Insolvency Oracle

Developments in UK insolvency by Michelle Butler


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The Proposed New Moratorium: the responses are in, but will the Government listen?

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I believe we can be proud of R3 and the RPBs. Given only 6 weeks for the Government’s summer consultation, they generated robust and reasoned responses with plenty of variation to evidence that each had been created independently of the others.

Having read every published response I’ve been able to find, I am left with a reasonably strong sense of consensus on many of the big questions. However, I suspect that not all will be welcome news to the Government or the Insolvency Service, so the question is: will they listen?

The original consultation, A Review of the Corporate Insolvency Framework, can be found at: https://goo.gl/Cf0LWK.

In this post, I pick through the 14 responses that I discovered, including those from bodies such as R3, some of the RPBs and turnaround professionals. I don’t envy the Insolvency Service’s job of working through 70 submissions.

 

A New Moratorium: why?

Almost everyone saw some value in the principle (if not in the detail) of the Government’s proposals to introduce new moratorium provisions, although several questioned the Government’s apparent motives: from the consultation document, it does seem that a desire to get the UK up the ladder of the World Bank’s “Doing Business” rankings is the main driver, which does not seem a sensible policy-making foundation.

Dentons solicitors believe that “the UK has one of the most flexible insolvency regimes, unburdened by high costs and lengthy court procedures and, perhaps most importantly, one of the best recovery rates for creditors worldwide”, so it is difficult to see what advantages the proposed new process will bring. The City of London Law Society went further by not supporting the wider moratorium proposals, failing to see how a potentially costly process that may not adequately protect creditors’ interests would be useful.

The FSB expressed concern at the apparent move towards a US-style Chapter 11 system, feeling that this shift “could result in the UK regime’s strengths being watered down for little demonstrable gain elsewhere”. Several noted that the absence of a specialist insolvency court was a serious obstacle in any attempts to move towards a workable Chapter 11 style regime.

Most struggled to see how the moratorium could be used successfully by SMEs. Even the turnaround professionals were forced to admit that “there will always be some businesses that are too small to avail themselves of such help”.

A few responders felt that more effort should be made to encourage directors to seek help early and the turnaround professional felt that the moratorium would be a useful tool in this regard.

 

A New Moratorium: how long?

Here is a summary of the responses to the Government’s proposals for an initial 3-month moratorium:

Mora

It should be noted that many answers on this question were dependent upon other changes being made to the proposed moratorium set-up. For example, whilst the City of London Law Society felt that 3 months may prove to be too short for larger or more complex restructurings, it also recognised the risk that the extensive nature of the 3-month moratorium as proposed may “simply encourage directors to put off dealing with a company’s financial difficulties. This could, in turn, lead to creditor anger and frustration should the company’s financial position deteriorate during the moratorium period.”

A similar point was made by R3, which referred to the risk that “providing companies with an entire financial quarter free from creditor pressure could lead to ‘drift’ rather than action.” Instead, R3 stated, a shorter moratorium would make clear that it was the company’s ‘last chance’ to avoid insolvency, thus “requiring concentrated effort and a clear direction of travel”.

 

Will it simply be jobs for the boys?

The Government proposed that a new moratorium be introduced, which would be “supervised” by anyone with relevant expertise in restructuring who is also either an IP, solicitor or accountant.

However, in general the cry for supervisors to come only from the IP population was made loud and clear. You might think this was inevitable from the likes of R3 and the IPA, but even the accountancy and solicitor bodies were generally strong on this point.

  • Not for solicitors?

The City of London Law Society pointed out that the SRA had only recently dropped regulating solicitors as IPs, so it would seem an odd development to have solicitors return to supervising something tantamount to an insolvency process.

  • Not for accountants?

The ICAEW pointed to the facts that “accountant” covers a wide range of people and that there is already “a large pool of [insolvency] practitioners and a competitive market”, so it would seem an unnecessary risk to widen the pool to include others who are not subject to such heavy regulation as IPs. ICAS made a similar observation, noting its understanding that “at least one third of the [accountancy] sector in the UK has not undertaken any training or possess a formal qualification” and repeating its call on the Government to designate accountancy as a regulated profession.

  • What about turnaround professionals?

Predictably, the EACTP and BM&T, turnaround consultancy, welcomed widening the role to more than just IPs, suggesting that the Certified Turnaround Professional qualification could qualify someone for the role.

Interestingly, these two responses were almost word-for-word the same in many respects, but they differed on one important point: BM&T believes that it is critically important for the supervisor to be clearly seen to be acting in the best interests of all stakeholders, whereas EACTP believes that the supervisor should act in the best interest of the company. I think this betrays one of the tensions in the proposals: is the moratorium intended for solvent companies that may be facing future insolvency or for insolvent ones? The City of London Law Society noted that the consultation document conflicts with the Impact Assessment on this fundamental point.

BM&T seemed alone in expressing the view that, in order to keep costs low, “supervisors should be subject to low levels of regulation”. I appreciate their point that the supervisor is not running the business, merely advising. However, given that a primary duty proposed for supervisors is ensuring that the moratorium – and not a formal insolvency process – remains appropriate, it does seem to me too high a risk activity to be largely unregulated. The ICAEW mentioned that, “if supervisors are not to be regulated persons, then greater court supervision may be required to minimise risks of abuse by directors and unfair prejudice of creditors”, which of course would increase costs and which in turn could have an altogether different impact on the World Bank rankings!

  • The case for IPs

R3 believes that a clear commitment to protecting creditors’ interests is important. The Government’s proposals put creditors firmly in the back seat, offering them only the power to take court action to challenge the moratorium or their status as an essential supplier, a status assigned them by the moratorium company. If the company’s use of a moratorium to give it time to see a way out of its troubles is to earn the trust of creditors, the obvious choice is regulated IPs, and certainly not, as currently seems possible, the company’s in-house lawyer or accountant.

R3 reminded the Insolvency Service of the efforts the profession has made to tackle the problem of ambulance chasers and unregulated advisers. If not carefully structured and controlled, the moratorium could appear an attractive tool for abuse by some.

  • A new professional?

Some responses highlighted the difficulty in ensuring that proposed supervisors meet the expertise criteria: the Government isn’t considering yet another different licence with potentially a whole new (and expensive) regulatory system, is it?

The IPA noted that the Government’s Impact Assessment made no mention of any costs of ensuring regulatory consistency in the event that the role is opened up to other professionals. It also reminded the Government of the new corporate-only insolvency licences, which would seem to lend themselves well to be used by non-IPs who want to develop in this area.

 

Consequences for Administrators

The Government’s proposals include two striking consequences for Administrations that are preceded by a moratorium:

  • An IP who had acted as the company’s moratorium supervisor would be prevented from taking the appointment as Administrator (or indeed any other insolvency office holder); and
  • The duration of the Administration would be 12 months minus the length of the moratorium.

Conflict of interest?

Few responded directly on this point. As you might expect, the ones that did respond fell into two distinct camps:

  • There may be clear benefits in having the same person throughout, which would reduce costs, and the creditors should have a say in who they want as Administrator (ICAEW, ICAS, R3); and
  • There would be a clear conflict of interest in having the IP supervisor also act as Administrator (EACTP, BM&T).

Personally, I cannot really see how the situation is different from a CVA Supervisor later being appointed as Administrator or Liquidator and I would expect the Insolvency Code of Ethics to be amended to treat the proposed subsequent appointment of a moratorium supervisor similarly.

Shorter Administrations?

Personally, I thought this second proposal was nonsense. Where is the logic behind giving Administrators less time to do their job simply because the company has had a moratorium? I appreciate that the perception may be that an Administration is all about exploring the company’s/business’ options, so if these are all but exhausted in the moratorium, then it should be time saved in the Administration. However, Administrators still need to get the job done and now must pay out any prescribed part dividend, which is by no means a 5-minute task. The ICAEW also made the point that at present the 12 months period “can be problematic, not least because of delays within HMRC and applying for extensions adds to work and cost”.

Although none of the consultation questions invited comments on this proposal, I was very pleased to see that several bodies managed to shoe-horn in their objections to shorter Administrations as a consequence of a moratorium. For heaven’s sake, Administrations are complex and costly enough as it is, please don’t make them any worse!

Having said that, the Law Society posed the sensible recommendation that the relevant date for excluding insolvency set-off and for voidable transaction claims should be measured from the start of the moratorium… although I would also suggest that, in that case, an insolvency office holder should be able to challenge certain dispositions occurring during a moratorium.

 

Directors’ liabilities

The consultation proposed that, provided the moratorium conditions continued to be met, directors would be protected from liability, e.g. in relation to wrongful trading, but that, should the conditions not be met and the moratorium fail, exposure for liability would resume.

This seemed a curious approach to me and the Law Society explained it well: “during a moratorium, directors will only be at risk once the company has reached the point at which they ‘knew or ought to have concluded that there was no reasonable prospect that the company would avoid going into insolvent liquidation’. Plainly, directors should also terminate a moratorium at, or before, that point, so that it is unnecessary to relieve the directors of liability whilst the conditions for a moratorium are maintained. Indeed, to do so would simply introduce unnecessary complexity into the law”.

The City of London Law Society also observed that suggesting that directors may avoid personal liability “could lead to inappropriate risk taking, particularly if directors believed that they could entirely rely on the views of the supervisor, rather than making their own assessment of the company’s prospects”.

 

Ranking of costs and expenses in the moratorium

Although a company would be required to have enough capital to discharge all debts incurred during the moratorium, what if the worst should happen?

Several responders agreed with the Government’s proposal that any unpaid debts incurred in a failed moratorium and the supervisor’s costs should enjoy a first charge in any subsequent insolvency (although there was no comment on the priorities between these categories).

However, R3 disagreed, noting that a company could stack up debts to connected parties during the moratorium, which would end up having priority, and so R3 believed that unpaid debts should rank alongside other claims in the subsequent insolvency. Personally, I don’t see that this potential abuse is sufficient reason to push moratorium creditors down the queue, especially in view of the other proposals regarding pressing “essential suppliers” into service during a moratorium.

The City of London Law Society also queried how it is proposed such costs and expenses would be approved for payment from a subsequent insolvency. Perhaps it would be something akin to the current pre-administration costs regime?

Several responders objected to the Government’s proposal that supplies during the moratorium should be paid for under the supplier’s usual terms of credit. BM&T made the connection that, if instead moratorium supplies are paid on a cash up-front basis, there should be no risk that debts would spill over into any subsequent insolvency.

 

Creditors held to ransom?

The “essential suppliers” proposals generated whole new lines of debate, such as the possible effects on the supplier’s trade credit insurance or debt factoring, which is material for another blog post.

Suffice to say, as worded in the consultation it seems that any supplier (…or only those with a contract? One example in the consultation is of a paper supplier) could be designated by the company as essential (by means of a court filing) with the result that the supplier would be required by statute to continue to supply on the existing terms, whilst its pre-moratorium arrears would be frozen, irrespective of the impact this might have on the supplier’s own solvency.

 

What’s wrong with the CVA moratorium?

The consultation claimed that the CVA moratorium is rarely used because it is limited to small companies. However, instead of proposing simply to widen the scope of the CVA moratorium (as ICAS has suggested), a new kind of moratorium is the proposal. This would be fine if the plan was simply to adapt the CVA moratorium to allow other restructuring solutions to flow from it, but the proposed new moratorium is different in many unconnected respects.

It is true that there are few CVA moratoria. Both the ICAEW and R3 suggested that the onerous responsibilities (and associated liabilities) of the CVA moratorium nominee deter use of the existing regime. Although we only have a skeleton proposal to judge at the moment, personally I don’t see that the new moratorium would deal with this obstacle any more successfully.

The ICAEW recommended that, to avoid any new moratorium suffering the same fate as the CVA moratorium, the reasons for its apparent lack of use should be analysed.

 

What’s wrong with CVAs?

As the only debtor in possession formal insolvency tool, you’d think that the Government might be interested in encouraging greater use of CVAs, but it seems to be missing the point.

The consultation stated that “the Government believes that the under utilisation of CVAs is largely caused by the inability to bind secured creditors”, however neither it nor its accompanying Impact Assessment provided any evidence to support this. The Impact Assessment stated that “the consultation will seek to understand fully the reasons behind” the under-utilisation of CVAs and the apparent fact that many fail (2014: 60%), but the consultation didn’t really address this at all. It simply stated that “many CVAs fail because of a failure to maintain agreed payment” – you don’t say!

R3 believes that “the most common reasons why CVAs fail is not because there is a problem with secured creditors but because the management is overly-optimistic in its financial assessment of the company, or the environment in which the company operates changes during the CVA.” The IPA makes a similar observation, suggesting that the CVA process is not at fault, but often the issue is with the underlying viability of the business. ICAS also reported that “anecdotally it is suggested that a significant proportion of CVA proposals will focus on financial/debt restructuring without addressing more fundamental and underlying operational restructuring or management change”.

In its response, R3 asked the Government to work with the profession and the creditor community to “to find ways to improve CVAs so that they can become a much more effective business rescue tool”, especially for SMEs, a request that also seems to have the support of the ICAEW and IPA.

 

And there’s much more

Some other meaty questions considered by the responders included:

  • Do the Government’s proposals achieve the right balance of debtor-in-possession and creditor protection?
  • If the balance swings too far away from creditors, as many responders fear, what will be the effects on lending?
  • What exactly are the supervisor’s role and duties?
  • How exactly should the moratorium entry criteria be defined and measured?
  • How will notice of the moratorium be publicised or even should it be publicised?
  • How would an extension to the moratorium be achieved and for how long should an extension be?
  • Who would be required to provide information to creditors during the moratorium and what kind of information should be provided?
  • Is there really a need to incentivise rescue funding, particularly by introducing contentious statutory provisions affecting existing secured creditors’ rights?

 

The consultation responses evidence that, within only a few summer weeks, a great deal of effort has been spent deliberating over the proposals, but the fun has only just begun.

 

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Red Tape? Hang out the bunting!

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Any measures to reduce insolvency regulation are most welcome and, apart from the odd item that threatens to increase the burden on IPs, the proposals of the Insolvency Service’s Red Tape Challenge consultation promise to bring in a brave new world where website communication is the norm and meetings are a thing of the past. Whether these proposals will be seen as working against the tide of opinion seeking greater creditor engagement remains to be seen, but, for me, some of these changes cannot come soon enough.

Ever conscious that my articles are getting longer and longer, I have described my Top Seven proposals from the consultation document.

The consultation document (“CD”) can be found at: http://www.bis.gov.uk/insolvency/Consultations/RedTapeChallenge?cat=open. The deadline for responses is 10 October 2013.

1. Abolition of Reg 13 Case Records, but there’s a sting in the tail

The first proposal in the document is a belter: let’s abolish the Reg 13 Case Record – yes, please! I remember spending what seemed so much wasted time ensuring that the Reg 13 (or Reg 17 in my day) schedules were complete and accurate – far more overall, I suspect, than the 1 hour per case estimated in the Impact Assessment (which strangely is assumed to apply to only 80% of all cases).

However, it seems the Service is twitchy about leaving IPs to their own devices and is recommending that “legislation should require IPs to maintain whatever records necessary to justify the actions and decisions they have taken on a case. It is not expected that such a provision would impose a new requirement, but rather codify what is already expected of regulated professionals” (paragraph 32). Scary! So instead of a simple, albeit useless, two-pager listing key filing dates etc. of the case, legislation will require IPs to retain certain records. This could go one of two ways: either the provision will be so bland (e.g. as the CD describes it: records to justify actions and decisions) as to be pointless, or it will be in the style of the 2010 Rules on Progress Reports, which will introduce a whole new industry of compliance workers whose job will be to cross-check case files against a statutory list.

Why does the Service see a need to “codify” this matter? If an IP is not already retaining a sensible breadth of records (and such an IP will be rare indeed), if only to protect themselves from the risk of challenge, do they think that a statutory provision is going to force them to do it? Do they think that there needs to be a statutory requirement to assist regulators in addressing any serious failures? Such a measure has the potential to increase the regulatory burden on IPs without, as far as I can see, bringing any advantage whatsoever.

2. Abolishing almost all meetings

Although I welcome these proposals, I do think that the Service has over-egged the savings. For example, the Impact Assessment suggests that £7m would be saved by abolishing final meetings. Although the Service recognises that there will be negligible saving in relation to drafting the final documentation – even if there is no final meeting, a final report etc. will still need to be produced – they have estimated that each case will save on room hire of £64, 1 hour of an administrator’s time, and half an hour of a manager’s time. Personally, I would be very surprised if any IP makes provision for anyone attending a final meeting – does the Service picture IP staff sitting in an empty hired room twiddling their thumbs just in case someone turns up? Ok, so IP staff will save time on drafting minutes of the meeting, but that’s little more than churning off a standard template; it’s hardly 1.5 hours worth.

So if most meetings are abolished, is everything going to be handled in a process similar to the Administration meeting-by-correspondence process? Not quite, although it seems that almost all matters that will require a positive response from creditors – approval of VAs and of the basis of remuneration in any insolvency process – may be handled either as a physical meeting or by correspondence votes. The CD indicates that in other circumstances, “deemed consent” may occur: “the office-holder will issue documents to the creditors informing them of an event (as happens now) and that the contents of these documents are approved (if approval is required for that document/event) unless 10% or more by value or by number of creditors object in writing” (paragraph 64). In what kind of circumstances might this apply? I’m struggling to come up with many instances. I am aware that several IPs seek approval of R&Ps, although personally I do not believe that they need to. The CD also proposes to revise the Act’s Schedules so that Liquidators can exercise more powers without consent, but I guess that, if that does not go ahead, they might be other instances. I guess there might also be case-specific events, e.g. to pursue an uncertain asset, which might be referred to creditors. But there’s nothing wholesale that in future might be handled by “deemed consent”, is there? Unless…

Although the CD excludes office-holder’s fees from “deemed consent”, it makes no mention of SoA/S98 fees. If under the present statute, these need creditors’ approval, might they be deemed approved in future. Personally, I think this is another area, if the fees are due to the IP/firm/connected party, that also needs positive creditor approval.

Professor Kempson reported that IPs estimated that 4% of creditors attended meetings. It is not clear in the report what kind of meetings these are, but I bet they are S98s in the main. Personally, I have always viewed S98s as good opportunities for IPs to communicate something to trade creditors about the insolvency process and to convey face-to-face something of the professionalism, competence, and integrity of IPs. If it is true that no one goes to these any more, then fair enough, but even if it is only the rare S98 that attracts an audience, I feel it could just widen the gap further between IPs and creditors if no S98 meeting were ever held again. Having said that, the Service estimates that there will be only 30% fewer meetings, but if statute no longer requires physical S98s, would they be held; could the cost be justified?

3. Communication by website

The Impact Assessment does not quantify the estimated savings from these proposals, suggesting that they will be smaller than those related to the proposals to allow creditors to opt out of receiving correspondence, but, unless I have misunderstood their proposal, personally I could see this provision being used extensively.

Firstly, a bit more about creditors opting out: the Service estimates that, if they could under statute, 20% of creditors would notify office-holders that they did not wish to receive any further information on a case. I’m sorry, but I really cannot see it: this would require creditors to take action to disengage from the insolvency process – if they’re not already engaged, why would they send back such a notification? And would some then worry that they might miss out on important news, e.g. that miraculously there’s a prospect of a dividend, even though statute might be designed to ensure that Notices of Intended Dividend (“NoID”) etc. be issued notwithstanding any creditor opt-out?

As I say, much more promising I think is the Service’s suggestion that office-holders could write once to creditors to tell them that all future documents are going to be accessible on a website, which is something that office-holders can do presently but only with a court order. Wouldn’t that be great? No more need to send one-pagers to creditors informing them that a progress report has been placed on the website – you’d just put in on the website, job done. I wonder how many hits the web page would get… On second thoughts, I don’t think I want to know; I think it would only make me cry at the realisation of the huge amount of money, time and trees that had been wasted over the decades in sending reports that almost no one read.

There are a couple of catches: the Service proposes that the office-holder could do this only when he/she “considers that uploading statutory documents to a website, instead of sending hard copies, will not unfairly disadvantage creditors” (paragraph 95). I would have thought that creditors might only be unfairly disadvantaged if they are unable to access the website, no? So are we talking here about a particular profile of creditor? Or is the Service thinking, not about the creditors, but about the importance of the documentation? I could see that it might be unfair to place a NoID on a website with no announcement, leaving it to creditors’ pot luck as to whether they spotted the notice in time to lodge a claim – and I’m guessing that NoIDs would be excluded from this provision. But in what other circumstances could creditors be unfairly disadvantaged?

In another section of the CD, which covers a proposal to reduce the number of statutory circulars (which has not made it to my Top Seven), the Service states that: “Important information is being passed – to attend a meeting, to know of its outcome – which we would not want dissipated” (paragraph 102). So does the Service believe that a notice of meeting needs to be circulated, rather than pop onto a website, for fear that creditors might not see it until the meeting had been held? Ok, but then what about progress reports, the issuing of which sets the clock ticking for challenges to fees: are these similarly too important to pop onto a website unannounced? Could creditors be considered to be unfairly disadvantaged by this action? But where would that leave us: what documents would be appropriate to post to a website unannounced?

4. Extend extensions by consent

The Service proposes to extend the period by which Administrations may be extended by consent of creditors to 12 months. They also invite views on whether this should be extended further.

My personal view is that it would seem practical, whilst not making it too easy for Administrations to stagnate, to allow creditors to extend Administrations indefinitely but only by, say, 6 months at a time.

I can think of few circumstances where an Administration should move to a Liquidation, particularly if another of the Service’s proposals – that the power to take fraudulent or wrongful trading actions be extended to Administrators – is implemented. The CD also suggests empowering an Administrator to pay a dividend from the prescribed part, although I would like to see the power extend to a dividend of any description (what’s so special about the prescribed part?). These changes would seem to remove the need to move a company from Administration to CVL (although I wonder if these changes will persuade HMRC to drop its practice of modifying proposals to require that the company be placed into liquidation of some description – why do they do that?!), but then some Administrations might need to be extended for significant periods – adjudicating on claims can be a lengthy business.

I think the Enterprise Act envisaged Administrations as a holding cell, allowing the office-holder to do what he/she could to get the best out of the situation, but once the end-result was established, the idea was that the company would move to liquidation, CVA, or even escape back to solvency. But that all seems a bit over-complicated and costly when, in many respects (e.g. specific bond, R&P and currently D-report/return), the successive CVL is a completely separate insolvency case. Why does the company need to move to CVL to pay a dividend?

5. Scrap small dividends

The Service proposes that, where the dividend payment to a creditor will be less than, say £5 or £10, the dividend is not paid to the creditor. The Service suggests that these unpaid dividends might be passed to its disqualification department or to HM Treasury.

The Service has spotted the key difficulty: should the threshold apply to each interim/final dividend payment or to the total dividend? Although it would not be impossible, it could be tricky applying the threshold to the total dividend – the office holder would need to keep a tally of small unpaid dividends at each interim payment and monitor when the sum total crossed the threshold. To be fair, I guess there are few insolvencies that involve interim dividends – I am assuming that this provision would not apply to VAs (unless the debtor specifically provided for it in the Proposal), but I believe that any increased burden on declaring interim dividends should be avoided.

6. “Minor” changes

The CD provides some annexes of so-called “minor” proposals for change:

• Extend the deadline for proxies up to, and including at, the meeting. Granted very few meetings are physical meetings, but I remember the days of holding CVA meetings and having someone stand by the office fax machine just in case any last-minute proxies came in – it’s not exactly cost-free.

• Apply the VA requisite majorities rule on connected party voting to liquidations and bankruptcies. Personally, I think this is quite a naughty proposal to slip in to this consultation, particularly at the tail-end of a “minor” proposals annex – it hardly seems in keeping with the Red Tape Challenge objective of abolishing unnecessary regulation! Why isn’t it already in liquidations and bankruptcies? I don’t know for sure, but I wonder if it is something to do with the fact that the resolutions taken at VA meetings decide the fate of the insolvent entity, whether to approve the VA or not. The provision is also in Administrations, which is a bit more difficult to rationalise (as are a lot of Administration rules!): perhaps it is because Administrators’ Proposals might also decide the fate of the company, whether the Administrator pursues its rescue by means of a CVA or otherwise (see, for example, Re Station Properties Limited, http://wp.me/p2FU2Z-3I). These decisions are fundamentally different from those taken at liquidation and bankruptcy meetings, where any connected party bias is far less relevant.

• “Clarify that, where ‘creditors’ is mentioned in insolvency regulation, only those creditors whose debts remain outstanding are being referred to. Currently, if a creditor has received payment in full, they would still be classed as a creditor in the insolvency (as they would have been a creditor at the commencement of the procedure, which fixes the use of that term legally). As the legislation refers to actions that can be carried out by or with the consent of creditors, engaging with those ‘creditors’ who have already received full payment (and may not consider themselves creditors any longer) can be difficult” (annex 6(a)). Well, I’m glad we got that cleared up! It makes a joke of the current position, though. For example, the ICAEW blogged that creditors need to receive copies of MVL progress reports (http://www.ion.icaew.com/insolvencyblog/26779). Although I dispute that this is the only interpretation of the Act/Rules, the consequence of the Service’s stance described above is that, despite what the Service apparently has told the ICAEW, even if creditors have been paid, they still receive copies of MVL progress reports – what nonsense! To my mind, however, the key issue arising from this conclusion is the application of R2.106(5A) – not only would paid secured creditors’ approval to the basis of fees need to be sought, but also paid preferential creditors. I wonder what the court would say if a paid creditor applied on the ground that the Administrator had failed to include them in an invitation to approve fees? I suspect: ”Go away and stop wasting the court’s time!” And don’t forget that the Administrator needs to seek all secured creditors’ approvals of the time of his/her discharge – personally, this seems unnecessarily burdensome to me anyway, but do we really need to seek the approval of creditors who are no longer owed anything? Also, the Act/Rules do not seem to allow the Administrator to get his/her discharge by means of anything other than a positive consent from all secured creditors. It’s a shame that this CD does not propose that silent secured creditors could be ignored, when seeking approval for discharge or for fees.

• “Consider the efficiency of the process by which administration can exit into dissolution or CVL and clarify them, if necessary” (annex 6(f)) – yes, please! Despite being tweaked and being the subject of much debate and consultation, it seems that the move to CVL process defies simplification. Now we have the unsatisfactory position that the Administrator needs to sign off and submit to Registrar of Companies (“RoC”) a final report covering the period up to the date that the company moves to CVL, but, because Administrators only learn of this event when they see it appear on the register at Companies House, they have already vacated office by the time they can sign and submit the report. Whilst Administrators can get the report pretty-much ready for signing before they vacate office – so at least they can be paid for the work! – there must be a way of avoiding this fudge, mustn’t there? I ask myself, why should the RoC be in control of the move date? Why couldn’t the Administrator sign a form with the effect that the company moves to CVL and statute simply provide that the form must be filed within a short time thereafter? After all, the dates of commencement of all other insolvency processes are fixed outside of RoC’s hands and the appropriate notices/resolutions are filed after the event.

7. Changes to D-report/return forms

I know that R3 has expended a lot of effort into seeking changes to the D-report/return forms and in putting them online, so I hope that I’m not dissing the Service’s proposals unduly out of ignorance. However, the CD left me puzzled.

Instead of asking IPs to express an opinion on whether the director “is a person whose conduct makes it appear to you that he is unfit” – because the Service believes that this can delay submission of the form, as the IP takes time to gather evidence – it proposes to ask IPs to provide “details of director behaviour which may indicate misconduct” (paragraph 209). From what I can gather, it seems there will be a tick-box list of behaviours that may indicate misconduct. But IPs will still be working on the basis of evidence in ticking the boxes, won’t they? So all that will be removed is the need for the IP to decide whether a D-return or report is appropriate (the Service’s plan is to have only one form). In fact, it could be more burdensome to IPs, as currently they use their own judgment in deciding that an action or behaviour does not, or is unlikely to, cross the threshold of misconduct, which would lead them to submit a clean return, end of story. However, under the proposed system, it seems to me that the IP would tick the box regarding the particular behaviour and the Service would then have to decide whether it warranted further investigation. Would that help anyone?

I appreciate IPs’ reluctance in expressing an opinion on misconduct, but I suggest that the main rationale for dropping this requirement is that, as currently, the Service will make its own mind up anyway, so what does it matter what the IP thinks? However, what will be lost under the new system will be the IP acting as a first-level filter, which I guess achieves the Red Tape Challenge objective, but it seems unhelpful in the greater scheme of things.

And is this tick-box approach going to be an improvement? Although the Service has promised a free text box (woo hoo!), it all sounds a bit restrictive to me.

One promising proposed change is that the Service will pre-populate returns with information that is already available (presumably from RoC). Not only will this make IPs’ lives a little easier, but also the receipt of a pre-populated return may act as a useful prompt to complete the task.

BIS is pursuing its “Digital by Default vision” and so views are sought on whether electronic submission of D-returns could be mandatory. Although personally I think it would not be a huge leap for all IPs to do this – provided the return was a moveable document that could be worked on and passed around a number of people in the IP’s office before finalisation and submission – I dislike the suggestion that there would be no other way of complying with the legislation and I did have to laugh at the image of an IP typing up his D-return in a public library (paragraph 205)!

The Service is also proposing to change the deadline to 3 months, on the assumption that this would be doable if IPs were not required to express an opinion and on the basis that “all of the information required for completion of the return will be available to the office-holder within that reduced period in the vast majority of cases” (paragraph 212). I’m not so sure, particularly if the IP encounters resistance in retrieving books and records and if directors are slow in submitting completed questionnaires – and these likely will include the cases where some misconduct has gone on. The CD does not mention what an IP’s duty would be in relation to any discoveries after the 3 months, but presumably a professional IP will go to the expense of informing the Service of material findings. I realise that resources are stretched extraordinarily within the Investigations department, but I’m not convinced that this is the best way to tackle the issue.

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Well, I had intended to avoid prattling on for too long, but I think I failed! Hopefully, this is a reflection of the interest I have in the Service’s proposals: despite my criticisms, Insolvency Service, I am grateful for your efforts in seeking to improve things – thank you.


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The Kempson Review of IP Fees – a case of Aussie Rules?

5436 Sydney

Whilst this atypical British weather may have brought out the Aussie in many of us, as we settle down to sipping a stubby over the barbie, Professor Kempson seems to be gazing at the Southern Cross a little more completely.

Kempson’s report to the Insolvency Service was tagged quite unceremoniously to the foot of the page, http://www.bis.gov.uk/insolvency/news/news-stories/2013/Jul/transparency-and-trust, which headines Mr Cables’ Transparency & Trust Paper. Her report even had to follow the uninspiring terms of reference of the pre-pack review and so here I will follow the antipodean theme and blog about the bottom item of that press release first.

I’ll also start from the back of Kempson’s report and summarise her recommendations, uncontaminated by any personal opinion (for the moment):

• Consideration of the potential for limited competitive tendering (section 6.1.1)
• A radical revision or replacement of SIP9 (section 6.1.2)
• Consideration of the Australian approach of providing a costs estimate at the outset of the case with an agreed cap on fees (section 6.1.2)
• The creation and adoption of a Code on the lines of the Insolvency Practitioners Association of Australia Code of Professional Practice (section 6.1.2)
• Some contextual information from an independent body to help creditors assess the reasonableness of the remuneration and disbursements (section 6.1.2)
• Greater oversight exercised by the Crown creditors, HMRC, RPS and PPF, working together (section 6.1.3)
• Consideration of Austria’s model of creditor protection associations acting on creditors’ committees (section 6.1.3)
• Reconsideration of the circumstances in which creditors’ meetings need not be held in Administrations (section 6.1.3)
• Exploration of non-time cost bases or a mixture of bases for fees (section 6.1.4)
• Increasing the debt threshold for bankruptcy petitions (section 6.1.5)
• Extending S273 to creditors’ petitions (section 6.1.5)
• Provision of information (e.g. Insolvency Service booklet) to debtors regarding the likely costs of bankruptcy (section 6.1.5)
• Provision of generic information (e.g. Insolvency Service booklet) to directors subject to personal guarantees as well as case-specific information, e.g. by treating them on a par with creditors (section 6.1.5)
• A single regulator, perhaps the Financial Conduct Authority, for IPs (section 6.1.6)
• A simple low-cost mediation and adjudication service for disputes about low-level fees, perhaps by means of the Financial Ombudsman Service (section 6.1.7)
• Alternatively, some form of independent oversight of fees, such as that used in Scotland via court reporters and the AiB (section 6.1.8)

Charge-out rates – a surprisingly positive outcome!

Given the “how much?!” reaction often resulting from a disclosure of charge-out rates, I was ready to wince at this section, but actually I think the insolvency profession comes out of it fairly well.

The report details the charge-out rates gathered via the IP survey (which was responded to by 253 IPs):

Partner/Director: average £366; range £212-£800
Manager: average £253; range £100-460
Other senior staff: average £182; range £75-445
Assistants/support: average £103; range £25-260

Encouragingly, Kempson reports that these charge-out levels “are not, however, unusual in the accountancy and legal professions to which most IPs belong” (section 3.1). From my experience, I’d also suggest that the firms that charge the top end for partners/directors usually charge junior staff at the lower end and vice versa, i.e. I doubt that any firm charges £260 for juniors and £800 for partners/directors.

Professor Kempson also acknowledges that these “headline rates” are not always charged because IPs normally agree lower rates in order to sit on banks’ panels and, in other cases, the time costs are not recovered in full due to lack of realisations. Setting aside panel cases, Kempson suggests that fees were below headline rates “in about a half of cases, including: the great majority of compulsory liquidations, about two thirds of administrations; half of creditors’ voluntary liquidations and a third of personal bankruptcy cases” (section 3.2). Putting those two observations together, is it arguable, therefore, that IPs provide a far better value for money service than others in the accountancy and legal professions?

Panel Discounts – not so great

The report states that, at appointment stage, secured creditors negotiate discounts of between 10% and 40% on IPs’ headline rates and that some banks may achieve a further discount by entertaining tenders. “The implicit sanction underpinning all negotiations was to remove a firm from the panel. None of the banks interviewed could remember a firm choosing to leave their panel because the appointments they received were un-remunerative. From this they surmised that (individual cases aside) work was being done on a lower profit margin rather than a loss” (section 4.1.1).

Kempson does not suggest it, but I wonder if some might conclude that, notwithstanding the comments made above about charge-out rates, this indicates that IPs’ headline rates could drop by 10-40% for all cases. Personally, I do wonder if banks’ pressuring for discounts from panel firms could be un-remunerative in some cases, but that firms feel locked in to the process, unable to feed hungry mouths from the infrequent non-panel work, and perhaps there is an element of cross-subsidising going on. If Kempson had asked the question, not whether firms chose to leave a panel, but whether any chose not to re-tender when the panel was up for renewal, I wonder if she would have received a different answer.

Seedy Market?

To illustrate the apparent clout of bank panels, the report describes a service “that is marketed to IPs, offering to buy out the debts of secured creditors, thereby ensuring that an IP retains an appointment and giving them greater control over the fees that they can charge” (section 4.1.1).

Is it just me or is there something ethically questionable about an IP seeking to secure his/her appointment in this manner? Presumably someone is losing out and I’m not talking about the estate just by reason of the possibly higher charge-out rates that may have not been discounted to the degree that the bank would have managed with a panel IP. Presumably there’s an upside for the newly-introduced secured creditor? How do their interest/arrangement/termination charges compare to the original lender’s? Is the insolvent estate being hit with an increased liability from this direction? And why… because an IP wanted to secure the appointment..?

Is the problem simply creditor apathy?

Reading Kempson’s report did give me an insight – a more expansive one than I’ve read anywhere else – into an unsecured creditor’s predicament. They don’t come across insolvencies very often, so have little understanding of what is involved in the different insolvency processes (so maybe I shouldn’t get twitchy over the phrase “problems when administrations fail and a liquidation ensues”!). How can they judge whether hourly rates or the time charged are reasonable? They receive enormous progress reports that give them so much useless information (I’m pleased that one IP’s comment made it to print: “… For example saying that the prescribed part doesn’t apply. Well, if it doesn’t apply, what’s the point in confusing everybody in mentioning it?” (section 4.2.3)) and they struggle to extract from reports a clear picture of what’s gone on. Many believe that they’re a small fry in a big pond of creditors, so they’re sceptical that their vote will swing anything, and they have no contact with other creditors, so feel no solidarity. Personally, I used to think that creditors’ lack of engagement was an inevitable decision not to throw good money after bad, but this report has reminded me that their position is a consequence of far more obstacles than that.

Progress Reports – what progress?

The report majored on the apparent failure of many progress reports to inform creditors. Comments from contributors include: “Unfortunately the nature of the fee-approval regime can lead to compliance-driven reports, generated from templates by junior-level staff, which primarily focus on ensuring that all of the requirements of the statute and regulation are addressed in a somewhat tick-box-like manner. This very often means that the key argument is omitted or lost in the volume, which in turn make it difficult for us to make the objective assessment that is required of us” and from the author herself: “there were reports that clearly followed the requirements of the regulations and practice notes (including SIP9 relating to fees) slavishly and often had large amounts of text copied verbatim from previous reports. Consequently, they seemed formulaic and not a genuine attempt to communicate to creditors what they might want to know, including how the case was progressing and what work had been done, with what result and at what cost” (section 4.2.3).

To what was the unhelpful structure of progress reports attributed? Kempson highlighted the 2010 Rule changes (hear hear!) but she also mentions that IPs “criticised SIP9 as being too prescriptive”. I find this personally frustrating, because long ago I was persuaded of the value – and appropriateness – of principles-based SIPs. During my time attending meetings of the Joint Insolvency Committee and helping SIPs struggle through the creation, revision, consultation, and adoption process, I longed to see SIPs emerge as clearly-defined documents promoting laudable principles, respecting IPs to exercise their professional skills and judgment to do their job and not leaving IPs at the mercy of risk-averse box-tickers. I would be one of the first to acknowledge that even the most recent SIPs have not met this ideal of mine, but SIP9?! Personally, I feel that, particularly considering its sensitive and complex subject matter – fees – it is one of the least prescriptive SIPs we have. I believe that a fundamental problem with SIP9, however, is the Appendix: so many people – some IPs, compliance people, and RPB monitors – so frequently forget that it is a “Suggested Format”. Most of us create these pointless reports that churn out time cost matrices with little explanation or thought, produce pages of soporific script explaining the tasks of junior administrators… because we think that’s what SIP9 requires of us and because we think that this is what we’ll be strung up for the next time the inspector calls. And well it might be, but why not produce progress reports that meet the key principle of SIP9 – provide “an explanation of what has been achieved in the period under review and how it was achieved, sufficient to enable the progress of the case to be assessed [and so that creditors are] able to understand whether the remuneration charged is reasonable in the circumstances of the case” (SIP9 paragraph 14)? And if an RPB monitor or compliance person points out that you’ve not met an element of the Appendix, ask them in what way they feel that you’ve breached SIP9. Alternatively, let’s do it the Kempson way: leave the Insolvency Service to come up with a Code on how to do it!

I do wonder, however, how much it would cost to craft the perfect progress report. The comment above highlighted that reports might be produced by junior staff working to a template, but isn’t that to be expected? Whilst my personal opinion is that reports are much better produced as a free text story told by someone with all-round knowledge of the case (that’s how I used to produce them in “my day”), I recognise the desire to sausage-machine as much of the work as possible and this is the best chance of keeping costs down, which is what creditors want, right? Therefore, apart from removing some of the (statute or SIP-inspired) rubbish in reports, I am not sure that the tide can be moved successfully to more reader-friendly and useful reporting.

Inconsistent monitoring?

The report states: “During 2012, visits made by RPBs identified 12.0 compliance issues relating to fees per 100 IPs. But there was a very wide variation between RPBs indeed; ranging from 0 to 44 instances per 100 IPs. Allowing for the differences in the numbers of IPs regulated by different RPBs, this suggests that there is a big variation in the rigour with which RPBs assess compliance, since it is implausible that there is that level of variation in the actual compliance of the firms they regulate” (section 4.5). I also find this quite implausible, but, having dealt with most of the RPB monitors and having attended their regular meetings to discuss monitoring issues in an effort to achieve consistency, I do struggle with Kempson’s explanation for the variation.

Although I can offer no alternative explanation, I would point to the results on SIP9 monitoring disclosed in the Insolvency Service’s 2009 Regulatory Report, which presented quite a different picture. In that year, the RPBs/IS reported an average of 10.6 SIP9 breaches per 100 IPs – interestingly close to Kempson’s 2012 figure of 12.0, particularly considering SIP9 breaches are not exactly equivalent to compliance issues relating to fees. However, the variation was a lot less – from 1.3 to 18 breaches per 100 IPs (and the next lowest-“ranking” RPB recorded 8.1). Of course, I have ignored the one RPB that recorded no SIP9 breaches in 2009, but that was probably only because that RPB had conducted no monitoring visits that year (and neither did it in 2012). Kempson similarly excluded that RPB from her calculations, didn’t she..?

Somewhat predictably, Kempson draws the conclusion (in section 6.1.6) that there is a case for fewer regulators, perhaps even one. She suggests setting a minimum threshold of the number of IPs that a body must regulate (which might at least lose the RPB that reports one monitoring visit only every three years… how can that even work for the RPB, I ask myself). In drawing a comparison with Australia, she suggests the sole RPB could be the Financial Conduct Authority – hmm…

Voluntary Arrangements: the exception?

“We have seen that the existing controls work well for secured creditors involved in larger corporate insolvencies. But they do not work as intended for unsecured creditors involved in corporate insolvencies, and this is particularly the case for small unsecured creditors with limited or no prior experience of insolvency. The exception to this is successful company voluntary arrangements” (section 5). Why does Kempson believe that the controls work in CVAs? She seems to put some weight to the fact that the requisite majority is 75% for CVAs, but she also acknowledges that unsecured creditors are incentivised to participate where there is the expectation of a dividend. If she truly believes the situation is different for CVAs – although I saw no real evidence for this in the report – then wouldn’t there be value in examining why that is? If it is down to the fact that creditors are anticipating a dividend, then there’s nothing much IPs can do to improve the situation across cases in general. But perhaps there are other reasons for it: I suspect that IPs charge up far fewer hours administering CVAs given the relative absence of statutory provisions controlling the process. I also suspect that CVA progress reports are more punchy, as they are not so bogged down by the Rules.

But I don’t think anyone would argue with Kempson’s observation that IVAs are a completely different kettle of fish and that certain creditors have acted aggressively to restrict fees in IVAs to the extent that, as IPs told Kempson, they “frequently found this work unremunerative” (section 4.2.3).

Disadvantages of Time Costs

I found this paragraph interesting: “several authoritative contributors said that, when challenged either by creditors or in the courts, IPs seldom provide an explanation of their hourly rates by reference to objective criteria, such [as] details of the overheads included and the amount they account for, and the proportion of time worked by an IP that is chargeable to cases. Instead they generally justify their fees by claiming that they are the ‘market rate’ for IPs and other professionals. Reference is invariably made to the fact that the case concerned was complex, involved a high level of risk and that the level of claims against the estate was high. More than one of the people commenting on this said that the complexity of cases was over-stated and they were rarely told that a case was a fairly standard one, but that there were things that could have been done better or more efficiently or the realisations ought to have been higher so perhaps a reduction in fees was appropriate. They believed that, by adopting this approach, IPs undermined the confidence others have in them” (section 5.2.1). It’s a shame, however, that no mention has been made of the instances – and I know that they do occur – of IPs who unilaterally accept to write-off some of their time costs so that they can pay a dividend on a case.

But this quote hints at the key disadvantage, I think, of time costs: there is a risk that it rewards inefficiency.

Kempson first suggests moving to a percentage basis as a presumed method of setting remuneration, although she acknowledges that this wouldn’t help creditors as they would still face the difficulty on knowing what a reasonable percentage looked like. She then suggests a “more promising approach” is the rarely-used mixed bases for fees that were introduced by the 2010 Rules (section 6.1.4). She states that this should be “explored further, for example fixed fees for statutory duties; a percentage of realisations for asset realisations (with a statutory sliding scale as described above); perhaps retaining time cost for investigations”. Whilst I agree that different fee bases certainly do have the potential to deliver better outcomes – I believe that it can incentivise IPs to work efficiently and effectively whilst ensuring that they still get paid for doing the necessary work that doesn’t generate realisations – it does make me wonder: if creditors already feel confused..!

Lessons from Down Under?

Kempson is clearly a fan of the Australian regime. She recommends the scrapping or radical revision of SIP9 in favour of something akin to the IPAA’s Code of Professional Practice (http://www.ipaa.com.au/docs/about-us-documents/copp-2nd-ed-18-1-11.pdf?sfvrsn=2). At first glance (I confess I have done no more than that), it doesn’t look to have much more content than SIP9, but it does seem more explanatory, more non-IP-friendly, and the fact that Kempson clearly rates it over SIP9 suggests to me that, at the very least, perhaps we could produce something like it that is targeted at the unsecured creditor audience.

She also refers to a Remuneration Request Approval Report template sheet (accessible from: http://www.ipaa.com.au/about-us/ipa-publications/code-of-professional-practice), which she acknowledges “is more detailed than SIP9” (section 6.1.2) – she’s not kidding! To me, it looks just like the SIP9 Appendix with more detailed breakdowns of every key time category, probably something akin to the information IPs provide on a >£50,000 case.

Finally, she refers to a “helpful information sheet” provided by the Australian regulator (ASIC) (http://www.asic.gov.au/asic/pdflib.nsf/LookupByFileName/Approving_fees_guide_for_creditors.pdf/$file/Approving_fees_guide_for_creditors.pdf), which looks much like R3’s Creditors’ Guides to Fees, although again the content does perhaps come over more readable.

Thus, whilst I can see some value in revisiting the UK documents (or producing different ones) so that they are more useful to non-IPs (although will anyone read them?), I am not sure that I see much in the argument that moving to an Aussie Code will change radically how IPs report fees matters. I am also dismayed at Kempson’s suggestion that “a detailed Code of this kind would be very difficult to compile by committee and would require a single body, almost certainly the Insolvency Service in consultation with the insolvency profession, to do it” (section 6.1.2). Wasn’t the Service behind the 2010 Rules on the content of progress reports..?

After singing Australia’s praises, she admits: “even with the additional information disclosure described above, creditor engagement remains a problem in Australia” (section 6.1.3) – hmm… so what exactly is the value of the Australian way..?

Other ideas for creditor engagement

Kempson recommends consideration of the Austrian model of creditor protection associations (section 6.1.3), which is a wild one and not a quick fix – there must be an easier way? I was interested to note that, even though creditors are paid to sit on committees in Germany, committees are only formed on 15-20% of cases – so paying creditors doesn’t work either…

The report also seems to swing in the opposite direction to the Red Tape Challenge in suggesting that the criteria for avoiding creditors’ meetings in Administrations should be reconsidered. Kempson highlights the situation where the secured creditor is paid in full yet no creditors’ meeting is held either because there are insufficient funds to pay a dividend or because the Administrator did not anticipate there would be sufficient funds at the Proposals stage. As I mentioned in an earlier post (http://wp.me/p2FU2Z-3p), in my view these Rules just do not work – something for the Insolvency Rules Committee…

However, raising these circumstances makes me think: whilst endeavours to improve creditor engagement are admirable, could we not all agree that there are some cases that are just not worth anyone getting excited about? There must be so many cases with negligible assets that barely cover the Category 1 costs plus a bit for the IP for discharging his/her statutory duties – is it really sensible to try to drag creditors kicking and screaming to show an interest in fixing, monitoring and reviewing the IP’s fees in such a case? Whatever measures are introduced, could they not restrict application to such low-value cases?

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The fact that the release of this report seems to have made fewer ripples than the Government’s announcement of its plan to conduct the fees review makes me wonder if anyone is really listening..? However, I’m sure we all know what will happen when the next high profile case hits the headlines, when the tabloids report the apparent eye-watering sums paid to the IPs and the corresponding meagre p in the £ return to creditors. Then there will be a revived call for fees to be curbed somehow.

In the meantime, we await the Government’s response to Professor Kempson’s report, expected “later this year”.