Some questions answered by a few of the recent cases in the courts:
• Kaye v South Oxfordshire District Council – if an insolvency commences mid-year, how much of the year’s business rates rank as an unsecured claim?
• Yang v The Official Receiver – can a bankruptcy order be annulled if the petition debt is later set aside?
• Oraki & Oraki v Dean & Dean – on the annulment of a bankruptcy order, if the petitioning creditor cannot pay the Trustee’s costs, who pays?
• Bristol Alliance Nominee No 1 Limited v Bennett – can a company escape completion of a surrender agreement if the process is interrupted by an Administration?
• Rusant Limited v Traxys Far East Limited – is a “shadowy” defence sufficient to avoid a winding up petition in favour of arbitration?
A decision “of potential interest to all insolvency practitioners and billing authorities for business rates”
Kaye v South Oxfordshire District Council & Anor (6 December 2013) ( EWHC 4165 (Ch))
HHJ Hodge QC started his judgment by stating that this decision is “of potential interest to all insolvency practitioners and billing authorities for business rates” (paragraph 1), as he disagreed with advice that appears to have been relied upon by billing authorities and Official Receivers for quite some time. This may affect CVAs, which were the subject of this decision, and all other insolvency procedures both corporate and personal.
The central issue was: how should business rates relating to a full year, e.g. from 1 April 2013 to 31 March 2014, be handled if an insolvency commences mid-year?
In this case, the council had lodged a proof of debt in a CVA for a claim calculated pro rata from 1 April to the date of the commencement of the CVA, but the Supervisor had observed to the council that he believed that the full year’s business rates ranked as an unsecured claim.
The council responded that the company had adopted the statutory instalment option (whereby the full year’s rates are paid in ten monthly instalments commencing on 1 April) and that, as this was still effective at the commencement of the CVA, the unsecured claim was limited to the unpaid daily accrued liability – with the consequence, of course, that the council expected to be paid ongoing rates by the company in CVA. The council stated that, had the right to pay by instalments been lost at the time of the CVA (by reason of the debtor’s failure to bring instalments up to date within seven days of a reminder notice), the whole year’s balance would have become due and this would have comprised the council’s claim. [This seems perverse to me: it would mean that companies would be better off postponing proposing a CVA until the business rates become well overdue, as the full year would then be an unsecured claim, rather than accruing as a post-CVA expense.] The Supervisor applied to the court for directions.
In support of the council’s view was advice (not directly related to this case) from the Insolvency Service of early 2010, which stated that, unless a bankrupt had failed to comply with a reminder notice, the Official Receiver would reject a claim for council tax for the portion of the year following a bankruptcy order. The council also provided what was said to be the current view of the Institute of Revenues and Valuation, which followed a similar approach in relation to a company’s non-domestic rates.
Hodge HHJ felt that the decision in Re Nolton Business Centres Limited  was of no real assistance, because, although this had resulted in a liquidator being liable for rates falling due after appointment, he stated that it merely demonstrated the “liquidation expenses principle”: “the question was not whether the debt had been incurred before, or after, the commencement of the winding up, but whether the sums had become due after the commencement of the winding up in respect of property of which the liquidator had retained possession for the purposes of the company” (paragraph 38).
Although, in this case, the full year’s rates had not fallen due for payment by the time of the commencement of the insolvency, Hodge HHJ viewed it as “a ‘contingent liability’, to which the company was subject at the date of the [CVA]” (paragraph 54). Therefore, he felt that the full year’s non-domestic rates were “an existing liability incurred by reason of its occupation of the premises on 1st April 2013. It, therefore, seems to me that the liability does fall within Insolvency Rule 13.12” (paragraph 55) and, by reason of the CVA’s standard conditions, were provable. He also commented that it seemed that this would apply equally to liquidations and bankruptcies.
The judge decided that the council should be allowed to prove in the CVA for the full amount of unpaid rates and he felt that the company would have a good defence to the existing summons for non-payment of post-CVA rates.
My thanks to Jo Harris – I’d originally missed this case, but she’d mentioned it in her February technical update.
(UPDATE 22/07/2014: For an exploration of the application of this case to IVAs, take a look at my more recent post at http://wp.me/p2FU2Z-7y)
Absence of petition debt – council tax liability that was later set aside – was not a ground to annul bankruptcy order
Yang v The Official Receiver & Ors (1 October 2013) ( EWHC 3577 (Ch))
Yang was made bankrupt on a petition by Manchester City Council for unpaid council tax of £1,103. After the bankruptcy order, Yang discharged the liability orders but also challenged the liability on the basis that the council had incorrectly classed the property as a house in multiple occupation. Subsequently, the valuation tribunal ordered the council to remove Yang from the liability.
Yang then sought to have the bankruptcy annulled, but the court ordered that the bankruptcy order be rescinded; the annulment was refused, as the court decided that there was no ground for the contention that, at the time the bankruptcy order was made, it ought not to have been: at that time, the multiple occupation assessment stood and Yang had not challenged it.
In considering Yang’s appeal, HHJ Hodge QC felt that the Council Tax (Administration and Enforcement) Regulations 1992 were relevant, which state that “the court shall make the [liability] order if it is satisfied that the sum has become payable by the defendant and has not been paid” (paragraph 20) and the court cannot look into the circumstances of how the debt arose, although the debtor is entitled to follow the statutory appeal mechanism. The judge stated: “It seems to me that the fact that a liability order is later set aside does afford grounds for saying that, at the time the bankruptcy order was made, there was no liability properly founding the relevant bankruptcy petition within the meaning of Section 282(1)(a) of the 1986 Act. But that does not mean that a bankruptcy order made on a petition founded upon such a liability order ‘ought not to have been made’” (paragraph 22) and therefore he was content that the bankruptcy order was rescinded, rather than annulled, although there remain three further grounds of the appeal to consider another day.
Innocence is relative
Oraki & Oraki v Dean & Dean & Anor (18 December 2013) ( EWCA Civ 1629)
After a long battle, the Orakis’ bankruptcies were annulled on the basis that the orders should not have been made: the petition debt related to fees charged by a man who was not a properly qualified solicitor and was not entitled to charge fees. At the same time, the judge ordered that the Trustee’s costs should be paid by the Orakis, although they were open to seek payment from the solicitor firm (Dean & Dean) and to challenge the level of the Trustee’s remuneration.
The Orakis appealed the order to pay the Trustee’s costs on the basis that they were completely innocent. Floyd LJ agreed that the Orakis were wholly innocent “as between Dean & Dean and the Orakis”, however “the confusion occurs if one seeks to carry those considerations across to the costs position as between the trustee and the Orakis. There is no clear disparity, at least at this stage, between the ‘innocence’ of the two parties” (paragraphs 36 and 37). He also stated that, whilst it was still open for the Orakis to challenge the level of costs, which appear to have increased by some £250,000 since 2008, it seemed to him to be unlikely that the Trustee would not be able to demonstrate that he is entitled to at least some costs.
Lady Justice Arden added her own comments: “the guiding principle, in my judgment, is that the proper expenses of the trustee should normally be paid or provided for before the assets are removed from him by an annulment order” (paragraph 63) and it was not clear that the Orakis’ estates would be sufficient to discharge the expenses in full, which, absent the order, would have left the Trustee with the burden of unpaid expenses. She noted that, usually, the petitioning creditor would be ordered to pay the Trustee’s costs where a bankruptcy order is annulled on the ground that it ought never to have been made. However, unusually, in this case the petitioning creditor could not pay and therefore the judge was entitled to order that the Orakis pay.
Landlord entitled to escrow monies held for part-completed surrender interrupted by Administration
Bristol Alliance Nominee No. 1 Limited & Ors v Bennett & Ors (18 December 2013) ( EWCA Civ 1626)
In 2010, A\Wear Limited (“the company”) entered into an ‘Agreement for surrender and deed of variation’ with the landlord (“Bristol”) of leased properties and £340,000 was held in escrow pending completion of the surrender and payment by the company of the VAT on the escrow amount. A similar arrangement was made in relation to another property with an escrow amount of £210,000. Shortly after the landlords served notice on the company requiring completion of the surrender, the company entered into administration and the company, acting by its administrators, refused to complete the surrender.
At first instance, the judge refused to make the order requested by the landlords for specific performance to enable the escrow amounts to be released to them, on the basis that it would have offended the principle of pari passu treatment of unsecured creditors. At the appeal, Rimer LJ disagreed: although the refusal of an order for specific performance would open up the possibility that the company’s contingent interest in the escrow monies might be realised, the monies were not part of the company’s assets and therefore ordering specific performance would not deprive the company of any assets then distributable to creditors. Rimer LJ stated that the effect of the refusal “was to promote the interests of the company’s creditors over those of Bristol in circumstances in which there was no sound basis for doing so”. “Prior to the administration, Bristol had a right, upon giving appropriate notice, as it did, to compel the company to complete the surrender. If such a claim had come before the court before the company’s entry into administration, there could have been no good reason for the court to refuse to make such an order; and the consequence of doing so would have been to entitle Bristol to the payment of the escrow money. It was manifestly the intention of the parties to the surrender agreement to achieve precisely such a commercial result. The company’s entry into administration cannot have resulted, and did not result, in any material change of circumstances. The principle underlying Bastable’s case shows that Bristol remained as much entitled to an order for specific performance as it had before” (paragraph 34). With the support of the other appeal court judges, the appeal was allowed.
Winding up petition “trumped” by arbitration agreement
Rusant Limited v Traxys Far East Limited (28 June 2013) ( EWHC 4083 (Comm))
Rusant Limited sought to restrain the presentation of a winding up petition against it by Traxys Far East Limited, which had issued a statutory demand for the repayment of a loan. However, the loan agreement included a term that “any dispute, controversy or claim… should be referred to and finally resolved by arbitration of a single arbitrator” and Rusant claimed that an extension to the loan repayments had been agreed.
Although Mr Justice Warren described Rusant’s defence as “shadowy” and stated that, apart from the arbitration agreement, he would not grant an injunction, “the arbitration agreement, it seems to me, trumps the decision which I would otherwise have made” (paragraph 33) and therefore, in consideration of the Arbitration Act 1996, he did not allow the petition to proceed.