In my last blog post, I published a wishlist of measures that would help IPs to do their jobs in these difficult times. Since then, some extraordinary steps have been taken very quickly to address many of them. Here, I summarise those actions.
Taking on New Appointments
- Notices of intention to appoint, and of appointment of, administrators: the Temporary Insolvency Practice Direction (judiciary.uk/publications/temporary-insolvency-practice-direction-approved-and-signed-by-the-lord-chancellor/) came into force on 6 April. Although it states that a statutory declaration by video conference may constitute a formal defect or irregularity, it confirms that this by itself shall not be regarded as causing substantial injustice, provided that the declaration is carried out in the manner specified in the Practice Direction:
“9.2.1. The person making the statutory declaration does so by way of video conference with the person authorised to administer the oath;
9.2.2 The person authorised to administer the oath attests that the statutory declaration was made in the manner referred to in 9.2.1 above; and
9.2.3 The statutory declaration states that it was made in the manner referred to in paragraph 9.2.1 above.”
- But does this process also work for MVL Declarations of Solvency? The Insolvency Service quickly expressed the view that “there is no reason to suspect that the courts would not take a similar approach for the swearing of any statutory declaration required for the purpose of an insolvency procedure, during the period the practice direction is in force” (https://ion.icaew.com/insolvency/b/weblog/posts/some-clarity-on-mvl-swearing—and-the-temporary-insolvency-practice-direction-2020-effective-from-the-evening-of-3-april-2020). Companies House has also confirmed that it “will accept a Declaration of Solvency sworn via video” (https://content.govdelivery.com/accounts/UKIS/bulletins/28580cf).
UPDATE 30/05/2020: Please note that the authority for statutory declarations to be administered virtually in Scotland derives from Schedule 4 para 9 of the Coronavirus (Scotland) (No. 2) Act 2020 (http://www.legislation.gov.uk/asp/2020/10/enacted), which came into force on 27 May 2020. The provisions are temporary only and have an expiry date of 30 September 2020, although this can be extended by regulations. UPDATE 27/09/2020: the expiry date has been extended to 31 March 2021 by means of the Coronavirus (Scotland) Acts (Amendment of Expiry Dates) Regulations 2020.
- There have been no regulatory measures to help directly with posting mailouts, but many IPs have been exploring outsourcing options. Although I’m sure there are many providers, I understand that Postworks is used successfully by several IPs. Widespread use of delivery by email, I think, is still a work in progress: Turnkey and others are geared up to assist, but I think the issues are in compiling a list of email addresses that can be used. Many IPs had moved to website delivery via a single R1.50 notice before the lockdown and I suspect that this process has become even more popular.
- HMRC S100 documents: I have seen nothing to move forward from the Dear IP article (insolvencydirect.bis.gov.uk/insolvencyprofessionandlegislation/dearip/dearipmill/chapter8.htm#26) that stated that the HMRC email address is only to be used for “the initial pre-appointment notifications under the deemed consent or virtual meeting procedures”, so it seems to me that Statements of Affairs and adjournment notices etc. must still be posted.
- Court activities: as far as I can tell and as set out in the Temporary Insolvency Practice Direction, the courts are doing a phenomenal job in keeping their virtual doors open. Bravo!
- Physical meetings: the RPBs published guidance that: “where procedural meetings are required, virtual meetings will suffice in order to avoid breaching social distancing requirements. A reasonable approach will be required to handling any creditor requests for physical meetings” (https://ion.icaew.com/insolvency/b/weblog/posts/joint-statement-by-icaew-and-the-ipa-regarding-measures-to-support-ips-during-the-covid-19-pandemic). Personally, I’m not sure how we’re supposed to take this. Some may consider it reasonable to convene a physical meeting in a space large enough to accommodate social distancing. Some others could consider it reasonable to dismiss creditors’ requests for a physical meeting altogether! In my view, the reasonable approach would be to contact the requesting creditors to explore whether their concerns can be addressed in another way, e.g. an informal discussion or, if there are formal decisions to be made, insist that the “physical” meeting be held entirely remotely, thus requiring just a little departure from R15.6(6).
- It seems that the Government’s intention to suspend the wrongful trading provisions has been met with some negativity by IPs (e.g. r3.org.uk/press-policy-and-research/news/more/29337/covid-19-corporate-insolvency-framework-changes-r3-response/), whereas the House of Commons’ briefing paper quotes other bodies, including the IoD and ILA, as welcoming the news (https://commonslibrary.parliament.uk/research-briefings/cbp-8877/). Although the change has not yet been made, the Government plans that it will be retrospective from 1 March 2020 and it will continue for 3 months thereafter.
Statutory Filings / Deliveries
- The RPBs’ statement referred to above did not explain their expectations specifically in keeping up with progress reports, but it did acknowledge that the current difficulties could amount to a “reasonable excuse” defence for breaching statutory requirements. The statement highlighted the need to “have followed ethical principles and have justifiable, sound and well documented reasons for making those decisions”, i.e. where “reasonable steps to comply” are not enough to overcome the difficulties caused by the restrictions imposed on us in these extraordinary times.
- The news on Tuesday that Companies House is now accepting filings by email was extremely welcome (https://content.govdelivery.com/accounts/UKIS/bulletins/28550aa). Understandably, it seems to be taking some time for Companies House to register documents at the moment and, if you physically mailed documents before they opened their doors to emails, you might consider sending them again by email. I’m sure that Companies House won’t thank me for that though, so only seriously time-critical documents, e.g. ADM-CVL conversions, might merit such a second attempt. The announcement included several warnings about how a failure to follow the instructions for emailing docs would result in them being rejected and, as Companies House filings by email are excluded from the deemed delivery provisions in R1.45, you would do well to ensure that staff follow the instructions to the letter.
- I’m a little surprised that the InsS hasn’t sought to extend the deadline for D-reports, especially as they have clearly considered the logistics of collecting books and records. At first glance, Dear IP 95 appeared to concede that IPs didn’t need to take extreme measures to collect books and records, but when I looked closely, it did not such thing. It replaced the previous instruction that IPs should locate and ensure that books and records are secured and listed as appropriate with a requirement that IPs “should continue to take all possible steps to locate and secure” them (https://content.govdelivery.com/accounts/UKIS/bulletins/284baba). “All possible steps”? Well, we weren’t going to be taking impossible ones! It’s a shame that the InsS hasn’t confirmed that IPs can limit steps to reasonable ones in these times.
- Although communications from the InsS, RPBs and HMRC regarding general case administration have been welcome, there has been little that has helped avoid cumbersome rules and other regulatory requirements. This is understandable, as the rules are the rules until a statutory instrument says otherwise. However, at least the announcements have given us some comfort that the bodies appreciate some of our difficulties.
- Included in these are, from the RPBs (https://ion.icaew.com/insolvency/b/weblog/posts/joint-statement-by-icaew-and-the-ipa-regarding-measures-to-support-ips-during-the-covid-19-pandemic):
- “IPs may defer, on a short-term basis, non-priority work on existing cases (for instance investigatory work) and focus on new/urgent areas. IPs must take all reasonable steps to progress case administration in the longer term and ensure stakeholder financial interests are not prejudiced.” (Jo and I have been debating how, if on the other hand IPs have found that new engagements have taken a dip, now would be a good time to try to clear the decks for the future busy times.)
- It may be acceptable to allow markets to recover before selling assets.
- “Where a Notice of Intended Dividend has already been issued, we acknowledge that the payment of the dividend can be postponed and may be unable to be paid within two months”… but you will need to remember that, in these circumstances, the NoID process will need to begin again later (R14.33(3)).
- “In order to provide flexibility for IPs to focus on new/urgent matters and to allow time for market recovery, we are relaxing the expectation in existing MVLs that creditors will be paid in full within 12 months provided that the IP continues to consider the company will be solvent in the medium term when markets have recovered.”
- “When considering MVLs moving to a CVL (s.95), IPs may take longer than the deadline of seven days to notify creditors that the company is unable to pay debts in full within 12 months.”
- “We acknowledge that it is not likely to be possible to comply with the SIP 3.1 requirement to respond to debtor enquiries ‘promptly’ and to close IVAs ‘promptly’ and accept that IPs will need to prioritise their work through the crisis period.”
- The RPBs have also acknowledged that IPs will exercise their discretion in relation to CVAs and IVAs and they “accept that the discretion afforded to IPs in order to manage cases affected by the current crisis is necessarily wide”. I’m not sure how to take this: if a VA Proposal allows the Supervisor to exercise discretion, they hardly need the RPBs to tell them that they can do so, but if the Proposal does not allow any such discretion, then they cannot. There seems to be a veiled message here, much like a lot of the revised Ethics Code, which seems to have been written with the practices of volume/consumer IVA providers in mind.
- HMRC’s guidance (icaew.com/-/media/corporate/files/technical/insolvency/insolvency-news/coronavirus-insolvency-bulletin.ashx?la=en) includes:
- A similar peculiar statement that they would expect IPs to exercise any VA discretion “to its maximum, with reference to creditors only if essential”. Well yes, that’s how a discretion should be exercised, isn’t it? Let’s hope that HMRC is now realising how unhelpful it is to IPs to have modified out many of the discretions that originally had been proposed!
- HMRC confirms that it will support a 3-month contribution break for coronavirus-impacted “customers”, but I think its in-bold confirmation that “there is no need to contact HMRC to request this deferment” risks misleading some, not least debtors who may expect an automatic payment break. If a VA’s terms do not allow the Supervisor to permit such a payment break, then this statement does not overcome this hurdle and creditors’ approval must be sought.
- More helpfully, the guidance confirms that HMRC will not view post-VA VAT as due where the Government has already arranged for those VAT payments to be deferred. Unfortunately, the link HMRC has provided is already obsolete and the HMRC guidance does not refer also to the deferral of self-assessment income tax, but presumably the same principles apply?
- The InsS continues to move into the electronic age, arranging for the following (to reduce the risks of fraudulent attempts, I’m not providing links):
- ISA payment requests to be submitted with an electronic signature;
- ISA payment requests and other CAU forms to be received by email; and
- IVA registration fees to be paid by BACS.
- HMRC has done likewise with its opening the way for all dividends to be paid via BACS. Unfortunately, if you have any dividends to pay to HMRC by cheque, HMRC has asked that you “hold on to them” (9 April release on insolvency-practitioners.org.uk/press-publications/recent-news UPDATE: additional guidance on paying dividends to HMRC by BACS is on this IPA page, dated 22/04/20).
And there’s more
Finally, some miscellaneous notifications include:
- Must IPs complete file reviews in these times? Whilst not an official response, an RPB monitor emailed me swiftly after my last blog post. She observed that, of course, the objective of a file review is to ensure that the case progresses as it ought to and that a firm’s reviewing policies should be designed to achieve this objective. Thus, if an IP decides to relax their firm’s policy on file reviews in these extraordinary times, they should be considering how they can still try to achieve this objective and document why the firm’s adjusted policy will not compromise effective and compliant case administration wherever possible in the circumstances. The monitor expressed the view that some kind of file review surely would still be possible in these times, even if access to the full case files is restricted.
- Can office holders furlough employees? The ICAEW blogged references from .gov.uk guidance (https://ion.icaew.com/insolvency/b/weblog/posts/the-coronavirus-job-retention-scheme—clarity-for-administrators-and-directors), which describes the ability of Administrators to furlough staff as well as some of the finer points about directors’ positions. Unfortunately, the .gov.uk guidance is not cut-and-dried and furloughing depends on the “reasonable likelihood of rehiring the workers”, so understandably IPs are exercising a great deal of caution before treading a path that could lead to an expensive challenge down the line.
- Should IPs furlough their own staff? The ICAEW and the IPA have both issued warnings that they would not expect IPs to furlough to the extent that it compromises their ability to meet regulatory requirements (https://ion.icaew.com/insolvency/b/weblog/posts/business-continuity-for-insolvency-practitioners-during-covid-19). The IPA has also required its members to keep it informed of the numbers and job titles of all furloughed staff as well as those unable to work through serious Covid-19 illness.
- Are IPs key workers? R3 blogged (r3.org.uk/technical-library/england-wales/technical-guidance/covid-19-contingency-arrangements/more/29316/page/1/is-the-insolvency-profession-classed-as-a-key-sector-24-march-2020/) that likely they are, especially when administering cases that involve managing businesses that themselves are in the key sectors. R3 also observed that the InsS considers that certain staff working in the RPS, Estate Accounts and ORs’ offices are delivering “essential public services”. As much of an IP’s work is necessary to enable such InsS staff to deliver these public services, it would seem to follow that the IPs/staff would also be key workers. Shortly after this post, however, the IPA emailed its members reminding them that it is a decision for each employer per the guidance at www.gov.uk/government/publications/coronavirus-covid-19-maintaining-educational-provision/guidance-for-schools-colleges-and-local-authorities-on-maintaining-educational-provision.
- Showing us southerners that it can be done, the Scottish Government brought into force the Coronavirus (Scotland) Act 2020 in a matter of a couple of weeks. Amongst other things, it has extended the pre-insolvency moratorium period for individuals from 6 weeks to 6 months. More details can be found at aib.gov.uk/news/releases/20202020/0404/coronavirus-scotland-act
Stay safe and keep well, everyone.