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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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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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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Not the Nortel/Lehman Decision

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I am not going to comment on the Supreme Court’s decision in Nortel and Lehman, because, as with Eurosail, it has had plenty of coverage already. Instead, I’ll cover a few lesser-known cases, with a couple of Scotland ones taking the top-billing:

• Scotland: Re The Scottish Coal Company Ltd – Liquidator entitled to disclaim land and onerous licences (UPDATE: this was overturned on 12 December 2013 ([2013]CSIH 108). A summary of that reclaiming motion is at http://wp.me/p2FU2Z-5v.)
• Scotland: Re Station Properties Ltd – judge not convinced case made out for para 80 exit from administration and administrators directed to issue revised proposals to cover change of administration objective
Re GP Aviation Group International Ltd – appeals against tax assessments are not property capable of assignment by a liquidator
USDAW v WW Realisations 1 Ltd – reversal of Woolworths/Ethel Austin decisions on redundancy consultation legislation: number of redundancies at each location not as relevant as total number
Evans & Evans v Finance-U-Limited – creditor who proved in full in bankruptcy did not renounce security
• Scotland: Re William Rose – Trustee’s late application to extend 3-year period could not reverse property re-vesting
• Northern Ireland: Tipping v BDG Group Ltd – late application for protective award allowed, as ignorance of the law considered reasonable

However, if you do want to read a summary of Nortel/Lehman, I think that 11 Stone Buildings’ briefing note covers the subject well: http://www.11sb.com/news/24-july-2013—nortel—lehman-supreme-court-decision–guidance-on-insolvency-expenses-and-provable-claims.asp. I’m sure most IPs are breathing a sigh of relief and waiting, a little more comfortably now, for the Game appeal…

Finally, a Scottish precedent for a liquidator’s power to disclaim (UPDATE: … not so fast!)

Scotland: Re. The Scottish Coal Company Limited (11 July 2013) ([2013] CSOH 124)

http://www.bailii.org/scot/cases/ScotCS/2013/2013CSOH124.html

Liquidators sought directions on whether they could abandon or disclaim land and/or onerous water use licences, in order to avoid the substantial costs involved in maintaining and restoring the sites, which the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (“SEPA”) would require before it would accept a surrender of its licences. SEPA and other bodies made representations, conscious that, if the liquidators succeeded, significant costs might fall to the taxpayer.

Scottish readers will be aware that there is no express statutory provision available to liquidators of Scottish companies to disclaim onerous property, in contrast to the position of liquidators of English and Welsh companies who may disclaim under S178 of the Insolvency Act 1986. Counsel in this case were also unable to find any case law or textbook showing a liquidator of a Scottish company exercising such a power.

Lord Hodge drew a comparison with the position of a Trustee in a sequestration, which has power to abandon land, and contemplated its effect in relation to S169(2) of the Act, which provides that “in a winding up by the court in Scotland, the liquidator has (subject to the rules) the same powers as a trustee on a bankruptcy estate”. The judge felt that it was not an exact comparison, as the effect of a trustee’s abandonment was to reverse the vesting so that the bankrupt owns the property. However, there is no vesting of property in a liquidator, so if he were somehow to bring to an end the company’s ownership of the property, it would become ownerless. Although the judge saw the potential for abuse as a means of avoiding obligations, he saw no reason in principle why land could not be made ownerless, given that the Crown has a right to waive ownership of bona vacantia, which would render such property ownerless.

The judge then considered whether the liquidators could avoid the obligations imposed under the Water Environment (Controlled Activities) (Scotland) Regulations 2005 (“CAR”) in seeking to surrender the licences. The judge described powerful considerations that might have persuaded him to hold that the liquidators could not disclaim the licences, one reason being that he thought “that there is a strong public interest in the maintenance of a healthy environment, the remediation of pollution and the protection of biodiversity. There is a conflict between the results sought by the directive and the insolvency regime. I do not think that the insolvency regime has any primacy which means that CAR can exclude a liquidator’s power to disclaim only if, like section 36 of the Coal Industry Act 1994, it says so expressly” (paragraph 51). However, the judge recognised that “if the relevant provisions of CAR have the effect of (a) removing a liquidator’s right to disclaim the property of a company and refuse to perform an obligation in relation to that property and (b) creating a new liquidation expense which would have to be met before the claims of preferential creditors, it seems to me that it would modify the law on reserved matters… It would also be altering the order of priority on liquidation expenses in rule 4.67 of the Insolvency (Scotland) Rules 1986 if… the remuneration of the liquidator were to rank equally with the obligation to spend money to comply with CAR” (paragraph 64).

Consequently, the judge concluded that the liquidators could disclaim the sites and abandon the water use licences along with the obligations under CAR. He also endorsed the liquidators’ proposed mechanism for effecting the abandonment, which involved giving notice to all interested parties, advertising the fact so that locals were made aware of the abandoned sites, and sending a notice to the Keeper of the Registers in Scotland.

(UPDATE 09/01/14: this decision was overturned in a reclaiming motion ([2013] CSIH 108) on 12/12/13 – see http://wp.me/p2FU2Z-5v.)

Scotland: More work required of administrators to exit via Para 80 and administrators directed to submit revised proposals to address change in objective

Re. Station Properties Limited (In Administration) (12 July 2013) ([2013] CSOH 120)

http://www.bailii.org/scot/cases/ScotCS/2013/2013CSOH120.html

The administrators’ proposals, which included that they thought that the objective set out in Paragraph 3(1)(c) of Schedule B1 would be achieved, were approved at a creditors’ meeting. Subsequently, it appeared to the administrators that all creditors should receive full repayment of their debts, as the directors had secured funding, and therefore they planned to exit the administration and hand control of the company back to the directors. The quantum of the claim of one creditor, Dunedin Building Company Limited (“DB”), was subject to a legal action. DB objected to the administrators’ plan arguing that they should adjudicate on its claim before ending the administration.

The administrators sought directions as to whether in the circumstances they could end the administration under Paragraph 80 of Schedule B1 on the basis that the purpose had been sufficiently achieved notwithstanding DB’s objection.

Lord Hodge felt that an administrator could not come to this conclusion “without obtaining a clear understanding of the directors’ business plan and cash flow forecasts and forming an independent view, in the light of the best evidence reasonably available, whether that plan and those forecasts are realistic” (paragraph 20). He also felt that “It would be consistent with current accountancy practice to require the directors to produce a business plan and forecasts for at least 12 months and to attempt to look into the future beyond that time to identify whether there was anything which was likely to undermine the company’s viability” (paragraph 22). The ultimate value of DB’s claim was a factor in assessing the company’s future cash flow solvency, so the judge felt either that the administrators should await the outcome of the legal action or they “should take steps to enable themselves to reach an informed and up to date view on the likely value of that claim” (paragraph 23) before they could decide whether the company had been rescued as a going concern.

Lord Hodge also felt that the administrators had to deal with the change in administration objective – from Para 3(1)(c), as set out in their proposals, to Para 3(1)(a) – by issuing revised proposals under Para 54. “I am not persuaded that the obligation on an administrator under para 4 of Schedule B1 to ‘perform his functions as quickly and efficiently as is reasonably practicable’ provides any justification for bypassing para 54 even if an administrator were of the view that a dissenting creditor would be outvoted at the creditors’ meeting” (paragraph 30).

Although personally, I see this as a significant conclusion, particularly as I don’t think I’ve seen any administrator issue revised proposals, it should be remembered that the judge felt that, in the circumstances of this case, the change in administration objective was a substantial change, particularly because DB had been in dispute with the directors regarding its claim and the change in objective could see the company reverting to the directors’ control before the claim was determined.

Right to appeal a tax assessment is not property capable of being assigned

Re. GP Aviation Group International Limited (In Liquidation): Williams v Glover & Pearson (4 June 2013) ([2013] EWHC 1447 (Ch))

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWHC/Ch/2013/1447.html

Former directors asked the liquidator to appeal against HMRC’s corporation tax assessments, but the liquidator did not have the finance to fund the appeals, so the former directors asked the liquidator to assign the appeals to them. The liquidator sought directions on whether he had the power to assign the appeals.

HH Judge Pelling QC concluded that the right of appeal was not property within the meaning of the Insolvency Act and so was no capable of being assigned. He noted that the liability, to which the right of appeal related, could not be assigned and the right of appeal could not be assigned separately. He stated that, even if it had been capable of assignment, he would not have sanctioned it, as: “the assignment of the right to appeal without being able to assign or novate the liability would place the office holder in a potentially invidious position – an unreasonable and intransigent position might be adopted in relation to the appeal that might expose the Company to penalties, interest and costs that could otherwise have been avoided. This risk is not one that the court should sanction given the potential implications for creditors as a whole” (paragraph 32). The judge made it clear that his judgment applied strictly to the bare right to appeal in this case. “Different considerations may apply where the liability can be novated or where the appeal right is one that is incidental to a property right that can be assigned (for example a right to appeal a planning decision in relation to land that is sold by an office holder)” (paragraph 33).

Less than 20 redundancies at any one site did not avoid consultation requirements where more than 20 were made redundant over all sites

USDAW & Anor v WW Realisation 1 Limited & Ors (30 May 2013) ([2013] UKEAT 0547 and 0548/12)

http://www.bailii.org/uk/cases/UKEAT/2013/0547_12_3005.html

I appreciate I’m behind the times on this one, which has been widely publicised in the past couple of months.

Earlier Tribunals had decided that there was no duty to consult under TULRCA with staff who worked at different sites where less than 20 redundancies were planned at those sites even though the total number of dismissals across the company was over 20. The Tribunals dealt with two separate cases involving such redundancies of staff who had worked in Ethel Austin and Woolworths stores. The consequence had been that 4,400 workers had been excluded from awards for the companies’ failures to consult, which had been granted to c.24,000 of their former colleagues who had worked at larger stores and head offices.

These decisions were overturned on appeals, although the judge expressed some disappointment that the respondents did not attend or comment, feeling that it put the Tribunal at a disadvantage. In particular, the judge noted that, as a consequence of the appeals, the Secretary of State for BIS would be faced with the prospect of paying out 60 or 90 days’ pay for 4,400 people.

The key issue was discerning the purpose behind S188(1) of TULRCA, which refers to “20 or more employees at one establishment”, which the Appeal Tribunal decided was more restrictive than the EC Directive, which was intended to be implemented into domestic legislation by means of S188. The judge concluded that “the clear Parliamentary intention was to implement the Directive correctly” (paragraph 50). Therefore, “the only way to deliver the core objective of protection of the dismissed workers in the two cases on appeal is to construe ‘establishment’ as meaning the retail business of each employer. This is a fact-sensitive approach which may not be the same in every case but it is consistent with the core objective as applied to the facts in these two cases” (paragraph 52). However, the Tribunal preferred a solution that made “the point more clearly and simply so that it can be applied without detailed consideration of the added fact sensitive dimension. We hold that the words ‘at one establishment’ should be deleted from section 188 as a matter of construction pursuant to our obligations to apply the Directive’s purpose” (paragraph 53), although they acknowledged that this might be a step too far.

(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.)

Creditor who proved in full in a bankruptcy did not renounce its security

Evans & Evans v Finance-U-Limited (18 July 2013) ([2013] EWCA Civ 869)

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWCA/Civ/2013/869.html

In 2007, Mr and Mrs Evans purchased a car financed by a loan from Finance-U-Limited (“FUL”) and a bill of sale granting FUL security over the car. Mr Evans went bankrupt later in 2007 and Mrs Evans went bankrupt in 2008. FUL proved in Mr Evans’ bankruptcy for the full sum due under the loan agreement; the existence of security was disclosed on the proof, but no value was put on it. The claim was admitted in full and FUL later received a small dividend. After Mrs Evans’ discharge from bankruptcy, she continued to pay monthly instalments to FUL until mid-2010. In 2012, the Evans were successful in seeking a declaration that the car was their property free from any claim by FUL on the basis that, because FUL had proved in full in Mr Evans’ bankruptcy, it no longer had a right to enforce its security over the car. FUL appealed the declaration.

Lord Justice Patten referred to the case of Whitehead v Household Mortgage Corporation Plc in which it was decided that the acceptance of a dividend from an IVA “did not amount to an agreement or election by the creditor to treat as unsecured that part of the debt in respect of which the dividend had been paid” (paragraph 20). He felt that “FUL was not therefore required to renounce its security as the price of being able to prove for the balance of the debt nor was that the effect of it proving for the entire amount due. It therefore retained its right to enforce the security following Mr Evans’ bankruptcy but did not exercise that right whilst Mrs Evans continued to meet the instalments” (paragraph 21). He therefore reversed the decision at first instance and, as the term of the loan had expired, he decided that FUL was entitled to possess the car free from any statutory requirement to give notice.

Scotland: impossible to undo the reinvesting of a family home in the debtor

Re. Sequestrated Estate of William Rose (4 June 2013) ([2013] ScotSC 42)

http://www.bailii.org/scot/cases/ScotSC/2013/42.html

The Trustee sought a warrant to serve an application under S39A(7) of the Bankruptcy (Scotland) Act 1985 on the debtor and his spouse. The debtor was sequestrated on 20 May 2008, so the Trustee sought to extend the 3-year time period after which the family home is reinvested in the debtor, albeit that the 3 years had expired before the Trustee made his application. The Trustee explained that he had failed to act sooner as a consequence of an “administrative error” (paragraph 4.3).

Sheriff Philip Mann was “unmoved” by the submissions on behalf of the Trustee: “The plain fact of the matter is that, on the Trustee’s averments, the property has already reverted to the ownership of the debtor and it is now too late to prevent that from happening. The Trustee is not trying to prevent that from happening. He is, in effect, trying to reverse that which has already happened in consequence of section 39A(2). Section 39A(7) says nothing about reversing the effect of section 39A(2)” (paragraph 5.4). The Sheriff therefore concluded that the Trustee’s application was incompetent and he refused to grant the warrant.

Northern Ireland: ignorance of remedy for company’s failure to consult was “reasonable”, thus five months’ late claim allowed

Tipping v BDG Group Limited (In Liquidation) ([2013] NIIT 2351/12) (19 April 2013)

http://www.bailii.org/nie/cases/NIIT/2013/2351_12IT.html

Whilst it is a Northern Ireland case, so of limited application, I thought it was worth mentioning briefly that the former employee succeeded in claiming compensation for the company’s failure to consult, despite his claim being lodged five months after the “primary limitation period” for lodging a complaint with the Tribunal.

The reason for the delay was that the claimant had not been aware of the protective award. “Courts and tribunals have consistently held that ignorance as to one’s entitlement to make a complaint of unfair dismissal is not reasonable ignorance. (This is on the basis that the general public now are well aware of entitlements to make unfair dismissal complaints). However, the situation is different in respect of protective award complaints. The availability of remedies in respect of collective redundancy consultation failures, the threshold (of 20 redundancies), and the circumstances in which an individual, as distinct from a trade union or employee forum representative, can seek such remedies, are all matters which are not generally well known” (paragraphs 16 and 17) and therefore the Tribunal held that it could allow the complaint, albeit that, in the judge’s view, the further period of five months was “close to the boundaries of what I consider to be ‘reasonable’” (paragraph 21).


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(1) Legal charge for bankruptcy annulment service unenforceable; (2) Employment Appeal Tribunal acknowledges company’s conflicting statutory duties; (3) English court leaves US to decide bankrupt’s COMI; (4) company restoration did not avoid administration-liquidation time gap; (5) what are TUPE “affected employees”?; (6) more on Jersey administration appeal

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Sorry guys, I’ve been storing up a few court decisions:

Consolidated Finance v Collins: legal charge resulting from bankruptcy annulment service unenforceable
AEI Cables v GMB: protective awards reduced in recognition of company’s conflicting statutory duties
Kemsley v Barclays Bank Plc: English court leaves US to decide bankrupt’s COMI
RLoans LLP v Registrar of Companies: company restoration did not avoid 2-year gap between administration and liquidation
I Lab Facilities v Metcalfe: redundant employees in non-transferred part of business not TUPE “affected employees”
HSBC Bank Plc v Tambrook Jersey: Court of Appeal’s reasons for reversing rejection of Jersey court’s request for administration

Out of the frying pan into the fire for bankrupts achieving annulments

Consolidated Finance Limited v Collins & Ors ([2013] EWCA Civ 473) 8 May 2013

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWCA/Civ/2013/475.html

Summary: Appellants were successful in resisting the attempts of Consolidated Finance Limited (“Consolidated”) to enforce mortgages over their homes, mortgages which had arisen as a consequence of engaging the Bankruptcy Protection Fund Limited (“BPF”, “Protection”) to secure annulments of their bankruptcies. The agreements were found to be refinancing agreements and thus subject to the Consumer Credit Act 1974, the requirements of which Consolidated had not met.

Whilst the arguments centred around the construction and effects of the agreements, of greater interest to me are the judge’s criticisms of the transactions which, at least in the case examined as typical, were in his judgment manifestly to the bankrupt’s and her husband’s prejudice. He felt that some of the companies’ literature was misleading and noted that it made no mention of the “extraordinarily high rates of interest”. He also criticised the solicitors involved in the process, questioning whether they could avoid the duty to advise their clients, who were clearly entering into a transaction that was manifestly to their disadvantage, and suggested that they may have had “a conflict of irreconcilable interests” given their relationship with Consolidated and BPF.

The Detail: Five sets of appellants sought to resist Consolidated’s attempts to enforce mortgages over their homes. The judge focussed on the facts of Mr and Mrs Collins’ case as typical of all claims.

Mrs Collins had been made bankrupt owing a total of £13,544 to her creditors. She engaged the services of BPF to help her secure an annulment, given that the equity in her jointly-owned home was more than sufficient to cover all debts. Mrs Collins’ bankruptcy was annulled by reason of BPF settling all sums due by means of funds totalling £24,674 received from Consolidated. Under the terms of a Facility Letter, Consolidated agreed to make available a loan of £32,000 (which was also used to settle BPF’s fees), which was required to be repaid within three months after drawdown. Mr and Mrs Collins were unable to refinance their liabilities under the Facility Letter supported by a Legal Charge, resulting in Consolidated filing the claim, some 2.5 years later, for a total at that time of £77,385 inclusive of interest at 4% per month after the first three months (at 2.5% per month). The Facility Letter also provided for a so-called hypothecation fee of 2.5% of the principal and an exit fee of the greater of £3,000 and 2.5% of the principal.

Amongst other things, the appellants contended that the agreements under which they were alleged to have incurred the liabilities were regulated for the purposes of the Consumer Credit Act 1974 (“the Act”) and did not comply with the requirements of the Act. Consolidated’s case was that it was a “restricted-use” agreement, which would lead it to be exempted from the requirements of the Act. The Collins’ argument was that, if anything, it was a refinancing agreement, which would mean that it was not exempt.

Sir Stanley Burton concluded from the documents that Mrs Collins was indebted to BPF for the sums advanced at least until the annulment order was made. “The effect of the Facility Letter was to replace her indebtedness to Protection, which was then payable, with that owed to Consolidated. In other words, the purpose of the agreement between Mrs Collins and Consolidated was to refinance her indebtedness to Protection” (paragraph 47). Consequently, it was a regulated agreement and it was common ground that it did not comply with the statutory requirements and was unenforceable in the present proceedings.

The judge felt inclined to air his concerns at the “unfairness” of the transactions between the Collins and BPF/Consolidated. He stated that, “at least in the case of Mr and Mrs Collins, the transactions were in my judgment manifestly to their prejudice… If they failed to refinance their liabilities to the companies, as has happened, and the Legal Charges granted to Consolidated were enforceable, it would not only be Mrs Collins’ equity in their home that would be in peril, but also that of Mr Collins. In other words, they were likely to lose their home. This was the very result that, according to the companies’ literature, entering into agreements with them would avoid, but with the added prejudice that the far greater sums sought by the companies would have to be paid out of the proceeds of sale of their home as against the sums due in the bankruptcy (for which Mr Collins had no liability)” (paragraph 56).

He also noted that the companies incur no risk in making the advance to the bankrupt, as they will only do so if there is sufficient equity in the property, and therefore “to suggest that they take any relevant risk, as they do by describing their services as ‘No win no fee’, is misleading” (paragraph 57). “Moreover, the companies’ advance literature… make no mention of the extraordinarily high rates of interest they charge, rates that are even more striking given that the indebtedness is fully secured” (paragraph 58).

The judge also criticised the solicitors who acted for Mrs Collins and who were introduced to her by BPF, a relationship which, he suggested, may have given them “a conflict of irreconcilable interests”. “It must, and certainly should, have been obvious to them that for the reasons I have given the transactions with Mr and Mrs Collins were manifestly to their disadvantage. Mrs Collins was their client. I raise the question whether in such circumstances a solicitor can properly avoid a duty to advise his client by excluding that duty from his retainer, as LF sought to do” (paragraph 59).

Employment Appeal Tribunal acknowledges insolvent employer’s Catch-22, but only drops protective awards by a third

AEI Cables Limited v GMB & Ors ([2013] UKEAT 0375/12) (5 April 2013)

http://www.bailii.org/uk/cases/UKEAT/2013/0375_12_0504.html

Summary: Having consulted IPs and failed to seek additional funding, the company decided to make employees in one division redundant and keep another division running with a view to proposing a CVA. The CVA was approved, but the dismissed employees were granted the maximum 90 days protective awards, as the company had failed completely to consult with the trade unions/employee representatives as required by the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992.

The company sought to have the protective awards reduced. The Appeal Tribunal acknowledged that it was unreasonable to expect the company to have continued to trade while insolvent to enable it to comply with the consultation requirements of the Act – the company could have consulted, at most, for 10 days – and that the Employment Tribunal should have considered why the company acted as it did. The protective awards were reduced to 60 days.

The Detail: Around the middle of May 2011, insolvency practitioners warned the company that, unless they took action, they risked trading whilst insolvent. Following a failure to secure additional funding from the bank, the decision was made to close the company’s cable plant, leading to the redundancy of 124 employees, but continue to trade the domestic division, which employed 189 people, and seek to agree a CVA. On 27 May 2011, the 124 employees were dismissed with immediate effect and later a CVA was approved on 24 June 2011.

An Employment Tribunal found that the company had failed to consult with trade unions and employee representatives as required by S188 of the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992. The company raised no special circumstances in an attempt to excuse non-compliance, but it did appeal the length of the protective awards, which had been granted for the full 90 days.

The reasoning of the Appeal Tribunal went like this: “We very much bear in mind that the purpose of making a protective award is penal, it is not compensatory. It is penal in the sense that it is designed to encourage employers to comply with their obligations under sections 188 and 189. We also bear in mind that the starting point in considering the length of a protective award is 90 days. Nonetheless Employment Tribunals are bound to take account of mitigating factors and are bound to ask the important question why did the respondent act as it did. Had the Employment Tribunal asked this question it could not possibly have ignored the fact and the conclusion that the company simply was unable to trade lawfully after the advice it had received on 25 May. In those circumstances, it is clearly wrong for the Employment Tribunal to anticipate that a 90 day consultation period could have started” (paragraph 22). In this case, the Appeal Tribunal noted that the company could have started consultation around 17 to 20 May, when it seems the company first consulted the IPs, but there had been no consultation or no real provision of information at all before the dismissals on 27 May. “However, because in our opinion the Employment Tribunal failed to have sufficient regard to the insolvency and the consequences of trading and that a consultation period of 90 was simply not possible, the award of 90 days cannot stand” (paragraph 23). The protective awards were reduced to 60 days.

English court leaves US to decide bankrupt’s COMI

Kemsley v Barclays Bank Plc & Ors ([2013] EWHC 1274 (Ch)) (15 May 2013)

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWHC/Ch/2013/1274.html

Summary: An English bankrupt sought to have US proceedings against him restrained. The English court declined to intervene, observing that the Trustee’s ongoing application in the US Bankruptcy Court for recognition under UNCITRAL of the English bankruptcy would decide the bankrupt’s fate.

The Detail: On 26 March 2012, Kemsley was made bankrupt on his own petition. Shortly before this, Barclays commenced proceedings against him in New York (and later in separate proceedings in Florida). Kemsley’s Trustee applied to the US Bankruptcy Court for recognition under UNCITRAL of the English bankruptcy as a foreign main proceeding. At the time of this hearing, judgment on the Trustee’s application had not yet been given, but the New York proceedings had been adjourned awaiting the outcome.

Kemsley applied to the English court to restrain Barclays from continuing with either the New York or the Florida proceedings. The issue for Kemsley was that, although he would be discharged from his English bankruptcy on 26 March 2013, if Barclays were successful in the New York proceedings, that judgment would be enforceable for 20 years in the US and other jurisdictions that would recognise it.

Mr Justice Roth noted a couple of authorities, which followed the principle that “there must be a good reason why the decision to stop foreign proceedings should be made here rather than there. The normal assumption is that the foreign judge is the person best qualified to decide if the proceedings in his court should be allowed to continue. Comity demands a policy of non-intervention” (paragraph 30).

The judge noted that, if the English bankruptcy were recognised as foreign main proceedings on the basis that England was Kemsley’s COMI, the New York and the Florida proceedings would be stayed. But what if the US Court finds that Kemsley’s COMI was the USA? In that case, would it be right for the English court to intervene? As Roth J observed: “either Mr Kemsley’s COMI was in England, in which case an anti-suit injunction is unnecessary; or it was in the United States, in which case I regard such an injunction as wholly inappropriate” (paragraph 50). Consequently, Roth J dismissed the application.

In a postscript to the judgment, it was reported that the Trustee’s application for recognition was refused by the US court. The court found that, at the time of the petition, Kemsley’s COMI was in the USA.

Company restoration of no use to petitioner, as it left a 2-year gap between administration and liquidation

RLoans LLP v Registrar of Companies ([2012] EWHC B33 (Comm)) (30 November 2012)

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWHC/Comm/2012/B33.html

Summary: A creditor sought the restoration of a dissolved company to the register in order to pursue a preference claim. The company had been moved to dissolution from administration in 2010, so the petitioner sought a winding-up order that would follow on immediately from the administration so that the preference claim was not already out of time.

The judge restored the company and ordered the winding-up, but noted that this did not deal with the 2-year gap between insolvency proceedings. This was because he felt that, on filing the form under paragraph 84 of Schedule B1, the administration had ceased, dissolution being a later consequence, and so the eradication of the dissolution merely brought the company back to the position after the end of the administration.

The Detail: To enable a preference claim to be pursued, RLoans LLP sought the restoration of a company to the register and a winding-up order to take effect retrospectively from the date that the former Administrators’ notice of move to dissolution was registered. The transaction that is subject to the preference allegation occurred in March 2006; Administrators were appointed in January 2007 and they submitted the form to move the company to dissolution in June 2010. Therefore, only if the company’s restoration was accompanied by a continuation of insolvency proceedings – either a liquidation following immediately on the cessation of the administration or an extension of the original administration – would the preference claim have any chance due to the timescales involved; it would be of no use to the petitioner if the commencement of the winding-up were the date of restoration.

Mr Registrar Jones had no difficulty deciding that it was just to restore the company to the register. However, he concluded that the resultant fiction that the dissolution had not occurred had no effect on the cessation of the administration: “when paragraph 84 of Schedule B1 to the Act prescribes that the appointment ceases upon registration of the notice, it means that there is no longer any administration in existence. The cessation is not dependent upon dissolution taking place” (paragraph 26). Therefore, there would still be a gap of over two years between the end of the administration and the start of any winding-up, which would not help the petitioner. The judge also felt that the solution did not lie in extending retrospectively the original administration, because the company had ceased to be in administration before its dissolution; all the current direction could do was to restore the company to the position it was in before dissolution.

In the absence of the recipient of the alleged preference, the judge was not prepared to consider suspending the limitation period between the end of the administration and the commencement of liquidation. Therefore, all he did was restore the company to the register and order its winding-up. He also declined to order that the IP waiting in the wings be appointed liquidator: “I only have power to make the appointment if a winding up order is made ‘immediately upon the appointment of an administrator ceasing to have effect’ (see section 140 of the Act). For the reasons set out above, that has not occurred” (paragraph 61).

Another Employment Appeal Tribunal: “affected employees” narrowed for TUPE consultation purposes

I Lab Facilities Limited v Metcalfe & Ors ([2013] UKEAT 0224/12) (25 April 2013)

http://www.bailii.org/uk/cases/UKEAT/2013/0224_12_2504.html

Summary: Staff employed in one part of the business were not “affected employees” under the consultation requirements of TUPE, because they had not been affected by the transfer of the other part of the business, but by the closure of their business. The fact that the original plan had been that their part of the business would also transfer was not relevant, but rather it was what was finally transferred that was relevant for TUPE consultation purposes.

The Detail: I Lab (UK) Limited (“ILUK”) operated a business providing rushes and post-production work to the film and television industry. On 11 June 2009, the post-production staff were given notice of redundancy, but also were told that the plan was that some of them would be hired on new contracts. However it seems that the plan changed; the company was placed into liquidation on 30 July 2009 and on 11 August 2009 assets relating to the rushes part of its business were sold to I Lab Facilities Limited and no new contracts were made with the former post-production staff.

The Employment Tribunal found that ILUK had failed to comply with regulation 13 of the Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) Regulations 2006 (“TUPE”), but the transferee appealed on the ground that the post-production staff were not “affected employees” for the purposes of TUPE, because that part of the business had not transferred, and thus they had not been entitled to consultation. The Appeal Tribunal agreed – the post-production staff had not been affected by the transfer, but by the closure of the business. However, Counsel for the employees argued that it had been the original plan – which would have affected the post-production staff also – that had generated the requirement to consult.

The Appeal Tribunal reasoned: “It is necessary to appreciate that the time at which an employer must comply with the obligations under regulation 13 (2) and (6) is not defined by reference to when he first ‘envisages’ that he will take the relevant ‘measures’. Rather, the obligation is to take the necessary steps ‘long enough before’ the transfer to allow consultation to take place. That being so, it can never be said definitively that the employer is in breach of that obligation until the transfer has occurred” (paragraph 20). Consequently, as the indirect impact of the actual transfer of the rushes business did not make the post-production staff “affected employees”, the appeal was allowed.

Court of Appeal re-opens the way for administrations of overseas companies

HSBC Bank Plc v Tambrook Jersey Limited ([2013] EWCA Civ 576) (22 May 2013)

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWCA/Civ/2013/576.html

Summary: As reported in an earlier post (http://wp.me/p2FU2Z-38), the Court of Appeal overturned a rejection of an application for an Administration Order over a Jersey company.

The Detail: At first instance, Mann J said that an Administration Order could not be made under S426, as the English Court was not being asked to “assist” the Jersey Court in any endeavour as there were no proceedings afoot in Jersey.

In the appeal, Lord Justice Davis expressed the view that, with all respect to Mann J, “his interpretation and approach were unduly and unnecessarily restrictive” (paragraph 35). His first point was that “S426(4) is not by its actual wording applicable (notwithstanding the title to the section) to courts exercising jurisdiction in relating to insolvency law: it is by its wording applicable to courts having jurisdiction” (paragraph 36) and, in any event, Davis J felt that the Jersey court was engaged in an endeavour: “the endeavour was to further the interests of this insolvent company and its creditors and to facilitate the most efficient collection and administration of the Company’s assets” (paragraph 41) and thus the Royal Court of Jersey made the request that it did to the English Court.