Some recent court decisions:
• Dewji v Banwaitt – under what circumstances will the court allow a creditor’s action to continue despite an IVA Interim Order?
• Masters & Beighton v Furber – can a debtor be forced to hand over assets caught by IVA?
• Ward Brothers (Malton) Limited v Middleton & Ors – does an IP acting in an informal capacity avoid TUPE?
• O’Kane & O’Kane v Rooney – fixed charge receivers’ agents’ “worrying conduct” scuppers sale
• Re Hotel Company 42 The Calls Limited – will the court terminate an Administration and hand back the company to the directors despite the Administrators’ wishes for it to continue?
• Re ARM Asset Backed Securities SA – does the EC Regulation on Insolvency Proceedings apply when the winding-up petition is based on the just and equitable ground?
• Westshield Limited v Mr & Mrs Whitehouse – which takes precedence: a CVA term requiring a Supervisor to decide on set-offs or the enforcement of an Adjudicator’s decision?
Creditor’s interim charging orders made final despite IVA Interim Order
Dewji v Banwaitt (29 November 2013) ( EWHC 3746 (QB))
Mr Banwaitt had obtained judgment in proceedings against Dr Dewji for fraudulent misrepresentation in relation to an agreement under which Mr Banwaitt had paid to Dr Dewji sums for the purchase of land in Cambodia. Mr Banwaitt then obtained interim charging orders over three properties, but before the charging orders were made final, Dr Dewji was granted an Interim Order. However, at the hearing on the charging orders, the Master granted leave under S252(2)(b) of the Insolvency Act 1986 for Mr Banwaitt’s action to continue and exercised his discretion in making the charging orders final.
Dr Dewji’s request for permission to appeal the charging orders was refused. Mrs Justice Andrews accepted that usually the overriding principle would be that all creditors of a single class should rank equally once a statutory scheme had got underway. However, she noted that “there may be situations in which, despite the Interim Order, the ‘first past the post’ approach is justifiable” (paragraph 45). She suggested some scenarios: where a judgment creditor were seeking to recover monies paid under a contract that had been rescinded for fraud, “the Court might take the view when exercising its discretion that it would not be in the interests of justice to allow the debtor’s other creditors to participate in that share of his estate that was increased at the expense of the party he deceived” (paragraph 29) or where “the asset against which the judgment creditor is seeking to execute judgment falls entirely outside the IVA, so that there is no question of it being shared between the general body of creditors. Another, quite independent, example would be where the IVA was bound to fail, either because the judgment creditor had sufficient voting power to block it by himself, or because the creditors as a whole or a majority of them were bound to regard it as unattractive” (paragraph 39).
What Dr Dewji had proposed for his IVA led the judge to conclude that the Master had been justified in exercising his discretion in favour of the creditor. “The question that the Master had to determine is not whether it would be unfair to let Mr Banwaitt have an advantage over the general body of creditors. It is whether it would be unfair to let Mr Banwaitt, (who, on the evidence before the Master, was the only Investor induced to part with his money for this project by deceit, and who alone has chosen to expend costs in pursuing its recovery from Dr Dewji) obtain final charging orders over property that was not going to be distributed between Dr Dewji’s creditors, but (in the case of one property only, Dale Street) utilised to raise money to pay foreign lawyers to try and recover a substantial sum of money that would then be shared equally between Dr Dewji himself and some of those creditors, including the judgment creditor” (paragraph 47).
IVA debtor was not free to resist realisation of assets
Masters & Beighton v Furber (30 August 2013) ( EWHC 3023 (Ch))
The Joint Supervisors of Mr Furber’s IVA sought an order requiring Mr Furber to allow the collection of some of his vehicles that, in accordance with the terms of the IVA, had been sold. The Joint Supervisors had also been granted a power of attorney to enable them to deal with Mr Furber’s assets. Mr Furber refused to allow the vehicles to be collected, claiming that he entered the IVA under pressure and that the vehicles had been sold at an undervalue.
Purle HHJ acknowledged that, in one sense, Mr Furber could choose to default on the IVA, with a potential consequence of being made bankrupt. However, as counsel for the applicant put it, “unless the process of disposal of the vehicles is concluded, there is a risk that the successful bidders will withdraw their bids and thereafter demand return of all monies paid, as well as possibly seeking damages. Ironically, if, as Mr Furber says, the value of the vehicles was higher than the sum that has been achieved by the online auction process then there will be a claim for loss of bargain by the successful bidders” (paragraph 9). With the risk of increasing creditors’ claims in mind, the judge agreed to order the release of the vehicles: “In my judgment, requiring Mr Furber to comply with his obligations under the IVA and the power of attorney will be in the best interests of his creditors generally and maintain the authority of the supervisors who are effectively, if not in law, officers of the court” (paragraph 11).
IPs acting in an advisory capacity not sufficient to avoid TUPE
Ward Brothers (Malton) Limited v Middleton & Ors (16 October 2013) ( UKEAT 0249)
Bulmers Transport Limited ceased to trade on a Friday and on the following Monday Ward Brothers (Malton) Limited started to perform Bulmers’ major contracts using some of its former employees. Before Bulmers had ceased to trade, it had been presented with a winding up petition and had sought the advice of IPs. It seems that, although Administration had been contemplated, this was abandoned around the time that trading ceased. Some ten days later, different IPs were appointed Administrators by the QFCH.
The key question for the Appeal Tribunal was: did the involvement of IPs fit the TUPE exception, “where the transferor is the subject of bankruptcy proceedings or any analogous insolvency proceedings which have been instituted with a view to the liquidation of the assets of the transferor and are under the supervision of an insolvency practitioner” (Regulation 8(7) of TUPE)?
The Appeal Tribunal supported the original Tribunal’s conclusion that the first set of IPs had been acting only in an advisory capacity and that Bulmers had not been under the supervision of an IP at the time of the transfer.
The Appeal Tribunal also appreciated that “it is regrettable that so much uncertainty exists” (paragraph 20) as regards the application of TUPE and acknowledged “the importance of establishing, if possible, a red line”. They felt that the principles in Slater v Secretary of State for Industry, whilst not formally binding, “command considerable respect; and we respectfully agree that what is there set out is an appropriate and sensible red line and is the correct principle to apply. It is consistent with section 388, which, as we have said, provides that a person acts as an insolvency practitioner in relation to a company by acting as its liquidator, provisional liquidator, administrator or administrative receiver; if not appointed as such, then a person is not acting as an insolvency practitioner” (paragraph 23).
In the summary to the decision, it states that “an appointment (formal or informal) was necessary before there could be said to be supervision by an insolvency practitioner”. Personally, I struggle to see how an IP can be informally appointed and acting in a S388 capacity. The body of the decision states: “Clearly, that red line is not an entirely straight line. There may be disputes, for example, as to whether an insolvency practitioner was on the facts, appointed before a formal letter of appointment was provided or even drafted” (paragraph 24), so perhaps that is what is meant by an “informal” appointment.
The consequence of this decision in this case was that the appeal was dismissed: there had been a transfer that was not subject to the TUPE exclusion as regards the transfer of employee claims to the transferor.
Fixed charge receivers’ sale process tainted by agents’ “worrying conduct”
O’Kane & O’Kane v Rooney (12 November 2013) ( NIQB 114)
The O’Kanes sought an injunction restraining the joint fixed charge receivers from selling a property.
The judge was presented with evidence, albeit most of it hearsay but nonetheless “very strong”, which the judge described as showing “worrying conduct”, “very curious behaviour indeed”, and even “bad faith” (paragraphs 8, 9, and 10). The criticisms were levelled at the joint receivers’ agents who seemed to have discouraged some parties from bidding, provided inaccurate information, and allegedly advised the highest bidder not to increase its bid during the open bidding process, stating that the bidder would win out at the lower figure.
Although the O’Kanes’ proposal was complex and it was argued to be unrealistic, the judge viewed the previous sealed bid process to be tainted. He granted an injunction restraining the sale and directed that the property should be remarketed and sold by way of private treaty, with a bidding book being maintained and exhibited to the court for its approval of the sale. He directed that there should be no involvement of the individuals named, although he did not go so far as to require a new firm of agents to be instructed.
Administration terminated and company handed back to directors despite outstanding fees and expenses
Re Hotel Company 42 The Calls Limited (18 September 2013) ( EWHC 3925 (Ch))
Joint Administrators were appointed on the application of a creditor. All creditors’ claims were paid or waived, although no monies passed through the Joint Administrators’ hands, as they were dealt with by third parties.
The shareholder and director wanted the company returned to them and the administration terminated, given that its purpose had been achieved, but the Joint Administrators were reluctant to rely simply on their statutory charge as regards their unpaid remuneration and expenses as provided by Paragraph 99 of Schedule B1 of the Insolvency Act 1986, given that the appointing creditor had been “given the run around” by an associated company for many years. There was also a separate application ongoing by the shareholder and director under Paragraphs 74 and 75 under a claim that there had been unfair harm and misfeasance by, amongst other things, the charging of excessive remuneration.
Purle HHJ did not consider that the Joint Administrators’ fears were “sufficient to justify their continuing in office when, as they themselves recognise, there is no practical reason for them to do so, and, most importantly, the administration purpose has been achieved” (paragraph 21). It was also his view that the statutory charge, which could be supported by a restriction registered against the company’s property by means of filing an agreed notice with the Land Registry, was ample to protect them.
The judge refused the relief sought by the Joint Administrators to authorise them to grant a charge to themselves and he ordered the termination of the administration. He did not order that the Joint Administrators be discharged, as the misfeasance proceedings remained unresolved.
Does the EC Regulation on Insolvency Proceedings apply when the winding-up petition is based on the just and equitable ground?
Re ARM Asset Backed Securities SA (9 October 2013) ( EWHC 3351 (Ch))
A Luxembourg-incorporated company applied for the appointment of provisional liquidators under a winding up petition presented on the grounds that it would be just and equitable to wind it up.
Mr Justice David Richards was satisfied that the evidence pointed to an England COMI: it was apparent that the decisions governing the Company’s administration and management were taken in London and that this was clear to third parties. However, as the petition was based on the just and equitable ground, rather than on the Company’s insolvency, the judge had to consider whether the EC Regulation on “Insolvency Proceedings” kicked in.
Rather than reach a conclusion on this question, the question of the Company’s solvency was addressed. The circumstances of this case were not cut and dried: although it was likely that there would be insufficient funds to service in full the Company’s issued bonds, the terms of the bonds provided that the holders were entitled to recover sums only to the extent that the Company had available to it certain sums. “As a matter of ordinary language, I would take the view that if a company has liabilities of a certain amount on bonds or other obligations which exceed the assets available to it to meet those obligations, the company is insolvent, even though the rights of the creditors to recover payment will be, as a matter of legal right as well as a practical reality, restricted to the available assets, and even though, as the bonds in this case provide, the obligations will be extinguished after the distribution of available funds. It seems to me it can properly be said in relation to this company that it is unable to pay its debts. A useful way of testing this is to consider the amounts for which bond holders would prove in a liquidation of the company. It seems to me clear that they would prove for the face value of their bonds and the interest payable on those bonds” (paragraphs 31 and 32).
Consequently, although David Richards J has left open the question of whether just-and-equitable petitions are caught by the EC Regulation, he was content that the Company could and should be wound up.
(UPDATE 16/03/14: I recommend a briefing by Tina Kyriakides of 11 Stone Buildings: http://www.11sb.com/pdf/insider-limited-recourse-agreement-march-2014.pdf?500%3bhttp%3a%2f%2fwww.11sb.com%3a80%2fhome%2fhome.asp. This briefing addresses the issue as regards the application of the EC Regulation, pointing out that the decision in Re Rodenstock GmbH held that the winding up of a solvent company is governed by the Judgments Regulation 44/2001 and not by the EC Regulation. More interestingly, this briefing deals with the issue about this case that had niggled me (but which I cowardly avoided): how can liabilities that are expressly restricted to the company’s funds topple the company into insolvency? Personally, I find the conclusions of this briefing far more satisfying.)
Supervisor required to consider effect of set-off despite Adjudicator’s decision
Westshield Limited v Mr & Mrs Whitehouse (18 November 2013) ( EWHC 3576 (TCC))
The Whitehouses had some work done on their house by Westshield prior to the company entering into a CVA in December 2010. After little exchange, Westshield served a Notice of Adjudication in relation to the work done. The Whitehouses raised the issue of a substantial counterclaim and referred to the terms of the CVA, which included that the Supervisor should address the extent of mutual dealings and consider set-off. The Adjudicator decided that the Whitehouses should pay Westshield c.£133,000, but did not consider the counterclaim. The Whitehouses submitted a claim to the Supervisor of c.£200,000, but the Supervisor was reluctant to deal with it given the Adjudicator’s involvement.
Westshield then issued proceedings seeking to enforce the Adjudicator’s decision, but the Whitehouses maintained that the Supervisor would need to deal with the counterclaim.
The judge believed that Westshield had been entitled to pursue the pre-CVA debt and that, had the cross-claim not intervened, the Adjudicator’s decision would have been enforceable. However, the Whitehouses had become bound by the CVA and therefore the CVA condition requiring an account to be taken of mutual dealings and set off to be applied could be carried out by the Supervisor. “Once that exercise is done, if it shows money due to Westshield, that can be paid subject to the right which the Whitehouses have to refer the matter to Court within a short time. The Court can then consider what effect (if any) the adjudication decision may have on its decision as to what should be done. If the accounting shows money due to the Whitehouses, they will get however many pennies in the pound as are available to creditors from the CVA” (paragraph 27).
Consequently, the judge dismissed the application for summary judgment, staying any further steps until the outcome of the Supervisor’s account was known.