“Trust is essential to every commercial transaction. We neglect its fragility at our peril”, says Vince Cable in his foreword to the “Transparency & Trust” Government Response. Having read the Government’s proposals, I am inclined to repeat the often-cried warning that we neglect the ever-decreasing resources of the Insolvency Service at our peril. Although some of the Government’s proposals have the veneer of reducing the costs of disqualifying directors, whatever small gains are achieved will be wiped out by the hidden burdens that look to be added the Directorate.
It’s not all about the Insolvency Service, however. The Government has tagged on what appear as afterthoughts some ideas that will impact on IPs’ approaches to antecedent transaction challenges. These ideas are poorly covered in the Government Response – they escape all the Impact Assessments – and thus it is not surprising that R3 immediately commented on its “specific concerns” regarding these proposals (http://www.r3.org.uk/index.cfm?page=1114&element=19780).
The key objective of Cable’s “Transparency & Trust” drive is the creation of a public register of beneficial owners, but in this post I have summarise the more material plans that will affect insolvency work. The Government’s full response can be found at https://www.gov.uk/government/consultations/company-ownership-transparency-and-trust-discussion-paper.
Changes to the CDDA
The original proposals suggested that Schedule 1 of the CDDA, Matters for Determining Unfitness of Directors, might be added to in order to ensure that the following are taking into account in relation to disqualification orders and undertakings:
• Material breaches of “sectoral” regulation (especially the banking sector);
• The “wider social impacts” of a failure;
• Whether vulnerable creditors or those who had paid deposits had lost out in particular; and
• The director’s previous failures, possibly with a finite number of failures being allowed before unfitness is presumed.
The Government response accepts that simply adding to the Schedule 1 is not the solution, as directors might conclude that any factor not explicitly listed will not be taken into account. The response states: “we will recast a more generic set of factors that the court must take into account” (paragraph 222), although it also lists pretty-much the items described above, but with the exception of the X strikes and then you’re out idea, which does not appear to have made it through.
However, the paper does state that the court (or the Insolvency Service) will need to take into account “any previous positions as director of a company that has become insolvent and any relevant aspect of the director’s track record in running these companies… We are sympathetic to concerns we heard about the possible unwanted effect the inclusion of a ‘track record’ could have on those involved with early stage companies, or in rescuing companies that are in difficulties”, although I wonder at the depth of their sympathy: “We are clear that a director will, of course, be able to present any argument he or she might have (for instance as a business rescue professional or that the insolvency was not due to any element of unfit conduct on the director’s behalf)” (paragraph 225).
The consultation also sought views on whether – in fact, the consultation asked which – other “sectoral” regulators (again, looking mainly at the banking sector) should have the power to apply to court, or accept an undertaking direct, to disqualify a director. Although the ICAEW felt that this was appropriate, the Government’s response aligns more closely with R3’s response: disqualifications will remain with the Service, but the CDDA and gateways will be amended so that information might be exchanged more effectively, and there might be greater collaboration, between regulators. It has also suggested that expertise might be shared between regulators, which might include secondments.
The consultation proposed that the time period within which disqualification proceedings need to be commenced be increased from two years to five. The response explains that “views were mixed” (paragraph 279). However, I note that there was no support for any extension of the time period from R3, ICAEW or ICAS (the IPA did not respond – well, not the Insolvency Practitioners Association, but the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising did) – all three bodies noted that the BIS consultation document had stated that the two year timescale did not pose a barrier in the vast majority of cases and that the court can consider extensions. R3 also observed that five years would be a long time for an investigation to ‘hang’ over an individual and the ICAEW noted the potential difficulties if office holders needed to keep a case open for a long period. Despite these views, the Government proposes to increase the time limit to three years.
“Better Compensating Creditors for Director Misconduct”
The Transparency & Trust paper runs to 283 paragraphs, but this section, which contains the meaty proposed changes for IPs, runs to only 17 paragraphs! I don’t like that heading either…
The Government has expressed dissatisfaction with the fact that so few actions have been taken to challenge antecedent transactions. “Since 1986, there have only been
• around 30 reported wrongful trading cases;
• around 50 preference claims; and
• around 80 reported cases arising from undervalue transactions” (paragraph 260).
However, the response does not acknowledge that, as R3 pointed out in its response, many more cases are settled out of court. Neither does it acknowledge in any meaningful way that, in a great deal of other cases, the disqualified director simply has no money!
The Government’s proposed remedies are:
• To allow such causes of action to be sold or assigned to a third party “to increase the chances of action being taken against miscreant directors for the benefit of creditors” (paragraph 272); and
• To empower the Secretary of State to apply to court for a compensation order against, or to accept a compensation undertaking from, a director who has been disqualified.
The Government response barely makes a passing comment at some of the objections to these proposals raised by R3, the ICAEW, and ICAS, such as:
• Insolvency practitioners already have the means – and the duty and expertise – to pursue monies from errant directors, although the future of these is at risk when the insolvency exemption from the Jackson reforms ends.
• Why would a third party be any better equipped to take action than a liquidator?
• The possibility of a liquidator assigning their right to a claim already exists in Scotland.
• IPs are also limited in what they can achieve, as too few cases are being passed to IPs from the OR.
• Creditors’ returns may end up being lower, because a third party would only buy a claim in the expectation of making a profit.
• Third parties will not have the same investigative powers as liquidators.
• It would be impossible to prevent directors – or a friend etc. – from acquiring a claim with the intention of quashing it.
• It is difficult to see how assigning claims away from a liquidator to a third party intent on making a profit would increase confidence in the insolvency regime.
• It is difficult to see how compensation might be paid to anyone other than the company’s creditors via the office holder.
• If the Service were to distribute monies to creditors, it could duplicate the work done by the IP in adjudicating on claims, and the costs to the Service would be prohibitive. “The Insolvency Service would be better focusing its resources on disqualifying more directors rather than seeking to take on new activities such as distributing monies, which is already performed efficiently by insolvency practitioners” (R3).
• A compensatory award could prejudice civil claims being brought by the office holder (and, in my personal view, I could see a race develop between the IP and the Secretary of State, to see who gets their hands on the director’s limited purse first).
• “We do not think that the Insolvency Service has the resource to provide the evidence required to ensure a fair compensatory award upon which the Court can rule” (R3).
• The Service’s costs for bringing disqualification actions likely will increase substantially, and with fewer undertakings offered, given that directors will risk being pursued for compensation.
Despite these concerns, the Government is going to bring in these two remedies “when Parliamentary time allows”. Sales or assignments will be allowed of the following causes of action: fraudulent and wrongful trading – both of which will be extended to administrators to pursue (per the Red Tape Challenge outcomes); transactions at an undervalue; preferences; and extortionate credit transactions. The compensation awards/undertakings will be allowed by the court or the Secretary of State “to a particular creditor or group or class of creditors, or the creditors as a whole” (paragraph 274), although there is no mention as to how this may work in practice.
I shall leave the final word to the ICAEW, which, in its response to the consultation question on whether the proposal would improve confidence in the insolvency regime, stated: “We consider that confidence would be more likely to be improved if the Insolvency Service were resourced adequately to take disqualification action in every case where it appears to be justified.”