Insolvency Oracle

Developments in UK insolvency by Michelle Butler


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A Call to shout about the obstacles to employee consultations

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As the deadline for the Call for Evidence comes to a close, do we have any hint of what might come of it?  Can we grab this opportunity to rescue the rescue process?

Rob Haynes, in ICAEW’s economia, summarises the key issue perfectly: how does government expect IPs (and insolvent businesses pre-appointment) to meet the statutory employee consultation burdens when they must act in the best interests of creditors?  Haynes’ article ends depressingly with thoughts that the EU might influence the protection pendulum to swing even further towards employees.

As I haven’t worked on the front-line for several years, I confess that my point of view is fairly theoretic.  But if we are to persuade government to make the legislation work better for this country’s insolvencies, we need to respond to the Call and I would urge those of you with current experience to put pen to paper, please?

The Insolvency Service’s Call for Evidence, “Collective Redundancy Consultation for Employers Facing Insolvency”, which closes on 12 June, can be found at: https://goo.gl/PW2AOa.

The economia article can be found at: http://goo.gl/Jfp8CX.

 

Answering the Call

As you know, this is all about the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992 (“TULRCA”), which requires employers to consult with employee representatives where they are proposing to make redundant 20 or more employees at an establishment.

Personally, I’ve always wondered what government hopes the employee consultation requirements will achieve, especially in insolvency situations.  The foreword to the Call states:

“The intention of this legislation is to ensure that unnecessary redundancies are avoided and to mitigate the effects of redundancies where they do unfortunately need to occur.”

Setting aside for now the realities of whether this can be achieved, if this is the intention, why does TULRCA tie in only establishments where 20 or more redundancies are proposed?  Aren’t these intentions just as valid for smaller businesses?  Does this threshold seek to recognise micro-businesses?  Maybe, although it also lets off large businesses where a relatively small number of redundancies are proposed, which bearing in mind the intention seems illogical to me.

Assuming that the threshold is intended to avoid micro-businesses carrying the cost burden of complying with consultation requirements, then this does seem to acknowledge that, in some cases, the cost to the employer is a step too far.

But who carries the cost burden in insolvency situations?  At present, the NI Fund.  If the government were to act on calls to elevate the priority of these claims, it would impact on the recoveries of creditors, or perhaps even the Administrators’ pockets if it were made an Administration expense.  Would that persuade insolvent companies/IPs to continue trading in order to consult, even if there were no realistic alternative to redundancy?  Even if trading-on were possible, it still doesn’t make it right to continue trading at a loss simply to meet the consultation requirements.

And would a change in protective award priority achieve the intention described above?  Would it avoid unnecessary redundancies or result in more redundancies, as IPs run shy of taking appointments where their options boil down to: achieve a going concern sale with most of the employees intact (but we’d rather you didn’t do a pre-pack to a connected party without an independent review) or you don’t get paid at all?  And where does this leave the skills of IPs to effect rescue and restructuring strategies?

 

City Link Stokes the Fire

The House of Commons’ Committees’ report, “Impact of the closure of City Link on Employment”, just pre-dated the Service’s Call for Evidence.  Although the subject had been bubbling away for many years, this case may have been the light on the blue touch paper leading to the Call.

The report – at http://goo.gl/BNx5MH – covers much more ground than just TULRCA, but here are some quotes on this subject:

“It is clearly in the financial interest of a company to break the law and dispense with the statutory redundancy consultation period if the fine for doing so is less than the cost of continuing to trade for the consultation period and this fine is paid by the taxpayer…

“We are greatly concerned that the existing system incentivises companies to break the law on consultation with employees.”

These reflect comments by the RMT (City Link went into Administration on 24 December):

“They… were preparing contingency plans from November. Surely at that point they should either have made the thing public, in which case it would have given more prospective buyers time to come forward, or at least given the Government bodies and the union time to consult properly with their members and represent their interests. None of this was done.”

“they deliberately flouted that [the consultation period]. They can do that, because you and I as taxpayers pick up the tab for the Insolvency Service. It is absolutely disgraceful.”

But Jon Moulton’s comment was:

“The purpose of the consultation period was consultation. These are circumstances where no consultation is reasonably possible.”

Fortunately, the Committees acknowledged the position of Administrators:

“Once a company has gone into administration, it is likely to be the case that they will be, or will be about to become, insolvent and the administrator will not have the option to allow the company to continue to trade for the consultation period.”

The Committees’ conclusion was:

“When considering the consultation period in relation to a redundancy, company directors may feel they have competing duties. We recommend that the Government review and clarify the requirements for consultation on redundancies during an administration so that employees understand what they can expect and company directors and insolvency professionals have a clear understanding of their responsibility to employees.”

Does this conclusion suggest that the Committees were swayed by the RMT’s argument, that, although directors may feel they have competing duties, in fact their duties are aligned as there may be advantages in coming out with the news earlier?  The Committees also seem to be questioning IPs’ levels of understanding of their responsibility to employees.  Although they seem to recognise an Administrator’s limited options, they also believe that the system incentivises curtailed consultation, rather than seeing it as entirely impractical.

I hope that sufficient responses to the Call for Evidence address these misconceptions.  If they don’t, responses in the vein of the RMT’s comments may monopolise ministers’ ears.

 

The Call’s Questions

Here are some of the more spicy questions in the Call for Evidence:

  1. How does meaningful consultation with a ‘view to reaching agreement’ work in practice?
  2. What do you understand to be the benefits of consultation and notification where an employer is facing, or has become insolvent?
  3. In practice, what role do employees and employee representatives play in considering options to rescue the business and to help reduce and mitigate the impact of redundancies?
  1. What factors, where present, act as inhibitors to starting consultation or notifying the Secretary when an employer is imminently facing, or has moved into an insolvency process?
  1. What factors, where present, negatively impact upon the quality and effectiveness of consultation when an employer is facing insolvency, or has become insolvent?
  2. Are advisors (accountants, HR professionals, or where an insolvency practitioner is acting as an advisor pre-insolvency) informing directors of their need to start consultation when there is the prospect of collective redundancies? How do directors respond to such advice?
  3. Are directors facing insolvency starting consultation, and notifying the Secretary of State, as soon as collective redundancies are proposed and at the latest when they first make contact with an insolvency practitioner? If not, how can this be encouraged?
  4. Normally are employee representatives already in place? What are the practicalities of appointing employee representatives when no trade union representation is in place?
  1. The current sanctions against employers who fail to consult take the form of Protective Awards. Do you think these are proportionate, effective and dissuasive in the context of employers who are imminently facing, or have become insolvent? Is the situation different as it applies to directors and insolvency practitioners respectively?

 

As this is a Call for Evidence, the Insolvency Service is looking for examples and experiences, even when they are asking for an opinion.  I am sure that many IPs and others in the profession can report a host of examples illustrating powerfully the realities and justifiable strategies in trying to make the most of an insolvent business, demonstrating that efforts to avoid redundancies certainly do feature highly in IPs’ minds.

 

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Lessons from Comet: quality consultation with employees, not quantity

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So what is the truth about the Comet Tribunal? Could the IPs be facing prosecution? Is the problem simply that the consultation legislation is impossible to meet in most insolvency situations or are there lessons to be learnt for IPs faced with potential redundancies, massive or moderate?

It has to be admitted that Deloittes were handling a massive case – almost 7,000 employees scattered over 250 establishments UK-wide in a high profile company attracting enormous press and public attention at a time when the high street seemed to be suffering the loss of one big name after another. But isn’t that what the Big 4 get paid the big bucks for?

The dilemma for IPs has often been described as being faced with a plethora of tough consultation requirements whilst remaining ever conscious of the risk that the wildfire of rumour and defeatism could destroy whatever business may be left to sell (or at least threaten to derail an organised closure plan). How can IPs ever hope to make everyone happy all of the time? But is the fear of what might happen to the business – and thus to creditors’ returns – if the “R” word gets out, especially when redundancies are only a contingency plan, justification for playing cloak-and-dagger? Or, in this modern world where it seems that transparency outweighs costs and consequences, should employee consultation mean putting all one’s cards on the table even when it seems that there may be little on which to consult?

The sheer scale of this job compounded the problems, but I think that the judgment has some valuable points for IPs handling cases of any size and may present a paradigm shift, putting an end to an outdated attitude of how employees should be treated in insolvency situations.

I found the Tribunal judgment as a pdf on the USDAW website at: http://www.usdaw.org.uk/tribunal1102571

Cutting to the chase, the Tribunal found that Comet:
• “failed to begin consultation in good time;
• “failed to include the topics of avoiding, reducing, or mitigating the consequences of redundancy;
• “failed to consult with a view to reaching agreement;
• “failed to consult with appropriate representatives (either the Union or elected representatives); and
• “failed to disclose, in large part, the required statutory information” (paragraph 185).

Consultation “in good time”

It is worth remembering that the statutory 90 and 30-day timescales set out by the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992 (“TULRCA”) are back-stops. S188 states that “Where an employer is proposing to dismiss as redundant 20 or more employees.., the consultation shall begin in good time and in any event…”

Interestingly, although the statutory timescale is what might come to most of our minds when we think about the consultation requirements, the judge said that, as in this case, “when the consultation that followed was with the wrong people, about the wrong issues, with misleading and incomplete information, then the time that consultation began, or should have begun, is not terribly important” and this issue was “by no means the most serious of [Comet’s] failings” (paragraph 203).

Comet was placed into administration on 2 November 2012. Prior to administration, Comet’s shareholder and secured creditor, Hailey Acquisitions Limited (“HAL”), had explored the company’s options and had instructed retail consultants, GA Europe (“GA”), to draw up a plan. The GA “Plan” as described by the Tribunal “involved the complete closure of the business. Although it related directly only to store closures, as the stores were closed, the rest of the business, all the other establishments, could be reduced proportionally; and once all the stores had closed, the rest of the business ceased to have a function and could be closed. Inherent to the adoption of that Plan is a ‘clear, albeit provisional, intention’ to make all the employees redundant” (paragraph 102). The Tribunal concluded that the arrival of GA consultants to the stores on 3 November “is clear evidence that the administrators had adopted the Plan… The plan was ‘to trade the stores for two weeks’. The first stores closed on 19 November. That was to be followed ‘by phased closure of the stores’… By 21 December, all the stores had closed and all employees dismissed as redundant, save for a handful” (paragraph 105).

But weren’t the administrators seeking to sell all, or part, of the business? Could it be said that the administrators “proposed” (per TULRCA) to make redundancies when they were actually trying to avoid that eventuality? Or does the “clear, albeit provisional, intention” phrase from the UK Coal Mining decision in 2008 apply in these circumstances and, by extension, perhaps to all insolvencies where a business sale resulting in the preservation of jobs is the primary intention? “The duty to consult arises when the proposal is still in its provisional stage; not when the decision has been taken. Once the decision has been taken, there is little to consult about” (paragraph 107).

The reality of any possibility of a sale “was hotly disputed” (paragraph 108) in evidence before the Tribunal. Comet’s Head of Finance “gave powerful reasons why the prospect of a sale was vanishingly small” (paragraph 109) and the judge stated that whatever the joint administrator’s “optimism may have been in the early days, sale of all or part was always an unlikely possibility, that quickly dwindled to a negligible one” (paragraph 111). In the judge’s view, “the administrators planned for closure from the outset” (paragraph 114).

As an aside, this is the origin of the criticism that has been Chinese-whispered by the press into the alleged possible ‘criminal offence’ in signing letters/documents to Vince Cable saying that there would be no redundancies. The administrators signed a Form HR1 (which, of course, whilst statutorily-required to be sent to the Secretary of State, never gets near to Dr Cable’s desk) on 5 November stating: “no proposed redundancies at present”. S194 TULRCA makes it a criminal offence to fail to notify the Secretary of State of proposed redundancies. The Tribunal “made no express finding beyond saying that we share Miss Nicolau’s (Comet’s Employment Counsel and General Manager for Employee Relations) surprise” (paragraph 34) at the contents of the Form. The administrators filed a second Form HR1 on 22 November stating that the proposed number of redundancies would be the full staff complement of 6,889, with an unknown date for the last dismissals and the reason for the redundancies as insolvency.

So what is “in good time”? The Tribunal illustrated that the statutory back-stop would be inappropriate in some cases. Some stores closed on 23 December. “To begin consultation 30 days before is to begin it after the key decisions have been taken, and after the store closure was in full swing. By then, the opportunity (if it had ever existed) to raise fresh working capital, to reassure suppliers and the public that Comet had a future, had passed. Closure was inevitable” (paragraph 121). “Consultation has to begin in good time in each establishment; and that means when the GA Plan… was adopted by the administrators and so became a proposal of Comet’s; and that was on 3 November, even if individual establishment closures were postponed for some time” (paragraph 122). Thus, the Tribunal concluded that “in no single instance, at no establishment, did consultation begin in good time in accordance with S188” (paragraph 123).

However, the judgment later seems to suggest that consultation might be achieved far quicker than the statutory timescales: “We accept that in Comet’s financial circumstances, there was never likely to be a 90 day consultation, or in many cases even a 60 day consultation… But in practice, given Comet’s financial situation, a full and frank consultation is unlikely ever to have required that period of time” (paragraph 199). This may be reflected in the Tribunal’s award, which was only 70 days for the employees dismissed early on (whereas those dismissed later were awarded 90 days): “For those [early-dismissed] employees, there was simply no consultation at all; but equally, there was simply no time for any meaningful consultation to be organised… There is some excuse in the early stages of insolvency” (paragraph 205, 207).

The Statutory Content of Consultation

S188(2) of TULRCA states that “the consultation shall include consultation about ways of: (a) avoiding the dismissals; (b) reducing the number of employees to be dismissed; and (c) mitigating the consequences of the dismissals”. But the Tribunal found that these statutory points were never referred to in meetings, agendas, or briefing notes to managers conducting meetings. The Tribunal also was critical of the company’s “limited” view of the consultation process as a means to provide information to employees and to receive their questions. The judge accepted that it may have been realistic for the company to fail to see the process as a way of consulting on how to avoid dismissals, as “by that stage the path to closure was clear and well on the way, even if not ‘a foregone conclusion’. But even if, in Comet’s view, inviting such suggestions would have been futile, the attempt should still have been made; the statute requires it” (paragraph 130).

The Tribunal acknowledged that, in this case, “proper consultation, had it occurred, may well have been nasty, brutish and short. The difficulties in the way of avoiding or reducing redundancies could have been set out: the absence of working capital, the requirement to repay the secured loan covering the existing working capital; the rationale for adopting the GA Plan could have been explained; that there was no money to keep paying wages or rent other than by liquidating the stock as quickly as possible; no money to pay for more stock; and that much of the stock was itself subject to retention of title” (paragraph 199).

The Tribunal recognised some of the issues facing the company/administrators in organising meaningful consultation. The process was “tightly controlled to ensure a consistent and uniform approach” (paragraph 66); managers in effect had been working to scripts, collecting – but prohibited from attempting to answer – questions, any answers being given via a centrally-issued document, for managers’ eyes only, at the next arranged meeting. “Such a process of question and answer, conducted over a number of meetings is inevitably cumbersome and slow, but could in principle amount to consultation… but in the short timescale allowed by the circumstances of administration, with a clear proposal to close the entire business before Christmas, it meant that meaningful consultation was most unlikely to be achieved through that model” (paragraph 126).

The Tribunal was critical of the “bland generality” of some of the answers provided. For example, “Why are we closing and why have certain stores been chosen?” was answered: “There are certain financial commitments at specific locations that we are unable to meet. We therefore have to close down that entity before these amounts fall due”. The judge felt that “a frank answer would have been: ‘There is no money to pay the rent for the next quarter. Therefore, your store is earmarked for closure two days before the next instalment of rent is due’… Without that information, it was not practicable for representatives to bring forward their own proposals” (paragraph 132).

But how practicable could any employee proposals hope to have been? The judge suggested that they could have tried to prolong the life of their store, say, at the expense of another in the locality. In one specific case, the judge suggested that it would have been useful for employees at the Service Centre to have learned that the services were to be placed with an alternative provider: staff could have been invited to work for the new provider “or indeed there might be a service provision change under TUPE” (paragraph 136).

Consultation “with a view to reaching agreement”

The Tribunal found on balance that there had never been any “intention to attempt to reach agreement through the consultation process” because of “the failure to provide key information: the existence of the GA Plan, for example; or to be frank about the number and timing of redundancies; to provide even basic information, such as store closure dates; … the failure ever to raise the key statutory issues [i.e. ways of avoiding dismissals etc.]…; the cumbersome structure adopted; and the willingness to ignore and by-pass the consultation process when it suited the administrators” (paragraph 145).

But what kind of agreement could ever be hoped to be reached in these circumstances? “We emphasise that we place no weight on the absence of actual agreement on the statutory items. Given the dire nature of the financial situation, the most that could ever have been hoped for by way of reaching agreement was a reluctant acceptance of the inevitable… But that is to look at the large national, overall picture. Within that picture, there was scope for meaningful consultation with the potential of reaching agreement at a local level on, for example, selection criteria where redundancies were phased over a period; alternative employment where establishments had the potential to transfer over or stand alone” (paragraphs 147, 148).

Employee representatives

Comet’s case was that it had consulted with representatives falling under S188(1B)(b)(ii) of TULRCA: “employee representatives elected by the affected employees, for the purposes of this section, in an election satisfying the requirements of S188A(1)”. However, the key issue was that there never had been any formal election process: some employees had put themselves forward for the job, others had been put forward by their colleagues (often, it seemed, when they were away on holiday!), and others had been asked by their managers to stand.

The judge concluded that the absence of a fair election – which could not be substituted by a fair selection – was fatal to Comet’s case in this regard. Although there had been no suggestion of abuse of the process, the judge noted that selection by managers could be abused: the manager could avoid selecting disgruntled employees, or such employees could conclude there was no point putting themselves forward if the manager made the ultimate decision.

The problem for Comet was that, since there was “no consultation with employee representatives elected for the purpose, there was no consultation at all within S188” (paragraph 177). Oops!

The Tribunal also commented that, given that Comet’s aim had long been a business sale or transfer and, failing that, redundancies, so that in either event consultation under TULRCA or TUPE would be necessary, Comet could have taken steps to put the machinery in place to elect representatives long before the administration began.

Disclosure of Statutory Information

S188(4) sets out a hefty list of information required to be disclosed in writing by the employer to the employee representatives. The judge found that Comet failed to address some of substance.

He felt that it had been “misleading to omit” (paragraph 151) the immediate reason for the administration – HAL’s demand for repayment of the loan – from “the reasons for his proposals” as regards redundancies. The judge noted that, given that he had found that the GA Plan had been adopted on 3 November, “that information could have been given to representatives from 3 November, as a firm, albeit provisional, proposal. The information provided at the first consultation meeting was completely misleading on this crucial point” (paragraph 152).

The judge observed that, although the GA Plan seen through would result in all employees being made redundant, the method of selecting employees for dismissal “was very significant in the short term” (paragraph 154) in these circumstances where the redundancies were staged. However, no information on the criteria or method of selection was shared, despite it being promised in a letter to representatives that itself was considered deficient by the judge, who suggested that the promise should have been “to share, discuss, and we hope, agree the criteria” (paragraph 155).

It seemed that employees, their representatives, and most of the managers tasked with the job of leading the consultation meetings, had been left in the dark as regards planned store closures and redundancies, where “it was generally possible to give employees notice of a day or two of the actual closure date” (paragraph 157), with dismissals generally occurring a day or two after closure. “Time and again we heard of redundancies being carried through immediately before and after consultation meetings at which those redundancies were never mentioned” (paragraph 142). “The failure of Comet to provide accurate information to representatives about this factor, the proposed method of carrying out dismissals, contributed more than any other to the widespread dissatisfaction and cynicism with which the consultation process came to be regarded” (paragraph 158).

“Special circumstances”?

Alright, so the Tribunal considered the consultation process a failure, but doesn’t TULRCA acknowledge “special circumstances which render it not reasonably practicable for the employer to comply with” (S188(7)) certain requirements? Does this apply in this case?

The judge referred to precedent that indicates that there is nothing special about insolvency. “What has to be established is that the insolvency is itself unexpected” (paragraph 180). In this case, because of HAL’s “sudden, unexpected and disastrous” withdrawal of working capital and demand for repayment, the judge found that the company’s administration did amount to special circumstances.

However, S188(7) continues to provide that the “special circumstances” factor falls away “where the decision leading to the proposed dismissals is that of a person controlling the employer (directly or indirectly)”. As “HAL controlled Comet” (paragraph 183) – although it is not clear whether the judge felt that this control was by reason of HAL being the shareholder or because it was the secured creditor and provider of working capital to Comet – the judge concluded that Comet could not rely on the “special circumstances” defence.

“Going through the motions”

Perhaps the administrators’ mindset towards the consultation process may be revealed by the contents of their letter to employees dated 12 November: “the company is proposing to commence a collective consultation programme with Comet staff. This is intended to offer a means to provide information about the company’s plans for the future, and for the representatives to raise questions, and air their views on any proposals” (paragraph 51). However, the judge summarised the aims of the statutory provisions as: “to require the employer to consult with elected representatives, once redundancies have been proposed, in good time and with a view to avoiding redundancies, reducing their number and mitigating their effects. To do that with authority, the representatives should be elected; and they should be provided with the necessary statutory information, including the reasons for the proposals and the scope of the proposals (numbers and descriptions of employees involved, the method of selection and the timescale). Since the consultation must be with a view to reaching agreement, it requires a serious engagement with the issues raised, conscientious consideration of questions and issues raised, an element of dialogue and mutual exchange” (paragraph 192).

Despite conducting over 600 meetings and identifying 572 employee representatives, the judge felt that “it is the quality and [the consultation’s] compliance with the statutory provisions that counts” (paragraph 191). He stated that this was “in essence a case of an employer going through the motions. This was the appearance of consultation, but not the reality. It is not just and equitable to give credit to an employer for going through the motions, without any intention of engaging meaningfully in consultation, however extensive the effort put into the consultation process” (paragraph 197).

Lessons to be learnt

This case reveals some relatively straightforward, but essential, checks that can be made as regards standard documents etc., for example:

• Ensure that all documentation around the consultation process covers the statutory points that must be addressed in consultation meetings and that case-specific disclosures of the statutory information are meaningful.
• Ensure that reference is made to consultation and agreement, not merely information provision.
• Ensure that the election process of employee representatives (where required, not forgetting recognised trade unions and other existing employee representatives) complies with statute and don’t be tempted to cut corners with a view to getting on with the consultation itself. Refer to the election process in pre-insolvency advice letters: after all, consultation is required under TUPE as well as TULRCA.
• Take care when completing Forms HR1 and remember to submit further forms in good time and where necessary.

However, perhaps more difficult but more vital lessons that arise from this judgment involve the seeming mindset change that appears to be required:

• Be as open as possible and as is sensible about the company’s situation and the business’ prospects, even if they are bleak. Avoid relying on vague statements about insolvent companies in general.
• Don’t get too hung up on the statutory consultation timescales, but rather concentrate on being honest about the situation when the prospect of redundancies is first contemplated. Keep in mind the aim of meaningful consultation with a view to agreement, however small the window of opportunity and inevitable the outcome, rather than ticking boxes as regards meetings held.
• Don’t treat all employees as one unit. If different circumstances and plans exist for different “pools”, tailor discussions accordingly and consider the smaller pictures. Even if the big picture is an inevitable close-down, there may be scope for meaningful consultation on parts of the plan.
• If you use separate staff, departments, or external consultants to deal with employee matters in insolvency cases, make sure that they are kept up to date and are given the assistance and authority needed to update and consult with employee representatives.
• Continue to update employee representatives as events move on.
• Make a serious effort to consult.

Am I forgetting how all this may impact on an administrator’s ability to meet his primary goal of achieving a Para 3 objective? Personally, I remain conscious of those tensions, but I do wonder if being entirely honest and upfront with employees can be constructive, rather than destructive. I’m sure that those more cynical than me, who continue to see the insolvency and the consultation requirements as mutually exclusive, will have opportunities to air their concerns, when the government’s eye turns again to IPs as it contemplates the RPS’ bill for the Comet protective awards.


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A Collection of Two Halves – Part 2: Old Cases

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And here is the second half of my collection. They’re not exactly “old” cases, but merely ones that I’ve already seen pop up in case digests. But, in the interests of completeness:

SoS v Knight – lack of salary in hard times is not fatal to sole shareholder’s/director’s redundancy claim.
Enta Technologies v HMRC – petition for winding-up on appealed tax assessments is an abuse of process (UPDATE 13/02/2015: HMRC’s later appeal has been allowed – see below).
Relfo v Varsani – convoluted transactions fails to thwart tracing and unfair enrichment claim.
The Keepers and Governors of John Lyon School v Helman – tenancy vesting in trustee avoids receivers’ claim to freehold.

Sole shareholder/director’s choice to forgo salary in company’s hard times is not fatal to redundancy claim

Secretary of State for BIS v Mrs P Knight (9 May 2104) ([2014] UKEAT 0073 13)

http://www.bailii.org/uk/cases/UKEAT/2014/0073_13_0905.html
Sarah Rushton of Moon Beever pretty-much said it all (http://www.moonbeever.com/hr-blog/787-insolvency-service-redundancy-payment).

The sole shareholder and managing director of a company drew a salary sporadically in the years preceding the company’s insolvency and was paid no salary in the last two years of the company’s trading, her evidence being that, because times had been hard, she had forfeited her salary to enable the other employees and creditors to be paid.

The Appeal Tribunal found that the Employment Judge had been entitled to conclude that Mrs Knight’s agreement that she would be unpaid did not amount to a variation or discharge of her employment contract. The judge accepted that “the absence of payment under what is said to be a contract of employment is a factor which the tribunal of fact has to consider and take into account” (paragraph 23), but it does not necessarily mean that there is no consideration from the company. Consequently, Mrs Knight was entitled to a redundancy payment from the RPO.

Abuse of process to seek a winding-up order on appealed tax assessments

Enta Technologies Limited v HMRC (21 March 2014) ([2014] EWHC 548 (Ch))

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWHC/Ch/2014/548.html

I would recommend the summary by Nicholas Fernyhough of RPC (http://www.rpc.co.uk/index.php?option=com_easyblog&view=entry&id=1081&Itemid=129).

HMRC presented a winding-up petition on the basis of non-payment of a number of tax assessments, which were the subject of appeals. It was the judge’s view that, since April 2009 when VAT appeals moved to the First-Tier Tribunal, “the winding-up court should in my view now, post-2009, refuse itself to adjudicate on the prospective merits of the appeal and leave that question to be dealt with by the tribunal, either dismissing the petition or staying it in the meantime” (paragraph 11). The Tribunal had already ruled that the appeals were not ‘hopeless’ and thus “any attempt to revisit the tax judge’s ruling should be done by an application to the tribunal itself rather than by invitation to a winding-up court to second-guess that decision” (paragraph 12). The judge continued: “These matters are in themselves sufficient to lead me to the conclusion that the petition should be dismissed as an abuse of process and/or as a matter of discretion and the advertisement restrained” (paragraph 14).

(UPDATE 13/02/2015: on 28 January 2015, the Court of Appeal allowed HMRC’s appeal: Lord Justice Vos did not agree that the tax tribunal’s jurisdiction to decide on the validity of assessments abrogated the Companies court’s jurisdiction to decide on whether a company should be wound up.  In the circumstances of this particular case, Vos LJ felt that the judge should have concluded that the tax assessments were not disputed by the company in good faith and on substantial grounds and consequently he allowed the appeal and made an order for the company’s compulsory winding-up.  http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWCA/Civ/2015/29.html)

An elaborate façade of transactions was insufficient to thwart a tracing claim

Relfo Limited (In Liquidation) v Varsani (28 March 2014) ([2014] EWCA Civ 360)

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWCA/Civ/2014/360.html

The summary by Lexis Nexis’ Anna Jeffrey at http://lexisweb.co.uk/blog/randi/how-will-the-court-approach-tracing-claims/ covers this case well.

Mr Varsani appealed an order, which had arisen from the liquidator’s claim of unjust enrichment. His appeal was dismissed.

The facts of the case had been unusual in that the funds had not be paid from the company’s account into Mr Varsani’s account either directly or via a chronological chain of transactions flowing through a number of accounts, but, in the words of Lord Justice Floyd, the transactions were “an elaborate façade to conceal what was in truth intended and arranged to be a payment for the benefit of Bhimji Varsani” (paragraph 121).

Lady Justice Arden felt that the judge had had plenty of material from which to draw the inference that the company’s money was substituted by payments used ultimately to make the payment to Mr Varsani. She said: “The decision in Agip demonstrates that in order to trace money into substitutes it is not necessary that the payments should occur in any particular order, let alone chronological order. As Mr Shaw submits, a person may agree to provide a substitute for a sum of money even before he receives that sum of money. In those circumstances the receipt would postdate the provision of the substitute. What the court has to do is establish whether the likelihood is that monies could have been paid at any relevant point in the chain in exchange for such a promise” (paragraph 63).

Tenancy vesting in Trustee breaks timeline for Receivers’ freehold claim

The Keepers and Governors of the Possessions, Revenues and Goods of Free Grammar School of John Lyon v Helman (22 January 2014) ([2014] EWCA Civ 17)

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWCA/Civ/2014/17.html
For a comprehensive summary, I would recommend that by Imran Malik of Muckle LLP: http://www.pmflegal.com/blog/index.php/2014/04/17/case-update-receivers-unable-to-claim-freehold/.

A tenant was made bankrupt and then the sub-chargee of the tenant’s house appointed receivers, after which the trustee in bankruptcy disclaimed the lease. The receivers then lined up a sale of the house and, the day before completing the sale, they served the landlords with a notice claiming the freehold of the house under the Leasehold Reform Act 1967.

The Act gives a tenant the right to acquire on fair terms the freehold where certain conditions are satisfied. Crucially, the server of the notice must have been a tenant of the house under a long tenancy for the last two years. The landlord challenged the validity of the notice on the basis that the appointment of the trustee in bankruptcy had resulted in the vesting of the tenancy in the trustee, who had not been in office for two years (and in any event the receivers did not purport to serve the notice on behalf of the trustee).

Lord Justice Rimer described the landlords’ submission as “not just simple, it is formidable” (paragraph 27). He considered that the ‘last two years’ condition was not met and thus the receivers’ claim to the freehold “was writ in water and signified nothing” (paragraph 34). The appeal judges unanimously allowed the landlords’ appeal.


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Changes to TUPE: Clear as Mud

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The Collective Redundancies and Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) (Amendment) Regulations 2013 are set to come into force on 31 January 2014. The draft Regulations can be accessed at https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/254738/bis-13-1272-draft-tupe-regulations-2013.pdf. (UPDATE 04/04/2014: On reading R3’s Technical Bulletin 106, I realised that I had not updated this to provide a link to the final regs: http://www.legislation.gov.uk/uksi/2014/16/contents/made. BTW R3, as imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, I will take your article 106.6 as a compliment (although I’d still be interested in learning who on GTC was behind it)!)

These Regulations affect the Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) Regulations 2006 and the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992 and came about as a result of the Government’s early 2013 consultation. The Government’s response on the close of the consultation can be found at https://www.gov.uk/government/consultations/transfer-of-undertakings-protection-of-employment-regulations-tupe-2006-consultation-on-proposed-changes.

From what I can see, the changes that may impact insolvency contexts are:

• The wording around unfair dismissals connected with transfers is being changed. The TUPE Regulations 2006 state that an employee is treated as unfairly dismissed “if the sole or principal reason for his dismissal is the transfer itself or a reason connected with the transfer” (where that is not an ETO reason etc.) (Regulation 7(1)). This is to be replaced with: “if the reason for the dismissal is the transfer” (other than ETO reasons). It would seem to me that this cleaner and more specific description may take a lot of the uncertainty out of how Tribunals might view dismissals – we can only hope!

• The definition of ETO reasons “entailing changes in the workforce” will include a change to employees’ place of work.

• Pre-transfer consultation may be carried out either by the transferor or, under these Regulations, by the transferee (with the transferor’s agreement), and this may count as consultation towards subsequent redundancies. However, a transferee will not be able to claim “special circumstances rendering it not reasonably practicable” to consult on the basis that the transferor had failed to provide information or assist the transferee.

• The time period within which a transferee must provide employee liability information to a transferor has been increased from not less than 14 days to not less than 28 days before the transfer.

• Employers of fewer than 10 employees – micro-businesses – no longer need to invite employees to elect representatives to consult on transfers, although if there are already recognised employee representatives, the employer needs to consult with them. If there are no representatives, the employer simply consults directly with the employees.

What has not changed?

Not unsurprisingly given that it is still the subject of an appeal, the Regulations continue to refer to “at one establishment”, although the current position of the Woolworths Tribunals process suggests that this does not implement adequately the EC Directive (http://wp.me/p2FU2Z-3I).

The Government had also sought views on whether a transferor could rely on a transferee’s ETO reason to dismiss an employee prior to a transfer. Although 57% of all those who responded to the consultation supported the concept (and only 26% were opposed), the Government has decided not to take this idea further, pointing out that it hadn’t actually put forward a proposal to change the Regulations, it had merely asked an open question! It felt that such a change could result in an increase in “general unfairness in the labour market” and could be challenged in the courts, as the suggestion had been made that it would be contrary to CJEU judgments and perhaps to the spirit of the Acquired Rights Directive (see Government response, section 11).


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Two cases of marshalling; support for ETO dismissals; a flawed Chairman’s report fails to help a debtor escape her IVA; and a Company’s challenge of its Administrators’ appointment

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Although I have promised myself an article on the Scottish Bankruptcy Bill and I see that the Deregulation Bill has not gone smoothly through the House of Commons Committee, I should catch up with some recent decisions:

Crystal Palace v Kavanagh: dismissals for an ETO reason are possible after all.
Smith-Evans v Smailes: is an IVA a nullity, if a Chairman’s report on the requisite majority achieved is challenged long after the S262 period?
Highbury v Zirfin: marshalling and the difference between equity of exoneration and the right of subrogation…
Szepietowski v the NCA: … but sometimes marshalling is restricted by the terms of the deal.
Closegate v McLean: the Company/directors were entitled to challenge the Administrators’ appointment.

Back to the future: dismissals can be for an ETO reason even where the objective remains a going concern sale

Crystal Palace FC Limited & Anor v Mrs L Kavanagh & Ors (13 November 2013) ([2013] EWCA Civ 1410)

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWCA/Civ/2013/1410.html

This successful appeal has been the subject of some helpful articles already, such as that written by Dr James Bickford Smith for R3’s Recovery News. My summary of the history up to this Appeal Court decision can be found at: http://wp.me/p2FU2Z-2R.

The Court of Appeal stressed the case-sensitive natures of both this case and Spaceright Europe Limited v Baillavoine, which had formed the basis for the previous EAT’s decision to the contrary. Lord Justice Briggs highlighted the need, per Regulation 7 of the Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) Regulations 2006, to analyse the “sole or principal reason” for dismissals “so that the Employment Tribunal needs to be astute to detect cases where office holders of insolvent companies have attempted to dress up a dismissal as being for an ETO reason, where in truth it has not been” (paragraph 26).

This Court agreed with the original ET’s analysis in this case that, whilst the Administrator’s ultimate objective remained the sale of the Club (as, Briggs LJ pointed out, would be the case in almost all Para 3(1)(b) Administrations), he made the dismissals because he needed to reduce the wage bill in order to continue running the business, i.e. they were for an ETO reason. This was contrasted with the facts of the Spaceright case, which had decided that the sole or principal reason behind the dismissal of the CEO was to make the business more attractive to a purchaser, illustrating how dismissals could fall outside of an ETO reason.

(UPDATE 15/06/14: On 14 May 2014, the Supreme Court refused permission to appeal this decision.)

If a Chairman’s report states that the IVA was approved and no S262 challenge is raised, does the IVA exist if the requisite majority had not been achieved?

Smith-Evans v Smailes (29 July 2013) ([2013] EWHC 3199 (Ch))

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWHC/Ch/2013/3199.html

I make no apologies for the length of this summary or the numerous quotes: I believe that this is a somewhat surprising and material outcome so that I felt it was wise to draw heavily from the judgment.

In a nutshell, the debtor appealed against her bankruptcy order, which was made as a consequence of a breached IVA. The debtor claimed that the IVA was a nullity, as the requisite majority had not voted in favour at the S257 meeting.

Two creditors, RBS and HSBC (who had voted via TiX), had voted to restrict the IVA’s duration to 2 years, but, although immediately after the meeting the Chairman had written to TiX “pointing out the divergences from the instructions received” (paragraph 15), in the absence of a reply the Chairman reported that the IVA was approved and its duration was 3 years. HH Judge Purle QC stated that “whilst the chairman of the meeting did not initially, in May 2008, have authority to cast the RBS and HSBC votes in the way subsequently indicated, RBS and HSBC have unequivocally ratified his actions by voting (albeit in the minority) for a determination upon the footing that the IVA was in place” (paragraph 17), referring to the creditors’ voting years’ later on the subject of how the Supervisor should react to the debtor’s breach of the IVA terms.

Purle HHJ commented on the application of the decision in Re Plummer, in which Registrar Baister described his view of the differences between a material irregularity and something that invalidates an IVA approval. Registrar Baister had provided as an example a case where the chairman had wrongly calculated the votes and reported approval when the requisite majority had not been achieved. He had said that this goes further than a material irregularity; in reality, there never was approval. “It cannot be that in those circumstances section 262(8) could be said to overcome the problem by making real that which simply never was. The reason it cannot is because of its wording, which presupposes approval: it is ‘an approval given at a creditors’ meeting’ which ‘is not invalidated’. Non-approval cannot, however, be transformed into approval” (paragraph 28).

However, Purle HHJ held a different view. He reflected on another example in which a requisite majority is obtained on a vote marked objected to: “But let us suppose that no creditor in fact challenges the result. We are left with an IVA which has been approved on a disputed debt, which turns out later never to have been owed. Then, just as much in that case as in the example given by Registrar Baister, it can be said that there never was, as a matter of fact and law, the requisite majority. It would follow that the debtor could, when in breach of the IVA, let us say two years later, turn round and say: ‘There was no IVA and I cannot be made bankrupt for being in breach of its terms’, thus making the time-limited right of challenge or appeal redundant. It seems to me that that is such a startling result that it cannot possibly have been intended by Parliament and the draftsman of the Rules. For my part, I would not and do not construe this part of the 1986 Act or the rules as giving rise to those consequences. I would on the contrary construe section 262(8) and rule 5.22(6) as precluding that result” (paragraph 29).

Consequently, in relation to decisions made at, or in relation to, a S257 meeting, Purle HHJ concluded that “If those decisions are not challenged, in my judgment, they should stand once the relevant report has been made. The time limits, which are tight, set out in both the Act and the Rules, should be applied and not subverted by a collateral attack months or even years down the line” (paragraph 32). In this case, he therefore decided that “as there was no challenge under section 262, the matter cannot be taken now by the debtor. Likewise, there was no challenge (assuming there could have been one) under paragraph 5.22, under which the court’s power is expressly exercisable only if the circumstances giving rise to the appeal are such as to give rise to unfair prejudice or material irregularity. There is no unfair prejudice in holding the debtor to an IVA which he promoted nor was the irregularity material in light of the affected creditors’ knowledge and subsequent ratification” (paragraph 36).

Marshalling and the difference between equity of exoneration and the right of subrogation

Highbury Pension Fund Management Company & Anor v Zirfin Investments Management Limited & Ors (3 October 2013) ([2013] EWCA Civ 1283)

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWCA/Civ/2013/1283.html

I summarised the first instance decision at http://wp.me/p2FU2Z-23. The key conclusion of that decision – that Highbury had a right to marshal securities, even though there was no common debtor (the claims attached to properties of the debtor and the guarantors) – was not the subject of the appeal. Highbury sought to appeal Norris J’s conclusion that its rights over the properties charged to Barclays could not be exercised until Barclays had been paid in full, because Highbury’s rights were restricted so by the wording of the guarantee.

The Appeal judges agreed that the guarantee did not restrict the application of the principle of marshalling. Lord Justice Lewison explained the difference between (i) Zirfin’s right to become subrogated to Barclays’ rights by reason of the guarantee but only after Barclays had been paid in full and (ii) the right of equity of exoneration existing between Zirfin and the Affiliates (the primary debtor): “Where two persons are liable to a creditor for the same debt, but as between themselves one of them is primarily liable and the other is only secondarily liable, the debtor with the secondary liability is entitled to be exonerated from liability by the primary debtor. This equity, unlike the remedy of subrogation, is not dependent on actual payment by the secondary debtor. As soon as the liability is crystallised he is entitled to go to a court” (paragraph 19).

Consequently, it was decided that, on the application of the principle of marshalling, Highbury was entitled to realise the securities notwithstanding that Barclays had not been paid in full, Barclays still retaining priority to repayment over Highbury.

Marshalling again: it can come down to the wording

Szepietowski v The National Crime Agency (formerly SOCA) (23 October 2013) ([2013] UKSC 65)

http://www.bailii.org/uk/cases/UKSC/2013/65.html

In 2005, the Assets Recovery Agency (which later became SOCA and, later still, the NCA) pursued assets acquired by Mr Szepietowski and this resulted in a settlement involving the granting of a second charge in favour of SOCA over a property, which was charged also to RBS, entitling SOCA to recover up to £1.24m from the proceeds of sale of the property. In 2009, the property was sold but, after RBS’ debt was paid off, SOCA received only £1,324. Consequently, SOCA sought to invoke the right to marshal against another property charged to RBS (“Ashford House”). The lower courts had held that SOCA’s marshalling claim was well-founded and Mrs Szepietowski appealed to the Supreme Court.

Although the Supreme Court unanimously allowed the appeal, the justices’ reasons for doing so fell roughly into two camps.

Three justices held that marshalling failed partly because the charge did not create, or acknowledge the existence of, any debt from Mrs Szepietowski to SOCA; it simply provided that she was bound to pay SOCA an amount up to £1.24m from the sale proceeds. Lord Neuberger concluded that “where the second mortgage does not secure a debt owing from the mortgagor to the second mortgagee, the right to marshal should not normally exist once the common property is sold by the first mortgagee and the proceeds of sale distributed, because there would be no surviving debt owing from the mortgagor to the second mortgagee. In such a case, equity should proceed on the basis that the second mortgagee normally takes the risk that the first mortgagee will realise his debt through the sale of the common property rather than the sale of the other property” (paragraph 56). He could not conceive of a case, but did not rule out its existence in exceptional circumstances, in which marshalling effectively could create a secured debt, where in the absence of marshalling no debt existed at all.

However, the two other justices did not consider that the existence or non-existence of a personal liability was the key to deciding whether marshalling was possible. Lord Carnwath agreed that the appeal should be allowed because the terms of the settlement entitled SOCA to recover a sum from property with the specific exclusion of Ashford House and the wording impliedly excluded recourse to any source for payment other than those identified. “If SOCA had wished to include Ashford House as potentially recoverable property, they should have done so specifically, rather than hope to bring it in later by an equitable backdoor” (paragraph 91).

Company/directors were entitled to challenge Administrators’ appointment (but failed in any event)

Closegate Hotel Development (Durham) Limited & Anor v McLean & Ors (25 October 2013) ([2013] EWHC 3237 (Ch))

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWHC/Ch/2013/3237.html

The companies challenged the validity of the Administrators’ appointments by a QFCH on the basis that the floating charge was not enforceable.

Firstly, the companies had to overcome the hurdle as to whether they had authority to make the application, given that Paragraph 64 of Schedule B1 states that, without the Administrators’ consent, a company may not exercise management power – defined as a power that interferes with the exercise of the Administrators’ powers. Richard Snowden QC did not see this as a difficulty for the companies: “I do not think that paragraph 64 is intended to catch a power on the part of the directors to cause the company to make an application challenging the logically prior question of whether the administrators have any powers to exercise at all” (paragraph 6).

The facts of this case involved lengthy exchanges between the companies and the bank in relation to the companies’ complaints against the bank subject to litigation and proposals to settle the debt due to the bank, which ended with the bank’s appointment of Administrators. It was the companies’ case that “the Companies reasonably understood the communications from the Bank and the course of conduct between them to be a representation that neither side should take any action whilst negotiations between them were continuing” (paragraph 44) and thus the bank had been estopped from taking the action of appointing Administrators. Mr Snowden QC decided on the evidence presented that the companies stood no real prospect of establishing that the bank’s statements or conduct amounted to a clear and unequivocal representation that the bank would not exercise its rights to take enforcement action and therefore the bank was not estopped from appointing Administrators.


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Setting the Scene for Game and other decisions

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I have a nagging suspicion that I’ve been keeping up with reading court judgments in an effort to postpone the job of looking at the draft Rules. I know that I’ll have to look at them sometime, but for now here’s my usual round-up:

• Setting the scene (1): the landlords’ appeal in Game that threatens the Goldacre and Luminar decisions
• Setting the scene (2): the SoS’ appeal of the redundancy consultation requirements in Woolworths and Ethel Austin
• Subtle variation in definitions between Scottish and English statute makes all the difference for a bankrupt living alone
• Limitation period not a barrier to breach of fiduciary duty claim
• Shareholder “acting unreasonably” by not pursuing alternative remedy to deadlock

One to look out for: the landlords’ appeal in the Game Group of Companies

Jervis v Pillar Denton Limited (Game Station) & Ors ([2013] EWHC 2171 (Ch)) (1 July 2013)

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWHC/Ch/2013/2171.html

Most of you will already be keeping an eye open, but I thought I’d cover it here, as BAILII now has published the first instance decision that, in light of the outcomes of Goldacre and Luminar, was pretty-much a foregone conclusion and to which all parties seemed to accept there would be an appeal.

To set the scene: Administrators were appointed on Game Stores Group Limited on 26 March 2012, the day after quarterly rents became due for payment in advance. A licence to occupy a number of properties was granted to Game Retail Limited when the business was sold to it on 1 April 2012. One further property was never occupied by Game Retail Limited, but was effectively abandoned by the Administrators when they removed goods from the property over the first five days of the Administration.

Of course, under Goldacre and Luminar, the rent that fell due prior to Administration is not payable as an expense of the Administration, notwithstanding any use of the property by the Administrators after appointment. In addition, any rents that fall due during the Administration are payable in full as expenses of the Administration even if the Administrators stop using the properties before the end of the relevant quarter. Nicholas Lavender QC made an order to this effect.

The landlords have been granted permission to appeal (and Game Retail Limited to cross-appeal), the key proposed ground being that the Lundy Granite principle and the decision in Re Toshoku Finance UK Plc should result in just and equitable treatment of the rent relating to the period when the property is being used beneficially for the purposes of the Administration as ranking as an expense of the Administration.

The case tracker suggests that the appeal will be heard in February 2014.

(UPDATE: The Game appeal judgment was released on 24 February 2014 (http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWCA/Civ/2014/180.html), the general conclusion being that post-appointment rent (accruing on a daily basis) constitutes an Administration or Liquidation expense, if the property is occupied for the benefit of the Administration or Liquidation. Whilst some of the press coverage suggested that this was a victory for landlords over nasty office-holders, I think that the general mood amongst IPs is that this is a return to a just and sensible approach with which most are comfortable (although a Supreme Court appeal remains a possibility). For a summary of the appeal and its consequences, I would recommend: http://lexisweb.co.uk/blog/randi/landlords-can-rejoice-following-the-game-administration-decision/.)

Another one to look out for: the Secretary of State’s appeal in the Woolworths/Ethel Austin Employment Tribunals

USDAW & Anor v Unite the Union, WW Realisations 1 Limited and the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation & Skills ([2013] UKEAT 0548/12) (10 September 2013)

http://www.bailii.org/uk/cases/UKEAT/2013/0548_12_1009.html

This one is a lot less critical for IPs, but has the potential to reverse a fairly ground-breaking decision nevertheless.

In an earlier post (http://wp.me/p2FU2Z-3I), I reported on the original Tribunal of 30 May 2013, which decided that S188 of TULRCA (relating to the consultation requirements where redundancies are expected to affect “20 or more employees at one establishment”) was more restrictive than the EC Directive and that the consultation requirements should apply if 20 or more redundancies in total were planned, irrespective of the employees’ locations. These conclusions meant that some 4,400 former employees of Woolworths and Ethel Austin Limited (in two originally unconnected Tribunal cases) became entitled to 60 or 90 days’ pay… which, of course, fell at BIS’ door.

BAILII has now published the outcome of the Secretary of State’s application for permission to appeal, which was unique inasmuch as the SoS had declined expressly the court’s invitation to attend the previous hearing. However, HH Judge McMullen QC recognised that the previous judgment “made a substantial change in the outlook to this legislation, and it is in the interests of all that this issue be clarified as soon as possible” (paragraph 13). He also had no problem with the technicality that in fact the SoS was not a party at first instance to the Ethel Austin appeal, but only to the Woolworths one. He also imposed a stay on the order that arose out of the earlier appeal pending the SoS’ appeal.

A key issue for the appeal will be the outcome of the CJEU’s considerations of the case of Lyttle v Bluebird UK Bidco 2 Limited (C-182/13 NIIT, http://www.bailii.org/nie/cases/NIIT/2013/555_12IT.html), a February 2013 Northern Ireland Tribunal case, which covers the same ground.

(UPDATE (09/03/14): On 22 January 2014 (http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWCA/Civ/2014/142.html), the Court of Appeal agreed to make a reference so as to give the CJEU an opportunity to join these cases to the Lyttle case with a view to producing a single judgment. Lord Justice Maurice Kay felt that this was appropriate, as there are no employee representations in the Lyttle case and it could be that a judgment on Lyttle alone might not resolve the issues arising in these cases in any event.)

(UPDATE 08/03/15: the European Advocate General’s opinion suggests that ‘at one establishment’ does have a purpose and is compatible with EU law.  Although it is likely, it remains to be seen whether the ECJ will follow the Advocate General’s opinion.  For a summary of the position as it stands at present, take a look at http://goo.gl/HhjHPN or http://goo.gl/MsfGFZ.)

Different Scottish and English treatments of bankrupt’s home do not lead to unfairness

McKinnon v Graham ([2013] EWHC 2870 (Ch)) (20 September 2013)

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWHC/Ch/2013/2870.html

This case nicely demonstrates a subtle difference between the English and Scottish laws relating to a bankrupt’s home: both provide that the property revests in the debtor after three years, but the provisions apply in different circumstances.

S40(4)(a) of the Bankruptcy (Scotland) Act 1985 defines “family home” as: “any property in which at the relevant date the debtor had (whether alone or in common with any other person) a right or interest being property which was occupied at that date as a residence by the debtor and his spouse or civil partner or the debtor’s spouse or former spouse or civil partner (in any case with or without a child of the family) or by the debtor with the child of the family”, but the corresponding S283A of the Insolvency Act 1986 applies “where property comprised in the bankrupt’s estate consists of an interest in a dwelling-house which at the date of the bankruptcy was the sole or principal residence of the bankrupt, the bankrupt’s spouse or civil partner or a former spouse or civil partner of the bankrupt”. Consider the position of a property occupied only by the debtor: under English law the property would revest after three years, but under Scottish law it would not.

This case centred around such a property to which the Trustee of Mr Graham’s sequestration had been granted an order for possession. Mr Graham appealed, arguing that the judge had been wrong to apply Scottish law, which must give rise to situations that are manifestly unfair and thus offends public policy. HHJ Behrens endorsed the original decision, satisfied that the judge had correctly concluded that this was not an exceptional case requiring departure from the principle of modified universalism; he had been correct to apply Scottish law. “The fact that Scottish law chose to do this by reference to ‘the family home’ rather than the English law reference to ‘the sole or principal residence of the bankrupt, the bankrupt’s spouse or civil partner or a former spouse or civil partner of the bankrupt’ does not seem to me to come within a measurable distance of offending public policy or a fundamental principle of English insolvency law. As I have indicated the only difference between the 2 sections are the rights afforded to the bankrupt where he alone occupies the family home. Both jurisdictions provide protection where there is occupation by a spouse, civil partner or children. To my mind this difference is not fundamental to English insolvency law, nor does it offend public policy or create manifest unfairness” (paragraph 26).

Limitation period not applicable in case of director dishonesty

Vivendi SA & Anor v Richards & Bloch ([2013] EWHC 3006 (Ch)) (9 October 2013)

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWHC/Ch/2013/3006.html

Claims for breach of fiduciary duty succeeded against a director and shadow director in a fairly complex, but not extraordinary, case. However, personally what I learned from it was that the usual six-year limitation period did not apply as Mr Justice Newey had concluded that the director and shadow director had engaged in dishonest conduct. The payments in question were made between March 2004 and February 2005 and the company went into liquidation in the middle of 2005, but proceedings were not issued until May 2011.

Winding up order not the only solution for “deadlock” company

Maresca v Brookfield Development and Construction Limited & Anor ([2013] EWHC 3151 (Ch)) (16 October 2013)

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWHC/Ch/2013/3151.html

Mrs Maresca sought the winding up of Brookfield Development and Construction Limited (“BDC”) on the ground that its affairs had been conducted in a way that was unfairly prejudicial to her or alternatively on the just and equitable ground.

The personal relationship between Mrs Maresca and the other shareholder/director had broken down and Mr Justice Norris did consider “that on Mrs Maresca’s contributories’ petition she is entitled to relief by the winding up of the company and (in the absence of any other remedy) it would be just and equitable that the company should be wound up. However I consider that there is another remedy available to her and that she would be acting unreasonably in seeking to have BDC wound up instead of pursuing that other remedy: section 125(2) Insolvency Act 1986” (paragraph 40). With aplomb, Norris J then proceeded to quantify Mrs Maresca’s claim as a creditor based on the facts before him, leading to an order that, if BDC paid her £10,000 by 1 December 2013, then she is bound to transfer her share in BDC to the other shareholder and BDC is not to be wound up.

Norris J ended his judgment with a lesson: “I would readily acknowledge that there is a degree of approximation in this. But I have seen my task as providing a just outcome according to law by the application of resources appropriate to the dispute. Further refinement would come at a cost that would be ruinous to the parties (who have probably devoted to this case more than it is worth). Those who present petitions of this sort for companies like BDC must understand that that is likely to be the approach adopted: and would be wise to adopt the same approach in settlement negotiations” (paragraph 51).


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(1) Court-appointed receiver entitled to payment as officer of the court after discharge; (2) Mothballing business not an ETO reason for dismissals; (3) Wife’s statutory demand set aside as potentially viable defence that she was not properly advised; and (4) A VAT decision survives appeal

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Still catching up post-holiday, some court decisions…

Glatt & Ors v Sinclair: Court-appointed receiver continued as officer of the court after discharge and thus was entitled to be paid from receivership assets
Kavanagh & Ors v Crystal Palace FC (2000) Ltd & Ors: Tribunal decision reversed: redundancies made to mothball a business with a view to a going concern sale (whether sooner or much later) did not constitute an ETO reason [UPDATE 26/11/2013: see the more recent post – http://wp.me/p2FU2Z-4I – for a summary of the Court of Appeal’s decision reversing this judgment]
Welsh v Bank of Ireland (UK) Plc: a Northern Ireland case acting as a reminder to lenders seeking PGs from spouses
HMRC & Ford Motor Co Ltd v Brunel Motor Co Ltd: an appeal against a VAT Tribunal decision is dismissed

Court-appointed receiver entitled to payment as officer of the court after discharge

Glatt & Ors v Sinclair [2013] EWCA Civ 241 (26 March 2013)

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWCA/Civ/2013/241.html

Summary: Although a receiver appointed by the court under the Criminal Justice Act 1988 was discharged in 2006, he was entitled to be paid from the receivership assets his remuneration and expenses (subject to the court’s approval of the quantum) incurred after discharge on the basis that “he continues to be an officer of the court (and subject to the supervision of the court) to the extent that he still has functions to perform with a view to a final conclusion of the administration of the receivership.”

The Detail: In 2006, Mr Glatt successfully appealed against a confiscation order, which was set aside; this was swiftly followed by the discharge of a 2001 receivership order made under the Criminal Justice Act 1988. There followed a number of disputes between Mr Glatt and the former receiver, in particular regarding the Receiver’s entitlement to exercise a lien over the assets covered by the receivership order to meet his remuneration and costs. In December 2010, an order found in favour of the receiver for his costs plus interest and, after further consideration by a costs judge, another order was granted in June 2012 confirming that the 2010 order did extend to the receiver’s post-discharge remuneration, expenses and disbursements, and that the receiver was entitled to payment out of the receivership assets.

In this appeal, the appellants sought to argue that the court had no power to order payment of post-discharge remuneration and expenses.

Firstly, Lord Justice Davis did not believe it would be just to allow the appellants to argue this point. He felt that the appellants could have been in no doubt that the receiver had proceeded on the basis that he was entitled to claim post-discharge remuneration and expenses; they had had an earlier opportunity to debate the point, but had not. Nevertheless, Davis LJ proceeded to consider the question of the receiver’s entitlement.

The judge noted that there may be a number of tasks required of a receiver post-discharge, for example the preparation and filing of closing accounts, and it was his view that: “Where a receivership order made under the Criminal Justice Act 1988 is discharged, the receiver continues to be an officer of the court (and subject to the supervision of the court) to the extent that he still has functions to perform with a view to a final conclusion of the administration of the receivership. It would be a wholly unsatisfactory and arbitrary state of affairs were it to be otherwise” (paragraph 41). In this case, the significant post-discharge work of the receiver had been substantially in dealing with the appellants’ challenges on issues such as ownership of assets and the extent of the lien. “In my view, therefore, the general principle being that the receiver looks to payment from assets under the control of the court (not from the parties), the receiver here continued, after discharge, to act as an officer of the court and to be subject to its supervision in and about the enforcement of his lien” (paragraph 44), although the asset-owner was not left entirely without remedy, as the receiver’s remuneration and expenses were still subject to the court’s approval.

“Mothballing” for future going concern sale not an ETO reason for dismissals

Kavanagh & Ors v Crystal Palace FC (2000) Limited & Ors [2012] UKEAT 0354 (20 November 2012)

http://www.bailii.org/uk/cases/UKEAT/2012/0354_12_2011.html

Summary: The appeal judge decided that the Tribunal had erred in law in misapplying the facts it had found to the statutory regime. Following Spaceright v Baillavoine, an economic, technical or organisational (“ETO”) reason must be an intention to change the workforce and to continue to conduct the business, as distinct from the purpose of selling it. In this case, an intention to mothball the club with a view to selling it as a going concern – whether to purchasers already on the scene or others later – should have led the Tribunal to a conclusion that there was no ETO reason and thus the liabilities should have passed from the transferor to the transferee.

The Detail: Although an apparently old decision, it has only recently appeared on BAILII. The company’s administration began in January 2010 and over the next few months the administrator attempted to sell the club, but it proved difficult mainly because the sale was dependent upon the purchasers also acquiring the stadium, the sale of which was not in the administrator’s control.

When the sale had not been completed at the end of the football season, the administrator decided to “mothball” the club. He prepared to make the majority of the staff redundant and the potential purchasers were warned of the plan and invited to avoid this eventuality by providing ongoing funding and finalising a purchase of the stadium. In response, the potential purchasers suggested that it might be best for them to withdraw their bid in the hope that someone else might come forward in the short time left. The Honourable Mr Justice Wilkie at this appeal said: “It is clear that what was going on, to some extent, was by way of brinkmanship” (paragraph 8). The administrator explained to the press that due to lack of funds there was no alternative but to make staff redundant and that the players would have to be next, which likely would result in the potential purchasers withdrawing. The first Tribunal commented that the growing media and public pressure had the “desired effect and an agreement for sale of the stadium was made within a few days” (paragraph 11), with the club’s sale and the CVA approval following thereafter.

The first Tribunal had concluded that the administrator’s primary reason for the redundancies was to mothball the club in the hope that it could be sold some time in the future and that it was not in the administrator’s contemplation that publicity of the redundancies might lead to the swift sale of the stadium and consequently the club. Wilkie J commented that this “is a wholly surprising conclusion” that “flies in the face of the evidence” (paragraphs 29 and 30). However, he continued that this divergence in opinions between himself and the Tribunal judge made no real difference, because, either way, the administrator still intended to sell the club as a going concern, whether to the existing potential purchasers or to others some time in the future. “It is very clear from all the findings of fact that the Tribunal made that the only possible conclusion that they could draw was that the dismissal of the Claimants was for the purpose of selling the business, albeit it was not at that stage certain that there would be a sale, nor necessarily to whom the sale would be, but, in our judgment, by reason of the authorities to which we have been referred, that is not relevant for the purposes of the application of Regulations 4 and 7” (paragraph 31).

The key authority to which Wilkie J referred was the case of Spaceright Europe Ltd v Baillavoine and Anor, which concluded that “for an ETO reason to be available, there must be an intention to change the workforce and to continue to conduct the business, as distinct from the purpose of selling it”. However, in this case the administrator had no intention to continue to conduct the business as such “but to preserve it so that it could, in new hands, if that came about, resume the conduct of business” (paragraph 30). Thus the judge concluded that the Tribunal had erred in law in misapplying the facts to the statutory regime; it should have concluded that the dismissals were not for an ETO reason but with a view to sale or liquidation; and therefore the liability for the various claims should have passed from the transferor to the transferee.

[UPDATE 26/11/2013: The Court of Appeal reversed this decision on 13/11/2013 (http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWCA/Civ/2013/1410.html), which is the subject of a more recent post: http://wp.me/p2FU2Z-4I. The appeal judges distinguished between the facts of Spaceright and this case, in relation to which they were satisfied that the dismissals were for an ETO reason; the dismissals had been necessary to reduce the wage bill in order to continue running the business.]

A knowledge of case law helps when giving advice!

Welsh v Bank of Ireland (UK) Plc [2013] NIMaster 6 (11 March 2013)

http://www.bailii.org/nie/cases/NIHC/Master/2013/6.html

Summary: In this Northern Ireland case, Ms Welsh succeeded in her application to have set aside a statutory demand in pursuit of monies owed under a personal guarantee of a loan to her husband. As the Bank had not evidenced that all of the core minimum requirements described in Etridge with regard to obtaining proper legal advice had been met, the judge felt that Ms Welsh had a potentially viable defence, which was sufficient cause to order the setting aside of the statutory demand.

The Detail: Ms Welsh applied to have the Bank’s statutory demand against her set aside on the ground that the Bank had constructive notice of alleged undue influence and/or misrepresentation by her husband and that she did not receive proper legal advice prior to signing the personal guarantee, which was the subject of the statutory demand.

Master Kelly noted that “an applicant debtor need only demonstrate a genuine arguable case, or a potentially viable defence to the dispute requiring investigation, to succeed in preventing legal proceedings issuing by way of insolvency proceedings. It follows therefore, that in the case of an application to set aside a statutory demand, the hearing is not for the purposes of a trial of the dispute; rather it is for the court to determine whether the applicant’s grounds for disputing the debt constitute a potentially viable defence” (paragraph 16). The judge looked to the case of The Royal Bank of Scotland v Etridge (No 2) for the core minimum requirements of a lender when a wife offers to guarantee her husband’s debts. In this case, the Bank had not evidenced any direct communication with Ms Welsh and the solicitor’s confirmation of advice in a letter after the guarantee had been signed was not sufficient evidence to prove that all the core minimum requirements had been met (it also cannot have helped that the solicitor admitted that he was not familiar with the Etridge case). Consequently, the judge felt that Ms Welsh had an arguable case that would require a full trial. As she had demonstrated a potentially viable defence, the judge ordered that the statutory demand be set aside.

And finally… briefly… a VAT case

HMRC & Ford Motor Company Limited v Brunel Motor Company Limited (in administrative receivership) [2013] UKUT 006 (TCC) (19 March 2013)

http://www.bailii.org/uk/cases/UKUT/TCC/2013/6.html

Summary: The Upper Tribunal dismissed an appeal to a First Tier Tribunal decision of September 2011 that Ford’s actions to re-possess vehicles subject to a supply agreement (which had terminated automatically due to the receivership) and issue credit notes were unilateral acts and thus there had been no agreed rescission of the agreement with the consequence that the credit notes had no effect for VAT purposes.