Faced with an apparent government vision of heavy-handed oversight over the RPBs and some peculiar restrictions on the time cost basis for IP fees, how have the RPBs and R3 responded? Have they resisted the pressure to offer some kind of compromise? Have they offered anything that might “solve the problems”? Here I have attempted to compare and contrast the responses of ACCA, ICAEW, ICAS, IPA and R3 to the key proposals of the recent consultation.
The government consultation page is at: https://www.gov.uk/government/consultations/insolvency-practitioner-regulation-and-fee-structure
The bodies’ responses are located at:
• ACCA: http://www.accaglobal.com/content/accaglobal/zw/en/technical-activities/technical-resources-search/2014/march/cdr1267.html
• ICAEW: http://www.icaew.com/en/technical/insolvency/insolvency-reps
• ICAS: http://icas.org.uk/Technical-Knowledge/Insolvency-Technical/Submissions/
• IPA: in the members’ area>public consultations>other consultations
• R3: https://www.r3.org.uk/media/documents/policy/consultation_subs/R3_response_-_Strengthening_the_regulatory_regime_and_fee_structure_for_IPs.pdf
In particular, I would recommend reading the R3 response in full, as there is not the space here to do it justice and it includes some valuable member survey results.
The government has proposed regulatory objectives for the statute-books, “framed” as follows:
1. Protecting and promoting the public interest
2. Having a system of regulating persons acting as IPs that:
(i) delivers fair treatment for persons affected by their actions and omissions,
(ii) reflects the regulatory principles under which regulatory activities should be transparent, accountable, proportionate, consistent and targeted only at cases in which action is needed, and any other principle considered to represent best regulatory practice, and
(iii) delivers consistent outcomes
3. Encouraging an independent and competitive IP profession whose members:
(i) deliver quality services transparently and with integrity, and
(ii) consider the interests of all creditors in any particular case
4. Promoting the maximisation of the value of returns to creditors and also promptness in making those returns
5. Ensuring that the fees charged by IPs represent value for money
ACCA seemed alone in considering most of the above to be “uncontentious”, even going so far as to suggest what it felt would be a useful addition to them. However, none of the proposed objectives avoided the other bodies’ critical eyes. Many of the comments revolved around the thought that any such objectives will need to be supported by detailed guidance so that everyone was clear on the standards by which IPs and the RPBs are being measured.
Here are some other fruitier comments:
• Why stop at “having a system of regulating IPs” that delivers fairness etc.? Aren’t some of these objectives appropriate to the insolvency regime itself? (ICAEW, IPA)
• Shouldn’t the regulation system “deliver fair treatment” also to IPs? (ICAEW)
• Fixing IP fees on a prescribed scale (reference to another of the consultation’s proposals) would not “encourage a competitive IP profession”. (ICAEW)
• Statute already sets out how office holders should consider creditors’ interests (ICAEW, R3), although not uniformly in all cases (IPA). Setting it as an objective may raise false hopes of some expecting greater weight to be given to their interests than provided by statute. (ICAEW)
• Promoting the “promptness of returns” could threaten consideration of longer term gains, thus encouraging a culture of “quick kills” rather than thorough investigation and pursuit of claims. (IPA)
• “You should recognise that to perform a ‘value for money’ assessment in a case will require a detailed audit… which will be a very time consuming (and therefore expensive) process.” (ICAEW)
• Setting “value for money” as a regulatory objective simply shifts the responsibility for finding a solution onto the RPBs, rather than helping to overcome the difficulties in ascertaining what actually represents value for money. (IPA)
• The regulatory process cannot alter the facts that creditors will suffer losses, but enshrining objectives 4 and 5 risks over-inflating creditors’ expectations and thus may have a detrimental effect on public confidence. (IPA)
R3 kicked back more robustly on the concept as a whole: “the proposals… prompt us to suggest that now is the time to look at, in a fundamental way, the role of the Insolvency Service, as presently structured, funded, resourced and whether it is the most appropriate body to direct and oversee as important a part of the UK’s financial support service sector as the insolvency profession”.
Oversight Regulator’s Statutory Powers over the RPBs
The government proposes to introduce statutory powers to enable the Insolvency Service/Secretary of State to take a variety of actions against RPBs and, in certain cases, to make their own enquiries of, and apply to court to decide sanctions on, IPs directly. Unsurprisingly, the RPBs – and perhaps a little surprisingly, R3 – expressed concerns over some of the proposals as well as questioning whether the powers were truly necessary (again with the clear exception of ACCA, which had few specific comments on the proposals).
• “The ‘oversight regulator’ should take care to avoid ‘micro-managing’ RPBs and their disciplinary processes. Effectively running a ‘shadow’ regulatory system on top of the existing established processes would be confusing and damaging for the insolvency profession and those it serves.” (R3)
• “The increased powers of sanction by the oversight body seem to be little more than window dressing to address non-existent illegal actions… In our view, the system of regulation operates at its most effective when the oversight regulator and the RPBs work together, as demonstrated through the introduction of the complaints gateway.” (ICAEW)
• “It is worrying that the Secretary of State would wish to acquire the ability to control individual enquiries, which could undermine the fairness of the procedure.” (ICAEW)
• “The fundamental problem… is that the proposed legislation does not envisage there being any stage at which a proper disciplinary hearing will be held to allow the IP to deal with and refute the findings of the Insolvency Service investigation and it is envisaged that the Secretary of State, through the good offices of the Insolvency Service would be investigator, prosecutor and judge (determining both guilt and sanction).” (ICAEW)
• “We wonder whether this process could be susceptible to challenge on the basis of human rights legislation given that there appears to be no provision for a fair trial by an independent tribunal.” (ICAEW)
• “Who picks up the likely significant costs?” If these are to be passed on to the RPBs, then licence fees will increase significantly, with the likely consequences of increased costs on insolvent estates and IPs leaving the market. (ICAEW and R3)
• “There are several proposals… that would see IPs potentially punished twice for the same transgression. It is both inequitable and a position that few other professionals could find themselves in.” (R3) The IPA also stated that such a process “would introduce a degree of double jeopardy and be contrary to principles of natural justice”. Although apparently the Service has clarified, in a meeting with the IPA, that it is not intended to subject an IP to a second disciplinary process, the IPA has questioned how, and in what circumstances, would the Service conduct such enquiries independent of the IP’s licensing body.
• “The power for the Secretary of State to sanction an IP directly calls into question the point of the regulation of the profession being delegated to RPBs in the first place.” (R3)
• As regards the proposed power to issue a direction to an RPB in the context of a disciplinary matter: “it would be wholly inappropriate for the Insolvency Service to mandate that a particular decision be reached.” (ICAS)
• Will the Service be adequately resourced – financially and with skilled staff – to exercise these new powers, particularly in regard to the proposed investigations and prosecutions? (R3 and ICAS)
A Single Regulator?
It seems that there has been a slight convergence of opinions of R3 and the RPBs on this question. Setting aside ACCA, which “endorsed” the proposal, the regulatory and trade bodies now seem united in their objection to the proposed reserve power to enable the Service to designate a single regulator.
However, whereas R3 brought attention to the “regulation gap” that would result as a single regulator got up to speed, the RPBs had other reasons for their objections:
• Whatever could be achieved by the Insolvency Service overseeing a single regulator equally should be achievable with multiple RPBs. Effective oversight is the key. (ICAS and ICAEW)
• “There seems to be a failure to recognise that many IPs are already members of bodies which operate with the best regulatory models for professionals.” (ICAS)
• “Competition between regulators has driven down licensing costs and led to improvements in RPBs’ offerings to their members. There would be no such incentive to innovate, were there to be a single regulatory body.” (IPA)
• The government is also proposing to introduce a formal process to de-recognise an RPB if it fails to perform, but how would that work with a single regulator? We could hardly be left with no regulator! (IPA)
• Providing even a reserve power “could be seen to demonstrate on the part of the Insolvency Service a lack of commitment to the changes proposed for the regulatory regime and a lack of confidence in its part in the RPBs.” (ICAEW)
R3 suggested a third way: a “Single Regulatory Process”, which “would reduce significantly the inconsistencies that currently exist in the insolvency profession’s regulation” and “would also be a chance to take a fresh look at the profession’s regulatory processes and standards”.
Restriction of Use of Time Cost Basis
I wonder if the Service had any inkling of the floodgate they were prising open with the suggestion that the option of seeking fees on a time cost basis be limited to certain cases. Even ACCA is opposed to this one!
The core objections will not come as a surprise:
• If the primary issue is lack of creditor engagement, then the solution should lie in improving creditor engagement, starting with the Crown creditors. (ACCA, ICAS, ICAEW)
• “Some IPs may feel minded for their own commercial protection to factor in more work than might in the event be necessary, in which case fees could end up being over-estimated.” (ACCA; similar comments made by R3)
• In 2013, only 2% of all complaints related to fees, so perhaps creditors’ concern is not so acute as perceived by the government, and any action taken to change the existing regime must be proportionate. (ACCA, R3, ICAEW, ICAS)
• Plenty of criticisms of the OFT study: out of date, limited scope (which is now being extrapolated far beyond its remit), confusion between fees and costs, assumption that engaged creditors are the only constraint on fees, etc… (primarily R3 and ICAEW)
• IPs will avoid small and risky cases, as a fixed/percentage fee would not be economical. (R3, ACCA) [Although I have heard this many times, personally I don’t get it (unless people have in mind a prescribed rate): for a case with assets of £10,000 (net of non-IP costs), how does an IP’s recovery differ, if he is paid on a time cost basis, a fixed fee of £10,000, or a fee of 100% of the first £10,000 (net) realised?]
• This would burden the public purse, as uneconomic cases will remain with the OR. Some IPs also would leave the market, resulting in reduced competition and fewer options for debtors seeking help, which would seem contrary to the public interest. (R3, ICAEW)
• Fixed fees do not incentivise IPs to pursue tricky assets or to carry out non-profitable tasks. What does an IP do when he reaches the limit but still has work to do; is he expected to work for no pay? (ACCA, R3, ICAS, ICAEW, IPA)
• As recommended by the Cork Report, percentage-based fees were largely dropped in the 1980s, as they were viewed as unfair and inequitable to creditors. (ACCA, R3) “There is nothing inherently fair in a basis of charging where the results depend upon the amount and quality of realisable assets, rather than the work required.” (ICAEW) Arguably, time costs are the fairest fees mechanism (ICAEW), whereas fixed/percentage fees will invariably result in an element of cross-subsidisation of cases. (IPA)
• There is no evidence – or reason – to support the assumption that adopting fixed/percentage fees will reduce fee levels (IPA) or creditors’ returns (ICAEW).
But here are some of the more impassioned and novel comments:
• This specific proposal has no grounding in the Kempson review nor has there been any evidence-based research. “The Insolvency Service has disclosed the rationale behind this decision is solely ‘because two methods of remuneration are simpler than three’.” (R3)
• “R3 is not aware of anywhere else in the world where fee restrictions as outlined in the consultation are in operation. In effect, the Insolvency Service proposes to introduce an untested system of IP remuneration in the UK.” (R3)
• Secured creditors have the power to negotiate discounts from IPs, but why must that mean that unsecured creditors are ‘over-charged’? If a large customer (such as the government via its own procurement policy) sought to obtain discounts, that does not mean that other buyers of the goods and services are automatically being ‘over-charged’. (R3)
• Is a 9% differential in costs (the OFT study’s conclusion) really concerning? “The differential, for instance, between prices charged for consumer goods to wholesale or retail customers could be expected to be much higher (and still not exploitative of consumers).” (ICAEW)
• Restricting fees could result in outsourcing of parts of the job to unregulated entities, shifting the cost rather than reducing it and resulting in less transparency and control. (R3)
• “It is simplistic to think that changes introduced in the personal insolvency market can be imported into the corporate sector; this view demonstrates a complete lack of understanding of corporate insolvency, This market cannot be ‘commoditised’ in the same way.” (R3)
• If creditors have difficulty assessing the reasonableness of fees based on time costs, they will have the same, if not greater, difficulty judging fixed/percentage fees, something acknowledged by Professor Kempson. (R3)
• There is no reason to believe that restricting the use of the time cost basis in this manner will impact on creditor engagement or complaints about fees. (R3)
• RICS abolished fee scales for valuations after the Monopolies and Mergers Commission concluded that “they restricted competition and worked against consumers and were against the public interest”. (ICAEW)
• It is difficult to reconcile the government’s apparent determination to improve public confidence in the insolvency regime with the World Bank’s report that shows the UK currently as one of the most effective jurisdictions for resolving insolvency. (ICAEW)
• “If the aim of the Insolvency Service is to reduce IPs’ fees in aggregate to a break-even level, it seems unlikely that a high quality profession will be sustained.” (ICAEW)
• The Impact Assessment identifies the risk that the OR might be left with more small-value cases, but the Assessment’s suggestion “that the concerns will be ‘overcome’ through regulatory objectives of RPBs and monitoring is fanciful. The consequences would result from a fee regime imposed upon the profession by the government and RPBs would not be in a position to do anything about it.” (ICAEW)
• Professor Kempson recommended greater use of mixed bases for fees, but the government is proposing to abolish this. (IPA) [Mixed bases were only introduced in 2010!]
• The government wishes RPBs to engage more actively in monitoring and assessment of fees, but this will be more difficult in non-time cost cases. (IPA)
• The 2010 reforms and revised SIP9 are still fresh, but “the Insolvency Service appears already to have concluded that those reforms failed.” (ICAEW)
• Proposals to provide different fee bases for different case types, recovery prospects, and UK jurisdictions will do nothing to clarify an already-confusing picture for creditors. (ICAEW)
The bodies’ suggestions of alternative approaches are a mixed bag (some of which, personally, I find a bit scary! But hey, a bit of brain-storming is no bad thing.):
• Greater engagement by Crown creditors (pretty-much everyone’s idea).
• Reduce the constraints on creditors’ committees, e.g. smaller quorum. (ICAS)
• Encourage committee members, e.g. small payments for attending meetings. (ICAEW)
• Introduce a Scottish-style Reporter mechanism across the UK (the consultation stated that the Scottish system’s checks and balances appeared to work reasonably well). (ICAS)
• Require IPs “to justify to creditors and regulators their use of the hourly rate, by reference to prescribed criteria”. (ACCA)
• “More targeted support… to creditors to enable them to assess the reasonableness of the amounts being claimed.” (ACCA)
• “Improved management of creditor expectations, through creditor guides, fee estimates and estimated outcome statements.” (IPA)
• “Enhanced capital requirements and/or direct financial contribution by directors to the basic costs of insolvency processes.” (IPA) [Interesting idea, but isn’t there a risk of conflict with this..?]
• Fixing a minimum fee for those statutory elements of an insolvency administration that will generally not be of direct financial benefit to creditors.” (IPA, similar suggestion by R3)
• “Data collection and benchmarking of fee data.” (IPA) [And..?]
• “Guidance and/or compulsion of IPs to make greater use of mixed fee bases for different elements of the work involved within an insolvency administration. The onus could be put on the IP to justify why the basis sought is appropriate to the nature of assets, the complexity of the task and the value that it is estimated will result.” (IPA) [But does this follow, given some of the arguments against fixed/percentage fees..?]
• Better explanation by IPs up-front of the likelihood (or not) of dividends and of the work that will need to be carried out that will not generate direct financial benefits. (IPA)
• Adjusting the requisite voting majorities so that greater creditor participation is required. (IPA) [Why penalise IPs for creditors’ inactivity?]
• Encouraging cheaper ways of conducting “meetings”, e.g. by telephone, e-meetings, or resolutions by correspondence. (ICAEW)
• Drop the Red Tape Challenge proposal to remove the requirement to hold creditors’ meetings. (R3)
• More/better guides for creditors, similar to those that the Insolvency Service already provides for debtors facing bankruptcy. (ICAEW, R3)
• More transparency/information regarding the costs to insolvent estates by the Insolvency Service, as creditors/debtors often confuse these with IPs’ fees. (R3)
• Trade bodies should help members to understand insolvency – and how to avoid it or becoming a creditor in an insolvency – better. (ICAEW)
• All relevant Insolvency Service officials should work in an IP firm for a minimum of two weeks per year as ‘on the job/CPD training’ to plug the apparent knowledge gap, given the lack of understanding of the insolvency profession evidenced by the consultation proposals. (R3) [Ooh!]
• Greater use of cost-saving measures of 2010 Rules and more time to allow them to have effect. (R3)
• “IPs should also be required to report work with more transparency, e.g. break down time-use clearly into constituent parts such as ‘communicating with x number of creditors to establish a meeting’.” (R3) [Ooer! Can we try to keep it relatively simple and proportionate..?]
• “Introducing elements of a Code of Practice for IPs (based on the model in Australia) plus changes to SIP9 could be introduced to ensure that IPs’ records of time spent (and corresponding fees on a case) are transparent and accountable.” (R3) [In what ways is the current SIP9 deficient in this area..? R3 points to the Australian part of the MF Global case report as a good example; this report provides a fee estimate of $1 million for the first month – is R3 sure this is an appropriate model for typical (non-secured creditor) cases?] R3 suggests that in this way IPs would explain the work done “in more detail” and “reporting would be clearer”.
The most widely-made suggestion as regards fee-setting is the mandatory use of fee estimates (ACCA, IPA, ICAEW, R3), with some bodies suggesting express creditor approval for exceeding an estimate could be required (IPA, R3; ACCA: “perhaps”). I’m attracted to this idea as well, but, although I agree with the idea of seeking creditors’ approval for fees in excess of an estimate, I would hope that this could be done without necessarily positive creditor response; if creditors do not respond to an invitation to vote, then is it fair to penalise the IP? It could also impact on creditors’ returns, as silence may force the IP to take further measures, perhaps by court application, to achieve approval. It might also be more likely to encourage a poor habit of over-estimating fees in the first instance, so that IPs can avoid the hassle of seeking approval to more fees later. There are many issues with this suggestion – some will complain that it is well-nigh impossible to estimate fees with any degree of confidence at an early stage – but it has to be the lesser of several suggested evils, hasn’t it? In addition, isn’t it a standard and professional way of approaching fees? After all, don’t we usually seek fees estimates – with subsequent approval for uplifts – from many suppliers, from solicitors to garage mechanics?
Regulatory Intervention in Matters of Remuneration
The consultation also sought views on proposals to have the RPBs take a greater role in assessing and deciding on fees issues, via both enhanced monitoring and dealing with complaints about the quantum of fees. Most RPBs pointed out that IP fees are already considered to a significant extent; the ICAEW described it this way: “reviewers already look in detail at the insolvency practitioner’s time records. They will question the time recorded against specific tasks, where it doesn’t appear commensurate with the work evidenced on the case files; where it appears to have been carried out by a more experienced member of staff than we would consider appropriate; or where it appears excessive.”
As regards the suggestion that RPBs should do more than look at clear regulatory breaches:
• “To suggest that RPB bodies should step into the breach – even if one exists in relation to IP remuneration – will not address the issue without a sincere attempt by the UK Government to review the legislation. Regulators should not be asked to circumvent or overrule the law and to do so will inevitably expose the regulators to legal challenge.” (ICAS; ICAEW also highlighted the risks of Court challenge of RPBs’ judgments)
• “We are unclear on what basis an RPB could interject when the fee basis has been approved by a statutory process. This would be a usurpation of Court’s powers.” (IPA)
• “If 90% of creditors have approved as IPs fees, it does not appear reasonable to allow a minority financial interest to delay the administration of an estate.” (IPA)
Whilst the IPA is “opposed to routine regulatory involvement in fee assessment”, it seems more open to the idea that more could be done practically: it suggested that, if the idea of fee estimates were taken up, it could engage in “routine monitoring of practitioner performance” against these estimates. It also stated: “we can see no reason why, in a case of apparent excessive charging, the RPB could not direct the practitioner to repay such fees as exceed the original estimate provided or else direct the IP to have their fees assessed by a Court”, although the IPA does seem to be alone in this view.
It seems clear from the responses that there is much confusion amongst the bodies as to exactly what the government is proposing; simply dropping in a “value for money” regulatory objective and telling RPBs to get on with it will not work. The IPA remarked: “The regulatory challenges presented flow from the entirely subjective nature of establishing what value for money is and in whose opinion such value should be ascertained. The government has been singularly unable to define these concepts and appears now to expect the RPBs to be able to do so on their behalf… Will a full review of time spent and how this compares to the fixed or percentage fees charged be required? Will on-site visits to review practitioners’ files be expected?” The ICAEW also stated that, if the idea is for “RPBs to effectively conclude on each file reviewed that the IP’s costs represent value for money, we would expect there to be a significant impact on our monitoring costs; potentially doubling them.” However, the ICAEW seems to have been party to a meeting with the Consultation Policy Lead that has led them to conclude that all that is envisaged of RPBs as regards “enhanced monitoring” is pretty-much what they are already doing. One would hope that the Service could do better at communicating their desires to the bodies that they directly oversee!
In summary, I don’t think the turkeys have voted for Christmas. I think they have resisted well the pressure to seek a compromise, but have endeavoured to keep their eye focussed on what truly appears to be the issue – creditor engagement – and what practically might be done to improve the situation.