Insolvency Oracle

Developments in UK insolvency by Michelle Butler


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Ethics: The Reboot

How does an Ethics Code more than triple in size overnight?  In my view, largely by adding lots of unnecessary words.  The devil, however, is in finding the detail hidden within the new Code that affects how we should be viewing and handling things differently from 1 May.

A primary reason why the new Code is substantially longer is that we now have “requirements” – highlighted in bold and given an “R” paragraph number – and “application material”, identified by normal text and “A” paragraph numbers.  This application material is “intended to help an insolvency practitioner to understand how to apply the conceptual framework to a particular set of circumstances and to understand and comply with a specific requirement” (1.4 A1).  So don’t be misled into viewing “A” paragraphs as optional guidance: although all the “shall”s appear in the “R” paragraphs, the language of most of the “A”s indicates that they also are necessary to achieve compliance.

Although I have tried to highlight the main areas of change, I do recommend that you read through the Code in its entirety yourself.  There is a great deal more detail to explain RPB expectations and you could find that the particular circumstances of you or your firm and your engagements gives rise to ethical threats that you may have overlooked in the past.

The ICAEW’s version of the new Code can be found at www.icaew.com/-/media/corporate/files/technical/ethics/insolvency-code-of-ethics.ashx?la=en and the IPA’s version of the new Code is at www.insolvency-practitioners.org.uk/regulation-and-guidance/ethics-code (although the IPA hasn’t amended the text of the page to highlight that the link is not to the Code that came into force in 2009, nor have they archived the accompanying docs that relate to the old Code).  The ICAEW’s Code has an additional “2” at the start of each paragraph (to fit the insolvency section into its overarching Code).  In this article, I have used the IPA’s numbering.

 

Why now?

Do I think that the implementation date of the new Code should have been postponed?  Yes, I do!

True, we have been waiting a loooong time for a revised Code – the JIC’s consultation on a draft revised Code concluded in July 2017.  However, the new Code is so much different from the old one (and from the 2017 draft), it is not at all an easy read at 70 pages, and there are many new requirements in there.  Therefore, expecting IPs to have absorbed and adapted systems to the new Code and to have trained staff by 1 May is grossly unfair in these extremely difficult times.  Shame on you, IS/RPBs!

 

Surely the Fundamental Principles are the same?

Generally, yes of course.  Some look a bit different now, though.

“Integrity” has been beefed up.  In addition to the “straightforward and honest” statement, we now have that an IP (R101.2):

“shall not knowingly be associated with reports, returns, communications and other information where the insolvency practitioner believes that the information:

  • Contains a materially false or misleading statement;
  • Contains statements or information provided recklessly; or
  • Omits or obscures required information where such omission or obscurity would be misleading.”

The Code allows IPs to be viewed as not in breach of this where they “provide a modified report” (101.2 A1), although I guess they could still have fallen foul of the principle of professional competence and due care by allowing the incorrect or misleading statement to be released in the first place.

As another solution, the Code requires an IP to “take steps to be disassociated” (R101.3) from such information when they become aware of having been associated with it.  Thus, it goes further than the advertising and marketing requirements of the old Code, capturing the spoken word and information that might wriggle out of “advertising”, and it makes clear that the IP need not have a marketing agreement with the party issuing the information, the IP just needs to be “associated” with it.

Having said that, the Code’s “Advertising, Marketing and Other Promotional Activities” section (360) has also been expanded on, making unacceptable standards more explicit.

“Confidentiality” has also grown by a page and a half.  Comfortingly, though, this Code has elevated the requirement for transparency, i.e. to report openly to creditors etc., by putting it up-front at R104.2, rather than buried as at para 36 in the old Code.  Most of the new text are statements of the obvious, e.g. being alert to the possibility of inadvertent disclosure in a social environment or to family and not using confidential information for the personal advantage of the IP or of third parties.

“Professional Competence and Due Care” is now accompanied by a new 1.5 page section, “Acting with Sufficient Expertise”, but I saw nothing in here that I thought really needed to be said.

“Professional behaviour” contains a subtle change: no longer must IPs only avoid action that discredits the profession, but they are required to avoid “any conduct that the insolvency practitioner knows or should know might discredit the profession” and they “shall not knowingly engage in any business, occupation or activity that impairs or might impair the integrity, objectivity or good reputation of the profession” (R105.1).

 

What about the Framework Approach?

Yes, we still have the basic framework of:

  1. identifying threats;
  2. evaluating them; and
  3. eliminating or reducing those threats to an acceptable level, often with the use of safeguards.

And in case there was any risk that we might forget this, it is provided in full twice (at 1.5 A1 and R110.2) and then appears in the introduction to almost every other section.  In fact, the word “framework” appears 45 times in the new Code (and only 6 times in the old Code).

 

Ok, so what has changed?  More paperwork, right?

Yes, of course!

Some have expressed the view that the requirements to evidence pre-appointment ethical considerations haven’t increased, if we’d been documenting things properly in the first place.  As the old Code had a simple “record considerations” message, there is some truth in that, but it is difficult to deny that the new Code reflects the record-keeping mission creep that the profession has seen over this century.

To avoid doubt over the extent of documentation required, we now have a list of six items to be documented at R130.2 – they are what you would expect, but you would do well to ensure you’re your Ethics Checklists specifically prompt for these items.

In addition, this list of six items should define the structure for documenting your ethical considerations when a threat arises after appointment (130.1 A1).

Under the old Code, we were required to keep threats under review, simple as that.  This has survived the revision (R210.7), but we now have added “application material” – 210.7 A1 – that helps define what such a review process should look like:

  • has new information emerged;
  • or have the facts or circumstances changed (facts cannot change, can they..?);
  • that impact the level of a threat;
  • or that affect the IP’s conclusions about whether safeguards applied continue to be appropriate?

Again, periodic review checklists may need to be enhanced.

 

Other paperwork: using specialists (Section 320)

To be honest, I never did like the old Code’s “obtaining specialist advice and services” section.  Its meanings were ambiguous; I never really understood in what circumstances periodic reviews had to be conducted and whether these were to be on a firm-wide or a case-by-case basis.

The new Code leaves us with no (ok, fewer) doubts.

The four “R”s in the section are key:

  • R320.3: “When an insolvency practitioner intends to rely on the advice or work of another, from within the firm or by a third party, the insolvency practitioner shall evaluate whether such advice or work is warranted.”
  • R320.4: “Any advice or work contracted shall reflect best value and service for the work undertaken.”
  • R320.5: “The insolvency practitioner shall review arrangements periodically to ensure that best value and service continue to be obtained in relation to each insolvency appointment.”
  • R320.6: “The insolvency practitioner shall document the reasons for choosing a particular service provider.”

So every time an IP plans to instruct a third party (or another department within the firm) to provide advice or work, they need to determine whether the instruction is warranted and then why they have decided on the particular provider, having in mind the need to achieve best value and service.  Then, they need to review periodically whether best value and service is being achieved for each appointment.

This sounds like another checklist or file note process per instruction together with more prompts on case reviews.

To reduce the detail required on each case’s instructions, it may be possible to create a firm-wide process evaluating the value and service provided by regular suppliers – in effect, an approved supplier list.  This would seem particularly relevant when using a specific service provider (e.g. storage agents, insurers/brokers and pension and ERA specialists) across your whole portfolio.

 

And more disclosure to creditors?

Oh yes!  In relation to using specialists, the Code says: “Disclosure of the relevant relationships and the process undertaken to evaluate best value and service to the general body of creditors or to the creditors’ committee” (320.6 A6) is an example of a safeguard to address a threat arising from instructing a regular service provider in the firm or those with whom there is a business or personal relationship.

The new section, “Agencies and Referrals”, also provides as an example safeguard similar disclosure to address threats created by any referral or agency arrangement (330.5 A2).

 

What about disclosure of ethical threats generally?

This is an area that appears to have been watered down.  The old Code stated that generally, it would be inappropriate for an IP to accept an appointment where an ethical threat existed (or could reasonably be expected to arise) unless disclosure were made prior to appointment to the court or creditors.

However, the new Code simply requires IPs to consider disclosure of the threats and the safeguards applied (210.5 A3)… although as disclosure is a safeguard, IPs would do well to disclose wherever this is practical (200.3 A3).

 

New Section (330): Agencies and Referrals

I would strongly urge you to read through Section 330 in full and consider how this impacts on your firm’s processes and communications.  There are a lot of disclosure and other safeguard requirements, which, when you think about it, could encompass a number of dealings.

For example, at the immaterial end of the spectrum, how do you decide where to send directors who have a Declaration of Solvency to swear?  Do you recommend the solicitor around the corner (or, now, one who is prepared to witness swearings remotely)?  Such referrals, even if the decision is a geographical no-brainer, must be subject to the rigorous evaluation and disclosure standards.

Of course, there will be other more material referrals, e.g. when assisting businesses outside (or prior to) formal insolvency or when conflicted from taking on an appointment or from advising directors personally, as well as recommendations made to individuals in IVAs.  These will require substantial documentary evidence that the appropriateness of the referral or introduction has been carefully and objectively considered and that a great deal of information (including the alternatives) has been provided.

 

Any change to referral fees?

There are some subtle changes in Section 340.

The new Code repeats the old Code’s principle that the benefit of any referral fees or commissions received post-appointment must be passed on to the insolvent estate.  The new Code extends the reach, though, in stating that no associate (as well as neither the IP nor their firm) may accept a referral fee or commission unless it is paid into the insolvent estate (R340.7).  Associates include connected companies and those with common shareholdings or beneficial owners (340.8 A1).

The new Code also puts a duty on IPs who do not control decisions on referrals to get information on referral fees received (340.8 A6).  This could be challenging for IPs in large firms or with a wide network of associates.

Its reach also extends to “preferential contractual terms… for example volume or settlement discounts” – these must also be passed on to the insolvent estate in full (R340.8).

Also, whereas previously the IP only needed to consider making disclosure to creditors, now, where an insolvency appointment is involved, any referral fee or commission payments must be disclosed to creditors (R340.6 and 7).

 

What about paying referral fees out?

The new Code is more direct in stating simply that an IP “shall not make or offer to make any payment or commission for the introduction of an insolvency appointment” (R340.4).  It also wraps the firm and associates in this prohibition and, again, if the IP does not control the referrals paid out by their firm or associates, they nevertheless need to ascertain what they are (340.8 A6).

I am not sure why we have now lost the old “furnishing of valuable consideration” prohibition.  After all, not every benefit is couched as a “payment”.

But then the old Gifts and Hospitality section has been substantially lengthened from half a page to four and a half pages, so non-monetary inducements connected with improper motives are caught elsewhere.

 

“Inducements, including Gifts and Hospitality” (Section 350)

This is another section that I’d recommend reading in full, as it has been beefed up.

The old Code had included assessing the appropriateness of a gift by having regard to what a reasonable and informed third party would consider appropriate.  However, the new Code makes the connection more directly with motive:

  • R350.6: “An insolvency practitioner shall not offer, or encourage others to offer, any inducement that is made, or which the insolvency practitioner considers a reasonable and informed third party would be likely to conclude is made, with the intent to improperly influence the behaviour of the recipient or of another.”
  • R350.7: “An insolvency practitioner shall not accept, or encourage others to accept, any inducement that the insolvency practitioner concludes is made, or considers a reasonable and informed third party would be likely to conclude is made, with the intent to improperly influence the behaviour of the recipient or of another.”

It goes further than this too, even stating that the Code’s requirements (including the “A”s) “apply when an insolvency practitioner has concluded that there is no actual or perceived intent to improperly influence the behaviour of the recipient or of another” (350.9 A3).

Examples of such inducements that might still create threats are where (350.9 A3):

  • “An insolvency practitioner is offered hospitality from the prospective purchaser of an insolvent business…
  • “An insolvency practitioner regularly takes someone to an event…
  • “An insolvency practitioner accepts hospitality, the nature of which could be perceived to be inappropriate were it to be publicly disclosed.”

The Code also imposes an obligation on IPs to remain alert to inducements being offered to, or made by, close family members and requires IPs to advise the family member not to accept or offer the inducement, if it gives rise to a threat (R350.12 and 13).

 

New Section (390): “NOCLAR”

Presumably, accountants are already familiar with this acronym for “non-compliance with laws and regulations”.  The new section in the Insolvency Code certainly seems to be a lift-and-drop from the accountancy code, but in my view a clumsy one.

For example, instead of referring to the “firm”, which had been nicely defined and otherwise used throughout the Code (except where other lift-and-drops have been unsuccessful), this section refers to the IP’s “employing organisation”, which I think could mislead some into assuming that IP business owners do not need to apply many of the requirements.

But more fundamentally, this section fails to acknowledge IPs’ relationships with insolvents.

I can see how accountants working with live clients need to understand how they should react when they discover that their client has breached a law or regulation.  Although of course IPs often deal with live clients, the vast majority of their time is taken up as office holders over non-trading entities and individuals and it’s those engagements that – very often – reveal non-compliances committed by the insolvent.

The new Code makes no distinction between non-compliance committed by: (i) the IP’s/firm’s clients; (ii) the entity/individual over which the IP has been appointed office holder; or indeed (iii) the IP or their staff themselves.  I think that each of these situations gives rise to different concerns and so they each deserve a different approach.

In a nutshell, the core requirements of this section are: to explore all non-compliances (including suspected or prospective non-compliances); and then, unless they are clearly inconsequential non-compliances (except where they are money laundering related etc.), to report them upwards within the firm and, where appropriate, to those charged with governance of the entity/business and to appropriate authorities.  In addition, if the case is an MVL of an audit client or a CVA, the IP must consider communicating it to the audit partner/auditor (R390.12 and 13).

The Code also imposes similar exploration and internal reporting duties on insolvency team members.

Of course, there is an expectation that this will all be documented, although the Code only encourages IPs/team members to document the matter and actions taken (390.16 A2 and 390.20 A2).

Setting aside all the “consider” and “where appropriate” steps, what does this section actually require an IP/team member to do in all circumstances?

  • Take timely steps to comply with the NOCLAR section (R390.9)
  • “Seek to obtain an understanding of the matter” (R390.10 for IPs and R390.17 for team members)
  • For IPs: “discuss the matter with the appropriate level of management” (R390.11) and for team members: “inform an immediate superior” or, if they appear to be involved in the matter, “the next higher level of authority within the employing organisation” (R390.18)

In my view, these cumbersome NOCLAR requirements are OTT for the vast majority of non-compliances committed by insolvents (e.g. do IPs really need to discuss all director misconduct with “the appropriate level of management”?) and indeed a fair number of those committed by the IP/staff.  You might be able to rely on the “clearly inconsequential” paragraph (390.6 A2), but experience with RPB monitors has taught me that there are diverse opinions over what non-compliances are inconsequential.

 

New Section (380): “The insolvency practitioner as an employee”

Although clearly this section is most relevant in the volume IVA market, it is an important section for all IPs who act as employees.  Unsurprisingly, it reinforces the message that, even as an employee, the IP has a personal responsibility to ensure that they comply with the Code (R380.5).

Having said that, some statements seem to me unfair or perhaps the writers are simply treating IP employees as ethical novices.  For example, 380.5 A2 describes a circumstance that might create ethical threats: where the IP is “eligible for a bonus related to achieving targets or profits”… but nowhere does the Code highlight that the business/beneficial owner IP might be exposed to a similar self-interest threat.

However, the section cuts to the core in highlighting the tension that an IP seeking to administer engagements ethically may experience with their superiors and peers across the rest of the firm.  The Code doesn’t pull punches: in some circumstances, an IP’s efforts to disassociate themselves with the matter creating the conflict may demand their resignation from employment (380.7 A1).

 

My other gripes

Ok, this is just a final section to allow me to get some gripes off my chest.  My main ones are:

  • The whole of the Ethical Conflict Resolution section (140)

It took a debate with my partner, Jo, for me to understand that these requirements did not apply to a specific kind of conflict situation.  The problem I have is that this section, which refers to “resolving ethical conflicts”, sits awkwardly alongside the rest of the Code, which refers to “managing ethical threats and keeping them under review”.  In my mind, an ethical conflict is only resolved by removing it entirely, e.g. by walking away from an appointment, whereas in most circumstances an IP applies safeguards to manage threats to an acceptable level.

  • The lack of change to the insolvency examples section

Last year, there was some consternation over the ethics of retaining an appointment over an MVL converting to CVL.  The example in the old Code made no sense.  It had stated that: “Where there has been a Significant Professional Relationship, an insolvency practitioner may continue or accept an appointment…”  But the old Code had explained that a relationship is denoted as a Significant Professional Relationship (“SPR”) where, even with safeguards, the threats cannot be reduced to an acceptable level, so the IP should conclude that their appointment is inappropriate.  Therefore, how was it possible for an IP to continue with an appointment in the face of an SPR?  The new Code was the ideal opportunity to fix that.  But there has been no change: paragraph 520.4 still states that in some cases an SPR will not block an IP’s appointment or continuation in office and this conflicts with R312.7, which more strongly states that, in the face of an SPR, the IP “shall not accept the insolvency appointment”.

I have similar issues with the example at 510.2, which deals with an IP accepting an appointment after having worked as an investigating accountant for the creditor.  For starters, not all IPs are accountants, but they may still do investigation work for a creditor – the text indicates that those IPs are in the scope of the example… so why not change the heading?!  More importantly, the instructions include impossibilities: they state that, where the secured creditor is seeking to appoint the IP as an administrator or admin receiver, the IP needs to “satisfy them self (sic.) that the company… does not object to them taking such an insolvency appointment”.  But it then explains that an IP may still take the appointment, even if the company does object or where the directors haven’t had an opportunity to object… so the IP doesn’t need to “satisfy them self” then?!

On the bright side, at least IPs taking on Scottish or Northern Irish appointments are now better represented in the examples section.

 

And now the marketing footer

My partner, Jo Harris, has recorded two webinars covering the new Ethics Code (there was just too much for one sitting).  We have also: created new checklists to address the new sections such as instructing specialists and dealing with referrals; substantially revised our main ethics checklists to address specifically the new Code’s requirements; and enhanced other docs like progress reports and case review forms.

If you would like more information on signing up for access to our webinars, document templates – we’re offering the ethics templates as a standalone package or you can subscribe to all our document packs and future updates – or technical support service, please do get in touch with us at info@thecompliancealliance.co.uk.


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Appointment Numbers During Lockdown

Just a short blog today to let you know about a new page I’ve added: appointment statistics.

The past few weeks have been so disruptive, it has been difficult to discern how the demands on IPs have changed: are more companies toppling now or are many directors waiting out the storm?

At https://insolvencyoracle.com/appt-stats/ (and below for this post only), I have added graphs showing the ADM, CVL and MVL appointment notices published in the Gazette each week over the past couple of months.  I intend to update these graphs on a weekly basis.  The vertical line marks the day that the UK went into lockdown.


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Welcome measures to help IPs in these times

In my last blog post, I published a wishlist of measures that would help IPs to do their jobs in these difficult times.  Since then, some extraordinary steps have been taken very quickly to address many of them.  Here, I summarise those actions.

Taking on New Appointments

  • Notices of intention to appoint, and of appointment of, administrators: the Temporary Insolvency Practice Direction (judiciary.uk/publications/temporary-insolvency-practice-direction-approved-and-signed-by-the-lord-chancellor/) came into force on 6 April. Although it states that a statutory declaration by video conference may constitute a formal defect or irregularity, it confirms that this by itself shall not be regarded as causing substantial injustice, provided that the declaration is carried out in the manner specified in the Practice Direction:

“9.2.1. The person making the statutory declaration does so by way of video conference with the person authorised to administer the oath;

9.2.2 The person authorised to administer the oath attests that the statutory declaration was made in the manner referred to in 9.2.1 above; and

9.2.3 The statutory declaration states that it was made in the manner referred to in paragraph 9.2.1 above.”

UPDATE 15/05/2020: Please note that the above two items do not reflect the position for Scottish MVLs and ADMs.  I understand that the Law Society of Scotland advised ICAS that the law requires physical attendance to administer oaths.  However, an amendment is being sought to the Coronavirus (Scotland) No. 2 Bill to allow oaths to be administered without physical attendance in these times.  The Bill is expected to be enacted before the end of May.

  • There have been no regulatory measures to help directly with posting mailouts, but many IPs have been exploring outsourcing options. Although I’m sure there are many providers, I understand that Postworks is used successfully by several IPs.  Widespread use of delivery by email, I think, is still a work in progress: Turnkey and others are geared up to assist, but I think the issues are in compiling a list of email addresses that can be used.  Many IPs had moved to website delivery via a single R1.50 notice before the lockdown and I suspect that this process has become even more popular.
  • HMRC S100 documents: I have seen nothing to move forward from the Dear IP article (insolvencydirect.bis.gov.uk/insolvencyprofessionandlegislation/dearip/dearipmill/chapter8.htm#26) that stated that the HMRC email address is only to be used for “the initial pre-appointment notifications under the deemed consent or virtual meeting procedures”, so it seems to me that Statements of Affairs and adjournment notices etc. must still be posted.
  • Court activities: as far as I can tell and as set out in the Temporary Insolvency Practice Direction, the courts are doing a phenomenal job in keeping their virtual doors open. Bravo!
  • Physical meetings: the RPBs published guidance that: “where procedural meetings are required, virtual meetings will suffice in order to avoid breaching social distancing requirements.  A reasonable approach will be required to handling any creditor requests for physical meetings” (https://ion.icaew.com/insolvency/b/weblog/posts/joint-statement-by-icaew-and-the-ipa-regarding-measures-to-support-ips-during-the-covid-19-pandemic). Personally, I’m not sure how we’re supposed to take this.  Some may consider it reasonable to convene a physical meeting in a space large enough to accommodate social distancing.  Some others could consider it reasonable to dismiss creditors’ requests for a physical meeting altogether!  In my view, the reasonable approach would be to contact the requesting creditors to explore whether their concerns can be addressed in another way, e.g. an informal discussion or, if there are formal decisions to be made, insist that the “physical” meeting be held entirely remotely, thus requiring just a little departure from R15.6(6).
  • It seems that the Government’s intention to suspend the wrongful trading provisions has been met with some negativity by IPs (e.g. r3.org.uk/press-policy-and-research/news/more/29337/covid-19-corporate-insolvency-framework-changes-r3-response/), whereas the House of Commons’ briefing paper quotes other bodies, including the IoD and ILA, as welcoming the news (https://commonslibrary.parliament.uk/research-briefings/cbp-8877/). Although the change has not yet been made, the Government plans that it will be retrospective from 1 March 2020 and it will continue for 3 months thereafter.

 

Statutory Filings / Deliveries

  • The RPBs’ statement referred to above did not explain their expectations specifically in keeping up with progress reports, but it did acknowledge that the current difficulties could amount to a “reasonable excuse” defence for breaching statutory requirements. The statement highlighted the need to “have followed ethical principles and have justifiable, sound and well documented reasons for making those decisions”, i.e. where “reasonable steps to comply” are not enough to overcome the difficulties caused by the restrictions imposed on us in these extraordinary times.
  • The news on Tuesday that Companies House is now accepting filings by email was extremely welcome (https://content.govdelivery.com/accounts/UKIS/bulletins/28550aa). Understandably, it seems to be taking some time for Companies House to register documents at the moment and, if you physically mailed documents before they opened their doors to emails, you might consider sending them again by email.  I’m sure that Companies House won’t thank me for that though, so only seriously time-critical documents, e.g. ADM-CVL conversions, might merit such a second attempt.  The announcement included several warnings about how a failure to follow the instructions for emailing docs would result in them being rejected and, as Companies House filings by email are excluded from the deemed delivery provisions in R1.45, you would do well to ensure that staff follow the instructions to the letter.
  • I’m a little surprised that the InsS hasn’t sought to extend the deadline for D-reports, especially as they have clearly considered the logistics of collecting books and records. At first glance, Dear IP 95 appeared to concede that IPs didn’t need to take extreme measures to collect books and records, but when I looked closely, it did not such thing.  It replaced the previous instruction that IPs should locate and ensure that books and records are secured and listed as appropriate with a requirement that IPs “should continue to take all possible steps to locate and secure” them (https://content.govdelivery.com/accounts/UKIS/bulletins/284baba).  “All possible steps”?  Well, we weren’t going to be taking impossible ones!  It’s a shame that the InsS hasn’t confirmed that IPs can limit steps to reasonable ones in these times.

 

Case Administration

  • Although communications from the InsS, RPBs and HMRC regarding general case administration have been welcome, there has been little that has helped avoid cumbersome rules and other regulatory requirements. This is understandable, as the rules are the rules until a statutory instrument says otherwise.  However, at least the announcements have given us some comfort that the bodies appreciate some of our difficulties.
  • Included in these are, from the RPBs (https://ion.icaew.com/insolvency/b/weblog/posts/joint-statement-by-icaew-and-the-ipa-regarding-measures-to-support-ips-during-the-covid-19-pandemic):
    • “IPs may defer, on a short-term basis, non-priority work on existing cases (for instance investigatory work) and focus on new/urgent areas. IPs must take all reasonable steps to progress case administration in the longer term and ensure stakeholder financial interests are not prejudiced.” (Jo and I have been debating how, if on the other hand IPs have found that new engagements have taken a dip, now would be a good time to try to clear the decks for the future busy times.)
    • It may be acceptable to allow markets to recover before selling assets.
    • “Where a Notice of Intended Dividend has already been issued, we acknowledge that the payment of the dividend can be postponed and may be unable to be paid within two months”… but you will need to remember that, in these circumstances, the NoID process will need to begin again later (R14.33(3)).
    • “In order to provide flexibility for IPs to focus on new/urgent matters and to allow time for market recovery, we are relaxing the expectation in existing MVLs that creditors will be paid in full within 12 months provided that the IP continues to consider the company will be solvent in the medium term when markets have recovered.”
    • “When considering MVLs moving to a CVL (s.95), IPs may take longer than the deadline of seven days to notify creditors that the company is unable to pay debts in full within 12 months.”
    • “We acknowledge that it is not likely to be possible to comply with the SIP 3.1 requirement to respond to debtor enquiries ‘promptly’ and to close IVAs ‘promptly’ and accept that IPs will need to prioritise their work through the crisis period.”
    • The RPBs have also acknowledged that IPs will exercise their discretion in relation to CVAs and IVAs and they “accept that the discretion afforded to IPs in order to manage cases affected by the current crisis is necessarily wide”. I’m not sure how to take this: if a VA Proposal allows the Supervisor to exercise discretion, they hardly need the RPBs to tell them that they can do so, but if the Proposal does not allow any such discretion, then they cannot.  There seems to be a veiled message here, much like a lot of the revised Ethics Code, which seems to have been written with the practices of volume/consumer IVA providers in mind.
  • HMRC’s guidance (icaew.com/-/media/corporate/files/technical/insolvency/insolvency-news/coronavirus-insolvency-bulletin.ashx?la=en) includes:
    • A similar peculiar statement that they would expect IPs to exercise any VA discretion “to its maximum, with reference to creditors only if essential”. Well yes, that’s how a discretion should be exercised, isn’t it?  Let’s hope that HMRC is now realising how unhelpful it is to IPs to have modified out many of the discretions that originally had been proposed!
    • HMRC confirms that it will support a 3-month contribution break for coronavirus-impacted “customers”, but I think its in-bold confirmation that “there is no need to contact HMRC to request this deferment” risks misleading some, not least debtors who may expect an automatic payment break. If a VA’s terms do not allow the Supervisor to permit such a payment break, then this statement does not overcome this hurdle and creditors’ approval must be sought.
    • More helpfully, the guidance confirms that HMRC will not view post-VA VAT as due where the Government has already arranged for those VAT payments to be deferred. Unfortunately, the link HMRC has provided is already obsolete and the HMRC guidance does not refer also to the deferral of self-assessment income tax, but presumably the same principles apply?
  • The InsS continues to move into the electronic age, arranging for the following (to reduce the risks of fraudulent attempts, I’m not providing links):
    • ISA payment requests to be submitted with an electronic signature;
    • ISA payment requests and other CAU forms to be received by email; and
    • IVA registration fees to be paid by BACS.
  • HMRC has done likewise with its opening the way for all dividends to be paid via BACS. Unfortunately, if you have any dividends to pay to HMRC by cheque, HMRC has asked that you “hold on to them” (9 April release on insolvency-practitioners.org.uk/press-publications/recent-news UPDATE: additional guidance on paying dividends to HMRC by BACS is on this IPA page, dated 22/04/20).

 

And there’s more

Finally, some miscellaneous notifications include:

  • Must IPs complete file reviews in these times? Whilst not an official response, an RPB monitor emailed me swiftly after my last blog post.  She observed that, of course, the objective of a file review is to ensure that the case progresses as it ought to and that a firm’s reviewing policies should be designed to achieve this objective.  Thus, if an IP decides to relax their firm’s policy on file reviews in these extraordinary times, they should be considering how they can still try to achieve this objective and document why the firm’s adjusted policy will not compromise effective and compliant case administration wherever possible in the circumstances.  The monitor expressed the view that some kind of file review surely would still be possible in these times, even if access to the full case files is restricted.
  • Can office holders furlough employees? The ICAEW blogged references from .gov.uk guidance (https://ion.icaew.com/insolvency/b/weblog/posts/the-coronavirus-job-retention-scheme—clarity-for-administrators-and-directors), which describes the ability of Administrators to furlough staff as well as some of the finer points about directors’ positions.  Unfortunately, the .gov.uk guidance is not cut-and-dried and furloughing depends on the “reasonable likelihood of rehiring the workers”, so understandably IPs are exercising a great deal of caution before treading a path that could lead to an expensive challenge down the line.
  • Should IPs furlough their own staff? The ICAEW and the IPA have both issued warnings that they would not expect IPs to furlough to the extent that it compromises their ability to meet regulatory requirements (https://ion.icaew.com/insolvency/b/weblog/posts/business-continuity-for-insolvency-practitioners-during-covid-19).  The IPA has also required its members to keep it informed of the numbers and job titles of all furloughed staff as well as those unable to work through serious Covid-19 illness.
  • Are IPs key workers? R3 blogged (r3.org.uk/technical-library/england-wales/technical-guidance/covid-19-contingency-arrangements/more/29316/page/1/is-the-insolvency-profession-classed-as-a-key-sector-24-march-2020/) that likely they are, especially when administering cases that involve managing businesses that themselves are in the key sectors.  R3 also observed that the InsS considers that certain staff working in the RPS, Estate Accounts and ORs’ offices are delivering “essential public services”.  As much of an IP’s work is necessary to enable such InsS staff to deliver these public services, it would seem to follow that the IPs/staff would also be key workers.  Shortly after this post, however, the IPA emailed its members reminding them that it is a decision for each employer per the guidance at www.gov.uk/government/publications/coronavirus-covid-19-maintaining-educational-provision/guidance-for-schools-colleges-and-local-authorities-on-maintaining-educational-provision.
  • Showing us southerners that it can be done, the Scottish Government brought into force the Coronavirus (Scotland) Act 2020 in a matter of a couple of weeks. Amongst other things, it has extended the pre-insolvency moratorium period for individuals from 6 weeks to 6 months.  More details can be found at aib.gov.uk/news/releases/20202020/0404/coronavirus-scotland-act

 

Stay safe and keep well, everyone.


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How can the Insolvency Service and RPBs help in this time?

When the work-place exodus started, I was heartened to read the ICAEW’s acknowledgement that inevitably some statutory deadlines would be missed (although they hoped that remote-working would result in little disruption).  In contrast, the IPA’s two emails to members expressed the expectation that steps would be taken to ensure that statutory compliance continues.

But to be fair, those notices were issued a couple of weeks’ ago when our world looked quite different.  More recently in Dear IP 92, Steve Allinson, Chairman of the Insolvency Service Board, expressed his intention for the Service to do its best to support IPs on their assignments, stressing the need for us all to come together at this time (while keeping our social distance, of course!).

Steps that the InsS has already taken to facilitate the remote-operating of ISAs are very welcome and I hope that these mark just the beginning of changes needed to keep the insolvency wheels moving.

The insolvency technical and compliance community has long practised coming together to resolve difficulties.  Below is a summary of the suggestions of many who are struggling to help insolvency continue to work in these times.  We hold out hope that the InsS and the RPBs will help.

Taking on New Appointments

  • MVL Declarations of Solvency need to be sworn in front of a solicitor/commissioner for oaths. Solicitors are of the view that they must be in the physical presence of the one swearing (although the Law Society guidance is a little woollier).  Could guidance be given to solicitors/IPs on how this could be done virtually?  Better still, could the Act/Rules be temporarily relaxed to allow the author to verify these instead with a Statement of Truth.
  • ADM Notices of Intention to Appoint and Notices of Appointment present the same issue, so similar guidance/relaxation would be invaluable.
  • Posting mailouts is generally problematic – some IPs use commercial mailing providers, but often IPs/staff are simply using their own stash of stamps and making trips to the Post Office/Box, which is not wise – and we cannot be certain that there will be anyone physically present at the recipients’ offices to open the post in any event. The Act/Rules already allow for some mailouts to be dealt with by advertisement notice (e.g. Para 49(6) of Schedule B1 IA86 and R3.38(1) IR16), but not in relation to circulars to creditors (except with court permission).  Could there be a general power for an office holder to publish a notice, say in a Gazette (and such other way if they see fit), informing creditors who to contact/how to access the mailout and that this advertisement would be taken as satisfying the delivery provisions?  Of course, pre-CVL circulars are the responsibility of the director, so any such changes will also need to cover directors’ notifying about the S100 decision process (including any subsequent physical meeting notice) and the Statement of Affairs.
  • If the above is considered a step too far, then it would be useful to be able to write a one-pager to creditors inviting them to access the Statement of Affairs and other pre-S100 decision documents/notices via a website, rather than have to send bulky letters to creditors.
  • Of course, in addition to (or instead of) posting letters, IPs are now endeavouring to email statutory docs to creditors and others as much as possible. 45 states that deemed consent to email delivery occurs when a doc is emailed to the address to which the insolvent “had customarily communicated with” the recipient.  Email delivery is much easier than post in this time, so guidance that what is customary need not be proven would be useful, e.g. to enable directors/debtors simply to provide the IP with an email address for the recipient that the IP can take as valid.
  • HMRC requires notices of S100 decision processes to be sent to their email address, notifihmrccvl@hmrc.gov.uk, but it has not been made clear whether this email address also works for other S100 docs, e.g. the Statement of Affairs – clarification would be useful. An extension of this email address to allow also for post-appointment CVL circulars would also help. 
  • There is some concern that the court filings required in preparation of a CVA will be problematic in light of the courts’ limited activities: the Nominee’s report must be filed in court before the creditors and members can decide on the CVA Proposal.
  • SIP3.2 para 10 requires an IP to meet directors “face to face”. Clarification that this does not have to be a physical meeting would be useful.
  • Where a statutory physical meeting is required (e.g. where a creditor objects to a S100 decision proposed by deemed consent), it should be possible for everyone, including the convener, to attend the meeting virtually. Clarification of this would be valuable.
  • Many IPs are reluctant to consider taking on new appointments that might require them, their staff or agents to attend on-site. However, the business may need to enter an insolvency process and business owners/directors may be nervous to continue to be responsible for the businesses in this period waiting for the coast to clear for an IP to be appointed.  Do they shut up shop now and make everyone redundant?  Or do they furlough employees in the hope that the business might be sold once everyone emerges?  If they choose the latter course, could they be at risk of an allegation of wrongful trading?  Some clarification that business owners/directors would not be penalised for helping employees to continue to be paid via furlough payments in this time would be helpful for IPs advising business owners/directors.
  • On the other hand, some guidance for IPs on how to handle trading-on appointments would also be valuable.

Statutory Filings / Deliveries

  • Of course, some relaxation to statutory deadlines would be invaluable.
  • Some IPs are moving hell and high water to try to get progress reports issued, which can include asking one member of staff to attend premises to print docs, deal with mailouts etc. Personally, I would hope that the RPBs/IS would prefer IPs and their staff to stay at home even if this means that progress report (and other?) deadlines are missed.  In line with the Government’s key messages, some clarification from the RPBs/IS as to the importance (or not) of travelling to work simply to avoid certain breaches of statute/SIPs in these times would seem urgently required.
  • In particular, Para 107 only allows the 8-week timescale to deliver Administrators’ Proposals (and the 10-week timescale for any decision on those Proposals) to be extended by court order. Confirmation that Administrators need not apply to court to extend these timescales would be very welcome. 
  • If shifting deadlines is considered a step too far and the RPBs/IS wish for IPs to meet statutory deadlines wherever humanly possible, perhaps they could confirm that at least they, as regulators, will not look too unkindly on docs that are technically deficient as regards the disclosure requirements of statute & SIPs.
  • As above, it would be good to be able to notify creditors of statutory deliveries, e.g. Administrators’ Proposals, by public advertisement to avoid the problems with posting out packs.
  • At present, all filings to Companies House must be delivered by IPs in hard copy form. In addition to the logistical problems of posting letters mentioned above, IPs are also concerned at the potential for delays by Royal Mail etc. or Companies House such that time-critical dates are missed.  In particular, Form AM22 (notice of move from Administration to CVL) must be received by Companies House before the Administration ends automatically.  Therefore, a mechanism to enable all insolvency forms to be sent to Companies House by email would be valuable.
  • Another issue is extending Administrations by court order. These are always time-pressured at the best of times, but with the courts’ limited activity, there is real risk of Administrations ending automatically before a court order extending them can be granted.  Ideally, a temporary halt of the automatic ending provision (Para 76) and of any subsequent end-date consented to by creditors or the court would be valuable.  If this is a step too far, then perhaps Administrators could be allowed to seek a second extension by creditor consent, rather than having to resort to court.
  • It is now usually impractical for staff/IPs to review company records with a view to submitting CDDA D-reports. Of course they could submit an inconclusive D-report in the 3 month timescale and then, when they are able to review the records, they could submit “new information”.  However, this probably will be unhelpful to the DCRS staff, as in the future they may get a great number of “new information” submissions, which cannot be processed automatically by their rules engine.  Therefore, it is probably in everyone’s interests to extend the 3-month deadline for D-reports.

Case Administration

  • An email address for HMRC forms, e.g. VAT769s, VAT100s, VAT7s, VAT426/427s, would be valuable. Of course, this would involve a number of HMRC departments, but VAT769s and VAT426/427s are particularly needed to be dealt with by email.
  • In light of limited court activity, there is a risk that Trustees in Bankruptcy will not be able to make appropriate applications to avoid bankrupts’ homes revesting under S283A IA86. A pause in the 3-year timescale would help.  Failing this, could S283A(3) be flexed to allow a Trustee to have “applied” for a relevant order by simply posting a skeleton application to the court?
  • Consultations with employees of insolvent entities to comply with TULRCA (and TUPE) have previously been achieved usually by getting all employees together. This should now be avoided, but it does leave office holders with logistical difficulties in complying with TULRCA.  Presumably Job Centre Plus attendance has also ended.  Some guidance on how IPs should approach TULRCA and employee interaction generally would be valuable.
  • It is not clear how furlough payments will work for employees of a business already in an insolvency process. For example, if the office holder retains staff on furlough payments in the hope that they might be able to sell the business (and TUPE transfer all staff) in the future, how will those furlough payments be treated?  Confirmation that these will not be sought back either from the insolvent estate as an expense or from the purchaser would be welcome.
  • Some IPs are office holders of nursing homes and they require regular, usually daily, on-site attendance by them or their staff. Some confirmation that they would be viewed as key-workers might assist.
  • On some cases, office holders had already issued notices of intended dividend before the lock-down, but they will have problems issuing cheques for some time. 34(1) requires the office holder to declare the dividend within 2 months of the last date for proving.  It is possible for the IP to declare the dividend, but not pay cheques out until later, but in the past this has been frowned upon by the RPBs.  Some guidance that this is acceptable in these circumstances would be helpful.
  • In other cases, an office holder would like to extend an already-notified last date for proving in recognition of creditors’ difficulties in submitting proofs and therefore also extend the 2-month timescale for declaring the dividend (as well as the 14 days to adjudicate all claims – R14.32(1)), but there is no way to do this under the rules. The ability to do so would be useful, otherwise the whole process would need to be started again once we all emerge.
  • Dear IP 92 urged IPs to show forbearance “where possible” to individuals who are finding it difficult to meet financial commitments. Although many IVA Proposals will provide capacity for payment breaks/reductions, many will not.   In some cases, the debtors will already have used up their payment break quota.  In other cases, the flexibility simply will not be there in the Proposals.  Of course, variations can be sought but these are cumbersome especially in these times when mailouts are difficult.  It is difficult to see what can be done about IVA terms, but we would welcome some guidance.
  • The same will apply to CVAs based on regular contributions.
  • On many IVAs (involving tax debts) and CVAs, HMRC has modified Proposals to restrict the Supervisor’s ability to propose a variation, e.g. variations may not be allowed in the first year. HMRC has also modified many VAs by including more stringent clauses where the insolvent fails to pay contributions on time.  Perhaps HMRC could notify IPs that, during this time, all such modifications may be considered waived.
  • The AiB has issued a Dear Trustee letter (https://www.aib.gov.uk/sites/default/files/dear_trustee_-_covid-19_-_expanded_ptd_contingency_arrangements.pdf) stating that he believes it would be reasonable for IPs not to extend the period of the Protected Trust Deed in order to ingather contributions that failed to be paid in this period. Personally, I do not believe that the same automatically applies in IVAs (as the Supervisor may be required to take specific action in line with the IVA terms), but the AiB’s letter may create confusion for IVA debtors and IPs in this situation.  Therefore, some guidance may be useful.
  • File reviews are pretty-much impossible for anyone who does not administer electronic case files. Confirmation from the RPBs that IPs are not expected to carry out regular formal file reviews during this period would help.

 


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MLR19: as if we didn’t have enough to do already!

It took less than one month for the draft new Money Laundering Regs to come into force, but I struggle to see how many of the additional burdens loaded onto our shoulders have anything to do with minimising the risks of money laundering.

I realise that I can be guilty of seeing insolvency work as somehow special.  However, the inability or refusal of legislation drafters to recognise that insolvency office holders do not have client relationships with the entities/individuals over which they are appointed means that the ever-increasing AML burdens feel so pointless and nonsensical when it comes to IPs.

I wrote as much when I responded to HM Treasury’s consultation back in June 2019 and I was pleased to see that the ICAEW had responded with many of the same concerns, including that MLR-regulated people should not be burdened with a new requirement to report discrepancies to the Registrar of Companies (see below).  But of course, HM Treasury has been required to make these changes largely to stay in line with the EU’s Fifth Money Laundering Directive (“5MLD”), so inevitably there would be no special treatment for IPs.

The new Money Laundering and Terrorist Financing (Amendment) Regulations 2019 (“MLR19”) can be found at http://www.legislation.gov.uk/uksi/2019/1511/contents/made and I think the Law Society’s summary at https://www.lawsociety.org.uk/policy-campaigns/articles/anti-money-laundering-guidance/ (scroll down for the 5MLD bit) is a particularly good one.

 

How Accurate are PSC Registers?

I have yet to meet anyone working in insolvency who thinks that the adoption of the new People with Significant Control (“PSC”) register was a good idea.  In the good old days, more often than not companies’ annual returns could be relied upon as a true record of shareholdings.  Now that the annual return has been replaced with the confirmation statement, we often don’t know where we are as regards shareholdings!  In addition, from what I’ve seen, many PSCs are incorrect – it seems that many directors or their agents have trouble with percentages (how difficult can it be to determine whether someone has a shareholding of “more than 50% but less than 75%”?!).

People with Significant Control include, not only 25%+ shareholders, but also anyone who otherwise exercises significant influence or control over the company.  Thus, the traditional formulaic approach to registering PSCs, which only ever seem to focus on 25%+ shareholders, does not take into consideration other signs of control, such as those exerted by shadow directors or those relinquished to the significant others of nominal shareholders.

With the abundance of PSC errors in mind, it seems to me that a new MLR19 requirement could add to IPs’ to-do list in a great deal of cases.

 

New Obligation to Inform the Registrar of Companies of Discrepancies

The MLR19 introduces to the MLR17 a new Regulation 30A, which requires relevant persons (i.e. IPs etc.) to:

“report to the registrar any discrepancy the relevant person finds between information relating to the beneficial ownership of the customer and… [that which] becomes available to the relevant person in the course of carrying out its duties under these Regulations.”

When might an IP discover a discrepancy?

One could argue that, as AML CDD should be completed right at the start of the engagement, we might not be certain that the register contains any discrepancy until we investigate the shareholdings, say, to draft a Statement of Affairs… and therefore knowledge of any such discrepancy does not become available “in the course of carrying out” AML duties, but rather it emerges after this point.  However, as the MLR17 require “ongoing monitoring”, such an argument is probably a little weak.

Companies House has provided guidance on reporting discrepancies on the register: https://www.gov.uk/guidance/report-a-discrepancy-about-a-beneficial-owner-on-the-psc-register-by-an-obliged-entity.

They have also provided an online form (https://www.smartsurvey.co.uk/s/report-a-discrepancy/), but, although they provide twelve categories of people who might use the form, insolvency practitioners are not listed *sigh*

 

What will RoC do with the information?

The MLR19 state that:

“the registrar must take such action as the registrar considers appropriate to investigate and, if necessary, resolve the discrepancy in a timely manner.”

So… an IP informs RoC that the PSC register is incorrect on a company in CVL, because someone is recorded as a between-50%-and-75%-shareholder when in fact they are the 100% shareholder.  Is it “necessary” for RoC to resolve this discrepancy?  In an insolvency, it will not make a darned bit of difference, will it?

 

So do IPs really need to inform RoC of the discrepancy?

If you want to comply with the MLR19/17, then yes you do.

Typical, isn’t it?  The Regs require IPs to go to the trouble of notifying RoC of pointless pieces of information, but the Regs give RoC a nice little get-out to avoid having to do anything about it.  What a waste of our time!

 

Widening the MLR-Regulated Net

The MLR19 captures some new businesses into the MLR-regulated net.  Most will only be relevant to IPs when they are appointed over entities/individuals who are trading in these areas – letting agents, art dealers, cryptoasset exchange and custodian wallet providers – but I wonder if the widened definition of “tax adviser” may capture more non-formal insolvency work carried out by IPs themselves.

“Tax adviser” has been newly defined as:

“a firm or sole practitioner who by way of business provides material aid, or assistance, or advice, in connection with the tax affairs of other persons”.

So… you help a company or an individual to agree a TTP with HMRC in order to avoid a formal insolvency process – does this now make you a “tax adviser”?

I appreciate that some firms already put all prospective new engagements through their AML CDD process whether or not they strictly fall as MLR-regulated engagements, but I suspect that just as many other firms do not.  Now they may have to think twice.

 

Training for “Agents”

The MLR19 widens the scope of those for whom a MLR-regulated firm is responsible for training.  As well as the MLR17’s “relevant employees”, now firms must train (and keep records of training) for:

“any agents it uses for the purposes of its business whose work is of a kind mentioned in paragraph (2)”, which covers any work relevant to the firm’s compliance with the MLR17 or which is otherwise capable of contributing to the identification or mitigation of the firm’s ML/TF risks or the prevention or detection of ML/TF to which the firm is exposed.

So… an IP instructs agents to sell an insolvent’s assets and to receive the proceeds of sale to pass on to the IP in due course.  It seems to me that, whether or not the sale transaction is caught by the MLR17*, the agents’ work could contribute to the IP’s ML/TF risks or exposure.  And… what about if you use ERA agents, who might come across ghost employees or illegal workers, surely those ERA agents also can affect your ML/TF risks and exposure?  Do the MLR19 capture these agents??

(* If you have not already read the CCAB’s draft insolvency guidance, I would recommend it – at http://ccab.org.uk/documents/20190830CCAB%20InsolvencyAppendixFDraft_18forHMT.pdf.  In brief, the draft guidance explains that only a Trustee in Bankruptcy sells their own assets – all other insolvency office holders act as agents – so, while a TiB must ensure that relevant asset purchasers are subject to AML CDD, no other office holders need “routinely” do so.  Personally, while I see the technical argument, I do wonder whether it reflects the spirit behind the Regs to allow an Administrator to sell a business for £1m without AML CDD, but to require a TiB to do AML checks on someone who wants to buy a bankruptcy asset for >€15,000.)

Jo and I have debated whether chattel agents etc. are truly agents: do they act under the IP’s delegated authority to enter into legal relations on the IPs behalf?  Even if this is a legal definition of “agent”, does this hold true for the application of the word in the MLR19?

The problem I have is that HM Treasury’s consultation was clearly not interested in agents in general.  The consultation document referred to networks of agents used in a Money Service Business, those involving “multi-layer arrangements with sub-agents who deal with frontline customers”.  But the MLR19 make no such distinction.

 

Prescriptive EDD for Transactions/Parties in High Risk Countries

The MLR17 already highlighted the need for EDD and enhanced ongoing monitoring where a business relationship or transaction involves someone in a “high-risk third country”.  The MLR19 have added (new Reg 33(3A)) six elements of EDD that “must” be included in these circumstances.

In the main, these new statutory requirements are not unusual.  They include: obtaining more information on the customer, their beneficial owner, the nature of the relationship or reason for the transaction, the source of funds/wealth, and getting senior management to approve the establishing or continuing of the business relationship.

The final requirement puzzled me, though:

“conducting enhanced monitoring of the business relationship by increasing the number and timing of controls applied, and selecting patterns of transactions that need further examination”

Unless an office holder is trading (or is monitoring the trading of) the insolvent’s business, it is difficult to see how this works in an insolvency context.

Nevertheless, IPs’ systems may need to be changed in order to cover the newly-prescribed EDD and ongoing monitoring where someone established in a high risk third country is encountered.  For a more thorough explanation of this area, you may want to look at the Law Society’s guidance mentioned above.

 

Other Clarifications

The MLR19 include several other tweaks, which to be fair are valuable clarifications of the MLR17 and which may affect the finer points of some firms’ processes and templates.  Again, I’d recommend the Law Society’s guidance for a detailed summary.

Should IPs wait until the RPBs issue/endorse new guidance before we make changes?

The ICAEW has posted a summary of the changes primarily for accountants and has noted that the CCAB’s Guidance will be updated in due course (https://www.icaew.com/technical/legal-and-regulatory/anti-money-laundering/fifth-anti-money-laundering-directive-5mld).  The IPA doesn’t appear to have posted anything specific on the MLR19, but I expect that they too will look to the updated CCAB Guidance.  However, in light of the fact that the CCAB insolvency-specific guidance was not issued even in draft for over 2 years after the MLR17 came into force, I won’t be holding my breath.


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The Changing Face of Pre-Packs

To explore pre-pack trends, I reviewed 120 SIP16 statements issued over the last 3 years.  Coupled with the Insolvency Service’s intriguing revised guidance on the phoenix rules and their summer report, I’ve been wondering how far we have come in 3 years and what else needs to change.

In this blog, I explore:

  • What is the Government’s timetable for changing pre-packs?
  • How many pre-pack purchasers themselves go out of business? And how many of these were connected purchasers?
  • Does the survival of pre-pack purchasers indicate that the Pool is working?
  • What is the trend in using the Pool?
  • Why do more connected Newcos fail?
  • Are there many serial pre-packers? Do they use the same IPs?
  • What effect will the new anti-phoenix provisions have?
  • What is going on with the Insolvency Service’s revisions of their S216/17 guidance?
  • Will HMRC’s move to preferential creditor change things?
  • How should pre-pack regulation change?

 

Has the heat on pre-packs cooled off?

A significant item on the Insolvency Service’s to-do list for the past few years has been the “pre-pack review”.  The Service’s 2017 Regulatory Report (published in May 2018) referred to the Government’s “review to evaluate the impact of the voluntary measures in order to inform any future decisions on whether legislative measures are required to regulate connected party sales in administration” and the anticipation back then was that the review would be completed by the autumn of 2018.

The Service’s 2018 Regulatory Report (published in May 2019) stated that the Service “have carried out” the review and “the Government hopes to be able to publish the findings and outcome from the review shortly”.

Of course, the Government’s more pressing pre-occupations inevitably have delayed this publication.  Also, since May 2019, the IS/RPB focus seems to have been squarely on the regulation of Volume IVA Providers.  Perhaps there has been little to say on pre-packs because the Service has been waiting for its review to reach the top of the Secretary of State’s pile, but that document is a year older now.  I wonder if its findings and outcome are quite so relevant.

 

The sunset clause is setting

Hanging over this topic, of course, is Section 129 of the Small Business, Enterprise and Employment Act 2015, which allows the Government to make regulations prohibiting or imposing conditions on Administration sales of property to connected parties – pre-packs or otherwise.

This power will end on 26 May 2020.

There is no time left to consult on draft legislation.  The review was carried out behind closed doors and remains under wraps.  Presumably, the profession will have no opportunity, publicly, to engage in the proposals.

Have we seen any hints about what we are likely to see?  I suspect the RPBs have been involved in the Service’s review, so I was intrigued to read the IPA’s Oct-19 response to the Service’s call for evidence on regulation slip in: “the IPA supports the consideration of changes to the pre-pack pool to better scrutinise connected party sales”.  As we all feared, the focus still appears to be on the Pool.

In its May-18 submission to the Service’s pre-pack review, R3 emphasised the value of looking wider: “The Government should support and help develop the reforms made in 2015 and should look at the impact of the reforms as a whole, not just the Pre-pack Pool.”  Hear, hear.

Presumably, the Government’s review will consider the question: are pre-packs any different now than they were before the November 2015 changes?

 

What makes a pre-pack bad?

The answer to this question very much depends on who you ask.  I think that IPs in general will say that a bad pre-pack is one that does not maximise the realisation of the company’s property.  I think that the world before the Teresa Graham report would have said that a bad pre-pack was one that did not instill confidence that the company and the IPs were acting in creditors’ best interests.  That’s what the revised SIP16 and the Pool were intended to fix by providing more information on the pre-pack strategy in the SIP16 Statement and by the Pool providing an independent opinion on whether there are “reasonable grounds” for the proposed deal.  One of my frustrations with the Pool is that they have never explained how they measure such reasonableness.  How do they decide what is bad?

In my review of 120 SIP16 Statements, I came across one brave IP who, despite the prospective purchaser receiving a negative opinion from the Pool member, decided to do the deal anyway.  In his Administration Proposals, he had added a one-page summary, over and above the standard SIP16 disclosure, of why he had decided to complete the sale.  It made perfect sense to me and went to the core of the Administrator’s role: to achieve an Administration objective, which generally involves returning as much value as possible to creditors.  The Administrator also had explained why he believed the submission to the Pool was materially flawed.

 

What about the survival of Newco?

One of the accusations levelled against pre-packs is that they simply give new life to a business that ought to be terminated.  The more sceptical suspect that some directors hatch plans to phoenix by pre-pack and what is to stop them doing it all over again?

Therefore, I decided to test the survival of Newco: how many companies that purchased a business by a pre-pack later terminated?

* Sample size: 120 cases with no repeat of Administrator firm in any one period.  “Terminated” includes dissolutions and MVLs.

Now I know that, of course, the more recently the pre-pack occurred, the more likely Newco will still be alive.  But I still find this graph striking: my 2015 pre reforms group dated from June to October 2015, so how is it that their outcomes are so different from Nov/Dec 2015 cases?  This suggests to me that the measures introduced in November 2015, including the new SIP16, significantly changed the face of pre-packs.

 

Doesn’t this show that the Pre-Pack Pool is working?

No!  Only 6 cases in my sample involved the Pool.  It’s true that all those Newcos are still live companies, but setting those aside, the graph is still the same shape: the change in the survival rate of Newco from before the 2015 reforms cannot be attributed wholly (or even largely) to the Pool.

The Pre-Pack Pool’s 2018 report described its aim as “to provide assurance for creditors that independent experts have reviewed a proposed connected party pre-pack transaction before it is completed”, but it then acknowledged that “for this independent scrutiny to be seen to be effective, reference to the pre-pack pool needs to be seen as an essential part of the pre-pack administration process by both creditors and prospective applicants”.  So… at the moment, there is general apathy towards the Pool – from creditors and applicants – so it cannot do its job of providing assurance that someone other than the IP has considered the proposed sale..?  But perhaps the general apathy towards the Pool is because creditors and applicants do not see a need for the Pool opinion.  Perhaps they do not require the Pool’s opinion, not least I think because it is not at all clear what the Pool is measuring.

 

How many pre-packs have the Pre-Pack Pool reviewed?

Use of the Pool continues to fall.  The Pool’s 2018 report stated that, in 2018, there were 24 referrals to the Pool.  This is more referrals than in 2017, when there were 23 referrals, but as a percentage of the total number of connected party sales, 2018’s referrals were down on 2017.

With such a tiny referral rate, I do not think that the Pool can take any creditor for any material changes in pre-pack practices.

 

Would it help if the Pool were made compulsory for all connected party pre-packs? 

Help how?  What is the ill that the Pool is trying to remedy?  Is it still the case that there is a general lack of confidence?  If there is a general distaste for connected pre-packs, does this not simply stem from the general perception that it cannot be right for a director to fold Oldco, buy the business and assets, and then trade on with Newco?  I cannot see that increasing the frequency of the Pool’s opinion will counteract this perception.

I would be very interested to read how the Government’s review explains what is currently wrong with pre-packs.  I think that many in the profession think that, if the Government simply wants to “do something”, then making the Pool compulsory is the least damaging answer and far preferable than restricting Administrators’ powers to complete pre-packs.  That’s as may be, but I cannot see that expanding the Pool’s scope would achieve anything other than adding to the costs of the process.

 

Are connected party Newcos any more likely to fail?

This graph looks at how many of the failed Newcos had been connected to Oldco, compared to how many of the sample as a whole had been connected:

* Failures exclude terminations by MVL or dissolution

This graph does indicate that, with the exception of 2018 pre-packs, there has been a greater percentage of connected party Newco failures than there should have been if they were evenly spread across the whole population of Newcos… in my small sample, at least.  That’s not such good news for anyone hoping to avoid regulation.

My personal view is that this demonstrates how some directors of failing businesses struggle to face realities: they cannot come to terms with the thought of walking away from the business.  Of course, it is especially difficult for those who have tied up their personal assets in the fate of the business.  I wonder if connected potential purchasers need to be better advised on the challenges facing them, how Newco risks repeating Oldco’s mistakes and may even face new challenges in retaining disillusioned customers and suppliers.  The problem is that the potential Administrator is not in a position to give that advice, given the conflict of interests.  So does this mean that no one helps these directors face realities?

 

What about serial pre-packers?

Of course, there could be another reason for connected Newco failures: are some directors abusing pre-packs to dump debts and start again?  If this is the case, then wouldn’t we see serial pre-packers: if a director gets away with it once, then wouldn’t they be sorely tempted to do it again a few years down the line?

Firstly, here is a breakdown of the terminations in my sample:

So yes, I accept that seven Newco ADMs is a very small sample, but this in itself suggests that serial pre-packing is not widespread.  Arguably, though, even this small number is too many.

Here is a summary of the fates of the purchasers who themselves went into Administration:

It is interesting that two of the businesses were sold to connected parties for a second time.  It is alarming to see that one of those Newco-v2s went into CVL c.1 year after the second pre-pack sale.  It will be interesting to see how the other second connected purchaser fares with a bit more time.

The breaking point seems to be generally around the 2-year mark.  If this is the case, then it is encouraging to see that only one 2017 case and no 2018 cases failed.  Contrasting this with the four 2015 pre reform pre-pack purchasers that failed, doesn’t this again suggest that something happened with pre-pack practices after the 2015 reforms?  The purchasers after the 2015 reforms seem more robust than those before.  Also, my pre-2015 reforms cases only number 17% of the total, so it is even more disproportionate that so many purchaser failures appear in this group.

… and again, I cannot see that the Pool can take credit for this.  Did something else happen to refine the pre-pack process?

 

Should IPs be handling serial pre-packs?

It is alarming to see that, in one of the cases (Case 3), the same IPs then carried out the CVL of the second connected Newco.  I cannot tell you what happened to the assets of the Newco-v2 in this case, because the liquidators have not yet filed a progress report (despite the fact that the anniversary was in September!).  Even if the IPs felt that they were not conflicted from the appointment, surely there would be a significant perceived conflict, wouldn’t there?

 

Will the new anti-phoenix provisions change things?

In essence, the Finance Bill 2019-2020 provides that, where a director has been involved in at least two insolvent companies in a 5-year period and the same director is involved in a further Newco, HMRC can make that director joint and severally liable for the past tax liabilities of all those companies (https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/tax-abuse-using-company-insolvencies).

On the face of it, Cases 3 and 5 above might have fallen foul of these provisions (subject to the finer detail of the criteria) had they been in force at the time.  Of course, it is possible that other cases in my sample had been bought out of a pre-pack prior to 2015, so perhaps it would have affected more.  I also haven’t analysed the 14 CVLs, which may include some other cases where directors have sought to stay in the same business.

Although the provisions will only capture tax liabilities arising after the legislation comes into force, I think the new Finance Bill 2019-2020 has great potential to discourage serial pre-packers and thus I think it could do more to improve creditors’ confidence in pre-packs than the Pool.

I also think that the Insolvency Service’s new approach to R22.4 may impact on connected party pre-packs.

 

What have the current phoenix provisions got to do with pre-packs?

Over the past year, the Insolvency Service have been tweaking their “Re-use of company names” guidance.

In March 2019, Dear IP 87 tweaked the guidance to make clear that, although R22.4(3) provides a 28-day timescale for issuing the notice to creditors/Gazette, it must nevertheless be given and published before the director begins acting in relation to a successor business.  Then, in November 2019, their online guidance expressed the opinion that directors “cannot give notice under this rule if the company is not already in liquidation, administration, administrative receivership or in a CVA”.

So how can a R22.4 notice be given in a pre-pack?

If the sale is completed on the day that the Administration begins, it seems to me that it will be impossible for anyone to comply with R22.4 unless the purchaser decides to close its doors for a couple of days to allow time for the notices to be “given and published”.

 

But the phoenix provisions only apply to liquidations, not Administrations, don’t they?

True, a director can only fall foul of the phoenix provisions if Oldco goes into liquidation.  Of course, some Administrations do exit into liquidation.  Assuming that moves to CVL occur c.1 year after the Administration begins, the stats for the year ending 30 September 2019 suggest that c.28% of all Administrations moved to CVL in that year.  So directors involved in connected pre-packs need to be aware of the phoenix provisions.

The problem is that there is no logic to the application of S216/17 to Para 83 CVLs.

It seems to me that directors of the healthier businesses are targeted.  If the company has sufficient property for a non-prescribed part dividend, the Administration moves to CVL… and thus S216/17 are triggered.  But if the company has no money for unsecured creditors (other than by way of a prescribed part), then it probably will move to dissolution… and S216/17 are not triggered.  In other words, if the directors have pulled the plug when the company’s assets are still relatively meaty, then they risk falling foul of the phoenix provisions.  But if they have bled the company dry and then bought the remaining business for a negligible sum, then they can avoid the phoenix issues!

 

Could ADM-to-dissolution be an abuse of the process?

Of course, a company should only go into Administration if it can achieve an objective.  One of the big unanswered questions is: regardless of whether unsecured creditors receive a dividend from the Administration, does the survival of the business (involving TUPE-transferred employees, landlords with no gap in tenancy, customers with continuing services and products) achieve the second Administration objective of a better result for creditors as a whole than winding-up?  I understand views are divided on this.

Setting this aside though, I think that it will be much easier to achieve the third Administration objective from April 2020.  One of the problems with achieving the third objective in pre-pack scenarios is that there are usually no prefs, as all the employees are transferred to Newco.  However, from April 2020, HMRC will become a (secondary) preferential creditor in the vast majority of insolvencies.  Therefore, where a company has no employee prefs, the third Administration objective may be fairly easily achieved by paying a small distribution to HMRC… and then moving to dissolution.  HMRC has handed would-be phoenix-avoiders a lifeline.

 

But if HMRC is a pref, won’t they control the process?

Some of you may be groaning: does this mean that we risk going back to the bad old days when HMRC used to modify Administrators’ Proposals so that most Administrations exited to liquidation?  I don’t think so.

If the Administrator thinks that neither of the first two Administration objectives are achievable, then they make this statement – a Paragraph 52(1)(c) statement – in their Proposals.  The consequence is that they don’t ask any creditors to decide whether to approve their Proposals, but these are deemed approved if no creditors requisition a decision.  If HMRC (or any creditor, for that matter) wants to modify the Proposals to ensure that S216/17 are triggered by the Administration exiting to liquidation, they would need to put their hand in their pocket and pay Administrators to convene a decision process.  I can’t see HMRC doing this, can you?

Of course, HMRC may still vote on Administrators’ fees – that’s a whole different concern.

 

What effect will all this have on pre-packs?

In summary, my thoughts on the future are:

  • If the Pool is made compulsory for connected party pre-packs, undoubtedly this will reduce the number of pre-packs. Businesses will continue to be sold, but they will avoid falling into the statutory definition of “pre-pack”.  Even now, we’re seeing more business sales that are considered to fall outside the SIP16 definition, with some IPs going to the length of getting legal advice for comfort.
  • The new phoenix provisions, where HMRC will chase directors of serial insolvencies, will also reduce the number of pre-packs. Businesses will continue to be sold, but connections with former directors will be less likely (or simply less clear).
  • Theoretically, the Insolvency Service’s focus on the technical intricacies of the current phoenix provisions should reduce the number of pre-packs or at least reduce the number of pre-pack Administrations exiting to liquidation… but it is not clear to me whether the Service is clobbering directors for technical breaches of compliance with Rs22.
  • HMRC’s leg-up to preferential creditor could make pre-packs more attractive, as directors could more easily avoid the S216/17 provisions, but in reality I think this is too small a factor to influence directors’ decisions.
  • It seems to me from my small sample that pre-pack practices have changed materially from early 2015. Therefore, what I would prefer to see from the Government’s review is empirical evidence on what has been achieved by all the 2015 reforms and what still remains to be remedied, before they take steps to legislate pre-packs.

 

 


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InsS Annual Review, part 3: less carrot, more stick?

The Insolvency Service’s September 2018 report pulled no punches in expressing dissatisfaction over some monitoring outcomes: we want fewer promises to do better and more disciplinary penalties, seemed to be the tone.  Has this message already changed the face of monitoring?

The Insolvency Service’s September 2018 Report can be found at www.gov.uk/government/publications/review-of-the-monitoring-and-regulation-of-insolvency-practitioners and its Annual Review of IP Regulation is at www.gov.uk/government/publications/insolvency-practitioner-regulation-process-review-2018.

In this article, I explore the following:

  • On average, a quarter of all IPs were visited last year
  • But is there a 3-yearly monitoring cycle any longer?
  • 2018 saw the fewest targeted visits on record
  • …but more targeted visits are expected in 2019
  • No RPB ordered any plans for improvement
  • Instead, monitoring penalties/referrals of disciplinary/investigation doubled
  • Is this a sign that the Insolvency Service’s big stick is hitting its target?
  • IPs had a 1 in 10 chance of receiving a monitoring or complaints sanction last year

 

How frequently are IPs being visited?

With the exception of the Chartered Accountants Ireland (which is not surprising given their bumper year in 2017), all RPBs visited around a quarter of their IPs last year.  It’s good to see the RPBs operating this consistently, but how does it translate into the apparent 3-yearly standard routine?

Firstly, I find it odd that coverage of ACCA-licensed IPs seems to have dropped significantly.  After receiving a fair amount of criticism from the InsS over its monitoring practices, the ACCA handed the regulating of its licensed IPs over to the IPA in October 2016.  Yet, the number of ACCA IPs visited since that time has dropped from the c.100% to 79%.

Another factor that I had overlooked in previous analyses is the effect of monitoring the volume IVA providers (“VIPs”).  At least since 2014, the Insolvency Service’s principles for monitoring VIPs has required at least annual visits to VIPs.  Drawing on TDX’s figures for the 2018 market shares in IVAs, the IPA licensed all of the IPs in the firms that fall in the InsS’ definition of a VIP.  On the assumption that each of these received an annual visit, excluding these visits would bring the IPA’s coverage over the past 3 years to 56% of the rest of their IPs.  Of course, there are many reasons why this figure could be misleading, including that I do not know how many VIP IPs any of the RPBs had licensed in 2016 or 2017.

The ICAEW’s 64% may also reflect its different approach to visits to IPs in the largest firms: the ICAEW visits the firm annually (to cover the work of some of their IPs), but, because of the large number of IPs in the firm, the gap between visits to each IP within the firm is up to 6 years.  I cannot attempt to adjust the ICAEW’s figure to exclude these less frequently visited IPs, but suffice to say that, if they were exceeded, I suspect we might see something approaching more of a standard c.3-yearly visit for all non-large firm ICAEW-licensed IPs.

These variances in the 3-year monitoring cycle standard, which cannot be calculated (by me at least) with any accuracy, mean that there is very little that can be gleaned from this graph.  Unfortunately, the average is no longer much of an indication to IPs of when they might expect to receive their next monitoring visit.

 

The IPA’s new approach to monitoring

In addition to its up-to-4-visits-per-year shift for VIPs, at its annual conference earlier this year, the IPA announced that it would also be departing from the 3-yearly norm for other IPs.

The IPA has published few details about its new approach.  All that I have seen is that the frequency of monitoring visits is on a risk-assessment basis (which, I have to say, it was in my days there, albeit that the InsS used to insist on a 3-year max. gap) and that it is a “1-6 year monitoring cycle – tailored visits to types of firm” (the IPA’s 2018/19 annual report).

In light of this vagueness, I asked a member of the IPA secretariat for some more details: was the plan only to extend the period for those in the largest firms, as the ICAEW has done, or at least only for those practices with robust in-house compliance teams with a proven track record?  The answer was no, it could apply to smaller firms.  He gave the example of a small firm IP who only does CVLs: if the IPA were happy that the IP could do CVLs well and her bond schedules showed that she wasn’t diversifying into other case types, she likely would be put on an extended monitoring cycle.  The IPA person saw remote monitoring as the key for the future; he said that there is much that can be gleaned from a review of docs filed at Companies House.  He explained, however, that IPs would not know what cycle length they had been marked up for.

While I do not wish to throw cold water on this development, as I have long supported risk-based monitoring, this does seem a peculiar move especially in these times when questions are being asked about the current regulatory regime: if a present concern is that the regulators are not adequately discouraging bad behaviour and that they are not expediting the removal of the  “bad apples”, then it is curious that the monitoring grip is being loosened now.

Also, now that I visit clients on an annual basis, I realise just how much damage can be done in a short period of time.  It only takes a few misunderstandings of the legislation, a rogue staff member or a hard-to-manage peak in activity (or an unplanned trough in staff resources) to result in some real howlers.  How much damage could be done in 6 years, especially if an IP were less than honest?  Desk-top monitoring can achieve only so much.

What this means for my analysis of the annual reports, however, is that the 3-year benchmark for monitoring visits – or one third of IPs being monitored per year – is no longer relevant ☹ But it will still be interesting to see how the averages vary in the coming years.

 

Targeted visits drop to an all-time low

Only 10 targeted visits were carried out last year – the lowest number since the InsS started reporting them – and it seems that all RPBs are avoiding them in equal measure.

But 2019 may show a different picture, as several targeted visits have been ordered from 2018 monitoring visits…

 

Are the Insolvency Service’s criticisms bearing fruit?

I was particularly alarmed by the overall tone of the Insolvency Service’s “review of the monitoring and regulation of insolvency practitioners” published in September 2018.  In several places in the report, the InsS expressed dissatisfaction over some of the outcomes of monitoring visits.

I got the feeling that the Service disliked the focus on continuous improvement that, I think, has been a strength of the monitoring regime.  Instead, the Service expected to see more investigations and disciplinary actions arising from monitoring visit findings.  The report singled out apparently poor advice to debtors and apparently unfair or unreasonable fees or disbursements as requiring a disciplinary file to be opened with the aim of remedies being ordered.  It does seem that the focus of the InsS criticisms is squarely on activity in the VIPs, but the report did worry me that the criticisms could change the face of monitoring for everyone.  

2018 is the first year (in the period analysed) in which no monitoring visit resulted in a plan for improvement.  On the other hand, the number of penalties/referrals for disciplinary/investigation action doubled.

Could the InsS’ report be responsible for this shift?  Ok, the report was published quite late in 2018, in September, but I am certain that the RPBs had a rough idea of what the report would contain long before then.  Or perhaps the Single Regulator debate has tempted some within the RPBs/committees to be seen to be taking a tougher line?  Or you might think that these kinds of actions are long overdue?

I think that the RPBs have tried hard over the last decade or so to overcome the negativity of the JIMU-style approach to monitoring.  In more recent years, monitoring has become constructive and there has been some commendably open and honest communication between RPB and IP.  This has helped to raise standards, to focus on how firms can improve for the future, rather than spending everyone’s time and effort analysing and accounting for the past.  It concerns me that the InsS seems to want to remove this collaborative approach and make monitoring more like a complaints process.  In my view, such a shift may result in many IPs automatically taking a more defensive stance in monitoring visits and challenging many more findings.  Such a shift will not improve standards and will take up much more time from all parties.

Getting back to the graph, of course a referral for an investigation might not result in a sanction at all, so this does not necessarily mean that the IPA has issued more sanctions as a consequence of monitoring visits.  Also, the IPA’s apparent enthusiasm for this tool may simply reflect the IPA’s (past) committee structure whereby the committee that considered monitoring reports did not have the power to issue a disciplinary penalty, but could only pass it on to the Investigation Committee.  As this was dealt with as an internal “complaint”, I suspect that any such penalty arising from this referral would have featured, not in the IPA’s monitoring visit outcomes, but in complaint outcomes.

So how do the RPBs compare as regards complaints sanctions?

 

Complaints sanctions fall by a quarter

Although the IPA issued relatively fewer sanctions last year, I suspect that the monitoring visit referrals will take some time to work their way through to sanction stage, so it is unlikely that this demonstrates that the monitoring visit referrals led to a “no case to answer”.

What this and the previous graph show quite dramatically, though, is that last year the ICAEW seemed to issue far fewer sanctions per IP than the IPA.  As mentioned in my last blog, the IPA does license a large majority of the VIP IPs and there were more complaints last year about IVAs than about all the other case types put together.  One third of the published sanctions also were found against VIP IPs.

 

Likelihood of being sanctioned is unchanged from a decade ago

In 2018, you had a 1 in c.10 chance of receiving an RPB sanction, which was the same probability as in 2008…

I find it interesting to see the IPA’s and the ACCA’s results converge, which, if it were not for the suspected VIP impact, I would expect given that the IPA deals with both RPBs’ regulatory processes.

There’s not a lot that can be surmised from the number of sanctions issued by the other two RPBs: they’re a bit spiky, but it does seem that, on the whole, the ICAEW and ICAS has issued much fewer sanctions.  It seems from this that, at least for last year, you were c.half as likely to receive a sanction if you were ICAEW- or ICAS-licensed as you were if you were IPA- or ACCA-licensed.

 

Is a Single Regulator the answer to bringing consistency?

True, these graphs do seem to indicate that different regulatory approaches are implemented by different RPBs.  However, I do think that some of that variation is due to the different make-up of their regulated populations.  There is no doubt that the IVA specialists do require a different approach.  To a lesser degree, I think that a different approach is also merited when an RPB monitors practices with robust internal compliance teams; it is so much more difficult to have your work critiqued and challenged on a daily basis when you work in a 1-2 IP practice.

Differences in approach can also be a good thing.  Seeing other RPBs do things differently can force an RPB to challenge what they themselves are doing and to innovate.  My main concern with the idea of a single regulator is the loss of this advantage of the multi-regulator structure.

Perhaps a Single Regulator could bring in more consistency, but it would never result in perfectly consistent outcomes.  I’m sure I’m not the only one who remembers an exercise a certain JIEB tutor ran: all us students were given the same exam answer to mark against the same marking guide.  The results varied wildly.  This demonstrated to me that, as long as humans are involved in the process, different outcomes will always emerge.

 


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InsS Annual Review, part 2: IP number is down but complaints are up

The number of IPs just keeps on falling, but complaints have increased.  What is going on?

In this blog, I explore whether the Insolvency Service’s 2018 report on IP regulation provides the answer.  Also, is it just a blip?  And could this analysis help with the Service’s recently-issued call for evidence on IP regulation?

The Insolvency Service’s report can be found at: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/insolvency-practitioner-regulation-process-review-2018

In brief, the report indicates that, in 2018:

  • Despite insolvency case numbers increasing, IPs continued to leave the profession
  • Actions that most often appeared in RPB sanctions were: poor case progression/closure; faults in administering IVAs; and breaches of statutory filing/reporting requirements
  • Only two complaints (of the 381 referred to the RPBs) had been received from creditors! As usual, debtors were the most frequent complainers, but complaints lodged by directors and IPs showed quite an increase
  • Over 50% of the complaints lodged at the Gateway did not make it through to the RPBs
  • On average, one in three IPs received a complaint, but this figure jumped to more than one in every two for IPA-licensed IPs
  • Could this be because the IPA licenses all the IPs in the top six volume IVA provider firms (who registered over 75% of all new IVAs last year)..?
  • Over 50% of all complaints referred to the RPBs related to IVAs

 

Case numbers go up but IP numbers keep on going down

There has been a significant increase in insolvency case numbers over the past 3 years.  There were 20% more corporate insolvencies and over 40% more personal insolvencies started in 2018 than the numbers started in 2015.  Isn’t now a good time to be in insolvency..?

These statistics reflect my personal experience: over the past year, I have known of IPs who have left the profession and they’ve not all been of retiring age.  What is happening?

There’s no doubt in my mind that competition has become fiercer.  I have seen more occasions of IPs being toppled from offices and the ORs seem all the more reluctant to allow cases to leave their hands.  I have also seen some new ambulance-chasers on the field.

I think that small firms are struggling in this market.  It seems to me that larger firms seem hungrier to fight for smaller cases than they used to be.  In addition, 2018 was not a regulation-light year: it seemed that simply getting GDPR-ready was someone’s full-time job for several months, which was not at all easy for smaller firms to stomach.  Recruitment and retention are also difficult for smaller firms: new talent is attracted to big names, big cities, meaty cases and varied portfolios.

Fewer IPs and more cases mean that each IP has on average a larger caseload (or it could be that the IPs are closing them quicker, but from my personal experience, I don’t think this is happening).  If insolvency cases continue to increase, which I think is generally expected, then I think case progression is going to become a bigger concern.  Of course, IPs can always look to surround themselves with a larger team to deal with their larger caseloads, but we all know that this tends not to happen: in times of plenty, old cases tend to be shelved while people concentrate on the new excitements.

 

Is case progression already an issue?

The Insolvency Service’s report gives brief descriptions of every RPB sanction issued (including a couple that weren’t even published on .gov.uk – not sure how that happened!).  On categorising these summaries, I have come up with the following failures that appear most frequently in the disciplinary sanctions reported:

  • 7 case progression / closure issues (including one failure to realise assets and two failures to pay a dividend – not sure if these were delays or entirely overlooked)
  • 6 IVA-related faults (not including case progression / closure)
  • 6 statutory filing/reporting breaches
  • 3 SIP16 breaches
  • 3 faults in relation to directors’ RPO claims
  • 3 fee-related errors
  • 3 confidentiality breaches (perhaps related?)
  • 2 PTD-related faults
  • 2 SIP2 failures to investigate or to secure books and records

This shows that failing to progress cases promptly or appropriately can get you into hot water.  So too can failing to meet the rules on filing and reporting: four of the six instances listed arose because progress reports were not filed on time (or at all).

 

What are people complaining about?

The Top 3 topics continue to be ethics, poor communication and SIP3 issues, with the latter now counting for 34% of all complaints recorded by subject, up from 25% last year:

(Note: a complaint may appear in more than one category.  There were a total of 381 complaints referred in 2018 – see further below.)

Ok, that’s not a surprise.  We all know that the Insolvency Service’s report in September 2018 pulled no punches when it came to the RPB-monitoring of volume IVA providers.  It is also unsurprising that people are not directly complaining about late or missing progress reports, but as the sanctions demonstrate, if a statutory filing/reporting breach is identified in the course of the RPB’s investigations into a complaint, don’t be surprised if this is added to your charge sheet.

What we should perhaps be a little concerned about is that complaints on areas that attract a lot of negative press and criticism – SIP16/pre-packs and remuneration – have increased.  True, they still pale into insignificance when compared with the total number of complaints (they account for only 16 of the 429 complaints recorded by subject), but this is quite a jump from the one complaint in 2017.

 

Who is complaining?

I think this shows an interesting shift:

With IVAs featuring so heavily in complaints, it is not surprising that debtors are the most frequent complainant.  More bankruptcies were complained about in 2018 too (up from 31 to 75), which no doubt contributed to the increase in complaining debtors.

What I found interesting was that very few creditors complained last year – only two!  Even if we add in complaints from employees, this only comes to seven.  However, the number of complaints lodged by IPs more than trebled to 38.  Ok, this is still a relatively small number, but I think it hints at an interesting development in self-regulation: RPB monitors may only visit you once every 3 years or so, but your peers are watching you all the time!

 

How many complaints get through the Gateway?

(Note: the Gateway started in June 2014, so I have pro rated the partial 2014 figure to estimate for a full year.)

Complaint numbers are back up to the 2016 level: in 2016, 847 complaints were lodged and in 2018 the number was 830.  However, many more complaints fail to make it through the Gateway.  In fact, every year, the number rejected/referred has increased, even though the trend in complaint numbers shows an overall decrease.  In 2017, 48% of complaints were rejected or closed and this percentage increased to 52% last year.

 

Why are complaints not making it through the Gateway?

In their 2018 report, the Insolvency Service added a number of new reasons for rejection/closure, which personally has helped me to understand the operation of the Gateway better.  For example, I hadn’t appreciated that complaints about conduct that happened over 3 years ago are rejected.

This graph also demonstrates that a large number of complaints (145) – and a great deal more than in 2017 – are rejected because the complaint is about the insolvency process.  Again, given that most complaints are lodged by debtors and directors, this perhaps indicates that in many cases IPs may be upsetting the right people.  But it might also suggest that some IPs could do a better job of explaining the consequences of insolvency.

 

What are an IP’s chances of receiving a complaint?

Yes I know that some IPs work in a field that is more likely to attract criticism, but on average how many IPs received a complaint last year and does this average change much depending on one’s licensing body?

This shows that, generally speaking, one out of every three IPs receives a complaint.  Of course, this assumes that complaints are only about appointment-takers and that complaints are evenly spread about.

However, it also shows a large range in averages across the RPBs, with less than one in five IPs for all except the IPA, which shows an average of over one complaint for every two IPs.

The IPA has publicised that “the majority of IPs who work on IVAs are regulated by the IPA” (IPA press release 29/11/2018)… although, as the IPA does not license the majority of all IPs, a large proportion of which will have at least one IVA, presumably they’re meaning those who do IVAs in volume.  Does this, along with the graph above, mean that volume IVA providers disproportionately feature in complaints?

 

How many Volume IVA IPs does the IPA license?

The Insolvency Service now publishes data on new IVAs per firm: https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/individual-voluntary-arrangement-outcomes-and-providers-2018, which helped me out with this question.

An analysis of this list shows that the IPA licenses all the IPs registered at the Top 6 firms.  These firms alone account for over 75% of all IVAs registered in 2018.  Even if we look at the whole list of Top 14 firms (two of which no longer exist!), the IPA licenses 25 of the 33 IPs registered at these firms (with the ICAEW licensing 3 and ICAS the remaining 5, all 5 of which are located at the one firm).

So clearly then, the IPA’s complaints figures are bound to be affected by the number of IVA complaints lodged.  But this assumes that IVAs count for a large proportion of complaints.  Is this true?

 

How many IVAs are being complained about?

The following graph compares the number of IVA complaints with those about other matters:

(Note: the Gateway started in June 2014.  The way complaint numbers were published by case type then changed from those recorded by the RPBs to those referred to the RPBs from the Gateway.)

So for the first time, last year there were more IVA complaints than there were complaints about all other matters/case-types combined.  It’s no wonder therefore that the IPA has recorded many more complaints per IP than any other RPB and it’s not surprising that the IPA has sought to recruit more regulatory staff… and that they have warned IPA members that fees may be increasing this year!

I appreciate that the Insolvency Service did (finally!) wake up to some of the issues around regulating volume IVA providers last year and I accept that the IPA has made some public announcements about how they have been working towards changing their monitoring regime for the IPs in these firms.  However, as someone who has spent the last few years almost exclusively helping IPs in “traditional” insolvency practices, I do wonder if a disproportionate amount of time has been spent by the regulators (and government and the press) in criticising, legislating and threatening to legislate to remedy other apparent ills of the insolvency profession.

 

Is the solution a change in regulatory approach?

Interestingly, the Service’s just-released call for evidence on IP regulation (pg 15 of the doc at https://www.gov.uk/government/consultations/call-for-evidence-regulation-of-insolvency-practitioners-review-of-current-regulatory-landscape) focuses in on the different firm structure that exists in some IVA specialists where the IP is an employee.  This leads them to ask the question of whether firm-regulation, rather than individual IP-regulation, may be more appropriate in some sectors.  While I think that the Service definitely has a point, I do think that there are other fundamental differences in “volume IVA providers” – the hint is in the name – that also demand a fundamentally different regulatory approach.

 

In my next blog post, I’ll look more closely at complaint – and monitoring – sanctions.

 


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The Insolvency Service’s To-Do List: Going Nowhere Fast?

I’ll start my review of the Insolvency Service’s Annual Review of IP Regulation in reverse order this year.  Let’s first look at the progress made on the InsS’ 2017 to-do list.

Here’s a comparison of items listed in their 2017 Report with their 2018 Report, which has just been published (at https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/insolvency-practitioner-regulation-process-review-2018):

Of course, Ministers have had a few other things on their mind over the past year… but the landscape has not changed much since May 2018 when the 2017 report was published, so I would have hoped that the Insolvency Service would have anticipated realistic timescales back then.

 

So, if the above projects have not progressed as anticipated last year, what has the InsS achieved in 2018 and are they proposing any other outputs in the year ahead?

  • Taking on the role of a direct regulator?

It all sounds a bit secret squirrel, but the report’s overview emphasises the Service’s investigatory work.  It seems that their staff have identified and been referring “potential criminal offences by insolvency practitioners”, they “have been making effective use of information gathering powers to investigate areas of concern leading to a number of referrals to appropriate bodies” and they have “used our powers to undertake our own enquiries on a number of occasions”.  They expect to “report on what we have found when we are able to, given the progress of the investigation”.

  • The Single Regulator question

Of course, this is going to be the focus of a lot of the Service’s efforts.  I found the report alarming: it states both that they are considering “whether or not to consult on a single regulator” and that they are hoping to reach a position on “a recommendation on whether or not to exercise the power” to create a single regulator.  So… could they decide on the single regulator question without consultation?!

In any event, however, they are expecting “to publish shortly” a “formal call for evidence”, so at least we may have an opportunity to contribute something.

  • Last year’s report on RPB monitoring

I didn’t have a chance to blog on the subject, but I’m sure the Service’s September 2018 report on RPB monitoring did not pass you by.  The report was pretty scathing about much of the monitoring of volume IVA providers and included many recommendations, largely focusing on the extents to which they felt RPBs should be investigating, and taking to task, IPs who appear to be failing: to provide appropriate advice; to pay fees and expenses from estates that are fair and reasonable; and to manage the ethical threats arising from relationships with introducers and service-providers.

The Service’s 2018 Annual Report states that they are in the process of reviewing how the recommendations from the earlier review are being implemented by the RPBs and that this would inform their Single Regulator work – no threat there, then!

  • SIP revisions

So… no sign of a revised Ethics Code, but we do learn about the JIC’s work on revising SIPs.  In their in-box at the moment are:

    • SIP3.2, which is expected to be out for consultation “later this year”. Apparently, the revision work has come about “due to concerns about certain types of large CVAs where better and timelier information could be given to creditors”.  Interesting… but don’t we have the Act and Rules to tell us what IPs must send to creditors and by when?
    • SIP7 – a consultation on this is also expected “later this year”.
    • SIP9 – on the back of the concerns arising from the review of RPB monitoring of volume IVA providers and the “industry concerns over the charging of certain expenses and disbursements, primarily in the volume IVA sector” (so not just IVAs then..?), there has been ongoing work “to consider if a review of SIP9 is necessary”. The report also states that there has been work with the RPBs and R3 “to obtain data in order to assess the impact that possible changes to the way some charges ought to be applied would have on smaller firms”.  Debates over what are valid expenses/disbursements and what should be treated as an overhead have been rumbling for several years now and if the question is still “if” SIP9 should be changed, then it seems to me that an outcome could still be a long way from emerging.

 

So, the Service’s to-do list never gets any shorter, does it?  And it seems to me that the usual project-management rule applies to insolvency projects: estimate the timescale and then double it!

In my next blog, I’ll look at the complaints and monitoring stats… or I may get back to my 50 Things list…

 

 


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50 Things I Hate about the Rules – Part 3: Closures… and a bit more Fees

In this post, I add to my previous list of fees-related gripes and cover some issues with the new closure processes… and, as the end of the list is nearing, if anyone has any other gripes they want me to add to the list, please do drop me a line (because, between you and me, I’m struggling to come up with 50!)

On the topic of fees, I think that my last list and these additions demonstrate how madly intricate the statutory requirements are, especially for fees in Administrations and for fees based on time costs.  Is it any wonder that so many fee non-compliances arise?  And more than a few are treated by the RPBs as “unauthorised fees” issues, thus attracting the risks of fines and other sanctions.  This seems unfair as many trip-ups only occur because the Rules are such a jungle.  There must be a simpler way, mustn’t there?

 

A Few More Fees-Related Gripes

  1. Capturing Past Work

I appreciate that the fees Rules were drafted in the expectation that office holders would seek approval for the fee basis up-front (although how the drafters believed that IPs would be able to put together a realistic, case-specific, fees estimate on Day 1, I don’t know).  However, I think the Rules should have been designed to accommodate the possibility that fee-approval would be sought after an IP has been on the case for some time.  After all, the fact that Administrators’ Proposals must address how the company’s affairs have been managed since appointment and the proposed fee basis indicates that even the drafters envisaged some occasions when work will have been done before approval is sought, not to mention all the tasks demanded of every office holder swiftly on appointment.

My problem is that the Rules’ language is all prospective: the fees estimate/proposal must provide “details of the work the IP and the IP’s staff propose to undertake” (Rs1.2 and 18.16(7)) and the IP must provide “details of the expenses the office-holder considers will be, or are likely to be incurred” (Rs18.16(4) and (7)).  I think that we’ve all interpreted this to mean that, if time or expenses have already been incurred, these need to be explained also – and indeed SIP9 has plugged this statutory gap – but it is a shame that the Service did not see the 2016 Rules as an opportunity to fix the flaws in the 2015 fees Rules, which had been so hastily pushed out.

 

  1. Capping a Fees Estimate

The Rules don’t seem to have been written with any expectation that creditors will want to agree fees on a time costs basis subject to a cap different from that set by the fees estimate.

Firstly, although the Oct-15 Rules changed the fee basis to “by reference to the time… as set out in the fees estimate” (e.g. old R4.127(2)(b)), those final words were omitted from new R18.16(2)(b), so now creditors are asked simply to approve a decision that fees be based on time costs.

Thus, if creditors want to cap those fees at anything other than the fees estimate, they have to modify the proposed decision unilaterally… which isn’t really catered for in decisions by correspondence. In effect, the creditor is proposing their own decision, which the Rules strictly provide for as a “requisitioned decision” (R15.18), but of course office holders cut to the chase by accepting the creditor’s cap if their vote is conclusive.  The alternative is to count their vote as a rejection of the office holder’s proposed decision and start again with a new decision procedure.

But then how do you frame a request to creditors to increase this kind of cap?  The process for “exceeding the fees estimate” is set down in R18.30.  Let’s say that your original fees estimate was £50,000 and the creditors agreed a cap of £30,000.  If you want to ask them to reconsider whether you can take up to £40,000, R18.30 doesn’t work.  You’re not asking to exceed the fees estimate, you’re still looking to be within your original fees estimate.

R18.29 also doesn’t work here: the fee basis has been agreed as time costs, so you’re not asking creditors to change the basis (and there may be no “material and substantial change in circumstances” from that which you’d originally estimated when you’d quoted £50,000).  It seems to me that you’re asking creditors a whole different kind of question – to lift their arbitrary cap – which is not provided for at all in the Rules.

 

  1. Trying Again for Fee Approval

Commonly, IPs will propose a fees decision to creditors and receive no response at all.  Invariably, they will try again, often emphasising to creditors that, if no one votes, they may take it to court, thus increasing the costs demanded of the insolvent estate quite substantially.

But what if your original fees estimate was for £30,000 and then, when you go back for a second attempt some time later, you think that £50,000 is more realistic?  Or maybe your first fees estimate was proposed on a milestone basis, say £30,000 for year 1, and then you go to creditors at the start of year 2 with a fees estimate for £50,000 for two years?

Do you look to R18.30 on the basis that this is an excess fee request?  After all, you are looking to exceed your original estimate, so the scenario seems to fit R18.30(1).  However, read on to R18.30(2) and a different picture emerges: R18.30(2) instructs office holders to seek approval from the party that “fixed the basis”, so if no basis has been fixed, then R18.30 cannot be the solution.

So is your original fees estimate completely irrelevant then?  Do you simply start again with a new fees estimate?  Well, if you’re issuing a progress report before the creditors agree the basis, the original fees estimate is not completely irrelevant: R18.4(1)(e)(i) states that you must report whether you are “likely to exceed the fees estimate under R18.16(4)”.  That Rule refers simply to providing the information to creditors.  It does not say that that fees estimate must have been approved.  So at the very least, you would explain in your progress report why your original £30,000 was inadequate, even though you might also be providing a new fees estimate for £50,000.

 

  1. When Administration Outcomes Change (1): Disappearing Para 52(1)(b) Statements

This question proved contentious long before the 2016 Rules: if an Administrator has achieved fee approval under R18.18(4) (as it is now), where they have issued Proposals with a Para 52(1)(b) statement, is this approval still sufficient if the circumstances of the case change and it transpires that the Para 52(1)(b) statement is no longer appropriate? And conversely, if an Administrator issued Proposals with no Para 52(1)(b) statement, is the unsecured creditors’ approval of fees still sufficient in the event that it now appears that there will not be a dividend to unsecureds (except by means of the prescribed part)?

Personally, I believe that technically the approvals are still valid.  R18.18(4) refers specifically to making a Para 52(1)(b) statement: if that statement has been made, it’s been made; the fact that the statement may no longer be appropriate does not change the fact that it was made (although issuing revised Proposals may overcome this… but how many Administrators ever issue revised Proposals..?).  Also, R18.33 provides that, if the Administrator asks to change the fee basis, amount etc. or for approval to fees in excess of an estimate, the Administrator must go to the unsecureds if the Para 52(1)(b) statement is no longer relevant.  Surely, if it were the case that Administrators needed to go to unsecureds (or indeed issue revised Proposals) every time a Para 52(1)(b) statement were no longer relevant, i.e. to ratify a fees decision previously made by secureds/prefs, the Rules would similarly demand this.

However, while I think that this is the technical position, I have sympathy with IPs who decide to go to other creditors for fee approval even though strictly-speaking it does not seem as though this is required by the Rules.  Although clearly it costs money to seek decisions from creditors, I don’t think anyone will challenge an IP who has chosen to ensure that all relevant creditor classes are in agreement.  This would also help counteract any challenge that the Proposals had made a Para 52(1)(b) statement inappropriately, thus disenfranchising the unsecureds from having a say on the Administrators’ fees.

 

  1. When Administration Outcomes Change (2): Appearing Preferential Distributions

But what is the technical position for an Administrator who has made a Para 52(1)(b) statement, thought that they would not be making a distribution to prefs, but then the outcome changed so that a distribution became likely?

I think the technical position for this scenario does create a problem.  R18.18(4) states that the basis is fixed: (i) by the secured creditors and (ii) if the Administrator has made or intends to make a distribution to prefs, then also by the prefs (via a decision procedure).  It seems to me that overnight the question of whether the Administrator’s fees have been approved or not changes.  Originally, the Administrator thought that they only needed secured creditors’ approval, so they drew fees on that basis.  But then, as soon as they intend to make a distribution to prefs, they have no longer complied with R18.18(4).  Although it would seem mighty unfair for anyone to view the Administrator’s fees drawn up to that point as unauthorised, it certainly seems to me that the Administrator must take immediate steps to seek preferential creditors’ approval.

 

Closure Processes

  1. Inconsistent Closure Processes

There is a distinct difference between the MVL closure process and those for CVLs, BKYs and compulsory liquidations (“WUCs”).  In an MVL, the liquidator issues a “proposed final account” (R5.9) and then, often 8 weeks’ later, the “final account” is issued along with a notice that the company’s affairs are fully wound up (R5.10).  However, in a CVL, before the 8-week period begins the liquidator issues a final account with a notice that the company’s affairs are fully wound up (R6.28).  BKYs and WUCs follow this CVL model.

I have no idea why there should be these differences in the two main processes.  But what I do know is that it causes confusion on what a final account should look like… even for Companies House staff.

R6.28(1) states that the CVL final account delivered to creditors at the start of the 8-week process is the one required under S106(1) – not a draft or a proposed version of the final account – and it must be accompanied by the notice confirming that the affairs are fully wound up.  Therefore, it is clear to me that this final account is pretty-much set in stone at this point.  The final account date is fixed as at the date it is issued to creditors and it does not get changed when the time comes to deliver a copy of the final account to the Registrar of Companies at the end of the 8 weeks (S106(3)).

I don’t think that this is a misinterpretation… but I have doubted myself, not least as some IPs have complained to me over the last couple of years that Companies House has rejected their final accounts, requiring them to be re-dated to the “final meeting” or “closure” date.  I have asked Companies House twice to explain to me why they believe the final account should be re-dated… and both times Companies House conceded that there is no such requirement.  Thank you, Companies House, but would it be possible for you to avoid reverting to 1986 habits again so that, over time, we might all settle into a routine of complying with the Rules?!

 

  1. Closing Bankruptcies

I explained in Gripe no. 4 that R10.87(3)(f) seems to contain an anomaly.  It states that the final notice to creditors 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 seems to be no Section/Rule that actually requires a notice to be filed with the court.

I’m repeating this gripe here because others have been puzzled over the filing requirements when closing BKYs, especially in debtor-application cases where of course there is no court file.  Quite frankly, I don’t think any of us would care, if it were not for the fact that the trustee’s release is dependent on filing a final notice with “the prescribed person” (S298(8), S299(3)(d)).  As I mentioned previously, the person at the Insolvency Service with whom I’d been communicating seemed to express the view that “the prescribed person” is the court in creditor-petition (and old debtor-petition) cases and is the OR in debtor-application cases, but my attempts to get them to be more categoric in their response (and to explain with reference to the Rules how they reach this conclusion) have been unsuccessful to date.

It is unfair that the Act/Rules deal so unsatisfactorily with the trustee’s release and it makes me wonder if, to be certain, it would be beneficial to ask the Secretary of State to confirm one’s release in debtor-application cases where filing a notice at the court seems insensible.

 

  1. Closing Fees

When I explain to clients how I see the closure process for CVLs, BKYs and WUCs working, I sometimes hear the retort: so, you’re telling to me that I have to get everything finished before I issue my final account/report at the start of the 8 weeks, are you?  But how do I get paid for being in office over that period?

It is true that, under the old Rules, it was possible for IPs to factor the costs to close into their draft final report so that they could incur the time costs during that 8-week period and draw the fees (and deal with the final VAT reclaim) before vacating office and finalising their final report.  Under the new process, this looks impossible: in order to issue a notice confirming that the affairs have been fully wound up, it seems to me that at that point the affairs must have been fully wound up 😉

Most IPs are prepared to forgo the final costs to close a case.  Let’s face it, how many cases have enough funds to pay IPs anywhere near full recovery of their costs anyway?  But, I had to agree with my client who was disgruntled at the prospect of having to work for free from the point of issuing the final report: it does seem unfair.  But there is a simple solution: why not ask creditors to consider approving your fees to close a case as a set amount?  You could propose this at the same time as seeking approval for fees on a time costs basis for all other aspects of the case.  If your closing fees were approved as a set amount, you could invoice and draw those fees long before issuing your final account/report… and this way you could also get the VAT all wrapped up in good time as well.

 

  1. Stopping a Closure

Over the years, there have been occasions when an IP has wanted to stop a closure process.  It’s true that, under the old Rules, there were no provisions cancelling a final meeting.  But under the old Rules, it was possible to re-start the closure process for example if your draft final report turned out to be flawed; in fact, the old Rules required you to re-issue a draft final report and re-advertise for a new final meeting.

But as the 2016 Rules for CVLs, BKYs and WUCs only require you to issue a final account/report and then wait 8 weeks for creditors to take any action they see fit, there seems to be no way to stop this process once it has begun.  In fact, even if a creditor objects to the office holder’s release, this does not stop the IP vacating office at the 8 weeks; it simply means that, after vacating office, the IP needs to apply to the Secretary of State for release.  The only actions that stop (or rather postpone) a closure process are a creditor exercising their statutory rights to request information or challenge fees or expenses.