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.
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.
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?
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”.