Insolvency Oracle

Developments in UK insolvency by Michelle Butler


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InsS Annual Review, part 3: less carrot, more stick?

The Insolvency Service’s September 2018 report pulled no punches in expressing dissatisfaction over some monitoring outcomes: we want fewer promises to do better and more disciplinary penalties, seemed to be the tone.  Has this message already changed the face of monitoring?

The Insolvency Service’s September 2018 Report can be found at www.gov.uk/government/publications/review-of-the-monitoring-and-regulation-of-insolvency-practitioners and its Annual Review of IP Regulation is at www.gov.uk/government/publications/insolvency-practitioner-regulation-process-review-2018.

In this article, I explore the following:

  • On average, a quarter of all IPs were visited last year
  • But is there a 3-yearly monitoring cycle any longer?
  • 2018 saw the fewest targeted visits on record
  • …but more targeted visits are expected in 2019
  • No RPB ordered any plans for improvement
  • Instead, monitoring penalties/referrals of disciplinary/investigation doubled
  • Is this a sign that the Insolvency Service’s big stick is hitting its target?
  • IPs had a 1 in 10 chance of receiving a monitoring or complaints sanction last year

 

How frequently are IPs being visited?

With the exception of the Chartered Accountants Ireland (which is not surprising given their bumper year in 2017), all RPBs visited around a quarter of their IPs last year.  It’s good to see the RPBs operating this consistently, but how does it translate into the apparent 3-yearly standard routine?

Firstly, I find it odd that coverage of ACCA-licensed IPs seems to have dropped significantly.  After receiving a fair amount of criticism from the InsS over its monitoring practices, the ACCA handed the regulating of its licensed IPs over to the IPA in October 2016.  Yet, the number of ACCA IPs visited since that time has dropped from the c.100% to 79%.

Another factor that I had overlooked in previous analyses is the effect of monitoring the volume IVA providers (“VIPs”).  At least since 2014, the Insolvency Service’s principles for monitoring VIPs has required at least annual visits to VIPs.  Drawing on TDX’s figures for the 2018 market shares in IVAs, the IPA licensed all of the IPs in the firms that fall in the InsS’ definition of a VIP.  On the assumption that each of these received an annual visit, excluding these visits would bring the IPA’s coverage over the past 3 years to 56% of the rest of their IPs.  Of course, there are many reasons why this figure could be misleading, including that I do not know how many VIP IPs any of the RPBs had licensed in 2016 or 2017.

The ICAEW’s 64% may also reflect its different approach to visits to IPs in the largest firms: the ICAEW visits the firm annually (to cover the work of some of their IPs), but, because of the large number of IPs in the firm, the gap between visits to each IP within the firm is up to 6 years.  I cannot attempt to adjust the ICAEW’s figure to exclude these less frequently visited IPs, but suffice to say that, if they were exceeded, I suspect we might see something approaching more of a standard c.3-yearly visit for all non-large firm ICAEW-licensed IPs.

These variances in the 3-year monitoring cycle standard, which cannot be calculated (by me at least) with any accuracy, mean that there is very little that can be gleaned from this graph.  Unfortunately, the average is no longer much of an indication to IPs of when they might expect to receive their next monitoring visit.

 

The IPA’s new approach to monitoring

In addition to its up-to-4-visits-per-year shift for VIPs, at its annual conference earlier this year, the IPA announced that it would also be departing from the 3-yearly norm for other IPs.

The IPA has published few details about its new approach.  All that I have seen is that the frequency of monitoring visits is on a risk-assessment basis (which, I have to say, it was in my days there, albeit that the InsS used to insist on a 3-year max. gap) and that it is a “1-6 year monitoring cycle – tailored visits to types of firm” (the IPA’s 2018/19 annual report).

In light of this vagueness, I asked a member of the IPA secretariat for some more details: was the plan only to extend the period for those in the largest firms, as the ICAEW has done, or at least only for those practices with robust in-house compliance teams with a proven track record?  The answer was no, it could apply to smaller firms.  He gave the example of a small firm IP who only does CVLs: if the IPA were happy that the IP could do CVLs well and her bond schedules showed that she wasn’t diversifying into other case types, she likely would be put on an extended monitoring cycle.  The IPA person saw remote monitoring as the key for the future; he said that there is much that can be gleaned from a review of docs filed at Companies House.  He explained, however, that IPs would not know what cycle length they had been marked up for.

While I do not wish to throw cold water on this development, as I have long supported risk-based monitoring, this does seem a peculiar move especially in these times when questions are being asked about the current regulatory regime: if a present concern is that the regulators are not adequately discouraging bad behaviour and that they are not expediting the removal of the  “bad apples”, then it is curious that the monitoring grip is being loosened now.

Also, now that I visit clients on an annual basis, I realise just how much damage can be done in a short period of time.  It only takes a few misunderstandings of the legislation, a rogue staff member or a hard-to-manage peak in activity (or an unplanned trough in staff resources) to result in some real howlers.  How much damage could be done in 6 years, especially if an IP were less than honest?  Desk-top monitoring can achieve only so much.

What this means for my analysis of the annual reports, however, is that the 3-year benchmark for monitoring visits – or one third of IPs being monitored per year – is no longer relevant ☹ But it will still be interesting to see how the averages vary in the coming years.

 

Targeted visits drop to an all-time low

Only 10 targeted visits were carried out last year – the lowest number since the InsS started reporting them – and it seems that all RPBs are avoiding them in equal measure.

But 2019 may show a different picture, as several targeted visits have been ordered from 2018 monitoring visits…

 

Are the Insolvency Service’s criticisms bearing fruit?

I was particularly alarmed by the overall tone of the Insolvency Service’s “review of the monitoring and regulation of insolvency practitioners” published in September 2018.  In several places in the report, the InsS expressed dissatisfaction over some of the outcomes of monitoring visits.

I got the feeling that the Service disliked the focus on continuous improvement that, I think, has been a strength of the monitoring regime.  Instead, the Service expected to see more investigations and disciplinary actions arising from monitoring visit findings.  The report singled out apparently poor advice to debtors and apparently unfair or unreasonable fees or disbursements as requiring a disciplinary file to be opened with the aim of remedies being ordered.  It does seem that the focus of the InsS criticisms is squarely on activity in the VIPs, but the report did worry me that the criticisms could change the face of monitoring for everyone.  

2018 is the first year (in the period analysed) in which no monitoring visit resulted in a plan for improvement.  On the other hand, the number of penalties/referrals for disciplinary/investigation action doubled.

Could the InsS’ report be responsible for this shift?  Ok, the report was published quite late in 2018, in September, but I am certain that the RPBs had a rough idea of what the report would contain long before then.  Or perhaps the Single Regulator debate has tempted some within the RPBs/committees to be seen to be taking a tougher line?  Or you might think that these kinds of actions are long overdue?

I think that the RPBs have tried hard over the last decade or so to overcome the negativity of the JIMU-style approach to monitoring.  In more recent years, monitoring has become constructive and there has been some commendably open and honest communication between RPB and IP.  This has helped to raise standards, to focus on how firms can improve for the future, rather than spending everyone’s time and effort analysing and accounting for the past.  It concerns me that the InsS seems to want to remove this collaborative approach and make monitoring more like a complaints process.  In my view, such a shift may result in many IPs automatically taking a more defensive stance in monitoring visits and challenging many more findings.  Such a shift will not improve standards and will take up much more time from all parties.

Getting back to the graph, of course a referral for an investigation might not result in a sanction at all, so this does not necessarily mean that the IPA has issued more sanctions as a consequence of monitoring visits.  Also, the IPA’s apparent enthusiasm for this tool may simply reflect the IPA’s (past) committee structure whereby the committee that considered monitoring reports did not have the power to issue a disciplinary penalty, but could only pass it on to the Investigation Committee.  As this was dealt with as an internal “complaint”, I suspect that any such penalty arising from this referral would have featured, not in the IPA’s monitoring visit outcomes, but in complaint outcomes.

So how do the RPBs compare as regards complaints sanctions?

 

Complaints sanctions fall by a quarter

Although the IPA issued relatively fewer sanctions last year, I suspect that the monitoring visit referrals will take some time to work their way through to sanction stage, so it is unlikely that this demonstrates that the monitoring visit referrals led to a “no case to answer”.

What this and the previous graph show quite dramatically, though, is that last year the ICAEW seemed to issue far fewer sanctions per IP than the IPA.  As mentioned in my last blog, the IPA does license a large majority of the VIP IPs and there were more complaints last year about IVAs than about all the other case types put together.  One third of the published sanctions also were found against VIP IPs.

 

Likelihood of being sanctioned is unchanged from a decade ago

In 2018, you had a 1 in c.10 chance of receiving an RPB sanction, which was the same probability as in 2008…

I find it interesting to see the IPA’s and the ACCA’s results converge, which, if it were not for the suspected VIP impact, I would expect given that the IPA deals with both RPBs’ regulatory processes.

There’s not a lot that can be surmised from the number of sanctions issued by the other two RPBs: they’re a bit spiky, but it does seem that, on the whole, the ICAEW and ICAS has issued much fewer sanctions.  It seems from this that, at least for last year, you were c.half as likely to receive a sanction if you were ICAEW- or ICAS-licensed as you were if you were IPA- or ACCA-licensed.

 

Is a Single Regulator the answer to bringing consistency?

True, these graphs do seem to indicate that different regulatory approaches are implemented by different RPBs.  However, I do think that some of that variation is due to the different make-up of their regulated populations.  There is no doubt that the IVA specialists do require a different approach.  To a lesser degree, I think that a different approach is also merited when an RPB monitors practices with robust internal compliance teams; it is so much more difficult to have your work critiqued and challenged on a daily basis when you work in a 1-2 IP practice.

Differences in approach can also be a good thing.  Seeing other RPBs do things differently can force an RPB to challenge what they themselves are doing and to innovate.  My main concern with the idea of a single regulator is the loss of this advantage of the multi-regulator structure.

Perhaps a Single Regulator could bring in more consistency, but it would never result in perfectly consistent outcomes.  I’m sure I’m not the only one who remembers an exercise a certain JIEB tutor ran: all us students were given the same exam answer to mark against the same marking guide.  The results varied wildly.  This demonstrated to me that, as long as humans are involved in the process, different outcomes will always emerge.

 


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InsS Annual Review, part 2: IP number is down but complaints are up

The number of IPs just keeps on falling, but complaints have increased.  What is going on?

In this blog, I explore whether the Insolvency Service’s 2018 report on IP regulation provides the answer.  Also, is it just a blip?  And could this analysis help with the Service’s recently-issued call for evidence on IP regulation?

The Insolvency Service’s report can be found at: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/insolvency-practitioner-regulation-process-review-2018

In brief, the report indicates that, in 2018:

  • Despite insolvency case numbers increasing, IPs continued to leave the profession
  • Actions that most often appeared in RPB sanctions were: poor case progression/closure; faults in administering IVAs; and breaches of statutory filing/reporting requirements
  • Only two complaints (of the 381 referred to the RPBs) had been received from creditors! As usual, debtors were the most frequent complainers, but complaints lodged by directors and IPs showed quite an increase
  • Over 50% of the complaints lodged at the Gateway did not make it through to the RPBs
  • On average, one in three IPs received a complaint, but this figure jumped to more than one in every two for IPA-licensed IPs
  • Could this be because the IPA licenses all the IPs in the top six volume IVA provider firms (who registered over 75% of all new IVAs last year)..?
  • Over 50% of all complaints referred to the RPBs related to IVAs

 

Case numbers go up but IP numbers keep on going down

There has been a significant increase in insolvency case numbers over the past 3 years.  There were 20% more corporate insolvencies and over 40% more personal insolvencies started in 2018 than the numbers started in 2015.  Isn’t now a good time to be in insolvency..?

These statistics reflect my personal experience: over the past year, I have known of IPs who have left the profession and they’ve not all been of retiring age.  What is happening?

There’s no doubt in my mind that competition has become fiercer.  I have seen more occasions of IPs being toppled from offices and the ORs seem all the more reluctant to allow cases to leave their hands.  I have also seen some new ambulance-chasers on the field.

I think that small firms are struggling in this market.  It seems to me that larger firms seem hungrier to fight for smaller cases than they used to be.  In addition, 2018 was not a regulation-light year: it seemed that simply getting GDPR-ready was someone’s full-time job for several months, which was not at all easy for smaller firms to stomach.  Recruitment and retention are also difficult for smaller firms: new talent is attracted to big names, big cities, meaty cases and varied portfolios.

Fewer IPs and more cases mean that each IP has on average a larger caseload (or it could be that the IPs are closing them quicker, but from my personal experience, I don’t think this is happening).  If insolvency cases continue to increase, which I think is generally expected, then I think case progression is going to become a bigger concern.  Of course, IPs can always look to surround themselves with a larger team to deal with their larger caseloads, but we all know that this tends not to happen: in times of plenty, old cases tend to be shelved while people concentrate on the new excitements.

 

Is case progression already an issue?

The Insolvency Service’s report gives brief descriptions of every RPB sanction issued (including a couple that weren’t even published on .gov.uk – not sure how that happened!).  On categorising these summaries, I have come up with the following failures that appear most frequently in the disciplinary sanctions reported:

  • 7 case progression / closure issues (including one failure to realise assets and two failures to pay a dividend – not sure if these were delays or entirely overlooked)
  • 6 IVA-related faults (not including case progression / closure)
  • 6 statutory filing/reporting breaches
  • 3 SIP16 breaches
  • 3 faults in relation to directors’ RPO claims
  • 3 fee-related errors
  • 3 confidentiality breaches (perhaps related?)
  • 2 PTD-related faults
  • 2 SIP2 failures to investigate or to secure books and records

This shows that failing to progress cases promptly or appropriately can get you into hot water.  So too can failing to meet the rules on filing and reporting: four of the six instances listed arose because progress reports were not filed on time (or at all).

 

What are people complaining about?

The Top 3 topics continue to be ethics, poor communication and SIP3 issues, with the latter now counting for 34% of all complaints recorded by subject, up from 25% last year:

(Note: a complaint may appear in more than one category.  There were a total of 381 complaints referred in 2018 – see further below.)

Ok, that’s not a surprise.  We all know that the Insolvency Service’s report in September 2018 pulled no punches when it came to the RPB-monitoring of volume IVA providers.  It is also unsurprising that people are not directly complaining about late or missing progress reports, but as the sanctions demonstrate, if a statutory filing/reporting breach is identified in the course of the RPB’s investigations into a complaint, don’t be surprised if this is added to your charge sheet.

What we should perhaps be a little concerned about is that complaints on areas that attract a lot of negative press and criticism – SIP16/pre-packs and remuneration – have increased.  True, they still pale into insignificance when compared with the total number of complaints (they account for only 16 of the 429 complaints recorded by subject), but this is quite a jump from the one complaint in 2017.

 

Who is complaining?

I think this shows an interesting shift:

With IVAs featuring so heavily in complaints, it is not surprising that debtors are the most frequent complainant.  More bankruptcies were complained about in 2018 too (up from 31 to 75), which no doubt contributed to the increase in complaining debtors.

What I found interesting was that very few creditors complained last year – only two!  Even if we add in complaints from employees, this only comes to seven.  However, the number of complaints lodged by IPs more than trebled to 38.  Ok, this is still a relatively small number, but I think it hints at an interesting development in self-regulation: RPB monitors may only visit you once every 3 years or so, but your peers are watching you all the time!

 

How many complaints get through the Gateway?

(Note: the Gateway started in June 2014, so I have pro rated the partial 2014 figure to estimate for a full year.)

Complaint numbers are back up to the 2016 level: in 2016, 847 complaints were lodged and in 2018 the number was 830.  However, many more complaints fail to make it through the Gateway.  In fact, every year, the number rejected/referred has increased, even though the trend in complaint numbers shows an overall decrease.  In 2017, 48% of complaints were rejected or closed and this percentage increased to 52% last year.

 

Why are complaints not making it through the Gateway?

In their 2018 report, the Insolvency Service added a number of new reasons for rejection/closure, which personally has helped me to understand the operation of the Gateway better.  For example, I hadn’t appreciated that complaints about conduct that happened over 3 years ago are rejected.

This graph also demonstrates that a large number of complaints (145) – and a great deal more than in 2017 – are rejected because the complaint is about the insolvency process.  Again, given that most complaints are lodged by debtors and directors, this perhaps indicates that in many cases IPs may be upsetting the right people.  But it might also suggest that some IPs could do a better job of explaining the consequences of insolvency.

 

What are an IP’s chances of receiving a complaint?

Yes I know that some IPs work in a field that is more likely to attract criticism, but on average how many IPs received a complaint last year and does this average change much depending on one’s licensing body?

This shows that, generally speaking, one out of every three IPs receives a complaint.  Of course, this assumes that complaints are only about appointment-takers and that complaints are evenly spread about.

However, it also shows a large range in averages across the RPBs, with less than one in five IPs for all except the IPA, which shows an average of over one complaint for every two IPs.

The IPA has publicised that “the majority of IPs who work on IVAs are regulated by the IPA” (IPA press release 29/11/2018)… although, as the IPA does not license the majority of all IPs, a large proportion of which will have at least one IVA, presumably they’re meaning those who do IVAs in volume.  Does this, along with the graph above, mean that volume IVA providers disproportionately feature in complaints?

 

How many Volume IVA IPs does the IPA license?

The Insolvency Service now publishes data on new IVAs per firm: https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/individual-voluntary-arrangement-outcomes-and-providers-2018, which helped me out with this question.

An analysis of this list shows that the IPA licenses all the IPs registered at the Top 6 firms.  These firms alone account for over 75% of all IVAs registered in 2018.  Even if we look at the whole list of Top 14 firms (two of which no longer exist!), the IPA licenses 25 of the 33 IPs registered at these firms (with the ICAEW licensing 3 and ICAS the remaining 5, all 5 of which are located at the one firm).

So clearly then, the IPA’s complaints figures are bound to be affected by the number of IVA complaints lodged.  But this assumes that IVAs count for a large proportion of complaints.  Is this true?

 

How many IVAs are being complained about?

The following graph compares the number of IVA complaints with those about other matters:

(Note: the Gateway started in June 2014.  The way complaint numbers were published by case type then changed from those recorded by the RPBs to those referred to the RPBs from the Gateway.)

So for the first time, last year there were more IVA complaints than there were complaints about all other matters/case-types combined.  It’s no wonder therefore that the IPA has recorded many more complaints per IP than any other RPB and it’s not surprising that the IPA has sought to recruit more regulatory staff… and that they have warned IPA members that fees may be increasing this year!

I appreciate that the Insolvency Service did (finally!) wake up to some of the issues around regulating volume IVA providers last year and I accept that the IPA has made some public announcements about how they have been working towards changing their monitoring regime for the IPs in these firms.  However, as someone who has spent the last few years almost exclusively helping IPs in “traditional” insolvency practices, I do wonder if a disproportionate amount of time has been spent by the regulators (and government and the press) in criticising, legislating and threatening to legislate to remedy other apparent ills of the insolvency profession.

 

Is the solution a change in regulatory approach?

Interestingly, the Service’s just-released call for evidence on IP regulation (pg 15 of the doc at https://www.gov.uk/government/consultations/call-for-evidence-regulation-of-insolvency-practitioners-review-of-current-regulatory-landscape) focuses in on the different firm structure that exists in some IVA specialists where the IP is an employee.  This leads them to ask the question of whether firm-regulation, rather than individual IP-regulation, may be more appropriate in some sectors.  While I think that the Service definitely has a point, I do think that there are other fundamental differences in “volume IVA providers” – the hint is in the name – that also demand a fundamentally different regulatory approach.

 

In my next blog post, I’ll look more closely at complaint – and monitoring – sanctions.

 


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The Insolvency Service’s To-Do List: Going Nowhere Fast?

I’ll start my review of the Insolvency Service’s Annual Review of IP Regulation in reverse order this year.  Let’s first look at the progress made on the InsS’ 2017 to-do list.

Here’s a comparison of items listed in their 2017 Report with their 2018 Report, which has just been published (at https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/insolvency-practitioner-regulation-process-review-2018):

Of course, Ministers have had a few other things on their mind over the past year… but the landscape has not changed much since May 2018 when the 2017 report was published, so I would have hoped that the Insolvency Service would have anticipated realistic timescales back then.

 

So, if the above projects have not progressed as anticipated last year, what has the InsS achieved in 2018 and are they proposing any other outputs in the year ahead?

  • Taking on the role of a direct regulator?

It all sounds a bit secret squirrel, but the report’s overview emphasises the Service’s investigatory work.  It seems that their staff have identified and been referring “potential criminal offences by insolvency practitioners”, they “have been making effective use of information gathering powers to investigate areas of concern leading to a number of referrals to appropriate bodies” and they have “used our powers to undertake our own enquiries on a number of occasions”.  They expect to “report on what we have found when we are able to, given the progress of the investigation”.

  • The Single Regulator question

Of course, this is going to be the focus of a lot of the Service’s efforts.  I found the report alarming: it states both that they are considering “whether or not to consult on a single regulator” and that they are hoping to reach a position on “a recommendation on whether or not to exercise the power” to create a single regulator.  So… could they decide on the single regulator question without consultation?!

In any event, however, they are expecting “to publish shortly” a “formal call for evidence”, so at least we may have an opportunity to contribute something.

  • Last year’s report on RPB monitoring

I didn’t have a chance to blog on the subject, but I’m sure the Service’s September 2018 report on RPB monitoring did not pass you by.  The report was pretty scathing about much of the monitoring of volume IVA providers and included many recommendations, largely focusing on the extents to which they felt RPBs should be investigating, and taking to task, IPs who appear to be failing: to provide appropriate advice; to pay fees and expenses from estates that are fair and reasonable; and to manage the ethical threats arising from relationships with introducers and service-providers.

The Service’s 2018 Annual Report states that they are in the process of reviewing how the recommendations from the earlier review are being implemented by the RPBs and that this would inform their Single Regulator work – no threat there, then!

  • SIP revisions

So… no sign of a revised Ethics Code, but we do learn about the JIC’s work on revising SIPs.  In their in-box at the moment are:

    • SIP3.2, which is expected to be out for consultation “later this year”. Apparently, the revision work has come about “due to concerns about certain types of large CVAs where better and timelier information could be given to creditors”.  Interesting… but don’t we have the Act and Rules to tell us what IPs must send to creditors and by when?
    • SIP7 – a consultation on this is also expected “later this year”.
    • SIP9 – on the back of the concerns arising from the review of RPB monitoring of volume IVA providers and the “industry concerns over the charging of certain expenses and disbursements, primarily in the volume IVA sector” (so not just IVAs then..?), there has been ongoing work “to consider if a review of SIP9 is necessary”. The report also states that there has been work with the RPBs and R3 “to obtain data in order to assess the impact that possible changes to the way some charges ought to be applied would have on smaller firms”.  Debates over what are valid expenses/disbursements and what should be treated as an overhead have been rumbling for several years now and if the question is still “if” SIP9 should be changed, then it seems to me that an outcome could still be a long way from emerging.

 

So, the Service’s to-do list never gets any shorter, does it?  And it seems to me that the usual project-management rule applies to insolvency projects: estimate the timescale and then double it!

In my next blog, I’ll look at the complaints and monitoring stats… or I may get back to my 50 Things list…

 

 


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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.

 


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The stats of IP Regulation – Part 1: Complaints

My annual review of the Insolvency Service’s 2017 IP regulation report has thrown up the following:

  • The number of IPs drops again – the third year in a row
  • Good news: 2017 saw half as many complaints referred through the Gateway as 2015
  • This may be partly due to the Insolvency Service’s sifting process: almost half of all complaints put to the Gateway in 2017 were sifted out
  • Sadly, despite the overall reduction, there were more sifted-in complaints from creditors in 2017 than in the previous year
  • The RPBs seem to be generating more complaints sanctions: 10 years’ ago, 1 IP in 100 could receive a complaints sanction; now it is c.1 in 20

The Insolvency Service’s report can be found at: https://tinyurl.com/ycndjuxz

 

IPs leaving the profession

As the following graph shows, the number of appointment-taking IPs has fallen for the third year in a row:In ICAS’ 2017 monitoring report (https://www.icas.com/regulation/insolvency-monitoring-annual-reports), that RPB puts the decrease down to the number of IPs who have retired, which I suspect is probably the case across the board.  And we’re not seeing their number being replaced by new appointment-takers.  I can’t say I’m surprised at that either: regulatory burdens and personal risks continue to mushroom, formal insolvency cases (especially those with assets) appear more sparse and the media has nothing good to say about the profession.  Why would anyone starting out choose formal insolvency as their career choice?

Admittedly, it’s not an alarming fall… not yet… but one has to wonder how the Insolvency Service proposes to address this trend, given that one of their regulatory objectives introduced in 2015 was to encourage an independent and competitive profession.

But what is life like for current IPs?  Is there no good news?

 

Another dramatic fall in complaints

Much more striking is the fall in the numbers of complaints referred to the RPBs:No one – the Insolvency Service, RPBs or R3 – is shouting about this good news: the fact that the complaint number has halved since 2015, the first full year of the Complaints Gateway’s operation?  I would have thought that the InsS could have easily spun it into a story about the success of the Gateway or of their policing of insolvency regulation generally, no? 😉

 

Where are the rem and pre-pack complaints?

I wonder if the subject matter of the complaints is one reason why the InsS may not be keen to draw attention to complaints trends.

The following analyses the complaints put through the Gateway:If we were asked what areas of apparent misconduct we thought were the top of the InsS’s hit-list, I suspect most of us would answer: IP fees and pre-packs.  But, as you can see, these two topics have never featured large in complaints.

Despite the fees regime becoming more and more complex and involving the delivery of more information and rights to creditors to question or challenge fees, you can see that the complaints about fees have dropped: there were 19 in 2014 and only one last year.  And last year, there were no complaints about pre-packs.

This graph demonstrates what might be behind the drop in complaint numbers: there is a marked decrease in complaints about SIP3 and communication breakdowns.  I think that’s certainly good news to shout about.

So in what areas could we perhaps try harder to avoid attracting complaints?

 

Complaint danger zones?

The following analysis supports the perception that IVAs are attracting fewer complaints than in recent years, although IVAs are still number one.  In fact, it demonstrates that all insolvency proceedings are attracting fewer complaints.However, when looked at as a percentage of complaints received…… it would seem that complaints about ADMs and PTDs aren’t dropping quite as quickly as those for other processes.  Putting the two analyses together leads me to wonder whether ethics-related complaints involving ADMs now form a disproportionately large category of complaints, particularly in view of the relatively small number of ADMs compared with IVAs and LIQs.  Press coverage would also appear to support this area as a growing concern.

 

Creditors are lodging more complaints

The following graph gives us a little more insight into the origin of complaints:This shows that creditors are the only category of complainant that has seen an increase in the number of complaints lodged over the past year.  Could the profession do more to help creditors understand insolvency processes and especially ethics?

The Insolvency Service has reported for a few years now that the Insolvency Code of Ethics has been under review.  As we know, the JIC/RPBs launched a consultation on a draft Code last year – the consultation closure date has almost hit its anniversary!  The InsS 2017 review reported that a revised Insolvency Code of Ethics “is expected to be issued later this year”.  It seems to me that a fresh and clear revised Code could help us address the number of complaints lodged.

 

Not every complaint is a complaint

I highlighted last year that it seemed the InsS had been sifting out a greater number of complaints as not meeting the criteria for referring over to the relevant RPB.  This shows how that trend has developed:Wow!  So for the first time, the InsS rejected more complaints that it referred: almost half of all complaints were rejected (48%) and only 41% were referred.  Compare this to the first few months of the Gateway’s operation when only 25% were rejected and 72% were referred.  Nevertheless, setting aside the number of rejected complaints, it is good to see that even the trend for the number of complaints received is a nice downwards slope.  And in case you’re wondering, I suspect that the remaining 11% of complaints received are still being processed by the IS – a fair old number, but pleasingly a lot less than existed at the end of 2016.

Of course, the Gateway is still relatively young and it is good to read that the InsS is continually refining its sifting processes, as can be seen from the following graph:This indicates that a large part of the increase in rejected complaints is because more complainants have not responded to the Insolvency Service’s requests for further information.

For 2017, the Insolvency Service added a new category of rejections: complaints that were about the effect of an insolvency procedure.  Although there will always be some creditors and debtors who complain about the fairness of insolvency processes, perhaps an unintended benefit of the Complaints Gateway is that the InsS receives first-hand expressions of dissatisfaction about the design of the insolvency process… although let’s hope the InsS considers using such intelligence to amend legislation where sensible, rather than try to force IPs to fudge legislative flaws via Dear IPs and the like.

You might expect that, as the Insolvency Service rejects more complaints, so the percentage of sanctions arising from complaints that make it past the sifting process should increase.

 

Roughly one complaint out of every five results in a sanction

Well, you’d be right.The trendline here suggests that a complaint was twice as likely to end up in a sanction in 2017 as it was 10 years’ ago.

You might be wondering what is going on with ACCA-licensed IPs: how can over half of their complaints result in a sanction compared to an average elsewhere of around 10-20%?!

I agree that the figures are odd.  However, it should be remembered that complaints are not always closed in the year that they are opened.  And in this respect, the ACCA’s stats appear particularly odd.  For example, in last year’s InsS report, it was stated that the ACCA had only one 2013 complaint remaining open, but in this year’s report, apparently there are now thirteen 2013 open complaints against ACCA-licensed IPs!  The ACCA went through some enormous changes last year, as their complaints-handling and monitoring functions were taken over by the IPA with effect from 1 January 2017.  Could this structural change be behind the unusual stats?  Or perhaps the ACCA had been handling some particularly sticky complaints in 2014 and 2015, when their sanctions were low, and those investigations have now come to fruition.

The same effect of sanction clustering could be operating within the other RPBs in view of the spiky lines above.  Therefore, perhaps it would be wise to avoid drawing conclusions about apparent inconsistencies between RPBs’ complaints processes based on 2017’s figures alone.  However, averaging out the figures over the past three years, we can see that 23% of complaints against IPA-licensed IPs resulted in a sanction, whereas only 5% of complaints against ICAEW-licensed IPs did so.  I believe that the IPA licenses more than its fair share of IVA-specialists, so this might account for at least some of the difference.

 

Increased sanctions are not just a Gateway-sifting effect

But what about my suggestion above: that the increased number of sifted-out complaints has led to a larger proportion of complaints allowed through the Gateway leading to a sanction?

That’s not the whole story:This shows that the number of complaints sanctions per IP has also been on an upward trend: around 1 in 100 IPs received a sanction in 2008, whereas this figure was closer to 1 in 20 in 2017.

What is behind this trend?  I really don’t believe that it’s because more IPs now conduct themselves in ways meriting sanctions (or because there are a few IPs who behave badly more often).  And as we’ve seen, the number of complaints lodged doesn’t support a theory that more people complain now.

It must be because expectations have been raised, don’t you think?  Or perhaps because the increased prescription in rules and SIPs has led to more traps?

Hidden measuring-sticks?

For example, the InsS report describes one IP’s disciplinary order, stating that the IP had breached SIP16 “by failing to provide a statement as to whether the connected party had been made aware of their ability to approach the pre-pack pool and/or had approached the pre-pack pool and whether a viability statement had been requested from the connected party but not provided”.  Firstly, SIP16 doesn’t strictly require IPs to state whether connected parties have been made aware of the pool.  Secondly, SIP16 states that the SIP16 Statement should include “one of” two listed statements, only one being whether the pool had been approached.  Yes, I’ll accept that it seems the IP did not provide information on the existence of a viability statement, although I would have thought that, if a copy of a viability statement were not provided with the SIP16 Statement, then surely the likelihood is that the IP was not provided with one.  I appreciate I am splitting hairs here, but if a SIP is not crystal-clear on what is required of IPs, is it any wonder that slip-ups will be made?  And if a disciplinary consent order were generated every time an IP had omitted to meet every last letter of the SIPs and Rules, then I suspect no IP would be found entirely blameless.  Ok yes, there exists a mysterious fanaticism around SIP16 compliance and we would do well to check, check and check again that SIP16 Statements are complete (and hang the cost?).  However, I think this demonstrates how standards have changed: 10 years’ ago, would an IP have been fined £2,500 and have his name in lights for omitting one line from a report (hint: SIP16 began life in 2009)?

 

In my next blog, I’ll explore the RPB statistics on monitoring visits.


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SIP16 and the Pool: Great Expectations as yet Unrealised?

I think we’ve all shared in the pain of SIP16 compliance. We’ve tried really hard, haven’t we? So why is it that the wholly-compliant rate dropped from 87% in 2015 to 62% last year? Where are we going wrong?

In this blog, I air my suspicions about the stats, not only on SIP16 compliance, but also on the changing profile of pre-packs and the role of the Pool, as presented in the Insolvency Service’s and the Pre Pack Pool’s 2016 Reviews. Yes, I know I’m a little late on this story (I blame the 2016 Rules!).

The Insolvency Service’s 2016 Review of IP Regulation can be found at: https://goo.gl/Jkwz19

The Pre Pack Pool’s 2016 Review is at: https://goo.gl/fPEXTe

 

SIP16 Compliance Rates Fall Back to Square One

There has been a significant drop in the reported rate of SIP16 compliance – at 62% of 2016’s SIP16 statements considered wholly compliant, it is the lowest annual rate on record (note: several years are estimates because not all SIP16 statements received were compliance-reviewed):

Why is this? It’s true that it takes time to adapt to a new SIP and this is bound to hit compliance, but is this the whole story? Or has the shift of the job of reviewing SIP16s from the Insolvency Service to the RPBs introduced an element of inconsistency into the process?

Let’s drill down into the overall compliance rate of 62% to see how the rate varies from RPB to RPB:

As you can see, the rates range from ICAS’ 100% of SIP16 statements wholly compliant to the ICAEW’s 39%.

I consider it highly unlikely that ICAEW-licensed IPs are in reality far worse at complying with SIP16 than other IPs, so this indicates strongly to me that there is a great diversity in the standards being applied. Given that the ICAEW reviewed 54% of all SIP16s received last year, it’s not surprising that the overall compliance dropped from 2015’s 87% to 62%.

The Insolvency Service’s Review does not help us to understand what might be behind the non-compliances, although it gives us some comfort. It states: “for the vast majority of non-compliant statements, the breach was not deemed to be serious and was merely of a technical nature”.

The ICAEW has published some feedback on their reviewing (Feb 2017, available to their Insolvency & Restructuring Group members at https://goo.gl/YkExP7), which suggests that the following have been lacking in some cases:

  • An explanation of the pre- and post-appointment roles of the IP (the ICAEW acknowledges that SIP16 does not strictly require this explanation in the SIP16 Statement, but it needs to be delivered to creditors and directors somewhere);
  • An explanation of why no requests were made to potential funders to fund working capital (even if in some cases, it is obvious);
  • If the business has not been marketed on the internet, an explanation why not (even if the nature of the business makes this obvious);
  • An explanation of the reasons underpinning the marketing strategy (whereas some appear to have simply provided a list of what marketing has been done);
  • An explanation of the reasons behind the length of time of the marketing (even if there were obviously financial pressures that limited this);
  • The date of the initial introduction – not simply “in December 2016”;
  • An explanation of the rationale behind the basis/bases of valuations (helpfully, the ICAEW give a clear steer on what they expect: “where you have obtained going concern and forced sale valuations, tell [creditors] that you’ve obtained valuations on both bases as you’re seeking to understand whether realisations will be maximised by breaking up the business and selling the assets on a piecemeal basis or whether it’s better to try to find a buyer for the business as a going concern”);
  • If goodwill is valued, an explanation and basis for the valuation provided; and
  • An explanation of the method by which consideration was allocated to different asset classes.

Given the prevalence of some apparent failures to state the bleedin’ obvious, perhaps other RPB reviewers are measuring compliance against a different list of tick-boxes.

 

The Shifting Profile of Pre-Packs

Probably the main difference between the old and the new SIP16 was the introduction of the “marketing essentials”, with the clear message that an absence of marketing should most definitely be the exception. Has the new SIP16 pushed up the frequency of marketing?

I certainly think that the SIP16 pressure has influenced attitudes towards marketing, as this graph indicates. Even in cases where the offer on the table looks too good to beat, I suspect that many view some marketing effort as essential to shield one from criticism. I doubt that safety-blanket marketing in these cases increases realisations and it will increase costs, but if it answers the sceptics’ questions about possible undervalue sales, then it seems to have everyone’s blessing.

Then again, perhaps I am being unfair: is it merely coincidental that the graph above shows that, as the frequency of marketing has increased, the prevalence of connected party purchasers has taken a dive? Could it be that increased marketing has widened the pool of potential purchasers, resulting in more occasions when connected interested parties lose out to the competition?

I am surprised that no one (as far as I have seen) has connected these two trends with this simple cause-and-effect explanation. Rather, perhaps I am not the only person who suspects that the fall in the number of connected purchasers is more a consequence of the new SIP16 pressures on connected party pre-packs, including the pressure to apply to the pre-pack pool. As revealed in its 2016 Review, the Pre Pack Pool is evidently of this view:

“It may be that the introduction of the Pool and the wider post-Graham reforms have deterred some connected party pre-packs from being proposed in the first place.”

But what has replaced these pre-packs? Are connected party sales avoiding the SIP16 obstacles altogether?

Perhaps hurdles are being overcome by having connected party sales accompany liquidations instead of Administrations. Well, I was surprised to discover that the numbers of Gazette notices for S216 re-use of a prohibited name do not follow a trend suggesting more sales in liquidation:

So could it be that Administration sales are being shifted out of the pre-pack definition either by being completed before Administration or perhaps negotiations are not starting until after appointment? This doesn’t ring true either: SIP16 statements as a percentage of the total number of Administrations has been fairly steady since the introduction of the Pool (2015: 29%; 2016: 24%):

* The SIP16 review actually covered 14 months, but for the purpose of this graph the number has been pro rated for 12 months.

Although the number of Administrations continues to fall, I find this picture encouraging: at least the SIP16 and Pool pressure does not seem to be persuading people to find ways around the measures. Pre-packs have a role and it seems that IPs are sticking with them.

 

Is the Pre Pack Pool making its mark?

In light of the second-hand warnings I’ve heard over the past years about how strongly the Insolvency Service feels about the need for IPs to embrace the Pool, I found the Service’s annual review surprisingly dead-pan. In contrast, the ICAEW’s release on the subject stated that the number of referrals to the pool was “disappointingly low”.

However, the ICAEW was relatively subtle about IPs’ role in the referral process: “the aim of the pool is to increase transparency and confidence around prepacks and low level use of the pool is unlikely to achieve that. We know you can’t compel a connected party to approach the pool but encouraging them to do so supports the overall aim of the pool”. I found the Pre Pack Pool less subtle: “the insolvency profession and creditors have important roles to play in ensuring connected party purchasers are informed of the option to use the Pool and putting pressure on them to do so”. How does the Pool expect IPs to “put pressure” on potential purchasers, I wonder.

The Pool also acknowledges that “creditor awareness of the Pool has been low and few have taken the time to read through administrators’ reports”. On the other hand, they report that “those connected party purchasers who have used the Pool have said it has been an important step in building credibility and trust in the ‘NewCo’ among creditors”. The Pool’s Review does not elaborate, but there are some interesting quotes in an article written by Stuart Hopewell, director of Pre Pack Pool Limited, and David Kerr, IPA’s Chief Executive, for Credit Magazine in November 2016 (www.insolvency-practitioners.org.uk/download/documents/1467).

As shown on one of the graphs above, 13% of all pre-packs were referred to the Pool. This represents 28% of all connected party pre-packs. Personally, I’m surprised it was that many! My personal view is that those who find this uptake disappointingly low had unrealistic expectations.

 

The Performance of the Pool

Given that referral to the Pool is voluntary, personally I wasn’t expecting any negative decisions to emerge. After all, if you didn’t have to sit an exam, you wouldn’t do so unless you were certain of passing it, would you? I was wrong…

The breakdown of the Pool’s opinions over the 14 months to the end of 2016 is as follows:

  • 34 referrals: the case for the pre-pack is “not unreasonable”
  • 13 referrals: the case is “not unreasonable but there are minor limitations in the evidence provided”
  • 6 referrals (although 4 were a group of connected companies): the case for the pre-pack is “not made”

I appreciate that the Pool doesn’t want to give away its secrets, but unfortunately the Review gives nothing away about what factors tipped the balance or indeed how they measure a good pre-pack from the bad. The author ends the Review by stating that “hopefully referrals to the Pool will increase in 2017 as stakeholders become more familiar with the way it works and the reassurance it provides”, but without more feedback than simple statistics I cannot see this happening.

 

The Future of Pre-Packs

As we know, the Small Business Act included a reserve power to legislate the operation of pre-packs, with a sunset clause ending in May 2020. The Service’s Review continued its dead-pan mood, simply stating that they would carry out an evaluation “in due course”.

The Pool seemed barely more enthusiastic, simply stating in its Review that “it would be a shame to lose” pre-packs.

 

The Future of the Pool?

Back in May, the Times reported (https://goo.gl/QRcVZc) that Frank Field, Labour MP and Chair of the House of Commons’ Work & Pensions Select Committee, found the number of referrals to the Pool “deeply worrying” and he raised the prospect of the Committee scrutinising the Pool after the election. Sir Vince Cable also said that the number of referrals raised “worrying questions” and said that moves should be made towards making Pool referrals mandatory.

The Pre Pack Pool may be contemplating how to enlarge its role, but not necessarily with mandatory pre-pack referrals in mind. In the Credit Magazine article mentioned earlier (www.insolvency-practitioners.org.uk/download/documents/1467), Stuart Hopewell and David Kerr considered the extension of the Pool’s remit in the context of the revision of SIP13, suggesting “perhaps there is a role for the Pool to represent [creditors’] interests in all connected sale situations?” Although I continue to be concerned that much of the media outrage at connected party sales is levelled at the liquidation equivalents of pre-packs, surely the Pool must first provide convincing evidence that it is achieving the objective for which it was created before we seek to cast its net farther afield.

Are we to conclude that Hopewell/Kerr’s perception is that SIP13 sales to connected parties is an issue and having an independent review will regulate these sales?  I am not aware of any research into whether Liquidation connected party sales need regulating, so it would seem again that the tide is pulling us to tackle perceptions. Considering that the regulatory objectives include “promoting that maximisation of the value of returns to creditors” and encouraging IPs to provide “high quality services at a cost to the recipient which is fair and reasonable”, I struggle to see how these objectives are met by contributing further to this expensive over-regulated PR exercise.


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More little gems from the Insolvency Service’s blog

As promised in my last blog (but later than planned – sorry), here is my second selection of news from the Insolvency Service’s blog and Dear IP 76 that I think is worthy of spreading… with some further commentary from me, of course.

The questions fall into the following topics:

  • S100 Decisions
  • Other Decision Processes
  • Timing Issues

As I mentioned previously, I am very pleased that the Insolvency Service has shared their views on many issues and I do hope they will continue to be this open. I would also like to thank the technical and compliance managers and consultants with whom I have spent many hours debating the rules; without these valuable exchanges, many of the issues would not have occurred to me.

 

S100 Decisions

  • Can the Statement of Affairs and SIP6 Report be delivered by website?

As the director is responsible for delivering the Statement of Affairs, it is the Insolvency Service’s view that the Statement cannot be delivered by means of a website, as the rules governing website delivery – Rs 1.49 and 1.50 – only apply to office holders. Therefore, the Statement must be either posted or emailed to creditors.

Of course, delivery of the SIP6 report is not a statutory requirement and strictly-speaking SIP6 simply requires the report to “ordinarily be available”. I understand that at least one RPB is content for the SIP6 report to be made available via a website.

  • Does an invitation to decide on whether to form a committee need to be sent along with the S100 proposed decision notice?

The question arises because R6.19 requires such an invitation where any decision is sought from creditors in a CVL, whereas usually the company is not in CVL when the S100 proposed decision notice is signed.

The Insolvency Service has answered “yes”, the director needs to seek a decision from creditors on whether to form a committee when they propose the S100 appointment.

  • Can the SoA/S100 fee be approved via deemed consent?

In view of the Insolvency Service’s approach to IPs’ fees in general, the answer to this might seem an obvious “no”. However, the background to the query was that the rules require creditors to approve the payment of the fee, not its quantum, and therefore it is not quite so obviously “a decision about the remuneration of any person”, which the Act limits to decision procedures, i.e. not including the deemed consent process.

But unsurprisingly the Service answered: “no”.

This has led some people to rethink their process of getting paid the SoA/S100 fee. We have been receiving quite a few questions on whether such fees need approval if they are paid pre-appointment and/or by a third party.

The Insolvency Service has confirmed that R6.7(5) – which requires approval of payments made to the liquidator or an associate – applies to payments referred to in R6.7(4), i.e. those made by the liquidator. R6.7(3) provides that, where payment is made from the company’s assets before the winding-up resolution, the director must provide information on the payment along with the SoA, but they do not require creditor approval.

  • Does R15.11’s timescale for decisions on the liquidator’s remuneration (when made at the same time as the S100 decision on the liquidator) apply also to decisions on the SoA/S100 fee?

R15.11 provides that at least 3 business days’ notice must be given for S100 proposed decisions on the liquidator. This rule also provides that the same timescale applies to “any decision made at the same time on the liquidator’s remuneration”. It stands to reason that, if a virtual meeting were convened to consider a decision on the SoA/S100 fee at the same time as the decision on the liquidator, the same notice requirements would apply, but does the SoA/S100 fee strictly fall under “the liquidator’s remuneration”?

The Insolvency Service has stated that R15.11 should be taken to include the proposed pre-liquidation payments referred to in R6.7(5).

 

Other Decision Processes

  • What access information needs to be provided on a notice summoning a virtual meeting?

This question arises from the requirement of R15.5 that the notice to creditors must contain “any necessary information as to how to access the virtual meeting including any telephone number, access code or password required”.

The Insolvency Service has answered: “we think that sending a contact number or email address for creditors to contact in order to obtain such details is also acceptable under this rule”.

Personally, I am pleased with this answer, as I think it makes the logistics of virtual meetings far more manageable. It almost eliminates the risk of unknown “excluded persons”, as you would know who is planning to attend. You could also set up ways of verifying who participants are; you could contact them beforehand, maybe send them agendas and meeting packs. Also during the meeting if they get cut off, you would have a ready alternative contact for them, and it would be easier to count votes or set participants up with electronic voting. I don’t think that some kind of pre-meeting contact is too much to ask from creditors; to illustrate, if I want to sign up to an open-access webinar, I think nothing of contacting the convener beforehand in order for a link to be sent to me.

  • Can creditors ask upfront for an Administrator’s Para 52(1) Proposals to be considered at a physical meeting?

As we know, when Administrators include a Para 52(1) Statement in their Proposals, they do not ask creditors to vote on whether to approve the Proposals, but they must start a decision process going if the requisite number of creditors ask for a decision within 8 business days of delivery of the Proposals. Para 52(2) makes it clear that the request from creditors is for a decision, not a meeting as was the case before the Small Business Act. However, R15.6(1) states that “a request for a physical meeting may be made before or after the notice of the decision procedure or deemed consent procedure has been delivered”. Therefore, if the consequence of creditors asking for a Para 52(2) decision is that the Administrator issues a notice of decision procedure (say, a correspondence vote on the Proposals), then this rule seems to allow creditors to ask for a physical meeting before this notice is delivered.

The Insolvency Service has confirmed that this is the case: “there is no reason that the requisitioning creditor should not at the same time request a physical meeting. We note your comment that the request for a physical meeting is being made here before a decision process has even commenced, but we think that is it reasonable to interpret the rules this way on this occasion because the request does clearly relate to a decision”.

  • Ok, so does a creditor asking for a physical meeting to consider the Para 52(1) Proposals need to pay a deposit to cover the costs of this meeting?

R15.6 sets out how creditors’ requests for a physical meeting should be handled. It includes no reference to paying a deposit to cover the costs of the meeting. Mention of paying a deposit appears at R15.18, which relates to requisitioning decisions.

Therefore, quite rightly (albeit unfairly) in my view, the Insolvency Service has stated that “it would follow that where costs of the decision are met by the requisitioning creditor then these would be for a decision which is not made by a physical meeting. Any costs of the physical meeting over and above the security paid by the creditor for a decision process would be an expense to the estate”.

Thus, it would seem that, on receiving sufficient requests for a physical meeting to be summoned to consider Para 52(1) Proposals, the Administrator would need to calculate hypothetically how much it would cost to organise this via a non-physical-meeting procedure and ask the requisitioning creditor for this sum. As the rules require “itemised details” of this sum to be delivered to the creditor, this would take some explaining in order to put the creditor’s mind at ease that we weren’t ignoring their request for a physical meeting even though we were asking them to pay the costs for conducting, say, a correspondence vote!

  • Does a creditor need to lodge a proof of debt in support of a request for a physical meeting?

The Insolvency Service’s simple answer is “no”. This is what I thought when I read the rules, but it does seem odd… and could lead to all sorts of controversy.

  • Can approval for an Administration extension be sought by deemed consent?

Understandably I think, the Insolvency Service has answered “yes”. It almost goes without saying, however, that seeking secured creditors’ consents is not a decision process; the positive approval of each and every secured creditor is required (just thought I’d mention it).

  • How do you deal with the need to invite creditors to make a decision on whether to form a committee when seeking a decision by deemed consent?

The Insolvency Service has confirmed that this committee decision can be posed by deemed consent.

Via Dear IP 76, the Service also endorses the format of a proposed decision in the negative, i.e. that a committee shall not be formed… although it adds a sticky proviso: “in this way, if creditors have already indicated a lack of desire to appoint a committee, the office holder could simply propose that no committee be formed”. How do creditors indicate a lack of desire? In S100 CVLs, this seems straightforward enough in view of the fact that, as mentioned above, the director will have needed to invite such a decision in the first place. However, whether an absence of anything but the usual creditor concerns in, say, the first few weeks of an Administration is sufficient to indicate a lack of desire to satisfy the Service, I don’t know.

What is the alternative: that a positive deemed consent decision be posed, i.e. that a committee will be formed? The problem here is that, unless creditors object, then this decision will be made by default. In the light of probable creditor apathy, this could be unhelpful. Therefore, if a positive deemed consent decision is posed, it would seem necessary to describe it something like “a committee will be formed if there are sufficient creditors nominated by [date] and willing to act as members”, which to be fair is almost the wording set out in the Rules (e.g. R10.76). In this way, if the invitation for nominations is similarly ignored, then the positive decision, even if technically made, is of no effect.

However, it’s all a bit of a faff, isn’t it? It hardly makes for a Plain English process. I also dislike the idea that an office holder must propose a decision that he/she may not support. It doesn’t sit right with me for an IP to invite creditors to approve a decision to form a committee when the IP does not see the need or advantage in having one on the case in hand.   However an IP words the proposed decision, creditors can take action to appoint a committee and, as the Rules do not prescribe a form of words, then surely office holders are free to propose a decision as they see fit.

  • If a Notice of General Use of Website has already been issued, what is the effect of Rs3.54(3/4), 2.25(6/7) and 8.22(4/5), which require additional wording about website-delivery in certain circumstances?

This question requires some explaining. As we know, R1.50 provides that the office holder can send one notice to creditors informing them that all future circulars (with a few statutory exceptions) will be posted onto a website with no further notice to them – this is what I mean by a Notice of General Use of Website. However, we also have R1.49, which repeats the 2010 provision that each new circular can be delivered by posting out a one-pager notifying creditors that the specific document has been uploaded to a website.

Things get complicated when looking at Rs3.54, 2.25 and 8.22. These rules govern how we invite creditors to decide on an Administration extension and a CVA/IVA Proposal. They state that the notice regarding such a decision may also state that the outcome of the decision will be made available for viewing and downloading on a website and that no other notice will be delivered to creditors and these rules go on to specify additional contents of such a notice, which draw from R1.49.

So the question arises: if you have already given notice under R1.50 to confirm that a website is going to be used for (almost) everything, do you need this extra gumpf?

The Insolvency Service has clarified that you don’t. If you have already followed (or are following simultaneously) the R1.50 process, then you need not worry about adding such references to your R3.54/2.25/8.22 notices; you can simply issue the notice via the website and then issue the outcome via the website also. Of course, given that you’re inviting creditors to consider an important decision, you might also want to post something out to them, but this does not appear necessary under the rules.

 

Timing Issues

  • If an Administration has already been extended pre-April 2017, when should I next produce a progress report?

As covered in a previous blog, the issue here is that, before April 2017, an extension would have resulted in the reporting schedule moving away from 6-monthly from the date of appointment and instead it will be 6-monthly from the date of the progress report that accompanied the request to approve the extension. As drafted, the 2016 Rules had not provided a carve-out for these cases, so it seemed that the reporting schedule for these extended Admins would be reset on 6 April back to 6-monthly from the date of appointment.

An attempt was made to fix this in the Amendment Rules, but in my view it was not wholly successful. They state: “Where rules 18.6, 18.7 or 18.8 prescribe the periods for which progress reports must be made but before the commencement date an office-holder has ceased to act resulting in a change in reporting period under 1986 rule 2.47(3A), 2.47(3B) 4.49B(5), 4.49C(3), or 6.78A(4), the period for which reports must be made is the period for which reports were required to be made under the 1986 Rules immediately before the commencement date.” The intention is clear: where the 1986 Rules have moved a reporting schedule away from the date of appointment, this adjusted schedule should continue. However, the reference to an IP ceasing to act is unfortunate, because in the scenario described above, this has not happened.

The Insolvency Service acknowledged that this rule “could perhaps have been more explicit” (ahem, I think the problem is that it was too explicit), but emphasised that the intention is clear. Presumably therefore the Registrar of Companies will not reject filings made on the extended 6-monthly schedule.  (UPDATE 04/12/2017: the Amendment Rules that come into force on 8 December 2017 settle this matter once and for all.)

Also, just in case you haven’t already picked it up, I should mention that the Amendment Rules have most definitely fixed the issue I raised some months ago about the length of a month, so progress reporting now continues pretty-much in the pre-April way… although of course we now have to factor in the time taken to deliver reports.

  • Do Administrators’ Proposals really have to include a delivery date?

Sorry, this is more just me having a whinge: R3.35(1)(e) requires Administrators’ Proposals to state the date that the Proposals “are delivered” to creditors. When the Proposals are signed off, this will be a date in the future.

The Insolvency Service has confirmed that this is the case: they require the future “deemed” delivery date to be listed.

Of course, there are practical issues with this. If you deliver Proposals using more than one method, e.g. by R1.50 general website-delivery but also by post where some creditors have asked for hard copies (which admittedly will be rare), then you may well have more than one delivery date.

More practically, how will you/your staff complete this little nugget? It is commonplace for Proposals to go through lengthy drafting processes (despite some non-appointment taking IPs’ views that Proposals should be simple to produce in the first few days especially where there has been a pre-pack); drafts are turned over to several different people, being edited as they go. It is going to be a real faff to keep an eye on this insignificant date. My personal recommendation, if the issue date cannot be guaranteed at the outset, is to keep this delivery date coloured/highlighted on draft Proposals so that it is the very last item completed just before the Proposals are signed off.

  • Do you have to wait until the MVL final account has been delivered to members before submitting a copy to the Registrar of Companies?

When closing an MVL, the liquidator is required to confirm to the Registrar that s/he “has delivered” the final account to members (R5.10(3)).

The Insolvency Service does not believe that the liquidator has to wait until the final account has been “delivered” to members at this stage; it is sufficient that the liquidator has sent it. From what I can decipher, it seems they are viewing delivery here as “deemed” delivery, i.e. once it has left your office, it will end up being delivered a couple of days’ later (if sent by post).   Personally, I still think it is odd to confirm at this point that the final account has been delivered, but at least we have an answer for any pedant who wants to debate this.

  • Do you have to wait until the Notice of Establishment of the Committee is delivered to the Registrar/Court before holding the first Committee meeting?

Despite the paradoxical “no” for the previous question, the answer to this one is “yes”.

The issue arises because R17.5(5) states that “the committee is not established (and accordingly cannot act) until the office-holder has delivered a notice of its membership” to the Registrar/Court.   The Insolvency Service has confirmed that, yes, the notice must be delivered before the first meeting is held.

The frustration here, of course, is that we will no longer be able to hold the first committee meeting immediately after any meeting that establishes it, but because the rules require us to hold a first meeting (although this can be by remote attendance), we will have to call the committee members back again.

Personally, I wonder if practically it would still be valuable to hold an informal meeting with the (elected) committee members immediately – so that matters for investigation can be discussed and so that you can help them understand how committees work, maybe even discuss the office-holder’s fee proposal with a view to agreeing this later on – and then, hopefully, the actual first meeting will be little more than a formality.  (UPDATE 04/12/2017: the Amendment Rules that come into force on 8 December 2017 fix this issue… sort of.  See my explanation at https://insolvencyoracle.com/2017/12/04/emerging-from-the-fog-some-amendment-rules/)

 

The next instalment..?

As we apply the new rules in practice, I am sure that more issues and ambiguities will emerge. As I mentioned previously, I am grateful to the Insolvency Service for their openness.

Emerging interpretations and views force me to revisit my previous conclusions, which is a good thing, although I am very conscious that earlier blog posts and presentations quickly become out-of-date. Even my presentation for the R3 SPG Technical Review at the end of March needed an update and this is now available to Compliance Alliance webinar subscribers (drop me a line – info@thecompliancealliance.co.uk– if you want to know more 😉 ).

I am also looking forward (err… sort-of!) to presenting on the rules at other R3 events – 6 June SPG Technical Review in Leeds; 7 June Southern Region meeting in Reading; 28 June North East Region meeting; and 4 July SPG Technical Review in Bristol. I welcome your queries and quirky observations on the rules, which will help me to make my presentations useful to the audience. I’m sure there are many more gems to unearth.


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Annual review: IPs, complaints and visits down, but sanctions up

The Insolvency Service’s 2016 Review of IP Regulation always makes for interesting reading. This year, the headlines include:

  • The number of IPs falls again
  • Regulatory sanctions generally increase and for one RPB in particular
  • Complaints handled by the RPBs drop by 28%… although 17% of all complaints seem to be held in the Gateway
  • Apparent missing of the mark for 3-yearly visits
  • Current regulatory priorities include IVAs and fees, whereas routine monitoring appears less popular

The report can be found at https://goo.gl/Jkwz19.

 

IP number falls again

The Review reveals another drop in the number of appointment-taking IPs. In fact, there was the same number on 1 January 2017 as there was on the same day in 2009: 1,303.

Is it a surprise that the number of appointment-taking IPs has dropped again? The 2016 insolvency statistics show modest increases in the numbers of CVLs and IVAs compared with 2015 and of course there was a bumper crop of MVLs in early 2016. Why is it that fewer IPs seem to be responsible for more cases?

My hunch is that the complexity of cases in general is decreasing and I suspect that the additional hurdles put in place as regards fees have encouraged IPs to look at efficiencies, to create slicker processes, and to be more risk-averse, less inclined to go out on a limb with the result that some cases are despatched more swiftly and require less IP input.

I also suspect the IP number for next January will show another drop. The expense and effort to adapt to the 2016 Rules will make some think again, won’t it?

Does the presence of the regulators breathing down one’s neck erode IPs’ keenness to remain in the profession? How worried should IPs be about the risk of a regulatory sanction?

 

Regulatory actions on the increase

The RPBs seem to have shown varying degrees of enthusiasm when it comes to taking regulatory action.

To me, this hints at regulatory scrutiny of a different kind. Is it coincidental that the ACCA issued proportionately far more sanctions than any other RPB last year? Could the Insolvency Service’s repeated monitoring visits to the ACCA over 2015 and 2016 have had anything to do with this spike?

What are behind these sanctions? Are they generated from the RPBs’ monitoring visits or from complaints?

 

Monitoring v complaints sanctions return to normality

Last year, I observed that for the first time RPBs’ investigations into complaints had generated more sanctions than their monitoring visits. Regulatory actions in 2016 returned to a more typical pattern.

Does this reflect a shifting RPB behaviour or is it more a result of the number of complaints received and/or the number of monitoring visits undertaken?

 

Dramatic fall in complaints

Well, no wonder there were fewer disciplinary actions on the back of complaints: the RPBs received 28% fewer complaints in 2016 than they did in 2015.

Why is this? Is it because fewer complaints were made? Undoubtedly, IVAs have generated a flood of complaints in recent years not least because of the issues surrounding ownership of PPI claims, but those issues were still live in 2016, weren’t they?

Perhaps we can explore this by looking at the complaint profile by case type:

Yes, it looks like IVAs continued to be contentious last year, although perhaps the worst is over. It seems, however, that the most significant drop has been felt in complaints relating to bankruptcies and liquidations. The reduction in bankruptcy complaints is understandable, as the numbers of bankruptcies have dropped enormously over the past few years, but liquidation numbers have kept reasonably steady, so I am not sure what is going on there.

But are fewer people really complaining or is there something else behind these figures?

 

An effective Complaints Gateway sift?

When the Complaints Gateway was set up in 2014, it was acknowledged that the Insolvency Service would ensure that complaints met some simple criteria before they were referred to the RPBs. There must be an indication of a breach of legislation, SIP or the Code of Ethics and the allegations should be capable of being supported with evidence. Where this is not immediately apparent, the Service seeks additional information from the complainant.

The graphs above are based on the complaints referred to the RPBs, so what is the picture as regards complaints received before the sifting process occurs?

This shows that the Complaints Gateway sifted out more complaints last year: the percentage rejected rose from 25% in 2014, to 27% in 2015, to 29% in 2016.

The Insolvency Service’s review explains that in 2016 a new criterion was added: “Complainants are now required in the vast majority of cases to have raised the matter of concern with the insolvency practitioner in the first instance before the complaint will be considered by the Gateway”. This is a welcome development, but it did not affect the numbers much: it resulted in only 13 complaints being turned away for this reason.

But this rejected pile is not the whole story. The graph also demonstrates that a significant number of complaints – 144 (17%) – were neither rejected nor referred last year, which is a much larger proportion than previous years.   Presumably these complaints are being held pending further exchanges between the Service and the complainant. Personally, I am comforted by this demonstration of the Service’s diligence in managing the Gateway, but I hope that this does not hint at a system that is beginning to get snarled up.

 

How many complaints led to sanctions?

When I looked at the Insolvency Service’s review last year, I noted that the IPA’s sanctions record appeared out of kilter to the other RPBs. It is interesting to note that 2016 appears to have been a more “normal” year for the IPA, but instead the ACCA seems to have had an exceptional year. As mentioned above, I wonder if the Insolvency Service’s focus on the ACCA has had anything to do with this unusual activity (I appreciate that 2010 was another exceptional year… and I wonder if the fact that 2010 was the year that the Insolvency Service got heavy with its SIP16-reviewing exercise had anything to do with that particular flurry).

The obvious conclusion to draw from this graph might be that an ACCA-licensed IP has a 1 in 3 chance that any complaint will result in a sanction. However, perhaps these IPs can rest a little easier, given that the ACCA’s complaints-handling is now being dealt with by the IPA.

What about sanctions arising from monitoring visits? How do the RPBs compare on that front?

 

All but one RPB reported an increase in monitoring sanctions

These percentages look rather spectacular, don’t they? It gives the impression that on average almost one third of all monitoring visits result in some kind of negative outcome… and it appears that 90% of all the CAI’s monitoring visits gave rise to a negative outcome! Well, not quite. It is likely that some monitoring visits led to more than one black mark, say a plan for improvement and a targeted visit to review how those plans had been implemented.

Nevertheless, it is interesting to note that almost all RPBs recorded increases in the number of negative outcomes from monitoring visits over the previous year. I am not sure why the IPA seems to have bucked the trend. It will be interesting to see how the populations of ACCA and IPA-licensed IPs fare this year, as they are now being monitored and judged by the same teams and Committees.

 

How frequently are visits being undertaken?

The Principles for Monitoring, which forms part of a memorandum of understanding (“MoU”) between the Insolvency Service and the RPBs, state that the period between monitoring visits “is not expected to significantly exceed three years but may, where satisfactory risk assessment measures are employed, extend to a period not exceeding six years”. However, most if not all the RPBs publicise that their monitoring programmes are generally on a 3-yearly cycle.

The following graph shows that the RPBs are not quite meeting this timescale:

If we look at each RPB’s visits for the past 3 years as a percentage of their appointment-taking licence-holders, how far off the 100% mark were they..?

ICAEW’s missing of the mark is not surprising, given that they publicise that their IPs in the larger practices are on 6-year cycles. At the other end of the spectrum is the ACCA, which managed to visit all their IPs over the past 3 years and then some. However, as we know, the ACCA has relinquished its monitoring function to the IPA, so it seems unlikely that this will continue.

 

What is the future for monitoring visits?

The Insolvency Service’s 2015 review hinted that the days of the MoU may have been numbered. Their 2016 review strengthens this message:

“We propose to withdraw the MoU as soon as is reasonably feasible, subject to working through some final details”.

The review goes on to explain that the Service will be adding to their existing guidance (https://goo.gl/wDHElg). As it currently stands, prescriptive requirements such as the frequency of monitoring visits is conspicuously absent from this guidance. Instead, it is largely outcomes-based and reflects the Regulator’s Code to which the Insolvency Service itself is subject and that emphasises the targeting of monitoring resources where they should be most effective at addressing priority risks. The Service itself seems to be lightening up on its own monitoring visits: the review states that, having completed their round of full monitoring visits to the RPBs, they are now moving towards a number of risk based themed reviews. If this approach filters through to the RPBs’ monitoring visits, will we see a removal of the 3-yearly standard cycle?

 

Current priorities for the regulators

Does the 2016 review reveal any priorities for this year?

Not unsurprisingly, given one particularly high profile failure, IVAs feature heavily. The review refers to “general concerns around the volume IVA business model and developments in practice” and continues:

“The Insolvency Service is working with the profession to tackle some of these concerns; for example, through changes to guidance on monitoring and protections for client funds, and also a review of insurance arrangements. We are also engaging with stakeholder groups to better understand their concerns and how these may be tackled. We expect that this will be a key focus of our work for the coming year.”

Other projects mentioned in the review include:

  • Possible legislative changes to the bonding regime – consultation later this year;
  • Progression of the Insolvency Service’s recommendation that the RPBs introduce a compensation mechanism for complainants who have suffered inconvenience, loss or distress;
  • Publication of the Insolvency Service’s review into the RPBs’ monitoring and regulation processes, including consistency of outcomes, the extent of independence between the membership and regulatory functions, and the RPBs’ financial capabilities – report to be released within 12 months;
  • Progress on a review into the RPBs’ approach to the regulatory objective to encourage a profession which delivers services at a fair and reasonable cost, including how they are assessing compliance with the Oct-15 fee estimate regime – report to be released by the end of the year; and
  • A consultation on revisions to the Code of Ethics – expected in the spring.

 


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2017: it’s not all about the Rules

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A watched kettle never boils, so I’ll stop watching for the new Rules to land – having missed their “aim” of w/c 10/10/16, the Insolvency Service is now claiming that it was always their “plan” to have them issued this month – and instead I’ll shift my focus to what other delights the next year may bring.

 

A Review of the Bonding Regime

What do you think? Is the bonding regime fit for purpose? Does it really work as an effective protection?

The Government has issued a Call for Evidence to explore the weaknesses and reform possibilities of the bonding regime. The opportunity for submissions closes on 16 December 2016 and the Insolvency Service’s document can be found at: https://goo.gl/wiKc0K.

The document notes that the Insolvency Service has “seen evidence where the costs claimed by an insolvency practitioner in proving a bond claim are disproportionate to the loss suffered by the insolvent estate”, whilst the specific penalty bond premiums have increased for smaller firms by 200% in one year. No wonder there are questions over whether bonding is achieving its objective.

The Call for Evidence explores questions (albeit worded differently) such as:

  • Would a system similar to the legal profession’s arrangements for dealing with fraud and dishonesty work for insolvency?
  • Could a solution be a “claims management protocol” incorporating a panel of IPs to deal with bond claims and ways to limit cost?
  • Alternatively, perhaps the bonding regime should be abolished altogether?

 

Complaints-handling by the RPBs

In September, the Insolvency Service released a summary of its review into the RPBs’ complaints-handling processes.

The Service reported that “the introduction of Common Sanctions Guidance has improved transparency in decision-making but there is scope to ensure more consistency in the application of the guidance”. The Service’s answer is to work with the RPBs to make changes to the guidance.

Three other main recommendations emerged from the review:

 1.  The RPBs should ensure that information is sought from the IP, e.g. “if the complainant has not provided or is unable to provide evidence to support their complaint”, unless there is a justified reason not to do so (whatever that looks like).

The report explains that “the most common reasons for closing a complaint at the assessment stage are the complainant’s failure to respond to further enquiries or their inability to provide evidence to support their complaint”. The Service also reports that “the review identified that some cases had been closed which appeared to merit further investigation”. Thus, the Service is recommending that RPBs look to the IPs for the information and evidence.

The Service seems to be expecting the RPBs to conduct thorough investigations on receipt of nothing more than unsupported suspicions raised by parties who then go to ground as soon as they’re asked to explain or substantiate their allegations. The Service also seems to take no account of the costs to IPs in responding to RPB requests, which of course are not recoverable from the insolvent estates irrespective of whether the complaint is founded. Isn’t it about time that the Service stopped labouring onto IPs more and more expensive burdens whilst simultaneously pursuing the agenda that IPs’ fees need to be curbed?

2.  The RPBs should consider with the Service the feasibility of a regulatory mechanism whereby compensation can be paid by the IP to the complainant where they have suffered inconvenience, loss, or distress.

The Service is recommending this measure “to ensure fair treatment for complainants”, given that some RPBs (but see below) have a compensation mechanism, but others do not. But how often do the RPBs order compensation? This information is conspicuous by its absence from the report.

From the report, it seems that the ACCA is the only RPB with a formal compensation mechanism. In view of the fact that the ACCA is handing over its complaints-handling to the IPA with effect from 1 January 2017, surely the simplest way to make things “fair” to all complainants is to have no compensation mechanism, isn’t it?

I also do not understand the Service’s logic in arguing that compensation should be offered “where minor errors or mistakes have been made”, whilst accepting that “any such mechanism would not be a substitute for any legal remedies available to individual complainants through the Courts”. Next thing we know the Service will be expecting the RPBs to decide whether fees are excessive on fairly straightforward cases, whilst accepting that decisions on really meaty fees should remain with the courts. Oh hang on a minute…

Unfortunately, the IPA is making it easy for the Service to push its agenda: the report mentions that the IPA intends to introduce a formal conciliation process in any event (which is news to me, as I suspect it is to most IPA members).

3.  RPBs experiencing particular issues progressing complaints cases should discuss their plans with the Service.

I think this is directed mainly at the ACCA, which has come in for some heavy criticism, as reported in the Insolvency Service’s monitoring reports over the last couple of years. Now that the ACCA has announced its “collaboration” with the IPA, which will investigate and decide on complaints levelled at ACCA licensed IPs (as well as conduct their monitoring visits), perhaps the Service already will be happy to tick that box.

To read the full report, go to: https://goo.gl/radZpS.

 

Action on Anti-Money Laundering

This subject really deserves a blog post of its own. The prospects for change are coming from all directions.

“Consent” SARs no more

Actually, this happened in July, but I’ve not seen it covered elsewhere, so I thought I would shoe-horn it in here. Although the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002 refers to “consent”, the NCA has issued guidance clarifying that it will no longer be granting consent, but rather a “defence to a money laundering offence”.

The NCA has taken this step to counteract the “frequent misinterpretation of the effect of ‘consent’ (e.g. assuming that it results in permission to proceed, or is a statement that the money is ‘clean’ or that the NCA condoned the activity going ahead)”.

To request a “defence”, however, you will still need to tick the “consent requested” box on the SAR submission.

For a useful reminder on the purpose and process of consent/defence SARs, including the kinds of responses you might get back from the NCA, go to https://goo.gl/c8tJzk.

Allowing “joint” SARs and other proposals

In April, the Government (via HM Treasury) issued an “Action Plan”, representing “the most significant change to our anti-money laundering and terrorist finance regime in over a decade”, and the Government sought views on the proposed actions.

Amongst other things, the Government was proposing to reform SARs, given the enormous resource demand of c.400,000 SARs submitted each year. The proposals included doing away with the SARs consent/defence process altogether, which alarmed me considerably, but I was relieved to see that the Law Society and others (including R3, although I have to say that they were not as forceful as the LawSoc) urged the Government to reconsider.

The Government’s response on the consultation was issued earlier this month at https://goo.gl/pzezpx and the conclusions are reflected in the Criminal Finances Bill, which is now making its way through Parliament.

I can only see the proposed changes affecting IPs in exceptional cases, but in brief they include:

  • some changes to the SARs regime including empowering the NCA to obtain further information from SARs reporters, but the consent process will continue at least for the moment (“the Government will keep this issue under review”);
  • “establishing a new information sharing gateway for the exchange of data on suspicions… between private sector firms with immunity from civil liability” – I am interested to discover how this will be constructed, although the Government response does include reference to…
  • enabling “joint” SARs to be submitted, which I’m sure will be good news to all IPs who have been conscious of multiple SARs being submitted on cases involving external joint office holders and legal advisers;
  • introducing Unexplained Wealth Orders;
  • strengthening powers to seize and forfeit criminal proceeds in bank accounts or “portable high value items” such as gold.

The Fourth Money Laundering Directive

I understand that Brexit is unlikely to halt the progress of the EU’s Fourth Money Laundering Directive in the UK, which is set to be transposed into national law by 26 June 2017.

In September, HM Treasury issued a consultation on how the Directive should be implemented. The consultation document can be found at https://goo.gl/5AdhQd and it closes on 10 November 2016.

Items with the potential to affect IPs include:

  • a reduction in the threshold for cash or “occasional” transactions from €15,000 to €10,000;
  • changes in the criteria triggering simplified and enhanced due diligence;
  • a potential widening of the scope of those whose AML due diligence may be relied upon (which I find interesting given that the RPBs seem to recommend avoiding reliance);
  • potential prescription surrounding requirements for certain businesses to appoint compliance officers, to conduct employee screening, and to carry out independent audits;
  • a requirement to retain AML due diligence records for 10 years (up from 5 years); and
  • a requirement for certain Supervisors (i.e. the RPBs and others) to “take necessary measures to prevent criminals convicted in relevant areas or their associates from holding a management function in, or being the beneficial owners of” AML-regulated businesses (which, personally, I think is extremely unfair – for example, is it fair to curtail someone’s career because of what their father has done?). Although the consultation refers only to accountants, solicitors and some other businesses as needing this oversight, I would be surprised if IPs escape notice when any legislation is drafted.

 

More and More Changes in Scotland

Imminent changes

As we know, the new Bankruptcy (Scotland) Act 2016 (and presumably the accompanying Regulations, which are yet to be finalised) come into force on 30 November 2016.

The AiB has headlined the Act and Regulations as “business as usual” but simply a cleaner and more straightforward reorganisation of the existing statutory instruments, the most material effect being that what was the Protected Trust Deeds (Scotland) Regulations 2013 has been written into the Act (all except from the forms, which are in the 2016 Regs).

However, inevitably the AiB has taken the opportunity to slip in a couple of changes. As drafted, the MAP asset threshold will be reduced from £5,000 to £2,000 (Regulation 14).

In its response to the AiB’s informal consultation on the draft Regulations, ICAS took the opportunity to raise a number of issues, including having another dig at the AiB’s compromising positions as both supervisor and supplier of debt management/relief services. As regards these expressions of concern and ICAS’ attempt to highlight the archaic “overly penal” use of an 8% statutory interest rate, I say: “good for them!”.

ICAS also points out apparent deficiencies in the Regulations’ treatment of money advisers, who are required under the draft Regulations to have a licence to use the Common Financial Statement, but the Money Advice Trust provides licences to organisations, not individuals. There also appears to be a flaw in the Regulations in that it does not allow a non-accountant/solicitor IP to be a money adviser if they or their employers provide other financial services.

To read ICAS’ response in full, go to: https://goo.gl/xSaKkv.

Future changes to PTDs and DAS

Earlier this year, the AiB ran consultations as part of their reviews of PTDs and DAS. The AiB published summaries of the consultation responses in July 2016 (see https://goo.gl/MW6gC5) and the AiB has promised its own responses “in the coming weeks”, although these have yet to emerge (not surprising really, given everything else going on!).

The scope of the consultation questions was vast and the reviews have the potential to affect many aspects of the two procedures.

 

New Restructuring Moratoriums and Plans… but no changes to rescue finance priority

Although the Government has not yet provided its response to the consultation, “A Review of the Corporate Insolvency Framework”, which ended on in July 2016, it has issued a summary of responses at https://goo.gl/Cf0LWK.

The summary does hint, however, that the Government is likely to take forward some of the proposals.

The introduction of a pre/extra-insolvency moratorium

If the Government were to go with the majority (yes I know, that’s a big “if”), the new moratorium:

  • would be initiated by a simple court filing;
  • would have stronger/more safeguards to protect creditors’ interests than as originally proposed;
  • potentially would not suspend directors’ liability for wrongful trading;
  • would be shorter than the originally proposed 3 months, probably 21 days;
  • could be extended without the need to obtain the approval of all secured creditors;
  • would not affect the length of any subsequent Administration (woo hoo!);
  • would be supervised only by a licensed IP (double woo hoo!);
  • would provide for costs incurred during the moratorium to be paid during the moratorium or, failing that, to enjoy a first charge if an insolvency process follows on; and
  • would provide creditors with the power to seek information (with certain safeguards and exemptions).

Essential suppliers to be held to ransom?

In contrast, consultation responses were split on whether more should be done to bind essential suppliers to keep on supplying during a moratorium or indeed during an Administration, CVA or potentially new “alternative restructuring plan”. The only clear majority response was that providing suppliers with recourse to court to object to being designated by the company as “essential” was an inadequate safeguard for suppliers.

The reaction? “Government notes stakeholder concerns and is continuing to consider the matter.”

A new restructuring plan with “cram down”

Cheekily, the consultation actually didn’t ask whether we saw value in a proposed new restructuring plan. It just asked how we saw it working.

The majority were in favour of a court-approved cram down process with the suggested addition that the cram down provisions could also apply to shareholders.

Will the long grass welcome back the proposal for super-priority rescue finance?

The Government had revived its 2009 proposal for super-priority rescue funding. Again this time, the response was pretty overwhelming with 73% disagreeing with the proposals.

 

Further Education Insolvencies

In July 2016, BIS issued a consultation that explored whether the usual insolvency procedures – as well as a Special Administration Regime – should be introduced to deal with insolvent further education and sixth form colleges in England.

The proposed objectives of the education Special Administration include to “avoid or minimise disruption to the studies of the existing students of the further education body as a whole”. The Government envisages that this emphasis would “provide more time than normal insolvency procedures to mitigate the risk that a college is wound up quickly and in a way which, by focusing only on creditors, would be likely to damage learners.”

Although a Government response has yet to be issued (the consultation closed on 5 August 2016), my scanning of a few published responses indicates that there are some loud objections to the idea from those working in the sector. Many of those who responded to the consultation also expressed exasperation that BIS issued a 4-week consultation over the holiday period, which does seem particularly insensitive in view of the intended audience (which strangely did not include IPs!).

 

Recast EC Regulation on Insolvency Proceedings

This is another piece of legislation that is set to come into force on 26 June 2017.

I admit that my partner, Jo Harris, is far more knowledgeable on this subject than me and personally I’m waiting for her to record a webinar on it, so that I can learn all about it (no pressure, Jo! 😉 ).

 

SIP13, SIP15… and many others

The JIC’s consultations on revised drafts of SIP13 and SIP15 closed many months ago. I understand that a revised SIP13 is very near to being issued and the aim is to have a revised SIP15 also issued before the end of the year.

Given that many of the SIPs refer to the Insolvency Rules 1986 – SIP8 on S98 meetings comes immediately to mind – many will need to be reviewed over the next 5 months if they are to remain reliable and relevant (although admittedly it has not stopped SIP13 continuing to refer to S23 meetings and Rule 2.2 reports, despite the fact that they were abolished in 2003!). Well, it’s not as if we have anything else to do, is it?!


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

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

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

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

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

 

A New Moratorium: why?

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

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

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

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

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

 

A New Moratorium: how long?

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

Mora

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

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

 

Will it simply be jobs for the boys?

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

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

  • Not for solicitors?

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

  • Not for accountants?

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

  • What about turnaround professionals?

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

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

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

  • The case for IPs

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

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

  • A new professional?

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

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

 

Consequences for Administrators

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

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

Conflict of interest?

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

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

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

Shorter Administrations?

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

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

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

 

Directors’ liabilities

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

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

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

 

Ranking of costs and expenses in the moratorium

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

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

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

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

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

 

Creditors held to ransom?

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

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

 

What’s wrong with the CVA moratorium?

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

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

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

 

What’s wrong with CVAs?

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

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

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

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

 

And there’s much more

Some other meaty questions considered by the responders included:

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

 

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