Insolvency Oracle

Developments in UK insolvency by Michelle Butler


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The Insolvency Service’s labours for transparency produce fruits

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The Insolvency Service has been busy over the past months producing plenty of documents other than the consultations. Here, I review the following:

  • First newsletter;
  • Report on its visit to the SoS-IP monitoring unit;
  • Summary of its oversight function of the RPBs;
  • IVA Standing Committee minutes; and
  • Complaints Gateway report.

The Insolvency Service’s first newsletter

http://content.govdelivery.com/accounts/UKIS/bulletins/d469cc

Although this is a bit of a PR statement, a couple of crafty comments have been slipped in.

The newsletter explains that the Service’s “IP regulation function has been strengthened and we have raised the bar on our expectations of authorising bodies”. I started off sceptical but to be fair the Service’s summary of how it carries out its oversight function of the authorising bodies – https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/insolvency-practitioner-regulation-oversight-and-monitoring-of-authorising-bodies – does convey a more intensive Big Brother sense than the Principles for Monitoring alone had done previously.  This document puts more emphasis on their risk-based assessments, desk-top monitoring and themed reviews, as well as targeting topical areas of concern, which can only help to provide a better framework in which their physical monitoring visits to the RPBs can sit.

I commend the Service for establishing more intelligent regulatory processes, but two sentences of the newsletter stick in the throat: “We saw the impact that our changing expectations had in a few areas. Things deemed acceptable a few years ago were now being picked up as areas for improvement.” This is a reference to its report on the visit to its own people who monitor SoS-authorised IPs, the Insolvency Practitioner Services (“IPS”): https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/monitoring-activity-reports-of-insolvency-practitioner-authorising-bodies.  Having worked in the IPA’s regulatory department from 2005 to 2012, I would like to assure readers that many of the items identified in the Service’s report on IPS have been unacceptable for many years – at least to the IPA during my time and most probably to the other RPBs (I am as certain as I can be of that without having worked at the RPBs myself).

I am aghast at the Service’s apparent suggestion that the following recent discoveries at the IPS were acceptable a few years ago:

  • A 5-year visit cycle with insufficient risk assessment to justify a gap longer than 3 years;
  • Visits to new appointment-takers not carried out within 12 months and no evidence of risk assessment to justify this;
  • No evidence that one IP’s receipt of more than 1,000 complaints in the previous year (as disclosed in the pre-visit questionnaire) was raised during the visit, nor was it considered in any detail in the report;
  • No evidence of website checks (which the Service demanded of the RPBs many years ago);
  • “Little evidence that compliance with SIP16 is being considered”;
  • “No evidence that relevant ethical checklists and initial meeting notes from cases had been considered”; and
  • “Once a final report has been sent to the IP, there does not appear to be any process whereby the findings of the report are considered further by IPS”.

Still, that’s enough of the past. The Service has now thrown down the gauntlet.  I shall be pleased if they now prove they can parry and thrust with intelligence and effectiveness.

Worthy of note is that the newsletter explains that, in future, sanctions handed down to IPs by the RPBs will be published on the Service’s website (presumably more contemporaneously than within its annual reviews).

IVA Standing Committee Minutes 17 July 2014

https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/minutes-from-the-iva-standing-committee-july-2014

“Standardised Format”

The minutes report that the IPA will have a final version – of what? Presumably a statutory annual report template? – within “a couple of weeks” and that two Committee members will draft a Dear IP article (there’s a novelty!) to explain that use of the standard is not mandatory.

Income and Expenditure Assessments

The minutes recorded that Money Advice Service had been preparing for consultation a draft I&E statement – which seems to be an amalgam of the CFS and the StepChange budget with the plan that it will be used for all/a number of debt solutions. The consultation was opened on 16 October: https://www.moneyadviceservice.org.uk/en/static/standard-financial-statement-consultation

IVA Protocol Equity Clause

As a consequence of concerns raised by an adviser about the equity clause, DRF has agreed to “draft a response” – it seems this is only intended to go to the adviser who had written in, although it would seem to me to have wider interest – “to clarify the position, which is that a person will not be expected to go to a subprime lender and the importance of independent financial advice”. It is good to have that assurance, but what exactly does the IVA Protocol require debtors to do in relation to equity?  Does the Protocol clause need revising, I wonder.

Resistance to refunding dividends when set-off applied

I see the issue: a creditor receives dividends and then sets off mis-sold PPI compensation against their remaining debt. Consequently, it could be argued that the creditor has been overpaid a dividend and should return (some of) it.  The minutes state that “it is a complicated issue and different opinions prevail” (well, there’s a revelation!), although it has been raised with the FCA.

Variations

It seems that the Committee has only just cottoned on to the fact that the Protocol does not allow the supervisor to decide whether a variation meeting should be called, so they are to look at re-wording the standard terms to “give supervisor discretion as to whether variation is appropriate so when one is called it is genuine and in these instances the supervisor will be entitled to get paid”.

I’m sorry if I sound a little despairing at this, not least because of course the cynic may see this as yet another avenue for IPs to make some easy money! It was something that I’d heard about when I was at the IPA – that some IPs were struggling with IVA debtors who wanted, say, to offer a full and final settlement to the creditors that the IP was confident would be rejected by creditors, but under the Protocol terms it seemed that they had no choice but to pass the offer to creditors.  I’m just surprised that this issue has not yet been resolved.

Recent pension changes

The minutes simply state: “InsS to enquire with colleagues as to how it is planned to treat these in bankruptcy and feed back”. About time too!  Shortly after the April proposals had been first announced, I’d read articles questioning whether the government had thought about how any lump sum – which from next April could be the whole pension pot – would be treated in a bankruptcy.  Presumably, legislation will be drafted to protect this pot from a Trustee’s hands, but that depends on the drafter getting it right.  The lesson of Raithatha v Williamson comes to mind…

Well, I’m assuming that this is what the Committee minutes refer to, anyway.

Report on the First Year of the Complaints Gateway

https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/insolvency-practitioner-complaints-gateway-report-august-2014

Aha, so Dr Judge has been able to spin an increased number of complaints as evidence that the gateway “is meeting the aim of making the complaints process easier to understand and use”! I wonder if, had the number of complaints decreased, his message might have been that insolvency regulation had played a part in raising standards so that there were fewer causes for complaint.

The report mentions that the Service is “continuing dialogue” with the SRA and Law Society of Scotland to try to get them to adopt the gateway.

The Service still seems to be hung up about the effectiveness of the Insolvency Code of Ethics (as I’d mentioned in an earlier post, http://wp.me/p2FU2Z-6I) and have reported their “findings” to the JIC “to assist with its review into this area”.

The Service also seems to have got heavy with the RPBs about complaints on delayed IVA closures due to ongoing PPI refunds. The ICAEW and the IPA “have agreed to take forward all cases for investigation” – because, of course, some complaints are closed at assessment stage on the basis that the complaints reviewer has concluded that there is no case to answer (i.e. it is not that these complaints do not get considered at all) – “where the delay in closing the IVA exceeds six months from the debtor’s final payment”.  Does this mean that the general regulator view is that any delay under 6 months is acceptable?  Hopefully, this typical Service measure of setting unprincipled boundaries will not result in a formulaic approach to dealing with all complaints about delayed closure of IVAs.  And, although the other RPBs may license a smaller proportion of IVA-providing IPs, I wonder what their practices are…

The report also explains that the Service has persuaded the ICAEW to modify its approach a little in relation to complaints resolved by conciliation. Now, such a complaint will still be considered in the context of any regulatory breaches committed by the IP.  Years ago, the Service urged the RPBs to consider whether they could make greater use of financial compensation (or even simply requiring an IP to write an apology) in their complaints processes, but there was some resistance because it seemed that the key objective of the regulatory complaints process – to pick up IPs failing to meet standards – was at risk of getting lost: might some IPs be persuaded to agree a swift end to a complaint, if it meant that less attention would be paid to it?  To be fair, this has always been an IP’s option: he can always satisfy the complainant before they ever approach the regulator.  However, now settling a complaint after it has started on the Gateway path may not be the end of it for the IP, whichever RPB licenses him.

The Statistics

I think that the stats have been more than adequately covered by other commentaries. In any event, I found it difficult to draw any real conclusions from them in isolation, but they also don’t add much to the picture presented in the Insolvency Service’s 2013 annual review.  That’s not to say, however, that this report has no use; at the very least, it will serve as a reference point for the future.

Ok, the complaints number has increased, but it does seem that the delayed IVA closure due to PPI refunds is an exceptional issue at the moment. Given that the IPA licenses the majority of IPs who carry out IVAs, it is not surprising therefore that the IPA has the largest referred-complaint per IP figure: 0.63, compared to 0.54 over all the authorising bodies (although the SoS is barely a whisker behind at 0.62).  My personal expectation, however, is that the Insolvency Service’s being seen as being more involved in the complaints process via the Gateway alone may sustain slightly higher levels of complaints in the longer term, as perceived victims may not be so quick to assume that the RPB/IP relationship stacks the odds so heavily against them receiving a fair hearing.

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How risky is it to act contrary to a creditors’ committee’s wishes and other questions…

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  • Re. Brilliant Independent Media Specialists – will the court approve an Administrator’s fees when he acts contrary to the committee’s wishes?
  • Co-operative Bank v Phillips – is it an abuse of process for a charge-holder to seek possession of a property in negative equity?
  • Harlow v Creative Staging – when might a winding-up petition suspended on a QFCH appointment of Administrators come in handy?
  • JSC Bank of Moscow v Kekhman – in the absence of Russian personal bankruptcy law, is forum-shopping in England one of the “legitimate kind”?
  • Bank of Scotland v Waugh – what is the effect on Receivers where the charge has not been validly executed as a deed but has still been registered?
  • Airtours Holidays Transport v HMRC – what decides whether a company can reclaim the VAT paid on accountants’ review fees?
  • SoS v Weston – if a criminal court declines to disqualify directors, would the SoS have any better luck in the High Court?

Court fixes fees of Administrators who acted contrary to the committee’s wishes

Maxwell & Sadler v Brookes & Ors, Re Brilliant Independent Media Specialists Limited (23 September 2014) ([2014] EWHC B11 (Ch))http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWHC/Ch/2014/B11.html

The Administrators’ Proposals were approved with a modification that the Administration move to CVL within 6 months of the commencement of the Administration; the Liquidators were to be different IPs to the Administrators.

The 6-month time period ended on 31 May 2012. Immediately before this, the Administrators convened a creditors’ meeting to approve revised proposals providing that the Administration would move to CVL within 28 days of resolution of an issue regarding the quantum of a secured creditor’s claim.  The revised proposals were rejected and on 18 June 2012 the Administrators applied for directions.  Before this was heard, settlement was reached with the secured creditor and the Administration moved to CVL on 12 August 2012.

The Administrators’ fees had been approved on a time costs basis but the creditors’ committee refused to approve that the Administrators draw fees in relation to time costs incurred after 18 February 2012 (having approved fees incurred prior to this date). The committee asserted that it was never envisaged that the Administrators would carry out the vast amount of work for which remuneration was claimed; the committee felt that the Administrators should have worked simply to bring their appointment to an end and allow the Liquidators to fully investigate matters.  Consequently, the Administrators applied for the court to fix their fees.

Mr Registrar Jones’ consideration addressed a number of areas:

  •  Did the Administrators’ actions fall outside the approved Proposals?

The judge stated that “whilst the views of a creditors’ committee should be taken into account during an administration.., it is not for the committee to determine how the administration should be conducted. That is a decision for the office holder in performance of the duties and powers Parliament has thought fit to entrust to administrators. The outcome of such decision making… will depend upon the office holder’s assessment of how best to achieve the purpose of the administration in accordance with the powers conferred upon them by paragraph 59 of Schedule B1 and within Schedule 1 to the Act” (paragraph 26).

The judge then had to consider whether the work done by the Administrators was for the purposes of the Administration objective or otherwise formed part of the Administrators’ duties and responsibilities. He said: There will always be grey areas when deciding whether work will result in a better return and therefore should be carried out. It will not be a black and white scenario with a plain dividing line. The decision will depend upon all the circumstances and involve commercial judgment calls by the office holder in the exercise of his powers.  The court will normally not question the commercial judgments of an administrator. Usually a misunderstanding of law or apparent unfairness or a breach of duty will be required before the court will review such judgments” (paragraphs 30.6 and 30.7).  Consequently, the judge stated that it could not be concluded that the Administrators’ actions fell outside the Proposals.  He felt that this applied even in relation to activities that were not expressly referred to in the Proposals, such as in this case debt recovery efforts, given that a delay in recovery actions usually results in lower realisations.

  • Were the Administrators entitled to be paid fees for the period after the 6-month timescale when the approved Proposals provided for the move to CVL?

The judge recognised the commercial decisions taken by the Administrators in seeking to resolve the issue regarding the secured creditor’s claim, acknowledging that any delay would have been disadvantageous given the high interest rate attached to the debt. Consequently, the judge considered that the decision could not be described as “perverse” and it was a decision that “fell within the parameters of their commercial decision making powers” (paragraph 36.4).  However, the judge disagreed that the move to CVL could not have been done within the 6-month period; he felt that there were always more than enough funds to set aside to cover the maximum amount of the secured creditor’s claim plus interest.

  • Were the Administrators entitled to be paid fees after they had ceased to act, given that they worked to assist the Liquidators?

The Administrators sought approval for costs incurred in relation to a number of tasks including answering the Liquidators’ enquiries, assisting in the recovery of a director’s loan, other debts and overpayments, and dealing with the committee’s questions. The judge’s view was that R2.106 was limited only to remuneration of the Administrator whilst in office.  Therefore, the judge declined to fix the remuneration after the termination of the Administrators’ appointment, stating: “that is a matter between the Administrators and the liquidators” (paragraph 43).

  • What about the quantum of fees sought?

Then the judge turned to the detail of the Administrators’ application. The judge referred to the Practice Direction (2012) and in particular paragraph 20.4 as providing guidance on the information required to support the fees application and the judgment suggests that in a number of places the Administrators’ evidence failed to satisfy the judge as regards “briefly describing what was involved, why it was necessary and why it took the time it did” (paragraph 47).

For example, the Administrators sought fees of £23,473 in relation to “PKF/BDO Review”. The Administrator’s witness statement referred to the need to investigate potential claims quickly and early and thus such work could lead to actions that would produce a better outcome for creditors.  However, the judge observed: “This is wholly unspecific. There is no narrative describing and explaining the work, whether as to what it was or specifically as to why it was justified under the Objective” (paragraph 50.40).  The judge did not award any remuneration in relation to this activity.

The result of the judge’s examination of each task for which remuneration was sought was that, from a starting point request to fix fees at £389,341, fees of only £233,147 were approved.

The downsides of discontinuances

The Co-operative Bank Plc v Phillips (21 August 2014) ([2014] EWHC 2862 (Ch))

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWHC/Ch/2014/2862.html

The Bank, having a second charge over the debtor’s properties, demanded payment from Mr Phillips as guarantor of a loan to his company. Notwithstanding that Mr Phillips’ IVA Proposal (which was approved) showed that the properties attracted negative equity after the first charge, the Bank commenced possession proceedings.  Mr Phillips applied for the claims to be struck out or dismissed as an abuse of process.  The Bank later served a notice of discontinuance and the principal questions for the court related to the treatment of the costs arising from the process.

The court was asked to consider whether the Bank was seeking possession of the properties for a collateral purpose beyond its powers as a chargee and whether the Bank’s claims to possession were an abuse of process. Despite the fact that it appeared the Bank would not gain any benefit from selling the properties (although there was some argument that the Bank might have been able to raise rental income from its possession), the judge felt that the pressure on the charger and his family resulting from the possession proceedings was neither a collateral purpose outwith the Bank’s powers nor an abuse of process.  Ultimately, the proceedings were brought for the purpose of obtaining repayment of the sums secured by the charge.

However, although the charge entitled the Bank to recover its costs incurred “in taking, perfecting, enforcing or exercising (or attempting to perfect, enforce or exercise) any power under the charge” (paragraph 8), the judge decided that the Bank’s own costs, together with its liability to pay Mr Phillips’ costs arising from the discontinuance of the proceeding, were not reasonably incurred and therefore were not recoverable under the charge: “The Bank got absolutely nothing out of these proceedings, which have been a waste of time and expense from its point of view” (paragraph 75).

Finally, because the Bank had started the proceedings after Mr Phillips’ IVA had been approved, the Bank was unable to set off its liability to pay Mr Phillips’ costs against its claim in the IVA, per clause 7(4) of the IVA’s Standard Conditions (which appear to have been R3’s standard conditions).

Suspended Petition comes home to haunt the Petitioner

Harlow v Creative Staging Limited, Re. Blak Pearl Limited (23 July 2014) ([2014] EWHC 2787 (Ch))

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWHC/Ch/2014/2787.html

The Administrator had applied for the ending of the Administration, together with the dismissal of the application of Creative Staging Limited to withdrawn its winding-up petition (which, under Paragraph 40(1)(b) of Schedule B1, had been suspended on the appointment of the Administrator by the QFCH), the dismissal of the application of another creditor to be substituted as petitioner, and finally for a winding-up order on the original petition.

Why was the Administrator so keen to have the suspended petition revived, rather than to petition for the winding-up himself under Para 79? If a winding-up order were made on the original petition, then S127 would kick in to make certain pre-Administration payments (including a payment of £88,000 to the original petitioner) vulnerable to attack.  However, if the Administrator were to seek a winding-up order on a new petition, S127 would only apply from the date of presentation of the new petition.

The judge was reluctant to go to the lengths of substituting the petitioner, which would only incur additional costs. He felt that there was sufficient precedent and support under S122 enabling a court to make a winding-up order without a petition and thus the court had jurisdiction to make a winding-up order on the existing petition and under the powers of Para 79(4)(d).  The judge said (although, personally, I do wonder if he is crediting Parliament with a little too much foresight): “In all the circumstances it does seem to me that this court ought to recognise that Parliament must have intended to keep the petition in being for a reason and one of the reasons is so that an order might be made on the suspended petition, taking advantage of the doctrine of relation back, despite any objections of the Petitioner” (paragraph 53).  Thus, he allowed the appeal, waived all procedural requirements that had not otherwise been complied with, and granted the winding-up order.

Russian bankruptcy tourist entitled to escape “law of the jungle”

JSC Bank of Moscow & Anor v Kekhman & Ors (9 April 2014) (not yet reported on BAILII)

http://cisarbitration.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/08/UK-High-Court-in-Buncruptcy-Bank-of-Moscow-and-Sberbank-Leasing-v-Vladimir-Kekhman-and-others-Judgment-April-2014.pdf

At the time of his bankruptcy petition and afterwards, Mr Kekhman was a Russian citizen, domiciled and resident in the Russian Federation. He had disclosed in the petition that he was going to remain in England for only two days and he wished to be made bankrupt in England, as he had been advised that there is no personal bankruptcy law in the Russian Federation and, in view of the international reach of his affairs, “the English jurisdiction as a sophisticated jurisdiction in these matters appears appropriate to help resolve my affairs in an orderly manner that will be recognised internationally” (paragraph 11).

The matter returned to Registrar Baister, who had made the bankruptcy order, in the format of applications by two major creditors to annul or rescind the bankruptcy on the basis, amongst others, that Mr Kekhman was a ‘bankruptcy tourist’ to England, a place with which he has no real connection, in an attempt to evade Russian law. One of the creditors also contended that, contrary to Mr Kekhman’s indications that his English bankruptcy would be recognised in Russia, Russia would not recognise or enforce the bankruptcy order, which bound Mr Kekhman’s English creditors, whilst allowing his other creditors to collect in his substantial Russian assets.

Registrar Baister mentioned that, particularly in corporate contexts, “the courts here are prepared to countenance what is in reality forum shopping, albeit of a positive, by which I mean legitimate, kind… I do not see why a debtor whose petition is not governed by that restrictive jurisdictional regime should not also be able to invoke an available jurisdiction for a self-serving purpose, provided of course, that he does so properly and there are no countervailing factors to which equivalent or greater weight should be given” (paragraph 104).

Baister summarised Mr Kekhman’s connections with England, largely involving contracts providing for English law and English jurisdiction. He also put some emphasis on the purpose of bankruptcy being the debtor’s rehabilitation, observing that plenty of bankruptcy orders have been granted on English debtors’ petitions in cases where there were no likelihoods of recoveries for creditors. In any event in this case, the report of the Trustee in Bankruptcy, which explained that he was continuing to pursue certain assets, persuaded the judge that there was “utility” in the bankruptcy, Baister did not consider that utility necessarily required there to be a distribution to creditors; he found the prospect of an orderly realisation of the debtor’s assets “more attractive and more constructive that the law of the jungle advocated” by Counsel for the creditors (paragraph 141).

Baister reviewed the expert testimony of three prominent Russian academic lawyers and concluded on the balance of probabilities that the English bankruptcy order was unlikely to be recognised or enforced by the Russian courts. However, this conclusion seemed to work in Mr Kekhman’s favour: the judge noted that “if the English bankruptcy will never be recognised in Russia, then the free-for-all can continue over there in relation to the few assets that might be left over after execution; as to assets elsewhere, all the creditors will be in the same position vis-à-vis one another” (paragraph 142).

Although Baister stated that the arguments were “finely balanced”, he decided that the utility of the bankruptcy order was not outweighed by the creditors’ current complaints, “so that even if this court had known the true position regarding the problems of recognition and resulting from the arrest of the Russian assets, it still could and probably would have made the bankruptcy order on the basis that there was commercial subject matter on which it could operate, it would have enabled Mr Kekhman’s affairs to be looked into, made possible an orderly realisation of his non-Russian assets and assisted his own financial rehabilitation even if only outside the Russian Federation” (paragraph 144).

(UPDATE 14/03/15: JSC Bank’s appeal was dismissed: http://goo.gl/BkoIxd.  Although the judge agreed that the Chief Registrar had not applied the correct test, the appeal judge made his own decision that the bankruptcy order ought to have been made.  A more detailed summary of the appeal will be posted soon.)

Bank and Receivers entitled to rely on registration of a deficient deed

Bank of Scotland Plc v Waugh & Ors (21 July 2014) ([2014] EWHC 2117 (Ch))

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWHC/Ch/2014/2117.html

The Bank pursued repayment of a loan to a Trust and appointed Receivers over a property. Some time later, the Trustees applied to the Registry for cancellation of the charge over the property on the basis that the charge did not comply with the Law of Property (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1989, primarily because none of the signatures on the charge were attested.  Subsequently, the Bank applied for summary judgment that the Trustees be estopped from denying the validity of the charge.

The judge agreed that the charge had not been validly executed as a deed and therefore it was void for the purpose of conveying or creating a legal estate. However, the charge had been registered.  “The effect of registration of the charge was to create a charge by deed by way of legal mortgage” (paragraph 66) but if the Trustees were successful in having the register rectified, this would only operate for the future, not retrospectively.  “It follows that acts (such as the appointment of Receivers) carried out by the Bank under the charge prior to any order for rectification and acts of the Receivers are not void as alleged by Mr Waugh. Both the Bank and the Receivers were entitled to rely on the effect of registration of the charge” (paragraph 67).

On the question of estoppel, however, the judge was not persuaded by the arguments that the solicitor for the Trustees had represented the document as executed and on this basis the Bank had lent the monies; because the charge simply had not been executed as a deed, the Trustees were not estopped from relying on the invalidity of the legal charge. However, the judge stated that, notwithstanding the defects, it took effect as an equitable mortgage.  Left open for another hearing is the question of whether the Bank will succeed in obtaining an order that the Trustees execute documents to perfect the legal charge.

Company paid fees but not entitled to reclaim the VAT

Airtours Holidays Transport Limited v HMRC (24 July 2014) ([2014] EWCA Civ 1033)

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWCA/Civ/2014/1033.html

PwC had been instructed to review a financially distressed group of companies as it explored and pursued a restructuring plan. The restructuring process was successful, but HMRC disputed that the company was entitled to deduct the VAT that it had been invoiced and had paid in respect of PwC’s fees.

The First Tier Tribunal (“FTT”) reviewed PwC’s letters of engagement and terms and conditions, which effectively comprised a tri-partite contract between PwC, the Group, and the “Engaging Institutions” and found that the company, as well as the Engaging Institutions, had requested and authorised the work. However, the Upper Tribunal (“UT”) disagreed with the FTT’s approach; it concluded that the substance of the transactions was that there had been a supply of services by PwC to the Engaging Institutions and that the company had not received anything of value from PwC to be used for the purpose of its business in return for payment.

Although Lady Justice Gloster led the judgment in the Court of Appeal, she was in the minority in concluding that the company’s appeal should be allowed. She felt that the company had required PwC to provide valuable services to it for the purpose of its own business – in her view, the provision of PwC’s services was the only way that the financial institutions could be persuaded to support the company’s attempts to survive and that this was a distinctive supply of services from that supplied to the Engaging Institutions.

Lord Justice Vos, however, saw the economic reality in a different light. He felt that “it was as likely that PwC might have advised the Banks to pull the rug… The substance and economic reality was that PwC was supplying its services to the Banks in exchange for Airtours’ payments” (paragraph 87) and that the UT had been correct to conclude that the company was a party really only for the purpose of paying PwC’s bills, not to receive any service from the firm.  Lord Justice Moore-Bick also noted that, although the use of “you” in the terms and conditions suggested that PwC had certain obligations to the Group, they were a standard form document that must be applied in a way that is consistent with the letter of engagement, which is the “controlling instrument” (paragraph 96).  The question was “not whether the Group needed the report to be produced or whether it obtained a benefit as a result of its production, but whether in producing it PwC were providing a service to the Group for which the Group paid” (paragraph 99).  The majority of appeal judges decided that the service was not provided to the Group and thus the company could not reclaim the VAT input paid on PwC’s bills.

(UPDATE 14/03/15: permission to appeal to the Supreme Court has been granted.)

Court rejects attempts at second bite of the cherry

Secretary of State v Weston & Williams (5 September 2014) ([2014] EWHC 2933 (Ch))

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWHC/Ch/2014/2933.html

Two directors had been found guilty and sentenced in a criminal court, which had also been asked to consider disqualification orders, but because the matter had slipped the mind of prosecuting counsel at the original trial, this was dealt with only some two months later. The judge declined to make such orders, feeling that it would be “perhaps kicking a dog whilst he is down” (paragraph 14).

The SoS later applied to the High Court for disqualification orders under S2 of the CDDA86. S2 provides that the court may make a disqualification order where the person is convicted of an indictable offence in connection with the promotion, formation, etc. of a company.  The two year timescale for the SoS to apply for disqualification orders under the usual S6 of the CDDA86 had expired.

Counsel for the directors argued that the application was an abuse of process: the High Court was being “asked to exercise exactly the same jurisdiction as the criminal court but to decide the matter the other way” (paragraph 15). The argument for the SoS was that he had not been party to the prosecution and so had not had an opportunity to contest the original decision.

Although David Cooke HHJ recognised that the SoS was not a claimant seeking to vindicate a private right, but a restriction for the public good, he also considered what was fair to the directors. He noted that there was a wide range of potential applicants under S2 of the CDDA86, including company shareholders and creditors: “Fairness to the defendant must mean, it seems to me, that he should not be exposed to the same claim on multiple occasions by different litigants unhappy with the outcome of the earlier claim or claims” (paragraph 51) and that such subsequent claims could be described as “collateral attacks” on the first decision.

Even though the judge said that, in this case, he would have made disqualification orders (if he were found wring on the issue of abuse of process): “standing back, this claim is no more than an attempt by the Secretary of State to obtain a different decision from this court than was given on identical issues by the criminal court, which had the issues placed before it and made a positive decision to refuse an order. It is in my view unfair that the defendants should be thus exposed to the same claim on two occasions. The unfairness is not relieved by the argument that the claim is being pursued by a different entity… There is the general point that where the basis of the claim and the relief sought is essentially identical it is just as much unfair to the defendant to have to face it twice at the hands of two applicants as it would be if there were only one” (paragraph 52).