Insolvency Oracle

Developments in UK insolvency by Michelle Butler


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The 2015 Fees Rules: One Year On

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In November last year, I gave a presentation at the R3 SPG Forum: a look back at one year under the new fees regime. Although I don’t have the benefit of my co-presenter, Maxine Reid, I thought I would set out some of my main points here, as well as some new and improved observations on Administrators’ Proposals:

  • Do more recent Proposals indicate a move away from time costs?
  • How are creditors voting now?
  • How do time costs incurred compare to fees estimates?
  • Are progress reports and excess fee requests compliant with the rules and SIP9?
  • Is the picture any clearer now on what the regulators’ expectations are on some of the finer points of the rules and SIP9?

Is there a move away from time costs?

My analysis of Proposals issued in early 2016 (https://goo.gl/bvebTz) showed that time costs was still the preferred choice: 75% of my sample (108 Proposals) had proposed fees based on time costs.

To see whether things had changed more recently, I reviewed another 67 Proposals issued between July and September 2016 (no more than two from each insolvency practice). This is how the fee bases proposed compared:

feebasis2

This suggests that not a lot has changed, which isn’t too surprising I guess as there are only a few months’ difference between the two sets of Proposals. I also suspect that, if I looked at CVLs, I’d see quite a different picture. There does seem to be a bit more experimenting going on though, especially involving percentage fees, which is a topic I’ll come back to later.

How are creditors voting?

The filing of progress reports on my early Administration sample enabled me to fill in the gaps regarding how secured creditors and committees had voted on fees:

feecaps

Although I accept that my sample is small, I think that this is interesting: the average reduction in fees approved is the same whether the decision was made by unsecured or secured creditors. I’d better explain the committee percentage: in these cases, the committees were approving fees only on the basis of time costs incurred, not on the estimated future time costs, which is also interesting: it isn’t what the fees rules envisaged, but I think it is how most committees are accustomed to vote on fees.

Have creditors’ decisions changed more recently?

As I only have the Results of Meeting to go on for the more recent cases, this is not a complete picture, but this is how the two samples compare:

  • Jan-Mar 2016 (67 Results of Meeting):
    • 11 modified; 1 rejected
    • 7 early liquidations; 4 independent Liquidators
    • 1 Administrator replaced
    • 6 fees modified (average reduction 29%)
  • Jul-Sept 2016 (55 Results of Meeting):
    • 5 modified
    • 2 early liquidations; no new IPs
    • 1 fee modified (reduction 48%)

Again, it’s only a small sample, but it seems to me that creditors’ enthusiasm to modify Proposals or cap fees has waned, although c.10% of Proposals were still modified, which is fairly substantial.

How have actual time costs compared to fees estimates?

With the filing of 6-monthly progress reports, I was able to compare time costs incurred with the fees estimates:

timecosts

Over the whole case sample, the mean average was 105%, i.e. after only 6 months of the Administration, on average time costs were 105% of the fees estimate included in the Proposals. This graph also shows that, on a couple of cases, the time costs incurred at 6 months were over 250% of the fees estimate, although to be fair a large number were somewhere between 50% and 100%, which is where I’d expect it to be given that Administration work tends to be front-loaded.

You can see that I’ve distinguished above between cases where unsecured creditors voted on the fees and the “para 52” cases where the secured (and possibly preferential) creditors voted. The graph appears to indicate that time costs exceeding the estimate is more marked in cases where unsecured creditors approve fees.

Of course, fees estimates and fees drawn are entirely different worlds, so the fact that time costs have exceeded estimates will be of no practical consequence – at least, not to creditors – where a case has insufficient assets to support the work. In around only half of the cases where time costs exceeded estimates did the progress report disclose that the Administrator was, or would be, seeking approval to excess fees. This suggests that in the other half of all cases the IPs were prepared to do the work necessary without being paid for it, which I think is a message that many insolvency onlookers (and the Insolvency Service) don’t fully appreciate.

How compliant are progress reports and excess fee requests?

Firstly, I think it’s worth summarising what the Oct-15 Rules and the revised SIP9 require when it comes to progress reports. The Rules require:

  • A statement setting out whether:
    • The remuneration anticipated to be charged is likely to exceed the fees estimate (or additional approval)
    • The expenses incurred or anticipated to be incurred are likely to exceed, or having exceeded, the details given to creditors
    • The reasons for that excess

SIP9 requires:

  • Information sufficient to help creditors in understanding “what was done, why it was done, and how much it costs”
  • “The actual costs of the work, including any expenses incurred, as against any estimate provided”
  • “The actual hours and average rate (or rates) of the costs charged for each part should be provided for comparison purposes”
  • “Figures for both the period being reported upon and on a cumulative basis”

It is clear from the above that the old-style time costs breakdown alone will not be sufficient. For one thing, some automatically-produced old-style breakdowns do not provide the average charge-out rate per work category. I also think that simply including a copy of the original fee estimate “for comparison purposes” falls short as well, especially where the fees estimate uses different categories or descriptions from the time costs breakdown.

What is required is some narrative to explain where more work was necessary than originally anticipated. The best examples I saw listed each work category (or at least those categories for which the time costs incurred exceeded the fees estimate) and gave case-specific explanations, such as that it had proven difficult to get the company records from the IT providers or that the initial investigations had revealed some questionable transactions that required further exploration.

I also saw some useful and clear tables comparing the fee estimates and actual time costs per work category. As mentioned above, in some cases, the progress reports were accompanied by a request for additional fees and in these cases the comparison tables also factored in the future anticipated time costs and there was some clear narrative that distinguished between work done and future work.

Reporting on expenses to meet the above requirements proved to be a challenge for some. Admittedly, the Rules are not ideal as they require fees estimates to provide “details of expenses” likely to be incurred and some IPs had interpreted this to require a description only of who would charge the expense and why, but it is only when you read the progress report requirements that you get the sense that the anticipated quantum of expenses was expected. For example, where an Administrators’ Proposals had stated simply that solicitors’ costs on a time costs basis were likely, it is not easy to produce a progress report that compares this with the actual costs or that states whether the actual expense had exceeded the details given previously.

What do the regulators expect?

A year ago, the regulators seemed sympathetic to IPs grappling with the new Rules and SIP9. Do they consider that a year is sufficient for us all to have worked out how to do it?

I get the sense that there may still be some forbearance when it comes to complying with every detail of the SIP, but understandably if there is a fundamental flaw in the way fees approval has been sought, it is not something on which the RPBs can – or indeed should – be light touch. Fees is Fees and the sooner we know our errors, the less disastrous it will be for us to fix them.

The S98 Fees Estimate question seems to have crystallised. There seems to be general consensus now amongst the regulators and their monitoring teams that, whilst there are risks in relying on a fees resolution passed at the S98 meeting on the basis of fees-related documentation issued prior to appointment as a liquidator, the regulators will not treat such a fees resolution as invalid on this basis alone. Fortunately, the 2016 Rules will settle this debate once and for all.

The trouble with percentage fees

From my conversations with a few monitors and from the ICAEW Roadshow last year, I get the feeling that the monitors are generally comfortable with time cost resolutions. There is a logical science behind time costs as well as often voluminous paper-trails, so the monitors feel relatively well-equipped to review them and express a view on their reasonableness. The same cannot always be said about fees based on a percentage – or indeed on a fixed sum – basis.

In her 2013 report, Professor Kempson expressed some doubts on the practicalities of percentage fees, observing that creditors could find it difficult to judge the reasonableness of a proposed percentage fee. When the Insolvency Service’s fees consultation was issued in 2014, R3 also remarked that fixed or percentage fees were not always compatible with unpredictable insolvencies and could result in unfair outcomes. The recent shift towards percentage fees, which appears more pronounced in CVLs, has put these concerns into the spot-light.

In the ICAEW Roadshow, Allison Broad expressed her concerns about fees proposed on the basis of (often quite substantial) percentages of unknown or undisclosed assets. I can see Allison’s point: how can creditors make “an informed judgment about the reasonableness of an office holder’s request” if they have no information?

Evidently, some IPs are proposing percentage fees as a kind of mopping-up strategy, so that they do not have to go to the expense of seeking creditors’ approval to fees later when they do have more information and they feel that creditors can take comfort in knowing that the IPs will not be drawing 100% of these later-materialised assets. Although a desire to avoid unnecessary costs is commendable, the message seems to be that compliance with SIP9 requires you to revert to creditors for fee-approval only when you can explain more clearly what work you intend to do and what financial benefit may be generated for creditors, e.g. what are the assets that you are pursuing or investigating.

Another difficulty with percentage fees is the quantum at which they are sometimes pitched. I have heard some stories of extraordinary percentages proposed, although I do wonder if, taken in context, some of these are justifiable, e.g. where the percentage is to cover the statutory work as well as asset realisations. Regardless of this, the message seems to be that some of us could improve on meeting SIP9’s requirement “to explain why the basis requested is expected to produce a fair and reasonable reflection of the work that the office holder anticipates will be undertaken”… and you should not be lulled into a false sense of security that 15% of everything, which of course is what the OR can now draw with no justification (and indeed with no creditor approval), is always fair and reasonable.

Looking on the bright side

Although getting to grips with the Oct-15 Rules has not been easy, I guess we should count our blessings: at least we have had this past year to adapt to them before the whole world changes again. If there’s one thing we don’t want to get wrong, it is fee-approval, so at least we can face the April Rules changes feeling mildly confident that we have that one area sorted.

If you would like to hear and see more on this topic (including some names of Administration cases that I found had particularly good progress reports and excess fee requests registered at Companies House), I have recorded an updated version of my R3 SPG Forum presentation, which is now available for Compliance Alliance subscribers. For more information, email info@thecompliancealliance.co.uk.

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SIP9 – the easy bits

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There’s no doubt that the October Rules and the revised SIP9 generated many questions. However, in this blog (first published on The Compliance Alliance), I summarise the known impacts of the new SIP9 for those who want to double-check that they have the basics right.

Scope

Have you remembered that the scope of the new SIP9 reaches wider than simply cases affected by the October Rules? It also affects:

  • Pre-October 2015 appointments;
  • Case types not affected by the October Rules, i.e. CVAs, IVAs, Receiverships and MVLs; and
  • Pre-appointment fees (where these are paid from the estate), e.g. SoA/S98 fees and VA drafting fees;
  • But it does not apply to Scottish or NI appointments, which continue to be subject to the “old” SIP9.

Key disclosure

I think that paragraph 9 of SIP9 is key. Whenever you are “providing information about payments, fees and expenses to those with a financial interest in the level of payments from an insolvent estate”, you should address the following:

Prospective disclosure:

  • What work will be done
  • Why it is necessary
  • How much it will cost (both fees and expenses)
  • “Whether it is anticipated that the work will provide a financial benefit to creditors and if so what anticipated benefit (or if the work provides no direct financial benefit, but is required by statute)”

Retrospective disclosure:

  • What work has been done
  • Why it was necessary
  • How much it has cost (both fees and expenses)
  • “Whether the work has provided a financial benefit to creditors and if so what benefit (or if the work provided no direct financial benefit, but is required by statute)”

The information given should be transparent, useful and proportionate to the circumstances of the case (which makes a rigid template approach difficult and dangerous), but also consistent throughout the life of the case. Therefore, whilst you might have made wholesale changes to requests/reports for new cases, you have probably designed a half-way house for older cases.  Although the new SIP9 avoids pretty-much all reference to numerical information, if you have already provided tables for a case on the lines of the old SIP9, it seems that you cannot drop them for future reports.  However, you should review the narrative elements of pre-December 2015 case reports to make sure that they meet the new disclosure requirements.

As mentioned above, these narrative requirements also apply to fees/costs that are new to the SIP9 scope and that are not affected by the October Rules. Therefore, have you checked off your documentation relating to MVL, SoA/S98, and VA drafting/Nominees’/Supervisors’ fees?

Fixed or percentage fees

Have you ensured that, whenever you are seeking approval for fees on a fixed or percentage basis, you have included some kind of prompt/explanation as to “why the basis requested is expected to produce a fair and reasonable reflection of the work that the office holder anticipates will be undertaken” (paragraph 10)?

Also with SIP9 paragraph 25 in mind, have you made sure that this explanation is covered when you are hoping to get approval for the following (which are often sought on a fixed/% basis) where they are to be drawn from the estate:

  • SoA/S98 fees;
  • Nominees’ fees;
  • Supervisors’ fees; and
  • MVL fees?

SoA/S98 fees

As you can see above, the new SIP9 seems to affect SoA/S98 fees quite substantially. I believe it has been rare to see pre-S98 circulars disclose much at all about these fees.  Personally, I find it difficult to see how the principles of SIP9 can be met without disclosing in the pre-S98 circular the quantum of the proposed SoA/S98 fee, if the IP is hoping to get this approved for payment from the estate at the S98 meeting.  However, I do not think that SIP9 is at all clear on this point, so I’ll put this one in the “known unknown” category.

Numerical information

As mentioned above, the new SIP9 has distanced itself from a formulaic numbers-say-it-all approach in favour of case-tailored narrative. However, the SIP does require some numerical information, not all of which I think flows naturally.

Are your systems set up so that, for cases where (October Rules) fees estimates have been provided, the progress reports disclose:

  • “the actual hours and average rate (or rates) of the costs charged for each part… for comparison purposes” (paragraph 13); and
  • “when reporting the amount of remuneration charged [i.e. time costs incurred] or expenses incurred… figures for both the period being reported upon and on a cumulative basis” (paragraph 17)?

Having now looked at some fee estimates, I have to say that I really do not think that the average rate for each work category adds anything at all – although I can see that an overall average rate has some value – so why the JIC felt that this was so vital that it had to be prescribed, I do not know! But I do know that it has added expense to some IPs in getting their time recording systems set up to produce these numbers.

The second requirement adds further complication. The 2010 Rules require progress reports to disclose expenses incurred (whether or not paid) in the period and SIP7 requires expenses paid in the period and cumulative, but now SIP9 requires also expenses incurred on a cumulative basis: that’s four different numbers.  So much for transparency!

Back to the beginning

The new SIP9 has introduced some subtle changes as regards disclosure of parties’ rights.

Information to creditors about how to access information on their rights has been moved to earlier in the process: no longer should this occur in the first communication following appointment, but simply “within the first communication with them” (and in each subsequent report).  Therefore, have you checked that this is covered in the pre-S98 circular?  But have you also kept it as standard in any post-S98 template, just in case you take an appointment without having been the IP advising member for the S98 meeting?

Personally, I’ve been struggling to work out how to meet the requirement above for MVLs: does there exist an “official” sensible explanation of creditors’ rights in an MVL?  The Creditors’ Guide to Liquidators’ Fees doesn’t really do the job, but I am not convinced that the RPBs expect IPs to draft something themselves, do they..?  Perhaps this is another “known unknown”.

Whilst we’re on the subject of Creditors’ Guides… I think that many IPs assumed that, as the new SIP9 applies to old and new cases, the new Guides also apply to both old and new cases.  However, if we remember that the purpose behind directing creditors to the Guide is to inform them of “their rights under insolvency legislation”, then it is evident that the pre-April 2010 Guides are still relevant to pre-April 2010 cases, as new rights were introduced in April 2010.  It is regrettable, however, that all the old Guides set out the requirements of the old SIP9 – and I would suggest that this might render them no longer “suitable information” – but as regards a creditor’s statutory rights, they’re generally reasonable.

Therefore, do your circulars/reports direct creditors to the Guide appropriate to the case type and appointment date? If you display the Guides on your own website, do you have Guides covering the full range of appointment dates?  The R3 website only goes back to 1 November 2011, but the ICAEW website, http://goo.gl/kjZlJC, (for example) has Guides going way back.

Heavy hints

The new SIP9 includes several items that fall short of being prescriptive, but the language indicates to me that monitors will still be looking out for them. These include:

  • Providing “an indication of the likely return to creditors” when seeking approval of the fee basis “where it is practical to do so”;
  • Dividing narrative explanations into the six categories listed in paragraph 12… whilst making sure that not every case follows exactly the same categories (we have to demonstrate that we’ve considered each case’s specific circumstances); and
  • Using “blended rates” for fees estimates.

And don’t forget…

Some old SIP9 requirements have survived the revision process. Items that sometimes get overlooked include:

  • Disclosure of “any business or personal relationships with parties responsible for approving his or her remuneration or who provide services to the office holder in respect of the insolvency appointment where the relationship could give rise to a conflict of interest”;
  • Explanation of why any sub-contractors are being used to do work that could otherwise be done by the IP/staff; and
  • An existing SIP7 requirement: disclosure of any pre-appointment costs paid, detailing the amount paid, name of the payor, their relationship to the estate and the nature of the payment.

Simple?

I get the feeling that the RPBs have been inundated with queries over the practical application of the October Rules and the revised SIP9, many originating from compliance consultants (including The Compliance Alliance). I haven’t raised these queries here; there is no real point, as there are few reliable answers at present.

In many respects, I doubt that we will get straight answers, at least not for some time to come. A recent response from one of my RPB contacts was heavily caveated with the observation that it was only her personal understanding and that the RPB’s stance would be formed by its committees over time.  Therefore, please bear with your compliance consultants.  You might hear us saying that we don’t know how your authorising body or its monitors view a certain matter and you may find that our recommendations change over time, as we try to remain alert to the shifting sands of interpretation around the Rules and SIP.  We will do our best to highlight the issues as we see them, whether they are clear breaches or whether they fall into the currently numerous known unknowns.