Insolvency Oracle

Developments in UK insolvency by Michelle Butler


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Four High Court Decisions: (1) how (not) to avoid personal liability; (2) LPA Receivership changes “client” for TUPE purposes; (3) out-bid Newco avoids allegations of hiving out business; and (4) discharged bankrupt refused release from family proceedings debt

I don’t think any of these judgments introduces anything new, but they might still hold a little interest:

  • Wright Hassall LLP v Morris – lessons in avoiding personal liability in post-administration agreements
  • McCarrick v Hunter – LPA Receivership results in change of client, thus no TUPE transfer of service provision
  • City of London Group Plc & Anor v Lothbury Financial Services Limited & Ors – out-bid Newco avoids claims from purchaser finding the “cupboard bare”
  • McRoberts v McRoberts – when will a court release a bankrupt from a family proceedings debt under S281(5)?

Lessons in avoiding personal liability in post-administration agreements

 Wright Hassall LLP v Morris [2012] EWCA Civ 1472 (15 November 2012)

 http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWCA/Civ/2012/1472.html

 Summary: This has been the subject of some discussion on the LinkedIn Contentious Insolvency group.  The main lessons I drew from this case are that, not only should IPs take care to avoid personal liability when signing contracts/agreements as agent (SoBO?), but also to understand who – himself or the insolvent entity – is made party to legal proceedings.  In this case, it seems that the IP did not think through the consequences of an action brought against him; he seemed to assume (or at least he attempted to rely on the assumption) that the successful litigant would rank pari passu with other administration expense creditors.  As the IP had not appealed the order, all that was left to the judge – who was asked by the litigant for directions that it be paid in priority to the other expense creditors – was the question: was the order against the IP personally or the companies in Administration?  As the companies had not been made party to the proceedings, the court on appeal concluded that it could not be the companies and thus the IP was held personally liable.

The Detail: Mr Morris, Administrator of two companies, entered into two CFAs with Wright Hassall LLP.  The judgment of Lord Justice Treacy notes: “Although the heading to the agreements made plain that the two companies were in administration, and the Appellant must have understood that Mr Morris was the Administrator, when he signed the agreements he did so without any qualification as to his personal position or reservation as to his personal liability. In due course Judge Brown QC was to find that Mr Morris signed the documents without reading them” (paragraph 5).  Here endeth the first lesson.

Later, the solicitors sought payment under the CFAs.  The court found in favour of Wright Hassall LLP, but, as described above, when the solicitors pursued payment, Morris sought to treat them as an administration expense creditor who would need to wait along with all other expense creditors.  The solicitors sought directions that they be paid in priority to the other expense creditors, but, although the issue of personal liability had not been raised before, Judge Cooke recognised that this issue was key.  He decided that Morris was not personally liable, putting some weight behind the naming of the defendant as “Morris as Administrator of… Limited” and suggested that this acknowledged that Morris was acting as agent, rather than in a personal capacity.  Wright Hassall LLP appealed this decision.

The problem identified by one of the appeals judges, Treacy LJ, was that the only defendant was Morris; at no stage had the companies been joined as parties to the litigation.  Treacy LJ noted that there was no authority for asserting that, by describing the defendant as “Morris as Administrator of… Limited”, this recognises that he is being sued as agent.  He also noted that the only way the companies could have been made party to the action was with the consent of the Administrator or by order of court, but neither of these steps had been taken.  Finally, he noted that, had the companies truly been the defendants, they would have been described as “XYZ Limited (In Administration)”.  As Judge Brown QC could only make an order against a party to the action before him, it followed that the order was against Mr Morris personally.

LPA Receivership results in change of client, thus no TUPE transfer of service provision

McCarrick v Hunter [2012] EWCA Civ 1399 (30 October 2012)

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWCA/Civ/2012/1399.html

Summary: I have seen some commentary on the Hunter v McCarrick Employment Appeal Tribunal ([2011] UKEAT 0167/10/DA) and, as this recent appeal was dismissed, there has been no change, but I thought it was worth a quick mention.

We are all used to the principle that, if a business switches its service provider, the people employed by the original service provider are protected under TUPE.  In this case, the appointment of LPA Receivers led to employees switching employer although they provided the same services to the same properties.  However, the switch of employers was not considered to be a transfer of service provision, because the “client” had changed from the borrower to the mortgagee/receivership.

The Detail: McCarrick was employed by WCP Management Limited (“WCP”), which provided management services on a group of properties.  The mortgagee appointed LPA Receivers, who instructed a new property management company, King Sturge, and thus WCP stopped providing the service.  McCarrick then became employed personally by Hunter, who had an interest in seeing the swift end of the receivership and who made McCarrick available to assist King Sturge in the property management at no cost to the receivership.  McCarrick apparently provided the same property management services as he had before, but he was now paid by Hunter.

Subsequently, McCarrick was dismissed and he sought to claim that the dismissal was unfair.  In order to do so, he needed to prove continuity of employment between WCP and Hunter.  The Employment Appeal Tribunal decided – and this appeals court confirmed – that there was no transfer of service provision between WCP and Hunter.  It was stated that Regulation 3(1)(b) of the Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) Regulations 2006 envisages that the client will remain the same throughout the transfer of service provision and “it would be quite illegitimate to rewrite the statutory provisions in the very broad way suggested by the appellant” (paragraph 37), i.e. to enable the Regulations to achieve the purpose of protecting employees in this situation when there is a transfer of service provision.  Therefore, as the client switched from the borrower to the mortgagee “and/or the receivership” (paragraph 27), Regulation 3(1)(b) regarding the transfer of service provision does not apply.

Out-bid Newco avoids claims from purchaser who found the cupboard bare

City of London Group Plc & Anor v Lothbury Financial Services Limited & Ors [2012] EWHC 3148 (Ch) (8 November 2012)

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWHC/Ch/2012/3148.html

Summary: The post-Administration purchasers of a business alleged that they found “the cupboard was bare”, but claims against “Newco” and others for migrating the business prior to insolvency failed.

What I found particularly interesting in this case was the apparent acknowledgement of the judge that the director could take certain steps in anticipation of a pre-pack sale to Newco.

The Detail: A subsidiary of the first claimant bought the business, name and assets of Lothbury Financial Limited (“LF”) from its Administrators four days after the company was placed into Administration on application of the claimants.  The claimants alleged that a former director, consultants, and employee of LF conspired to transfer the business to Lothbury Financial Services Limited (“LFS”) and thus committed serious acts of misfeasance.

Mrs Justice Proudman concluded that the claims failed.  She was satisfied that the evidence demonstrated that: LFS operated as a bona fide separate business prior to the Administration of LF; LF’s clients were not misled, but chose to follow the consultants, who had no restrictive covenants, to LFS of their own accord (the business was PR); and LFS was entitled to continue to use the name after the goodwill of LF was sold to the claimant.

As far back as summer 2009 (LF was placed into Administration on 29 March 2010), the director was taking advice from an IP regarding a pre-pack Administration, although he was also attempting to re-negotiate payment terms with the claimant in order to rescue LF.  The claimants alleged that LFS was set up and structured as part of the director’s exit strategy, that LFS was to be the destination for LF’s business.  “The claimants argue that the allegation of a pre-pack administration is self-serving as depriving LF of its business served to ensure that the price to be paid would be minimised and rival bidders would be discouraged. However, preparing to succeed to an original business in such circumstances is in my judgment different from preparing to compete with it. It is the essence of a pre-pack management buy-out that information has to be derived from the failing company in order to structure such a buy-out” (paragraph 38).

So how much activity in preparation of a pre-pack is acceptable and over what kind of period?  It is noteworthy that in this case, although there was evidence of some confusion of company names on a client’s contract and an employee was described as having “overreached herself” (paragraph 28) in explaining to the London Stock Exchange’s Regulated News Section that LF had simply changed its name to LFS and moved offices, the judge found no case against the director for breach of fiduciary duty and noted that LF suffered no loss by the actions.

When will a court release a bankrupt from a family proceedings debt under S281(5)?

McRoberts v McRoberts [2012] EWHC 2966 (Ch) (1 November 2012)

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWHC/Ch/2012/2966.html

Summary: A discharged bankrupt was refused release from a bankruptcy debt arising from a family proceedings order.

Although this is not a particularly surprising outcome, the judgment provides a useful summary of the factors the court considers when deciding whether to override the default position of S281(5) of the Insolvency Act 1986.

The Detail: Mr McRoberts’ bankruptcy started in September 2006.  Mrs McRoberts submitted a proof of debt for c.£245,000 being the amount owed under an order in their family proceedings in 2003 in resolution of their financial claims ancillary to their divorce.  Mr McRoberts was discharged from bankruptcy in September 2007 and the bankruptcy was concluded with no distribution to creditors.

S281(5) provides that discharge from bankruptcy does not release the debtor from such a debt, but the court has jurisdiction to release it and the court in Hayes v Hayes held that the court’s discretion in this matter is unfettered and the debt can be released after the debtor’s discharge.  The Hon. Mr Justice Hildyard considered the factors described in Hayes and continued: “As it seems to me, the ultimate balance to be struck is between (a) the prejudice to the respondent/obligee in releasing the obligation if otherwise there would or might be some prospect of any part of the obligation being met and (b) the potential prejudice to the applicant’s realistic chance of building a viable financial future for himself and those dependent upon him if the obligation remains in place. In striking that balance I consider that the burden is on the applicant; unless satisfied that the balance of prejudice favours its release the obligation should remain in place” (paragraphs 24 and 25).  He also considered that a review of the merits or overall fairness of the underlying obligation did not come into it, but that, if any modification of the order were sought, this was a matter for the matrimonial courts.

In this case, the judge’s view was that the balance remained in favour of keeping the obligation in place – the debtor had not provided evidence that any future enterprise or activity would be blighted by the continued obligation – and thus he declined to grant release.


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Lean pickings from recent High Court decisions

My lack of blog postings has been bugging me over the past couple of weeks, but I regret that, despite my best efforts, I have failed to spot any earth-shattering news (for which we should be grateful, I guess).

Over the past weeks, I have made my personal submission to the Government’s Red Tape Challenge on insolvency (but I did not think that readers would be interested in that) and I have been exploring the thorny issues of PPI claims in IVAs, but every time I look at the issues, more questions pop up.  Nevertheless, I hope to post something on this subject shortly.

I have also been reviewing the High Court decisions as they have been released, but in my view there have been few of any particular interest to insolvency practitioners.  For the more curious amongst you, here are my lean pickings:

  • Both Odyssey and Ross River consider directors’ pre-liquidation duties.
  • Clyde & Co considers whether LLP members can be employees.
  • Tinseltime considers solicitors’ liabilities to non-party costs orders in some CFA situations.

Odyssey Entertainment Limited v Kamp & Ors (09/08/12)

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWHC/Ch/2012/2316.html

The court found that a director (“D1”) had broken his duty of good faith under S172 of the CA 2006 towards the company (now in liquidation) (“C”): “In a nutshell, I find that (1) by 4.1.09, D1 had decided that C would not provide him with the route to a capital profit which he had hoped for and that he would have better prospects in that respect working on his own account; (2) thereafter, D1 influenced the board’s stage by stage decision making process which led to the winding down of C’s business, the termination or surrender of its contracted rights, and the liquidation of C; (3) over the period 4.1.09 to 31.8.09, D1 misled C’s board as to his own true intentions and kept secret the work he undertook on his own account as a film sales agent, whilst still a director and an employee of C, as part of his plan to bring those intentions to fruition. In so doing, D1 continued to mislead C’s board (and therefore C) as to C’s true viability and prospects; (4) had C’s board not been misled by D1, C’s board would probably not have made the decisions that it did leading to its winding up on 9.9.09; and, (5) in consequence, D1 and/or D2 and/or D3 as a result of D1’s efforts secured sales agent’s rights in films that (a) would otherwise probably not have reverted to the rights owner in the case of film rights already under contract to C and (b) would otherwise probably have been acquired by C in the case of other films on which D1 had been working while a director of C” (paragraph 204).

The only point of interest I gleaned was the comment of HHJ Simon Barker QC on the position of the co-directors: “What emerged from both the written evidence and the cross-examination of [the co-directors] is that they all deferred to D1’s long experience and expertise as a film sales agent (the expert witnesses were agreed that D1 is a leading individual UK film sales agent) for guidance as to C’s sales prospects and, more generally, the market for independent sales agencies. In so doing, they were not simply accepting whatever D1 might say in disregard of their own powers of thought nor were they in dereliction of their duties as directors. Rather, they were giving due weight to the one of their number who could speak with particular authority on the general market for sales agents and the specific position of C” (paragraph 94).

Ross River Limited & Anor v Waveley Commercial Limited & Ors (06/09/12)

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWHC/Ch/2012/2487.html

The main issue before the court was the possible liability of a director (Mr Barnett) to pay a sum to RossRiver by way of equitable compensation for alleged breaches of fiduciary duties that he owed to RossRiver.  Amongst the considerations was whether the director should have wound up the company (“WCL”) earlier and before WCL had used its assets (including revenues from a joint venture with Ross River) to defend an action brought by Ross River for payment of monies due under the joint venture agreement.

Morgan J concluded that RossRiver had failed to prove entitlement to equitable compensation from the director.  In so doing, he seems to have put some weight behind the director’s consultation at an early stage with accountants, who reflected on the option of liquidation: “Mr Barnett did take advice on whether WCL should be wound up or, possibly, whether it was in Mr Barnett’s separate interests for WCL to be wound up. There is no evidence as to the advice which Mr Barnett received. In these circumstances, I consider that I ought not to decide that it was a breach by WCL or by Mr Barnett of a fiduciary duty owed to Ross River to omit to take steps to wind up WCL in early 2009” (paragraph 74), although the fact that the allegation was not pleaded nor put to the director when cross-examined may have had something to do with the judge’s decision.

Morgan J also commented: “On the face of it, WCL was entitled to defend itself and to use its own assets to do so, even though the use of those assets might produce the result that it used up all of its available funds and ended up being unable to pay any sum found to be due to RossRiver… In my judgment, both WCL and Mr Barnett were real and substantial defendants. Both were entitled to defend the claims brought against them without there being a breach of fiduciary duty owed to RossRiver. The fiduciary duties which, in my earlier judgment, I found to exist do not go so far as to restrict either WCL or Mr Barnett from putting forward their chosen stance in litigation brought by RossRiver against them. It would be a very onerous fiduciary duty which prevented a party to adversarial litigation from defending itself” (paragraphs 67 and 69).

[UPDATE 08/09/2013: For the sake of completeness, I thought I ought to report that Ross River’s appeal was allowed (http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWCA/Civ/2013/910.html), although the appeal didn’t really touch on the insolvency-relevant bits of the earlier judgment.

Briefly, the difficulty that Lord Justice Lloyd had with the previous judge’s reasoning was that the funds that Waveley Commercial Limited (“WCL”) had used to defend the action were subject to a Joint Venture Agreement, which prohibited WCL from paying itself, or using for its own benefit, any part of the proceeds of the development other than in payment of proper expenses of the development or as agreed with Ross River. Lloyd LJ felt that it was sufficient that Ross River had cast doubt on the legitimacy of some of the payments and that it was for WCL and Mr Barnett to prove that payments were proper, not for Ross River to prove the contrary.]

Clyde & Co LLP & Anor v Bates Van Winkelhof (26/09/12)

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWCA/Civ/2012/1207.html

The main question before the court was: can a member of an LLP be a worker within the meaning of S230 of the Employment Rights Act 1996?

Whilst “workers” have limited rights under the ERA and do not extend to the rights to insolvency qualifying liabilities (as far as I can see) as is the case for “employees”, Elias LJ did include consideration of an LLP member’s rights as an employee also.  He commented: “I would be minded to hold [and he did so conclude in paragraph 74] that the member of an LLP would not by virtue of that status alone constitute either an employee or a worker. Whether the member could enter into some separate employment relationship with the partnership, rather in the manner that a company director can do, would be a different question. There would be no employment status arising out of the simple status of member of the firm” (paragraph 73).

(UPDATE 26/05/14: the Supreme Court issued judgment on an appeal on this case on 21 May 2014: http://www.bailii.org/uk/cases/UKSC/2014/32.html. The Supreme Court decided unanimously that the LLP member was a “worker” under the ERA96. They were not required to consider, and they declined to express an opinion on the question “of some complexity and difficulty”, whether she was also an “employee” and indeed whether members of an LLP (or a traditional partnership) could enter into an employment contract effectively with themselves, which would have made the decision more relevant to insolvency situations.)

Tinseltime Limited v Roberts & Ors (28/09/12)

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWHC/TCC/2012/2628.html

This is one more for insolvency solicitors than practitioners: does a solicitor who takes on a case for an impecunious claimant under a conditional fee agreement (CFA) where there is no after the event (ATE) insurance policy in place, and who also agrees to fund the disbursements necessary to allow the case to proceed, thereby constitute himself a non-party funder and render himself liable to a non-party costs order in the same way as if he was a commercial non-party litigation funder?

Solicitors who are alert to this issue will have been watching the progress of an appeal on another case, Flatman v Germany & Ors ([2011] EWHC 2945 (QB)), in relation to which the Law Society asked to intervene.  The judge, HHJ Stephen Davies, and the parties in this case did not find compelling reasons to wait for the outcome of that appeal (expected in December 2012).  Although it seems possible that the appeal may proceed on grounds different to those already advanced, it is interesting that HHJ Davies, after acknowledging that there may be particular aspects of the other case that led Eady J to allow the appeal, stated that “if however Eady J was holding that it would be sufficient to make a non-party costs order that the solicitor was acting under a CFA without there being an ATE policy in place under which he agreed to fund the disbursements because the client was unable to do so and in order to ensure that the client could bring his claim, then I respectfully disagree with him. I consider that something more is required to justify the making of such an order, in circumstances where it is perfectly proper for the solicitor to agree to fund the disbursements under a CFA, even if he may be taken to know that unless he agrees to do so the claim cannot proceed” (paragraph 60).

On the facts of this case, HHJ Davies concluded: that there was nothing in the evidence indicating that the solicitor (Mr Edmonson) viewed the case as a business proposition under which he could receive a substantial fee; rather, that the solicitor had failed to understand how complex and costly the case might be; that in no way can it be considered that the solicitor controlled the litigation; and that “finally, but extremely significantly in my judgment, when I come to consider the overall justice of the matter, this is a case where there is contemporaneous evidence that Mr Edmondson was not motivated solely by financial self-interest in taking on this case, but with the laudable aim of providing access to justice to Tinseltime… Mr Edmondson was prepared to provide that assistance, where other solicitors were not. He may well have been naive as matters turned out, and Mr Ridgway may well not have been deserving of the assistance which Mr Edmondson provided. But that does not detract from the fact that Mr Edmondson cannot in my judgment be criticised, let alone made personally liable for costs, for taking on a case on a basis permitted by the law in order to ensure that Tinseltime was able to present what Mr Ridgway clearly believed was a genuine claim to the court” (paragraph 67).

Earlier in the judgement, HHJ Davies had stated: “So far as I am aware there are no reported cases in which a solicitor acting under a CFA has had a non-party costs order made against him on the basis of control, but I can see how there might be circumstances where the court was able to conclude that the solicitor’s desire to achieve a successful outcome had caused him to in effect take over the running of the litigation for his own ends, and that this would justify the making of a non-party costs order against him. One example might be where the damages claimed were, or had become, modest in comparison to the costs already incurred, so that the client had for all practical purposes lost any real interest in the pursuit of the proceedings but the solicitor was wedded to pursuing them to recover his costs” (paragraph 58).