Insolvency Oracle

Developments in UK insolvency by Michelle Butler


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Compliance Hot Topics

I think we all need a break from new legislation and threats of more changes, don’t we?  How about settling back into something more familiar and, I think, strangely comforting: common non-compliances.

Usually, late spring brings us the Insolvency Service’s annual review of regulation, but there’s no sign of it this year.  But we do have the ICAEW’s reports, which are well worth a read for any IP, as they highlight common issues that I think we’re all seeing.  This year, there are three ICAEW reports, although this blog only looks at their Insolvency Monitoring Report at: www.icaew.com/-/media/corporate/files/technical/insolvency/regulations-and-standards/annual-return-and-monitoring/insolvency-monitoring-report.ashx

In the report, the ICAEW highlights the following areas that have brought IPs to the Committee’s attention:

  1. Remuneration
  2. Ethics
  3. Investigations
  4. Statutory Deadlines
  5. Insolvency Compliance Reviews
  6. Information to Debtors

The ICAEW report identifies several other areas of concern as well as providing some useful tips on conducting SIP11 reviews.

 

Issues that have led to Committee-referral

The ICAEW reports that the following have led IPs to face the Insolvency Licensing Committee (“ILC”):

1. Remuneration

The ICAEW reported instances of:

  • Drawing fees without proper authority

The issues that I have seen include: drawing pre-CVL fees that do not meet the R6.7 definition; getting in a muddle with who is required to approve Administrators’ fees (and failing to make sure that this tallies with the Proposals); and accepting shareholders’ informal approval of MVL fees, rather than getting a proper resolution.

  • Fees (or proposed fees) appearing excessive or unreasonable

When I have spoken with monitors (ICAEW and IPA), I have been given examples of excessive/unreasonable fees that truly are toe-curling, although I have seen other cases that do not appear particularly damning.  I understand that both RPBs have a number of cases working through their disciplinary procedures, but I have yet to see any sanction published under this heading.  It may be a difficult allegation to make stick, but for some time I have felt that the RPBs and the InsS have been looking for a worthy scalp.

  • Failing to follow the decision procedure rules

This one frustrates me: despite the comprehensive checklists and templates that many firms have, somehow several people still manage to overlook a key component in fee proposal packs.  Often, the missing piece is a Notice of Decision Procedure when seeking a vote by correspondence.  Sometimes, it is an Invitation to Nominate Committee Members and/or a failure to seek a decision on the formation of a Committee.  In some other cases, fee proposal packs have not been circulated to all the relevant creditors, sometimes because a bunch of creditors (usually the employees) have not been provided previously with a R1.50 website notice and sometimes because IPs have assumed that, as the RPO is the major preferential creditor, it is the only one who needs to be asked to approve an Administrator’s fees in a relevant Para 52(1)(b) case.

  • Failing to provide fee estimates, where required

This is scary, considering that the Rules changed in 2015!  Personally, I haven’t seen this in a few years now.  I do still see, however, fee proposal packs lacking details of expenses, which is a necessary statutory component of all ADM, CVL, WUC and BKY fee proposal packs (and a SIP9 expectation in all case types).

The ICAEW’s tips to improve in this area are:

  • Consider using a billing authority form so that evidence of statutory approval is provided whenever a bill is raised/paid from the estate

I agree that this is valuable, although it will not ensure that valid approval has been achieved unless minutes of meetings/records of decision are signed off with similarly rigorous checks.

  • Critically review fee proposal packs: does the pack explain clearly the work done or to be done and, in light of the explanation, do the costs seem reasonable?

Yep, I agree with this too.  When considering fee estimates, I find it useful to consider the hours being proposed.  For example, it might look like good value to estimate time costs of £5,000 to recover £30,000, but if this means you’re expecting to spend three whole days to collect one book debt, then without more explanation this will look unreasonable.

 

2. Ethics

The ICAEW reported three instances where:

  • Prior relationships had not been considered

I see this so often that it makes me want to weep.  In these cases, the reviewer’s view was that the IP should have concluded that it was unethical to accept the appointment: now, that will get you into hot water.

Unsurprisingly, the ICAEW’s tips are:

  • Simply do proper ethics reviews and write them down before appointment

I wonder if this goes wrong because people independent from the case (and/or people who don’t really understand ethics) are tasked with completing the ethics review… and then the prospective office holder signs it off without thinking.  IPs, please think before you sign off an ethics review: does it disclose all prior relationships and are they well explained and evaluated?

 

3. Investigations

The ICAEW reported:

  • A systemic failure to record sufficient SIP2 work

Over recent years, there has been a trend away from lengthy checklists.  While I can understand this for routine case administration not least as checklists are often completed after-the-event, this approach simply does not work for SIP2 investigations.  The RPBs expect to see contemporaneous evidence of what work has been done and the office-holder’s thinking on whether anything is worth looking into further.

  • Failure to pursue antecedent transactions

I have seen SIP2 investigations fail to pick up weird goings-on like money moving out of accounts after the company had apparently stopping trading.  I have also seen SIP2 checklists identify a potential action and then the trail goes cold.  Both are just not acceptable and, I think, usually stem from an overflowing caseload or disorganised case administration.

The ICAEW’s tips are:

  • Do the work at an early stage and then follow up; and
  • Document decisions not to continue pursuit

The ICAEW reminds us that litigation funders may be able to help.  Some IPs screw their noses up at this suggestion based on rejections they received many years’ ago.  Times have changed, so I would recommend trying again.  And if you still get a rejection, at least this can form part of your decision.  Of course, your decision will also be based on your target’s wealth: it may be a no-brainer decision, but always write it down.

 

4. Statutory Deadlines

The ICAEW reported:

  • An increasing number of systemic failures to meet deadlines

This isn’t an issue I have seen.  Perhaps it derives from poor diary/task templates?  I have seen some sub-standard designs since the 2016 Rules were introduced, but I think those issues have largely been ironed out now.  Could the problem be overwhelming caseloads?  Firms weren’t exactly working at full pelt last year, so if this is your problem, then heaven help you in 2020/21!  Also, try not to get into the habit of running off progress reports at the very end of the deadline (and remember that ADM deadlines are one month, not two): if you do that, then there is no wriggle-room when you have a flurry of new work.

The ICAEW’s tips are:

  • Have robust diary prompts and case-specific checklists; and
  • Consider appointing a staff member to oversee/chase compliance

If diaries are very detailed, sometimes it is difficult to see the wood for the trees.  Having this as one person’s duty (or requiring, say, all managers to monitor/chase) can help sift out the vital diary prompts from the not-so-important ones.  It also helps more junior staff to learn which diary lines are non-negotiable.

 

5. Insolvency Compliance Reviews

 The ICAEW reported:

  • Weak or non-existence ICRs

It is worth remembering that the ICAEW does take this seriously, so please do give ICRs a great deal of attention.

  • Failure to implement changes

Sometimes actually conducting the ICR is the easy bit.  The time required to make the necessary changes can be substantial.

The ICAEW’s tips are:

  • Use a robust checklist to carry out the ICR

The ICAEW provides a checklist (note: this works for corporate and personal cases): www.icaew.com/regulation/insolvency/support-for-insolvency-practitioners/corporate-insolvency-casework.  Some questions are subjective, e.g. re case progression, but if used critically with no preconceptions it covers all the major statutory bases.  The ICR also needs to consider key areas on a firm-wide basis.  The ICAEW’s Review of Internal Controls and Systems Helpsheet – at www.icaew.com/regulation/insolvency/support-for-insolvency-practitioners/insolvency-compliance-review-helpsheets – is a good start, but remember that, aside from the ICR itself, SIP11, client money and the Money Laundering Regs require more thorough individual attention.

  • Make the necessary changes

I recommend getting the easy wins, e.g. fixing document templates and diary lines, out of the way quickly.  Meatier tasks may take months to resolve, especially if they involve changing procedures, training staff and making sure that they have adapted to new requirements.  Plan to tackle these tasks methodically, assign the tasks to appropriate staff and follow up with chasers/meetings to make sure that progress continues to be made.  Then, review the effectiveness of the changes ideally before the next ICR is due and keep going until the issue is resolved.

 

6. Information to Debtors

The ICAEW reported:

  • Delivery of poor information to debtors presumably in a pre-IVA context

…including: omitting relevant options; rushing calls; leading the debtor; and not sufficiently explaining the pros and cons of options.

The ICAEW’s tips are:

  • Train staff;
  • Review and update scripts regularly;
  • Regularly review calls for quality; and
  • Ensure that calls are tailored to the individual and give them time to consider their options

Nothing more needs to be said, really.  Quality-controlling advice calls is a never-ending job and one that needs to be well-resourced.

 

The Worst of the Rest

Yes, there’s more… lots more.

The above issues will get you in front of the ILC, but the ICAEW’s report also highlights other issues that are worth double-checking:

  • Miscalculation of delivery timescales

Be careful of assuming first class delivery times and then using second class post.  Take care also to exclude the date of delivery and the date of a decision when calculating notice periods.

  • Flaws in reports and fee estimates

In addition to the issues raised above, a plethora of qualitative issues arise, e.g. does the narrative explain the WIP or fee requested; are the numbers consistent throughout the doc; and are generic statements relevant to the case in question?  Something I see missing a lot are explanations as to whether the fee and expenses estimates have been (or will be) exceeded and if so why.  In some other cases, these explanations do not stack up with the WIP analysis, e.g. it might be reported that the fee estimate has been exceeded because of difficulties pursuing a certain asset, but the WIP analysis shows the fee estimate has only been exceeded in the Admin & Planning category.  Sometimes this can point to poor time-recording practices.

  • Poor case progression and dividend practices

The ICAEW reports some delays in asset recovery and in progressing dividends, as well as miscalculation of claims, especially those of employees.  Remember that in most cases you have only 2 months after the last date for proving to declare the dividend and, if you miss that, then you will need to go through the NOID rigmarole again (and, if you don’t have a good reason for missing it, then your second attempt should be at your own cost).  The ICAEW expects payment of interim dividends in appropriate cases.  I have also seen IPs put off progressing a preferential distribution until they can see their way clear to an unsecured dividend, which is not acceptable.  The ICAEW has also highlighted an issue with IPs telling creditors that they will apply the small debt provisions and then they fail to follow this through.  I have seen some initial letters and progress reports state such an intention and, although personally I think this is not binding until the NOID is issued (R14.31), to avoid any creditor confusion, I strongly recommend removing such statements from these early circulars: if you decide later to apply the small debt rules, then you can make this clear in the NOID.

  • Inadequate annual AML tasks

The ICAEW report reminds readers about the need to review the firm-based AML risk assessment annually and to carry out a full AML review.  I’ll take a closer look at this topic in a future blog when I review the ICAEW’s other annual reports.

  • Clients’ Money Regulations: a reminder for non-ICAEW IPs

The ICAEW report highlights that its Clients’ Money Regs apply to more than just ICAEW-licensed IPs.  If you work in an ICAEW-defined firm or the ICAEW is the firm’s AML Supervisor, then you need to comply with the ICAEW’s Clients’ Money Regs whether or not you are licensed as an IP by them.  To be honest, there are few differences between the IPA’s and the ICAEW’s Regs, but one notable difference is that the ICAEW requires an annual review of the operation of a client account.

  • Inadequate GDPR checks

The ICAEW reports that some are not considering on a case-by-case basis what personal data is held by the insolvent, whether it is secure and for what purpose it is held/processed.  The ICAEW also expects IPs to check whether the entity was registered with the ICO… although it is not clear what they expect you to do subsequently.  I recall that R3 asked the ICO way back in 2018 whether IPs should be maintaining (or even initiating) insolvents’ ICO registrations, which of course would attract additional costs to the estate.  But then 2018’s problems seem so last year!

 

SIP11 Reviews

The ICAEW devotes a whole page to this topic in its report.  Noteworthy points include:

  • Make sure the financial controls and safeguards are written down in the first place

I have seen more than one firm try to carry out a SIP11 review without having taken this step.  How can you check whether the firm’s processes have been followed, if they’re not written down?  SIP11 lists nine areas in paragraph 9 to document… and then adds a tenth (insurance cover) in paragraph 11.  In effect, these areas result in a cashiering manual setting out what happens to money in, payments out, bank recs etc.

  • Then review them annually

The ICAEW report highlights that traditional ICRs will not cover everything required of a SIP11 review.  Jo and I concur: if you want us to do a SIP11 review alongside your ICR, please let us know this and expect the ICR to be longer (and more expensive).  There is no prescription as regards a SIP11 review, but the ICAEW report lists four points that could be considered:

  • Review a sample of cases to see whether procedures have been followed correctly

To some extent, this will be covered by a traditional ICR, but the reviewer may only carry out full reviews of a couple of cases, which will be insufficient for SIP11 purposes.

  • Review the findings of the annual client account compliance review

From a SIP11 perspective, key issues include: how quickly client account money is moved to estate accounts; whether all post-appointment transactions are reflected on the case’s cash-book; and what happens to any interest credited to the client account.

  • Run reports from IPS etc. to review money held and bank rec frequency

I would also recommend running reports on balances held in closed cases or in “suspense” accounts.

  • Review a sample of bank recs

I have seen bank recs with uncleared adjusting entries or uncleared receipts signed off month after month without any apparent thought as to what is behind these.  Understandably, uncleared payments can sit around for longer, but they do need to be resolved at some stage.

Although not included in the ICAEW’s list, the report does note that the firm’s bonding and insurance procedures also need to be reviewed as part of the SIP11 exercise.  This could include a comparison of your open case list against your bond insurer’s, which would help identify whether bonds are being released appropriately.  You could also review whether bond schedules are issued before the 20th day of the following month – look particularly at appointments occurring right at the end of the month, as they can easily fail to hit IPS etc. in time for the following month’s bordereau – and see how swiftly increases are arranged.  Of course, the firm’s insurances are reviewed annually on renewal, but you could prove SIP11 compliance by keeping a record of that renewal consideration by the IP(s) in the same location as the SIP11 review docs.

 


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The stats of IP Regulation – Part 2: Monitoring

 

As promised, here are my thoughts on the RPBs’ 2017 monitoring activities, as reported by the Insolvency Service:

  • The InsS goes quiet on RPBs’ individual performances
  • Two RPBs appear to have drifted away from 3-yearly visits
  • The RPBs diverge in their use of different monitoring tools
  • On average, ICAEW visits were over three times more likely to result in a negative outcome than IPA visits
  • On average, every fourth visit resulted in one negative outcome
  • But averages can be deceptive…

As a reminder, the Insolvency Service’s report on 2017 monitoring can be found at: https://tinyurl.com/ycndjuxz

The picture becomes cloudy

As can be seen on the Insolvency Service’s dedicated RPB-monitoring web-page – https://www.gov.uk/government/collections/monitoring-activity-reports-of-insolvency-practitioner-authorising-bodies – their efforts to review systematically each RPB’s regulatory activities seemed to grind to a halt a year ago.  The Service did report last year that their “future monitoring schedule” would be “determined by risk assessment and desktop monitoring” and they gave the impression that their focus would shift from on-site visits to “themed reviews”.  Although their annual report indicates that such reviews have not always been confined to the desk-top, their comments are much more generic with no explanation as to how specific RPBs are performing – a step backwards, I think.

 

Themed review on fees

An example of this opacity is the Service’s account of their themed review “into the activities, and effectiveness, of the regulatory regime in monitoring fees charged by IPs”.

After gathering and reviewing information from the RPBs, the InsS reports: “RPBs responses indicate that they have provided guidance to members on fee matters and that through their regulatory monitoring; fee-related misconduct has been identified and reported for further consideration”.

For this project, the InsS also gathered information from the Complaints Gateway and has reported: “Initial findings indicate that fee related matters are being reported to the IP Complaints Gateway and, where appropriate, being referred to the RPBs”.

Ohhhkay, so that describes the “activities” of the regulatory regime (tell us something we don’t know!), but how exactly does the Service expect to review their effectiveness?  The report states that their work is ongoing.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that I necessarily want the Service to dig deeper.  For example, if the Service’s view is that successful regulation of pre-packs is achieved by scrutinising SIP16 Statements for technical compliance with the minutiae of the disclosure checklist, I dread to think how they envisage tackling any abusive fee-charging.  It’s just that, if the Service thinks that they are really getting under the skin of issues, personally I hope they are doing far more behind the scenes… especially as the Service is surely beginning to gather threads on the question of whether the world would be a better place with a single regulator.

So let’s look at the stats…

 

How frequently are you receiving monitoring visits?

There is a general feeling that every IP will receive a monitoring visit every three years.  But is this the reality?

This shows quite a variation, doesn’t it?  For two years in a row, significantly less than one third of all IPs were visited in the year.  Does this mean the RPBs have been slipping from the Principles for Monitoring’s 3-year norm?

The spiky CAI line in particular demonstrates how an RPB’s visiting cycle may mean that the number of visits per year can fluctuate wildly, but how nevertheless the CAI’s routine 3-yearly peaks and troughs suggest that in general that RPB is following a 3-yearly schedule.  So what picture do we see, if we iron out the annual fluctuations?

This looks more reasonable, doesn’t it?  As we would expect, most RPBs are visiting not-far-off 100% of their IPs over three years… with the clear exceptions of CAI, which seems to be oddly enthusiastic, and the ICAEW, which seems to be consistently ploughing its own furrow.  This may be the result of the ICAEW’s style of monitoring large firms with many IPs, where each year some IPs are the subject of a visit, but this may not mean that all IPs receive a visit in three years.  Alternatively, could it mean they are following a risk-based monitoring programme..?

There are benefits to routine, regular and relatively frequent monitoring visits for everyone, almost irrespective of the firm’s risk profile: it reduces the risk that a serious error may be repeated unwittingly (or even deliberately).  However, this model isn’t an indicator of Better Regulation (see, for example, the Regulators’ Compliance Code at https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/regulators-compliance-code-for-insolvency-practitioners).  With the InsS revisiting their MoU (and presumably also the Principles for Monitoring) with the RPBs, I wonder if we will see a change.

 

Focussing on the Low-Achievers?

The alternative to the one-visit-every-three-years-irrespective-of-your-risk-profile model is to take a more risk-based approach, to spend one’s monitoring efforts on those that appear to be the highest risk.  This makes sense to me: if a firm/IP has proven that they are more than capable of self-regulation – they keep up with legislative changes, keep informed even of the non-legislative twists and turns, and don’t leave it solely to the RPBs to examine whether their systems and processes are working, but they take steps quickly to resolve issues on specific cases and across entire portfolios and systems – why should licence fees be spent on 3-yearly RPB monitoring visits, which pick up non-material non-compliances at best?  Should not more effort go towards monitoring those who seem consistently and materially to fail to meet required standards or to adapt to new ones?

But perhaps that’s what being done already.  Are many targeted visits being carried out?

It seems that for several years few targeted visits have been conducted, although perhaps the tide is turning in Scotland and Ireland.  The ACCA also performed a number, although now that the IPA team is carrying out monitoring visits on ACCA-licensed IPs, I’m not surprised to see the number drop.

It seems that targeted visits have never really been the ICAEW’s weapon of choice.  At first glance, I was a little surprised at this, considering that their monitoring schedule seems less 3-yearly rigid than the other RPBs.  Aren’t targeted visits a good way to monitor progress outside the routine visit schedule?  Evidently, the ICAEW is not using targeted visits to focus effort on low-achievers.  Perhaps they are tackling them in another way…

 

Wielding Different Sticks

I think this demonstrates that the ICAEW isn’t lightening up: they may be carrying out less frequent monitoring visits on some IPs, but their post-visit actions are by no means infrequent.  So perhaps this indicates that the ICAEW is focusing its efforts on those seriously missing the mark.

The ICAEW’s preference seems to be in requiring their IPs to carry out ICRs.  Jo’s and my experiences are that the ICAEW often requires those ICRs to be carried out by an external reviewer and they require a copy of the reviewer’s report to be sent to the ICAEW.  They also make more use than the other RPBs of requiring IPs to undertake/confirm that action will be taken.  I suspect that these are often required in combination with ICR requests so that the ICAEW can monitor how the IP is measuring up to their commitments.

And in case you’re wondering, external ICRs cost less than an IPA targeted visit (well, the Compliance Alliance’s do, anyway) and I like to think that we hold generally to the same standards, so external ICRs are better for everyone.

In contrast, the IPA appears to prefer referring IPs for disciplinary consideration or for further investigation (the IPA’s constitution means that technically no penalties can arise from monitoring visits unless they are first referred to the IPA’s Investigation Committee).  However, the IPA makes comparatively fewer post-visit demands of its IPs.  But isn’t that an unfair comparison, because of course the ICAEW carried out more monitoring visits in 2017?  What’s the picture per visit?

 

No better and no worse?

Hmm… I’m not sure this graph helps us much.  Inevitably, the negative outcomes from monitoring visits are spiky.  We’re not talking about vast numbers of RPB slaps here (that’s why I’ve excluded the smaller RPBs – sorry guys, nothing personal!) and the “All” line (which does include the other RPBs) does illustrate a smoother line overall.   But the graph does suggest that ICAEW-licensed IPs are over three times as likely to receive a negative outcome from a monitoring visit than IPA-licensed IPs. 

Before you all get worried about your impending or just-gone RPB visit, you should remember that a single monitoring visit can lead to more than one negative outcome.  For example, as I mentioned above, the RPB could instruct an ICR or targeted visit as well as requiring the IP to make certain undertakings.  One would hope that much less than 25% of all IPs visited last year had a clean outcome!

This doubling-up of outcomes may be behind the disparity between the RPBs: perhaps the ICAEW is using multiple tools to address a single IP’s problems more often than the other two RPBs… although why should this be?  Alternatively, perhaps the ICAEW’s record again suggests that the ICAEW is focusing their efforts on the most wayward IPs.

 

Choose Your Poison

I observed in my last blog (https://tinyurl.com/y8b4cgp7) that the complaints outcomes indicated that the IPA was far more likely to sanction its IPs over complaints than the ICAEW was.  I suggested that maybe this was because the IPA licenses more than its fair share of IVA specialists.  Nevertheless, I find it interesting that the monitoring outcomes indicate the opposite: that the ICAEW is far more likely to sanction on the back of a visit than the IPA is.

Personally, I prefer a regime that focuses more heavily on monitoring than on complaints.  Complaints are too capricious: to a large extent, it is pot luck whether someone (a) spots misconduct and (b) takes the effort to complain.  As I mentioned in the previous blog, the subjects of some complaints decisions are technical breaches… and which IP can say hand-on-heart that they’ve never committed similar?

Also by their nature, complaints are historic – sometimes very historic – but it might not matter if an IP has since changed their ways or whether the issue was a one-off: if the complaint is founded, the decision will be made; the IP’s later actions may just help to reduce the penalty.

In my view, the monitoring regime is far more forward-looking and much fairer.  Monitors look at fresh material, they consider whether the problem was a one-off incident or systemic and whether the IP has since made changes.  The monitoring process also generally doesn’t penalise IPs for past actions, but rather what’s important are the steps an IP takes to rectify issues and to reduce the risks of recurrence.  The process enables the RPBs to keep an eye on if, when and how an IP makes systems- or culture-based changes, interests that are usually absent from the complaints process.

 

Next blog: SIP16, pre-packs and other RPB pointers.