Insolvency Oracle

Developments in UK insolvency by Michelle Butler

Not the Eurosail Supreme Court judgment

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In the middle of drafting today’s post, I noted the release of the Supreme Court’s decision in Eurosail. I think I need time to absorb that judgment, but you can find it here:

Instead, I’ll plough on here with a few other judgments:

SoS v McDonagh & Ors: post-CVA wages/HP claims arising on liquidation not payable from NI Fund
HSBC v Tambrook: Jersey court asks English court to make an administration order via S426 IA86
Tanner v Millar: does a friend’s blank cheque mean you’re not insolvent?
Firstplus v Pervez: a lesson for mortgagees in getting the pre-action process right

Post-CVA arrears of wages and holiday pay not payable from the NI Fund when company moves into liquidation

Secretary of State for Business Innovation & Skills v Mr M V McDonagh & Ors [2013] UKEAT 0287/12 (14 February 2013)

Summary: This Appeal Tribunal overturned the decisions of two separate Employment Tribunals that former employees of a company that had been in CVA were entitled to claim arrears of pay and holiday pay from the NI Fund when the company subsequently went into liquidation. The appeals judge decided that the relevant date for claims was the date that the company’s CVA had been approved, not when later it had been placed into liquidation.

The Detail: Two separate Employment Tribunals had decided that former employees of companies that had been in CVA were entitled to claim arrears of pay and holiday pay from the NI Fund when the companies subsequently went into liquidation. In each case, all the twelve claimant employees had been unaware that the company had been placed into CVA – they had continued to be paid for some time until their employment ended when, or shortly before, the companies went into compulsory liquidation, leaving them with claims for arrears of wages and holiday pay. The NI Fund rejected their claims on the basis that the relevant date of these claims was after the commencement of the company’s insolvency, which it claimed was the date the CVA was approved, not the date of the liquidation commencement.

The Honourable Mr Justice Langstaff noted that the original judge, who had decided in favour of the employees, had interpreted the Employment Rights Act 1996 in light of what he had assumed was Parliament’s intention, suggesting that, because the company in CVA could – and did – continue to pay wages, at that time it had not become insolvent for the purposes of the ERA96, but that this point had occurred only when the company had been placed into liquidation. “That is to apply a definition of insolvency which is not to be found in the Act” (paragraph 22). “It is incoherent to suggest that a company which is insolvent by statute becomes insolvent again or in addition or in any additional way when wound up. The underlying state of insolvency has not changed” (paragraph 35).

The judge also found no contradiction in the EC Directive, which invites Member States to fix a relevant date for wages claims alternative to the commencement of insolvency proceedings, which, contrary to the original judge’s opinion, include CVAs, but that the UK had not taken up that invitation.

Langstaff J recognised the apparent unfairness of his conclusions in this case, particularly where the employees had no knowledge of the CVA, but he pointed out that this decision only affected debts that were payable before the start of the insolvency proceeding. “Other debts would be payable afterwards. A period of notice pay, for instance, to which each of these Claimants was entitled was not excluded from guarantee” (paragraph 56).

According to counsel on this case this was the first time that this question has been raised before any court, which personally I find most surprising: there must have been many cases where employees have been left with the full range of claims after a company in CVA has moved into liquidation. Perhaps this is the first time, however, that an employee has sought to dispute the RPO’s rejection.

English court’s rejection of Jersey court’s request for assistance in making administration order swiftly reversed

HSBC Bank v Tambrook Jersey Limited [2013] EWHC 866 (Ch) (12 April 2013)

Summary: A secured creditor applied for an English administration order over a Jersey company. The application was supported by a letter from the Royal Court of Jersey asking that the English Court assist, pursuant to S426 of the IA86, by making the administration order. At first instance, the application was rejected on the basis that, as there was no insolvency proceeding either ongoing or intended in Jersey, the English Court could not “assist” the Jersey Court by making an English administration order. On appeal on 1 May, this decision was overturned, although the decision has yet to be published.

The Detail: Tambrook is a Jersey-registered and generally accepted to be Jersey-COMI company, although its main business activity is in England. None of the insolvency options available under Jersey statute were considered attractive by either the company director or the company’s secured creditor, but they saw significant advantages in an English administration.

As the company’s COMI is not England, the secured creditor sought to apply for an English administration via S426 of the IA86. S426(4) states that the English court “shall assist the courts having the corresponding jurisdiction in any other part of the United Kingdom or any relevant country or territory”. The Royal Court of Jersey had written a letter to the English High Court requesting that it assist, pursuant to S426, by making an administration order.

In the first instance decision, Mr Justice Mann declined to make an administration order on the basis that the court was being asked to provide far more than simply assistance to the Jersey Royal Court: “this court cannot ‘assist’ another court which is not actually doing anything, or apparently intending to do anything, in its insolvency jurisdiction” (paragraph 18). Mann J came to this decision despite the applicant’s counsel referring to five Jersey cases in which he claimed administration orders had been granted in similar circumstances; the judge felt that they did not assist him in any way, as no reasoned decisions were available on those cases.

Although the full judgment has yet to be published, several sources report (e.g. that this decision was overturned on the hearing of an appeal on 1 May 2013.

Does a blank cheque from a friend disprove insolvency?

Tanner v Millar [2013] EWHC 750 (Ch) (23 January 2013)

Summary: Although this was a fairly insignificant – and unsuccessful – application for permission to appeal against a transaction at an undervalue judgment, I thought it contained an unusual twist: the beneficiary of the transaction (Tanner) sought to prove that the bankrupt had not been insolvent at the time of the transaction because Tanner had been capable and willing to pay any sum to get the bankrupt out of a hole. The judge decided that this evidence probably would not have influenced the result of the case: the district judge had found that the debtor had been insolvent at the time based on the position of his own assets and liabilities.

The Detail: In an earlier judgment, the judge had found that the bankrupt had paid away substantial sums to Tanner by way of a transaction at an undervalue and thus ordered Tanner to repay the sums to the Trustee in Bankruptcy. Tanner sought permission to appeal the decision on a number of grounds. One of the grounds was that, at the time of the transaction, Tanner had had access to substantial funds and was willing to step in to provide to the bankrupt whatever funds were necessary to meet a contingent damages claim, which had been the key to the bankrupt’s insolvency.

Mr Justice Sales refused permission to appeal, deciding that this ground – and the others – did not meet the standard tests to allow fresh evidence to be admitted. In relation to this ground, Sales J decided that, even if admitted, it probably would not have an important influence on the result of the case: “It is quite clear, as the district judge found, that the bankrupt did not have sufficient assets of his own to meet his liability to pay damages. He was therefore insolvent. The fact that he had a generous friend in the form of Mr Tanner on hand who might have been prepared to help him (but had no legal obligation to do so) does not meet the point, as determined by the district judge, that the bankrupt was himself insolvent at the relevant time” (paragraph 15).

Mortgagee’s pre-action information must not be issued too early in the process

Firstplus Financial Group Plc v Mr Khalid Pervez [2013] ScotSC 27 (22 March 2013)

Summary: In this Scottish case, the Sheriff decided that the mortgagee had not complied with the pre-action requirements for enforcing its security because it had provided the debtor with the pre-action information at the same time as the “formal requisition” letter and before the expiry of the calling-up notice. Although different Acts resulted in different interpretations of the timing of the debtor “entering into default”, each interpretation led to a conclusion that the pre-action information had been provided too early in the process. Although the Scottish Government’s guidance suggests compliance at an earlier stage, it could not take precedence over primary legislation.

The Detail: The mortgagee, Firstplus, sought orders for the possession and sale of Pervez’s residential house. The case turned on whether Firstplus had complied with the pre-action requirements of the Applications by Creditors (Pre-Action Requirements) (Scotland) Order 2010 (“PAR Order 2010”).

Firstplus had communicated the debtor a number of times, culminating in the issuing of a “formal requisition” letter on 26 May 2011. This letter had included the required pre-action information. Later still, Firstplus served a calling-up notice on 19 July 2011. In view of the fact that the PAR Order 2010 states that the pre-action information “must be provided as soon as is reasonably practicable upon the debtor entering into default”, the key question was: when had the debtor defaulted? The question is complicated by the fact that “default” has different meanings under the different Acts to which the PAR Order 2010 refers: the Conveyancing and Feudal Reform (Scotland) Act 1970 and the Heritable Securities (Scotland) Act 1894.

The 1970 Act defines default, in part, as: “(a) where a calling-up notice in respect of the security has been served and has not been compiled with (Standard Condition 9(1)(a)); (b) where there has been a failure to comply with any other requirement arising out of the security (the court’s emphasis) (Standard Condition 9(1)(b));”. In this case, the Sheriff concluded that the calling-up notice had to be served and thus the earlier default notice was invalid and ineffective. On this basis, as the expiration of the calling-up notice had occurred after the pre-action information had been sent, the Sheriff decided that the PAR Order 2010 had not been complied with.

The Sheriff also reviewed the 1894 Act. He concluded that, although the 1894 Act does not expressly define “default”, “it is plain from the express terms of section 5 of the 1894 Act that the ‘default’ envisaged by that section can only occur ‘after formal requisition’ of the principal (my emphasis). Logically, therefore, the ‘default’ and the demand for payment cannot be simultaneous” (paragraph 59). It was Sheriff S Reid’s view that there must be a short time lapse between the issuing of the demand and the conclusion that the debtor had “made default” in terms of the 1894 Act and, although in this case the Sheriff need not have decided how long that time period should be, he expressed the view that “that time is likely to be very short – probably no more than one hour in commercial cases (Bank of Baroda v Panessar [1987] Ch. 335; Sheppard & Cooper Ltd v TSB Bank plc [1996] All ER 654), perhaps no more than a few clear banking days in non-commercial cases – being, in any event, no more than is necessary, in ordinary course, for the mechanics of a monetary transfer to be instructed and effected through recognised modern banking techniques” (paragraph 67). Therefore, because in this case the pre-action information had accompanied the “formal requisition”, the Sheriff decided that the PAR Order 2010 had not been complied with.

Firstplus had argued that it had been obliged to comply with the Scottish Government’s “Guidance on Pre-Action Requirements for Creditors”, which states that the pre-action information had to be provided as soon as the debtor enters into default “for example, by falling into arrears”, which would appear to suggest a far earlier point than that indicated by the 1970 and 1894 Acts. The Sheriff’s response was that “In my judgment, while creditors must ‘have regard to’ any Guidance issued by the Scottish Ministers in this respect, they are not obliged to follow it, still less is the Guidance a binding or definitive statement of the law. If that Guidance was seeking to define ‘default’ for the purposes of the 1970 Act as comprising merely a debtor ‘falling into arrears’, it would have been, in my judgment, an incorrect statement of the law. The Guidance cannot take precedence over, or contradict the proper meaning of, primary legislation” (paragraph 84).

This judgment has left me with a question: given the different timings of default under the two Acts, what would have happened had the pre-action information been sent after the “formal requisition” but before the calling-up notice?

Author: insolvencyoracle

In working life, I am a partner of the Compliance Alliance, providing compliance services to insolvency practitioners in the UK. I started blogging as Insolvency Oracle in 2012 after leaving the IPA and on realising that I was now free to express my personal opinions in public.

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