting resolution.

 

  1. Pre-CVL Fees

Over the last couple of years, RPB monitors have been taking issue with pre-CVL fees that have included payment for work that does not strictly meet the Rules’ definition, where those fees are paid for out of the liquidation estate after appointment.

I think it is generally accepted now that, ok, R6.7 does not provide that the costs relating to advising the company and dealing with the members’ resolutions can be paid from the estate after appointment.  In practice, most IPs have reacted to this by, in effect, doing these tasks for free or by seeking up-front fees from the company/directors.

But the Rules’ restriction seems unnecessarily restrictive: why should these tasks, especially dealing with the members’ winding-up resolution, not be paid for from the estate?  After all, it’s not as if a S100 CVL can be started without a members’ resolution.  Why couldn’t R6.7 mirror the pre-Administration costs’ definition, which refers to work carried on “with a view to” the company entering Administration?

 

  1. The 18-month Rule

The long-running debate over the 1986 Rule has continued, albeit with a subtle change.  The question has always been: if fees are not fixed by creditors in the first 18 months of an appointment, can they be fixed by creditors thereafter?

Firstly, in relation to ADM, CVL and MVL, those in the “no” camp point to R18.23(1), which states that, if the basis of fees is not fixed by creditors (etc.), then the office holder “must” apply to court for it to be fixed… and, as the office holder can only make such application within 18 months, then this time limit applies similarly to creditors’ approval, because it would be impossible to deal with the consequences of a creditors’ failure to fix fees after 18 months.

However, those in the “yes” camp (in which I sit) do not see this as an issue: true, if creditors do not approve fees in month 19, then the office holder cannot go to court, but why does this somehow invalidate a creditors’ decision to fix fees in month 19?  In my view, R18.23(1) is not offended, because the scenario does not arise.  The “must” in R18.23(1) is clearly not mandatory, because, for instance, surely no one is suggesting that an office holder who decides to vacate office without drawing any fees “must” first go to court to seek fee approval.  Similarly, R18.23(1) seems to be triggered as soon as an IP takes office: on Day 1, the basis of their fees is usually not fixed, but surely no one is suggesting that this means the IP “must” go to court.

I think that another reason for sitting in the “yes” camp goes to the heart of creditor engagement in insolvency processes: why should creditors lose the power to decide the basis of fees after 18 months?

Also compare the position for compulsory liquidators and trustees in bankruptcy: R18.22 means that, if the creditors do not approve the basis of fees within 18 months, the office holder is entitled to Schedule 11 scale rate fees.  So does this mean that the office holder has no choice but to rely on Scale Rate fees after 18 months?  I think (but I could be wrong) that, as R18.29(2)(e) specifically refers to fees “determined under R18.22”, this enables the office holder to seek a review of that fee basis after 18 months, provided there is “a material and substantial change in circumstances which were taken into account when fixing” the fees under R18.22 (which perhaps can be met, because the only factor taken into account in the statutory fixing of R18.22 fees was the creditors’ silence, which hopefully can be changed by proposing a new decision procedure).

Thus, in bankruptcies and compulsories, there seems to be a fairly simple way to seek creditors’ approval to decide on the basis of fees after 18 months, but the “no” camp does not think this works for other case types… but why as a matter of principle there should be this difference, I do not understand.

 

  1. Changing the Fee Basis… or Quantum..?

We all know that the Rules allow fees in excess of a time costs fees estimate to be approved.  But what do you do if you want creditors to revisit fees based on a set amount or percentage?  It would seem that the fixed/% equivalent of “exceeding the fee estimate” is at R18.29.  As mentioned above, this enables an office holder to ask creditors to “review” the fee basis where there is a material and substantial change.  However, it may not be as useful as it at first appears.

R18.29(1) states that the office holder “may request that the basis be changed”.  The bases are set out in R18.16(2), i.e. time costs, percentage and/or a set amount.  R18.29(1) does not state that the rate or amount of the fee may be changed.

But surely that’s what it means, doesn’t it?  Not necessarily.  Compare, for example, R18.25, which refers to an office holder asking “for an increase in the rate or amount of remuneration or a change in the basis”.  If R18.29 were intended to encompass also rate and amount changes, wouldn’t it have simply repeated this phrase?

Ok, so if we can’t use R18.29, then can we use any of the other Rules, e.g. R18.25?  There are a number of Rules providing for a variety of routes to amending the fee in a variety of situations… but none (except for the time costs excess Rule) deal with the most common scenario where the general body of creditors has approved the fee and you want to be able to ask the same body to approve a revised fee.

This does seem nonsensical, especially if you want to propose fees on a “milestone” fixed fee basis.  Surely you should simply be able to tell creditors, say, what you’re going to do for Year 1 and how much it will cost and then revert later regarding Year 2.  After all, isn’t that what the Oct-15 Rule changes were all about?

It may be for this reason that I understand some RPB monitors (and InsS staff) see no issue with using R18.29 to change the rate or amount of a fixed/% fee… but I wish the Rules would help us out!

 

  1. Excess Fee Requests

R18.30 sets out what must be done to seek approval for fees in excess of an approved fee estimate.  Well, sort of…  What I have trouble with is the vague “…and rules 18.16 to 18.23 apply as appropriate” (R18.30(2)).

For example, do you need to provide refreshed details of expenses to be incurred (R18.16(4)(b)), even though it would seem sensible to have listed this requirement in R18.30 along with the menu of other items listed?  It seems to me unlikely to have been the intention, as a refreshed list of expenses does not fit with R18.4(1)(e)(ii), which requires progress reports to relate back to the original expenses estimate.

And does R18.16(6) mean that the “excess fee” information needs to be issued to all creditors prior to the decision in the same way that the initial fees estimate was, even if there is a Committee?  (See Gripe 21 below.)

And trying to capture Rs18.22 and 18.23 with this vague reference seems to me particularly lazy, given that those Rules require fairly substantial distorting to get them to squeeze into an excess fee request scenario, if R18.22 has any application to excess fee requests at all.

 

  1. Who gets the information?

So yes: R18.16(6) requires the office holder to “deliver to the creditors the [fee-related information] before the determination of” the fee basis is fixed.  Who are “the creditors”?  Are they all the creditors or did the drafter mean: the creditors who have the responsibility under the Rules to decide on the fees?

Here are a couple of scenarios where it matters:

  1. Administrators’ Proposals contain a Para 52(1)(b) statement and so the fees are to be approved by the secured creditors… and perhaps also the prefs
  2. A Creditors’/Liquidation Committee is in operation

If the purpose of R18.16(6) was to enable all creditors who may be able to interject in the approval process to have the information, then I can understand why it may mean all creditors in scenario (a), because unsecured creditors may be able to form a Committee (although it seems to me that the non-prefs would need to requisition a decision procedure in order to form one) and then the Committee would take the decision away from the secureds/prefs.

However, what purpose is served by all creditors receiving the information where there is a Committee?  The time for creditors to express dissatisfaction over fees in this scenario is within 8 weeks of receiving a progress report, not before the Committee decides on the fees.

But, setting logical arguments aside, it seems that R18.16(6) requires all creditors to receive the information before the fee decision is made, whether or not they have any power over the decision.

 

  1. All secured creditors?

I had understood that the Enterprise Act’s design for an Administrator’s fee-approval was to ensure that the creditors whose recovery prospects were eaten away by the fees were the creditors who had the power to decide on the Administrator’s fees.

Clearly, a Committee’s veto power crushes that idea for a start, especially in Para 52(1)(b) cases.  Also, in those cases, I confess that I have struggled to understand why all secured creditors must approve the fees.  Where there are subordinate floating charge creditors with absolutely zero chance of seeing any recovery from the assets even if the Administrator were to work for free, why do they need to approve the fees?  And try getting those creditors to engage!

 

  1. What about paid creditors?

This question has been rumbling on for many years: if a creditor’s claim is discharged post-appointment, should they continue to be treated as a creditor?

I understand the general “yes” answer: a creditor is treated as someone with a debt as at the relevant date and a post-appointment payment does not change the fact that the creditor had a debt at the relevant date, so the creditor remains a creditor even if their claim is settled

In view of the apparent objective of the fee-approval process (and a great deal of case law), it does seem inappropriate to enable a “creditor” who no longer has an interest in the process to influence it.  In addition, I am not persuaded that the technical argument stacks up.

Firstly, let’s look at the Act’s definition of creditor for personal insolvencies: S383(1) defines a creditor as someone “to whom any of the bankruptcy debts is owed”, so this seems to apply only as long as the debt is owed, not after it has been settled.

It would be odd if a creditor were defined differently in corporate insolvency, but unfortunately we don’t have such a tidy definition.  There is a definition of “secured creditor” in S248, which also seems temporary: it defines them as a creditor “who holds in respect of his debt a security…”.  Thus, again, it seems to me that this criterion is only met as long as the security is held.

But, over the years, my conversations with various RPB and InsS people have led me to believe that, even if a creditor – especially a secured creditor in a Para 52(1)(b) Administration – is paid out in full post-appointment, IPs would do well to track down their approval for fees… just in case.  But also on the flip-side, I suspect that it would be frowned upon (if not seriously questioned) if an office holder relied on a creditor’s approval where they were not a creditor at the time of their decision.  You’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

 

  1. What about paid preferential creditors?

I know of one compliance manager (and I’m sure there are others) who strongly maintains that pref creditors must still be invited to vote on decisions put to pref creditors even when their pref elements have been paid in full.

In addition to the points made above, we have R15.11, which states in the table that creditors whose claims “have subsequently been paid in full” do not receive notice of decision procedures in Administrations.  You might think: ah, but usually pref creditors also have non-pref claims, so they won’t have been “paid in full”.  Ok, but R15.31(1)(a) states that creditors’ values for voting purposes in Administrations are their claims less any payments made to them after the Administration began.  I think it is generally accepted (although admittedly the Rules don’t actually say so) that, to determine a decision put to pref creditors, their value for voting purposes should be only their pref element… so, if prefs have been paid in full, their voting value would be nil… so how would you achieve a decision put to paid pref creditors?

But if you take it that the intention of Rs15.11 and 15.31(1)(a) was to eliminate the need to canvass paid pref creditors in Para 52(1)(b) Administrations (which is certainly how the InsS answered on their pre-Rules blog), it gets a bit tricky when looking at excess fee requests…

 

  1. What about paid pref creditors and excess fee requests?

R18.30(2)(b) states that excess fee requests must be directed to the class of creditors that originally fixed the fee basis.  For Para 52(1)(b) cases, this is varied by R18.33, which states that, if, at the time of the request, a non-prescribed part dividend is now likely to be paid, effectively the Para 52(1)(b) route is closed off so that unsecured creditors get to decide.

But what if you still think it is a Para 52(1)(b) case and the prefs have been paid in full?  It is impossible to follow R18.30(2)(b) and achieve a pref decision, isn’t it?

The moral of the story, I think, is to make sure that you don’t pay creditors in full until you have dealt with all your fee requests, which to be fair is what many Trustees in Bankruptcy have been accustomed to observing for years.

 

  1. Fee Bases for Para 83 Liquidators

R18.20(4) states that the fee basis fixed for the Administrator “is treated as having been fixed” for the Para 83 Liquidator, provided that they are the same person.  This seems fairly straightforward for fees fixed on time costs and it can work for percentage fees, but what about fees as a set amount?

Is it the case, as per Gripe 19, that the basis has been fixed as a set amount, but the quantum isn’t treated as having been fixed?  First, let me take the approach mentioned at Gripe 19 that I understand is fairly widely-held amongst regulator staff, which is that “basis” should be read as meaning the basis and the quantum.  This would lead to a conclusion that, say, creditors approved the Administrator’s fees at £50K all-in, then the subsequent Liquidator’s fees would also be fixed at another £50K.  This cannot be right, can it?

The alternative is that “basis” means basis, so the Liquidator’s fees would be fixed as a set amount (which they could always ask to be changed under R18.29), but the quantum of that set amount would not.  In this case, presumably there would be no problem in the liquidator reverting to creditors to fix the quantum of their set-amount fee.  This would be similar to the position of a liquidator on a time costs basis where the Administrator had not factored in any fee estimate for the liquidation: in my view, the liquidator effectively begins life with a time costs basis with a nil fee estimate, so the next step would be to ask creditors to approve an “excess” fee request.

 

  1. What to do if Creditors won’t Engage

Up and down the country, I understand that IPs are having problems extracting votes from creditors.  The consequence is that more and more applications are being made to court for fee approvals.  This should not be the direction of travel.

This problem cannot be put entirely at the new Rules’ door, but I think that the 2016 Rules have not helped.  The plethora of documents and forms that accompany a fees-related decision procedure must be seriously off-putting for creditors (after all, it’s off-putting for all of us to have to produce this stuff!).  Also, this world’s climate of making every second count does not encourage creditors to engage, especially if their prospects of recovery are nil or close to it.

Of course, not every case of silence leads to a court application.  Applications can be relatively costly animals and so where funds are thin on the ground, I’m seeing IPs simply foregoing all hope of a fee and deciding to Bona Vacantia small balances and close the case.

When the Oct-15 Rules were being considered, many people suggested a de minimis process for fees.  Much like the OR’s £6,000 fee, could there not simply be a modest flat fee for IP office holders that requires no creditor approval?  Most IPs would dance a jig if they could rely on a statutory fee of £6,000, like the OR can!  It wouldn’t even need to be £6,000 to help despatch a great deal of small-value insolvencies… and the costs of conducting the decision process could be saved.  We all know the work that an IP has to put in to administer even the simplest of cases, including D-reports, progress and final reporting, not to mention the host of regulatory work keeping records and conducting reviews.  If IPs cannot rely on being remunerated for this work in a large proportion of their cases without having to resort to court, then we will see more IPs leaving the profession.

 

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50 Things I Hate About the Rules – Part 1: Notices

As we approach the second anniversary of the 2016 Rules – and as Scotland gears up to take a similar plunge – I thought I’d list my pet hates.  I don’t mean this to be just a whinge (no, honestly!), but rather I hope that some readers may find some nuggets in here of rules they’ve overlooked.  Who knows whether I’ll reach 50… or perhaps 150!

In no particular order, here is my first batch: what I hate about statutory notices…

 

  1. Standard contents

The Standard Contents Rules are a real faff.  I appreciate that one or two readers may find it useful to see the company number, court reference, or debtor’s address (which address: the one where they lived at the start of the proceedings or their current one..?), but is it really worth the time spent on getting these details on every notice?  It may be relatively straightforward if you’re on IPS/Visionblue, but I pity IPs who aren’t.

And what about stating: “the section… the paragraph… or the rule under which the notice is given” (R1.29(d))?  Does anyone really want to see this?

 

  1. Notices where simple letters previously did the job

Under the 1986 Rules, we were quite happy to include in letters information such as how to access statutory docs online, confirmation of our appointment, and dividend declarations.  Now we need to issue statutory notices… of course, including all the standard contents.

One important notice that I find sometimes overlooked is the need to issue a notice proposing a decision by correspondence vote.  In the old days, we simply issued a voting form.  Now it needs to be accompanied by a R15.8 notice… and if it is not, could it be challenged as a fatally flawed process..?

 

  1. Notices where none were needed before

Why did the InsS see the need to introduce a new requirement that the Nominee’s consent to act (which is now a “notice”) must be sent to all creditors in a proposed IVA (R8.19(4)(d)), especially when there is no equivalent rule for CVAs?

 

  1. Notices requiring statements that just aren’t true

I have two rules in this category:

  • R15.8(3)(k) requires notices of decision procedures to include a statement that creditors may, within 5 business days of delivery of the notice, request a physical meeting. This is clearly incorrect when the notice is for a S100 deemed consent process or virtual meeting, as R6.14(6)(a) gives creditors up to the decision date to request a physical meeting (subject to however you choose to interpret “between”!)
  • R10.87(3)(f) states that the final notice to creditors in a bankruptcy should state that the trustee will vacate office (and (g) be released, if no creditors have objected) when the trustee files the requisite notice with the court… but there is no Section/Rule that actually requires the trustee to file such a notice at court. And, according to someone at the Insolvency Service with whom I have been corresponding, in debtor-application cases the trustee does not need to send anything to court (as you would expect) and they believe that the trustee’s office-vacation and release are effective when the requisite notice is sent to the OR (provided there are no creditor objections).  So… why does the trustee need to put in the notice that it all happens when the notice is filed with the court..?

 

  1. Notices requiring nonsensical statements

What is the point of including in a pre-liquidation S100 notice that creditors who have opted out may vote or that creditors with small debts need to deliver a proof in order to vote?  Such creditors can only have opted out or be counted as small debts after the insolvency process has begun.  Common sense would dictate that we could eliminate such statements… but then the notice would not be compliant with the Rules!

It’s not all the IR16’s fault, though.  After all, how many of us were in breach of the IR86, which had similarly required that a Notice of No (Further) Dividend include a statement that “claims against the assets [must] be established by a date set out in the notice” (now at R14.36(2))?

 

  1. Authenticating documents on behalf of companies

I find R1.5(3)(b) odd: if someone signs a document on behalf of a body corporate and that person is the sole member of the company, the document must state that fact.  So for example, proofs of debt need to include a statement that the person is signing as the sole member of the company (if they are such).  That is such a vital piece of information to us, isn’t it?

 

  1. Changes in Supervisor on a CVA

There is still no way of giving notice to Companies House either that an IP has ceased to act as Supervisor or that an IP has taken a new position as Supervisor of an ongoing CVA!

 

  1. Different notices for different decision processes

I still cannot fathom the logic in the Rules requiring a Gazette notice for virtual and physical meetings of creditors, but not for the other decision processes.  If the objective is to give notice to unknown creditors, then surely the determining factor should not be the medium that is used to propose a decision.

Another bewildering outcome of the Rules is that you need to give notice to bankrupts of meetings (R15.14(2)), but again no notice to the bankrupt is required if you are seeking decisions by another route.

 

  1. Delivering statutory documents by email

R1.45 explains that electronic delivery can be achieved where the recipient has given actual or deemed consent.  Deemed consent occurs where the recipient “and the subject of the insolvency proceedings had customarily communicated with each other by electronic means before the proceedings commenced”.  So… how did a company customarily communicate with its director before insolvency?  If an office holder wants to rely on email delivery for statutory documents such as notice for submitting a SoA in an Administration, it seems to me likely that they need to get actual consent.

And I suspect it is only a matter of time before a creditor relies on the requirement that the “electronic address [be provided] for the delivery of the document” (R1.45(2)(c)) to support a claim that e-delivery under deemed consent to an address used by the insolvent before the insolvency proceedings does not constitute delivery, as such an email address was only meant for receipt of the company’s sales invoices etc.

 

  1. Postal delivery to overseas persons

As acknowledged by the Insolvency Service in Dear IP 76, the Rules are silent on when delivery occurs using overseas post.  Dear IP 76 is helpful in flagging up the Interpretation Act’s direction, which leads us to calculate timelines by looking up when delivery would occur “in the ordinary course of post”.  But is it really robust guidance for the InsS to write effectively: do your best to extend timelines “if at all possible”?  Granted, some of the Rules’ timelines can become impossible (even for delivery within the UK), especially when meetings are adjourned, leaving us to contemplate the consequences of such breaches: are they simply technical breaches with no real consequences or do they threaten the validity of the proceedings?

 

  1. R1.50 delivery by website

Please don’t get me wrong, I love R1.50 delivery.  At a sweep of the hand, it eliminates enormous amounts of time and money posting documents that no one reads… although I think it is anti micro-business as some IPs don’t have the capacity to upload docs to a website.  However, it is clearly open to abuse: what is to stop an IP uploading a decision process on their website… say on approval of fees… and then, in light of the inevitable silence from creditors, giving a nudge to one or two (selected) creditors to lodge votes?

 

  1. Notices of Appointment of Administrators

Re NJM Clothing Limited, The Towcester Racecourse Company Limited, Spaces London Bridge Limited – need I say more..?

 

  1. Repeatedly inviting a committee… except in compulsory liquidations

It makes no sense to me to invite creditors to decide on forming a committee every time you propose a decision and it makes even less sense to exclude compulsory liquidations from this requirement.  And it makes still less sense to invite creditors to consider forming a committee when you’re seeking a decision to extend an Administration, which is a decision that is never in the gift of a creditors’ committee.

 

  1. The OR’s duty to send notices

Is it any wonder that the InsS/OR keep telling everyone how much cheaper they are than IPs?  ORs have to comply with few notice (or reporting) requirements.  And the response-deadline of the only material notice that ORs do issue – on the nomination of IPs to be appointed as liquidator or trustee (R7.52 and R10.67) – is measured from the date of the notice (and is only 5 business days!), not from the date of delivery of the notice, which is the complication that all IPs live with.

 

  1. But don’t worry, as we can overlook “immaterial” departures, can’t we?

Oh I wish!  Yes, indeed we do have R1.9(1)(a), which states that a document may depart from the required contents where the departure is immaterial… and interestingly this works even where such a departure is intentional!  This rule could be handy when, say, trying to deal pragmatically with creditors’ proofs of debt.  Otherwise, I wonder how many PoDs would fail to hit the prescribed contents (see, for example, gripe no. 6).  But I don’t know how it would go down if you quoted this rule to an RPB monitor who considered your notices to be flawed!

So too, from my compliance consultant’s perspective, I have to remember that IPs instruct me to tell them about statutory breaches, so regrettably where I see them – even the immaterial departures – I have to list them.  But believe me, it pains me as much as it pains you!


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Is the Pre-Pack’s Sun Setting?

As HMV has demonstrated, buying a business out of an administration does not guarantee its survival.  But the sale of the HMV business 5 years’ ago was not a pre-pack – the Company had traded for several months in administration before the deal was done.  Does the pre-pack deserve to be demonised?  In view of the SBEE Act’s sunset clause deadline of May 2020, what are the pre-pack’s chances of survival?

As promised way back in July, this is my third article looking at the Insolvency Service’s 2017 review of regulation.  My sincere apologies to regular readers.  I have soooo wanted to blog, I have had articles aplenty in my head, but I’ve simply not had the time to get them out.  I will try harder in 2019!

The Insolvency Service’s 2017 Review of IP Regulation can be found at:  https://tinyurl.com/ycndjuxz

The Pre Pack Pool’s 2017 Review is at: https://tinyurl.com/y92fvvqf

 

SIP16 Compliance Rate Flatlines

Of course, we all know that compliance with the SIP16 disclosure requirements has no real relevance to whether a pre-pack is “good” or “bad”.  Personally, I’d also argue that strict compliance with the disclosure requirements does little to improve perceptions… not when compliance is measured on whether or not the IP has ticked every last little disclosure box.  However, this is what the RPBs are measuring us on, so it can only be to our advantage to try to meet the mark.The analysis of this rate by each RPB shows an intriguing effect:Last year, the stats for the two largest RPBs appeared poles apart: the IPA’s compliance rate was 91% but the ICAEW’s was less than half this figure, at 39%.  But now look at those two RPBs’ rates: they have converged on 59%.  How odd.

I very much doubt that the IPA’s IPs have got decidedly worse at SIP16 compliance over the year.  I wonder if it has more to do with RPB staff changes – perhaps it is more than coincidental that an ICAEW monitoring staff member moved to take up a senior role within the IPA in late 2016.

What about the change in the ICAEW’s IPs’ fortunes last year?  It is more difficult to identify a trend in the ICAEW’s figures, as they reviewed only 23% of all SIP16 statements received in 2017 – they were the only RPB to have reviewed only a sample, which they chose on a risk-assessment basis.  The ICAEW had focused on SIP16 statements submitted by IPs for the first time, or for the first time in a long time, or by IPs whose previous statements had fallen short of compliance.  On this basis, it is encouraging to see such an improved compliance rate emerging from what might seem to be the high risk cases.  It makes me wonder what the compliance rate would have been, had the ICAEW reviewed all their SIP16 statements: rather than the flatline, would we have seen an overall strong improvement in the compliance rate?

From my personal reviewing experience, I am finding that many SIP16 statements are still missing the 100% compliant ideal, but the errors and omissions are far more trivial than they were years’ ago.  I suspect that few of the 38% non-compliant statements spotted by the RPBs contained serious errors.  Having said that, earlier this year the IPA published two disciplinary consent orders for SIP16 breaches, so we should not become complacent about compliance, especially as pre-packs continue to be a political hot potato and now that the RPBs have been persuaded by the Insolvency Service to publicise IPs’ firms’ names along with their own names when disciplinary sanctions are issued. 

 

A Resurgence of Connected Party Sales

Regrettably, the Insolvency Service’s 2017 review provided less information on pre-packs than previous reviews.  No longer are we able to examine how many pre-packs involved marketing or deferred consideration, but we can still look at the number of sales to connected parties:

Last year, I pondered whether the pressure on IPs to promote the Pre Pack Pool may have deterred some connected party sales.  I was therefore interested to see that, not only had the percentage of connected party sales increased for 2017, but the percentage of referrals to the Pool has decreased – coincidence?

Personally, now I wonder whether the presence of the Pool has any material influence on pre-pack sales at all.  I suspect that the increased percentage of connected party sales may have more to do with the economic climate: who would want to take on an insolvent business with such economic uncertainties around us?  I suspect that now it is more and more often the case that connected parties are the only bidders in town.

 

Insights of the Pre Pack Pool

With such a tiny referral rate – the Pool reviewed only 23 proposed sales over the whole of 2017 (there were 53 referrals in the previous 14 months, since the Pool began) – does the Pool have any real visibility on pre-packs?

The Pre Pack Pool issued its own annual review in May this year.  Here is an analysis of the opinions delivered by the Pool:

This seems to suggest that the quality of applications being received by the Pool is deteriorating.  But, as the Pool gives nothing much away about how they measure applications, I am not surprised.

The Pool’s review states that: “Although the referral rate is much lower than expected, the Pool does perform a useful function where it has been approached.  Feedback from both connected party purchasers and creditors has been positive where we have received it.”

But what exactly are the benefits of using the Pool?

The Pool suggests that creditors/suppliers could put more pressure on Newcos to make use of the Pool, but it also notes that less than 1% of all complaints to the InsS in 2016 were about pre-packs (shame the Pool’s report did not refer to the number of pre-pack complaints in 2017: zero).  Maybe there is little pressure put on purchasers to approach the Pool, because the reasonableness or not of the pre-pack doesn’t really come into it when creditors are deciding to supply to Newcos.  The Pool review suggests that major stakeholders such as lenders and HMRC could insist on a Pool referral, but why should they when the Pool has yet to prove its value?

 

What makes a Bad Pre-Pack?

Stuart Hopewell, director of the Pool, has been quoted as stating that he “has seen cases where the objective [of the pre-pack] was avoidance of liabilities”, which led to the tagline that “businesses are sidestepping tax bills amounting to tens of millions of pounds using an insolvency procedure that the government is considering banning” (Financial Times, 26/11/2018).

How does Hopewell spot these abuses?  The Pool itself is not at all transparent about what, in its eyes, results in a “case not made” opinion, but the same article referred to the Pool giving “a red card, based on the tax situation”.  This suggests to me that their focus may be more on how the company became insolvent, rather than whether the pre-pack sale is the best outcome for the creditors at that point in time.  It seems to me that the Pool may be deciding that the pre-pack is the final step in a director’s long-term plan to rack up liabilities and walk away from them, whereas I suspect that most IPs first see a director who – as a result of wrong decisions or for reasons outside their control – is at the end of the road, having racked up liabilities they can no longer manage.  What should happen?  If the pre-pack were refused, the likely outcome would be liquidation with strong chances that the director would, via a S216 notice, start up again, possibly with a cluster of the original workforce and assets purchased at liquidation prices.  On the other hand, if the pre-pack were completed, it would most certainly generate more sales consideration and would be less disruptive for the employees, customers and suppliers.  But wouldn’t refusing a pre-pack result instead in a business sale to someone else, an unconnected party, even if at a reduced price?  I think that this is doubtful in the vast majority of cases.

 

It’s not all about the Pool

The Insolvency Service’s annual review lists some questions that its pre-Sunset Clause pre-pack review will seek to answer:

  • “Has the Pool increased transparency and public confidence in connected party pre-pack administrations?
  • “What numbers of connected party purchasers have chosen not to approach the Pool and why?
  • “What is the success rate of the new company where purchasers approached the Pool between 1 January 2016 and 31 December 2016?”

While these are all valid questions, I do hope the questions won’t stop there.

Ever since Teresa Graham’s recommendations in 2015, the Pre Pack Pool has occupied the limelight.  I think that’s a real shame, as I believe that other things are responsible for the improvements to the pre-pack process that we have seen over time.  Although I complain about the micro-monitoring that the Insolvency Service has inflicted on SIP16 compliance, it cannot be denied that the regulators’ emphasis on SIP16 compliance has improved the amount of detail provided.  More importantly perhaps, the RPBs’ emphasis on documenting decisions has helped some IPs question why certain strategies are pursued – most IPs do this anyway, but I think that some need to challenge their habitual reactions and sometimes exercise a bit more professional scepticism at what they’re being told.

The mood music around the pre-pack review seems to be about increasing the Pool’s reach, potentially making a referral to the Pool mandatory (for example, see R3’s May 2018 submission: https://tinyurl.com/y7kf22ul).  However, as with all proposed reforms, the first steps are to identify the problem and to define what one wants to achieve.  I would question whether the problem is still a lack of public confidence in pre-packs – it seems to be more about a lack of confidence in dealing justly with directors who ignore their fiduciary duties in a host of different ways – and, even if it were about confidence in pre-packs, we’re a long way from determining whether the Pool is the best tool to fix this.

 

Slow Progress

Finally, here is a summary of other items that were on the Insolvency Service’s to-do list at the time of publication of their 2017 annual review.  Of course, to be fair the government has kept the Insolvency Service otherwise occupied over the year.  You might be forgiven for having a sense of deja-vu – it looks frighteningly similar to 2017’s list and I assume that the tasks will now be carried over to 2019:

  • Replacement of the IS/RPB Memorandum of Understanding with “Guidance” – their initial draft required “a number of changes” and, as at May 2018, was being run past the “DfE” (Department for Education?). Nevertheless, the Service had anticipated that the guidance would “come into effect during the course of 2018”.
  •  A solution to the bonding “problem”? – the Insolvency Service’s call for evidence closed in December 2016 and they expected a follow-on consultation “soon”. A Claims Management Protocol, i.e. to set out how bond claims should proceed, is being developed: “possible publication, later this year”.  The Service is also looking at the bond wording.
  • Cash for complainants? – the early message that the Service was exploring with the RPBs if a redress mechanism for complainants could work seems to have evolved into work to determine how redress will be incorporated. “Once agreement has been reached”, the Service plans to include information on the Complaints Gateway website “to ensure complainants are aware of this recent development”.  Oh well, that’s one way to reverse the trend in falling complaint numbers!
  •  Revised IVA Protocol – although .gov.uk holds minutes of the IVA Standing Committee only up to July 2017, the Service reported that the Committee anticipated that we could look forward to a revised IVA Protocol likely later in 2018.
  • Revised Ethics Code – this was also expected later in 2018. I understand that accountancy bodies’ ethics code is currently being revised and therefore the JIC has decided to wait and see what emerges from this before finalising a revised insolvency code.

 


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The stats of IP Regulation – Part 2: Monitoring

 

As promised, here are my thoughts on the RPBs’ 2017 monitoring activities, as reported by the Insolvency Service:

  • The InsS goes quiet on RPBs’ individual performances
  • Two RPBs appear to have drifted away from 3-yearly visits
  • The RPBs diverge in their use of different monitoring tools
  • On average, ICAEW visits were over three times more likely to result in a negative outcome than IPA visits
  • On average, every fourth visit resulted in one negative outcome
  • But averages can be deceptive…

As a reminder, the Insolvency Service’s report on 2017 monitoring can be found at: https://tinyurl.com/ycndjuxz

The picture becomes cloudy

As can be seen on the Insolvency Service’s dedicated RPB-monitoring web-page – https://www.gov.uk/government/collections/monitoring-activity-reports-of-insolvency-practitioner-authorising-bodies – their efforts to review systematically each RPB’s regulatory activities seemed to grind to a halt a year ago.  The Service did report last year that their “future monitoring schedule” would be “determined by risk assessment and desktop monitoring” and they gave the impression that their focus would shift from on-site visits to “themed reviews”.  Although their annual report indicates that such reviews have not always been confined to the desk-top, their comments are much more generic with no explanation as to how specific RPBs are performing – a step backwards, I think.

 

Themed review on fees

An example of this opacity is the Service’s account of their themed review “into the activities, and effectiveness, of the regulatory regime in monitoring fees charged by IPs”.

After gathering and reviewing information from the RPBs, the InsS reports: “RPBs responses indicate that they have provided guidance to members on fee matters and that through their regulatory monitoring; fee-related misconduct has been identified and reported for further consideration”.

For this project, the InsS also gathered information from the Complaints Gateway and has reported: “Initial findings indicate that fee related matters are being reported to the IP Complaints Gateway and, where appropriate, being referred to the RPBs”.

Ohhhkay, so that describes the “activities” of the regulatory regime (tell us something we don’t know!), but how exactly does the Service expect to review their effectiveness?  The report states that their work is ongoing.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that I necessarily want the Service to dig deeper.  For example, if the Service’s view is that successful regulation of pre-packs is achieved by scrutinising SIP16 Statements for technical compliance with the minutiae of the disclosure checklist, I dread to think how they envisage tackling any abusive fee-charging.  It’s just that, if the Service thinks that they are really getting under the skin of issues, personally I hope they are doing far more behind the scenes… especially as the Service is surely beginning to gather threads on the question of whether the world would be a better place with a single regulator.

So let’s look at the stats…

 

How frequently are you receiving monitoring visits?

There is a general feeling that every IP will receive a monitoring visit every three years.  But is this the reality?

This shows quite a variation, doesn’t it?  For two years in a row, significantly less than one third of all IPs were visited in the year.  Does this mean the RPBs have been slipping from the Principles for Monitoring’s 3-year norm?

The spiky CAI line in particular demonstrates how an RPB’s visiting cycle may mean that the number of visits per year can fluctuate wildly, but how nevertheless the CAI’s routine 3-yearly peaks and troughs suggest that in general that RPB is following a 3-yearly schedule.  So what picture do we see, if we iron out the annual fluctuations?

This looks more reasonable, doesn’t it?  As we would expect, most RPBs are visiting not-far-off 100% of their IPs over three years… with the clear exceptions of CAI, which seems to be oddly enthusiastic, and the ICAEW, which seems to be consistently ploughing its own furrow.  This may be the result of the ICAEW’s style of monitoring large firms with many IPs, where each year some IPs are the subject of a visit, but this may not mean that all IPs receive a visit in three years.  Alternatively, could it mean they are following a risk-based monitoring programme..?

There are benefits to routine, regular and relatively frequent monitoring visits for everyone, almost irrespective of the firm’s risk profile: it reduces the risk that a serious error may be repeated unwittingly (or even deliberately).  However, this model isn’t an indicator of Better Regulation (see, for example, the Regulators’ Compliance Code at https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/regulators-compliance-code-for-insolvency-practitioners).  With the InsS revisiting their MoU (and presumably also the Principles for Monitoring) with the RPBs, I wonder if we will see a change.

 

Focussing on the Low-Achievers?

The alternative to the one-visit-every-three-years-irrespective-of-your-risk-profile model is to take a more risk-based approach, to spend one’s monitoring efforts on those that appear to be the highest risk.  This makes sense to me: if a firm/IP has proven that they are more than capable of self-regulation – they keep up with legislative changes, keep informed even of the non-legislative twists and turns, and don’t leave it solely to the RPBs to examine whether their systems and processes are working, but they take steps quickly to resolve issues on specific cases and across entire portfolios and systems – why should licence fees be spent on 3-yearly RPB monitoring visits, which pick up non-material non-compliances at best?  Should not more effort go towards monitoring those who seem consistently and materially to fail to meet required standards or to adapt to new ones?

But perhaps that’s what being done already.  Are many targeted visits being carried out?

It seems that for several years few targeted visits have been conducted, although perhaps the tide is turning in Scotland and Ireland.  The ACCA also performed a number, although now that the IPA team is carrying out monitoring visits on ACCA-licensed IPs, I’m not surprised to see the number drop.

It seems that targeted visits have never really been the ICAEW’s weapon of choice.  At first glance, I was a little surprised at this, considering that their monitoring schedule seems less 3-yearly rigid than the other RPBs.  Aren’t targeted visits a good way to monitor progress outside the routine visit schedule?  Evidently, the ICAEW is not using targeted visits to focus effort on low-achievers.  Perhaps they are tackling them in another way…

 

Wielding Different Sticks

I think this demonstrates that the ICAEW isn’t lightening up: they may be carrying out less frequent monitoring visits on some IPs, but their post-visit actions are by no means infrequent.  So perhaps this indicates that the ICAEW is focusing its efforts on those seriously missing the mark.

The ICAEW’s preference seems to be in requiring their IPs to carry out ICRs.  Jo’s and my experiences are that the ICAEW often requires those ICRs to be carried out by an external reviewer and they require a copy of the reviewer’s report to be sent to the ICAEW.  They also make more use than the other RPBs of requiring IPs to undertake/confirm that action will be taken.  I suspect that these are often required in combination with ICR requests so that the ICAEW can monitor how the IP is measuring up to their commitments.

And in case you’re wondering, external ICRs cost less than an IPA targeted visit (well, the Compliance Alliance’s do, anyway) and I like to think that we hold generally to the same standards, so external ICRs are better for everyone.

In contrast, the IPA appears to prefer referring IPs for disciplinary consideration or for further investigation (the IPA’s constitution means that technically no penalties can arise from monitoring visits unless they are first referred to the IPA’s Investigation Committee).  However, the IPA makes comparatively fewer post-visit demands of its IPs.  But isn’t that an unfair comparison, because of course the ICAEW carried out more monitoring visits in 2017?  What’s the picture per visit?

 

No better and no worse?

Hmm… I’m not sure this graph helps us much.  Inevitably, the negative outcomes from monitoring visits are spiky.  We’re not talking about vast numbers of RPB slaps here (that’s why I’ve excluded the smaller RPBs – sorry guys, nothing personal!) and the “All” line (which does include the other RPBs) does illustrate a smoother line overall.   But the graph does suggest that ICAEW-licensed IPs are over three times as likely to receive a negative outcome from a monitoring visit than IPA-licensed IPs. 

Before you all get worried about your impending or just-gone RPB visit, you should remember that a single monitoring visit can lead to more than one negative outcome.  For example, as I mentioned above, the RPB could instruct an ICR or targeted visit as well as requiring the IP to make certain undertakings.  One would hope that much less than 25% of all IPs visited last year had a clean outcome!

This doubling-up of outcomes may be behind the disparity between the RPBs: perhaps the ICAEW is using multiple tools to address a single IP’s problems more often than the other two RPBs… although why should this be?  Alternatively, perhaps the ICAEW’s record again suggests that the ICAEW is focusing their efforts on the most wayward IPs.

 

Choose Your Poison

I observed in my last blog (https://tinyurl.com/y8b4cgp7) that the complaints outcomes indicated that the IPA was far more likely to sanction its IPs over complaints than the ICAEW was.  I suggested that maybe this was because the IPA licenses more than its fair share of IVA specialists.  Nevertheless, I find it interesting that the monitoring outcomes indicate the opposite: that the ICAEW is far more likely to sanction on the back of a visit than the IPA is.

Personally, I prefer a regime that focuses more heavily on monitoring than on complaints.  Complaints are too capricious: to a large extent, it is pot luck whether someone (a) spots misconduct and (b) takes the effort to complain.  As I mentioned in the previous blog, the subjects of some complaints decisions are technical breaches… and which IP can say hand-on-heart that they’ve never committed similar?

Also by their nature, complaints are historic – sometimes very historic – but it might not matter if an IP has since changed their ways or whether the issue was a one-off: if the complaint is founded, the decision will be made; the IP’s later actions may just help to reduce the penalty.

In my view, the monitoring regime is far more forward-looking and much fairer.  Monitors look at fresh material, they consider whether the problem was a one-off incident or systemic and whether the IP has since made changes.  The monitoring process also generally doesn’t penalise IPs for past actions, but rather what’s important are the steps an IP takes to rectify issues and to reduce the risks of recurrence.  The process enables the RPBs to keep an eye on if, when and how an IP makes systems- or culture-based changes, interests that are usually absent from the complaints process.

 

Next blog: SIP16, pre-packs and other RPB pointers.

 


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The stats of IP Regulation – Part 1: Complaints

My annual review of the Insolvency Service’s 2017 IP regulation report has thrown up the following:

  • The number of IPs drops again – the third year in a row
  • Good news: 2017 saw half as many complaints referred through the Gateway as 2015
  • This may be partly due to the Insolvency Service’s sifting process: almost half of all complaints put to the Gateway in 2017 were sifted out
  • Sadly, despite the overall reduction, there were more sifted-in complaints from creditors in 2017 than in the previous year
  • The RPBs seem to be generating more complaints sanctions: 10 years’ ago, 1 IP in 100 could receive a complaints sanction; now it is c.1 in 20

The Insolvency Service’s report can be found at: https://tinyurl.com/ycndjuxz

 

IPs leaving the profession

As the following graph shows, the number of appointment-taking IPs has fallen for the third year in a row:In ICAS’ 2017 monitoring report (https://www.icas.com/regulation/insolvency-monitoring-annual-reports), that RPB puts the decrease down to the number of IPs who have retired, which I suspect is probably the case across the board.  And we’re not seeing their number being replaced by new appointment-takers.  I can’t say I’m surprised at that either: regulatory burdens and personal risks continue to mushroom, formal insolvency cases (especially those with assets) appear more sparse and the media has nothing good to say about the profession.  Why would anyone starting out choose formal insolvency as their career choice?

Admittedly, it’s not an alarming fall… not yet… but one has to wonder how the Insolvency Service proposes to address this trend, given that one of their regulatory objectives introduced in 2015 was to encourage an independent and competitive profession.

But what is life like for current IPs?  Is there no good news?

 

Another dramatic fall in complaints

Much more striking is the fall in the numbers of complaints referred to the RPBs:No one – the Insolvency Service, RPBs or R3 – is shouting about this good news: the fact that the complaint number has halved since 2015, the first full year of the Complaints Gateway’s operation?  I would have thought that the InsS could have easily spun it into a story about the success of the Gateway or of their policing of insolvency regulation generally, no? 😉

 

Where are the rem and pre-pack complaints?

I wonder if the subject matter of the complaints is one reason why the InsS may not be keen to draw attention to complaints trends.

The following analyses the complaints put through the Gateway:If we were asked what areas of apparent misconduct we thought were the top of the InsS’s hit-list, I suspect most of us would answer: IP fees and pre-packs.  But, as you can see, these two topics have never featured large in complaints.

Despite the fees regime becoming more and more complex and involving the delivery of more information and rights to creditors to question or challenge fees, you can see that the complaints about fees have dropped: there were 19 in 2014 and only one last year.  And last year, there were no complaints about pre-packs.

This graph demonstrates what might be behind the drop in complaint numbers: there is a marked decrease in complaints about SIP3 and communication breakdowns.  I think that’s certainly good news to shout about.

So in what areas could we perhaps try harder to avoid attracting complaints?

 

Complaint danger zones?

The following analysis supports the perception that IVAs are attracting fewer complaints than in recent years, although IVAs are still number one.  In fact, it demonstrates that all insolvency proceedings are attracting fewer complaints.However, when looked at as a percentage of complaints received…… it would seem that complaints about ADMs and PTDs aren’t dropping quite as quickly as those for other processes.  Putting the two analyses together leads me to wonder whether ethics-related complaints involving ADMs now form a disproportionately large category of complaints, particularly in view of the relatively small number of ADMs compared with IVAs and LIQs.  Press coverage would also appear to support this area as a growing concern.

 

Creditors are lodging more complaints

The following graph gives us a little more insight into the origin of complaints:This shows that creditors are the only category of complainant that has seen an increase in the number of complaints lodged over the past year.  Could the profession do more to help creditors understand insolvency processes and especially ethics?

The Insolvency Service has reported for a few years now that the Insolvency Code of Ethics has been under review.  As we know, the JIC/RPBs launched a consultation on a draft Code last year – the consultation closure date has almost hit its anniversary!  The InsS 2017 review reported that a revised Insolvency Code of Ethics “is expected to be issued later this year”.  It seems to me that a fresh and clear revised Code could help us address the number of complaints lodged.

 

Not every complaint is a complaint

I highlighted last year that it seemed the InsS had been sifting out a greater number of complaints as not meeting the criteria for referring over to the relevant RPB.  This shows how that trend has developed:Wow!  So for the first time, the InsS rejected more complaints that it referred: almost half of all complaints were rejected (48%) and only 41% were referred.  Compare this to the first few months of the Gateway’s operation when only 25% were rejected and 72% were referred.  Nevertheless, setting aside the number of rejected complaints, it is good to see that even the trend for the number of complaints received is a nice downwards slope.  And in case you’re wondering, I suspect that the remaining 11% of complaints received are still being processed by the IS – a fair old number, but pleasingly a lot less than existed at the end of 2016.

Of course, the Gateway is still relatively young and it is good to read that the InsS is continually refining its sifting processes, as can be seen from the following graph:This indicates that a large part of the increase in rejected complaints is because more complainants have not responded to the Insolvency Service’s requests for further information.

For 2017, the Insolvency Service added a new category of rejections: complaints that were about the effect of an insolvency procedure.  Although there will always be some creditors and debtors who complain about the fairness of insolvency processes, perhaps an unintended benefit of the Complaints Gateway is that the InsS receives first-hand expressions of dissatisfaction about the design of the insolvency process… although let’s hope the InsS considers using such intelligence to amend legislation where sensible, rather than try to force IPs to fudge legislative flaws via Dear IPs and the like.

You might expect that, as the Insolvency Service rejects more complaints, so the percentage of sanctions arising from complaints that make it past the sifting process should increase.

 

Roughly one complaint out of every five results in a sanction

Well, you’d be right.The trendline here suggests that a complaint was twice as likely to end up in a sanction in 2017 as it was 10 years’ ago.

You might be wondering what is going on with ACCA-licensed IPs: how can over half of their complaints result in a sanction compared to an average elsewhere of around 10-20%?!

I agree that the figures are odd.  However, it should be remembered that complaints are not always closed in the year that they are opened.  And in this respect, the ACCA’s stats appear particularly odd.  For example, in last year’s InsS report, it was stated that the ACCA had only one 2013 complaint remaining open, but in this year’s report, apparently there are now thirteen 2013 open complaints against ACCA-licensed IPs!  The ACCA went through some enormous changes last year, as their complaints-handling and monitoring functions were taken over by the IPA with effect from 1 January 2017.  Could this structural change be behind the unusual stats?  Or perhaps the ACCA had been handling some particularly sticky complaints in 2014 and 2015, when their sanctions were low, and those investigations have now come to fruition.

The same effect of sanction clustering could be operating within the other RPBs in view of the spiky lines above.  Therefore, perhaps it would be wise to avoid drawing conclusions about apparent inconsistencies between RPBs’ complaints processes based on 2017’s figures alone.  However, averaging out the figures over the past three years, we can see that 23% of complaints against IPA-licensed IPs resulted in a sanction, whereas only 5% of complaints against ICAEW-licensed IPs did so.  I believe that the IPA licenses more than its fair share of IVA-specialists, so this might account for at least some of the difference.

 

Increased sanctions are not just a Gateway-sifting effect

But what about my suggestion above: that the increased number of sifted-out complaints has led to a larger proportion of complaints allowed through the Gateway leading to a sanction?

That’s not the whole story:This shows that the number of complaints sanctions per IP has also been on an upward trend: around 1 in 100 IPs received a sanction in 2008, whereas this figure was closer to 1 in 20 in 2017.

What is behind this trend?  I really don’t believe that it’s because more IPs now conduct themselves in ways meriting sanctions (or because there are a few IPs who behave badly more often).  And as we’ve seen, the number of complaints lodged doesn’t support a theory that more people complain now.

It must be because expectations have been raised, don’t you think?  Or perhaps because the increased prescription in rules and SIPs has led to more traps?

Hidden measuring-sticks?

For example, the InsS report describes one IP’s disciplinary order, stating that the IP had breached SIP16 “by failing to provide a statement as to whether the connected party had been made aware of their ability to approach the pre-pack pool and/or had approached the pre-pack pool and whether a viability statement had been requested from the connected party but not provided”.  Firstly, SIP16 doesn’t strictly require IPs to state whether connected parties have been made aware of the pool.  Secondly, SIP16 states that the SIP16 Statement should include “one of” two listed statements, only one being whether the pool had been approached.  Yes, I’ll accept that it seems the IP did not provide information on the existence of a viability statement, although I would have thought that, if a copy of a viability statement were not provided with the SIP16 Statement, then surely the likelihood is that the IP was not provided with one.  I appreciate I am splitting hairs here, but if a SIP is not crystal-clear on what is required of IPs, is it any wonder that slip-ups will be made?  And if a disciplinary consent order were generated every time an IP had omitted to meet every last letter of the SIPs and Rules, then I suspect no IP would be found entirely blameless.  Ok yes, there exists a mysterious fanaticism around SIP16 compliance and we would do well to check, check and check again that SIP16 Statements are complete (and hang the cost?).  However, I think this demonstrates how standards have changed: 10 years’ ago, would an IP have been fined £2,500 and have his name in lights for omitting one line from a report (hint: SIP16 began life in 2009)?

 

In my next blog, I’ll explore the RPB statistics on monitoring visits.


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GDPR: Ready or Not!

Compared to the Insolvency Rules, getting to grips with the GDPR has felt a lot more painful.  Personally, I have struggled with the GDPR for two reasons: (i) the position of an IP working within a practice and having control over insolvent entities is so clearly a square peg in the GDPR’s round hole; and (ii) for anyone who has been treating personal data with respect already, it seems to be just lots more hassle, simply more documentation of no interest to anyone except the regulators and those who look for causes to complain.

But, if I have not persuaded you already to go off and do something far more interesting instead, here is a summary of an IP’s GDPR to-do list (or, hopefully, a “done” list).  My special thanks go to Jo Harris, who has endured the pain to get the Compliance Alliance’s packs GDPR-ready and whose webinar has informed most of the content of this blog.

(UPDATE 22/05/2018: far more authoritative than my blog is a fantastic FAQs written by the ICAEW and R3 and released just yesterday: https://bit.ly/2x7HPm2.  I think that this article is pretty-much aligned with the FAQs, but the ICAEW does provide more information on their expectations, particularly when taking on an appointment and in notifying creditors of the necessaries.)

 

Privacy Notices

Privacy Notices are probably the most obvious sign that you have prepared for the GDPR world.

Data controllers must provide privacy information to individuals when they collect personal data from them or, if the data is from another source, no later than one month of receipt.  Although the GDPR prescribes a long list of information that must be given, it also states that privacy notices must be concise and easy to understand – if only the GDPR were written so!

To draft a GDPR-compliant privacy notice, you need to have a clear picture of what personal data you hold and what you do with it… in your role as a data controller.

 

Who is a data controller?

The GDPR defines a data controller as:

“the natural or legal person, public authority, agency or other body which, alone or jointly with others, determines the purposes and means of the processing of personal data; where the purposes and means of such processing are determined by Union or Member State law, the controller or the specific criteria for its nomination may be provided for by Union or Member State law”

Where an IP processes data as an office holder, they are clearly in control.  An IP deals with personal data on creditors, employees, directors, shareholders, debtors (i.e. insolvent ones and those who owe the insolvent), probably also debtors’ family members…  And we’re not just talking about individual creditors etc.: you will also process personal data on staff working within corporate entities, e.g. emails containing names, email addresses and telephone numbers, sufficient to identify the individual.

What about the personal data contained in the insolvent’s books and records?  Does the IP become the data controller for those on appointment?  I have not attended a GDPR-for-IPs event without the case of Re Southern Pacific Personal Loans Limited ([2013] EWHC 2485 (Ch)) being mentioned.  Although of course this was a decision about the application of the Data Protection Act 1998, it has given many people comfort that at least a liquidator is not considered to be the data controller in relation to data processed by the company prior to liquidation.

So, for practical purposes (unless/until it is overturned), it is probably safe to draw a distinction between data processed by the IP and the insolvent’s data that just sits in a storage facility in case it is needed one day.  This fairly clean line probably doesn’t exist however for a trustee in bankruptcy, as the agency relationship is absent.  Also, at what stage does an IP begin “processing” data in their own right: what if you only review some company records in your possession?  What if you hold electronic data on your system, but never use it?

These fuzzy lines aside, how does understanding when we are a data controller help us draft our privacy notices?

 

The legal basis for processing

For the most part, privacy notices are pretty standard text.  But you do need to hang your flag on a mast when it comes to describing your legal basis/bases for processing the data.

Here are the options:

  • the data subject’s consent – not something that we associate with being in office
  • necessary to perform a contract – again, not something for an office holder, but it may be relevant for work we do (i.e. personal data we process) outside a formal appointment
  • necessary for compliance with a legal obligation – yep, this one is clearly relevant to office holders
  • necessary to protect individuals’ vital interests – nope
  • necessary to perform a task in the public interest – I have heard some say this is relevant for office holders, but it seems to have fallen out of favour more recently
  • necessary for legitimate interests – creditors and others have a legitimate interest in keeping informed and engaging in an insolvency process, so this is relevant

So there are at least two legal bases that are relevant to IPs’ work.

 

The purposes of the processing

Your privacy notice also needs to describe the purposes for which you will be processing data.  It is worth remembering that an insolvency practice will process data for a wide range of purposes: not only formal appointments, but also to deliver other services to clients, and you will also hold data for marketing purposes, for running your business…

Therefore, you might want to consider: should you have one privacy notice covering every purpose or do you want several privacy notices?  A third way, which I’ve seen work well for a particularly large accountancy/insolvency practice, is a single privacy notice with links leading to the descriptions of their processing activities relating to different groups of data subjects.

Taking a look at other firms’ privacy notices might also bring to mind other, less obvious, purposes for processing data, such as carrying out AML due diligence, detecting or preventing crime or fraud.

 

What do you do with the privacy notice?

As mentioned at the start, the GDPR puts data controllers under a requirement to provide the privacy information to all data subjects.  This can seem onerous for an IP: do we really need to send a copy of the privacy notice to all individuals whose data we hold and how can we comply with those timescales, especially on existing cases?

There are a couple of ways you can make life much easier for yourself:

  • Put your privacy notice on your website, preferably on a page with a very simple www address, because…
  • Then you can add the link/address to your email footers and letterhead, so that the next time you email or write to an individual, you have brought the privacy notice to their attention.

 

What about existing cases?

Does the GDPR mean that we must have notified every person whose data we hold of our privacy notice by 25 June?  I would like to think that the regulators – the RPBs and the ICO – might be prepared to give us some slack on this requirement.  Would a more manageable approach be to ensure that such notifications are made, say, at the time of the next progress report?

If this is acceptable, then how about the interaction with R1.50?  Where we have already issued to creditors (and members) a notice stating that every other document will be uploaded to our website without further written notice, would this suffice such that we only need to ensure that the website contains the privacy notice or a link to it?  Or, because R1.50 only provides website-only delivery for documents “required to be delivered in the insolvency proceedings”, does this mean that the privacy notice required to be delivered under the GDPR cannot be delivered by website?

Of course, the requirement stretches further than creditors and members.  For some people, you might like to make an extra-special effort to contact them asap to prove compliance with the GDPR, perhaps those who are most likely to complain – bankrupts and other individual debtors, perhaps.

 

What about closed cases?

Under the GDPR, “storage” is a form of processing.  Therefore, IPs will be continuing to “process” personal data long after a case has closed.  Do we need to contact individuals on closed cases?  Isn’t this taking things too far?!

The new Data Protection Act (currently still a Bill) may help us (thanks, JN, for highlighting this).  S93(4)(b) states that we need not notify data subjects where it “would be impossible or involve disproportionate effort”.  This must apply to closed cases, surely!

 

Privacy notices: is there more?

Oh yes, indeed!

Another meaty requirement of the GDPR is that data processors’ work must be governed by a contract with the data controller.  What data processors does an IP instruct?  And if someone is instructing an IP, does this need to be governed by a contract?

 

Who is a data processor?

The GDPR’s definition of a data processor is someone who “processes personal data on behalf of the controller”.  But a data processor’s activities may mean that they become a controller in their own right.  As I set out above, according to the GDPR’s definition, a data controller determines the purposes and means of processing data.  So logically, if someone has no control over either the purposes and/or the means of processing the data, they must be a processor, right?  For example, you instruct a debt collector to use debtors’ personal data solely to pursue debts – this sounds like a data processor, doesn’t it?

So who might an IP instruct that is not a data processor?  Surely every instruction defines at least the purposes of processing data, doesn’t it?

The ICO has provided guidance on the distinction between processors and controllers (https://ico.org.uk/media/for-organisations/documents/1546/data-controllers-and-data-processors-dp-guidance.pdf), which, although it was seemingly published in 2014, we understand is still considered relevant by the ICO for the post-GDPR world.

Paragraph 45 is interesting: “Where specialist service providers are processing data in accordance with their own professional obligations they will always be acting as the data controller”.  This is written in the context of an accountant, who will have obligations on detecting malpractice.  The guidance similarly singles out solicitors who “determine the manner in which the personal data obtained from the [client] will be processed” (paragraph 44).

 

And IPs?

Of course, I wouldn’t expect the ICO to mention IPs in their guidance (they don’t).  But I think the ICO’s guidance leads to the logical conclusion that usually IPs/insolvency practices will become data controllers in their own right when processing data on behalf of a client, e.g. when they’re instructed to help put a company into CVL.

 

Controller-processor contracts

But for anyone whom we instruct who is a data processor, we need to ensure that a GDPR-compliant contract is in place with them.  And even though you may personally be acting as agent of a company that continues to trade post-appointment, you will want to ensure that the company trades in a compliant fashion with appropriate contracts in place with their suppliers/service-providers… although remember that it’s only where the supplier/service-provider is processing personal data.

The GDPR sets out what must be included in such a contract and model clauses are widely available (although of course you may like to engage a solicitor to help).

 

Data sharing agreements

Although not mandatory, you may want to consider entering into data sharing agreements with parties who you instruct who are data controllers in their own right – the ICO guidance recommends this where you are sharing large-scale or particularly risky data.

As an IP receiving instructions, you are unlikely to want to volunteer a data sharing agreement.  However, you should amend your engagement letters, not only to refer to your privacy notice, but also to confirm your position as a data controller and remind the client of the need to comply with the GDPR and DPA.  ICAS has suggested some appropriate wording at: https://www.icas.com/regulation/preparing-for-gdpr

 

Fuzzy lines

I confess to remaining confused about the boundary between controllers and processors.  After all, wouldn’t following the GDPR definitions and ICO guidance lead us to a different conclusion from that arising from Re Southern Pacific Personal Loans Limited?  Doesn’t an IP store company records in accordance with their own obligations and doesn’t the IP decide the purposes and means of processing that data?  If so, why are they considered only a data processor?

In addition, different instructions may lead to different levels of control by the third party.  For example, on one case we may ask an agent simply to help us return items to their owners, but on another case the agent may be managing a marketing and sale process, dealing with RoT claims, wiping hardware clean…

Where these fuzzy lines exist, would it be an idea to engage with third parties via a catch-all controller-processor/data-sharing agreement?

 

Managing instructions

If you haven’t already set up a system, perhaps you might start a central register to help you record who has signed up an agreement.  Then, whenever you come to instruct a third party who will be processing personal data provided by you, you can check whether they have already signed up and, if not, you can set the ball rolling.

 

Ok, is that everything?

Nope.  There’s a whole host of additional items on the to-do list, including:

  • If you haven’t already got them, generate policies and procedures to cover areas such as data security, retention, dealing with breaches and subject access requests;
  • Before processing data on a new engagement/appointment, assess the risks associated with the proposed processing, and keep it under review during the engagement (yep, another checklist!); and
  • For each engagement/appointment, document the data held and the reasons why it is held – the ICO has produced 30-column wide spreadsheet for each data controller (and another one for a processor), so admittedly it is stupidly cumbersome for each case, but once completed for one case, there will be little variation needed for the next. But of course, it is worth giving every case a bit of thought, just in case there are some unusual considerations arising from, e.g., a novel business or an entity holding data in different countries.

Certain other aspects of our insolvency work require careful attention:

  • On (or preferably before) appointment, we will need to gather information on what data the insolvent holds and where/how it is stored and accessed;
  • If we are contemplating trading-on, we will need to review carefully the business’ data processing practices and documentation and identify whether any changes need to be made to bring them into line with the GDPR;
  • We should perhaps take more care in deciding what data we need to collect post-appointment and what happens to any data that we choose not to collect (also having regard, of course, to the recent Dear IP on collecting books and records);
  • Although generally databases and customer lists can continue to be sold in an insolvency process, we can expect to be asked more questions by potential purchasers about the insolvent’s data processing (will sale prices decrease and will sales to unconnected parties be less common as a consequence?) and some additional clauses will be required in agreements; and
  • We will want to have a good understanding – and ensure that staff have also – of our obligations on identifying a data breach.

 

Will it all become second nature?

It is a shame that the regulatory current seems to flow to ever more requirements for documentation and disclosure.  The regulatory burden never seems to lighten up, but personally I struggle to see how business or the economy is any better for it.

There remain a number of unanswered questions, some of which I’ve mentioned above, about how the GDPR works practically for IPs.  I’m sure that over time most of these will be resolved, hopefully with pragmatic solutions acceptable to the regulators.  One day, perhaps GDPR-compliance will become second nature.

 

 

 


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The Insolvency Rules 2016: One Year On

“Please don’t make the 2016 Rules any harder than they have to be.”

Since receiving this feedback on an R3 event last year, I’ve been left feeling nervous about how to present on this topic. I don’t mean to make the Rules complicated and I wish they were simpler. One year on, some fairly common confusing blind spots seem to be emerging. I hope this post helps to clear away some troublesome clouds.

In this post, I’ll be covering issues seen around:

  • the CVL Statement of Affairs
  • if/how/when to deliver the SoA and S100 report
  • incomplete – and sometimes completely missing – notices
  • information to creditors on opting out
  • deemed approval -v- deemed consent of Administrators’ Proposals

 

The S100 Perfect Storm

Many IPs have had to weather the perfect storm affecting their bread-and-butter work, the CVL: the 2016 Rules have clashed noisily against the revised SIP6 as regards information-delivery and against the 2015 Rules as regards fee-approval; and everything needs to be done in a short timescale with directors who, no longer facing the fear of attending a physical meeting, quickly become as disengaged from the process as most creditors. Add to this some surprising pronouncements from RPB monitors on pre-CVL fees, bounce-backs from an overflowing HMRC inbox, and requests from creditors for physical meetings that no one attends (not even the requesting creditor) and it’s no surprise that some cry: there must be an easier way to make a living!

What to deliver when and how?

Old habits die hard, so, because we had been accustomed to sending a S98 pack to creditors post-appointment, I think it has taken some time for the S100 and SIP6 requirements to settle in.

The Statement of Affairs

In brief, regarding the Estimated Statement of Affairs (“SoA”):

  • R6.14(7) states that creditors must receive a copy of the SoA required under S99 – so this must be a full copy of the director’s SoA verified by a statement of truth; a draft will not do
  • as it needs to be verified by the director, it is difficult to see how this can be a prospective SoA – it might be tempting to produce an SoA as it should look on the decision date, but this seems impossible;
  • so don’t produce it too early: R6.3 requires the SoA to show the position not more than 14 days before the winding-up resolution;
  • but it must be sent in sufficient time for creditors to receive it at the latest on the business day before the decision date; and
  • it must be sent to creditors – unless you can send this by email, it must be sent by post.

Pre-appointment deliveries

Why can’t you deliver the SoA by website? Because only an office-holder can make use of the rules on website-delivery (R1.49 and R1.50). Unless you’ve already been appointed liquidator by the members by the time you send the SoA – which of course may be the case in a Centrebind – you won’t be an office-holder… and in fact I still don’t think R1.49 can be used in a Centrebind, because it refers to a document that is required to be delivered by the office-holder but of course the requirement to deliver the SoA is on the directors… but oddly R1.50 is worded differently, so it might be possible for a Centrebind liquidator to help a director to deliver an SoA under R1.50.

So why can docs be delivered by email pre-appointment? R1.45 simply sets out the criteria for delivery by email; there are no restrictions on who may follow the rule or when. There is a the small wrinkle that “deemed consent” to email delivery (R1.45(4)) refers to delivery by an office-holder, but Dear IP 76 states that “the assumed consent provision applies to all senders”.

The SIP6 report

However, as regards the SIP6 information (which is still generally produced as a “report”):

  • this is not a Rules’ requirement, so the statutory delivery provisions do not apply; and
  • as the SIP6 states, this report only needs to be “made available on request… and may be made available via a website”.

This seems very odd to some: why put so much effort into producing the SIP6 report when probably no one is going to ask to see it? Well, if you want to seek a decision from creditors on your pre-CVL fees and/or your post-appointment fees, the SIP6 report may prove valuable in justifying the work done and setting out the work you propose to do, so you may well want to provide it to creditors anyway. I think that a significant proportion of IPs are sending out the SIP6 report, but I am also seeing a growing number deciding not to.

After the S100 decision process

What about after appointment? Should the SoA and the SIP6 report be sent out then? Of course, after appointment you can start using the Rules on website-delivery, so it all gets a lot less burdensome. Again, the SIP6 report may be useful if proposing fee decisions, but there is no strict requirement to deliver it.

The SoA is different: R6.15(1)(a) requires a copy or summary of the SoA to be delivered to “any contributory or creditor to whom the notice under rule 6.14 [i.e. notice of the S100 decision] was not delivered”. In many cases, not all members will have received the S100 decision notice. Therefore, to save you the trouble of having to determine whether you’re circulating to any previously-missed members or creditors and especially if you’re using website-delivery, why not include a copy of the SoA as routine in all cases?

 

A Flood of Notices!

When it comes to the 2016 Rules’ treatment of notices, I think the Insolvency Service have absolutely failed to meet their apparent objectives of creditor-engagement and reducing costs. There are many more notices required under the 2016 Rules and each notice requires more information.

I can truly see no advantage in these new requirements: no one wants to see all this extra gumpf, do they? Apparently not all the RPB monitors agree: we have even heard from one client that an RPB monitor has been asking for more items on certain notices, going over and above the statutory requirements. When will this madness end?!

More standard contents

Far from escaping the shackles of prescription, the 2016 Rules list detailed and sometimes puzzling “standard contents” for notices, some of which we might not have been accustomed to including previously. I have found that the following are sometimes overlooked from notices to creditors etc.:

  • the company number
  • the bankrupt’s address
  • the court reference
  • either an email address or a telephone number “through which the office-holder may be contacted”
  • the relevant section or rule reference

I would also ask that, if you are relying on an external provider’s notices and you wonder what on earth a certain statement is doing in the notice, please resist the urge to delete it. Although of course none of us are perfect, some required contents don’t make any sense – for example, reference in a S100 notice to the fact that opted-out creditors can still vote (i.e. before they’ve even been told about opting out).

Notices where none were needed before

A common notice to omit is a R15.8 Notice of Decision Procedure when proposing a vote by correspondence. In the old days, all we used to issue was a circular explaining the proposed resolution and enclosing a voting form, what could have been simpler? But now the circular needs to include a Notice of Decision Procedure – this isn’t a notice solely for meetings.

Notices Inviting a Committee

Where you are proposing a decision (including where you’re proposing it by deemed consent), you will also need to send a Notice Inviting a Committee in all the following cases:

  • CVLs, including pre-liquidation, when giving notice of the S100 process (R6.19 and as explained on the Insolvency Service’s Rules blog)
  • ADMs – even if your proposed decision cannot be affected by a Committee, e.g. when asking creditors to approve the timing of your discharge (R3.39)
  • BKYs (R10.76)
  • and MVL conversions (R6.19)

However, compulsory liquidations are different. You only need to invite creditors to form a Committee when you’re posing a decision on the appointment of a liquidator (which of course is going to be very rare for IPs already in office). But, where you’re appointed by the SoS, you still need to tell creditors in your first letter to them on appointment that they can form a Committee and how they go about that (S137(5)).

The 2016 Rules mentioned above make clear that you are “inviting [the creditors] to decide whether a [creditors’/liquidation] committee should be established”. Therefore, as a “decision” is mentioned, you need to ensure that you list on the other items in your pack – the R15.8 Notice of Decision Procedure (or R15.7 Notice seeking Deemed Consent) and the voting form or proxy form – a proposed decision on the establishment of a Committee.

You should also make sure that the R15.40 Record of Decision – your statutory internal record of the outcome of the decision process (which will be either minutes of a meeting or some other record in all non-meeting decisions, including decisions sought by deemed consent) – lists the proposed decision on the establishment of a Committee and the outcome.

The Opting-Out Notice?

It seems to have taken some time for the issuing of opting-out information, as required by R1.39, to have become embedded successfully in our practices.

R1.39(1) states that “the office holder must, in the first communication with a creditor, inform the creditor in writing that the creditor may elect to opt out of receiving further documents relating to the proceedings”. A few things are worthy to note:

  • The Rules do not call this a “notice” that we must “deliver”. Therefore, although it means that we don’t need to worry about ensuring the standard contents for notices are covered, it does mean that it is not something we can simply upload to a website and tell creditors where to find it.
  • The Rule states it must be “in the first communication”, so again uploading it to a website will not work.
  • “Communication” does not mean just by letter – if we are emailing a creditor on appointment (e.g. an MVL director owed a DLA balance), we need to ensure the information is “in” the email. Incidentally, personally I think that this Rule must only apply to written communication, not oral, as you cannot provide information “in writing” in your first telephone conversation.
  • The Rule refers to our first communication “with a creditor”, so we need to think wider than just the first on-appointment circular to creditors as a body – if any creditors emerge later, we need to provide the opt-out information in our first communication with each of them (arguably once we have established that they are – or perhaps may be – a creditor).

 

It’s Raining “Deemed”s

Even under the 1986 Rules, the Administration processes caused problems. Now – in a world where we deal both with “deemed consent” and “deemed approval” – confusion truly is raining down.

  1. Deemed Approval

The 1986 Rules’ deemed approval process has continued largely unaltered. Thus, if the Administrator’s Proposals contain a Para 52(1) Statement, you’re still looking at a “deemed approval” process:

  • The Administrator does not ask creditors to approve the Proposals.
  • Creditors are simply provided the Proposals and given 8 business days (from delivery, which is a change from the 1986 Rules) in which to request that a decision process be instigated.
  • If no (or insufficient) creditors respond within the time period, the Proposals are deemed approved.
  • This is not deemed consent.
  1. Deemed Consent

Deemed consent may be relevant where the Proposals do not include a Para 52(1) Statement.

In this case, the Administrator does ask creditors to approve the Proposals. This decision may be posed via a virtual meeting, correspondence (or electronic) vote, or by a Notice seeking Deemed Consent.

If we choose the deemed consent process, then we are asking creditors to make a decision “that the Administrator’s Proposals be approved”. Then, if no (or insufficient) creditors respond, the decision is made, i.e. the Proposals are actually approved – they’re not deemed approved, they are approved.

Does it matter?

Actually, probably not a great deal. A practical consequence is that different forms must be delivered to the Registrar of Companies:

  • If the Proposals have been “deemed approved”, you should use Form AM06, Notice of Approval (yep, that’s right: we were all accustomed to the Notice of Deemed Approval, but this no longer exists)
  • If the Proposals have actually been approved (by deemed consent or another decision process), you should use Form AM07, Notice of Creditor’s Decision (yep, the incorrect placing of the apostrophe gets under my skin too)

Interestingly, the case of Promontoria (Chestnut) Limited v Craig & Harold ([2017] EWHC 2405 (Ch)) (http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWHC/Ch/2017/2405.html) illustrates that the confusion is far wider than just with some IPs. Para 46 of this judgement states that the Administrators’ Proposals in this case were approved by deemed consent. However, the very next para, which refers to proposals containing a Para 52(1) Statement, states that the Proposals were “deemed approved”, but then the rest of para 47 is an argument about the status of proposals approved by deemed consent. What a mess!

 

Eclipsing the 2015 Fees Rules

RPB monitors seem unanimous in their recent messages, with which I concur: all this focus on the 2016 Rules seems to have had a detrimental effect on the general standards of compliance with the fees rules that were introduced in October 2015.

Unfortunately of course, if we don’t meet the fees rules and the decision-making rules, there could be serious consequences. So, while you may discover that an ICR, self cert or monitoring visit reveals 101 things to fix, I think that realistically many of us would do well to prioritise our efforts to fix the fundamentals of fee-approval for some time to come. After all, the 21st century is all about risk management 😉


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Revised R3 IVA Standard Terms: Improving with Age..?

Finally, 10 months after the 2016 Rules came into force, R3 issued 2016 Rules-adapted revised Standard Terms for IVAs. In this blog, I summarise the key changes.

Having worked on the R3 group (an inevitable consequence of saying: the work must get done!), it is difficult for me to be critical of the result. But drafting-by-committee always involves some compromises (and soooo much time!), so don’t be surprised if I slip in the odd gripe below.

The revised IVA Terms are available from the R3 website but only to logged-in R3 members, which seems odd considering the drive to go paperless for insolvency proceedings. R3’s conditions of use state that R3 members may “use” the terms, so presumably as the 2016 Rules and the Terms themselves allow delivery by website, non-members should be able to access them from R3 members’ websites over time.

While I’m on the subject of websites…

 

Website Use

The new Terms provide that Rs1.49 to 1.51 shall apply. Did the Terms need to include this? Can’t Supervisors (and Nominees) already use the 2016 Rules to deliver documents by website?

Yes, these 2016 Rules do already work for IVAs… but only for documents required under the Act or the Rules (R1.36(1)). Therefore, whilst we’ve been able to send relevant notices to wrap in website-delivery for statutory documents including the Nominee’s notice of the decision procedure to approve the IVA, progress reports and implementation/termination notices, technically the 2016 Rules do not enable website-delivery of items arising only by reason of the IVA Proposal and Terms. In other words, the methods of delivery of proposed variation decisions and outcomes are determined by the IVA Terms, not by the 2016 Rules.

The previous R3 IVA terms allowed the 2009 Rules’ process for website-delivery, i.e. by posting out a one-pager each time that something new was uploaded. The revised Terms now also allow the R1.50 process so that the despatching of one notice will enable all future documents to be uploaded onto the website with no further notice. It is doubtful that this will help when seeking a variation, but it may help with the next – new – requirement…

 

Reporting Outcomes

Where a meeting was held during the period of an IVA, the old terms required a list of creditors voting to be sent with “the chairman’s report to Creditors, the Debtor and the Court”. This was a bit odd, because firstly of course there was no requirement to send any report on meetings during an IVA to the Court. But secondly, what was “the chairman’s report”? The rules defined a chairman’s report arising from the meeting to vote on the IVA Proposal, but there were no rules or terms to define such a report for meetings after approval. Another oddity of the old terms was that there was no requirement to report to creditors on the outcome of a postal resolution.

The revised Terms plug these gaps… although not in a low-cost way. Term 69 follows the 2016 Rules’ model of “records of decisions”, which for meetings are in the form of minutes and which show how creditors voted on the decisions. Separately, Term 69 requires a list of creditors who participated and the amounts of their claims. The revised Terms require the “record of decision” to be sent to the creditors and the debtor.

This seems a little onerous and a departure from the 2016 Rules as regards decisions taken during the course of an insolvency process, where rarely is a post-decision circulation required. Couldn’t the decision outcome be delivered by a simple one-liner? Is a copy of the full record of decision/minutes really necessary? Well, it would appear so if creditors are able to exercise their rights under the Terms to appeal a decision (Term 65) or to “complain” about being excluded from a virtual meeting, which is a new right transferred in from the 2016 Rules (Term 62(7)).

As mentioned above, though, at least Supervisors may now use websites to deliver such documents easily… and it has since been pointed out to me that there is no timescale on this delivery.

 

Decision Procedures

I joined the working group thinking that we had an opportunity to take the good bits from the 2016 Rules and leave the bad. This didn’t mean that I was keen on making life easy for IPs while running rough-shod over measures designed to improve matters for the debtors and creditors. It’s just that I think we all know what works in the 2016 Rules, what balances well the objectives of reducing costs and engaging stakeholders, so why could we not learn from our early experiences of the 2016 Rules and design new Terms to improve on them?

For example, if an IP feels that a physical meeting would be the best forum in a particular case, why can’t s/he decide to summon one? Even the Insolvency Service has suggested that for other insolvency proceedings IPs might ring around creditors before notices are sent and encourage them to ask for a physical meeting. So why not design the Terms so that we can avoid this charade?

Regrettably, I was outvoted on this point as well as some other 2016 Rules that found their way into the revised Terms.

The revised Terms incorporate the following now-familiar Rules:

  • A physical meeting may only be convened if 10/10/10 creditors ask for one (Term 61(2) and (3))
  • The 2016 Rules on the creditors’ power to requisition a decision (i.e. out of the blue) generally have been replicated (Term 61(4) and 63).
  • A notice of decision procedure compliant as far as applicable with R15.8 must be issued (Term 62(2)) – note: this must be sent even if it is a vote-by-correspondence (I have seen a number of IPs omit this notice in other insolvency proceedings)
  • Other 2016 Rules on the decision procedures should be followed, e.g. the timescale for convening a physical meeting after receiving requests (Term 62(2))
  • Once a vote has been cast in a non-meeting procedure, it cannot be changed (Term 64(4))
  • As mentioned above, the 2016 Rules on excluded persons apply (Term 62(7))

But on the other hand, some departures from the 2016 Rules have been made:

  • The deemed consent process has not been transported into the Terms – it was felt that, as an IVA is effectively an agreement between the debtor and their creditors, silence-means-approval was an inappropriate way to make changes to it
  • Meetings must still be held between 10am and 4pm on a business day (Term 62(4)) (personally, I thought that IPs could be trusted to convene meetings at a sensible time such that this prescription was unnecessary – oh well)

But I guess we should be grateful for small mercies: at least we don’t need to invite creditors to form a committee every time!

 

The Debtor’s Involvement

Some changes in the Terms regarding the level of involvement of the debtor in the process may come as a surprise:

  • Notice of a meeting is no longer required to be sent to the debtor (unlike in bankruptcy – R15.14(2)/(3))
  • Debtors may request a decision (Term 61(6)), but the Supervisor need only convene a decision procedure if s/he considers it is a reasonable request
  • The Terms no longer allow the debtor to inspect proofs (Term 36)

Despite these changes, of course it must be remembered that the debtor’s participation in the IVA process, which is intended to achieve a fair outcome for all, is fundamental and crucial.

 

The Trust Clause

We all know about the Green v Wright fun-and-games, which decided that, notwithstanding that a debtor had met all their obligations under the IVA that had concluded successfully, when an asset emerged later that would have been caught by the IVA had it been known about at the time, such an asset was caught by the enduring trust.

Is this practical for cases generally? For example, how do you revive cases long-ago completed? What if you’ve destroyed the file? What if the former Supervisor has left the firm? What if they are no longer licensed?

Is this fair for cases generally? It seems fair in a bankruptcy scenario, which was how the judge came to the decision, but in an IVA where an agreement is reached with creditors (provided of course that the debtor has been entirely open and honest in formulating the Proposal), the debtor meets their side of the bargain and the creditors get what they were expecting, shouldn’t that be the end of it?

As R3’s covering note explained, on consulting with major creditor groups, it seemed that they generally were comfortable with such finality. On the whole, avoiding Green v Wright trusts capturing unknown unknowns seemed like a popular idea.

The new Terms introduce the Trust Realisation Period. This period continues after the expiry, full implementation or termination of the IVA, if there remain (known) assets included in the IVA Proposal that remain to be realised and distributed. Therefore, in theory if unknown assets emerge before the Trust Realisation Period ends, they could be caught by the trust. However, the Terms are designed so that, once the Trust Realisation Period ends, the trusts end, so any unknown assets emerging after this point should not be caught by a trust.

The new Terms also change the position on the debtor’s bankruptcy. In this case, any assets already got in or realised by the Supervisor remain for distribution to the IVA creditors, but any other assets that were caught by the IVA are freed from the trust, so as not to disturb the vesting of the bankruptcy estate in the Trustee in Bankruptcy.

 

Other Good Bits

The new Terms improve on some other areas that previously didn’t quite work:

  • Previously, a meeting could be adjourned again and again (as long as there were no more than 21 days between adjournments). Now, adjournments have a long-stop date of 14 days from the original meeting date (Term 68(3))
  • The process for a Joint Supervisor to resign has been simplified: no longer does there need to be a meeting to seek creditors’ approval of the resignation, but now all that is needed is for the Joint Supervisor’s resignation to be notified to creditors in the next progress report (Term 18(3))
  • Debts of £1,000 or less may be admitted for a dividend without the delivery of a proof (Term 39(4)). The new Terms do not prescribe how Supervisors should deliver this message to such creditors, but it would seem sensible to me for the Supervisor to follow something akin to the 2016 Rules’ process of notifying such creditors when issuing the Notice of Intended Dividend so that these creditors know how much their claim is going to be admitted for absent a proof and the timescale for submitting a proof for a different amount, if they so wish. As in the 2016 Rules, this Term does not mean that Supervisors must admit small debts – they remain in full control of whether to exercise this power.

 

On the whole, I think the new Terms are an improvement, especially now that the 2016 Rules’ Decision Procedures have bedded in generally. Of course, the odd flaw or ambiguity will always take us by surprise. But hopefully Version 4 will serve us well for a few years yet.


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The revised SIP6: was it worth the wait?

With the benefit of 6 months of working under the clunky new rules, I’d expected (ok, I’d hoped) that the revised SIP6 would address some of the practical issues arising from the new rules and that we’d see clarity on some of the vague language of v1. The limited changes in v2 have done little to clear the fog. Did we miss the opportunity presented by the consultation to inform the regulators of our difficulties?

You can access a tracked-changes comparison of the revised with the original SIP6 at: SIP6 comparisons to 01-01-18

In brief, the changes introduced by the revised SIP6 were:

  • Clarification that the S100 information should ordinarily be made available “on request” and can be made available via a website;
  • Movement of information about the IP’s (or firm’s or associates’) prior involvement from the S100 information pack to the circular providing notice of the proposed S100 decision and an expansion of the explanation to include the ethical consequences of any prior involvement; and
  • Removal of the requirement to send notices convening a decision process to everyone on the same day.

My personal response to the SIP6 consultation is here: SIP_6_questionnaire_MB

 

Should the S100 information be sent to creditors?

The most material change is the method of disseminating the “key information likely to be of interest to prospective participants” in the S100 decision process. It was hinted at when the original SIP6 was released: the RPBs’ covering emails announcing the release on 10 March 2017 had indicated that the S100 information “should be available to creditors… where they request it”. However, this non-binding note sat uncomfortably next to the SIP itself, which simply stated that the information “should ordinarily be available”. The revised SIP6 now clarifies that the information “should ordinarily be available, on request”, adding that it may be made available via a website.

I find this approach odd. Does this mean that IPs no longer need to compile the information as a matter of routine? Or would an IP be criticised for not having the information ready notwithstanding the absence of any requests? Granted, it would be a very brave IP that gambled on the chances that no one would ask for the information in view of the time it takes to compile it… but if the only creditors are HMRC and a couple of connected parties..?

The flip-side is: if no one asks for the information, is it still a “reasonable and necessary” cost to compile it? As it seems that IPs are no longer strictly required to produce a report for every S100 – but only where a creditor requests it – I think it could be only a matter of time before part of an IP’s S100 fee is challenged as not reasonable and necessary and therefore not strictly an allowable expense of the liquidation (R6.7(2)). Thanks, RPBs, for putting IPs between a rock and a hard place.

Personally, I disliked the original SIP6’s hark-back to the S98 report. The Insolvency Service has given us a low-cost deemed consent route into liquidation. It seemed logical to me for SIP6 to follow through on this model. As we have broken away from physical S98 meetings, isn’t the time over for deficiency accounts and lame reasons for the company’s demise? Instead of putting the effort into providing creditors with information whilst operating under the company’s instruction pre-liquidation, wouldn’t it be more valuable to require the liquidator to provide such information once they’ve had an opportunity to investigate matters, as in Administrations? Wouldn’t this sit better with the image of the IP as office holder and help dispel the perception that they’re cosy with the director?

Of course, some S100s will attract attention and it is only right that, where a meeting has been convened, those attending the meeting receive some answers to their questions (and the S100 pack may go some way to explaining the quantum/basis of a prospective liquidator’s proposed fee). However, to produce the copious amount of information required to meet SIP6 on the off-chance that someone will ask for it seems insensible. The SIP doesn’t even require IPs to inform creditors that such information is available on request.

 

Elevating ethics

SIP6 (both original and revised) stipulates that the required information “facilitates the making of an informed decision” on the appointment of a liquidator. It had seemed to me that the only item in the original list of information that was truly relevant to this question was “details of any prior involvement with the company or its directors that could reasonably be perceived as presenting a threat to that insolvency practitioner’s objectivity”: if the advising IP had become too embroiled in material events just prior to the liquidation, then creditors may decide to look for an independent liquidator.

In view of the fact that the SIP6 report is only provided on request, I think it is only right that this requirement is shifted out of the SIP6 report and into documents that are issued to creditors. New paragraph 11 of SIP6 addresses this:

“An insolvency practitioner should disclose the extent of their (and that of their firm and/or associates) prior involvement with the company or its directors or shareholders, any threats identified to compliance with the fundamental principles of the Insolvency Code of Ethics, and the safeguards applied to mitigate those threats. This disclosure should be made with the notices convening the deemed consent or decision procedure.”

This is a positive change, I think, and I do like the wider scope of this disclosure, which requires IPs to examine and explain the ethical threats presented by any prior involvement. But unfortunately it does mean that there is a new lack of transparency over the IPs’/firms’/associates’ involvement after the notices have been sent.

 

Is that all?

The only other change (other than semantics) was to drop the requirement for the notices to be sent on the same business day to all known prospective participants in the decision process (old SIP6 paragraph 8).

The SIP6 consultation closed on 13 October 2017. Granted, two months is a short time in the world of committees. It takes time to draft, redraft, achieve in-principle agreement, and then drive documents through RPBs’ approval processes. I wonder if the emergent few changes have left those who worked on the project asking themselves if it was all worth the effort. Then again, perhaps the consultation responses gave them the feeling that we were all pretty-much happy with the SIP as it was.

 

A missed opportunity?

The SIP consultation had included some valuable questions exploring the difficulties encountered in applying the SIP and the new decision processes and asking where “the SIP fails to provide adequate direction”. We were also asked whether creditors had fed back anything about the value of the SIP6 S100 information. Surely, the RPBs have accumulated some valuable responses, haven’t they?

I accept that a SIP is not the place for guidance. It is there to address mischiefs and potential abuses. But, having asked the questions, I would hope that the RPBs received useful feedback, which could be used to help us make the new rules work for all.

My own thoughts on where the SIP was unclear on exactly what was expected of IPs were:

  • What measures are expected in order for IPs to “facilitate participation” (paragraph 3) in a decision process? As this is a fundamental SIP6 principle, presumably it relates to more than just the S100 information? Does it relate to the choice of decision process? For example, could IPs be clobbered for using an internet-based platform in an area with poor connectivity? Could it have application in cases with overseas creditors? What did the drafter have in mind?
  • What do “sufficient and proportionate safeguards against participation by persons who are not properly entitled to participate” (paragraph 8) look like? Is this referring to the level of diligence expected in reviewing proofs? Or is this about checking IDs before being allowed into a meeting? As this requirement was never in SIP8, perhaps the RPBs felt it was needed specifically to deal with virtual meetings, so does this indicate where the RPBs stand on the question of providing the full dial/login details for a virtual meeting upfront?
  • Personally, I’d appreciate a clear steer on what constitutes “an explanation of any material transactions conducted in the preceding 12 months” (paragraph 12 (iv)) that needs to be disclosed (on request) for S100s, as some IPs have expressed surprise at my view that this would cover the sale of the company’s remaining assets just before liquidation.

Unfortunately, I think that those ambiguities remain in SIP6 v2.

Some other new areas that might have usefully been covered in the SIP are:

  • What are creditors’ views of the absence of a statutory Gazette notice for deemed consent processes? Is there any expectation on IPs to Gazette except perhaps where they are very confident about the creditor list provided by the company? Seemingly not, but is this not open to abuse?
  • How do you allow creditors to inspect proofs at a virtual meeting?
  • When does healthy competition stray into actions bringing the profession into disrepute? Is it acceptable for an IP (or their staff or associates) to cast aspersions on the conduct of the members’ nominated liquidator?

But the opportunities for such clarity and guidance have passed. As with so many other aspects of the new rules and other legislation, we have to get up to speed damned fast, faster than it seems the SIPs can move. I have no doubt that the face of S100s will continue to change, but whether we can expect any SIP6 v3 is doubtful.

 

 


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The Regulators present a unified front on fees

 

In an unprecedented step, the IPA and the ICAEW have issued largely consistent articles on fees, SIP9 and reporting. I think some of the points are well worth repeating, not only because in the past few months, I’ve seen more IPs get into a fix over fees than anything else, the new rules having simply compounded the complexities, but also because the articles contain some important new messages.

In this post, I explore how you can make your fee proposals bullet-proof:

  • What pre-administration work is an allowable expense?
  • What pre-administration costs detail is often missing?
  • What pre-CVL work is allowable as an expense?
  • What Rules/SIP9 detail is commonly missing from fee proposals?
  • How do the monitors view Rules/SIP9 omissions?
  • What problems can arise when using percentage or mixed basis fees?

The articles can be found at:

The effort seems to have originated from a well-received presentation at the autumn’s R3 SPG Forum, given by the ICAEW’s Manager, Alison Morgan (nee Timperley) and the IPA’s Senior Monitoring Manager, Shelley Bullman.

As the ICAEW and the IPA monitor c.90% of all appointment-taking IPs, I think this is a fantastic demonstration of how the RPBs can get out to us useful guidance. Of course, such articles do not have the regulatory clout of SIPs or statute (see below). However, I believe it is an essential part of the RPBs’ role to reach out to members in this way in written form. Although roadshow presentations are valuable, they can only reach the ears of a proportion of those in need and the messages soon settle into a foggy memory (if you’re lucky!).

  • Do the articles represent the RPBs’ views?

The IPA article ends with a disclaimer that “IPA staff responses” cannot fetter the determinations of the IPA’s committees and the ICAEW article is clearly authored by Alison Morgan, rather than being something that can strictly be relied upon as representing the ICAEW’s views (for the sake of simplicity, I have referred throughout to the articles as written by “the monitors”).

That’s a shame, but I know only so well how extraordinarily troublesome it is to push anything through the impenetrable doors of an RPB – that’s why SIPs seem to emerge so often long after the horse has bolted… and I suspect why we are still waiting for an insolvency appendix to the new CCAB MLR guidance. However, at a time when the Insolvency Service’s mind is beginning to contemplate again the question of a single regulator, issuing prompt and authoritative guidance serves the RPBs’ purposes, not only ours.

 

Pre-Administration Costs

Over the past few years, I’ve seen an evolving approach from the RPBs. In the early days, the focus was on the process of getting pre-administration costs approved. The statutory requirement for pre-administration costs to be approved by a resolution separate from the Proposals has taken a while to sink in… and the fact that the two articles repeat this requirement suggests that it is still being overlooked on occasion.

Then, the focus turned to the fact that it was, not only pre-administration fees that required approval, but also other costs. I still see cases where IPs only seek approval of their own costs, apparently not recognising that, if the Administration estate is going to be paying, say, agents’ or solicitors’ costs incurred pre-administration, these also need to go through the approval process.

  • What pre-administration work is an allowable expense?

Now, it seems that the monitors’ focus has returned to the IP’s own fees. Their attention seems fixed on the definition of pre-administration costs being (R3.1):

“fees charged, and expenses incurred by the administrator, or another person qualified to act as an insolvency practitioner in relation to the company, before the company entered administration but with a view to it doing so.”

The IPA article states that this “would exclude any insolvency or other advice that may or may not lead directly to the administration appointment” and the ICAEW article states that it “would exclude any general insolvency or other advice”.

I do wonder at the fuzzy edges: if a secured creditor who is hovering over the administration red button asks an IP to speak with a director, doesn’t the IP’s meeting with the director fit the description? Or if an IP seeks the advice of an agent or solicitor about what might happen if an administration were pursued, wouldn’t this advice count? But nevertheless, the monitors do have a point. If a firm were originally instructed to conduct an IBR, this work would not appear to fall into the definition of pre-administration costs. Also, if an IP originally took steps to help a company into liquidation but then the QFCH decided to step in with an Administration, the pre-liquidation costs could not be paid from the Administration estate.

  • What pre-administration costs detail is often missing?

As mentioned above, the monitors remind us that pre-administration costs require a decision separate from any approval of the Proposals – there is no wriggle-room on this point and deemed consent will not work. The monitors also list other details required by statute that are sometimes missing, of which these are my own bugbears:

  • R3.35(10): a statement that the payment of any unpaid pre-administration costs as an expense of the Administration is subject to approval under R3.52 and is not part of the Proposals subject to approval under Para 53 of Schedule B1
  • R3.36(a): details of any agreement about pre-administration fees and/or expenses, including the parties to the agreement and the date of the agreement
  • R3.36(b): details of the work done
  • R3.36(c): an explanation of why the work was done before the company entered administration and how it had been intended to further the achievement of an Administration objective
  • R3.36(d) makes clear that details of paid pre-administration costs, as well as any that we don’t envisage paying from the Administration estate, should be provided
  • R3.36(e): the identities of anyone who has made a payment in respect of the pre-administration costs and which type(s) of costs they discharged
  • R3.36(g) although it will be a statement of the obvious if you have provided the above, you also need to detail the balance of unpaid costs (per category)

 

Pre-CVL Costs

Another example of an evolving approach relates to the scope of pre-CVL costs allowable for payment from the liquidation estate. Again, over recent years we have seen the RPB monitors get tougher on the fact that the rules (old and new) do not provide that the IP’s costs of advising the company can be charged to the liquidation estate. This has been repeated in the recent articles, but the IPA’s article chips away further still.

  • A new category of pre-CVL work that is not allowable as an expense?

R6.7 provides that the following may be paid from the company’s assets:

  • R6.7(1): “Any reasonable and necessary expenses of preparing the statement of affairs under Section 99” and
  • R6.7(2): “Any reasonable and necessary expenses of the decision procedure or deemed consent procedure to seek a decision from the creditors on the nomination of a liquidator under Rule 6.14”.

Consequently, the IPA article states that:

“Pre-appointment advice and costs for convening a general meeting of the company cannot be drawn from estate funds after the date of appointment, even if you have sought approval for them.”

So how do you protect yourself from tripping up on this?

If you’re seeking a fixed fee for the pre-CVL work, make sure that your paperwork reflects that the fee is to cover only the costs of the R6.7(1) and (2) work listed above. Of course, SIP9 also requires an explanation of why the fixed fee sought is expected to produce a fair and reasonable reflection of the R6.7(1)/(2) work undertaken. Does this mean that you should be setting the quantum lower than you would have done under the 1986 Rules, given that you should now exclude the costs of obtaining the members’ resolutions? Well, personally, I don’t see that the effort expended under the 2016 Rules is any less than it was before, even if you cut out the work in dealing with the members, but you will need to consider (and, at least in exceptional cases, document) how you assess that the quantum reflects the “reasonable and necessary” costs of dealing with the R6.7(1)/(2) work.

Alternatively, if you’re seeking pre-CVL fees on a time costs basis, make sure that you isolate the time spent in carrying out only the R6.7(1)/(2) work and that you don’t seek to bill anything else to the liquidation estate.

Although the articles don’t cover it, I think it’s also worth mentioning that, as liquidator, you need to take care when discharging any other party’s pre-CVL costs that they fall into the R6.7(1)/(2) work.

 

Proposing a Decision on Office Holders’ Fees

  • What Rules/SIP9 detail is commonly missing from fee proposals?

The articles list some relatively common shortcomings in fee proposals (whether involving time costs or otherwise):

  • lack of detail of anticipated work and why the work is necessary
  • no statement about whether the anticipated work will provide a financial benefit to creditors and, if so, what benefit
  • no indication of the likely return to creditors (SIP9 requires this “where it is practical to do so” – personally, I cannot see how it would be impractical if you’re providing an SoA/EOS and proposed fees/expenses)
  • generic listings of tasks to be undertaken that include items irrelevant to the case in question
  • last-minute delivery of information, resulting in the approving body having insufficient time to make an informed judgment

The IPA article states that “presenting the fee estimate to the meeting is not considered to be giving creditors as a body sufficient time to make a reasoned judgement”. Personally, I would go further and question whether giving the required information to only some of the creditors (i.e. only those attending a meeting) meets the requirement in R18.16(4) to “deliver [it] to the creditors”. At the R3 SPG Forum, one of the monitors also expressed the view that, if fee-related information is being delivered along with the Statement of Affairs at the one business day point for a S100 decision, this is “likely to be insufficient time”.

  • fee estimates not based on the information available or providing for alternative scenarios or bases

I wonder whether the monitors are referring primarily to the fairly common approaches to investigation work, where an IP might estimate the time costs where nothing of material concern is discovered and those that might arise where an action to be pursued is identified down the line. You might also be tempted to set out different scenarios when dealing with, say, a bankrupt’s property: will a straightforward deal be agreed or will you need to go the whole hog with an order for possession and sale?

Some IPs’ preference for seeking fee approval only once is understandable – it would save the costs of reverting to creditors and potentially of hassling them to extract a decision – but at the SPG Forum the monitors recommended a milestone approach to deal with such uncertainties: a fee estimate to deal with the initial assessment and later an “excess fee” request for anything over and above this once the position is clearer. This approach would often require a sensitive touch, as you would need to be careful how you presented your second request as regards the next steps you proposed to undertake to pursue a contentious recovery and the financial benefit you were hoping to achieve. But it better meets what is envisaged by SIP2 and would help to justify your decision either to pursue or to drop an action.

Alternatively, perhaps the monitors have in mind the fees proposed on the basis of only a Statement of Affairs containing a string of “uncertain”-valued assets. Depending on what other information you provide, it could be questioned whether creditors have sufficient information to make an informed judgment.

  • no disclosure of anticipated expenses

Under the Rules, this detail must be “deliver[ed] to the creditors” prior to the determination of the fee basis, whether time costs or otherwise, for all but MVLs and VAs… and SIP9 and SIPs3 require it in those other cases as well. It is important to remember also that this relates to all expenses, not simply Category 2 disbursements, and including those to be paid directly from the estate, e.g. to solicitors and agents.

  •  How do the monitors view Rules/SIP9 omissions?

At the R3 SPG Forum, one of the monitors stated that, if the Rules and SIP9 requirements are not strictly complied with, the RPB could ask the IP to revert to creditors with the omitted information in order to make sure that the creditors understood what they were approving and that this would be at the cost of the IP, not the estate. The IPA’s article states that “where a resolution for fees has been passed and insufficient information is provided we would recommend that the correct information is provided to creditors at the next available opportunity and ratification of the fee sought”. Logically, such a recommendation would depend on the materiality of the omission.

When considering the validity of any fee decision, personally I would put more weight on the Rules’ requirements, rather than SIP9 (nothing personal RPBs, but I believe the court would be more concerned with a breach of the Rules). For example, I would have serious concerns about the validity of a fees decision where no details of expenses are provided – minor technical breaches may not be fatal to a fees decision, but surely there comes a point where the breach kills the purported decision.

 

Fixed and Percentage Fees

  • How can you address the SIP9 “fair and reasonable” explanation?

It is evident that in some cases the SIP9 (paragraph 10) requirement for a “fair and reasonable” explanation for proposed fixed or % fees is not being met to the monitors’ expectations. The ICAEW article highlights the need to deal with this even for IVAs… which could be difficult, as I suspect that most IPs proposing an IVA would consider that the fee that would get past creditors is both unfair and unreasonable! MVL fixed fees also are usually modest sums in view of the work involved.

The articles don’t elaborate on what kind of explanation would pass the SIP9 test. Where the fee is modest, I would have thought that a simple explanation of the work proposed to be undertaken would demonstrate the reasonableness, but a sentence including words such as “I consider the proposed fee to be a fair and reasonable reflection of the work to be undertaken, because…” might help isolate the explanation from the surrounding gumpf. For IVAs, it might be appropriate to note how the proposed fee compares to the known expectations of what the major/common creditors believe to be fair and reasonable.

  • What is an acceptable percentage?

Soon after the new fees regime began, the RPB monitors started expressing concern about large percentage fees sought on simple assets, such as cash at bank. Their concerns have now crystallised into something that I think is sensible. Although a fee of 20% of cash at bank may seem alarming in view of the work involved in recovering those funds, very likely the fee is intended to cover other work, perhaps all other work involved in the case from cradle to grave. In addressing the fair and reasonable test, clearly it is necessary to explain what work will be covered by the proposed fee. Of course, if you were to seek 20% of a substantial bank balance simply to cover the work in recovering the cash, you can expect to be challenged!

Equally, it is important to be clear on what the proposed fee does not cover. For example, as mentioned above, the extent of investigation work and potential recoveries may be largely unknown when you seek fee approval. It may be wise to define to which assets a % fee relates and flag up to creditors the potential for other assets to come to light, which may involve other work excluded from the early-day proposed fee. The IPA article repeats the message that a fee cannot be proposed on unknown assets.

 

Mixed Fee Bases

It seems to me that it can be tricky enough to get correct the fee decision and billing of a single basis fee, without complicating things by looking for more than one basis! To my relief, personally I have seen few mixed fee bases being used.

  • How is mixing time costs with fixed/% viewed?

In particular, I think it is hazardous to seek a fee on time costs plus one other basis. Only where tasks are clearly defined – for example, a % on all work related to book debt collections and time costs on everything else – could I see this working reasonably successfully. The IPA article notes that:

  • when proposing fees, you need to state clearly to what work each basis relates; and
  • your time recording system must be “sufficiently robust to ensure the correct time is accurately recorded against the appropriate tasks”.
  • I would add a third: mistakes are almost inevitable, so I would recommend a review of the time costs incurred before billing – the narrative or staff members involved should help you spot mis-postings.

 

Of course, there are plenty of other Rules/SIP areas where mistakes are commonly made – for example, the two articles highlight some common issues with progress reports, which are well worth a read. However, few breaches of Rules or SIPs have the potential to be more damaging. Therefore, I welcome the RPB monitors’ efforts in highlighting the pitfalls around fees. Prevention is far better than cure.