Insolvency Oracle

Developments in UK insolvency by Michelle Butler


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October starts with a bang!

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Wow! We all knew that there was a lot landing today, but in the past few hours we’ve received more news on Fees/SIP9, SIP16 and another Dear IP!

Although I’m reluctant to add to your in-boxes, I would like to highlight today’s post on The Compliance Alliance blog: http://thecompliancealliance.co.uk/blog/uncategorized/oct_changes/

I hope that that post provides a brief (for me, anyway!) summary of the bare essentials for your immediate needs on this unusual day.

Right, I’d better get back to reading..!


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October Fees Rules FAQs: more Qs than As

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Earlier this year, each of the three R3 SPG Technical Reviews was opened by John Cullen’s* fantastic presentation on the October fees rules and the draft revised SIP9.

The presentation generated many questions from delegates and a few controversial answers, which I’ve been bursting to recount here. Regrettably, work demands – and, tomorrow, my holiday – have frustrated my attempts to get blogging.

Thus, I’m being a bit cheeky, setting out here the questions… and leaving the answers for another day! I will try to get back here in a couple of weeks.

  • When can/should a CVL Liquidator seek approval for his fees: (i) prior to being appointed by the shareholders; (ii) after the general meeting but before the S98 meeting (via a Centrebind); or (iii) after the S98 meeting?
  • Would it be sufficient to provide a fees estimate to attendees of the S98 meeting? How else can an IP who takes the appointment from the floor of the S98 meeting deal with a fees resolution?
  • What level of breakdown is needed to comply with the new rules’ requirement to provide the (time cost) fees estimate broken down by “each part of the work”? For example, is “asset realisation” sufficient, or does it need to be broken down into book debt collection, sale of business/assets, etc.?
  • Given that the new rules require the (time cost) fees estimate to be broken down by “each part of the work”, does the IP need to revert to creditors if the time costs are exceeded for one part of the work, but the total estimate is not exceeded?
  • Can a (time cost) fee estimate provide a range of likely costs or does it need to be a single figure? If the latter, how should IPs estimate, for example the costs of realising the interest in a bankrupt’s property, at an early stage of the case?
  • What consequences does the expenses estimate have for the future administration of the case?
  • Can an IP stop working on a case if creditors vote against an exceeding of the fees estimate?

The Draft Revised SIP9

My swift read-through of the draft revised SIP9 has prompted a few more questions in my mind:

  • The draft revised SIP9 suggests time cost categories different from those of older SIP9s. How is this going to interact with firms’ time-recording systems and the administration of pre-October cases?
  • If an IP were to change his time-recording system in the future, would he risk falling foul of SIP9’s requirement that he “should use a consistent format throughout the life of the case”?
  • How will the SIP9’s blended rates work in practice?
  • The draft new SIP9 is not amended as regards pre-appointment costs. Given that there had been suggestions in the past that this section may apply only to pre-administration costs, where does this leave treatment of pre-CVL and pre-VA costs?
  • The draft new SIP9 is not amended as regards payments to associates, but continues to state that these should be approved “in the same manner as an office-holder’s remuneration or category 2 disbursements”. Does this mean that, where payments to associates are to be based on time costs, the estimate acts effectively as a cap so that the office-holder would need to seek creditors’ approval for any excess? As statute does not strictly require such approval to be sought, would an office-holder’s time costs incurred in reverting to creditors be justified? If an associate’s costs were treated instead as a category 2 disbursement, would this avoid the estimate acting as a cap?

 

* John Cullen is the ACCA’s representative on the JIC and an IP and partner of Menzies.

 

 

 

 


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Digging deeper into the new Acts & Rules

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I am delighted to say that I’ve had some productive exchanges with people at the Insolvency Service on the practical applications of parts of the SBEE Act, the Deregulation Act and the new fees Rules.  I have found them generally very reasonable and pragmatic.  That’s not to say, however, that it’s all good news!

Small Business Enterprise and Employment Act 2015

I’ve not covered the Small Business Enterprise and Employment Act 2015 since it was just a draft in autumn 2014.  Even now, considering that several provisions take effect from 26 May 2015, I don’t see the need to repeat the detail here.  Most of you will have received R3’s Technical Alert by email on 17 April 2015, which I think did a pretty good job of telling us all what we need to know right now.  However, there is one item that I think deserves more explanation.

CVLs – Progress Reports

As you know, the words “continuing/continues for more than one year” will be removed from S92A and S104A.  This means that, where a liquidator ceases to act at any time during a liquidation, he/she will need to issue a progress report in compliance of R2.47(3A) (for E&W only; I can see no equivalent in the Scottish Rules).

Although this may seem fairly innocuous, it now encompasses one circumstance that occurs quite frequently: the replacement of the members’ liquidator with the creditors’ choice at the S98 meeting.  The Insolvency Service has confirmed to me that this change does indeed mean that any members’ liquidator who leaves office at the S98 meeting will need to issue a progress report on his/her term in office.  There is no reason why this will not apply where the company general meeting immediately precedes the S98 meeting, although it is very difficult to see what the members’ liquidator will have to report other than an hour or so of time costs!

If the company general meeting is held on a different day to the S98 meeting, the creditors’ liquidator will also need to remember that R2.47(3A) resets the progress reporting clock and so, rather than issue a progress report for the first 12 months of the liquidation (i.e. from the date of the members’ meeting), the creditors’ liquidator will need to report every 12 months from the date of his/her appointment.

Although this seems a bit of a nonsense, I am optimistic that the progress reporting rules will become much simpler when the new Insolvency Rules come into force, which is the plan for April 2016.  Although there is still much work to be done on the draft Rules, the ones that are currently on the .gov.uk website (https://goo.gl/kr1CSR) hint that progress reports on office-holder switches will be far more flexible.  See, for example, draft Rule 18.8(4).

Deregulation Act 2015

This is an odd Act: it began life far earlier than the SBEE Act, but its progress seemed to stall when all eyes turned to the SBEE Act.  Thus, it is not surprising that it contains some items that, I think, are far more pressing for IPs than the 26 May provisions of the SBEE Act.

Correcting Minmar

Oh dear!  How long will we have to put up with the Minmar state of affairs where Notices of Intention to Appoint an Administrator (NoIA) have to be issued even on some cases where there is no floating charge holder?!

The answer is: not much longer.

The answer is in the Deregulation Act: its paragraph 6 of schedule 6 will amend Para 26 of Schedule B1 so that the need to issue an NoIA is restricted to cases only where there is a floating charge holder.  This will then flow through nicely to the existing Insolvency Rules.  The problem is that unfortunately it doesn’t yet have a commencement date.

I have been told that it is the Insolvency Service’s current intention to commence this provision in October 2015 (although, of course, that was under the previous Business Secretary).

New Fees Rules (The Insolvency (Amendment) Rules 2015)

A month ago, I blogged on this subject – see http://wp.me/p2FU2Z-a3 – and now I’m able to update some of my queries.

When is a liquidator not a liquidator?

As mentioned previously, R4.127 will be amended to state that “where the liquidator proposes to take [remuneration on a time costs basis], the liquidator must prior to the determination… give to each creditor… the fees estimate”, but does this mean that the IP needs to be in office as liquidator when he/she issues the fees estimate?

The Insolvency Service does not believe this is limited to the liquidator once he/she is in office.  In other words, the prospective liquidator may provide the fees estimate before the members’ meeting.  This means that, provided the IP can produce an early estimate, these new rules should not impact on the current practice of holding members’ meetings and S98 meetings on the same day.

It is worth noting that the new rules do not stipulate how long before the creditors’ meeting (or postal decision) the fees estimate should be sent: thus, it could be sent along with the S98 notice or at any time before the meeting is held.  As the fees estimate needs to be provided to all creditors, however, it will not be sufficient to hand out the fees estimate only at the S98 meeting.

Exceptional treatment needed for SoS-appointed liquidators

As noted in my previous blog, the transitional provisions operate so that, generally, if an IP takes office (as administrator, liquidator, or trustee) after 1 October 2015, he/she will need to follow the new rules in fixing the basis of his/her fees.  However, whilst the rules cover compulsory liquidations where the liquidator is appointed by: creditors’ meeting (S139(4)); contributories’ meeting (139(3)); and the court following an administration or CVA (S140), they do not refer to appointments by the Secretary of State (S137).

The consequence of this is that the new rules will apply to all SoS-appointment liquidations, irrespective of when the liquidator was appointed.  However, the Insolvency Service has stated that, if the basis of the liquidator’s fees has already been approved before 1 October 2015, then the new rules will have no effect on that case (unless the liquidator seeks to change the basis of his/her fees).

Thus, you may want to look to get your fees fixed on all existing SoS appointment compulsory liquidations before 1 October 2015; otherwise you will need to have some system in place to ensure that you follow the new rules, despite your appointment commencing before 1 October.

Block transfers

As the transitional provisions define that the new rules apply generally wherever there is an administrator/liquidator/trustee appointed after 1 October 2015, I wondered how this would impact, say, cases involving block transfer orders after 1 October 2015: does this mean that the new office-holder would need to go through the fees estimate etc. process?

The answer I received was: not where the new office-holder is continuing to draw remuneration under any prior approval.  Only where a new office-holder seeks to change the basis of his/her fees will the new rules kick in.

I look forward to meeting some of you, and hearing more on these and other developments, at R3’s SPG Technical Review series, the first one being held on Tuesday 12 May 2015 in Manchester.  There’s a lot going on!


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New IP Fees Rules: Simples?

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With little more than benign overviews of the new fees rules out there, I thought I would examine them a bit closer.  What are the practical implications of the rules and do they contain any risky trap-doors?

My overriding thoughts are similar to those I have on the pre-pack changes: in an apparent effort to improve transparency, is the whole process becoming so unwieldy that it will turn IPs off altogether?  Maybe that’s the plan: make it so difficult to seek time costs that IPs switch to fixed/% fees.

As you know, the new rules take effect from 1 October 2015.  They can be found at: http://goo.gl/mekR5j.

Stephen Leslie, for Lexis Nexis, has produced a good basic summary of what they contain at: http://goo.gl/eqs9Aq.  R3’s Technical Bulletin 109 and Dear IP 65 also cover the subject.

S98s: same problem, different solutions

For CVLs, when should the liquidator set out his fees estimate?

R4.127(2A) will state that “the liquidator must prior to the determination of” the fee basis give the fees estimate (and details of expenses) to each creditor.  It seems to me that reference to “liquidator” requires the IP to be in office – so the fees estimate cannot be provided, say, along with notice of the S98 meeting.

But am I reading too much into this?  After all, R2.33 currently refers to pre-administration costs incurred by the “administrator”, when clearly the IP isn’t in office as administrator when the costs are incurred.  Therefore, maybe reference in the new rules to “liquidator” similarly is sloppy-hand to include “the person who would become liquidator”.  If that is the case, then maybe the expectation is that IPs will provide fees estimates along with S98 notices with a view to running S98 meetings along the same lines as they are at present.

Of course, then there’s the argument about how an IP is supposed to come up with a sensible estimate before he knows anything about the case.  Ok, he will have a better idea – but still not a great one – when the Statement of Affairs is drafted, but that’s little more than a few scribbles on a page, if that, at the stage when the S98 notices are issued.  So how long “prior” to the resolution should the liquidator “give” the information?  Given that S98s are pretty swift events anyway, would it be acceptable to send estimates the day before the S98 meeting..?

A confabulation of compliance consultants, especially with nothing more to guide us than a handful of new rules, is bound to generate a variety of proposed solutions.  Here are just three of them:

(i)         The return of the Centrebind

A Centrebind would overcome the problem of the IP being in office at the time of issuing the estimate and 14 days or thereabouts would seem sufficient to provide creditors with a reasonable estimate before the S98 meeting.

Of course, Centrebinds went out of fashion because of the limited powers the members’ liquidator has before the S98 meeting is held.  It’s not a great place to be as an office holder.  Do we really want to return to that practice wholesale?  And given the Cork Committee’s dissatisfaction over Centrebinds, would the regulators take a dim view if the practice were taken up again just to ensure that the IP could get his fees approved at the S98 meeting?  Some might argue that it’s the most practical way of working with the rules, but are there alternative solutions..?

(ii)        A second creditors’ meeting

This was my first thought when I read the rules: why seek a fees resolution at the S98 meeting?  Would it really be such a chore to convene another creditors’ meeting soon after appointment?

True, it would add another chunk of costs to the estate, but would IPs be criticised for taking this approach?  After all, how much of a solid estimate can an IP give before he truly knows what is involved in the case?  In my view, the costs of convening a second meeting would be entirely justifiable, as it seems to be the way the rules are pushing IPs.  Indeed, the rules as a whole are hardly cost-saving, given the additional work IPs will need to undertake to provide estimates and seek increases, if necessary later on.

Of course, in having a second meeting, IPs run the risk that the creditors already will have lost interest and they’re left with inquorate meetings and no resolution.  Also, as the liquidator (or an associate) will be chairman of the second meeting, they won’t be able to rely on the director-chairman’s vote or his use of general proxies.  However, the practice of looking to the director to approve the liquidator’s fees is viewed with scepticism anyway – many observers don’t recognise that, with so little creditor engagement, it’s sometimes the only practical way – so maybe it is a practice that we should be distancing ourselves from in any event.

(iii)       Fixed fees

This wasn’t my idea, but I see the attraction of it, particularly for “burial jobs”.

Given all the hassle of providing a detailed estimate of time costs, why bother, especially on jobs where in all likelihood the time costs incurred will outstrip the asset realisations net of other costs?  If liquidators were to seek a fixed fee, they would still need to provide, prior to the fees resolution, “details of the work the liquidator proposes to undertake and the expenses the liquidator considers will, or are likely to be, incurred”, but they could avoid providing the full estimated time costs breakdown.

Thus (provided that the IP doesn’t need to be in office as liquidator at the time), along with the S98 notices or just before the meeting, the IP can provide a pretty standard summary of tasks to undertake in any liquidation and set out the proposal to seek fees of £X.  If the SoA shows assets of, say, £15,000, the SoA/S98 fee is £7,500 of this and there are a few £hundreds of standard expenses, a fixed fee of £10,000 would seem reasonable to cover everything that a liquidator needs to do and, 9 times out of 10, there would be no need to seek an increase.

I guess that the proxy forms should list the proposed fee resolution in full, which would suggest that the IP knows what he wants to charge at the point of issuing the S98 notices.  As mentioned above, this would involve a degree of uncertainty, but for IPs working in the burial market, I can see that the risk is outweighed by the simplicity of this approach.  With Reg 13 ditched, IPs might not need to maintain time records* – what could be simpler?! – and they wouldn’t suffer the closure Catch 22 of billing time costs at a point when they haven’t yet spent the time closing the case.

But does this solution have legs for anything other than the simplest of jobs, where the IP would always be looking at a time costs write-off from the word go?  On its own, I don’t think so.  However, I don’t think it would be beyond the realms of possibility to devise a fairly standard formula for seeking fees on a combination of a fixed sum and a percentage basis.  This might help address any unexpected asset realisations, for example antecedent transactions or hidden directors’ loans.  Seeking percentage fees of such asset realisations would also deal with the concerns that it may be both impractical and indiscrete to propose fees estimates detailing what investigatory work is anticipated and how much that is likely to cost.

With several possibilities available, evidently S98s will require some thought and planning in readiness for 1 October.

* Although the Insolvency Practitioners (Amendment) Regulations 2015 are removing the Regulation 13 IP Case Record and thus, with it, the specific requirement to maintain “records of the amount of time spent on the case”, I do wonder whether an IP will be expected to continue to be prepared to meet the requirements of R1.55, R5.66 and Reg 36A of the 1994 Regs as regards providing time cost information to pretty-much any interested party who asks.  I know that no one asks, but with the continued existence of these Rules and Reg, does the abolition of Reg 13 really mean the abolition of time cost records in fixed/percentage fee cases?

Administrations: confusing

Of course, when tinkering with fee approval, it was always going to prove confusing for Administrations!  Here are a few reasons why:

Para 52(1)(b) cases

The current Act & Rules do not prescribe the process for seeking fee approval from secured (and preferential) creditors in Para 52(1)(b) cases.  Therefore, particularly where the Administrator has been appointed by a secured creditor and so will be reporting to his appointor outside of the statutory process, often a request is made very early on for approval for fees.

In future, if the Administrator is looking for time costs, he will need to “give to each creditor” the fees and expenses estimates before “determination” of the fee basis.  This indicates to me that an Administrator will not be able to seek approval for fees from a secured creditor before he has issued his Proposals to all creditors… unless he sends the estimates to all creditors in something other than his Proposals (unlikely)… or unless approval rests with other creditors in addition to his appointor – i.e. another secured creditor or also the preferential creditors – because it would seem to me that the basis of his fees is not “determined” until all necessary creditors have approved it.

This also means that an Administrator’s Proposals will have to include the fees and expenses estimates even for Para 52(1)(b) cases.  I can see some sense in this, as unsecured creditors can always requisition a meeting to form a committee that will override the secureds’/prefs’ approval of fees.  However, it seems quite a leap in policy, given that the full SIP9 information is not currently required in Proposals in these cases.

Changed outcomes

I am not surprised that the Service has introduced a new rule to deal with some Administrations where the prospective outcome has changed so that a different class of creditors is now in the frame for a recovery.  The Enterprise Act’s dual mechanism for obtaining fee approval depending on the anticipated outcome was always meant to have ensured that fees were approved by the party whose recovery was reduced because of the fees.  It’s true that the Act & Rules often do not deliver that consequence (not least because Para 52(1)(c) cases aren’t dealt with at all properly), but that has always been touted as the policy objective.

Sure enough, Dear IP 65 repeats this objective: “the new provision revises to whom the office holder must make a request or application in such circumstances [as described below] to make sure that such matters are determined by parties with the appropriate economic interest”.  Yes, but does it..?

In future, if fees have been approved on a Para 52(1)(b) case by secureds/prefs and the Administrator wants to draw fees in excess of the previous estimate, but he now thinks that a (non-p part) unsecured dividend will be made, he will need to seek approval from the unsecured creditors.  Fine.

However, there is no new provision to deal with outcomes changing in the other direction.  For example, if an Administrator originally thought that there would be a (non-p part) unsecured dividend – so he sought approval for fees by a resolution of the unsecured creditors – but now he thinks that there won’t be a dividend and maybe even that the secureds/prefs will suffer a shortfall, to whom does he look for approval of fees in excess of the previous estimate?  From what I can see, he will still go to the unsecured creditors.

[Theoretically, he might be able to issue revised Proposals in which he makes a Para 52(1)(b) statement, so that the secureds/prefs have authority to approve his fees.  In any event, the changed outcome might make revised Proposals appropriate.  But then what?  Would that result in the basis of his fees not being “determined” with the consequence that he has to issue fees and expenses estimates again to every creditor before he can seek the secureds’/prefs’ approval to the basis of his fees?]

Given that the OFT study concluded that secured creditors are so much better at controlling fees than unsecureds are, why not hand the power to secured creditors automatically by means of the new rules when the outcome deteriorates, in the same way that they shift the power automatically from the secureds to the unsecureds when the outcome improves?

Transitional provisions

This is more just a headache than confusing: one more permutation to accommodate in systems.

In general, the transitional provisions are designed so that, if an IP takes office after 1 October 2015, he will need to go through the new process to get his fees approved.  In effect, they treat Para 83 CVLs as new appointments, so the new rules disapply R4.127(5A) for Para 83 CVLs beginning after October in relation to Administrations that began before October.  Thus, Para 83 CVL Liquidators will not be able to rely on any fee approvals in the Administration.  Instead, they will have to go through the new process.

However, R4.127(5A) kicks back in for Para 83 CVLs following Administrations that begin after 1 October.  This is because, in these cases, the Administrator will have already gone through the new process in order to get fee approval, so it seems reasonable that the Liquidator can continue to rely on this approval.  Of course, the Liquidator will be subject to the Administrator’s fee estimate, so if he wants to draw fees in excess of the estimate, he will need to go through the new process for approval.

It might seem a bit much to expect an Administrator to be able to estimate a subsequent Liquidator’s fees.  For once, I think that the Insolvency Service has been sensible: the rules state that the Administrator’s estimates may include any subsequent Liquidator’s fees and expenses, not must – it’s good to see office holders left with a choice for a change!  Thus, where the Administrator’s estimates have not provided anything for the Liquidator, an increase in the estimate is probably going to be one of his first tasks.

I wonder if an Administrator’s estimate might be devised so that, if he has not used up his estimate in full, then it can be treated as the Liquidator’s estimate..?  I suspect the regulators might take a dim view of that…

Compulsory Liquidations: inconsistent treatment?

I didn’t spot this one, but it was passed to me by a Technical & Compliance Manager (thank you, D).

As explained above, the transitional provisions seem to be designed so that the critical date is the date of the IP’s appointment, rather than the more commonly-used insolvency event date.

It gets complicated, however, when one tries to define every way that an IP can be appointed.  For compulsory liquidations, the transitional provisions cover appointments (post-1 Oct) by: creditors’ meeting (S139(4)); contributories’ meeting (139(3)); and the court following an administration or CVA (S140).

What about appointments by the Secretary of State (S137)?

I cannot see why these appointments should be treated differently.  Does this mean that no Secretary of State appointments will be subject to the new rules?  Or does it mean that all SoS appointments will be subject to them..?

I have asked the Insolvency Service for comments.

Practical difficulties

Of course, there are practical difficulties in devising fee and expenses estimates for each case.  The Impact Assessment for the new rules (http://goo.gl/vCOsnS) state: “Based on informal discussions with IPs and internal analysis by the Insolvency Service it has been estimated that the costs of learning about the new requirements will be relatively moderate as in many cases IPs produce estimates of the work they will be undertaking for their own budgeting purposes. Therefore the industry has the pre existing infrastructure in place to produce estimates and so there will no additional set up costs for business. All the information that will be needed for the estimates is already available to IPs so there will be no additional costs of gathering information” (paragraph 34).  What nonsense!  Even if IPs do estimate fees at the start of a job, they are little more than finger-in-the-air estimates and are way less sophisticated than the new rules envisage.

The Insolvency Service followed up this nonsense with the suggestion that it would take IPs 1 hour to get their systems up to scratch for the changes!  Personally, I feel that such a fantasy-based statement is an insult to my intelligence.

In relation to generating fee and expenses estimates, the Impact Assessment states: “The work is likely to be an administrative task extended from the existing practice to produce estimates for business planning so we believe the work is likely to be completed by support staff within practices. It is estimated that the task will take around 15 minutes per case” (paragraph 36).  This is just so much nonsense!

Anyway, back to the practicalities…

The Insolvency Service has explained that it is working with the JIC to tackle “the key challenge… to present this information [the fees and expenses estimates] in a clear, concise format that the creditor, i.e. the end user, finds both useful and informative” (Dear IP 65, article 55).  I guess we are talking here about a revised SIP9.

Given that it has taken the IS/JIC ten months (and counting) to complete a revised SIP16 following Teresa Graham’s report, how close to the 1 October deadline do you think we’ll get before we see a revised SIP9?  I know that the SIP16 revision has been dependent on the pre-pack pool being set up, but I reckon it’s all going to get a bit tense towards early autumn.

The issue is: do we gamble now on what we think the regulators will want or do we sit and wait to see?  The new rules require that time costs fee estimates specify:

“details of the work the insolvency practitioner and his staff propose to undertake… [and] the time the insolvency practitioner anticipates each part of that work will take”. 

Is it a safe bet to assume that the regulators will expect a SIP9-style matrix, classifying work as Admin & Planning, Investigations, Realisation of Assets etc.?  Will they also want the estimate to list, not only the total time costs per work category, but also the time costs per staff grade, i.e. the hours plus time costs?  Will they also want a greater level of detail, say breaking down the Admin & Planning etc. categories into sub-categories, for cases where time costs are anticipated to exceed £50,000?  Conversely, what level of detail will they expect for cases with time costs estimated at less than £10,000, given that at present SIP9 requires only the number of hours and average hourly rate to be disclosed for fee-reporting purposes? Finally, will these expectations be, as they are now, set out as a Suggested Format, or will there be required disclosure points?

Given that the rules refer to “each part of that work”, personally I would get cracking now to devise systems and models to produce fees estimates styled on the table in the SIP9 appendix.  I might run some analyses of past cases to see if I could come up with some sensible tables for “typical” cases, maybe examine some outliers to see, for example, how much it costs to realise some difficult assets or pay dividends, depending on the class and number of creditors.  Setting up such templates and systems to capture the key elements of each case is going to take time.  We have less than six months.

Not quite so urgent, but just as systems-based, is the need to design mechanisms for monitoring fees estimates.  It would be useful to know if the major software-providers are designing tools to compare fees estimates to fees taken – much like the bond adequacy review – and whether these tools can be used to identify cases where fees are approaching estimates.

And of course, the rules provide loads more work on creating and revising standard documents and checklists *sigh*!

Finally, an obvious practical difficulty will be ensuring that creditors are still sufficiently engaged some way down the insolvency process to put pen to paper and approve additional fees.

Techies’ corner

I know that the following points are nit-picky, but, as we’re talking about fees approval, I felt that they were important to get right.

When does remuneration arise..?

We’ve had drummed into us that “remuneration is charged when the work to which it relates is done” (R13.13(19)).  This definition was introduced with the new progress reports so that IPs disclose time costs incurred, not just remuneration drawn.

But how does this definition fit with the new rules that state that “the remuneration must not exceed the total amount set out in the fees estimate without approval”?  Does this mean that we need to ask creditors to approve an excess before the time costs are incurred, i.e. before the work is done?  And what if the IP is prepared to write off the excess, does he still need to seek approval?

Yeah, I know, it’s pretty obvious what the intention of the rules is, but I asked the Insolvency Service anyway.  Their lawyer’s view was that the “court would resolve any tension” between the rules by coming to the conclusion that the new rules make it “sufficiently clear that the office holder is permitted to incur additional fees above the level of the estimate, before securing further approval”, because the same rules state that a request for approval must specify the reasons why the office holder “had exceeded” (or is likely to exceed) the fees estimate.  It’s the drawing down of additional fees that would be prohibited without approval, not the incurring of them.  Fair enough.

What “creditors” should be asked in Para 52(1)(b) Administrations..?

I have drafted the article above on the basis of the Insolvency Service’s answer to my second question, although I have to say that I think they could have done a better job at drafting the rules on this one.

New R2.109AB(2) explains which party/parties the Administrator should approach for approval of fees in excess of the estimate.  There are three choices, dependent on who fixed the fee basis in the first place:

“(a)  where the creditors’ committee fixed the basis, to the committee;

“(b)  where the creditors fixed the basis, to the creditors;

“(c)  where the court fixed the basis, by application to the court”.

My question was: if a secured creditor alone fixed the basis, who should approve the excess?  It can hardly be said that “the creditors” approved the basis.  Also, given that the OFT study had concluded that secured creditors seem to control fees quite adequately, perhaps it was felt that there was no need to add another layer of control in these cases…

The Insolvency Service’s response was: “it would be for the secured/preferential creditors to approve if the para 52(1)(b) statement held good. We think the wording of the Rules is sufficiently clear in this regard”.  Well, I’m glad I asked!

 


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Regulatory Hot Topics: (2) Administration Technicalities

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I’m itching to blog about the new legislation, but that’s all a bit taxing so close to the Easter weekend.  Therefore, I’ll continue with my summary of points made in the R3 webinar.  This week: Administration Technicalities.

For my clients, this post may sound all very familiar, as I’ve pulled most of this from my last newsletter.  However, I’ve added some new points about the SBEE Act at the end of this post.

Matthew Peat and I agreed that failing to meet the statutory provisions for administrations is one of the most common issues identified on review visits.  I’m not at all surprised, as the legislation is extraordinarily (and in many respects, I think, unnecessarily) complicated… and it’s only going to get even more complicated with the Small Business, Enterprise & Employment Act and the Insolvency (Amendment) Rules 2015 (the IP fees rules) – but that’s for another day.

Areas that seem to cause difficulties include:

Pre-administration costs

It should be remembered that the requirement to disclose in the Proposals (and seek approval of any unpaid) pre-administration costs relates, not only to the charges of the IP, but to other costs incurred pre-appointment such as the solicitors’ or agents’ fees.

It is also evident that the RPBs do not believe that estimates of pre-administration costs comply with the Rules and they expect you to contact third parties and establish the quantum of their pre-administration costs in order to disclose them properly in the Proposals.  Also, if any payments from the estate to third parties exceed the (estimated) pre-administration costs as they appeared in the Proposals, do not be surprised if an RPB monitor suggests that the excess is unauthorised.

Most IPs have cottoned on by now that the Rules specifically state that approval of pre-administration costs does not form part of the Administrator’s Proposals (even though R2.33 requires that the Proposals include details of pre-administration costs).  However, there seem to be still the odd flawed template or two in circulation that do not present a separate specific resolution for the approval of pre-administration costs.

Statement of affairs

There have occasions when a statement of affairs (“SoA”) has not been submitted by the director(s), but the Proposals haven’t included the alternative required by R2.33(2)(g) of details of the financial position of the company (which usually takes the form of the Administrator’s own estimated SoA).

It is perhaps worth adding that this rule also requires a list of creditors (names, addresses, debts and any security) – whether or not the directors have submitted an SoA – and “an explanation as to why there is no statement of affairs” (although personally I cannot see that any explanation is going to be likely, other than “it has been requested but the director has not yet provided one”, particularly where Proposals have been issued swiftly after appointment).

How the purpose of the administration is to be achieved

If the Proposals explain that the Administrator thinks that the second administration objective is achievable, then the Proposals should explain why you believe that the result for creditors as a whole is going to be better than if the company were wound up (without first having been in administration).

Statement of expenses

Progress reports – not only in administrations, but in all other cases (apart from VAs and Receiverships) – all need to include a statement of the expenses incurred by the office holder during the period of the report, whether or not payment has been made in respect of them during the period.

It is important to remember that this includes more than simply the office holder’s time costs and disbursements, so this again means that solicitors, agents etc. need to be contacted to establish what is on their clocks.  Also, do not forget items such as insurance premiums and statutory advertising.  In addition, the Rules do not set a de minimis: all and any expenses incurred must be disclosed.  There have been some suggestions that the regulators might take a proportionate view of the disclosure of expenses, but personally I wouldn’t risk it.

Extensions

If seeking an extension via creditors’ consent, make sure that you approach the right creditors.

In every case, you will need to obtain the consent of all the secured creditors.

Whether you approach also the preferential or unsecured creditors as a whole will depend on what you wrote in the Proposals: per Para 78(2), if you have made a Para 52(1)(b) statement, you need to approach preferential creditors, if you think that a distribution to them will be made.  This is different from seeking approval to fees: in that case, under R2.106(5A) you need to seek preferential creditors’ approval to fees, not only if you intend paying a distribution, but also if you have paid a distribution.

However, events could have moved on since you issued the Proposals: by the time you contemplate an extension, the anticipated outcome might have changed.  What if your Proposals did not include a Para 52(1)(b) statement, but now you don’t think that a dividend will be paid to non-prefs?  Who do you approach for approval of an extension?

Assuming that your Proposals have accommodated alternative outcomes (such that you don’t believe you need to issue revised Proposals), Para 78 still indicates that whether you go to prefs or unsecureds in general depends on what you stated the anticipated outcome was in your Proposals.  However, to show consideration for the apparent spirit behind the provisions, it would seem prudent to consider also which creditors are in the frame at the time that you seek an extension, to ensure that you achieve the requisite majority from them too.

Extension Progress Reports

Whichever way you seek consent to an extension, you will need to issue a progress report (which is one reason why I am nervous about including in Proposals the power for the Administrator to extend without further recourse – because Proposals are not a progress report).  The usual one month deadline applies to these extension progress reports, so if you have only asked secureds/prefs to consent to the extension, make sure that you circulate the progress report to all other creditors – as well as send a copy to the Registrar for filing – within the month.

The same goes for court extensions: you will have produced a progress report to accompany your court application and, in the event that the court does not grant your extension before the month-end, you will need to send a copy of the report to all creditors and for filing and then send another circular (for the Notice of Extension) once you have received the order for the extension.

Finally, remember that the 6 month cycle for progress reports is counted from the period-end of the last report.  Therefore, where a progress report to accompany an extension request has been issued – which can be at any time – diaries will need changing so that the next progress report is 6 months after that report (i.e. no longer 6-monthly from the date of appointment).  This can prove a nightmare for automated diary systems… and, as you need to provide sufficient lead-time before any extension period ends in order to consider whether to apply for a further extension, make sure that you don’t leave diary prompts for progress reports too tight on the 6-month deadlines.

Exits

RPBs appear to be expecting decisions over exit routes to be clearly and contemporaneously evidenced.  This is also valuable in the event that things do not turn out the way you had hoped, e.g. where you moved to CVL because you had thought that there would be sufficient realisations to pay a dividend to unsecured creditors, but something happened later to scupper that outcome.

I also understand that it is generally accepted that Para 83’s reference to an Administrator thinking that a distribution will be made to unsecured creditors is a reference to non-preferential unsecured creditors only.  Thus, if you are nearing the end of the administration and you think that only a preferential distribution will be paid, you will need to seek an extension and pay it through the administration.  Alternatively – and if HMRC (or, of course, any other creditor) has modified the Proposals so that the exit must be by liquidation – you will need to seek a compulsory winding-up order.

Small Business, Enterprise & Employment Act 2015

I couldn’t resist one point on this new Act.  Although some items come into force on 26 May 2015, there are no transitional provisions (yet).  In other words, unless a new Order changes things, the provisions will apply to all existing insolvency appointments, not only future ones.

The Act amends Para 65 to the effect that, from 26 May 2015, administrators may pay a prescribed part dividend without the court’s permission.  However, the Act also amends Para 83 so that it will read that an administration may move to CVL only where the administrator thinks (“that the total amount which each secured creditor of the company is likely to receive has been paid to him or set aside for him” – no change there – and) “that a distribution will be made to unsecured creditors of the company (if there are any) which is not a distribution by virtue of section 176A(2)(a)”, i.e. a prescribed part distribution.  In other words, from 26 May 2015, the Para 83 move to CVL cannot be used to pay a prescribed part dividend (unless you also think there is going to be a non-prescribed part dividend as well).

Thus I would strongly recommend that you revisit your standard Proposals template to make sure that they do not run contrary to the post-May position: you do not want to be stuck with approved Proposals requiring you to exit by CVL to pay a prescribed part dividend, when the Act won’t allow you to do it.  Having looked at some standard Proposals, I reckon many will have sufficient wriggle-room to avoid you having your hands tied, but it would be worth checking the Proposals of any cases where you anticipate a prescribed part dividend: you still have a month or so during which you can do a Para 83 move to CVL before the Act takes effect.

My thanks to Deborah Manzoori and Jo Harris for pointing out this issue to me.

My thoughts on more wrinkles in the new legislation will follow soon.  In the meantime, have a lovely long weekend.


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“Ransom” Payments – seeing things from the other side

4609 Sydney

 

I’m sure that your hackles were raised when you last heard IPs described as seeing a distressed debtor only as an opportunity to make money.  Many of the suppliers’ responses to last year’s consultation on proposed Essential Supplies legislation struck a similar chord.

In this post, I take a look at some of the more persuasive consultation responses as well as the emerging Insolvency (Protection of Essential Supplies) Order 2015, set to come into force on 1 October 2015.

The consultation responses and the draft Order can be found at: http://goo.gl/N4Tg3c

The government press release is at: http://goo.gl/Ta0KOw

 

Energy Suppliers

The key issue for most suppliers is that supplying to an unpredictable business, such as one administered by an office holder in an insolvency situation, could end up as seriously loss-making for them.  Not knowing for how long or how much energy an insolvent business is going to need carries huge consequences for suppliers, as they have to purchase (or sell excess) power on short term markets that trade at very different prices.  If the supplier cannot pass at least some of this cost to the customer, they will be trading at a significant loss.

Some suppliers referred to the “deemed contract rates”, which apply to supplies where a contract is not in existence and thus applies in some cases where an IP does not agree to a post-appointment contract.  These rates inevitably are higher than contract rates as the consumer can switch to another supplier at any moment, and thus some suppliers took exception to the suggestion that these, as well as other post-insolvency changes to manage risks, such as requiring more frequent payments or upfront deposits, in effect are “ransom” payments.

Many respondents predicted that, if they were prohibited from taking action on formal insolvency, suppliers might take precipitative action when a business shows signs of financial distress.  Others felt that the increased risks would be shared by customers with poor credit ratings and new start-ups, with some suggesting that it might even be difficult for these businesses to procure a contract.

Personal guarantees

The topic of personal guarantees threw up a variety of comments.  Some suppliers seemed to confuse these with undertakings that the supply would be paid for as an expense.  Several asked the Insolvency Service to provide a standard form of words for PGs, as they can take a lot of time and effort to agree.  Some suggested that it would save time if the IP simply gave the PG – or undertaking – within a specified timescale, rather than build into the process the need for the supplier to ask for one.

Some suppliers were sceptical that an IP could support a call on the PG, leading to requests that IPs provide proof of their assets or credit insurance and, if the supplier is not satisfied, then the supply could be terminated.  Some also asked that PGs be supported by the IPs’ firms, which led one to suggest that IPs from smaller firms may have difficulty persuading suppliers that the PG was adequate.  Some were nervous about the without-notice withdrawal of a PG or undertaking with one respondent stating that the PGs should have effect for the whole duration of the administration.

Timescales to termination

Many said that the proposed timescales to terminate the supply were too long: respondents are well aware of IPs’ reluctance to agree PGs and therefore felt that the 14-28 day period for suppliers to learn of the appointment and to give the office holder time to sign a PG could end up being effectively a free supply to the insolvent business, with several suggesting that the IP could design things this way whilst having no intention to seek to secure a longer supply.  Many also said that they would need to get a warrant to be able to terminate the supply, which would require leave of court (in administrations), thus lengthening the process considerably.

The suppliers argued that they might not learn of the appointment until at least 14 days after commencement, which under the old draft Order would have left them already out of time to request a PG.  I was surprised that several suppliers seemed to believe that office holders were under no clear obligation to tell them about the appointment, which no doubt is behind Jo Swinson’s reference to the need for guidance (see below).  Some suppliers did accept that office holders might have difficulty identifying energy suppliers, especially when dealing with a large number of properties.  Personally, I have also seen IPs encounter difficulties getting past the front door of some suppliers, with day one correspondence getting thrown back because an account cannot be located.

Some noted that the Impact Assessment pointed the finger more at key trade suppliers and IT suppliers (so, suggested one, why not simply wrap these suppliers into the existing statutory provisions?) and thus they questioned whether affecting how energy providers deal with insolvent businesses will deliver the projected fewer liquidations.  “The proposal to change the right of only certain, specified companies to freely contract with one another, appears to be both disproportionate and an unjustified distortion of contractual law” (RWE npower).

 

Merchant Services

The merchant service providers came out in force, their principal argument being that their “charges”, which is the focus of the Order, fade into insignificance when compared with their exposure to the risk of chargebacks, especially when payments have been made by customers for goods/services (to be) provided by an insolvent business.  Thus, the requirement that the merchant services continue to be provided on the existing terms for the 14-28 day window prior to obtaining a PG – and even after obtaining a PG, if that were even possible – was simply unbearable.

Worldpay’s response sets out the way that, at present, they believe the system works well.  They seek an indemnity to be paid as an administration expense for any chargebacks, including any arising from pre-administration transactions, and they also look to agree “an administration fee with the insolvency practitioner to reflect the significant time incurred in managing the administration”… but Worldpay “does not demand ransom payments”.

Carve-out

The responses indicated that the Insolvency Service was to meet with the merchant service providers shortly after the consultation had ended and clearly they succeeded in convincing the Service of their concerns, as the scope of the Order has now been changed so that it does not extend to “any service enabling the making of payments”.

 

The Insolvency Profession

IPs and others involved in insolvency made – and repeated – some valuable observations about the draft Order, which regrettably have not been taken up.  In some cases, this is because the issues are really with the long-passed Enterprise & Regulatory Reform Act 2013, but it also gives the impression that, once legislation has been drafted, it is extremely tough to get it amended.

R3 and KPMG asked that the scope of the new legislation be widened to encompass other supplies, such as software licences and information systems, and they struggled to see why only administrations and VAs are within the scope: omitting receiverships and liquidations unhelpfully restricts the ability of these insolvency tools to achieve better outcomes for all.

The City of London Law Society Insolvency Law Committee (“the Committee”) noted that the draft Order deviated unhelpfully from provisions covering the same territory in the Investment Bank Special Administration Regulations 2011 and the Financial Services (Banking Reform) Act 2013 (“the SIs”).  Why the difference in rules?

Personal guarantees again

The Committee cast doubts over the “practical and logistical issues” surrounding the PG provisions, highlighting that IPs could encounter demands for PGs from a number of suppliers in the crucial initial days of an appointment.  It “strongly encourages” the government “to reconsider the approach and, if at all possible, to amend Section 93(3), so that the ability to request a personal guarantee is restricted to the utilities currently covered by Section 233 IA”.

The Committee’s quid pro quo suggestion was that the legislation should mirror the SIs mentioned above and provide explicitly for all post-administration supplies to rank as administration expenses, suggestions also made by R3.  Interestingly, the government press release stated that “suppliers will be guaranteed payment ahead of others owed money for services supplied during the rescue period”.  This doesn’t seem to relate to the effect of PGs, as this is covered separately in the press release, but I don’t see where this super-priority for suppliers appears in the statute.

As a last resort, the Committee suggested the production of a pro forma guarantee to save precious time, especially considering that a number of suppliers of varying degrees of sophistication may be seeking PGs.

Unsurprisingly, R3 had strong words for the PG regime: “The provisions allowing a supplier to require a personal guarantee by the office holder are also inappropriate.  This was and is an unwelcome feature of the existing 233 legislation, as it is disproportionate.  In principle, there is no reason why a supplier should enjoy a greater level of comfort from an insolvency officer holder than it would from the directors of a solvent trading company…  No supervisor is likely to give one.”

PwC referred to PGs as “an anathema to most IPs” and its preference seems to be that all possible options remain open for negotiation by the parties.  In its response, PwC stated that “circumstances will remain where the payment of a deposit and/or a higher ‘on price’ are commercially more appropriate, and the IP should retain the discretion to negotiate case by case, supplier by supplier”.

Other flaws

There seem to be several concerns about the detail of the draft Order, concerns that I think have survived even the post-consultation revision:

  • The Order prevents suppliers from terminating contracts simply because of administration/VA, but it does not prevent them from altering contract terms, such as increasing prices (and perhaps then terminating the contract if the revised terms are not complied with).
  • The PG may reach to termination charges incurring post-administration/VA.
  • Because the Order focuses on terms that are triggered by administration or a VA, it does not deal with terminations/changes resulting from the triggers of pre-administration/VA events, such as the Notice of Intention to Appoint Administrators or putting forward a VA Proposal (see also below).

 

The Order

The Order is scheduled to come into force on 1 October 2015.  The current draft differs from the earlier consultation draft in the following respects:

  • The 14-day timescale for suppliers to ask for a PG has been dropped. Therefore, suppliers will be able to ask for a PG at any time and then they acquire the power to terminate the supply if the PG is not given by the office holder within 14 days of the request.
  • The court may grant the supplier permission to terminate the contract, if satisfied that it would cause the supplier “hardship” – as opposed to the draft’s “undue hardship”.
  • The Order no longer applies to “any service enabling the making of payments”.
  • The Order turns a draft clause (the previous S233A(6), which is now S233A(2)) on its head. I think this is to deal with some suppliers’ issues that the previous draft Order would have prevented terminations “because of an event that occurred before” the administration/VA, even though the event was not connected to the formal insolvency. Now the Order states that an insolvency-related term does not cease to have effect if it entitles a supplier to terminate the contract or supply because of an event that occurs, or may occur after the administration/VA. The problem with this is that I think it eliminates the whole purpose of the previous S233A(6), which was to avoid actions resulting from pre-administration/VA events, such as the issuing of a Notice of Intention to Appoint Administrators or the proposing of a VA!
  • The government release points to an additional non-statutory measure: “guidance will be issued to insolvency practitioners that they should make contact with essential energy suppliers at the earliest possible time following their appointment to discuss what supply they expect to use”.

I know that Giles Frampton, R3 President, has said: “These proposals will make it easier for the insolvency profession to save businesses, save jobs, and get creditors as much of their money back as possible”.  I’m not sure that I can be as positive, but a surprising outcome of the consultation for me was a greater understanding of some of the hurdles faced by suppliers.  IPs are not the only ones who want to see businesses (/customers) survive.


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Dear IP 64: is no news good news?

1705 Yosemite

Did you wonder what the RPS was going on about when it announced (Article 54, Dear IP 64) that the recent EAT judgment would not affect its claims-processing, but it has sought advice?  Bearing in mind that the RPS gets involved some way down the insolvency process, is there anything that IPs should be taking into account right now?

The Judgment: Bear Scotland Limited & Ors v Fulton & Ors

I briefly described the decision of the Employment Appeal Tribunal in an earlier blog post: http://wp.me/p2FU2Z-8I.  In a nutshell, the EAT decided that the “normal remuneration”, to be used in calculating the employees’ claims for holiday pay, should include overtime that the employer was not bound to offer but that the employees were required to work (or could not unreasonably refuse to work), if requested (“non-guaranteed overtime”).

Permission to appeal was granted and it seemed widely-thought that an appeal was likely in relation to part of the EAT’s judgment, which limited claims for underpaid holiday pay to instances of underpayment not exceeded by a gap of more than three months.  However, the Unite union announced that it will not appeal (http://goo.gl/EqII77) and, as the Tribunal judge expressed the view that this issue alone was the arguable one, personally I’m not sure why the employers would pursue a further appeal.  Therefore, it seems unlikely that there will be an appeal (but I’m no lawyer).

The Government Task Force

I also mentioned in my earlier post that the government had set up a task force to assess the possible impact of the decision.

On 18 December 2014, the government announced its solution: http://goo.gl/kJ7sJu.  Unusually with no public consultation, it swiftly laid down regulations – the Deduction from Wages (Limitation) Regulations 2014 – to limit unlawful deductions claims to two years.  The regulations will come into force on 8 January 2015, although they will only take effect on claims made on or after 1 July 2015, so there is a 6-month window for claims to be lodged potentially going back to 1998 when the Working Time Directive was implemented in the UK.

It is undeniable that the Bear Scotland case precipitated these measures, although the Impact Assessment (“IA”) makes clear that the regulations will limit claims not only arising from this decision.  The IA mentions, for example, the ruling from the CJEU in the case of Lock v British Gas (see, e.g. my blog post: http://wp.me/p2FU2Z-82).  This case concluded that sales commission should be reflected in holiday pay calculations, although the UK application of this decision will not be known until the case is heard by the Leicester Tribunal, which I understand will not happen until February (http://goo.gl/ezx8Qj).

Although the regulations don’t actually affect the Bear Scotland decision, just the extent of businesses’ (and the RPS’) exposure to claims arising from the decision, the rhetoric doesn’t suggest that the government feels there is much risk that the decision might be overturned.  Then again, the regulations do simply plug a dangerous gap in the ERA96, so they are valuable whether or not Bear Scotland happened; the future is never left wanting for unexpected court decisions.

Dear IP 64

Given this background, I am somewhat surprised that the RPS has announced that it “will continue to process claims in the usual way until the expiry of the appeal period” of the EAT decision.  However, because I assume that the appeal period is largely a valuable pause in which the RPS can take advice and consider its next steps, what puzzles me a little more is: what action might the RPS take if there is no appeal?

The IA makes clear that “it is the worker’s responsibility to prove that they have a holiday pay claim in the employment tribunal”.  Thus, I would have thought that there is no obligation on the RPS – or by extension on insolvency office holders – to examine Company records to see whether past holiday pay claims have been calculated in line with the decision and, if not, look to adjust them.  However, I would also have thought that if any employees present a claim for unlawful deductions, whether to the RPS or to an IP, this could be dealt with without the need for the tribunal process, albeit quite rightly I think after the expiry of the appeal period.

But what about holiday pay claims that have not yet been processed?  Again, understandably the RPS will not want to pay out any enhanced holiday pay until the appeal period has expired.  Also, I assume, it will be for employees to make clear on their RP1s the “normal remuneration” that they expect to form the basis of their holiday pay calculation, although I don’t think that the RP1 form lends itself well to dealing with disclosure of non-guaranteed overtime – maybe another re-write is something that might appear after the appeal period has expired.

Thoughts for IPs

Finally, what about forms RP14A, which IPs complete to provide the RPS with basic information about employees made redundant from insolvent businesses?  The forms (I think) only ask for “basic pay”, so what should IPs be answering here?  I’m sure that IPs will not be criticised for acting on the Dear IP basis and continuing to complete RP14As “in the usual way until the expiry of the appeal period”, although personally this seems a little short-sighted to me.  If an IP were to know that employees’ holiday pay claims would be different if the Bear Scotland decision were applied, should he/she not take this into account when submitting an RP14A, at the very least alerting the RPS to the possible impact of the decision on the employees’ claims against the insolvent business in question?

Other questions arise by extension: should the IP make enquiries of insolvent business’ payroll departments to explore whether the effect of the decision has already been taken into account, or if it has not been considered, what effect it would have?

Of more concern to IPs dealing with a trading-on situation would be: how is the payroll department calculating holiday pay going forward?  IPs will not be want to be taken unawares by receiving claims for unlawful deductions long after the estate funds have been disbursed.

I also envisage this decision impacting on the TUPE obligation to provide to purchasers employee liability information, which would include any claims that the employer has reasonable grounds to believe that an employee may bring.

Of course, all this will already have been considered by ERA specialists and departments and IPs will not be short of solicitors who will be happy to advise.  Eventually also, we may receive an update from the RPS.


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The Insolvency Rules Modernisation Project: an ugly duckling no more?

1229 Port Douglas

The Insolvency Service’s work on the modernisation of the Insolvency Rules has appeared swan-like: to the outside world, the project seems to have drifted on serenely, but I get the feeling that those on the inside have been paddling furiously.  I set out here how the tome has been developing, as described in an update received from the Service last week.  Please note that this project is work in progress and the items as they are described below may evolve yet further before the Rules are finalised.

The Service reports that their consultation, which closed in January 2014, generated over a thousand policy and drafting points for consideration.  Their target remains to have a new set of Rules commencing in April 2016, although they are seeking to publish finalised Rules in autumn 2015 so that all of us who will be applying the Rules can get our houses in order for the big day.  That means that the Insolvency Rules Committee will need to be provided with the bulk of the new Rules to review in spring 2015.

The Service has endeavoured to keep those of us who have expressed a particular interest in the project informed and engaged in the process of developing the draft Rules, holding meetings to discuss related chunks and following this up with “we’d appreciate your comments on…” email exchanges.  Personally, I have been impressed by these efforts, although I have been conscious that such meetings and exchanges barely scratch the surface.  Although we might expect many Rules to remain intact, I envisage that the “simple” task of ensuring consistency throughout as regards, for example, notice requirements wraps in and has a knock-on effect on a whole host of interconnected Rules.  That Herculean task of dealing with the detail is left to the Insolvency Service team and, once the ever-changing impact of other government reviews and Bills is factored in, I can see why the Rules project has a projected 2016 end point.

About-Face

Good on the Service for taking the opportunity to propose some changes that were bound to upset some people!  The Service’s recent update illustrates the value of consultation, as they have reported that consideration of consultation responses has resulted in some proposed changes of direction:

  • Withdrawal of the proposed new requirement for personal service of winding-up petition;
  • Return of the current requirement to disclose any prior professional relationships of proposed administrators; and
  • Return of the ability to have contributory members on liquidation committees.

Further Progress

The consultation responses have led to further proposed changes to the draft Rules:

  • Withdrawal of the requirement for the appointor and committee to check the IPs’ security;
  • The Rules on disclaimers and on proxies will form separate parts (in the previous draft, these appeared to be scattered somewhat within the chapters dealing with different insolvency processes); and
  • Clarification of the requisite majority rules for CVAs and IVAs.

I found that last item particularly interesting.  It was not until I came to scrutinise the Rules – both draft and existing – when I was looking at the consultation that I saw quite how confusing the provisions are.  When considering the impact of connected (or associated) creditors’ votes, I’d had the idea that these connected votes are stripped out and then one looks at which way the remaining unconnected creditors were voting: if more than 50% (in value) of those voting were voting against the VA Proposal, then the Proposal was not approved.  However, I recently realised that this is not what the current Rules say.

Rule 1.19(4) (and similarly R5.23(4), the IVA equivalent) states that “any resolution is invalid if those voting against it include more than half in value of the creditors, counting in these latter only those –
a) to whom notice of the meeting was sent;
b) whose votes are not to be left out of account under [rule 1.19(3)]; and
c) who are not, to the best of the chairman’s belief, persons connected with the company.”

“The creditors” that forms the denominator in this fraction does not relate to creditors voting, but effectively to creditors entitled to vote. This is supported by Dear IP (chapter 24, article 13). Thus, chairmen should be looking, not simply at the majority of unconnected votes cast, but whether the votes cast rejecting the Proposal amount to more than half of the total of unconnected creditors’ unsecured claims.

Now, it may just be me who has misunderstood this all this time (and I hasten to add that I have not had cause to look carefully at this Rule probably since my exam days).  However, I suspect I am not alone, as the draft new Rule dealt with this matter in exactly the same way, but in plainer English, which seemed to make the consequence far more stark and this resulted in quite some debate at the Service-hosted meeting that I attended as to exactly how the requisite majority rule should operate.

I am not sure whether the new draft Rules will follow the current Rules – or if it will reflect how I suspect many of us have been reading it for many years – but I am pleased to hear that the language used will be revisited so that hopefully it will be unequivocal.  As the Administration equivalent – R2.43(2) – clearly refers to total creditors’ claims, not only creditors voting, I suspect the new VA Rules will be consistent with this design.

Unsettled Policy

The Service has also described some areas that are still in the process of being explored.  In responding to my request that I share the Service’s update publicly, I was asked to make it very clear that this is – all – still work in progress and, particularly as regards the following items, the Service is still in inviting-comments-and-reflecting mode and they should not be treated as settled policy.

Creditors

I greeted with disappointment the news that, as some of the Administration consent requirements are contained in Schedule B1 of the Act, the Rules’ Administration approval requirements are unlikely to depart from the Act’s model.  In other words, where all secured creditors’ approvals are required for a matter, this is likely to be repeated in the new Rules.  I am pleased to note, however, that the Service has heard the complaints of difficulties in persuading some secured creditors to engage.

The Service seems to be a little more sympathetic to IPs’ difficulties when it comes to persuading preferential creditors to vote.  They are reflecting on what exactly is meant by the approval of 50% of preferential creditors etc. (for example, in R2.106(5A)): does this mean that at least one pref creditor needs to vote or does 50% of zero equal zero..?  Whether or not the new Rules will allow Para 52(1)(b) fees to be approved on a zero pref creditor basis, it seems very likely that a positive response will be needed, if not by a pref creditor, then by a secured one.

So what about the old chestnut: do paid creditors get a vote?   For some time even before I had left the IPA, this debate has rumbled through many corridors.  The current Rules present a problem: if one views a “creditor” as someone who had a claim at the relevant date, then, as an example, R2.106(5A) may be difficult to achieve.  How do you get a secured creditor who has been paid out to respond to a request to approve fees?  The key may be to seek their approval pdq on appointment before they are paid out, but what if that doesn’t happen?  Do the Rules really require their approval?  It hardly seems in the spirit of the Rules to give a creditor, whose debt has been – or even is going to be – discharged in full, the power to make decisions that could affect someone else’s recovery.

The Service has considered whether it might be possible to define creditors in the Rules to overcome this difficulty.  At present, however, their conclusion is that, largely because of existing provisions defining certain “creditor”s and “debt”s in the Act, seeking to resolve this via the Rules will be difficult to achieve.

Progress Reports

The Service’s proposals regarding progress reports appear more promising.  Several people have commented that the government’s drive to reduce costs in the insolvency process seems at odds with the ever-increasing, e.g. via the 2010 Rules, level of prescription around certain requirements such as the timing and content of progress reports.  Already, the courts seem to have improved the default position of the current Rules when it comes to block transfers of insolvency cases: I understand that more often than not courts are now making orders that disapply the Rules’ requirements for progress reports by departing office holders and the re-setting of the reporting clock to the date of the transfer order (which, if not so ordered by the court, would have the unfortunate consequence that the incoming office holder would need to produce a progress report on all of his transferred-in cases on the same day each year/six months).

The Service is currently considering the following proposals:

  • Dropping the Rules’ requirement for a progress report on a case transfer (although the court may order, or the incoming office holder may decide, otherwise);
  • Dropping the requirement for a progress report to accompany an Administration extension application/request for consent, although the Administrator would need to explain why the extension was being requested; and
  • Because progress reports would not be required in the circumstances above, the timing of the next progress report would not be affected by the event (i.e. by the case transfer or extension request); the case would continue to follow the reporting cycle relative to the insolvency date.

 

Phew!  It’s good to see that much progress has been made – the ugly duckling is already showing signs of maturing into a reasonably-looking bird – and I wish the team all the best in their labours of coming months.


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The Future is… Complicated

 

 

1933 Yosemite

My autumn has been a CPE marathon: SWSCA, the R3 SPG Forum, the IPA roadshow, and the ICAEW roadshow. Thus I thought I’d try to summarise all the legislative and regulatory changes currently in prospect:

Statutory Instruments

  • Enterprise & Regulatory Reform Act 2013;
  • Deregulation Bill (est. commencement: May/October 2015);
  • Small Business, Enterprise and Employment Bill (October 2015 for IP regulation items, April 2016 for remainder);
  • The exemption for insolvency proceedings from the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (“LASPO”) comes to an end on 1 April 2015;
  • New Insolvency Rules (est. to be laid in Parliament in October 2015, to come into force in April 2016); and
  • A plethora of SIs to support the Bankruptcy and Debt Advice (Scotland) Act 2014 (coming into force on 1 April 2015, but, regrettably, I feel so out of the loop on Scottish insolvency now that I don’t dare pass comment!)

Consultation Outcomes

  • IP fees (consultation closed in March 2014);
  • DROs and threshold for creditors’ petitions for bankruptcy (consultation closed in October 2014); and
  • Continuity of essential supplies to insolvent businesses (consultation closed in October 2014).

Revision of SIPs etc.

  • Ethics Code Review;
  • SIP 1;
  • SIPs 16 & 13;
  • SIP 9 (depending on how the government turns on the issue of IP fees);
  • New Insolvency Guidance Paper on retention of title; and
  • Other SIPs affected by new statute.

 

Enterprise & Regulatory Reform Act 2013

The Insolvency Service’s timetable back in 2013 was that the changes enabled by this Act would be rolled out in 2015/16, but I haven’t heard a sniff about it since. However, the following elements of the Act are still in prospect:

  • Debtors’ bankruptcy petitions will move away from the courts and into the hands of SoS-appointed Adjudicators (not ORs).
  • There was talk of the fee being less than at present (£70 plus the administration fee of £525) and of it being paid in instalments, although my guess is that the Adjudicator is unlikely to deal with an application until the fee has been paid in full.
  • The application process is likely to be handled online. Questions had been raised on whether there would be safeguards in place to ensure that the debtor had received advice before applying. This would appear important given that the Adjudicator will have no discretion to reject an application on the basis that bankruptcy is not appropriate: if the debtor meets the criteria for bankruptcy, the Adjudicator must make the order.

The ERR Act is also the avenue for the proposed revisions to Ss233 and 372 of the IA86 – re. continuity of essential supplies – as it has granted the SoS the power to change these sections of the IA86.

The Deregulation Bill

Of course, the highlight of this Bill is the provision for partial insolvency licences. It was debated in the House of Lords last week (bit.ly/1tBmMhe – go to a time of 16.46) and whilst I think that, at the very least, the government’s efforts to widen the profession to greater competition are nonsensical in the current market where there is not enough insolvency work to keep the existing IPs gainfully employed, my sense of the debate is that the provision likely will stick.

I was surprised that Baroness Hayter’s closing gambit was to keep the door open at least to press another day for only personal insolvency-only licences (rather than also corporate insolvency-only ones).  Will that be a future compromise?  What with the ongoing fuzziness of (non-FCA-regulated) IPs’ freedom to advise individuals on their insolvency options and the rareness of bankruptcies, I wonder if the days in which smaller practice IPs handle a mixed portfolio of corporate and personal insolvencies are numbered in any event.

The Deregulation Bill contains other largely technical changes:

  • Finally, the Minmar/Virtualpurple chaos will be resolved in statute when the need to issue a Notice of Intention to Appoint an Administrator (“NoIA”) will be restricted to cases where a QFCH exists.
  • The consent requirements for an Administrator’s discharge will be amended so that, in Para 52(1)(b) cases, the consent of only the secured creditors, and where relevant a majority of preferential creditors, will be required. At present Para 98 can be interpreted to require the Administrator also to propose a resolution to the unsecured creditors.
  • A provision will be added so that, if a winding-up petition is presented after a NoIA has been filed at court, it will not prevent the appointment of an Administrator.
  • In addition to the OR, IPs will be able to be appointed by the court to act as interim receivers over debtors’ properties.
  • It will not be a requirement in every case for the bankrupt to submit a SoA, but the OR may choose to request one.
  • S307 IA86 will be amended so that Trustees will have to notify banks if they are seeking to claim specific after-acquired property. The government envisages that this will free up banks to provide accounts to bankrupts.
  • The SoS’ power to authorise IPs direct will be repealed, with existing IPs’ authorisations continuing for one year after the Act’s commencement.
  • The Deeds of Arrangement Act 1914 will be repealed.

The Small Business, Enterprise and Employment Bill

I won’t repeat all the provisions in this Bill, but I will highlight some that have created some debate recently.

The proposed new process for office holders to report on directors’ conduct proved to be a lively topic at the RPB roadshows. There seemed to be some expectation that IPs would report their “suspicion – not their evidenced belief – of director misconduct” (per the InsS slide), although this was downplayed at the later R3 Forum.  My initial thoughts were that perhaps the Service was looking to produce a kind-of SARs-reporting regime and I wondered whether that might work, if IPs could have the certainty that their reports would be kept confident.

However, I suspect that the Service had recognised that IPs would have difficulty with the proposed new timescale for a report within 3 months, but hoped that this would be mitigated if IPs could somehow be persuaded to report just the bare essentials – to enable the Service to decide whether the issues merit deeper enquiries – rather than putting them under a requirement to collect together substantial evidence. I suspect that the Service’s intentions are reasonable, but it seems that, at the moment, they haven’t got the language quite right.  Let’s hope it is sorted by the time the rules are drafted.

Phillip Sykes, R3 Vice President, gave evidence on the Bill to the Public Bill Committee a couple of weeks ago (see: http://goo.gl/V1XSbX or go to http://goo.gl/jSTmI0 for a transcript).  Phillip highlighted the value of physical meetings in engaging creditors in the process and in informing newly-appointed office holders of pre-appointment goings-on.  He also commented that the proposed provision to empower the courts to make compensation orders against directors on the back of disqualifications seems to run contrary to the ending of the LASPO insolvency exemption and that the suggestion that certain creditors might benefit from such orders offends the fundamental insolvency principle of pari passu. Phillip also explained the potential difficulties in assigning office holders’ rights of action to third parties and described a vision of good insolvency regulation.  Unfortunately, he was cut off in mid-sentence, but R3 has produced a punchy briefing paper at http://goo.gl/mBeU30, which goes further than Phillip was able to do in the short time allowed by the Committee.

Last week, a new Schedule was put to the Public Bill Committee (starts at: http://goo.gl/sY5QUG), setting out the proposed amendments to the IA86 to deal with the abolition of requirements to hold creditors’ meetings and opting-out creditors.  A quick scan of the schedule brought to my mind several queries, but it is very difficult to ascertain exactly how practically the new provisions will operate, not least because they refer in many places to processes set out in the rules, which themselves are a revision work in progress.

IP Fees

The consultation, which included a proposal to prohibit the use of time costs in certain cases, closed in March 2014 and there hasn’t exactly been a government response. All that has been published is a ministerial statement in June that referred to “discussing further with interested parties before finalising the way forward” (http://goo.gl/IbQsLd).  The recent events I have attended indicate that the Service’s current focus is more on exploring the value of providing up-front fee estimates together with creditors’ consent (or non-objection) to an exceeding of these estimates, rather than restricting the use of the time costs basis.  I understand that the government is expected to make a decision on how the IP fees structure might be changed by the end of the year.

Revision of SIPs etc.

I have Alison Curry of the IPA to thank for sharing with members at the recent roadshows current plans on these items:

  • A JIC review of the Insolvency Code of Ethics has commenced. Initial findings have queried whether the Code needs to incorporate more prescription, as it has been suggested that the prevalence of “may”s, rather than “shall”s, can make it difficult for regulators to enforce. The old chestnuts of commissions, marketing and referrals, also may be areas where the Code needs to be developed.
  • Although RPB rules include requirements for their members to report any knowledge of misconduct of another member, it has been noted that, of course, this is not effective where the misconduct involves a member of a different RPB. Therefore, the JIC is looking to amend SIP1 with a view to incorporating a profession-wide duty to report misconduct to the relevant RPB or perhaps via the complaints gateway.
  • As expected, SIP16 is being reviewed in line with Teresa Graham’s recommendations. This is working alongside the efforts to create the Pre-pack Pool, which will consider connected purchasers’ intentions and viability reviews. A consultation on a draft revised SIP16 is expected around Christmas-time. I had heard that the target is that a revised SIP16 will be issued by 1 February 2015 and the Pool will be operational by 1 March 2015, but that seems a little optimistic, given the need for a consultation.
  • SIP13 is ripe for review (in my opinion, it needed to be reviewed after the Enterprise Act 2002!) and it is recognised that it needs to be revised in short order after SIP16.
  • A new IGP on RoT has been drafted and is close to being issued. We received a preview of it at the IPA roadshow. To be honest, it isn’t rocket science, but then IGPs aren’t meant to be.


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The Small Business, Enterprise and Employment Bill: Part 3 – Regulation

1115 Swakop

In my final post on the Bill, I summarise the prospective changes to the IP regulatory landscape: by what standards will IPs be measured in the future? What will be the Insolvency Service’s role? And for how long will we continue with the multi-RPB model?

Regulatory Objectives

A key element of the Bill portrayed as the potential solution to several perceived problems is the introduction of regulatory objectives “as a framework against which regulatory activity can be measured and assessed”.

There has been a little refining of the objectives as originally proposed in the consultation document. They now appear (S126) as follows:

“‘Regulatory objectives’ means the objectives of:
(a) having a system of regulating persons acting as insolvency practitioners that
(i) secures fair treatment for persons affected by their acts and omissions,
(ii) reflects the regulatory principles, and
(iii) ensures consistent outcomes,
(b) encouraging an independent and competitive insolvency practitioner profession whose members:
(i) provide high quality services at a cost to the recipient which is fair and reasonable,
(ii) act transparently and with integrity, and
(iii) consider the interests of all creditors in any particular case,
(c) promoting the maximisation of the value of returns to creditors and promptness in making those returns, and
(d) protecting and promoting the public interest.”

Thus, the consultation’s suggested “value for money” objective has been replaced with reference to “high quality services at a cost to the recipient which is fair and reasonable”. However, “value for money” continues to appear large in the IA, which swings wildly from, on the one hand, conveying the sense that the introduction of a “value for money” regulatory objective will cause a sea change in regulation to, on the other hand, stating that, as RPBs say that “they already carry out an assessment of fees in monitoring visits”, they “do not anticipate this objective will add additional costs to the RPBs in terms of monitoring”.

Fees Complaints

The IA also states that “the objective makes it explicit that fee related complaints should be dealt with by the regulators”, but it states it is leaving the “how” entirely in the hands of the RPBs: “it will be for the RPBs, to create a system (whether within the existing complaints process or by combining resources to create a joint system) which adjudicates on fee issues”.

The IA sets a “high scenario” of 2,000 additional fee complaints (but with a best estimate of 300): that would be an average for each appointment-taker of three complaints every two years. However, despite this doom-saying, the IA factors in zero additional costs to the Service (in managing the Complaints Gateway) and to IPs. The IA states that the changes “should have minimal impact for individual IPs, particularly for those who already act in compliance with the existing legal and regulatory framework”. The Service does not seem to appreciate how the most compliant of IPs attracts complaints – it’s in the nature of the work – and how enormously time-consuming it can be to respond to RPB investigations, even when they end in “no case to answer”. I wonder how much work will be required to satisfy one’s RPB that the fees charged are a fair and reasonable exchange for the high quality services provided.

One consultation respondent estimated that the IP licence fee could increase by £950 pa, which prompted the IA drafter to write: “given the increased confidence and credibility to the industry which will result from a strengthened regulatory framework, is a proportionate cost for an industry which generates an estimated £1bn per annum”. In addition, the IA’s assessment of costs to the RPBs (for complaints-handling alone) shows a best estimate of £1,074 per IP, which increases to £7,184 per IP under the “high scenario”. Is this still considered a proportionate cost? It continues to sicken me that the Service seems to fail to understand the spectrum of environments within which IPs work. Yes, some do make a tidy living, but I know IPs for whom an extra £1,000 bill (let alone £7,000) would be the straw that breaks their back. For a Minister who seems so intent on “reducing a little the high bar on entry to the profession” (per her speech at the Insolvency Today conference) by introducing partial licences, which, allegedly, will encourage competition in the profession, she seems all too blind to the likely impact of burdening IPs with yet more costs; I think it will certainly threaten some sole practitioners’ survival in the industry. And for those IPs who can, inevitably the cost increase will be passed onto the insolvent estates – well done, Minister!

Will this “strengthened regulatory framework” really increase confidence in, and credibility of, the industry? Does the government feel that confidence will only increase once we see a few heads resting on platters? Well, public confidence had better improve, because the Bill will result in the Service’s hand hovering over the red button of the Single Regulator.

Partial Licences

The Small Biz Bill already makes obsolete the Deregulation Bill, which has yet even to complete its journey through the House of Lords, although principally only by adding to the Deregulation Bill’s requirements for RPBs – whether recognised for full or partial IP-licensing – by referring to the need to have rules and practices designed to ensure that the regulatory objectives are met.

Does this mean that the partial licensing debate over? The clause in the Deregulation Bill emerged intact from the House of Commons after a vote on a motion for its removal of 273 to 213. There has been some debate at the Bill’s second reading in the House of Lords, but it seems to me not nearly enough to turn the juggernaut. I find it quite striking how, on the one hand, there have been some very strong submissions against partial licensing primarily from R3 but also from the ICAEW* (which has stated that, through its own consultation process, it received “no indications of support at all” for partial licences), but on the other hand… Actually, who is fighting the “for” partial licensing corner? Why is it seen as such a great idea, where is the evidence that good people are being shut out of the market by the need to sit three exams (how many exams does it take to qualify as an accountant these days?), and has anyone with experience and knowledge of these things been arguing that partially licensed IPs will be just as skilful and competent as full licence-holders, only they will be cheaper?

* Responses on Clause 10 consultation, February 2014:
R3’s: http://goo.gl/vkqYvR
ICAEW’s: http://goo.gl/lhVNo8

Oversight Regulator’s Powers

The Bill introduces a range of powers, which will enable the oversight regulator (aka the Secretary of State, acting by the Insolvency Service) to influence an RPB’s actions – by means of directions, compliance orders, fines, reprimands, and ultimately the revocation of recognition – but also to leapfrog the RPB in its regulatory action against a licensed IP.

The Bill’s Explanatory Notes discloses the type of conditions that might prompt the Secretary of State to issue directions to an RPB: “if the RPB has failed to address the Insolvency Service’s concerns following a review of the way the RPB handles its complaints or a RPB’s failure to carry out a targeted monitoring visit of its IPs where the Insolvency Service has requested that it be done”. The Memorandum adds: “the Secretary of State will also be able to apply to the court to require an RPB to discipline an insolvency practitioner if disciplinary action appears to be in the public interest”.

When would the SoS apply to court directly to sanction an IP, rather than leave it to the IP’s RPB? The IA summary states: “where public confidence in the regime is undermined and could have serious consequences for the reputation of the profession. An example is where the activity undertaken impacts across all regulators and is so serious that action is required immediately, rather than wait for each regulator to investigate the case and come to potentially different findings”.

Personally, I find these moves worrying. In every Insolvency Service Annual Review of Insolvency Regulation, there is reported a clutch of complaints made to the Service about RPBs and, almost without exception, the Service’s investigations reveal nothing untoward. In addition, the Reviews disclose complaints made by the Service to the RPBs about individual IPs: these complaints appear to be processed by the RPBs adequately. Is this not the way things should be handled? It seems to me to be wholly inappropriate to side-step due process on the simple ground that public confidence appears to be undermined. Considering that the objective is to shore up public confidence in the existing regulatory regime, it seems to me that taking an issue out of the RPB’s hands is one sure way of destroying any confidence the public may have. If the Service were ever tempted to exercise such a power, it would seem to me that the nuclear option of a single regulator could become almost inevitable.

Single Regulator

What would prompt the SoS to designate a single regulator? The Bill’s Explanatory Notes state: “the power to move to a single regulator will only be used if the changes proposed by clauses 125 to 131 [i.e. including the regulatory objectives and the Service’s powers to sanction or direct the RPBs] do not succeed in improving confidence in the regulatory regime for insolvency practitioners”. The Memorandum also states: “the changes proposed by clauses 125 to 131 will be reviewed with a reasonable time of commencement. If there is still a lack of confidence in the insolvency practitioner regulatory regime, then the Secretary of State will consider whether to act to bring an end to the system of self-regulation by creating a single independent regulator which will apply consistent standards of regulation and will not be perceived to act in the interests of insolvency practitioners over creditors.”

I appreciate that often members of the public – and not a few IPs – express bemusement that the regulation of such a small industry should be shared amongst seven bodies and that there tends to be a natural scepticism towards the idea that a body funded (even in part) by IPs, some of whom also sit on regulatory committees, can be sufficiently independent to regulate its members satisfactorily (although I wonder how else anyone expects an insolvency regulator to be funded). However, whatever one’s criticisms are of the existing regulatory structure, I struggle to see how a single regulator would be certain to do a better job. But maybe it’s only the perception that’s important.