Insolvency Oracle

Developments in UK insolvency by Michelle Butler


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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has some valuable points for IPs handling cases of any size and may present a paradigm shift, putting an end to an outdated attitude of how employees should be treated in insolvency situations.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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Exercise of court’s discretion to allow creditor’s action to continue despite Interim Order and Other Judgments

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Some recent court decisions:

Dewji v Banwaitt – under what circumstances will the court allow a creditor’s action to continue despite an IVA Interim Order?
Masters & Beighton v Furber – can a debtor be forced to hand over assets caught by IVA?
Ward Brothers (Malton) Limited v Middleton & Ors – does an IP acting in an informal capacity avoid TUPE?
O’Kane & O’Kane v Rooney – fixed charge receivers’ agents’ “worrying conduct” scuppers sale
Re Hotel Company 42 The Calls Limited – will the court terminate an Administration and hand back the company to the directors despite the Administrators’ wishes for it to continue?
Re ARM Asset Backed Securities SA – does the EC Regulation on Insolvency Proceedings apply when the winding-up petition is based on the just and equitable ground?
Westshield Limited v Mr & Mrs Whitehouse – which takes precedence: a CVA term requiring a Supervisor to decide on set-offs or the enforcement of an Adjudicator’s decision?

Creditor’s interim charging orders made final despite IVA Interim Order

Dewji v Banwaitt (29 November 2013) ([2013] EWHC 3746 (QB))

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWHC/QB/2013/3746.html

Mr Banwaitt had obtained judgment in proceedings against Dr Dewji for fraudulent misrepresentation in relation to an agreement under which Mr Banwaitt had paid to Dr Dewji sums for the purchase of land in Cambodia. Mr Banwaitt then obtained interim charging orders over three properties, but before the charging orders were made final, Dr Dewji was granted an Interim Order. However, at the hearing on the charging orders, the Master granted leave under S252(2)(b) of the Insolvency Act 1986 for Mr Banwaitt’s action to continue and exercised his discretion in making the charging orders final.

Dr Dewji’s request for permission to appeal the charging orders was refused. Mrs Justice Andrews accepted that usually the overriding principle would be that all creditors of a single class should rank equally once a statutory scheme had got underway. However, she noted that “there may be situations in which, despite the Interim Order, the ‘first past the post’ approach is justifiable” (paragraph 45). She suggested some scenarios: where a judgment creditor were seeking to recover monies paid under a contract that had been rescinded for fraud, “the Court might take the view when exercising its discretion that it would not be in the interests of justice to allow the debtor’s other creditors to participate in that share of his estate that was increased at the expense of the party he deceived” (paragraph 29) or where “the asset against which the judgment creditor is seeking to execute judgment falls entirely outside the IVA, so that there is no question of it being shared between the general body of creditors. Another, quite independent, example would be where the IVA was bound to fail, either because the judgment creditor had sufficient voting power to block it by himself, or because the creditors as a whole or a majority of them were bound to regard it as unattractive” (paragraph 39).

What Dr Dewji had proposed for his IVA led the judge to conclude that the Master had been justified in exercising his discretion in favour of the creditor. “The question that the Master had to determine is not whether it would be unfair to let Mr Banwaitt have an advantage over the general body of creditors. It is whether it would be unfair to let Mr Banwaitt, (who, on the evidence before the Master, was the only Investor induced to part with his money for this project by deceit, and who alone has chosen to expend costs in pursuing its recovery from Dr Dewji) obtain final charging orders over property that was not going to be distributed between Dr Dewji’s creditors, but (in the case of one property only, Dale Street) utilised to raise money to pay foreign lawyers to try and recover a substantial sum of money that would then be shared equally between Dr Dewji himself and some of those creditors, including the judgment creditor” (paragraph 47).

IVA debtor was not free to resist realisation of assets

Masters & Beighton v Furber (30 August 2013) ([2013] EWHC 3023 (Ch))

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWHC/Ch/2013/3023.html

The Joint Supervisors of Mr Furber’s IVA sought an order requiring Mr Furber to allow the collection of some of his vehicles that, in accordance with the terms of the IVA, had been sold. The Joint Supervisors had also been granted a power of attorney to enable them to deal with Mr Furber’s assets. Mr Furber refused to allow the vehicles to be collected, claiming that he entered the IVA under pressure and that the vehicles had been sold at an undervalue.

Purle HHJ acknowledged that, in one sense, Mr Furber could choose to default on the IVA, with a potential consequence of being made bankrupt. However, as counsel for the applicant put it, “unless the process of disposal of the vehicles is concluded, there is a risk that the successful bidders will withdraw their bids and thereafter demand return of all monies paid, as well as possibly seeking damages. Ironically, if, as Mr Furber says, the value of the vehicles was higher than the sum that has been achieved by the online auction process then there will be a claim for loss of bargain by the successful bidders” (paragraph 9). With the risk of increasing creditors’ claims in mind, the judge agreed to order the release of the vehicles: “In my judgment, requiring Mr Furber to comply with his obligations under the IVA and the power of attorney will be in the best interests of his creditors generally and maintain the authority of the supervisors who are effectively, if not in law, officers of the court” (paragraph 11).

IPs acting in an advisory capacity not sufficient to avoid TUPE

Ward Brothers (Malton) Limited v Middleton & Ors (16 October 2013) ([2013] UKEAT 0249)

http://www.bailii.org/uk/cases/UKEAT/2013/0249_13_1610.html

Bulmers Transport Limited ceased to trade on a Friday and on the following Monday Ward Brothers (Malton) Limited started to perform Bulmers’ major contracts using some of its former employees. Before Bulmers had ceased to trade, it had been presented with a winding up petition and had sought the advice of IPs. It seems that, although Administration had been contemplated, this was abandoned around the time that trading ceased. Some ten days later, different IPs were appointed Administrators by the QFCH.

The key question for the Appeal Tribunal was: did the involvement of IPs fit the TUPE exception, “where the transferor is the subject of bankruptcy proceedings or any analogous insolvency proceedings which have been instituted with a view to the liquidation of the assets of the transferor and are under the supervision of an insolvency practitioner” (Regulation 8(7) of TUPE)?

The Appeal Tribunal supported the original Tribunal’s conclusion that the first set of IPs had been acting only in an advisory capacity and that Bulmers had not been under the supervision of an IP at the time of the transfer.

The Appeal Tribunal also appreciated that “it is regrettable that so much uncertainty exists” (paragraph 20) as regards the application of TUPE and acknowledged “the importance of establishing, if possible, a red line”. They felt that the principles in Slater v Secretary of State for Industry, whilst not formally binding, “command considerable respect; and we respectfully agree that what is there set out is an appropriate and sensible red line and is the correct principle to apply. It is consistent with section 388, which, as we have said, provides that a person acts as an insolvency practitioner in relation to a company by acting as its liquidator, provisional liquidator, administrator or administrative receiver; if not appointed as such, then a person is not acting as an insolvency practitioner” (paragraph 23).

In the summary to the decision, it states that “an appointment (formal or informal) was necessary before there could be said to be supervision by an insolvency practitioner”. Personally, I struggle to see how an IP can be informally appointed and acting in a S388 capacity. The body of the decision states: “Clearly, that red line is not an entirely straight line. There may be disputes, for example, as to whether an insolvency practitioner was on the facts, appointed before a formal letter of appointment was provided or even drafted” (paragraph 24), so perhaps that is what is meant by an “informal” appointment.

The consequence of this decision in this case was that the appeal was dismissed: there had been a transfer that was not subject to the TUPE exclusion as regards the transfer of employee claims to the transferor.

Fixed charge receivers’ sale process tainted by agents’ “worrying conduct”

O’Kane & O’Kane v Rooney (12 November 2013) ([2013] NIQB 114)

http://www.bailii.org/nie/cases/NIHC/QB/2013/114.html

The O’Kanes sought an injunction restraining the joint fixed charge receivers from selling a property.

The judge was presented with evidence, albeit most of it hearsay but nonetheless “very strong”, which the judge described as showing “worrying conduct”, “very curious behaviour indeed”, and even “bad faith” (paragraphs 8, 9, and 10). The criticisms were levelled at the joint receivers’ agents who seemed to have discouraged some parties from bidding, provided inaccurate information, and allegedly advised the highest bidder not to increase its bid during the open bidding process, stating that the bidder would win out at the lower figure.

Although the O’Kanes’ proposal was complex and it was argued to be unrealistic, the judge viewed the previous sealed bid process to be tainted. He granted an injunction restraining the sale and directed that the property should be remarketed and sold by way of private treaty, with a bidding book being maintained and exhibited to the court for its approval of the sale. He directed that there should be no involvement of the individuals named, although he did not go so far as to require a new firm of agents to be instructed.

Administration terminated and company handed back to directors despite outstanding fees and expenses

Re Hotel Company 42 The Calls Limited (18 September 2013) ([2013] EWHC 3925 (Ch))

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWHC/Ch/2013/3925.html

Joint Administrators were appointed on the application of a creditor. All creditors’ claims were paid or waived, although no monies passed through the Joint Administrators’ hands, as they were dealt with by third parties.

The shareholder and director wanted the company returned to them and the administration terminated, given that its purpose had been achieved, but the Joint Administrators were reluctant to rely simply on their statutory charge as regards their unpaid remuneration and expenses as provided by Paragraph 99 of Schedule B1 of the Insolvency Act 1986, given that the appointing creditor had been “given the run around” by an associated company for many years. There was also a separate application ongoing by the shareholder and director under Paragraphs 74 and 75 under a claim that there had been unfair harm and misfeasance by, amongst other things, the charging of excessive remuneration.

Purle HHJ did not consider that the Joint Administrators’ fears were “sufficient to justify their continuing in office when, as they themselves recognise, there is no practical reason for them to do so, and, most importantly, the administration purpose has been achieved” (paragraph 21). It was also his view that the statutory charge, which could be supported by a restriction registered against the company’s property by means of filing an agreed notice with the Land Registry, was ample to protect them.

The judge refused the relief sought by the Joint Administrators to authorise them to grant a charge to themselves and he ordered the termination of the administration. He did not order that the Joint Administrators be discharged, as the misfeasance proceedings remained unresolved.

Does the EC Regulation on Insolvency Proceedings apply when the winding-up petition is based on the just and equitable ground?

Re ARM Asset Backed Securities SA (9 October 2013) ([2013] EWHC 3351 (Ch))

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWHC/Ch/2013/3351.html

A Luxembourg-incorporated company applied for the appointment of provisional liquidators under a winding up petition presented on the grounds that it would be just and equitable to wind it up.

Mr Justice David Richards was satisfied that the evidence pointed to an England COMI: it was apparent that the decisions governing the Company’s administration and management were taken in London and that this was clear to third parties. However, as the petition was based on the just and equitable ground, rather than on the Company’s insolvency, the judge had to consider whether the EC Regulation on “Insolvency Proceedings” kicked in.

Rather than reach a conclusion on this question, the question of the Company’s solvency was addressed. The circumstances of this case were not cut and dried: although it was likely that there would be insufficient funds to service in full the Company’s issued bonds, the terms of the bonds provided that the holders were entitled to recover sums only to the extent that the Company had available to it certain sums. “As a matter of ordinary language, I would take the view that if a company has liabilities of a certain amount on bonds or other obligations which exceed the assets available to it to meet those obligations, the company is insolvent, even though the rights of the creditors to recover payment will be, as a matter of legal right as well as a practical reality, restricted to the available assets, and even though, as the bonds in this case provide, the obligations will be extinguished after the distribution of available funds. It seems to me it can properly be said in relation to this company that it is unable to pay its debts. A useful way of testing this is to consider the amounts for which bond holders would prove in a liquidation of the company. It seems to me clear that they would prove for the face value of their bonds and the interest payable on those bonds” (paragraphs 31 and 32).

Consequently, although David Richards J has left open the question of whether just-and-equitable petitions are caught by the EC Regulation, he was content that the Company could and should be wound up.

(UPDATE 16/03/14: I recommend a briefing by Tina Kyriakides of 11 Stone Buildings: http://www.11sb.com/pdf/insider-limited-recourse-agreement-march-2014.pdf?500%3bhttp%3a%2f%2fwww.11sb.com%3a80%2fhome%2fhome.asp. This briefing addresses the issue as regards the application of the EC Regulation, pointing out that the decision in Re Rodenstock GmbH held that the winding up of a solvent company is governed by the Judgments Regulation 44/2001 and not by the EC Regulation. More interestingly, this briefing deals with the issue about this case that had niggled me (but which I cowardly avoided): how can liabilities that are expressly restricted to the company’s funds topple the company into insolvency? Personally, I find the conclusions of this briefing far more satisfying.)

Supervisor required to consider effect of set-off despite Adjudicator’s decision

Westshield Limited v Mr & Mrs Whitehouse (18 November 2013) ([2013] EWHC 3576 (TCC))

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWHC/TCC/2013/3576.html

The Whitehouses had some work done on their house by Westshield prior to the company entering into a CVA in December 2010. After little exchange, Westshield served a Notice of Adjudication in relation to the work done. The Whitehouses raised the issue of a substantial counterclaim and referred to the terms of the CVA, which included that the Supervisor should address the extent of mutual dealings and consider set-off. The Adjudicator decided that the Whitehouses should pay Westshield c.£133,000, but did not consider the counterclaim. The Whitehouses submitted a claim to the Supervisor of c.£200,000, but the Supervisor was reluctant to deal with it given the Adjudicator’s involvement.

Westshield then issued proceedings seeking to enforce the Adjudicator’s decision, but the Whitehouses maintained that the Supervisor would need to deal with the counterclaim.

The judge believed that Westshield had been entitled to pursue the pre-CVA debt and that, had the cross-claim not intervened, the Adjudicator’s decision would have been enforceable. However, the Whitehouses had become bound by the CVA and therefore the CVA condition requiring an account to be taken of mutual dealings and set off to be applied could be carried out by the Supervisor. “Once that exercise is done, if it shows money due to Westshield, that can be paid subject to the right which the Whitehouses have to refer the matter to Court within a short time. The Court can then consider what effect (if any) the adjudication decision may have on its decision as to what should be done. If the accounting shows money due to the Whitehouses, they will get however many pennies in the pound as are available to creditors from the CVA” (paragraph 27).

Consequently, the judge dismissed the application for summary judgment, staying any further steps until the outcome of the Supervisor’s account was known.


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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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(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.


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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

0618 Fazenda
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.


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Legislative changes on the horizon: PTDs, TUPE, and gift vouchers

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Something else that I’ve been meaning to do post-holiday was sweep up all the announcements of consultations and proposals for changes to insolvency and related legislation that have been published by various government departments and agencies. Here are the ones I’ve discovered:

• AiB’s proposed changes to PTDs and DAS
• BIS TUPE consultation
• New proposal on gift voucher creditors

AiB’s proposed changes to PTDs and DAS

28/02/2013: The AiB published some welcome (by me, anyway) fine-tuning to her developing “vision of a Financial Health Service” (http://www.aib.gov.uk/news/releases/2013/02/bankruptcy-law-reform-update).

She has withdrawn the proposals to introduce a minimum dividend for PTDs and to deal in-house with creditors’ petitions for bankruptcy, two items that I covered in an earlier blog post: http://wp.me/p2FU2Z-V (and I know of many others who have been more vocal on the issues). The third item I covered in that post – restructuring PTD Trustees’ fees so that they can only be drawn as an upfront fixed sum plus a percentage of funds ingathered – seems to have strengthened in tone: no longer is reference made to “guidance”, so it seems possible to me that there will be a legislative change to enforce this. My personal view on this is that, although of course there are vast differences between PTDs and IVAs, straightforward IVAs have been worked on this basis for many years now and I think that, although the inevitable tension between creditors and IPs regarding the quantum of the fixed and percentage fees persists, on the whole it seems to have developed into a settled state generally acceptable to all parties. However, I see far more difficulty in moving away from charging fees on an hourly basis for complex cases – I sense that the fees in many complex IVAs and PVAs are still based on hourly rates – and I do wonder what will result from the AiB’s approach to fees for individuals with complex circumstances and unusual/uncertain assets.

The AiB has also dropped the idea that debts incurred 12 weeks prior to bankruptcy should be excluded (which also seemed to me difficult to legislate: http://wp.me/p2FU2Z-w).

So what now does she propose to introduce? Some new significant items for PTDs:

• A minimum debt level of £5,000 (previously £10,000 had been the suggestion)
• A new joint PTD solution (with a £10,000 debt minimum)
• A new requirement on the Trustee to demonstrate that a Trust Deed is the most appropriate solution for the individual. If the AiB is not satisfied with the case presented, there will be a new power to prevent it becoming Protected. As now, the Trustee could apply to the Sheriff, if they disagree with the AiB’s assessment. (Personally, I hope that the AiB will exercise this power only to deal with obvious cases of abuse. For example, looking solely from a financial perspective some individuals might be better served going bankrupt, but often they wish to avoid bankruptcy and improve their creditors’ returns, which is a commendable attitude that should not be stifled. Ultimately, is it not the debtor’s choice?)
• Pre Trust Deed fees and outlays will be excluded. Any such fees and outlays will rank with other debts. (I have some sympathy with the AiB’s apparent frustration at insolvency “hangers-on” seeming to reap excessive rewards from the process of introducing debtors to the PTD process, however I am not convinced that this is the solution. As an upfront fixed fee is going to be introduced, will it not simply send such costs underground?)
• On issuing the Annual Form 4 (to the AiB and to creditors), if the expected dividend has reduced by 20% or more, Trustees will be required to provide details of the options available and to make a recommendation on the way forward. (“Make a recommendation”? Who gets to decide what happens? Isn’t the Trustee obliged/empowered to take appropriate action?)
• Acquirenda will be standardised at 1 year for both bankruptcy and PTDs. (It makes sense to me to ensure that PTDs are not seen to be more punitive than bankruptcies, but this is quite a change, isn’t it?)
• No contributions will be acceptable from Social Security Benefits.
• Equity will be frozen in a dwelling-house at the date the Trust Deed is granted.

The AiB also has proposed some new changes to DAS, the one that caught my eye being that interest and charges will be frozen on the date the application is submitted to creditors, rather than at the later stage of the date the Debt Payment Programme is approved, as is the case currently. The AiB’s proposal also remains that a DPP might be concluded as a composition once it has paid back 70% over 12 years.

BIS TUPE Consultation

17/01/2013: The BIS consultation on proposed changes to the Transfer of Undertaking (Protection of Employment) Regulations 2006 was issued and closes on 11 April 2013 (https://www.gov.uk/government/consultations/transfer-of-undertakings-protection-of-employment-regulations-tupe-2006-consultation-on-proposed-changes – a 72-page document that takes some reading!).

Despite the calls for legislative clarity on the application of TUPE in insolvencies, most notably in administrations, the consultation states: “the Government’s view is that the Court of Appeal’s decision in Key2law (Surrey) Ltd v De’Antiquis has provided sufficient clarity and that it is not necessary to amend TUPE to give certainty” (paragraph 6.30). I don’t know about you, but every time I ask myself what is the current position on TUPE in administrations, I have to check the date! Key2Law may well appear to have settled the issue now, but I have to remind myself every time what its conclusion was exactly.

The proposals do include some elements that may be more useful:

• BIS invites views on whether there should be a provision enabling a transferor to rely on a transferee’s ETO reason, seemingly recognising the risks that purchasers of an insolvent business run in absence of this provision (paragraph 7.72 et seq).
• It is proposed that the regulations be changed so that a transferee consulting with employees/reps, i.e. prior to the transfer, counts for the purposes of collective redundancy consultation (paragraph 7.84 et seq).
• It is proposed that, where there is no existing employee representative, small employers (suggested to be with 10 or fewer employees) will be able to consult directly with employees regarding transfer-related matters (paragraph 7.94 et seq).

Whilst on the subject, it seems timely to remind readers that it is expected that the consultation requirement where 100 or more employees at one establishment are proposed to be made redundant will be amended from 90 days to 45 days. This change appears in the draft Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992 (Amendment) Order 2013, anticipated to come into force on 6 April 2013.

Gift Voucher Creditors

15/03/2013: R3 issued a press release entitled “Voucher holders’ proposal to become ‘preferred creditors’” (http://www.r3.org.uk/index.cfm?page=1114&element=17990&refpage=1008), but the motivation for this release, other than awareness of some stories surrounding high profile retail administrations, might not be known to you.

MP Michael McCann’s ten minute rule bill seeking consideration for gift voucher creditors to be made preferential seemed to go down well at the House of Commons on 12 February 2013 (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=53_fN8c1f8Q&feature=youtu.be). Then on 14 March 2013, a House of Commons’ notice of amendments to the Financial Services (Banking Reform) Bill was issued, which included the following:

“(1) The Chief Executive of the Financial Services Compensation Scheme shall, within six months of Royal Assent of this Act, publish a review of the protections understanding that such payments are deposits in a saving scheme.

(2) The review in subsection (1) shall include consideration of any consequential reform to creditor preference arrangements so that any payments made in advance as part of a contract for the receipt of goods or services (such as gift vouchers, certificates or other forms of pre-payment) in expectation that those sums would be redeemable in a future exchange for such goods or services might be considered as preferential debts in the event of insolvency.”

As can be seen, a change to gift voucher creditors’ status seems a long way from becoming statute, but the wheels are now in motion for something to be done.

To me, R3’s suggested alternative of an insurance bond makes more sense. The costs of seeking, adjudicating on, and distributing on a huge number of relatively small gift voucher claims likely would appear disproportionate to the outcome… and it is not as if IPs need any more spotlight on their time costs! I appreciate that such costs will arise where claims need to be dealt with even as they are now, as non-preferential unsecured claims, but I suggest it would be unfair to other ordinary unsecured creditors if they were forced to sit in line and watch whilst realisations were whittled away in dealing with this large new class of preferential creditor. The USA Borders case demonstrates some of the difficulties in dealing with gift voucher claims (see, for example, http://www.lexology.com/library/detail.aspx?g=8298e876-f998-4777-bacf-ce781f312242 – the clue is in the name…)

There are other alternatives, of course, such as the use of trust accounts, although a paper (which now seems ahead of its time) by Lexa Hilliard QC and Marcia Shekerdemian of 11 Stone Buildings discusses the difficulties arising from these also (http://www.11sb.com/pdf/insider-gift-vouchers-jan-2013.pdf).

(UPDATE 22/05/2016: Gift vouchers became topical again with the Administration of BHS.  R3 summarised the difficulties in dealing with gift vouchers in an insolvency at https://goo.gl/eN20mN.  This “R3 Thinks” also brought to my attention a paper written by R3 on the subject in June 2013, accessible at https://goo.gl/GJDbNO.)

 

Right, that brings me up to date… almost. Just the consultation on the FCA’s regime for consumer credit remaining…


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

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

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

Lessons in avoiding personal liability in post-administration agreements

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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