Insolvency Oracle

Developments in UK insolvency by Michelle Butler


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How risky is it to act contrary to a creditors’ committee’s wishes and other questions…

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  • Re. Brilliant Independent Media Specialists – will the court approve an Administrator’s fees when he acts contrary to the committee’s wishes?
  • Co-operative Bank v Phillips – is it an abuse of process for a charge-holder to seek possession of a property in negative equity?
  • Harlow v Creative Staging – when might a winding-up petition suspended on a QFCH appointment of Administrators come in handy?
  • JSC Bank of Moscow v Kekhman – in the absence of Russian personal bankruptcy law, is forum-shopping in England one of the “legitimate kind”?
  • Bank of Scotland v Waugh – what is the effect on Receivers where the charge has not been validly executed as a deed but has still been registered?
  • Airtours Holidays Transport v HMRC – what decides whether a company can reclaim the VAT paid on accountants’ review fees?
  • SoS v Weston – if a criminal court declines to disqualify directors, would the SoS have any better luck in the High Court?

Court fixes fees of Administrators who acted contrary to the committee’s wishes

Maxwell & Sadler v Brookes & Ors, Re Brilliant Independent Media Specialists Limited (23 September 2014) ([2014] EWHC B11 (Ch))http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWHC/Ch/2014/B11.html

The Administrators’ Proposals were approved with a modification that the Administration move to CVL within 6 months of the commencement of the Administration; the Liquidators were to be different IPs to the Administrators.

The 6-month time period ended on 31 May 2012. Immediately before this, the Administrators convened a creditors’ meeting to approve revised proposals providing that the Administration would move to CVL within 28 days of resolution of an issue regarding the quantum of a secured creditor’s claim.  The revised proposals were rejected and on 18 June 2012 the Administrators applied for directions.  Before this was heard, settlement was reached with the secured creditor and the Administration moved to CVL on 12 August 2012.

The Administrators’ fees had been approved on a time costs basis but the creditors’ committee refused to approve that the Administrators draw fees in relation to time costs incurred after 18 February 2012 (having approved fees incurred prior to this date). The committee asserted that it was never envisaged that the Administrators would carry out the vast amount of work for which remuneration was claimed; the committee felt that the Administrators should have worked simply to bring their appointment to an end and allow the Liquidators to fully investigate matters.  Consequently, the Administrators applied for the court to fix their fees.

Mr Registrar Jones’ consideration addressed a number of areas:

  •  Did the Administrators’ actions fall outside the approved Proposals?

The judge stated that “whilst the views of a creditors’ committee should be taken into account during an administration.., it is not for the committee to determine how the administration should be conducted. That is a decision for the office holder in performance of the duties and powers Parliament has thought fit to entrust to administrators. The outcome of such decision making… will depend upon the office holder’s assessment of how best to achieve the purpose of the administration in accordance with the powers conferred upon them by paragraph 59 of Schedule B1 and within Schedule 1 to the Act” (paragraph 26).

The judge then had to consider whether the work done by the Administrators was for the purposes of the Administration objective or otherwise formed part of the Administrators’ duties and responsibilities. He said: There will always be grey areas when deciding whether work will result in a better return and therefore should be carried out. It will not be a black and white scenario with a plain dividing line. The decision will depend upon all the circumstances and involve commercial judgment calls by the office holder in the exercise of his powers.  The court will normally not question the commercial judgments of an administrator. Usually a misunderstanding of law or apparent unfairness or a breach of duty will be required before the court will review such judgments” (paragraphs 30.6 and 30.7).  Consequently, the judge stated that it could not be concluded that the Administrators’ actions fell outside the Proposals.  He felt that this applied even in relation to activities that were not expressly referred to in the Proposals, such as in this case debt recovery efforts, given that a delay in recovery actions usually results in lower realisations.

  • Were the Administrators entitled to be paid fees for the period after the 6-month timescale when the approved Proposals provided for the move to CVL?

The judge recognised the commercial decisions taken by the Administrators in seeking to resolve the issue regarding the secured creditor’s claim, acknowledging that any delay would have been disadvantageous given the high interest rate attached to the debt. Consequently, the judge considered that the decision could not be described as “perverse” and it was a decision that “fell within the parameters of their commercial decision making powers” (paragraph 36.4).  However, the judge disagreed that the move to CVL could not have been done within the 6-month period; he felt that there were always more than enough funds to set aside to cover the maximum amount of the secured creditor’s claim plus interest.

  • Were the Administrators entitled to be paid fees after they had ceased to act, given that they worked to assist the Liquidators?

The Administrators sought approval for costs incurred in relation to a number of tasks including answering the Liquidators’ enquiries, assisting in the recovery of a director’s loan, other debts and overpayments, and dealing with the committee’s questions. The judge’s view was that R2.106 was limited only to remuneration of the Administrator whilst in office.  Therefore, the judge declined to fix the remuneration after the termination of the Administrators’ appointment, stating: “that is a matter between the Administrators and the liquidators” (paragraph 43).

  • What about the quantum of fees sought?

Then the judge turned to the detail of the Administrators’ application. The judge referred to the Practice Direction (2012) and in particular paragraph 20.4 as providing guidance on the information required to support the fees application and the judgment suggests that in a number of places the Administrators’ evidence failed to satisfy the judge as regards “briefly describing what was involved, why it was necessary and why it took the time it did” (paragraph 47).

For example, the Administrators sought fees of £23,473 in relation to “PKF/BDO Review”. The Administrator’s witness statement referred to the need to investigate potential claims quickly and early and thus such work could lead to actions that would produce a better outcome for creditors.  However, the judge observed: “This is wholly unspecific. There is no narrative describing and explaining the work, whether as to what it was or specifically as to why it was justified under the Objective” (paragraph 50.40).  The judge did not award any remuneration in relation to this activity.

The result of the judge’s examination of each task for which remuneration was sought was that, from a starting point request to fix fees at £389,341, fees of only £233,147 were approved.

The downsides of discontinuances

The Co-operative Bank Plc v Phillips (21 August 2014) ([2014] EWHC 2862 (Ch))

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWHC/Ch/2014/2862.html

The Bank, having a second charge over the debtor’s properties, demanded payment from Mr Phillips as guarantor of a loan to his company. Notwithstanding that Mr Phillips’ IVA Proposal (which was approved) showed that the properties attracted negative equity after the first charge, the Bank commenced possession proceedings.  Mr Phillips applied for the claims to be struck out or dismissed as an abuse of process.  The Bank later served a notice of discontinuance and the principal questions for the court related to the treatment of the costs arising from the process.

The court was asked to consider whether the Bank was seeking possession of the properties for a collateral purpose beyond its powers as a chargee and whether the Bank’s claims to possession were an abuse of process. Despite the fact that it appeared the Bank would not gain any benefit from selling the properties (although there was some argument that the Bank might have been able to raise rental income from its possession), the judge felt that the pressure on the charger and his family resulting from the possession proceedings was neither a collateral purpose outwith the Bank’s powers nor an abuse of process.  Ultimately, the proceedings were brought for the purpose of obtaining repayment of the sums secured by the charge.

However, although the charge entitled the Bank to recover its costs incurred “in taking, perfecting, enforcing or exercising (or attempting to perfect, enforce or exercise) any power under the charge” (paragraph 8), the judge decided that the Bank’s own costs, together with its liability to pay Mr Phillips’ costs arising from the discontinuance of the proceeding, were not reasonably incurred and therefore were not recoverable under the charge: “The Bank got absolutely nothing out of these proceedings, which have been a waste of time and expense from its point of view” (paragraph 75).

Finally, because the Bank had started the proceedings after Mr Phillips’ IVA had been approved, the Bank was unable to set off its liability to pay Mr Phillips’ costs against its claim in the IVA, per clause 7(4) of the IVA’s Standard Conditions (which appear to have been R3’s standard conditions).

Suspended Petition comes home to haunt the Petitioner

Harlow v Creative Staging Limited, Re. Blak Pearl Limited (23 July 2014) ([2014] EWHC 2787 (Ch))

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWHC/Ch/2014/2787.html

The Administrator had applied for the ending of the Administration, together with the dismissal of the application of Creative Staging Limited to withdrawn its winding-up petition (which, under Paragraph 40(1)(b) of Schedule B1, had been suspended on the appointment of the Administrator by the QFCH), the dismissal of the application of another creditor to be substituted as petitioner, and finally for a winding-up order on the original petition.

Why was the Administrator so keen to have the suspended petition revived, rather than to petition for the winding-up himself under Para 79? If a winding-up order were made on the original petition, then S127 would kick in to make certain pre-Administration payments (including a payment of £88,000 to the original petitioner) vulnerable to attack.  However, if the Administrator were to seek a winding-up order on a new petition, S127 would only apply from the date of presentation of the new petition.

The judge was reluctant to go to the lengths of substituting the petitioner, which would only incur additional costs. He felt that there was sufficient precedent and support under S122 enabling a court to make a winding-up order without a petition and thus the court had jurisdiction to make a winding-up order on the existing petition and under the powers of Para 79(4)(d).  The judge said (although, personally, I do wonder if he is crediting Parliament with a little too much foresight): “In all the circumstances it does seem to me that this court ought to recognise that Parliament must have intended to keep the petition in being for a reason and one of the reasons is so that an order might be made on the suspended petition, taking advantage of the doctrine of relation back, despite any objections of the Petitioner” (paragraph 53).  Thus, he allowed the appeal, waived all procedural requirements that had not otherwise been complied with, and granted the winding-up order.

Russian bankruptcy tourist entitled to escape “law of the jungle”

JSC Bank of Moscow & Anor v Kekhman & Ors (9 April 2014) (not yet reported on BAILII)

http://cisarbitration.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/08/UK-High-Court-in-Buncruptcy-Bank-of-Moscow-and-Sberbank-Leasing-v-Vladimir-Kekhman-and-others-Judgment-April-2014.pdf

At the time of his bankruptcy petition and afterwards, Mr Kekhman was a Russian citizen, domiciled and resident in the Russian Federation. He had disclosed in the petition that he was going to remain in England for only two days and he wished to be made bankrupt in England, as he had been advised that there is no personal bankruptcy law in the Russian Federation and, in view of the international reach of his affairs, “the English jurisdiction as a sophisticated jurisdiction in these matters appears appropriate to help resolve my affairs in an orderly manner that will be recognised internationally” (paragraph 11).

The matter returned to Registrar Baister, who had made the bankruptcy order, in the format of applications by two major creditors to annul or rescind the bankruptcy on the basis, amongst others, that Mr Kekhman was a ‘bankruptcy tourist’ to England, a place with which he has no real connection, in an attempt to evade Russian law. One of the creditors also contended that, contrary to Mr Kekhman’s indications that his English bankruptcy would be recognised in Russia, Russia would not recognise or enforce the bankruptcy order, which bound Mr Kekhman’s English creditors, whilst allowing his other creditors to collect in his substantial Russian assets.

Registrar Baister mentioned that, particularly in corporate contexts, “the courts here are prepared to countenance what is in reality forum shopping, albeit of a positive, by which I mean legitimate, kind… I do not see why a debtor whose petition is not governed by that restrictive jurisdictional regime should not also be able to invoke an available jurisdiction for a self-serving purpose, provided of course, that he does so properly and there are no countervailing factors to which equivalent or greater weight should be given” (paragraph 104).

Baister summarised Mr Kekhman’s connections with England, largely involving contracts providing for English law and English jurisdiction. He also put some emphasis on the purpose of bankruptcy being the debtor’s rehabilitation, observing that plenty of bankruptcy orders have been granted on English debtors’ petitions in cases where there were no likelihoods of recoveries for creditors. In any event in this case, the report of the Trustee in Bankruptcy, which explained that he was continuing to pursue certain assets, persuaded the judge that there was “utility” in the bankruptcy, Baister did not consider that utility necessarily required there to be a distribution to creditors; he found the prospect of an orderly realisation of the debtor’s assets “more attractive and more constructive that the law of the jungle advocated” by Counsel for the creditors (paragraph 141).

Baister reviewed the expert testimony of three prominent Russian academic lawyers and concluded on the balance of probabilities that the English bankruptcy order was unlikely to be recognised or enforced by the Russian courts. However, this conclusion seemed to work in Mr Kekhman’s favour: the judge noted that “if the English bankruptcy will never be recognised in Russia, then the free-for-all can continue over there in relation to the few assets that might be left over after execution; as to assets elsewhere, all the creditors will be in the same position vis-à-vis one another” (paragraph 142).

Although Baister stated that the arguments were “finely balanced”, he decided that the utility of the bankruptcy order was not outweighed by the creditors’ current complaints, “so that even if this court had known the true position regarding the problems of recognition and resulting from the arrest of the Russian assets, it still could and probably would have made the bankruptcy order on the basis that there was commercial subject matter on which it could operate, it would have enabled Mr Kekhman’s affairs to be looked into, made possible an orderly realisation of his non-Russian assets and assisted his own financial rehabilitation even if only outside the Russian Federation” (paragraph 144).

(UPDATE 14/03/15: JSC Bank’s appeal was dismissed: http://goo.gl/BkoIxd.  Although the judge agreed that the Chief Registrar had not applied the correct test, the appeal judge made his own decision that the bankruptcy order ought to have been made.  A more detailed summary of the appeal will be posted soon.)

Bank and Receivers entitled to rely on registration of a deficient deed

Bank of Scotland Plc v Waugh & Ors (21 July 2014) ([2014] EWHC 2117 (Ch))

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWHC/Ch/2014/2117.html

The Bank pursued repayment of a loan to a Trust and appointed Receivers over a property. Some time later, the Trustees applied to the Registry for cancellation of the charge over the property on the basis that the charge did not comply with the Law of Property (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1989, primarily because none of the signatures on the charge were attested.  Subsequently, the Bank applied for summary judgment that the Trustees be estopped from denying the validity of the charge.

The judge agreed that the charge had not been validly executed as a deed and therefore it was void for the purpose of conveying or creating a legal estate. However, the charge had been registered.  “The effect of registration of the charge was to create a charge by deed by way of legal mortgage” (paragraph 66) but if the Trustees were successful in having the register rectified, this would only operate for the future, not retrospectively.  “It follows that acts (such as the appointment of Receivers) carried out by the Bank under the charge prior to any order for rectification and acts of the Receivers are not void as alleged by Mr Waugh. Both the Bank and the Receivers were entitled to rely on the effect of registration of the charge” (paragraph 67).

On the question of estoppel, however, the judge was not persuaded by the arguments that the solicitor for the Trustees had represented the document as executed and on this basis the Bank had lent the monies; because the charge simply had not been executed as a deed, the Trustees were not estopped from relying on the invalidity of the legal charge. However, the judge stated that, notwithstanding the defects, it took effect as an equitable mortgage.  Left open for another hearing is the question of whether the Bank will succeed in obtaining an order that the Trustees execute documents to perfect the legal charge.

Company paid fees but not entitled to reclaim the VAT

Airtours Holidays Transport Limited v HMRC (24 July 2014) ([2014] EWCA Civ 1033)

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWCA/Civ/2014/1033.html

PwC had been instructed to review a financially distressed group of companies as it explored and pursued a restructuring plan. The restructuring process was successful, but HMRC disputed that the company was entitled to deduct the VAT that it had been invoiced and had paid in respect of PwC’s fees.

The First Tier Tribunal (“FTT”) reviewed PwC’s letters of engagement and terms and conditions, which effectively comprised a tri-partite contract between PwC, the Group, and the “Engaging Institutions” and found that the company, as well as the Engaging Institutions, had requested and authorised the work. However, the Upper Tribunal (“UT”) disagreed with the FTT’s approach; it concluded that the substance of the transactions was that there had been a supply of services by PwC to the Engaging Institutions and that the company had not received anything of value from PwC to be used for the purpose of its business in return for payment.

Although Lady Justice Gloster led the judgment in the Court of Appeal, she was in the minority in concluding that the company’s appeal should be allowed. She felt that the company had required PwC to provide valuable services to it for the purpose of its own business – in her view, the provision of PwC’s services was the only way that the financial institutions could be persuaded to support the company’s attempts to survive and that this was a distinctive supply of services from that supplied to the Engaging Institutions.

Lord Justice Vos, however, saw the economic reality in a different light. He felt that “it was as likely that PwC might have advised the Banks to pull the rug… The substance and economic reality was that PwC was supplying its services to the Banks in exchange for Airtours’ payments” (paragraph 87) and that the UT had been correct to conclude that the company was a party really only for the purpose of paying PwC’s bills, not to receive any service from the firm.  Lord Justice Moore-Bick also noted that, although the use of “you” in the terms and conditions suggested that PwC had certain obligations to the Group, they were a standard form document that must be applied in a way that is consistent with the letter of engagement, which is the “controlling instrument” (paragraph 96).  The question was “not whether the Group needed the report to be produced or whether it obtained a benefit as a result of its production, but whether in producing it PwC were providing a service to the Group for which the Group paid” (paragraph 99).  The majority of appeal judges decided that the service was not provided to the Group and thus the company could not reclaim the VAT input paid on PwC’s bills.

(UPDATE 14/03/15: permission to appeal to the Supreme Court has been granted.)

Court rejects attempts at second bite of the cherry

Secretary of State v Weston & Williams (5 September 2014) ([2014] EWHC 2933 (Ch))

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWHC/Ch/2014/2933.html

Two directors had been found guilty and sentenced in a criminal court, which had also been asked to consider disqualification orders, but because the matter had slipped the mind of prosecuting counsel at the original trial, this was dealt with only some two months later. The judge declined to make such orders, feeling that it would be “perhaps kicking a dog whilst he is down” (paragraph 14).

The SoS later applied to the High Court for disqualification orders under S2 of the CDDA86. S2 provides that the court may make a disqualification order where the person is convicted of an indictable offence in connection with the promotion, formation, etc. of a company.  The two year timescale for the SoS to apply for disqualification orders under the usual S6 of the CDDA86 had expired.

Counsel for the directors argued that the application was an abuse of process: the High Court was being “asked to exercise exactly the same jurisdiction as the criminal court but to decide the matter the other way” (paragraph 15). The argument for the SoS was that he had not been party to the prosecution and so had not had an opportunity to contest the original decision.

Although David Cooke HHJ recognised that the SoS was not a claimant seeking to vindicate a private right, but a restriction for the public good, he also considered what was fair to the directors. He noted that there was a wide range of potential applicants under S2 of the CDDA86, including company shareholders and creditors: “Fairness to the defendant must mean, it seems to me, that he should not be exposed to the same claim on multiple occasions by different litigants unhappy with the outcome of the earlier claim or claims” (paragraph 51) and that such subsequent claims could be described as “collateral attacks” on the first decision.

Even though the judge said that, in this case, he would have made disqualification orders (if he were found wring on the issue of abuse of process): “standing back, this claim is no more than an attempt by the Secretary of State to obtain a different decision from this court than was given on identical issues by the criminal court, which had the issues placed before it and made a positive decision to refuse an order. It is in my view unfair that the defendants should be thus exposed to the same claim on two occasions. The unfairness is not relieved by the argument that the claim is being pursued by a different entity… There is the general point that where the basis of the claim and the relief sought is essentially identical it is just as much unfair to the defendant to have to face it twice at the hands of two applicants as it would be if there were only one” (paragraph 52).

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Three cases: (1) Marketing failures did not amount to breach of duty to take reasonable care; (2) CVA no protection for persistent non-payer of rent; and (3) marshalling across two debtors

Kayrul Meah v GE Home Finance Ltd – the court decided that the best price reasonably achievable for a property was obtained, despite flaws in the marketing process
Shah Din & Sons Ltd (CVA) v Dargan Properties Management Ltd – a Northern Ireland case, which I think demonstrates the need to consider the context of a company’s activity before presenting a CVA proposal
Highbury Pension Fund Management Company & Anor v Zirfin Investments Ltd & Ors – a case for insolvency geeks: an example of marshalling security over a second debtor

Shortcomings in marketing a property not considered fatal to discharging duty to take reasonable care to obtain the best price reasonably achievable

Kayrul Meah v GE Money Home Finance Limited ([2013] EWHC 20 (Ch)) (18 January 2013)

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWHC/Ch/2013/20.html

Summary: The claimant sought compensation from his mortgagee for allegedly selling a property at an undervalue. Whilst there was no formal insolvency or IP involved – the sale was conducted by the mortgagee in possession – I thought it provided some useful pointers on how the court views the duty to take reasonable care to obtain the best price reasonably achievable for a property. The judge levelled some criticisms at the marketing process, but ultimately decided that the property had been sufficiently exposed to the market.

The Detail: The property was put on the market at the beginning of 2006 for £185,000 through a local agent who had valued the property between £165,000 and £185,000. Within a matter of days, offers were received at and then above this asking price. Meah complained that the asking price had been set too low and in February 2006 GE consulted another agent who valued the property at £235,000 and suggested raising the asking price to £245,000. The local agent reluctantly did this and the property was sold in March 2006 to a developer for £221,500. Based on the value of the property post-development, Meah’s expert assessed the “true market value” of the property at the time of the sale having regard to the obvious development potential at £325,000.

The claimant’s counsel argued that the low asking price depressed offers from potential purchasers and that the low asking price had been set because the agents had failed to appreciate the property’s development potential. GE’s agent argued that the asking prices needed to be set to attract a good level of interest and that many of the recipients of the sales particulars were property developers to whom the development potential would have been obvious. The judge was not wholly convinced that putting a grossly inadequate asking price on a property to generate interest was sensible and he observed that the agent had valued the property at less than the asking price, so clearly the agent had been mistaken as to the value. Neither was the judge entirely convinced that it was sensible not even to mention the development potential in the sales particulars, although he also was not convinced that, as the claimant had argued, the agent should have gone to the length of commissioning a residual development assessment, noting that potential purchasers would carry out their own assessments. GE’s agent also came in for criticism when the court learned that he had expressed to the then front-runners who had offered £218,500 his view that the revised asking price, which he had been instructed by his clients to seek, was unrealistic. The judge referred to the principle in Raja v Austin Gray that, if the valuers were negligent, the borrower had a good claim against the receiver who did not discharge his duty of care to the borrower by entrusting the sale to apparently competent professionals.

However, notwithstanding these shortcomings, the judge concluded that the property had been sufficiently exposed to the market to enable all potential purchasers to bid for it if they so wished. With regard to the expert’s valuation of £325,000, the judge stated: “unless a bidding war developed between two or more such developers who had made similar calculations, this sum cannot be said to represent the best price reasonably achievable for the Property at that time” (paragraph 23). The judge used a phrase that IPs know well: “The market value of a property is the price which a willing purchaser is prepared to pay for the property to a willing vendor after the property has been exposed to the market for a reasonable period of time”.

It should be noted that the accepted practice of sales by mortgagee involves the advertising by so-called “public notice” in a local newspaper inviting further offers above the price accepted subject to contract. It appears that GE’s agent relied on this process to flush out the best offer, rather than seeking sealed bids.

N Ireland: CVA no protection for persistent non-payer of rent

Shah Din & Sons Limited (CVA) v Dargan Properties Management Limited ([2012] NICh 34) (5 December 2012)

http://www.bailii.org/nie/cases/NIHC/Ch/2012/34.html

Summary: Although this is a Northern Ireland case, I feel that it serves as a reminder to take care to consider the context of a company’s pursuit of a CVA, whether it is fair and whether the company’s past behaviour supports the case for its protection.

In refusing to grant relief from forfeiture in this case, the court considered “the backdrop of culpable and wilful non observance of [the company’s] obligations” (paragraph 22).

The Detail: The company in CVA applied for relief from forfeiture. The only asset in the CVA was a lease on a property that the company had vacated some six years earlier, but which the landlord had only re-entered and recovered possession of shortly before the proposal was put together. After exploring the chronology of events, the court found that the company had wilfully failed to pay rent over a number of years; Burgess J stated that the company had “to all intents and purposes taken a free ride from the outset” (paragraph 21) and he found that “the plaintiff’s attitude towards its responsibilities in the face of legal proceedings and warnings has been culpable to the highest degree” (paragraph 22). The judge also had difficulty with the terms of the arrangement, which introduced an uncertainty as to what would happen if the lease had not been assigned in the CVA’s 18-month period, noting that the landlord would continue to have to meet its obligations to the Council and to maintain the property during that time. Relief from forfeiture was refused.

A case for insolvency geeks: marshalling across two debtors

Highbury Pension Fund Management Company & Anor v Zirfin Investments Limited & Ors ([2013] EWHC 238 (Ch)) (14 February 2013)

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWHC/Ch/2013/238.html

Summary: This is a complex case, with which, to be honest, I only persevered out of a sense of stubbornness that I would not be beaten! It demonstrates the exception to the general rule that there must be a single debtor for marshalling. If marshalling holds no interest for you, then you might want to stop reading now… but if ever you do want to explore the principles of marshalling, this summary might come in handy.

The Detail: Barclays Bank Plc loaned monies to Zirfin Investments Limited and to four associated companies, “the Affiliates”. The loans were secured by means of legal charges over a property owned by Zirfin, “No. 31”, and properties owned by the Affiliates. As additional security for the loans to the Affiliates, Barclays also had the benefit of a guarantee from Zirfin, secured by means of the same charge over No. 31. Subsequent to Barclays’ charge, two other charges were granted over No. 31, in favour of Highbury Pension Fund Management Company and Cezanne Trading (described collectively as “Highbury”).

When Zirfin and the Affiliates defaulted on the loans, receivers were appointed over No. 31 and the eventual sale proceeds were applied to settle Zirfin’s debt to Barclays and to settle in part the Affiliates’ debt to Barclays by reason of Zirfin’s guarantee. The immediate consequence, therefore, appeared to be that Highbury had lost the benefit of their charges over No. 31 and sat as unsecured creditors in relation to the monies owed to them by Zirfin. However, this would not have been the case had Barclays looked to the Affiliates’ properties to discharge their debt, rather than calling on Zirfin’s guarantee.

To further complicate matters, the Serious Fraud Office obtained a Restraint Order over the assets of Mr Kallakis (consultant to a shareholder of Zirfin and the Affiliates) and the SFO regarded the assets held by Zirfin (including No. 31) and the Affiliates as subject to the Restraint Order.

The questions for the court were: (i) is a creditor of a guarantor entitled to marshal (or be subrogated to) securities which have been granted to another creditor of the guarantor by the primary debtor liable under the guaranteed debt and (ii) does any such claim to marshalling or subrogation take precedence over prohibitions contained in the Restraint Order?

The principle of marshalling “operates where a debtor (D) owes money to two creditors (C1 and C2), and where C1 has security over two properties (or some other call on two funds) (S1 and S2) but C2 has security over (or a right of resort to) only one (S1). In those circumstances C1 has a choice of recovering his money out of either S1 or S2. If C1 chooses to enforce the security over (or resort to) S2, then that leaves S1 available for C2. But if C1 chooses to enforce security over (or resort to) S1, then C2 has nothing to look to, and the security over S2 is not relied on at all, and becomes available to unsecured creditors (amongst whom C2 is now numbered). In that situation, in order to do justice equity applies a principle of maximum distribution and by a process akin to subrogation in effect gives C2 the benefit of C1’s unused security over S2, thereby ensuring that both C1 and C2 are paid by D as far as possible” (paragraph 15).

In this usual application of the principle, the debtor, D, is common to both creditors, C1 and C2. However, in this case, the Affiliates were debtors only to Barclays, not also to Highbury. Counsel for Highbury submitted that “although the general rule is that two or more creditors must be able to resort to two funds belonging to the debtor, this general rule is subject to an exception where… there is a common debtor who owes money to both creditors and he has a right, as between himself and a debtor who owes money to only one creditor, to ensure that the latter bears the ultimate liability” (paragraph 25). Counsel for Highbury acknowledged that there was no decided case in England and Wales that applied this principle, but relied on statements in text books and decisions in other jurisdictions.

In Norris J’s view, the doctrine of marshalling applied in this case: “Barclays has a claim against Zirfin as surety. It can look to two funds to satisfy that indebtedness. The first is the Zirfin Charge. The second is the Affiliates’ Charge. As regards Highbury’s claim to marshal, the Affiliates’ Charges can be bought into account (even though they are not over property belonging to Zirfin) because in equity Zirfin could call on the Affiliates to bear the burden of the debt and the Affiliates had the Affiliates’ Properties to enable them to do so” (paragraph 45). A limitation that Norris J noted regarding the rights acquired by Highbury on marshalling was that, “if Zirfin would not be subrogated to Barclays’ rights until such time as the Barclays debt had been entirely repaid, then Highbury cannot by a process akin to subrogation become entitled to any greater right” (paragraph 50).

Then the judge considered the SFO’s argument that Highbury has no “interest” in the Affiliates’ properties subject to the Restraint Order. Norris J did not believe that the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002 should be construed so as to “enrich the Crown by depriving Highbury of the right it otherwise would have had to marshal the securities” (paragraph 68). He therefore held “that the actions of Barclays have not deprived Highbury of the ‘interest’ which was previously recognised by the Restraint Order, and that if Highbury were to seek to bring itself within paragraph 25 of the Restraint Order or to seek a variation of the Restraint Order so as to make clear that it (rather than Barclays) was now contingently entitled to enforce the Affiliates’ Charges, the discretion given to the court ought to be exercised to permit that variation” (paragraph 70).

[UPDATE 26/11/2013: On 03/10/2013, Highbury’s appeal was allowed in relation to an element of the earlier decision that Highbury was not entitled to realise the securities until Barclays had been paid out in full (http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWCA/Civ/2013/1283.html). In a more recent post, http://wp.me/p2FU2Z-4I, I summarise the appeal decision, which highlighted the difference between rights of subrogation and equity of exoneration.]


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Four High Court Decisions: (1) how (not) to avoid personal liability; (2) LPA Receivership changes “client” for TUPE purposes; (3) out-bid Newco avoids allegations of hiving out business; and (4) discharged bankrupt refused release from family proceedings debt

I don’t think any of these judgments introduces anything new, but they might still hold a little interest:

  • Wright Hassall LLP v Morris – lessons in avoiding personal liability in post-administration agreements
  • McCarrick v Hunter – LPA Receivership results in change of client, thus no TUPE transfer of service provision
  • City of London Group Plc & Anor v Lothbury Financial Services Limited & Ors – out-bid Newco avoids claims from purchaser finding the “cupboard bare”
  • McRoberts v McRoberts – when will a court release a bankrupt from a family proceedings debt under S281(5)?

Lessons in avoiding personal liability in post-administration agreements

 Wright Hassall LLP v Morris [2012] EWCA Civ 1472 (15 November 2012)

 http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWCA/Civ/2012/1472.html

 Summary: This has been the subject of some discussion on the LinkedIn Contentious Insolvency group.  The main lessons I drew from this case are that, not only should IPs take care to avoid personal liability when signing contracts/agreements as agent (SoBO?), but also to understand who – himself or the insolvent entity – is made party to legal proceedings.  In this case, it seems that the IP did not think through the consequences of an action brought against him; he seemed to assume (or at least he attempted to rely on the assumption) that the successful litigant would rank pari passu with other administration expense creditors.  As the IP had not appealed the order, all that was left to the judge – who was asked by the litigant for directions that it be paid in priority to the other expense creditors – was the question: was the order against the IP personally or the companies in Administration?  As the companies had not been made party to the proceedings, the court on appeal concluded that it could not be the companies and thus the IP was held personally liable.

The Detail: Mr Morris, Administrator of two companies, entered into two CFAs with Wright Hassall LLP.  The judgment of Lord Justice Treacy notes: “Although the heading to the agreements made plain that the two companies were in administration, and the Appellant must have understood that Mr Morris was the Administrator, when he signed the agreements he did so without any qualification as to his personal position or reservation as to his personal liability. In due course Judge Brown QC was to find that Mr Morris signed the documents without reading them” (paragraph 5).  Here endeth the first lesson.

Later, the solicitors sought payment under the CFAs.  The court found in favour of Wright Hassall LLP, but, as described above, when the solicitors pursued payment, Morris sought to treat them as an administration expense creditor who would need to wait along with all other expense creditors.  The solicitors sought directions that they be paid in priority to the other expense creditors, but, although the issue of personal liability had not been raised before, Judge Cooke recognised that this issue was key.  He decided that Morris was not personally liable, putting some weight behind the naming of the defendant as “Morris as Administrator of… Limited” and suggested that this acknowledged that Morris was acting as agent, rather than in a personal capacity.  Wright Hassall LLP appealed this decision.

The problem identified by one of the appeals judges, Treacy LJ, was that the only defendant was Morris; at no stage had the companies been joined as parties to the litigation.  Treacy LJ noted that there was no authority for asserting that, by describing the defendant as “Morris as Administrator of… Limited”, this recognises that he is being sued as agent.  He also noted that the only way the companies could have been made party to the action was with the consent of the Administrator or by order of court, but neither of these steps had been taken.  Finally, he noted that, had the companies truly been the defendants, they would have been described as “XYZ Limited (In Administration)”.  As Judge Brown QC could only make an order against a party to the action before him, it followed that the order was against Mr Morris personally.

LPA Receivership results in change of client, thus no TUPE transfer of service provision

McCarrick v Hunter [2012] EWCA Civ 1399 (30 October 2012)

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWCA/Civ/2012/1399.html

Summary: I have seen some commentary on the Hunter v McCarrick Employment Appeal Tribunal ([2011] UKEAT 0167/10/DA) and, as this recent appeal was dismissed, there has been no change, but I thought it was worth a quick mention.

We are all used to the principle that, if a business switches its service provider, the people employed by the original service provider are protected under TUPE.  In this case, the appointment of LPA Receivers led to employees switching employer although they provided the same services to the same properties.  However, the switch of employers was not considered to be a transfer of service provision, because the “client” had changed from the borrower to the mortgagee/receivership.

The Detail: McCarrick was employed by WCP Management Limited (“WCP”), which provided management services on a group of properties.  The mortgagee appointed LPA Receivers, who instructed a new property management company, King Sturge, and thus WCP stopped providing the service.  McCarrick then became employed personally by Hunter, who had an interest in seeing the swift end of the receivership and who made McCarrick available to assist King Sturge in the property management at no cost to the receivership.  McCarrick apparently provided the same property management services as he had before, but he was now paid by Hunter.

Subsequently, McCarrick was dismissed and he sought to claim that the dismissal was unfair.  In order to do so, he needed to prove continuity of employment between WCP and Hunter.  The Employment Appeal Tribunal decided – and this appeals court confirmed – that there was no transfer of service provision between WCP and Hunter.  It was stated that Regulation 3(1)(b) of the Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) Regulations 2006 envisages that the client will remain the same throughout the transfer of service provision and “it would be quite illegitimate to rewrite the statutory provisions in the very broad way suggested by the appellant” (paragraph 37), i.e. to enable the Regulations to achieve the purpose of protecting employees in this situation when there is a transfer of service provision.  Therefore, as the client switched from the borrower to the mortgagee “and/or the receivership” (paragraph 27), Regulation 3(1)(b) regarding the transfer of service provision does not apply.

Out-bid Newco avoids claims from purchaser who found the cupboard bare

City of London Group Plc & Anor v Lothbury Financial Services Limited & Ors [2012] EWHC 3148 (Ch) (8 November 2012)

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWHC/Ch/2012/3148.html

Summary: The post-Administration purchasers of a business alleged that they found “the cupboard was bare”, but claims against “Newco” and others for migrating the business prior to insolvency failed.

What I found particularly interesting in this case was the apparent acknowledgement of the judge that the director could take certain steps in anticipation of a pre-pack sale to Newco.

The Detail: A subsidiary of the first claimant bought the business, name and assets of Lothbury Financial Limited (“LF”) from its Administrators four days after the company was placed into Administration on application of the claimants.  The claimants alleged that a former director, consultants, and employee of LF conspired to transfer the business to Lothbury Financial Services Limited (“LFS”) and thus committed serious acts of misfeasance.

Mrs Justice Proudman concluded that the claims failed.  She was satisfied that the evidence demonstrated that: LFS operated as a bona fide separate business prior to the Administration of LF; LF’s clients were not misled, but chose to follow the consultants, who had no restrictive covenants, to LFS of their own accord (the business was PR); and LFS was entitled to continue to use the name after the goodwill of LF was sold to the claimant.

As far back as summer 2009 (LF was placed into Administration on 29 March 2010), the director was taking advice from an IP regarding a pre-pack Administration, although he was also attempting to re-negotiate payment terms with the claimant in order to rescue LF.  The claimants alleged that LFS was set up and structured as part of the director’s exit strategy, that LFS was to be the destination for LF’s business.  “The claimants argue that the allegation of a pre-pack administration is self-serving as depriving LF of its business served to ensure that the price to be paid would be minimised and rival bidders would be discouraged. However, preparing to succeed to an original business in such circumstances is in my judgment different from preparing to compete with it. It is the essence of a pre-pack management buy-out that information has to be derived from the failing company in order to structure such a buy-out” (paragraph 38).

So how much activity in preparation of a pre-pack is acceptable and over what kind of period?  It is noteworthy that in this case, although there was evidence of some confusion of company names on a client’s contract and an employee was described as having “overreached herself” (paragraph 28) in explaining to the London Stock Exchange’s Regulated News Section that LF had simply changed its name to LFS and moved offices, the judge found no case against the director for breach of fiduciary duty and noted that LF suffered no loss by the actions.

When will a court release a bankrupt from a family proceedings debt under S281(5)?

McRoberts v McRoberts [2012] EWHC 2966 (Ch) (1 November 2012)

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWHC/Ch/2012/2966.html

Summary: A discharged bankrupt was refused release from a bankruptcy debt arising from a family proceedings order.

Although this is not a particularly surprising outcome, the judgment provides a useful summary of the factors the court considers when deciding whether to override the default position of S281(5) of the Insolvency Act 1986.

The Detail: Mr McRoberts’ bankruptcy started in September 2006.  Mrs McRoberts submitted a proof of debt for c.£245,000 being the amount owed under an order in their family proceedings in 2003 in resolution of their financial claims ancillary to their divorce.  Mr McRoberts was discharged from bankruptcy in September 2007 and the bankruptcy was concluded with no distribution to creditors.

S281(5) provides that discharge from bankruptcy does not release the debtor from such a debt, but the court has jurisdiction to release it and the court in Hayes v Hayes held that the court’s discretion in this matter is unfettered and the debt can be released after the debtor’s discharge.  The Hon. Mr Justice Hildyard considered the factors described in Hayes and continued: “As it seems to me, the ultimate balance to be struck is between (a) the prejudice to the respondent/obligee in releasing the obligation if otherwise there would or might be some prospect of any part of the obligation being met and (b) the potential prejudice to the applicant’s realistic chance of building a viable financial future for himself and those dependent upon him if the obligation remains in place. In striking that balance I consider that the burden is on the applicant; unless satisfied that the balance of prejudice favours its release the obligation should remain in place” (paragraphs 24 and 25).  He also considered that a review of the merits or overall fairness of the underlying obligation did not come into it, but that, if any modification of the order were sought, this was a matter for the matrimonial courts.

In this case, the judge’s view was that the balance remained in favour of keeping the obligation in place – the debtor had not provided evidence that any future enterprise or activity would be blighted by the continued obligation – and thus he declined to grant release.