Insolvency Oracle

Developments in UK insolvency by Michelle Butler

The Regulators present a unified front on fees

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In an unprecedented step, the IPA and the ICAEW have issued largely consistent articles on fees, SIP9 and reporting. I think some of the points are well worth repeating, not only because in the past few months, I’ve seen more IPs get into a fix over fees than anything else, the new rules having simply compounded the complexities, but also because the articles contain some important new messages.

In this post, I explore how you can make your fee proposals bullet-proof:

  • What pre-administration work is an allowable expense?
  • What pre-administration costs detail is often missing?
  • What pre-CVL work is allowable as an expense?
  • What Rules/SIP9 detail is commonly missing from fee proposals?
  • How do the monitors view Rules/SIP9 omissions?
  • What problems can arise when using percentage or mixed basis fees?

The articles can be found at:

The effort seems to have originated from a well-received presentation at the autumn’s R3 SPG Forum, given by the ICAEW’s Manager, Alison Morgan (nee Timperley) and the IPA’s Senior Monitoring Manager, Shelley Bullman.

As the ICAEW and the IPA monitor c.90% of all appointment-taking IPs, I think this is a fantastic demonstration of how the RPBs can get out to us useful guidance. Of course, such articles do not have the regulatory clout of SIPs or statute (see below). However, I believe it is an essential part of the RPBs’ role to reach out to members in this way in written form. Although roadshow presentations are valuable, they can only reach the ears of a proportion of those in need and the messages soon settle into a foggy memory (if you’re lucky!).

  • Do the articles represent the RPBs’ views?

The IPA article ends with a disclaimer that “IPA staff responses” cannot fetter the determinations of the IPA’s committees and the ICAEW article is clearly authored by Alison Morgan, rather than being something that can strictly be relied upon as representing the ICAEW’s views (for the sake of simplicity, I have referred throughout to the articles as written by “the monitors”).

That’s a shame, but I know only so well how extraordinarily troublesome it is to push anything through the impenetrable doors of an RPB – that’s why SIPs seem to emerge so often long after the horse has bolted… and I suspect why we are still waiting for an insolvency appendix to the new CCAB MLR guidance. However, at a time when the Insolvency Service’s mind is beginning to contemplate again the question of a single regulator, issuing prompt and authoritative guidance serves the RPBs’ purposes, not only ours.

 

Pre-Administration Costs

Over the past few years, I’ve seen an evolving approach from the RPBs. In the early days, the focus was on the process of getting pre-administration costs approved. The statutory requirement for pre-administration costs to be approved by a resolution separate from the Proposals has taken a while to sink in… and the fact that the two articles repeat this requirement suggests that it is still being overlooked on occasion.

Then, the focus turned to the fact that it was, not only pre-administration fees that required approval, but also other costs. I still see cases where IPs only seek approval of their own costs, apparently not recognising that, if the Administration estate is going to be paying, say, agents’ or solicitors’ costs incurred pre-administration, these also need to go through the approval process.

  • What pre-administration work is an allowable expense?

Now, it seems that the monitors’ focus has returned to the IP’s own fees. Their attention seems fixed on the definition of pre-administration costs being (R3.1):

“fees charged, and expenses incurred by the administrator, or another person qualified to act as an insolvency practitioner in relation to the company, before the company entered administration but with a view to it doing so.”

The IPA article states that this “would exclude any insolvency or other advice that may or may not lead directly to the administration appointment” and the ICAEW article states that it “would exclude any general insolvency or other advice”.

I do wonder at the fuzzy edges: if a secured creditor who is hovering over the administration red button asks an IP to speak with a director, doesn’t the IP’s meeting with the director fit the description? Or if an IP seeks the advice of an agent or solicitor about what might happen if an administration were pursued, wouldn’t this advice count? But nevertheless, the monitors do have a point. If a firm were originally instructed to conduct an IBR, this work would not appear to fall into the definition of pre-administration costs. Also, if an IP originally took steps to help a company into liquidation but then the QFCH decided to step in with an Administration, the pre-liquidation costs could not be paid from the Administration estate.

  • What pre-administration costs detail is often missing?

As mentioned above, the monitors remind us that pre-administration costs require a decision separate from any approval of the Proposals – there is no wriggle-room on this point and deemed consent will not work. The monitors also list other details required by statute that are sometimes missing, of which these are my own bugbears:

  • R3.35(10): a statement that the payment of any unpaid pre-administration costs as an expense of the Administration is subject to approval under R3.52 and is not part of the Proposals subject to approval under Para 53 of Schedule B1
  • R3.36(a): details of any agreement about pre-administration fees and/or expenses, including the parties to the agreement and the date of the agreement
  • R3.36(b): details of the work done
  • R3.36(c): an explanation of why the work was done before the company entered administration and how it had been intended to further the achievement of an Administration objective
  • R3.36(d) makes clear that details of paid pre-administration costs, as well as any that we don’t envisage paying from the Administration estate, should be provided
  • R3.36(e): the identities of anyone who has made a payment in respect of the pre-administration costs and which type(s) of costs they discharged
  • R3.36(g) although it will be a statement of the obvious if you have provided the above, you also need to detail the balance of unpaid costs (per category)

 

Pre-CVL Costs

Another example of an evolving approach relates to the scope of pre-CVL costs allowable for payment from the liquidation estate. Again, over recent years we have seen the RPB monitors get tougher on the fact that the rules (old and new) do not provide that the IP’s costs of advising the company can be charged to the liquidation estate. This has been repeated in the recent articles, but the IPA’s article chips away further still.

  • A new category of pre-CVL work that is not allowable as an expense?

R6.7 provides that the following may be paid from the company’s assets:

  • R6.7(1): “Any reasonable and necessary expenses of preparing the statement of affairs under Section 99” and
  • R6.7(2): “Any reasonable and necessary expenses of the decision procedure or deemed consent procedure to seek a decision from the creditors on the nomination of a liquidator under Rule 6.14”.

Consequently, the IPA article states that:

“Pre-appointment advice and costs for convening a general meeting of the company cannot be drawn from estate funds after the date of appointment, even if you have sought approval for them.”

So how do you protect yourself from tripping up on this?

If you’re seeking a fixed fee for the pre-CVL work, make sure that your paperwork reflects that the fee is to cover only the costs of the R6.7(1) and (2) work listed above. Of course, SIP9 also requires an explanation of why the fixed fee sought is expected to produce a fair and reasonable reflection of the R6.7(1)/(2) work undertaken. Does this mean that you should be setting the quantum lower than you would have done under the 1986 Rules, given that you should now exclude the costs of obtaining the members’ resolutions? Well, personally, I don’t see that the effort expended under the 2016 Rules is any less than it was before, even if you cut out the work in dealing with the members, but you will need to consider (and, at least in exceptional cases, document) how you assess that the quantum reflects the “reasonable and necessary” costs of dealing with the R6.7(1)/(2) work.

Alternatively, if you’re seeking pre-CVL fees on a time costs basis, make sure that you isolate the time spent in carrying out only the R6.7(1)/(2) work and that you don’t seek to bill anything else to the liquidation estate.

Although the articles don’t cover it, I think it’s also worth mentioning that, as liquidator, you need to take care when discharging any other party’s pre-CVL costs that they fall into the R6.7(1)/(2) work.

 

Proposing a Decision on Office Holders’ Fees

  • What Rules/SIP9 detail is commonly missing from fee proposals?

The articles list some relatively common shortcomings in fee proposals (whether involving time costs or otherwise):

  • lack of detail of anticipated work and why the work is necessary
  • no statement about whether the anticipated work will provide a financial benefit to creditors and, if so, what benefit
  • no indication of the likely return to creditors (SIP9 requires this “where it is practical to do so” – personally, I cannot see how it would be impractical if you’re providing an SoA/EOS and proposed fees/expenses)
  • generic listings of tasks to be undertaken that include items irrelevant to the case in question
  • last-minute delivery of information, resulting in the approving body having insufficient time to make an informed judgment

The IPA article states that “presenting the fee estimate to the meeting is not considered to be giving creditors as a body sufficient time to make a reasoned judgement”. Personally, I would go further and question whether giving the required information to only some of the creditors (i.e. only those attending a meeting) meets the requirement in R18.16(4) to “deliver [it] to the creditors”. At the R3 SPG Forum, one of the monitors also expressed the view that, if fee-related information is being delivered along with the Statement of Affairs at the one business day point for a S100 decision, this is “likely to be insufficient time”.

  • fee estimates not based on the information available or providing for alternative scenarios or bases

I wonder whether the monitors are referring primarily to the fairly common approaches to investigation work, where an IP might estimate the time costs where nothing of material concern is discovered and those that might arise where an action to be pursued is identified down the line. You might also be tempted to set out different scenarios when dealing with, say, a bankrupt’s property: will a straightforward deal be agreed or will you need to go the whole hog with an order for possession and sale?

Some IPs’ preference for seeking fee approval only once is understandable – it would save the costs of reverting to creditors and potentially of hassling them to extract a decision – but at the SPG Forum the monitors recommended a milestone approach to deal with such uncertainties: a fee estimate to deal with the initial assessment and later an “excess fee” request for anything over and above this once the position is clearer. This approach would often require a sensitive touch, as you would need to be careful how you presented your second request as regards the next steps you proposed to undertake to pursue a contentious recovery and the financial benefit you were hoping to achieve. But it better meets what is envisaged by SIP2 and would help to justify your decision either to pursue or to drop an action.

Alternatively, perhaps the monitors have in mind the fees proposed on the basis of only a Statement of Affairs containing a string of “uncertain”-valued assets. Depending on what other information you provide, it could be questioned whether creditors have sufficient information to make an informed judgment.

  • no disclosure of anticipated expenses

Under the Rules, this detail must be “deliver[ed] to the creditors” prior to the determination of the fee basis, whether time costs or otherwise, for all but MVLs and VAs… and SIP9 and SIPs3 require it in those other cases as well. It is important to remember also that this relates to all expenses, not simply Category 2 disbursements, and including those to be paid directly from the estate, e.g. to solicitors and agents.

  •  How do the monitors view Rules/SIP9 omissions?

At the R3 SPG Forum, one of the monitors stated that, if the Rules and SIP9 requirements are not strictly complied with, the RPB could ask the IP to revert to creditors with the omitted information in order to make sure that the creditors understood what they were approving and that this would be at the cost of the IP, not the estate. The IPA’s article states that “where a resolution for fees has been passed and insufficient information is provided we would recommend that the correct information is provided to creditors at the next available opportunity and ratification of the fee sought”. Logically, such a recommendation would depend on the materiality of the omission.

When considering the validity of any fee decision, personally I would put more weight on the Rules’ requirements, rather than SIP9 (nothing personal RPBs, but I believe the court would be more concerned with a breach of the Rules). For example, I would have serious concerns about the validity of a fees decision where no details of expenses are provided – minor technical breaches may not be fatal to a fees decision, but surely there comes a point where the breach kills the purported decision.

 

Fixed and Percentage Fees

  • How can you address the SIP9 “fair and reasonable” explanation?

It is evident that in some cases the SIP9 (paragraph 10) requirement for a “fair and reasonable” explanation for proposed fixed or % fees is not being met to the monitors’ expectations. The ICAEW article highlights the need to deal with this even for IVAs… which could be difficult, as I suspect that most IPs proposing an IVA would consider that the fee that would get past creditors is both unfair and unreasonable! MVL fixed fees also are usually modest sums in view of the work involved.

The articles don’t elaborate on what kind of explanation would pass the SIP9 test. Where the fee is modest, I would have thought that a simple explanation of the work proposed to be undertaken would demonstrate the reasonableness, but a sentence including words such as “I consider the proposed fee to be a fair and reasonable reflection of the work to be undertaken, because…” might help isolate the explanation from the surrounding gumpf. For IVAs, it might be appropriate to note how the proposed fee compares to the known expectations of what the major/common creditors believe to be fair and reasonable.

  • What is an acceptable percentage?

Soon after the new fees regime began, the RPB monitors started expressing concern about large percentage fees sought on simple assets, such as cash at bank. Their concerns have now crystallised into something that I think is sensible. Although a fee of 20% of cash at bank may seem alarming in view of the work involved in recovering those funds, very likely the fee is intended to cover other work, perhaps all other work involved in the case from cradle to grave. In addressing the fair and reasonable test, clearly it is necessary to explain what work will be covered by the proposed fee. Of course, if you were to seek 20% of a substantial bank balance simply to cover the work in recovering the cash, you can expect to be challenged!

Equally, it is important to be clear on what the proposed fee does not cover. For example, as mentioned above, the extent of investigation work and potential recoveries may be largely unknown when you seek fee approval. It may be wise to define to which assets a % fee relates and flag up to creditors the potential for other assets to come to light, which may involve other work excluded from the early-day proposed fee. The IPA article repeats the message that a fee cannot be proposed on unknown assets.

 

Mixed Fee Bases

It seems to me that it can be tricky enough to get correct the fee decision and billing of a single basis fee, without complicating things by looking for more than one basis! To my relief, personally I have seen few mixed fee bases being used.

  • How is mixing time costs with fixed/% viewed?

In particular, I think it is hazardous to seek a fee on time costs plus one other basis. Only where tasks are clearly defined – for example, a % on all work related to book debt collections and time costs on everything else – could I see this working reasonably successfully. The IPA article notes that:

  • when proposing fees, you need to state clearly to what work each basis relates; and
  • your time recording system must be “sufficiently robust to ensure the correct time is accurately recorded against the appropriate tasks”.
  • I would add a third: mistakes are almost inevitable, so I would recommend a review of the time costs incurred before billing – the narrative or staff members involved should help you spot mis-postings.

 

Of course, there are plenty of other Rules/SIP areas where mistakes are commonly made – for example, the two articles highlight some common issues with progress reports, which are well worth a read. However, few breaches of Rules or SIPs have the potential to be more damaging. Therefore, I welcome the RPB monitors’ efforts in highlighting the pitfalls around fees. Prevention is far better than cure.

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