Insolvency Oracle

Developments in UK insolvency by Michelle Butler


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50 Things I Hate about the Rules – Part 3: Closures… and a bit more Fees

In this post, I add to my previous list of fees-related gripes and cover some issues with the new closure processes… and, as the end of the list is nearing, if anyone has any other gripes they want me to add to the list, please do drop me a line (because, between you and me, I’m struggling to come up with 50!)

On the topic of fees, I think that my last list and these additions demonstrate how madly intricate the statutory requirements are, especially for fees in Administrations and for fees based on time costs.  Is it any wonder that so many fee non-compliances arise?  And more than a few are treated by the RPBs as “unauthorised fees” issues, thus attracting the risks of fines and other sanctions.  This seems unfair as many trip-ups only occur because the Rules are such a jungle.  There must be a simpler way, mustn’t there?

 

A Few More Fees-Related Gripes

  1. Capturing Past Work

I appreciate that the fees Rules were drafted in the expectation that office holders would seek approval for the fee basis up-front (although how the drafters believed that IPs would be able to put together a realistic, case-specific, fees estimate on Day 1, I don’t know).  However, I think the Rules should have been designed to accommodate the possibility that fee-approval would be sought after an IP has been on the case for some time.  After all, the fact that Administrators’ Proposals must address how the company’s affairs have been managed since appointment and the proposed fee basis indicates that even the drafters envisaged some occasions when work will have been done before approval is sought, not to mention all the tasks demanded of every office holder swiftly on appointment.

My problem is that the Rules’ language is all prospective: the fees estimate/proposal must provide “details of the work the IP and the IP’s staff propose to undertake” (Rs1.2 and 18.16(7)) and the IP must provide “details of the expenses the office-holder considers will be, or are likely to be incurred” (Rs18.16(4) and (7)).  I think that we’ve all interpreted this to mean that, if time or expenses have already been incurred, these need to be explained also – and indeed SIP9 has plugged this statutory gap – but it is a shame that the Service did not see the 2016 Rules as an opportunity to fix the flaws in the 2015 fees Rules, which had been so hastily pushed out.

 

  1. Capping a Fees Estimate

The Rules don’t seem to have been written with any expectation that creditors will want to agree fees on a time costs basis subject to a cap different from that set by the fees estimate.

Firstly, although the Oct-15 Rules changed the fee basis to “by reference to the time… as set out in the fees estimate” (e.g. old R4.127(2)(b)), those final words were omitted from new R18.16(2)(b), so now creditors are asked simply to approve a decision that fees be based on time costs.

Thus, if creditors want to cap those fees at anything other than the fees estimate, they have to modify the proposed decision unilaterally… which isn’t really catered for in decisions by correspondence. In effect, the creditor is proposing their own decision, which the Rules strictly provide for as a “requisitioned decision” (R15.18), but of course office holders cut to the chase by accepting the creditor’s cap if their vote is conclusive.  The alternative is to count their vote as a rejection of the office holder’s proposed decision and start again with a new decision procedure.

But then how do you frame a request to creditors to increase this kind of cap?  The process for “exceeding the fees estimate” is set down in R18.30.  Let’s say that your original fees estimate was £50,000 and the creditors agreed a cap of £30,000.  If you want to ask them to reconsider whether you can take up to £40,000, R18.30 doesn’t work.  You’re not asking to exceed the fees estimate, you’re still looking to be within your original fees estimate.

R18.29 also doesn’t work here: the fee basis has been agreed as time costs, so you’re not asking creditors to change the basis (and there may be no “material and substantial change in circumstances” from that which you’d originally estimated when you’d quoted £50,000).  It seems to me that you’re asking creditors a whole different kind of question – to lift their arbitrary cap – which is not provided for at all in the Rules.

 

  1. Trying Again for Fee Approval

Commonly, IPs will propose a fees decision to creditors and receive no response at all.  Invariably, they will try again, often emphasising to creditors that, if no one votes, they may take it to court, thus increasing the costs demanded of the insolvent estate quite substantially.

But what if your original fees estimate was for £30,000 and then, when you go back for a second attempt some time later, you think that £50,000 is more realistic?  Or maybe your first fees estimate was proposed on a milestone basis, say £30,000 for year 1, and then you go to creditors at the start of year 2 with a fees estimate for £50,000 for two years?

Do you look to R18.30 on the basis that this is an excess fee request?  After all, you are looking to exceed your original estimate, so the scenario seems to fit R18.30(1).  However, read on to R18.30(2) and a different picture emerges: R18.30(2) instructs office holders to seek approval from the party that “fixed the basis”, so if no basis has been fixed, then R18.30 cannot be the solution.

So is your original fees estimate completely irrelevant then?  Do you simply start again with a new fees estimate?  Well, if you’re issuing a progress report before the creditors agree the basis, the original fees estimate is not completely irrelevant: R18.4(1)(e)(i) states that you must report whether you are “likely to exceed the fees estimate under R18.16(4)”.  That Rule refers simply to providing the information to creditors.  It does not say that that fees estimate must have been approved.  So at the very least, you would explain in your progress report why your original £30,000 was inadequate, even though you might also be providing a new fees estimate for £50,000.

 

  1. When Administration Outcomes Change (1): Disappearing Para 52(1)(b) Statements

This question proved contentious long before the 2016 Rules: if an Administrator has achieved fee approval under R18.18(4) (as it is now), where they have issued Proposals with a Para 52(1)(b) statement, is this approval still sufficient if the circumstances of the case change and it transpires that the Para 52(1)(b) statement is no longer appropriate? And conversely, if an Administrator issued Proposals with no Para 52(1)(b) statement, is the unsecured creditors’ approval of fees still sufficient in the event that it now appears that there will not be a dividend to unsecureds (except by means of the prescribed part)?

Personally, I believe that technically the approvals are still valid.  R18.18(4) refers specifically to making a Para 52(1)(b) statement: if that statement has been made, it’s been made; the fact that the statement may no longer be appropriate does not change the fact that it was made (although issuing revised Proposals may overcome this… but how many Administrators ever issue revised Proposals..?).  Also, R18.33 provides that, if the Administrator asks to change the fee basis, amount etc. or for approval to fees in excess of an estimate, the Administrator must go to the unsecureds if the Para 52(1)(b) statement is no longer relevant.  Surely, if it were the case that Administrators needed to go to unsecureds (or indeed issue revised Proposals) every time a Para 52(1)(b) statement were no longer relevant, i.e. to ratify a fees decision previously made by secureds/prefs, the Rules would similarly demand this.

However, while I think that this is the technical position, I have sympathy with IPs who decide to go to other creditors for fee approval even though strictly-speaking it does not seem as though this is required by the Rules.  Although clearly it costs money to seek decisions from creditors, I don’t think anyone will challenge an IP who has chosen to ensure that all relevant creditor classes are in agreement.  This would also help counteract any challenge that the Proposals had made a Para 52(1)(b) statement inappropriately, thus disenfranchising the unsecureds from having a say on the Administrators’ fees.

 

  1. When Administration Outcomes Change (2): Appearing Preferential Distributions

But what is the technical position for an Administrator who has made a Para 52(1)(b) statement, thought that they would not be making a distribution to prefs, but then the outcome changed so that a distribution became likely?

I think the technical position for this scenario does create a problem.  R18.18(4) states that the basis is fixed: (i) by the secured creditors and (ii) if the Administrator has made or intends to make a distribution to prefs, then also by the prefs (via a decision procedure).  It seems to me that overnight the question of whether the Administrator’s fees have been approved or not changes.  Originally, the Administrator thought that they only needed secured creditors’ approval, so they drew fees on that basis.  But then, as soon as they intend to make a distribution to prefs, they have no longer complied with R18.18(4).  Although it would seem mighty unfair for anyone to view the Administrator’s fees drawn up to that point as unauthorised, it certainly seems to me that the Administrator must take immediate steps to seek preferential creditors’ approval.

 

Closure Processes

  1. Inconsistent Closure Processes

There is a distinct difference between the MVL closure process and those for CVLs, BKYs and compulsory liquidations (“WUCs”).  In an MVL, the liquidator issues a “proposed final account” (R5.9) and then, often 8 weeks’ later, the “final account” is issued along with a notice that the company’s affairs are fully wound up (R5.10).  However, in a CVL, before the 8-week period begins the liquidator issues a final account with a notice that the company’s affairs are fully wound up (R6.28).  BKYs and WUCs follow this CVL model.

I have no idea why there should be these differences in the two main processes.  But what I do know is that it causes confusion on what a final account should look like… even for Companies House staff.

R6.28(1) states that the CVL final account delivered to creditors at the start of the 8-week process is the one required under S106(1) – not a draft or a proposed version of the final account – and it must be accompanied by the notice confirming that the affairs are fully wound up.  Therefore, it is clear to me that this final account is pretty-much set in stone at this point.  The final account date is fixed as at the date it is issued to creditors and it does not get changed when the time comes to deliver a copy of the final account to the Registrar of Companies at the end of the 8 weeks (S106(3)).

I don’t think that this is a misinterpretation… but I have doubted myself, not least as some IPs have complained to me over the last couple of years that Companies House has rejected their final accounts, requiring them to be re-dated to the “final meeting” or “closure” date.  I have asked Companies House twice to explain to me why they believe the final account should be re-dated… and both times Companies House conceded that there is no such requirement.  Thank you, Companies House, but would it be possible for you to avoid reverting to 1986 habits again so that, over time, we might all settle into a routine of complying with the Rules?!

 

  1. Closing Bankruptcies

I explained in Gripe no. 4 that R10.87(3)(f) seems to contain an anomaly.  It states that the final notice to creditors should state that the trustee will vacate office (and (g) be released, if no creditors have objected) when the trustee files the requisite notice with the court, but there seems to be no Section/Rule that actually requires a notice to be filed with the court.

I’m repeating this gripe here because others have been puzzled over the filing requirements when closing BKYs, especially in debtor-application cases where of course there is no court file.  Quite frankly, I don’t think any of us would care, if it were not for the fact that the trustee’s release is dependent on filing a final notice with “the prescribed person” (S298(8), S299(3)(d)).  As I mentioned previously, the person at the Insolvency Service with whom I’d been communicating seemed to express the view that “the prescribed person” is the court in creditor-petition (and old debtor-petition) cases and is the OR in debtor-application cases, but my attempts to get them to be more categoric in their response (and to explain with reference to the Rules how they reach this conclusion) have been unsuccessful to date.

It is unfair that the Act/Rules deal so unsatisfactorily with the trustee’s release and it makes me wonder if, to be certain, it would be beneficial to ask the Secretary of State to confirm one’s release in debtor-application cases where filing a notice at the court seems insensible.

 

  1. Closing Fees

When I explain to clients how I see the closure process for CVLs, BKYs and WUCs working, I sometimes hear the retort: so, you’re telling to me that I have to get everything finished before I issue my final account/report at the start of the 8 weeks, are you?  But how do I get paid for being in office over that period?

It is true that, under the old Rules, it was possible for IPs to factor the costs to close into their draft final report so that they could incur the time costs during that 8-week period and draw the fees (and deal with the final VAT reclaim) before vacating office and finalising their final report.  Under the new process, this looks impossible: in order to issue a notice confirming that the affairs have been fully wound up, it seems to me that at that point the affairs must have been fully wound up 😉

Most IPs are prepared to forgo the final costs to close a case.  Let’s face it, how many cases have enough funds to pay IPs anywhere near full recovery of their costs anyway?  But, I had to agree with my client who was disgruntled at the prospect of having to work for free from the point of issuing the final report: it does seem unfair.  But there is a simple solution: why not ask creditors to consider approving your fees to close a case as a set amount?  You could propose this at the same time as seeking approval for fees on a time costs basis for all other aspects of the case.  If your closing fees were approved as a set amount, you could invoice and draw those fees long before issuing your final account/report… and this way you could also get the VAT all wrapped up in good time as well.

 

  1. Stopping a Closure

Over the years, there have been occasions when an IP has wanted to stop a closure process.  It’s true that, under the old Rules, there were no provisions cancelling a final meeting.  But under the old Rules, it was possible to re-start the closure process for example if your draft final report turned out to be flawed; in fact, the old Rules required you to re-issue a draft final report and re-advertise for a new final meeting.

But as the 2016 Rules for CVLs, BKYs and WUCs only require you to issue a final account/report and then wait 8 weeks for creditors to take any action they see fit, there seems to be no way to stop this process once it has begun.  In fact, even if a creditor objects to the office holder’s release, this does not stop the IP vacating office at the 8 weeks; it simply means that, after vacating office, the IP needs to apply to the Secretary of State for release.  The only actions that stop (or rather postpone) a closure process are a creditor exercising their statutory rights to request information or challenge fees or expenses.

 


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The Regulators present a unified front on fees

 

In an unprecedented step, the IPA and the ICAEW have issued largely consistent articles on fees, SIP9 and reporting. I think some of the points are well worth repeating, not only because in the past few months, I’ve seen more IPs get into a fix over fees than anything else, the new rules having simply compounded the complexities, but also because the articles contain some important new messages.

In this post, I explore how you can make your fee proposals bullet-proof:

  • What pre-administration work is an allowable expense?
  • What pre-administration costs detail is often missing?
  • What pre-CVL work is allowable as an expense?
  • What Rules/SIP9 detail is commonly missing from fee proposals?
  • How do the monitors view Rules/SIP9 omissions?
  • What problems can arise when using percentage or mixed basis fees?

The articles can be found at:

The effort seems to have originated from a well-received presentation at the autumn’s R3 SPG Forum, given by the ICAEW’s Manager, Alison Morgan (nee Timperley) and the IPA’s Senior Monitoring Manager, Shelley Bullman.

As the ICAEW and the IPA monitor c.90% of all appointment-taking IPs, I think this is a fantastic demonstration of how the RPBs can get out to us useful guidance. Of course, such articles do not have the regulatory clout of SIPs or statute (see below). However, I believe it is an essential part of the RPBs’ role to reach out to members in this way in written form. Although roadshow presentations are valuable, they can only reach the ears of a proportion of those in need and the messages soon settle into a foggy memory (if you’re lucky!).

  • Do the articles represent the RPBs’ views?

The IPA article ends with a disclaimer that “IPA staff responses” cannot fetter the determinations of the IPA’s committees and the ICAEW article is clearly authored by Alison Morgan, rather than being something that can strictly be relied upon as representing the ICAEW’s views (for the sake of simplicity, I have referred throughout to the articles as written by “the monitors”).

That’s a shame, but I know only so well how extraordinarily troublesome it is to push anything through the impenetrable doors of an RPB – that’s why SIPs seem to emerge so often long after the horse has bolted… and I suspect why we are still waiting for an insolvency appendix to the new CCAB MLR guidance. However, at a time when the Insolvency Service’s mind is beginning to contemplate again the question of a single regulator, issuing prompt and authoritative guidance serves the RPBs’ purposes, not only ours.

 

Pre-Administration Costs

Over the past few years, I’ve seen an evolving approach from the RPBs. In the early days, the focus was on the process of getting pre-administration costs approved. The statutory requirement for pre-administration costs to be approved by a resolution separate from the Proposals has taken a while to sink in… and the fact that the two articles repeat this requirement suggests that it is still being overlooked on occasion.

Then, the focus turned to the fact that it was, not only pre-administration fees that required approval, but also other costs. I still see cases where IPs only seek approval of their own costs, apparently not recognising that, if the Administration estate is going to be paying, say, agents’ or solicitors’ costs incurred pre-administration, these also need to go through the approval process.

  • What pre-administration work is an allowable expense?

Now, it seems that the monitors’ focus has returned to the IP’s own fees. Their attention seems fixed on the definition of pre-administration costs being (R3.1):

“fees charged, and expenses incurred by the administrator, or another person qualified to act as an insolvency practitioner in relation to the company, before the company entered administration but with a view to it doing so.”

The IPA article states that this “would exclude any insolvency or other advice that may or may not lead directly to the administration appointment” and the ICAEW article states that it “would exclude any general insolvency or other advice”.

I do wonder at the fuzzy edges: if a secured creditor who is hovering over the administration red button asks an IP to speak with a director, doesn’t the IP’s meeting with the director fit the description? Or if an IP seeks the advice of an agent or solicitor about what might happen if an administration were pursued, wouldn’t this advice count? But nevertheless, the monitors do have a point. If a firm were originally instructed to conduct an IBR, this work would not appear to fall into the definition of pre-administration costs. Also, if an IP originally took steps to help a company into liquidation but then the QFCH decided to step in with an Administration, the pre-liquidation costs could not be paid from the Administration estate.

  • What pre-administration costs detail is often missing?

As mentioned above, the monitors remind us that pre-administration costs require a decision separate from any approval of the Proposals – there is no wriggle-room on this point and deemed consent will not work. The monitors also list other details required by statute that are sometimes missing, of which these are my own bugbears:

  • R3.35(10): a statement that the payment of any unpaid pre-administration costs as an expense of the Administration is subject to approval under R3.52 and is not part of the Proposals subject to approval under Para 53 of Schedule B1
  • R3.36(a): details of any agreement about pre-administration fees and/or expenses, including the parties to the agreement and the date of the agreement
  • R3.36(b): details of the work done
  • R3.36(c): an explanation of why the work was done before the company entered administration and how it had been intended to further the achievement of an Administration objective
  • R3.36(d) makes clear that details of paid pre-administration costs, as well as any that we don’t envisage paying from the Administration estate, should be provided
  • R3.36(e): the identities of anyone who has made a payment in respect of the pre-administration costs and which type(s) of costs they discharged
  • R3.36(g) although it will be a statement of the obvious if you have provided the above, you also need to detail the balance of unpaid costs (per category)

 

Pre-CVL Costs

Another example of an evolving approach relates to the scope of pre-CVL costs allowable for payment from the liquidation estate. Again, over recent years we have seen the RPB monitors get tougher on the fact that the rules (old and new) do not provide that the IP’s costs of advising the company can be charged to the liquidation estate. This has been repeated in the recent articles, but the IPA’s article chips away further still.

  • A new category of pre-CVL work that is not allowable as an expense?

R6.7 provides that the following may be paid from the company’s assets:

  • R6.7(1): “Any reasonable and necessary expenses of preparing the statement of affairs under Section 99” and
  • R6.7(2): “Any reasonable and necessary expenses of the decision procedure or deemed consent procedure to seek a decision from the creditors on the nomination of a liquidator under Rule 6.14”.

Consequently, the IPA article states that:

“Pre-appointment advice and costs for convening a general meeting of the company cannot be drawn from estate funds after the date of appointment, even if you have sought approval for them.”

So how do you protect yourself from tripping up on this?

If you’re seeking a fixed fee for the pre-CVL work, make sure that your paperwork reflects that the fee is to cover only the costs of the R6.7(1) and (2) work listed above. Of course, SIP9 also requires an explanation of why the fixed fee sought is expected to produce a fair and reasonable reflection of the R6.7(1)/(2) work undertaken. Does this mean that you should be setting the quantum lower than you would have done under the 1986 Rules, given that you should now exclude the costs of obtaining the members’ resolutions? Well, personally, I don’t see that the effort expended under the 2016 Rules is any less than it was before, even if you cut out the work in dealing with the members, but you will need to consider (and, at least in exceptional cases, document) how you assess that the quantum reflects the “reasonable and necessary” costs of dealing with the R6.7(1)/(2) work.

Alternatively, if you’re seeking pre-CVL fees on a time costs basis, make sure that you isolate the time spent in carrying out only the R6.7(1)/(2) work and that you don’t seek to bill anything else to the liquidation estate.

Although the articles don’t cover it, I think it’s also worth mentioning that, as liquidator, you need to take care when discharging any other party’s pre-CVL costs that they fall into the R6.7(1)/(2) work.

 

Proposing a Decision on Office Holders’ Fees

  • What Rules/SIP9 detail is commonly missing from fee proposals?

The articles list some relatively common shortcomings in fee proposals (whether involving time costs or otherwise):

  • lack of detail of anticipated work and why the work is necessary
  • no statement about whether the anticipated work will provide a financial benefit to creditors and, if so, what benefit
  • no indication of the likely return to creditors (SIP9 requires this “where it is practical to do so” – personally, I cannot see how it would be impractical if you’re providing an SoA/EOS and proposed fees/expenses)
  • generic listings of tasks to be undertaken that include items irrelevant to the case in question
  • last-minute delivery of information, resulting in the approving body having insufficient time to make an informed judgment

The IPA article states that “presenting the fee estimate to the meeting is not considered to be giving creditors as a body sufficient time to make a reasoned judgement”. Personally, I would go further and question whether giving the required information to only some of the creditors (i.e. only those attending a meeting) meets the requirement in R18.16(4) to “deliver [it] to the creditors”. At the R3 SPG Forum, one of the monitors also expressed the view that, if fee-related information is being delivered along with the Statement of Affairs at the one business day point for a S100 decision, this is “likely to be insufficient time”.

  • fee estimates not based on the information available or providing for alternative scenarios or bases

I wonder whether the monitors are referring primarily to the fairly common approaches to investigation work, where an IP might estimate the time costs where nothing of material concern is discovered and those that might arise where an action to be pursued is identified down the line. You might also be tempted to set out different scenarios when dealing with, say, a bankrupt’s property: will a straightforward deal be agreed or will you need to go the whole hog with an order for possession and sale?

Some IPs’ preference for seeking fee approval only once is understandable – it would save the costs of reverting to creditors and potentially of hassling them to extract a decision – but at the SPG Forum the monitors recommended a milestone approach to deal with such uncertainties: a fee estimate to deal with the initial assessment and later an “excess fee” request for anything over and above this once the position is clearer. This approach would often require a sensitive touch, as you would need to be careful how you presented your second request as regards the next steps you proposed to undertake to pursue a contentious recovery and the financial benefit you were hoping to achieve. But it better meets what is envisaged by SIP2 and would help to justify your decision either to pursue or to drop an action.

Alternatively, perhaps the monitors have in mind the fees proposed on the basis of only a Statement of Affairs containing a string of “uncertain”-valued assets. Depending on what other information you provide, it could be questioned whether creditors have sufficient information to make an informed judgment.

  • no disclosure of anticipated expenses

Under the Rules, this detail must be “deliver[ed] to the creditors” prior to the determination of the fee basis, whether time costs or otherwise, for all but MVLs and VAs… and SIP9 and SIPs3 require it in those other cases as well. It is important to remember also that this relates to all expenses, not simply Category 2 disbursements, and including those to be paid directly from the estate, e.g. to solicitors and agents.

  •  How do the monitors view Rules/SIP9 omissions?

At the R3 SPG Forum, one of the monitors stated that, if the Rules and SIP9 requirements are not strictly complied with, the RPB could ask the IP to revert to creditors with the omitted information in order to make sure that the creditors understood what they were approving and that this would be at the cost of the IP, not the estate. The IPA’s article states that “where a resolution for fees has been passed and insufficient information is provided we would recommend that the correct information is provided to creditors at the next available opportunity and ratification of the fee sought”. Logically, such a recommendation would depend on the materiality of the omission.

When considering the validity of any fee decision, personally I would put more weight on the Rules’ requirements, rather than SIP9 (nothing personal RPBs, but I believe the court would be more concerned with a breach of the Rules). For example, I would have serious concerns about the validity of a fees decision where no details of expenses are provided – minor technical breaches may not be fatal to a fees decision, but surely there comes a point where the breach kills the purported decision.

 

Fixed and Percentage Fees

  • How can you address the SIP9 “fair and reasonable” explanation?

It is evident that in some cases the SIP9 (paragraph 10) requirement for a “fair and reasonable” explanation for proposed fixed or % fees is not being met to the monitors’ expectations. The ICAEW article highlights the need to deal with this even for IVAs… which could be difficult, as I suspect that most IPs proposing an IVA would consider that the fee that would get past creditors is both unfair and unreasonable! MVL fixed fees also are usually modest sums in view of the work involved.

The articles don’t elaborate on what kind of explanation would pass the SIP9 test. Where the fee is modest, I would have thought that a simple explanation of the work proposed to be undertaken would demonstrate the reasonableness, but a sentence including words such as “I consider the proposed fee to be a fair and reasonable reflection of the work to be undertaken, because…” might help isolate the explanation from the surrounding gumpf. For IVAs, it might be appropriate to note how the proposed fee compares to the known expectations of what the major/common creditors believe to be fair and reasonable.

  • What is an acceptable percentage?

Soon after the new fees regime began, the RPB monitors started expressing concern about large percentage fees sought on simple assets, such as cash at bank. Their concerns have now crystallised into something that I think is sensible. Although a fee of 20% of cash at bank may seem alarming in view of the work involved in recovering those funds, very likely the fee is intended to cover other work, perhaps all other work involved in the case from cradle to grave. In addressing the fair and reasonable test, clearly it is necessary to explain what work will be covered by the proposed fee. Of course, if you were to seek 20% of a substantial bank balance simply to cover the work in recovering the cash, you can expect to be challenged!

Equally, it is important to be clear on what the proposed fee does not cover. For example, as mentioned above, the extent of investigation work and potential recoveries may be largely unknown when you seek fee approval. It may be wise to define to which assets a % fee relates and flag up to creditors the potential for other assets to come to light, which may involve other work excluded from the early-day proposed fee. The IPA article repeats the message that a fee cannot be proposed on unknown assets.

 

Mixed Fee Bases

It seems to me that it can be tricky enough to get correct the fee decision and billing of a single basis fee, without complicating things by looking for more than one basis! To my relief, personally I have seen few mixed fee bases being used.

  • How is mixing time costs with fixed/% viewed?

In particular, I think it is hazardous to seek a fee on time costs plus one other basis. Only where tasks are clearly defined – for example, a % on all work related to book debt collections and time costs on everything else – could I see this working reasonably successfully. The IPA article notes that:

  • when proposing fees, you need to state clearly to what work each basis relates; and
  • your time recording system must be “sufficiently robust to ensure the correct time is accurately recorded against the appropriate tasks”.
  • I would add a third: mistakes are almost inevitable, so I would recommend a review of the time costs incurred before billing – the narrative or staff members involved should help you spot mis-postings.

 

Of course, there are plenty of other Rules/SIP areas where mistakes are commonly made – for example, the two articles highlight some common issues with progress reports, which are well worth a read. However, few breaches of Rules or SIPs have the potential to be more damaging. Therefore, I welcome the RPB monitors’ efforts in highlighting the pitfalls around fees. Prevention is far better than cure.


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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

0902 Monument Valley

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.