Insolvency Oracle

Developments in UK insolvency by Michelle Butler


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And now for a qualitative review of the IP Regulation Report

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Having explored the statistics, I thought I’d turn to the Insolvency Service’s 2013 IP regulation report’s hints at issues currently at the top of the regulators’ hit list:

• Ethical issues;
• Consultation with employees;
• SIP16; and
• Dodgy introducers;

All the Service’s regulatory reviews can be found at http://www.bis.gov.uk/insolvency/insolvency-profession/Regulation/review-of-IP-regulation-annual-regulation-reports.

Ethical Issues

The Insolvency Service has “asked that regulators make ethical issues one of their top priorities in the coming year, following concerns arising from both our own investigations and elsewhere” (Dr Judge’s foreword). What might this mean for IPs? Personally, I find it difficult to say, as the report is a bit cloudy on the details.

The report focuses on the fact that 35% of the complaints lodged in 2013 have been categorised as ethics-related. On the face of it, it does appear that ethics-categorised complaints have been creeping up: they were running at between 10% and 20% from 2008 to 2011, and in 2012 they were 24%. Without running a full analysis of the figures, I cannot see immediately which categories have correspondingly improved over the years: “other” complaints have been running fairly consistently between 30% and 40% (which does make me wonder at the value of the current system of categorising complaints!) and the other major categories – communication breakdown, sale of assets, and remuneration – have been bouncing along fairly steadily. The only sense I get is that, generally, complaints were far more scattered across the categories than they were in 2013, so I am pleased that the Insolvency Service reports an intention to refine its categorisation to better understand the true nature of complaints made about ethical issues. Now that the Service is categorising complaints as they pass through the Gateway, they are better-placed than ever to explore whether there are any trends.

In one way, I think that this ethics category peak is not all bad news: I would worry if some of the other categories – e.g. remuneration, mishandling of employee claims, misconduct/irregularity at creditors’ meetings – recorded high numbers of complaints.

Do the complaints findings give us any clues as to what these ethical issues might be about? Briefly, the findings listed in the report involved:

• Failing to conduct adequate ethical checks and a SIP16 failure;
• Failing to pay a dividend after issuing a Notice of Intended Dividend or retract the notice (How many times does this happen, I wonder!) and a SIP3 failure regarding providing a full explanation in a creditors’ report;
• Three separate instances (involving different IPs) of SIP16 failures;

Unfortunately, the report does not describe all founded complaints, but it appears to me that few ethics-categorised complaints convert into sanctions. However, it is interesting to see that some of these complaints don’t seem to go away: two of the complaints lodged with the Service about the RPBs, and which are still under investigation, involve allegations of conflict of interest, so it is perhaps not surprising that the Service’s interest has been piqued. The report describes a matter “of wider significance which we will take forward with all authorising bodies”, that of “concerns around the perceived independence of complaints handling, where the RPB also acts in a representative role for its members” (page 6). Noisy assumptions that RPBs won’t bite the hands that feed them have always been with us, but there were some very good reasons why complaints-handling was not taken away from the RPBs as a consequence of the 2011 regulatory reform consultation and I would be very surprised if the situation has worsened since then.

So, as a profession, we seem to be encountering a significant number of ethics-related complaints, few of which lead to any sanctions. This suggests to me that behaviour that people on the “outside” feel is unethical is somehow seen as justified when viewed from the “inside”. It cannot be simply an issue of communicating unsuccessfully, because wouldn’t that in itself be a breach of the ethical principle of transparency that might lead to a sanction? The Service seems to be focussing on the Code of Ethics: “we are working with the insolvency profession to establish whether the current ethical guidance and its application is sufficiently robust or whether any changes are needed to further protect all those with an interest in insolvency outcomes” (page 4). Personally, I struggle to see that the Code of Ethics is somehow deficient; it cannot endorse practices that deviate from the widely-accepted ethical norm, because it sets as the standard the view of “a reasonable and informed third party, having knowledge of all the relevant information”. I guess whether or not disciplinary committees are applying this standard successfully is another question, which, of course, the Service may be justified in asking. However, I do hope that (largely, I confess, because I shared the pain of many who were involved in the years spent revising the Guide) the outcome doesn’t involve tinkering with the Code, which I believe is an extremely carefully-written, all-encompassing, timeless and elevated, set of principles.

Consultation with employees

This topic pops up only briefly in relation to the Service’s monitoring visits to RPBs. It is another matter “of wider significance which we will take forward with all authorising bodies”: “regulation in relation to legal requirements to consult with employees where there are collective redundancies” (page 4).

Although I’ve been conscious of the concern over employee consultation over the years – I recall the MP’s letter to all IPs a few years’ ago – I was still surprised at the number of “reminders” published in Dear IP when I had a quick scroll down Chapter 11. On review, I thought that the most recent Article, number 44 (first issued in October 2010), was fairly well-written, although it pre-dated the decision in AEI Cables Limited v GMB, which acknowledged that it may be simply not possible to give the full consultation period where pressures to cease trading are felt (see, e.g., my blog post at http://wp.me/p2FU2Z-3i), and it all seems so impractical in so many cases – to engage in an “effective and meaningful consultation”, including ways of avoiding or reducing the number of redundancies – but then it wouldn’t be the first futile thing IPs have been instructed to do…

If this is a regulator hot topic going forward, then it may be beneficial to have a quick review of standards and procedures to ensure that you’re protecting yourself from any obvious criticism. For example, do your engagement letters cover off the consultation requirements adequately? Does staff consultation appear high up the list of day one priorities? If any staff are retained post-appointment, do you always document well the commencement of consultation, ensuring that discussions address (and contemporaneous notes evidence the addressing of) the matters required by the legislation?

SIP16

Oh dear, yes, SIP16-monitoring is still with us! It seems that 2012’s move away from monitoring strict compliance with the checklist of information in SIP16 to taking a bigger picture look at the pre-pack stories for hints of potential abuse has been abandoned. It seems that the Service’s idea of “enhanced” monitoring simply was to scrutinise all SIP16 disclosures, instead of just a sample. In addition, unlike previous reports, the 2013 report does not describe what intelligence has come to the Service via its pre-pack hotline, nor does it mention what resulted from any previous years’ ongoing investigations. Oh well.

I guess it was too much to ask that the release of a revised SIP16 on 1 November 2013 might herald a change in approach to any pre-pack monitoring by the Service. Nope, they’re still examining strict compliance, although at least there has been some progress in that the Service is now writing to all IPs where it identifies minor SIP16 disclosure non-compliances (with the serious breaches being passed to the authorising body concerned). I really cannot get excited by the news that the Service considered that 89% of all SIP16 disclosures, issued after the new SIP16 came into force, were fully compliant. Where does that take us? Will IPs continue to be monitored (and clobbered) until we achieve 100%? What will be the reaction, if the percentage compliant falls next time around?

Dodgy Introducers

The Service has achieved a lot of mileage – in some respects, quite rightly so – from the winding up, in the public interest, of eight companies that were “wrongly promoting pre-packaged administrations as an easy way for directors to escape their responsibilities”. Consequently, I found this sentence in the report interesting: “We have also noted that current monitoring by the regulators has not picked up on the insolvency practitioner activities that were linked to the winding up of a number of ‘introducer’ companies, and are in discussions with the authorising bodies over how this might be addressed in the coming year” (page 6). Does this refer specifically to the six IPs with links to the wound-up companies who have been referred to their authorising bodies? Or does this mean that the Service will be looking at how the regulators target (if at all) IPs’/introducers’ representations as regards the pre-pack process on IP monitoring visits?

Having heard last week a presentation by Caroline Sumner, IPA, at the R3 SPG Technical Review, it would seem to me that regulators are, not only on the look-out for introducers of dodgy pre-packs, but also of dodgy packaged CVLs where an IP has little, if any, involvement with the insolvent company/directors until the S98 meeting. Generally, IPs are vocal in their outrage and frustration at unregulated advisers who seek to persuade insolvent company directors that they need to follow the direction of someone looking out for their personal interests, but someone must be picking up the formal appointments…

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Unfortunately, the Insolvency Service’s report has left me with a general sense that it’s all rather cryptic. The report seems to be full of breathed threats but nothing concrete and, having sat on the outside of the inner circle of regulatory goings-on for almost two years now, I appreciate so much more how inactive that arena all seems. It’s a shame, because I know from experience that a great deal of work goes on between the regulators, but it simply takes too long for any message to escape their clutches. It seems that practices don’t have to move at the pace of a bolting horse to evade an effective regulatory reaction.


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A Closer Look at Six Years of Insolvency Regulation

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Have you ever wanted evidence-based answers to the following..?

• Which RPB issues the most – and which the least – sanctions?
• What are the chances that a monitoring visit by your authorising body will result in a sanction or a targeted visit?
• How frequent are monitoring visits and is there much difference between the authorising bodies?
• Do you receive more or less than the average number of complaints?
• Are there more complaints now than in recent years?

Of course, there are lies, damned lies, and statistics, but a review of the past six years of Insolvency Service reports on IP regulation provides food for thought.

The Insolvency Service’s reports can be found at: http://www.bis.gov.uk/insolvency/insolvency-profession/Regulation/review-of-IP-regulation-annual-regulation-reports and my observations follow. Please note that I have excluded from my graphs the three RPBs with the smallest number of IPs, although their results have been included in the results for all the authorising bodies combined. In addition, when I talk about IPs, I am looking only at appointment-taking IPs.

Regrettably, I haven’t worked out how to embed my graphs within the text, so they can be found here. Alternatively, if you click on full article, you will be able to read the text along with the graphs.

Monitoring Visits

How frequently can IPs expect to be monitored and does it differ much depending on their authorising body?

The Principles for Monitoring set out a standard of once every three years, although this can stretch to up to six yearly provided there are satisfactory risk assessment processes. The stated policy of most RPBs is to make 3-yearly visits to their IPs. But what is it in reality and how has it changed over time? Take a look at graph (i) here.

This graph shows that last year all RPBs fell short of visiting one third of their IPs. However, the Secretary of State fell disastrously short, visiting only 8% of their IPs last year. I appreciate that the Secretary of State expects to relinquish all authorisations as a consequence of the Deregulation Bill, but this gives me the impression that they have given up already. Personally, I would expect the oversight regulator to set a better example!

Generally-speaking, all the RPBs are pretty-much in the same range, although the recent downward trend in monitoring visits for all of them is interesting; perhaps it illustrates that last year the RPBs’ monitoring teams’ time was diverted elsewhere. Fortunately, the longer term trend is still on the up.

What outcomes can be expected? The Insolvency Service reports detail the various sanctions ranging from recommendations for improvements to licence withdrawals. I have amalgamated the figures for all these sanctions for graph (ii) here.

Hmm… I’m not sure that helps much. How about comparing the sanctions to the number of IPs (graph (iii) here).

That’s not a lot better. Oh well.

Firstly, I notice that the IPA has bucked the recent downward trend of sanctions issued by all other licensing bodies, although the longer term trend for the bodies combined is remarkably steady. I thought it was a bit misleading for the Service report to state that “the only sanction available to the SoS is to withdraw an authorisation”, as that certainly hadn’t been the case in previous years: as this shows, in fact the SoS gave out proportionately more sanctions (mostly plans for improvements) than any of the RPBs in 2009, 2010 and 2011. Although ACCA and ICAS haven’t conducted a large number of visits (30 and 25 respectively in 2013), it is still a little surprising to see that their sanctions, like the SoS’, have dropped to nil.

However, the above graphs don’t include targeted visits. These are shown on graph (iv) here.

Ahh, so this is where those bodies’ efforts seem to be targeted. Even so, the SoS’ activities seem quite singular: are they using targeted visits as a way of compensating for the absence of power to impose other sanctions?

Complaints

The Insolvency Service’s report includes a graph illustrating that the number of complaints received has increased by 45% over the past three years, with 33% of that increase occurring over the past year. My first thought was that perhaps the Insolvency Service’s Complaints Gateway is admitting more complaints into the process, but the report had mentioned that 22% had been turned away, which I thought demonstrated that the Service’s filtering process was working reasonably well.

Therefore, I decided to look at the longer term trend (note that the number of IPs has crept up pretty insignificantly over these six years: a minimum of 1,275 in 2008 and a maximum of 1,355 in 2014). Take a look at graph (v) here.

So the current level of complaints isn’t unprecedented, although why they should be so high at present (or indeed in 2008), I’m not sure. It also appears from this that the IPA has more than its fair share, although the number of IPA-licensed IPs has been growing also. Let’s look at the spread of complaints over the authorising bodies when compared with their share of IPs (graph (vi) here).

Interesting, don’t you think? SoS IPs have consistently recorded proportionately more complaints. Given that the SoS has no power to sanction as a consequence of complaints, I wonder if this illustrates the deterrent value of sanctions. Of further interest is that the proportion of complaints against IPA-licensed IP has caught up with the SoS’ rate this last year – strange…

Moving on to complaints outcomes: how many complaints have resulted in a sanction and have the RPBs “performed” differently? Have a look at graph (vii) here.

At first glance, I thought that this peak reflected the fact that fewer complaints had been received – maybe the actual number of sanctions has remained constant? – so I thought I would look at the actual numbers (graph (viii) here).

Hmm… no, it really does look like the number of sanctions increased in years when fewer complaints were lodged. However, I’m sceptical of this apparent link, as I would suggest that, in view of the time it takes to get a complaint through the system, it may well be the case that the 2012/13 drop in sanctions flowed from the 2010/11 reduction in complaints lodged. I shall be interested to see if the number of sanctions pick up again in 2014.

Going back to the previous graph, personally I am reassured by the knowledge that in 2013 the RPBs generally reported a similar percentage of sanctions… well, at least closer than they were in 2010 when they ranged from 2% (ICAEW) to 38% (ICAS).

The ICAEW’s record of complaints sanctions seems to have kept to a consistently low level. However, let’s see what happens when we combine all sanctions – those arising from complaints and monitoring visits, as well as the ordering of targeted visits (graph (ix) here).

Hmm… that evens out some of the variation. Even the SoS now falls within the range! Of course, this doesn’t attribute any weights to the variety of sanctions, but I think it helps answer those who allege that some authorising bodies are a “lighter touch” than others, although I guess the sceptic could counter that by saying that this illustrates that IPs are still more than twice as likely to receive a sanction from the IPA than from ICAS. Ho hum.

Overview

To round things off, here is a summary of all the sanctions handed out by all the authorising bodies over the years (graph (x) here).

This suggests to me that targeted visits seem to have gone out of fashion, despite monitoring visits generally giving rise to more sanctions than complaints… but, with the hike in complaints lodged last year, perhaps I should not speak too soon.


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IP Fees Consultation: a case of failing to see the wood for the trees..?

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Unfortunately, my case law reviews have become a bit log-jammed, so I’m afraid all I can offer at present is my response to the Insolvency Service’s IP fees and regulation consultation: MB IP fees response Mar-14

Normal service will be resumed as soon as possible.


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Who knew the Insolvency Service had a sense of humour?

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Well, if I didn’t laugh, I’d cry!

I am conscious that my top ten jokes below make this a fairly destructive, not constructive, post about the Insolvency Service’s “Strengthening the regulatory regime and fee structure for insolvency practitioners” consultation. In addition, I do not cover many of the common concerns about the proposals, nor do I suggest here any real solutions. Nevertheless, I do think that it’s important, not to dismiss the proposals out of hand, but to think seriously about what might work. Our own ideas may not be what the Service has in mind, but we become the joke, if we plough on claiming that we see no ships (even if, yes I know, it may look as though that’s what I’m saying below… but rarely does public opinion concern itself with facts).

I have one week left to chew over my own suggestions before setting pen to paper in my formal response. Therefore, in the meantime, here are my top ten jokes told by the Service in its consultation document and two impact assessments (“IA”), which can be found at: https://www.gov.uk/government/consultations/insolvency-practitioner-regulation-and-fee-structure.

1. “Each year IPs realise approximately £5bn worth of assets from corporate insolvency processes, and in doing so charge about £1bn in fees, distributing some £4bn to creditors” (paragraph 88 of the consultation document)

The Insolvency Service has repeated this most absurd statement from the OFT’s market study. So, I ask myself, who is paying the solicitors’ fees, the agents’ fees, all the necessary costs of insolvencies such as insurance, advertising, bond premiums etc., and finally what about the Insolvency Service’s own fees that are payable from the assets in all (bankruptcies and) compulsory liquidations in priority to everything else? This statement just cannot be true!

It also grossly distorts the position and perception of IP fees: are we really talking about £1bn of IP fees here or costs on insolvent estates? The OFT’s explanation of how they came up with the £1bn (footnote 11 at http://www.oft.gov.uk/shared_oft/reports/Insolvency/oft1245) mixes up fees and costs, so it is difficult to be sure. However, as this debate has built up momentum, few seem bothered any longer about the facts behind the fees “problem”.

2. “Cases where secured creditors will not be paid in full and so remain in control of fees. The market works well in this instance so we do not want to interfere with the ability for secured creditors to successfully negotiate down fees” (paragraph 113 of the consultation document)

Both Professor Kempson’s report and the OFT market study drew conclusions about the effectiveness of secured creditors’ control. However, the OFT’s study looked only at Administrations and Para 83 CVLs (which are so not S98s) and Professor Kempson built on this study and therefore concentrated on the effect of IPs obtaining appointments via bank panels. And, from this relatively narrow focus, we end up with the conclusion above that the Service proposes to apply to all insolvencies (except, it is proposed, for VAs and MVLs, where it is suggested other fees controls work well… so maybe those cases have a different lesson for us about the level of engagement of those responsible for authorising the fees..?).

But, I ask myself, what about other cases involving secured creditors? What about less significant liquidations or even bankruptcies where the mortgaged home is in negative equity? Do the secured creditors really control the level of fees in these cases? It seems highly unlikely, when you remember that the bases of liquidators’ and trustees’ fees are fixed by resolutions of the unsecured creditors. And let’s not worry too much about the effectiveness (or not) of non-bank secured creditors…

Some might react: let it lie. If the Service wants to leave well alone all cases where secured creditors will not be paid in full – regardless of whether or not, in practice, they control fees – why make a fuss? The same could be said about my next point…

3. “The basis of remuneration must be fixed in accordance with paragraph (4) where… there is likely to be property to enable a distribution to be made to unsecured creditors…” (draft Rule 17.14(2)(b))

This is supposed to be the way the objective mentioned in 2 above is achieved, i.e. that fees may only be fixed on the bases described in “paragraph (4)” (i.e. percentage or set amount, but not time costs) where secured creditors are not in control of fees (plus in some other circumstances).

I am sure it has taken you less than a millisecond to work it out: “where a distribution to unsecured creditors is likely” is patently not the same as “where secured creditors do not remain in control of fees”. What about the vast majority of liquidations, which must represent by far the greatest proportion in number of insolvencies, where the asset realisations are not enough to cover all the costs (including IPs’ time costs)? In these cases, the Service’s proposal is that they would like the IP’s fees to be on a percentage or set amount, but in fact the draft Rules would entitle the liquidator to seek approval on a time cost basis. That must be a joke!

The problem for me in leaving these flaws alone is that IPs could be lumbered with Rules that do not implement the Government’s policy objectives, which may result in the Service/RPBs pressing for behaviours and approaches that are not supported by the statutory framework, which will do no one any good.

4. The use of the Schedule 6 scale rate for fees “ensures that there are funds available for distribution and not all realisations are swallowed up in fees and remuneration” (paragraph 117 of the consultation document)

Firstly, I object to “swallowed up”. It seems to me an emotive phrase, generating the image of an enormous whale greedily scooping up trillions of helpless krill in its distended maw. In fact, this image – and the reference to “excessive” fees/fee-charging, even though the consultation document acknowledges at one point that Professor Kempson did not interpret over-charging as deliberate but as largely related to inefficiencies – seems a constant throughout.

Secondly, and more fundamentally, as explained in (1) above, simply reverting to office holder fees being charged as a percentage, even the relatively low percentages of Schedule 6, will not ensure there are funds available for distribution. But this objective seems to be the raison d’etre of the fees proposals (and not just the Schedule 6 default), as Ms Willott MP explains in her foreword: “[The consultation document] also includes proposals to amend the way in which an insolvency practitioner can charge fees for his or her services, which should ensure that there will be funds available to make a payment to creditors” (page 2). This can only feed into some creditors’ misconceived expectations, not only about the post-new Rules world, but also about the insolvency process in general. If every insolvency were required to result in a distribution, there would be far more work for the OR and far fewer IPs in the country.

5. “The transfer of returns from IPs to unsecured creditors has the potential to deliver a more efficient dynamic economic allocation of resources as these creditors are more likely to reinvest these resources in growth driving activities” (paragraph 17 of the IP fees IA)

Actually, this isn’t funny; it’s just insulting. Even if you imagined a typical IP as a beer-bellied pin-striped man smoking a cigar of £50 notes, with more spilling out unnoticed from his pockets (which was the image in an Insolvency Service presentation to IPs last year), his ill-gotten gains are still going be passed on to the home sauna builders or the Michelin Star restaurants, aren’t they? But, of course, that’s beside the point; as someone who has worked decades in the insolvency profession, I take exception to the suggestion that the UK would be better off if my wages were paid to unsecured creditors.

6. “The OFT report states that some unsecured creditors say that if their recovery rate from insolvency increased, they would extend more credit. While this effect is likely to be slight, even a small increase in the £80bn of unsecured credit extended by SME’s will amount to many millions of pounds” (paragraph 56 of the IP fees IA)

How much better-off does the IA suggest unsecured creditors will be if the alleged “excessive fee charging” is passed to them? At the top end, 0.1p in the £ (paragraph 52) – will they even feel it..? Talk about a “slight” effect!

7. “We would estimate that familiarisation would take up to 1.5 hours of an IP’s time based on the assumption that this change is not complex to understand and would only need to be understood once before being applied… IPs are already required to seek the approval of creditors for the basis on which their remuneration is taken and it is anticipated that at the same time they will seek agreement to the percentage they are proposing to take. We do not therefore anticipate any additional costs associated with this” (paragraphs 35 and 43 of the IP fees IA)

1.5 hours once and nothing more? Ha ha!

For IPs to switch to a percentage basis (but only in certain circumstances/cases) will require days – weeks, perhaps months – of organising changes to systems, procedures and templates and a greater time burden per case. The challenges for systems, procedures and staff will include:

• Assessing a fair percentage of estimated future realisations to reflect the value of work done. This seems an almost impossible task on Day One. For example, book debts: will the money just fall in or will it be a tough job, involving scrutinising and collating records and re-buffing objections and procrastinations? How much do you allow for the SIP2 investigations, what if you need to follow a lead? So many questions…

• Ongoing monitoring to check if/when fees can no longer be fixed on a time cost basis. You’d think this would be relatively easy, until you read how the draft Rules deal with the tipping point for a dividend: a time cost basis falls away when “the office holder becomes aware or ought to have become aware that there is likely to be property to enable a distribution to be made to unsecured creditors” (draft R17.19(1)(b)). Hours of fun!

• Reverting to creditors when a revised fee basis needs to be sought, whether that be because the time costs basis is no longer available or because the case hasn’t progressed as originally anticipated or potential new assets are identified during a case, thus warranting a change in the percentage or set amount, with the potential for court applications if creditors don’t approve the revision.

• Calculating fees on a percentage basis. Again, it sounds easy, but… what about VAT refunds (will the use (or not) of VAT control accounts make it easier or more difficult?), trading-on sales (which are excluded under the draft Rules’ statutory scale), “the value of the property with which the administrator has to deal” (per the draft Rules)?

• Dealing with creditors’ committees, which the consultation document suggests will be encouraged under the proposed regime.

• More complex practice management to ensure that percentages are pitched correctly and potentially greater lock-up issues where IPs do not have the security of realisations in hand to fund ongoing efforts.

But these measures are intended to reduce IPs’ fees..?

8. Professor Kempson “highlights that the starting point for reforms in this area should be on providing greater oversight, therefore reducing the numbers of complaints and challenges relating to fees… Currently there are very few fee related complaints handled by the RPBs… Complaints about the insolvency profession are relatively low given the nature of insolvency, the number of creditors (and other stakeholders) involved in cases and the extent of financial losses that can be incurred” (paragraphs 29 and 46 of the IP fees IA and 1.60 of the regulation IA).

To be fair, I should put paragraph 46 in context: “Currently there are very few fee related complaints handled by the RPBs, but this is likely to be a result of RPBs stating publicly that they do not consider fee-related complaints and does not reflect the current level of concern around fees. In the past 6 months 23% of all IP related ministerial correspondence has been in relation to fees”, which admittedly does put a different colour on things.

The difficulty as I see it is: if an aim is to reduce the number of fees complaints and challenges, but the IA estimates 300 (new) fee complaints per annum and 50 appeals post-implementation of the proposals. Would such an outcome mean that the measures are hailed as a success or a failure?

9. Not taking the steps proposed by the Insolvency Service as regards regulatory objectives and oversight powers proposals “would not address concerns around an ineffective tick-box prescriptive type of regulation… The same prescriptive type of regulation would continue to exist whereas the intention is to move to a principles and objectives based regulatory system as suggested by the OFT report” (paragraphs 1.49 and 1.51 of the regulation IA)

Ooh, I could relate some stories from my time at the IPA about who was usually at the forefront in driving tick-box regulation! There were times when I had to be dragged kicking and screaming down that road. Still I should stay positive: maybe this signifies a new commitment to Better Regulation – after all, the draft regulatory objectives do not refer to ensuring that IPs meet prescriptive statutory requirements that do not contribute to delivering a quality service or maximising returns to creditors, and if value for money is an objective..?

The Service puts it this way: “As an example, rather than targeting regulatory activity to where there may be only potentially small losses to creditors from any regulatory breach, the regulators will focus attention on areas where creditors are likely to suffer larger losses” (paragraph 1.71). Oh well, that’ll put me out of a job! 🙂

10. “We do recognise that giving the RPBs a regulatory role in monitoring fees will increase the burden on them when dealing with complaints around the quantum of fees and have therefore included the estimated cost of this” (paragraph 100 of the consultation document)

Since when was “monitoring” all about dealing with complaints? The IAs provide nothing for the additional costs to RPBs of dealing with anything but complaints.

It would seem that a typical monitoring visit in the eyes of the Service would have the objective of aiming “to ensure that fees charged by IPs represent value for money and are ‘fair’ and valid for the work undertaken, by requiring the RPBs to provide a check and balance against the level of fees charged… The regulators will be expected to take a full role in assessing the fairness of an IP’s fees, including the way in which they are set, the manner in which they are drawn and that they represent value for money for the work done. This would be done via the usual monitoring visits and complaint handling processes” (paragraph 101). The Service believes that this is possible as the RPBs have “access to panels with the relevant experience, to adjudicate on fees” (paragraph 102).

Are they serious?! Do they have any idea how impossible it would be to achieve this practically, not least within the confines of the current visit timetable? And how are the “panels”, presumably the Service means committee members, going to engage in this process: is the Service really expecting them to adjudicate on fees? You might as well forget about the rest of the Act/Rules, SIPs and Ethics Code: the inspectors’/monitors’ time will be spent entirely looking at fees and RPBs’ committees/secretariat will be hard-pushed to make any adverse findings stick.

Oh, it’s alright for the Service, though; they’ve incorporated the cost of two new people in-house to handle their enhanced RPB supervisory functions. But they don’t think that this will add to RPBs’ costs in dealing with the Service’s queries, monitoring visits, demands for information on regulatory actions in general and in specific cases (apparently)?

The biggest joke of all is: where will all these costs land? In IPs’ laps, when their levies and licence fees increase. Remind me, what was the key objective of these proposals..?

Although the Service doesn’t mince words about its/the Government’s sincerity on these issues – e.g. “given the clear evidence of harm suffered by unsecured creditors, the Government feels strongly that reforms are required in order to address the market failure” (paragraph 93 of the consultation document) – I can’t help but hope that I’ll wake up a couple of days after the consultation has closed to a new announcement from the Insolvency Service: “April fool!”


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The Insolvency Rules “2015”: A Moveable Feast

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I realise that talk of the Insolvency Service’s IP fees consultation has pretty-much smothered the draft Rules consultation. However, I’ve yet to get to grips with that one, so here are my thoughts – and a copy of my response – on the (already superceded!) draft “2015” Rules.

The consultation closed on 24 January and it seemed to me that, despite the enormity of the task, many IPs and associates went to a lot of effort to make thorough responses. Regrettably, personally I only managed to review a few of the sections in detail – and only then did I look at the consultation questions (yes, I know, that was a pretty stupid way of doing things!). I attach my response here: MB response 24-01-14. The Government’s consultation homepage is: https://www.gov.uk/government/consultations/modernisation-of-the-rules-relating-to-insolvency-law.

This is not meant to be an overview of the proposed changes – I’ve not covered the non-controversial aspects (that would be too boring!) – but I consider (but I don’t really answer – sorry!) the following:

• Just how draft are the Draft Rules and are we going to get to see how current/future initiatives impact on them?
• How huge a task will it be to absorb the changes and is there anything that can be done to make the job easier?
• Does the Consultation Document cover all the changes or do we have to look closer at the detail?

The condition of the Draft Rules

The Insolvency Service is between a rock and a hard place, but personally I think they have made the right decision in releasing these draft Rules even whilst they are draft to a greater degree than we’re accustomed for statutory instruments opened to consultation.

The Service acknowledges that the draft is a work in progress document and that there are inconsistencies across the different insolvency processes. The Service did pre-empt the outcome of the Red Tape Challenge somewhat and included within the draft Rules some of the proposed measures, such as removing more statutory meetings (which seems very odd now in the context of the fees consultation) and enabling creditors to opt out of receiving communications, but other measures arising from the Red Tape Challenge exercise – such as avoiding the payment of small dividends and effectively communicating by website alone – are not reflected in the draft Rules. Given that the RTC outcome had not been revealed when this consultation commenced, this is not surprising, but it demonstrates the moveable feast of insolvency legislation and the difficulties in seeking to set in stone – at pretty-much any point in the next half-decade or so – a revised set of Rules.

In the face of this continually moving conveyor belt of legislative proposals, it is understandable that the Service does not wish to hold up the process of revising the Rules and, personally, I am pleased that we have been given this work-in-progress look at the draft. In reading the draft, I have suppressed any nagging concern that much of my effort has already been wasted in view of more recent proposals and yet more of the draft will be overtaken by future events, because the alternative – that we don’t get to see a draft until the last minute – doesn’t bear thinking about.

But what are the Insolvency Service’s plans now? Will they continue to work on the draft, absorbing the responses to this consultation, the further RTC outcomes, the IP fees conclusions, the fall-out from Teresa Graham’s review of pre-packs, perhaps the rules around the S233 changes (which are yet to be the subject of a consultation, right?), and give us little opportunity to review a further draft on the basis that we’ve had our chance? I hope not. I hope we get to have another opportunity to comment on a draft. Whilst matters of agreed policy may not be up for debate in the Rules arena, my review of only a few sections of these draft Rules has demonstrated to me the value of having others input on the practicalities of the processes set out.

The Big Picture

I pity the first JIEB students after the Rules are enforced, although it will be a fantastic opportunity to get ahead of the pack and become the go-to person in one’s practice. How us old’uns with our rubbery neurons are going to get the hang of it all, I don’t know!

I shudder to think about the amount of time – and (non-chargeable) money – that will be expended to get internal systems, diaries, and templates new Rules-compliant… and the inevitable mistakes that will be made; after all, templates always require a bit of fine-tuning after the first (second… third…) version, don’t they? One way that firms can cushion the blow right now is to future-proof standard documents, strip out all those Rules references: after all, do readers really need to know that something has been produced pursuant to Rule xxx?

The Consultation Document is silent on a key issue, I think: are the Rules going to apply to all cases existing as at R-Day or only to new appointments after the new Rules begin to take effect? I appreciate that it would be a rare thing for the new Rules to apply to all cases, rather than just new cases, but it is not entirely unheard-of, and think of the safeguards that would need to be put in place if a firm’s case-load were a mixture of pre- and post-new Rules cases. It’s been tough enough for practices to handle the complexities of running a portfolio of mixed pre/post-2009 and pre/post-2010 Rules cases, but these changes go so much further, it will make our heads spin!

Little has been said of making any changes to the Act. I am sure there is a reluctance to go there, given the more significant difficulties in seeking changes to primary legislation. However, I think it undermines some of the effort made to modernise the Rules, if we cannot fix the Act provisions at the same time. In particular, I think the practical difficulties arising from the Enterprise Act 2002 have now become evident and it seems a wasted opportunity not to tweak those whilst we’re at it. And aren’t there Act changes, such as extending the phoenix provisions to companies that don’t survive Administration, that have been given an airing but seem to have now gone quiet? It would also seem useful to wrap in some of the other statutory instruments that involve significant overlap with the Rules, such as the Insolvency Practitioners Regulations (which will need to be revisited in view of the RTC anyway) and what about Insolvent Partnerships? Then again, I guess the Service has enough on its plate already!

The Detail

Although pretty-much all of the Rules have been re-jigged, the Consultation questions focussed around some of the more fundamental changes, such as the overall structure, which is a massive change, but well worth doing, in my view.

They invited us to comment on the format of setting out in the Rules the prescribed content of notices, forms etc., rather than prescribing a statutory form, the suggestion being that this makes “it easier to enable documents to be delivered by electronic means, preparing the system for moving to electronic delivery of information when the forms would become redundant”. I appreciate that the aim is to future-proof the process, but I don’t think we have to accommodate any transmission process other than textual, do we? We’re not exactly future-proofing for Elysium-style neural downloads, are we? Therefore, I really don’t think that it helps to do away with prescribing forms, as it just means that someone else is going to have to create them (and get paid for it). Even if every IP in the country only goes to a handful of suppliers, that’s still an unnecessary amount of duplication in my books, and micro-businesses will be burdened with a disproportionate expense. Perhaps a middle-ground would be to provide forms, but prescribe only that the information set out in the forms need be delivered? Anyway, do we know whether Companies House will stomach just any old form..?

The Consultation Document lists ten “minor and technical changes” (paragraph 42) – and I think they’re right: they are pretty minor. However, what I think is a little disingenuous is the fact that, if you have the time and the determination to scrutinise the detail of the draft Rules, I’m sure you’ll find far more technical changes that aren’t quite so minor!

I knew there was no way I’d get through the complete draft Rules, so I decided to focus on the sections that will impact mostly on Administrations – Parts 3 and 17. I managed to shoe-horn my thoughts into the consultation’s question 20 (“Do you have any other suggestions or comments on the structure or the content of the rules?”). My full response (MB response 24-01-14) lists my observations, but here are a select few:

• The current R2.48 Conduct of Business by Correspondence for approval of the Administrator’s Proposals is to be replaced by a new correspondence-based process whereby creditors can lodge a “notice of objection” (the only other option appearing to be that they keep silent) and, if 10% or more of the creditors by number or value object, the Administrator “may convene a meeting of creditors to seek their approval or seek approval of a revised statement of proposals” (R3.37). My thoughts are: what is wrong with the current process? What if a creditor just wants to modify the Proposals? How is an IP supposed to calculate whether the 10% threshold has been over-reached? This 10% threshold – of creditors by value (and sometimes by number) of the total – is repeated throughout the Rules. Research has shown that lack of creditor engagement is a recurring problem, so why erode the process whereby creditors who actually make the effort to vote are most influential?

• The Service has made yet another attempt to tidy up the filing and reporting processes when a Paragraph 83 move from Administration to CVL form is filed. This time, they are suggesting a return to the issuing of a final report simultaneously with the ADM-CVL form. However, they have drafted a requirement that, “if anything happens between the sending of the notice to the registrar of companies and its registration which the administrator would have included in the report had it happened before then”, the (former) Administrator must file and circulate “a statement of appropriate amendments to the report”. My issue is that, technically, “anything” could include the crediting of additional bank interest or even the incurring of time costs, so this could result in IPs needing to issue – at some cost – pretty meaningless statements. Ideally, I would prefer the Act (if only!) to be amended so that the date when the ADM-CVL move takes effect is the date that the form is signed, not registered, so that we can escape all this nonsense. After all, I can think of no other event such as this where the timing is in the hands of Companies House. Alternatively, if we are stuck with Companies House controlling the conversion date, couldn’t the Liquidator report on “anything” that had happened in that small window when he issues his annual report?

• The Service has made a big deal about the savings that will be made from reducing the requirements to have creditors’ meetings – and indeed the draft Rules include a general process for conduct by correspondence (in addition to R3.37 for Administrators’ Proposals). However, this excludes fees decisions, which need to be dealt with either by a committee or resolution of creditors (apart from Para 52(1)(b) cases, the provisions for which, disappointingly, are left unchanged). Given that this is pretty-much the only matter to be addressed at creditors’ meetings, I cannot see that many meetings will be avoided, other than final ones (which, let’s face it, already are a complete non-event and cost nothing other than a Gazette fee, as all the expense arises from the need to issue a final report etc.). Of course, if the IP fees consultation proposals are taken forward, we may find IPs trying harder to generate creditor interest in meetings, which erodes to some extent the Service’s message that great savings will be made by these Rules/RTC measures.

These are just a few of the intriguing changes I’ve spotted. I do sympathise with those who have the job of revising these Rules. I’ve only had to deal with few-pager SIPs and the Ethics Code before and they were tough enough. In those cases, we certainly didn’t please all the people all of the time and I am sure the same will be true of the Rules. All that I ask is that we’re kept informed, so that we can manage the transition as best we can… and, if questions continue to be raised about whether IPs are giving “value for money”, that the critics remember that it’s the enormous costs associated with these kinds of changes that IPs have no choice but to pay.


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Thank you, Santa, for delivering Red Tape Cuts

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I owe the Insolvency Service an apology. I must have sounded like an ungrateful child at Christmas when I tweeted that we’d heard all their Red Tape-cutting measures before. Such is the disadvantage of having lived with my list for Santa for several months already and such is the immediacy of Twitter. Sorry, Insolvency Service!

The Insolvency Service’s release on 23 January 2014 – http://insolvency.presscentre.com/Press-Releases/Reforms-to-cut-insolvency-red-tape-unveiled-69853.aspx – announced that several measures, aired in its consultation document in July 2013, are to be taken forward, either via primary legislation changes “when Parliamentary time allows” or via changes to the Rules, which are “due for completion in 2015/16”. I’d blogged about the consultation document’s proposals on 16 August 2013 at http://wp.me/p2FU2Z-3Q. Here, I try to decipher exactly which of the consultation’s proposals are being taken forward, which is not as simple a task as it may sound!

“Allowing IPs to communicate with creditors electronically, instead of letters”

The consultation had set out a proposal that IPs could use websites to post creditors’ reports etc., as they do now, but without the need to send a letter to each creditor every time something is posted to the website. The proposal was that there would be one letter to creditors informing them that all future circulars would be posted to the website.

In my view, this really would save costs. I see quite a few IPs are now posting reports to websites, so it would be lovely to avoid even the periodic one-pager to creditors informing them of the publication of something new, although I’d love to see the statistics on how many people (other than us insolvency people) actually look at the reports on websites…

Of course, the Rules already provide that an IP can post everything onto a website, but at present only with a court order. Thus, I’m wondering, is the next bullet point simply another way of describing this first of Santa’s gifts..?

“Removing the requirements for office holders to obtain court orders for certain actions (e.g. extending administrations, posting information on websites)”

It’s not exactly clear what the Service has in mind on administration extensions. The consultation document suggested that administration extensions might be allowed with creditors’ consent for a period longer than 6 months. It suggested that creditors could be asked to extend for 12 months (with a 6-month extension by consent still an option), although it asked whether we thought that creditors should be allowed to approve longer extensions. So is the plan that creditors be allowed to extend a maximum of 12 months or longer?

And I’d like to know if the Service is persuaded to make any changes to the consent-giving process: are they going to stick to the requirement that all secured creditors must approve an extension (whether it is a Para 52(1)(b) case or not and no matter what the security attaches to or where the creditor appears in the pecking order), as is currently the case, or could they – please?! – lighten up on this requirement? And are they going to clarify that once a creditor is paid in full, they do not count for this, and other, voting purposes? So many questions remain…

The consultation document contained several other proposals for avoiding the court, such as “clarifying” that administrators need not apply to court to distribute a prescribed part to unsecured creditors (although I’m not sure why administrators should not be allowed also to distribute non-prescribed part monies to unsecured creditors). Coupled with changes to the extension process, administrations are no longer appearing to be the short-term temporary process that the Enterprise Act seemed to present them as.

“Reducing record keeping requirements by IPs which are only used for internal purposes”

I’m not entirely sure what this means. Does this refer to the current need to retain time records on all cases, including those where the fees are fixed on a percentage basis? These are internal records (even though they probably serve no purpose), but does that also mean that Rules 1.55 and 5.66, requiring Nominees/Supervisors to provide time cost information on request by a creditor, will be abolished?

Or does this statement relate to the maintenance of Reg 13 IP Case Records in their entirety? These are, in effect, records for internal purposes (in fact, they’re not even that, are they? Does anyone actually use them?), although the Regs provide that the RPBs/IS are entitled to inspect the Reg 13 records. So does that still make them an internal-purpose record?

I would like to think that the Service has accepted that the Reg 13 record is a complete waste of time and is planning to abolish it entirely. However, as I flagged up in my earlier post, the consultation document proposed that “legislation should require IPs to maintain whatever records necessary to justify the actions and decisions they may have taken on a case. It is not expected that such a provision would impose a new requirement, but rather codify what is already expected of regulated professionals.” Does this recent announcement mean that the Service will not seek to implement this measure? Let’s hope so!

“Simplifying the process of reporting director misconduct to make the process quicker by introducing electronic forms to ensure timely action is brought against them in a timely way, providing a higher level of protection to the business community and public”

Electronic D-forms? Lovely, we’ll have those, thank you, although in my view it’s not a big deal: it just avoids a bit of printing.

What makes me a little nervous is the use of “timely” twice in this statement. The consultation proposed to change the deadline for a D-form to 3 months and the Service believed that this would not be an issue for IPs if its other proposal – to drop the requirement for IPs to express an opinion on whether the conduct makes it appear that the person is unfit to be a director and replace it with a requirement to provide “details of director behaviour which may indicate unfitness” – is also taken up.

As I explained in my earlier post, personally I don’t see this as a great quid pro quo for IPs and I don’t think it will help the Service catch the bad guys much quicker. When faced with slippery directors, 3 months is a very short time to gather all the threads.

“Allowing office-holders to rely on the insolvent’s records when paying small claims, reducing the need for creditors to complete claim forms”

The consultation document proposed that IPs could admit claims under £1,000 per the statement of affairs or accounting records without any claim form or supporting documentation from creditors (although creditors would still be free to submit claims contradicting statements of affairs).

It doesn’t seem right to me – there’s a sense of fudginess about it, particularly in view of the shabbiness of most insolvents’ records just before they topple – but I guess that, in the scheme of things, it’s not a big deal if a creditor receives a few pounds more than he’s entitled to on one case, but a bit less on another. It might be academic anyway, given the final measure…

“Reducing costs by removing the requirement to pay out small dividends and instead using the money for the wider benefit of creditors”

The Service had proposed that, where a dividend payment would be less than, say, £5 or £10, it would not be paid to the creditor, but would go to the disqualification unit or the Treasury. The consultation document had asked whether the threshold should be per interim/final dividend or across the total dividends. Given the likely difficulties of keeping track of small unpaid dividend cheques, I do hope that the Service has its eye clearly set on saving costs and will stick with a threshold for each dividend payment declared. As with the previous measure, although it brings in a sense of creditor equality that seems more suited to Animal Farm, we are only talking about small sums here, so I guess it makes practical sense.

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Thank you, Insolvency Santa, for giving us a peek into your big red sack of goodies. It’s great to see some really promising outcomes from the Red Tape Challenge, even if we have to see at least one more Christmas pass by before we get to open our prezzies.


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A Janus View of Developments in Insolvency Regulation

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I thought I would take a look at where we’ve got to on a few of the current developments in insolvency regulation:

• The Deregulation Bill: who says limited IP licences are a good idea?
• SIP3.2 (CVA): a preview of the final SIP3 (IVA) or an ethical minefield?
• The JIC Newsletter: grasping the nettle of the commissions issue
• Insolvency Service update to the BIS Committee: promises, promises!

It’s by no means a complete list, but it’s a start!

The Deregulation Bill: when is a consultation not a consultation?

The Joint Committee of the Houses of Lords and Commons published its report on the draft Deregulation Bill on 19 December 2013, available here: http://www.parliament.uk/business/committees/committees-a-z/joint-select/draft-deregulation-bill/news/draft-deregulation-bill-report/.

Insolvency features relatively insignificantly in the wide-ranging draft Deregulation Bill, the so-called Henry VIII Power attracting far more attention, so in some respects it is quite surprising that insolvency got a mention in the Committee report at all. However, the background to this report included oral evidence sessions, one of which was attended by Andrew Tate representing R3’s Small Practices Group. A recording of the session can be accessed at: http://www.parliamentlive.tv/Main/Player.aspx?meetingId=14073&player=windowsmedia – insolvency pops up at c.50 minutes.

Andrew had a chance to express concerns about the draft Bill’s introduction of IP licences limited to personal or corporate insolvency processes. He raised the concern, which I understand is shared by many IPs, that IPs need knowledge of, and access to, all the tools in the insolvency kit, so that they can help anyone seeking a solution, be they a company director, a practice partner, or an individual, and some situations require a combination of personal, corporate and/or partnership insolvency solutions.

What seemed to attract the attention of the Committee most, however, was learning that there had been no public consultation on the question. It’s worth hearing the nuanced evidence session, rather than reading the dead-pan transcript. It fell to Nick Howard, who was not a formal witness but presumably was sitting in the wings, to explain that there had been an “informal consultation”, which had revealed general support, and I thought it was a little unfair that a Committee member seemed sceptical of this on the basis that they had not heard from anyone expressing support: after all, I don’t think that people tend to spend time shouting about draft Bills with which they agree.

Personally, I do not share the same objections to limited licences, or at least not to the same degree. I see the value of all IPs having knowledge of both personal and corporate insolvency, but even now not all fully-licensed IPs have had experience in all fields, so some already start their licensed life ill-equipped to deal with all insolvency situations. I believe that there are more than a few IPs who have chosen a specialist route that really does mean that practically they do not need the in-depth knowledge of all insolvency areas, and, given that they will not have kept up their knowledge of, and they will have little, if any, useful experience in, insolvency processes outside their specialist field, does it really do the profession or the public any favours for them to be indistinguishable from an IP who has worked hard to maintain strong all-round knowledge and experience? Surely it would be more just and transparent for such specialists to hold limited licences, wouldn’t it?

From my perspective as a former IPA regulation manager, I believe that there would also be less risk in limited licences. As things currently stand, an IP could have passed the JIEB Administration paper years’ ago (even when it was better known as the Receivership paper) and never have touched an Administration in his life, but (Ethics Code principle of professional competence aside) tomorrow he could be talking to a board of directors about an Administration, pre-pack, or CVA. Personally, I would prefer it if IPs who specialise were clearly identified as such. Then, if they encountered a situation that exceeded their abilities, which they would be less likely to encounter because everyone could see that they had a limited licence, at least they would be prohibited from giving it a go.

Clearly, with so many facets to this issue, it is a good thing that the Committee has recommended that the clause proposing limited licences be the subject of further consultation!

The other insolvency-related clauses in the draft Bill have sat silently, but presumably if limited licences stall for further consultation, the other provisions – such as fixing the Administration provisions that gave rise to the Minmar/Virtualpurple confusion and modifying the bankruptcy after-acquired property provision, which allegedly is behind the banks’ reluctance to allow bankrupts to operate a bank account – will gather dust for some time to come.

SIP3.2 (CVA): a preview of the final SIP3 (IVA)?

I found the November consultation on a draft SIP3.2 for CVAs interesting, as I suspect that this gives us a preview of what the final SIP3 for IVAs will look like: the JIC’s winter 2013 newsletter explained that the working group had reviewed the SIP3 (IVA) consultation responses to see whether there should be any changes made to the working draft of SIP3 (CVA). Consequently, it seems that there will be few changes to the consultation draft of SIP3 (IVA)… although that hasn’t stopped me from drawing from my own consultation response to the draft SIP3 (IVA) and repeating some of those points in my consultation response to the draft SIP3 (CVA). I was pleased to see, however, that few of my issues with the IVA draft had been repeated in the CVA draft – it does pay to respond to consultations!

I’ve lurked around the LinkedIn discussions on the draft SIP3.2 and been a bit dismayed at the apparent differences of opinion about the role of the advising IP/nominee. Personally, I believe that the principles set out in the Insolvency Code of Ethics and the draft SIP3.2 handle it correctly and fairly clearly. In particular, I believe that an IP’s aim – to seek to ensure that the proposed CVA is achievable and strikes a fair balance between the interests of the company and the creditors – as described in Paragraph 6 of the draft SIP3.2 – is appropriate (even though, as often it will not be the IP’s Proposal, this may not always be the outcome). In my mind, this does not mean that the IP is aiming for some kind of mid-point between those interests, as the insolvent company’s interests at that time necessarily will have particular regard for the creditors’ interests, and so I do not believe that the SIP supports any perception that the advising IP/nominee sides inappropriately with the directors/company. However, given that apparently some have the perception that this state exists, perhaps it would be worthwhile for the working group to see whether it can come up with some wording that makes the position absolutely clear, so that there is no risk that readers might misinterpret the careful responsibility expected of the advising IP/nominee.

I would urge you to respond to the consultation, which closes on 7 January 2014.

The JIC Newsletter: all bark and no bite?

Well, what do you think of the JIC’s winter 2013 newsletter? I have to say that, having been involved in reviewing the fairly inconsequential reads of previous years whilst I was at the IPA, I was pleasantly surprised that at least this newsletter seemed to have something meaningful to say. Personally, I wish it had gone further – as really all it seems to be doing is reminding us of what the Ethics Code already states – but I am well aware of the difficulties of getting something even mildly controversial approved by the JIC members, their respective RPBs, and the Insolvency Service: it is not a forum that lends itself well to the task of enacting ground-breaking initiatives. And anyway, if there were something more than the Ethics Code or SIPs that needed to be said, a newsletter is not the place for it.

Nevertheless, I would still recommend a read: http://www.ion.icaew.com/insolvencyblog/post/Joint-Insolvency-Committee-winter-2013-newsletter (I’d love to be able to direct people to my former employer’s website, but unfortunately theirs requires member login).

Bill Burch quickly off the mark posted his thoughts on the Commissions article: http://complianceoncall.blogspot.co.uk/2013/12/dark-portents-from-jic-for-commissions.html, which pretty-much says it all. Personally, I hope that this signifies a “right, let’s get on and tackle this issue!” attitude of revived enthusiasm by the regulators, but similarly I fear that some offenders may just seem too heavy-weight to wrestle, at least publicly, although that does not mean that behaviours cannot be changed by stealth. Many would shout that this is unfair, but it has to be better than nothing, hasn’t it?

My main concern, however, is how do the regulators go about spotting this stuff? Unless a payment is made from an insolvent estate, it is unlikely to reach the eyes of the monitor on a routine visit. It’s all well and good asking an IP where he gets his work from, if/how he pays introducers, and reviewing agreements, but if someone were intent on covering their tracks..? I know for a fact that at least one of the examples described in the JIC newsletter was revealed via a complaint, so that would be my personal message: if you observe anyone playing fast and loose with the Ethics Code, please take it to the regulators, and if you don’t want to do that personally, then get in touch with R3 and they might help do it for you. If you don’t, then how really can you cry that the regulators aren’t doing enough to police your competitors?

However, the theoretic ease with which inappropriate commissions could be disguised and the multitude of relatively unregulated hangers-on to the insolvency profession, preying on the desire of some to get ahead and the fear of others of losing out to the competition, do make me wonder if this issue can ever be tackled successfully. But the JIC newsletter at least appears to more clearly define the battle-lines.

Insolvency Service Update to the BIS Committee: all good things come to those who wait

Jo Swinson’s response to the House of Commons’ Select Committee is available at: http://www.parliament.uk/documents/commons-committees/business-innovation-and-skills/20131030%20Letter%20from%20Jo%20Swinson%20-%20Insolvency%20Service%20update.pdf. It was issued on 30 October so by now many items have already moved on, but I wanted to use it as an opportunity to highlight some ongoing and future developments to look out for.

Regarding “continuation of supply”, which was included in the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Act 2013 but which requires secondary legislation to bring it into effect, Ms Swinson stated: “We intend to consult later this year on how the secondary legislation should be framed”. I had assumed simply that the Insolvency Service’s timeline had slipped a bit – understandably so, as there has been plenty going on – but I became concerned when I read the interview with Nick Howard in R3’s winter 2013 Recovery magazine. He stated: “We are in the process of consulting on exactly how that [the supply of IT] works because the power in the Act is fairly broad and we want to ensure we achieve the desired effect”. Have I missed something, or perhaps there’s another “informal consultation” going on?

I’m guessing the Service’s timeline has slipped a bit in relation to considering Professor Kempson’s report on fees, however, as Ms Swinson had planned “to announce the way forward before the end of the year” in relation to “a number of possible options for addressing this fundamental issue [that “the market does not work sufficiently where unsecured creditors are left to ‘control’ IP fees”], by both legislative and non-legislative means. Still, I imagine this isn’t far away, albeit that Ms Swinson is now on maternity leave.

This might be old news to those with their ears to the ERA ground, but it was news to me that the Insolvency Service will be implementing the Government’s Digital by Default strategy in the RPO “with a digital approach to redundancy claims anticipated to be launched in the autumn of 2014”. My experience as an ERA administrator may date back to the 1990s when people were comforted more by the feel of paper in their hands, but I do wonder how well the news will go down with just-laid-off staff that they need to go away and lodge their claims online. A sign of the times, I guess…

Finally, don’t mention the Draft Insolvency Rules!

No summary of regulatory goings-on would be complete without referring to the draft Insolvency Rules, on which the consultation closes on 24 January 2014. And no, I’ve still not started to look at them properly; it feels a bit futile even to think about starting now. But then, if we don’t pipe up on them now, we won’t be able to complain about the result, even if that may be yet years’ away…


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What will “Transparency & Trust” mean for IPs?

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My thanks to Mr Cable for re-appearing in the headlines and making this two month old consultation suddenly seem current again. The proposal in his “Transparency & Trust” paper that got everyone talking was the attempt to curb future excesses of the banks and demand by legislation that their directors take care to be socially responsible, but is there anything in the paper for IPs..?

The consultation can be found at https://www.gov.uk/government/consultations/company-ownership-transparency-and-trust-discussion-paper, although regrettably it closed to responses yesterday. Well, it’s been a busy summer!

Identifying Beneficial Owners

I’ve been doing a bit of work recently on compliance with the Money Laundering Regs and it has reminded me of the rigmarole around identifying, and verifying the identities of, an insolvent company’s beneficial owners. Identifying the >25% shareholders is the easy bit (although, of course, it gets a bit more complicated where the shareholders are corporate entities), but how, on day minus-one of an insolvency appointment, are you supposed to identify other beneficial owners, those who “otherwise exercise control over the management of the company”? People don’t often stand up and introduce themselves as shadow directors. The consultation describes other complications to identifying the beneficial owners, such as where a number of shareholders have agreed to act in concert.

BIS’ suggested solution: let’s make it a requirement for companies to disclose their beneficial owners. The consultation considers the details of such a system: when companies would be required to make such disclosure; to which companies it would apply; what about trusts; what powers would need to be granted and to whom to ensure compliance; whether such a registry would be publicly available or restricted only to law enforcement and tax authorities… but what I cannot help asking myself is: if a company is being misused for illegal purposes by some hidden beneficial owner, would the company really have complied with the legislation and disclosed him/her? Or is it more likely that such requirements would just put more burden on law-abiding companies in ensuring that their registers of beneficial owners, in which no one is really interested (the information only really has any value if money laundering has taken place, doesn’t it?), are kept up-to-date?

Although, personally, I cannot see such a system doing anything much to help prevent illegal activity, at least if IPs are able to see information on companies’ beneficial owners, it might help in their Anti-Money Laundering checks, and I think that anything that helps with that chore would be a bonus. So how likely is it that the information would be made public? It seems from the consultation that it is the Government’s preference and, even if that doesn’t happen, the second option is that it might be accessible to “regulated entities”, i.e. anyone who is required to make MLR checks.

There’s a sting in the tail, however. Slipped into the consultation is: “If they were given access to the registry, regulated entities would incur additional costs if they were required to check and report any inconsistencies between their own data and that held on the register” (paragraph 2.74). Can you imagine? Would they seriously require office holders to inform whoever that a defunct company’s register of beneficial owners was not up to date? My perception is that IPs do not really feature as a separate group in the minds of those who oversee the MLR, so I doubt that they would see the pointlessness of such a task.

Changing Directors’ Duties

Okay, this proposal won’t directly affect IPs, but I couldn’t help passing a quick comment. As no doubt you’ve heard, the proposal is to amend the directors’ duties in the CA06 “to create a primary duty to promote financial stability over the interests of shareholders” (page 61). It is noticeable that more consultation space is taken up listing the potential drawbacks of the proposal than its advantages. In addition to the described issues of how to enforce such a duty, how shareholders would react, how UK corporate banks would fare competing against banks not caught by the CA06, I was wondering how you could measure promoting financial stability: it seems to me that it would depend on whether you were to ask Vince Cable or George Osborne.

The consultation includes many other proposals, which would affect the disqualification regime – some of these are:

• whether the regime should be tougher on directors where vulnerable people have suffered loss (is the absence of a jubilant Christmas for a Farepak customer a more worthy cause than that for a redundant employee who’d worked hard up to the end of an insolvent company’s life?)
• whether the courts should take greater account of previous failures, even if no action has been taken on them (surely the just and socially-responsible solution would be to fund the Service adequately to tackle any misconduct of the first failure?)
• whether to extend the time limit for disqualification proceedings from two to five years (what about the Service’s method of prioritising cases? I appreciate that this is a gross simplification, but don’t they hold a big pile of potentials and progress those that they feel are in the public’s greatest interest, leaving the rest in the pile until it gets to the critical time when they have to make a decision one way or the other? Won’t the extension to five years simply mean that their potential pile holds four years’ worth of cases, rather than one year’s? Again, unless the Service is granted more resources, I cannot see that this measure would really help. I also object to the consultation’s comment that “it can quite easily be several months before the relevant insolvency practitioner reports to the Secretary of State detailing the areas of misconduct that may require investigation. In such cases, the limitation period might mean that misconduct is not addressed” (paragraph 12.2))
• whether “sectoral regulators”, such as the Pensions Regulator, FCA and PRA, should be granted the ability to ban people from acting as a director in any sector.
• whether directors who had been convicted/restricted/disqualified overseas should be prevented from being a director in the UK.

“Improving Financial Redress for Creditors”

The Government anticipates that, if liquidators and administrators (as the Red Tape Challenge outcome proposes to extend the power to take S213/4 actions to administrators) were entitled to sell or assign fraudulent and wrongful trading actions, a market for them would develop. Do you think so..?

BIS has thought about the possibility that directors (or someone connected to them) might bid for the action and, although they suggest an, albeit not water-tight, safeguard, they also point out that, if the director did buy the right of action, at least the estate would benefit from the sale consideration. Although, personally, I’d feel uncomfortable with that – and I’m not sure what the creditors would say (but, of course, the office holder could ask them, and maybe that would be a better safeguard?) – I guess it makes commercial sense.

The consultation also proposes to give the court the power to make a compensatory award against a director at the time it makes a disqualification order. The consultation states: “This measure could potentially affect the timeliness of obtaining disqualifications if it deterred directors from offering a disqualification undertaking and therefore resulted in more disqualification cases needing to be taken to court” (paragraph 11.16), but personally, I would have thought that this measure would increase exponentially the number of director undertakings, as there seems to be no suggestion that an undertaking would expose a director to the risk of an award.

It is envisaged that the award would not be used to cover the general expenses of the liquidation and “there is a question as to who should benefit from any compensatory award. This could be creditors generally or it could be left to the court to determine based on the facts of the case” (paragraph 11.14), although I assume that, if it were for the general body of creditors, the office holder would be expected to pay the dividend. I wonder how the office holder’s fees and costs would be viewed, if he had to keep the case open purely for the purposes of seeing through the outcome of any such action.

The consultation also states that “Liquidators would still be expected to consider whether there are any actions they could bring themselves, as they ought to now” (paragraph 11.15). Could liquidators be criticised for taking actions, the proceeds of which would settle first their costs, when, if it were left to the court on the back of a disqualification order, the creditors would see the full amount? It is a liquidator’s function to get in and realise the assets, so probably not, but administrators..?

The same paragraph states: “If by the time the disqualification action comes before the court, liquidators have successfully recovered monies from the directors, that is something the court would be expected to take into account when deciding whether or not to make a compensatory award (or in setting the amount of it)” – it could get fun if the actions were running in parallel.

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Despite my quibbles, generally I think the proposals are a step in the right direction. However, I wonder how those in the Service’s Intelligence and Enforcement Directorate feel about the proposals, which would lead to so much more work and high expectations laid upon them. Let’s hope that these proposals give them a sound case for increasing their access to funds and people.


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Red Tape? Hang out the bunting!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. Abolishing almost all meetings

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

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

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

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

3. Communication by website

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

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

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

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

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

4. Extend extensions by consent

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

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

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

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

5. Scrap small dividends

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

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

6. “Minor” changes

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

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

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

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

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

7. Changes to D-report/return forms

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

5436 Sydney

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

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

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

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

Charge-out rates – a surprisingly positive outcome!

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

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

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

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

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

Panel Discounts – not so great

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

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

Seedy Market?

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

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

Is the problem simply creditor apathy?

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

Progress Reports – what progress?

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

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

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

Inconsistent monitoring?

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

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

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

Voluntary Arrangements: the exception?

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

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

Disadvantages of Time Costs

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

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

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

Lessons from Down Under?

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

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

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

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

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

Other ideas for creditor engagement

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

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

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

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

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