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Developments in UK insolvency by Michelle Butler


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Part 18: Reporting and Remuneration

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Finally, I’ve reached the end of the crazy-busy season and I can get back to the New Rules. This post deals with Part 18 of the Rules: Reporting and Remuneration.

I’m very pleased to see that the Insolvency Service has taken the opportunity to iron out some of the overly prescriptive, clunky and vague rules.   For example:

  • Fixing the prescriptive: stripping back on the loooong list of final report contents
  • Fixing the clunky: new approaches to the ADM-to-CVL conversion process and to reporting for changes in office holder or ADM extensions
  • Fixing the vague: settling the debates on issuing a fees estimate before being appointed as liquidator and on the process of seeking preferential creditors’ approval to fees in Para 52(1)(b) Administrations

Other changes have slipped in too, mainly as a consequence of the more material changes affecting other areas of practice, such as the abolition of final meetings.

For a step-by-step guide to Part 18, including many rules that I have not touched on in this post, I would recommend Jo Harris’ webinar, available now through The Compliance Alliance – contact info@thecompliancealliance.co.uk.

 

Part 18: Scope

Part 18 is one of the now “common” parts. I think it does help to bring together the procedures that are common to all cases… but it’s not quite this simple. Part 18 covers reporting and remuneration for Administrations, all Liquidations and Bankruptcies. It does not deal with VA reporting. Neither does it deal will all the closing reporting requirements – bits of these appear in the case-specific parts. Ho hum.

One key point to remember is that for the most part the changes apply across the board, so we need to be ready to report and seek rem under the New Rules from the off.

The exceptions are, as previously mentioned, progress reporting on the old pre-2010 appointments and any progress reports that fall due before 6 April 2017. But for everything else – including closure processes on all cases – the New Rules apply.

 

Contents of Progress Reports

There are some pesky little changes in here. One intriguing change is that, no longer must we detail “assets that remain to be realised”, but instead we need to detail “what remains to be done” (R18.3(1)(h)). I know that we usually do provide a one-liner on this, but isn’t it charming for the Insolvency Service to make it a statutory requirement..?

R18.3(6) accommodates the significant change in the process of an ADM moving to CVL. It’s good to see the Insolvency Service have yet another go at getting this process working smoothly. In my mind, the New Rules improve the process… although I still don’t see why we need to rely on the Registrar of Companies (“RoC”) to tell us when the ADM ends and the CVL starts. Regrettably, though, the trigger for the move has been set down in the Act, so the New Rules simply try to make the best of this awkward situation.

R3.60 sets out the new ADM-to-CVL process. The Administrator submits the Notice of the Move together with their final report to the RoC and copies the pack to creditors etc. Once the Notice is registered, the former Administrator informs the Liquidator of “anything which happens after the date of the final progress report and before the registration of the notice which the administrator would have included in the final report had it happened before the date of the report” (R3.60(5)).

Consequently, within the Liquidator’s first progress report, they must include “a note of any information received by the liquidator from the former administrator” (R18.3(6)).

This process sounds a bit odd when you remember that usually the Administrator is the Liquidator – will the RPBs expect the file to contain a “note to self”..? I think we get the idea though and at least the new process avoids the uncomfortable position of completing and issuing a final Administration report after having vacated office.

 

Timing of Progress Reports

In principle, nothing has changed on timing. However, again a couple of welcome simplifications in other areas will affect reporting complications with which we have all become familiar under the current Rules.

In future, the 6/12-monthly reporting routine will not be affected by the following events:

  • A change in office holder: under the New Rules, incoming office holders are required to deliver a notice to members/creditors (depending on the case type) “of any matters about which the succeeding (office holder) thinks the members/creditors should be informed” (Rs18.6(3), 18.7(4), 18.8(3)). This removes the need for a formal progress report to draw a line under the change, so the original progress reporting routine remains unaffected. The New Rules are vague on what triggers this requirement, but in my view it is likely to mean that nothing is required if the office holder changes but the practice does not.
  • Extension of an Administration: under the New Rules, a progress report is no longer required in order to seek approval of an extension. The New Rules simply require the Administrator to send, along with the court application or the notice requesting creditors’ consent, “the reasons why the administrator is seeking an extension” (R3.54(2)).

This is all good stuff, thanks Insolvency Service.

These changes do leave me with a question, though: what if you are already dealing with a case with an altered reporting schedule, i.e. an extended ADM or a case involving a change in office holder where the court was not asked to over-ride the current rules’ effect of changing the reporting timeline? After 6 April 2017, will you need to revert to the pre-extension/office holder-change schedule or will you continue to produce 6/12-monthly reports from the date of the last pre-April report? I have heard rumours that the Insolvency Service’s intention is the latter, but personally I think that the wording of the New Rules would require such cases to revert to the old schedule.   That’s another question for the Insolvency Service’s blog, I reckon.

(UPDATE 17/01/2017: the Insolvency Service responded to my query on their blog: “It was not the intention that where a reporting cycle in any relevant process had already been reset, it would need to be changed again as a result of the commencement of the new rules. As you have suggested, we had identified that a transitional provision would make it clear that this should not happen, and we are looking to see whether and how we can insert such a provision into Schedule 2 of the new rules.”)

(UPDATE 23/03/2017: the Insolvency Service has indeed introduced a fix via the recently-issued Amendment Rules.  This fixes the position for changes in office holder such that, if you have an existing case with an amended reporting schedule due to a pre-6/4/17 change in office holder, then after 6/4/17 you continue to report according to your amended schedule.  The position is a little less satisfactory for already-extended ADMs: whilst it seems that the Insolvency Service has attempted to apply the same principle to these cases, I am not convinced that the Amendment Rules wording delivers this effect… although casparjblog has suggested a possible wriggle-through – see the Insolvency Service’s blog at https://goo.gl/IE0pmK.)

(UPDATE 02/05/2017: in Dear IP 76, the Insolvency Service expresses the view that the Amendment Rule is “sufficiently clear” that the reporting schedule for an already-extended ADM should continue, rather than be re-set to the original schedule.)

 

Contents of “Final Accounts” and “Final Reports”

The abolition of final meetings in Liquidations and Bankruptcies necessitates a change in the final reporting processes. The new processes can be found at:

  • Rs5.9 and 5.10 for MVLs;
  • R6.28 for CVLs;
  • R7.71 for Compulsory Liquidations; and
  • R10.87 for Bankruptcies.

I won’t cover them here, but suffice to say that creditors (and/or members/bankrupt) are provided with a final account (or, in Bankruptcies, a final report) 8 weeks before the office holder obtains their release.

The contents of these final accounts/reports are found in R18.14. Delightfully, the Insolvency Service has decided to lighten up on the miserable prescription that had been introduced by the 2010 Rules (e.g. no more statements of the aggregate numbers of preferential and unsecured creditors or that accounts have been reconciled with those held by the SoS) – thank you again!

In case you’re wondering about Administrations, R3.53 contains details of some of the contents of an ADM final progress report… but because, in Administrations, the final document is called a final progress report, the Part 18 rules on the contents of progress reports also apply to Administration final progress reports (plus an additional requirement slipped in to R18.3(2)).

 

Remuneration: Circulating Fees Estimates

The biggest change in the remuneration chapters is something very welcome: finally, we can stop debating whether it is possible for an IP to issue a fees estimate (and/or other fees-related information) before they are appointed as Liquidator. R18.16(10) states that “a proposed liquidator” may deliver the information. Excellent!

Of course, the New Rules will transform the whole S98 process beyond recognition – this is a huge topic for another blog post entirely.

 

Remuneration Niggles

Yes, I know I can be pedantic. If you have visited the Insolvency Service’s blog, you will have seen my query on R18.18(3), which could be read as requiring every Administrator’s fees to be agreed by creditors by a “decision procedure”, which would have had unexpected consequences for Para 52(1)(b) ADMs with only secured creditors in the frame. Thankfully, the Service is on the case and hopefully this will be fixed before April.  (UPDATE 23/03/2017: the recently-issued Amendment Rules have fixed this issue so that Para 52(1)(b) case fees are subject to approval only by secureds/prefs.)

Another niggle of mine is that the wording of the time costs basis has been changed – again. I think it passed by many of us that the 2015 Rules changed the time costs basis from “the time properly given… in attending to matters arising in the administration/winding up/bankruptcy” to “the time properly given… in attending to matters arising in the administration/winding up/bankruptcy as set out in the fees estimate”. Those words in italics have been removed for the New Rules – so if you were diligent enough to change the wording of your standard resolutions last year, unfortunately you’ll have to put them back to the way they were pre-2015.

 

Preferential Creditors’ Approval

The New Rules resolve another long-running debate: how were we to read the current R2.106(5A)(b)(ii), which sets out that Administrators who have made a Para 52(1)(b) statement and who have made or intend to make a distribution to preferential creditors need to seek the approval to fees of “preferential creditors whose debts amount to more than 50% of the preferential debts of the company, disregarding debts of any creditor who does not respond to an invitation to give or withhold approval”. The question has always been: what happens if no preferential creditor votes, does this mean that you have approval?

R18.18(4) eliminates all doubt. It states that in future Administrators will need to seek preferential creditors’ approval (on relevant cases) “in a decision procedure”. This is a New Rules-defined term, which I will not go into here (again, this is another blog post entirely), but it does mean without a doubt that there will need to be at least one positive vote to reach a decision.

A second long-running question on the current R2.106(5A)(b)(ii) has also been: what if you have paid preferential creditors’ claims in full, do you still need to ask these creditors to approve your fees?

This conundrum is solved by Rs15.11 and 15.31(1)(a), which indicate that in these circumstances only preferential creditors who have not been paid in full are circulated and that, if there’s no claim left, the creditor has no vote. These two rules are specific to creditors voting in decision procedures in Administrations though, so they won’t help you in any other cases (including, I assume, where secured creditors are being asked to approve fees in Administrations).

 

As mentioned earlier, there are many more rules in Part 18 that are essential-reading, but if you prefer to hear about them, drop an email to info@thecompliancealliance.co.uk and ask about Jo’s webinar.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mr Registrar Jones’ consideration addressed a number of areas:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • What about the quantum of fees sought?

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

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

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

The downsides of discontinuances

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

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

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

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

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

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

Suspended Petition comes home to haunt the Petitioner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Company paid fees but not entitled to reclaim the VAT

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Court rejects attempts at second bite of the cherry

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Administration Tangles

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Ah, the Insolvency Act & Rules, what shall I compare thee to? Maybe an old Crown Derby figurine: looks in good nick when you first encounter it, but it’s only when you begin to handle it that you spot all number of hairline cracks and chips to the paint. I have been threatening to myself for many months now to blog on my top Act/Rules gripes. I have made a start here – with the tangle of provisions governing convening Administration meetings and fee approval – and I have many more that I intend to use as good blogging material for many months to come.

Administrators: To hold or not to hold a Creditors’ Meeting

Paragraph 52(1) of Schedule B1 of the Insolvency Act 1986 lists the circumstances in which the requirement to hold a creditors’ meeting to consider the Administrators’ Proposals shall not apply:

52(1) …where the statement of proposals states that the administrator thinks:

(a) That the company has sufficient property to enable each creditor of the company to be paid in full;
(b) That the company has insufficient property to enable a distribution to be made to unsecured creditors other than by virtue of Section 176A(2)(a) (“the prescribed part”); or
(c) That neither of the objectives specified in paragraph 3(1)(a) and (b) can be achieved

So if a creditors’ meeting is not held by reason of any of these circumstances, how does an Administrator get approval for his fees?

Rule 2.106(5A) states that “in a case where the administrator has made a statement under paragraph 52(1)(b)… the basis of the administrator’s remuneration may be fixed… by the approval of (a) each secured creditor of the company; or (b) if the administrator has made or intends to make a distribution to preferential creditors: (i) each secured creditor of the company; and (ii) preferential creditors whose debts amount to more than 50% of the preferential debts of the company, disregarding debts of any creditor who does not respond to an invitation to give or withhold approval”.

Therefore, it’s pretty clear (although see below) for Administrators who have made a Para 52(1)(b) statement, but what if they have made statement under either Para 52(1)(a) or (c)? They cannot use Rule 2.106(5A) and it seems to me that they have to use R2.106(5): “If… the case does not fall within paragraph 5A, the basis of the administrator’s remuneration may be fixed… by a resolution of a meeting of creditors” (or they can go to court, but only after they’ve tried to seek approval via (5)). Gripe number one: does anyone else think it’s nuts that the requirement to call a creditors’ meeting to consider the Administrator’s Proposals shall not apply, if he makes a Para 52(1)(a) or (c) statement, but then in those circumstances the only way it seems that he can get his fees approved is by a resolution of a meeting of creditors?! Some might suggest that this is met by the deemed approval route of R2.33(5), although personally I very much doubt it (as I do not think that Proposals “deemed to have been approved” equates to fees basis “deemed to have been fixed by a resolution of a meeting of creditors” and surely someone has to positively approve fees). At a stretch, I wonder if the drafter felt that, in Para 52(1)(a) or (c) cases, the rest of the Administrator’s Proposals were not up for discussion by the unsecureds – that would make sense, but then I still don’t understand why in those circumstances fee approval should rest with the unsecureds.

Is this just a theoretic gripe or can it arise in practice? Well, Para 52(1)(a) statements are extremely rare, but what about Para 52(1)(c) statements? How many Administrations end up simply meeting the third objective of “realising property in order to make a distribution to one or more secured or preferential creditors”? If that is the case, then take care that, if you make a Para 52(1)(c) statement, it seems (to me anyway) that you need to seek approval of your fees by a creditors’ meeting (or by correspondence, of course) resolution. This outcome also seems contrary to the so-called “spirit” of the Act/Rules, which I will return to later.

The Paragraph 52(1)(b) Statement

So let’s look a little closer at the Para 52(1)(b) statement that takes Administrators down the route of dispensing with a creditors’ meeting to consider their Proposals and seeking approval for their fees from secured (and preferential) creditors.

Firstly, how does an Administrator think about the outcome for creditors? If, as a creditor, you were to ask an office holder, “do you think I am going to get a dividend from this insolvency case?”, how would you expect him to answer you? Personally, I would expect him to consider what the realisations were likely to be, what costs were going to be deducted from those funds, and thus how much money was left over for creditors. I would accept that, if I look at the estimated Statement of Affairs as at the date of insolvency, the outcome does not incorporate the costs of administering the case, so this outcome is completely unrealistic. It does not reflect what the office holder thinks the outcome will be for creditors.

You might be wondering why I’m labouring such an obvious point. The issue is that I believe that opinions are divided on how Administrators should think about the likely outcome for creditors for the purposes of making Para 52(1)(b) statements: some believe it should be on a Statement of Affairs basis, i.e. exclusive of costs; others believe that the anticipated costs of the Administration should be taken into consideration. My personal view is that I believe that Para 52(1) asks the Administrator to think about the outcome and that any decision made without considering the likely costs that will be deducted is wholly unrealistic. However, I do accept that, in following what I believe is the letter of the Act, it could lead the Administrator in some circumstances down a route that does not observe the so-called “spirit” of the Act (see below), but what is an IP to do when he is expected to follow the Act/Rules?

I have another issue with the wording of Para 52(1)(b): what is meant by: “insufficient property to enable a distribution to be made to unsecured creditors other than by virtue of” the prescribed part”? At first glance, it suggests that a Para 52(1)(b) statement can only be made in cases where the Administrator thinks that there will be a prescribed part distribution (but no other unsecured dividend). But if that’s the case, then R2.106(5A)(a) would never kick in, as there would always be a pref distribution – in full – in order for there to be a prescribed part, so there would never be a case where only secured creditors’ approval – and not the prefs also – would be sufficient for fees. You could argue that R2.106(5A)(a) could be used in cases where there are no prefs, but then I still think R2.106(5A)(a) is unnecessary, as surely, with a bit of sensible drafting, you could just use the wording in (5A)(b) and accept that no prefs’ approval is needed as they don’t exist.

And does it make sense for Para 52(1)(b) to apply only when there is a prescribed part? As you know, the consequence of a Para 52(1)(b) statement is that the secureds (and prefs) have the authority to approve the Administrator’s fees. Does it make sense that, if unsecureds are only likely to receive something via a prescribed part, fees are approved by secureds (and prefs), but if unsecureds are not in the frame for any dividend at all (say, because the (net) realisations are going to be wiped out by the preferential claims or there is a pre-2003 debenture so that any surplus after the prefs goes to the secured creditor), the unsecureds get to approve the fees? If it is considered inappropriate from a policy point of view for unsecureds to have power over fees when there is likely to be only a prescribed part for them, then I would expect it to be considered similarly inappropriate for unsecureds to have such power when they are not likely to receive even a prescribed part. It seems to me that the policy point is that, just because S176A provides for a proportion of floating charge realisations to be divided off for the unsecureds, this does not mean that the floating charge-holder loses control over fees. If that is the policy, then it seems to me that Para 52(1)(b) only really makes sense if one reads it that it applies where there may, or may not be, a prescribed part distribution, but one thing is for certain: there is insufficient property to pay unsecureds a non-prescribed part dividend.

And who exactly are unsecured creditors? Another gripe of mine is that the Act/Rules – at least post-EA2002 – seem to have developed a convention of using the term “unsecured creditor” when referring only to non-preferential unsecured creditors. For example, R4.126(1E)(a)(xii) requires liquidators’ final reports to set out “the aggregate numbers of preferential and unsecured creditors”, which suggests that preferential creditors are not included in the unsecured creditors category. For definitions, we can look to S248, which states: “‘secured creditor’, in relation to a company, means a creditor of the company who hold in respect of his debt a security over property of the company, and ‘unsecured creditor’ is to be read accordingly”. So the Act, at least as originally drafted, acknowledges the reality that preferential creditors are included in “unsecured creditors”.

However, the concept that “unsecured creditors” includes prefs makes a nonsense of Para 52(1)(b), because in that case Para 52(1)(b) could not be used if the Administrator expected to pay prefs, although the only time R2.106(5A)(b) kicks in is when there is a pref distribution.

So, where does all that leave an IP who is simply trying to follow the Act/Rules? When should he be making Para 52(1)(b) statements?

The “Spirit” of the Act/Rules

Although I don’t think I’ve seen it written publicly or officially, I recall an exchange I had with someone at the Insolvency Service when I was at the IPA about the way the Administrators’ fees approval mechanism was intended to work. I believe the intention was that the creditors whose recovery prospects were affected by the Administrators’ fees would have authority to fix the basis of those fees – I don’t think anyone would disagree with that sensible principle. The problem is that it is extremely difficult to convert into legislation and, as I hope I demonstrate below, I do not believe it has been achieved.

As an example, take the argument above about whether the Administrator should think about the outcome to creditors before or after costs. Let me take a simple case: no prefs, just a fixed and floating charge creditor (fixed over a freehold property) and minimal floating charge assets. Before costs (i.e. on a Statement of Affairs (“SoA”) basis), the estimated-to-realise figures indicate that there would be a surplus available to unsecured creditors. However, when you take into consideration the likely costs of the administration (i.e. on an Estimated Outcome Statement (“EOS”) basis), it looks like the fixed charge surplus and the floating charge realisations are going to be eaten up in costs leaving nothing for the unsecureds. On that basis, it would seem that it would be fair for the unsecureds to have power over the fees, as they are the ones losing out by reason of the fees.

But what if the property value only just covers the secured creditor’s position – although the SoA still shows a small surplus for unsecureds – and therefore when the fees and costs are taken into consideration, there is a shortfall to the secured creditor? Now, it would not be fair to the secured creditor to look at it from an SoA basis – and give the power to the unsecureds who are losing very little by reason of the marginal surplus – but the EOS perspective would seem fairer.

But, in this scenario, to whom would you go for fees approval, if you were following the letter of the Act/Rules?

I attach here – Admin outcomes – a table on which I have tried to demonstrate the range of possible scenarios – both before and after costs – and the resultant party/parties holding power over the Administrator’s fees based on the alternative interpretations of the Act/Rules, together with who should have authority on the basis of what I think is the so-called spirit of the Act/Rules, as I’ve described it above. PLEASE NOTE, however, that I created this late at night and I haven’t checked it through. After a while, my mind boggled as I tried to picture the outcomes, Act/Rules interpretations, and which creditor(s) was/were being affected by the costs/fees. Whilst, as a consequence, I would not be surprised if I have got it wrong in some places, I think it demonstrates how none of the different interpretations of the Act/Rules reflects consistently the spirit (although it does show that some get it right more often than others). Thus, even if an IP tries to shoe-horn in a particular interpretation of an Act/Rules provision in a well-meaning attempt to reflect its spirit, they will come a cropper sooner or later if they consistently use that interpretation for every case.

Not all scenarios are explored by the attached table, for example where there is more than one secured creditor. The Act/Rules appear odd in the case of multiple secured creditors, because, rather than treating them as a queue of expectant claimants, only one of whom (assuming they have security over the same assets) is going to be impacted by the Administrator’s fees, they are treated as members of a group each with equal authority over the Administrator’s fees; in a Para 52(1)(b) case it seems that the approval to fees of all secured creditors must be sought.

But what if the company has several secured creditors who appear to have no financial interest – on either an SoA or EOS basis – by reason of the fact that the realisable value of the secured assets is only sufficient to return monies to the first charge-holder? It seems that this makes no difference – the approval of all secured creditors needs to be sought. And what if the subordinate uninterested charge-holders decline to respond to an invitation to give or withhold approval? It seems that the Act/Rules provide no solution… other than to apply to court under R2.106(6). This seems nonsensical: that a court order should be required to decide on an Administrator’s fees simply because a secured creditor, whose security is worthless, does not bother to respond to an invitation to approve the fees basis. The same seems to apply where there are priority secured creditors who are healthily secured and are facing zero risk of a shortfall whatever the fees are. Despite this, the Act/Rules still seem to require their positive approval of the fee basis (although there remains the thorny question as to whether they still count as a creditor once their debt has been discharged in full from the insolvent estate).

What about a different kind of multiple security case? What if a company has several creditors holding security over different assets, say a portfolio of mortgaged properties? The Act/Rules allow the Administrator to fix more than one fee basis “in respect of different things done by the administrator” (R2.106(3A)) and it would seem appropriate to go to each relevant secured creditor and ask for approval for fees, but only in relation to dealing with the property subject to that creditor’s security. However, I can see nothing in the Act/Rules that enables an Administrator to do that. It seems that every secured creditor needs to approve the Administrator’s fee basis in relation to everything that he does on the case, even if he is seeking to charge different bases for different items and irrespective of whether that secured creditor has any interest in the property that the Administrator is handling. I accept that in reality, if there are separate mortgaged properties involved, you might have some LPA/fixed charge receivers about, but you get my point, don’t you?

So where does that leave us? I think it leaves us with a tangle of statutory provisions governing one of the most sensitive areas of an IP’s activity – his fees – and, although I dread the day when I have to get my head around a completely new set of Rules, in some ways I feel that it cannot come soon enough.