Firstly, I should warn you: if you find my singular views often wind you up, you might want to skip this post. Here, I air what I suspect are unpopular opinions about two New Rules issues that have been doing the rounds over the past few months: (1) can fees decisions be taken by means of a correspondence vote set to run concurrently with a S100 deemed consent decision; and (2) to what extent do the 2016 Rules apply to IVAs that were approved before 6 April 2017 or that have been approved since then but with terms that refer to 1986 Rules?
1. Correspondence votes running concurrently with S100 deemed consent decisions
The Problem with S100 Deemed Consent Decisions
As we know, the deemed consent process cannot be used “to make a decision about the remuneration of any person” and the Insolvency Service has confirmed on its Rules blog that this applies to decisions approving the payment of any SoA/S100 fee. Therefore, unless you are paid the SoA/S100 fee before the liquidation begins, at some stage you will need to instigate a qualifying decision procedure to seek approval and of course you will also want to seek approval of your fees as liquidator at some point.
If these decisions cannot be posed via the S100 deemed consent process, what do you do? Do you wait until after your appointment has been confirmed via the S100 process and then seek a decision, e.g. via a correspondence vote? Or can you instigate a correspondence vote before your appointment? After all, doesn’t R18.16(10) provide for a “proposed liquidator” in a CVL to deliver information on their fees to creditors and doesn’t the table at R15.11(1) refer to “decisions of creditors for appointment of liquidator (including any decision made at the same time on the liquidator’s remuneration)”?
The Problems with Pre-Appointment Correspondence Votes
- Signing the Notice of Decision Procedure
Can the proposed liquidator sign the notice convening the proposed decision by correspondence? I don’t see any rule empowering a proposed liquidator to act as “convener” of such a process. Could a director sign the notice? R6.14 empowers a director to sign a notice for a decision by deemed consent or virtual meeting, but that’s all. The rules do not appear to empower a director to sign a notice for correspondence vote.
Do the rules need to empower someone to sign such a notice? Isn’t it sufficient that they don’t say that it cannot be done?
It is true that “convener” is defined as an office holder or other person who seeks a decision in accordance with Part 15 of the Rules… but that is simply a definition. To view this definition as giving free rein for any old decision under Part 15 seems a nonsense to me. If a proposed liquidator or director (other than as provided for under R6.14) were entitled to convene any decision procedure they liked, then this entitlement could surely extend to any “other person”, e.g. a creditor, shareholder, company agent/adviser, receiver… Surely it cannot be open to just anyone to instigate a decision procedure on anything, can it?
Ok, what about if the members had already appointed a liquidator? Could the liquidator sign a notice of decision procedure if he had already been appointed in a Centrebind process? I think the difficulty here is S166(2), which restricts the liquidator’s powers before the S100 decision. The only powers the liquidator can exercise at this time are those in S166(3) and I do not think that instigating a decision procedure on fees falls into the categories of taking control of or protecting company property and disposing of perishable/diminishing-value goods.
- Clashing timelines (1)
Setting aside the issue above about who signs the notices, I think there are other reasons why the concurrent correspondence vote for fees pre-S100 does not work: the impossible statutory timelines governing these processes.
R15.11(1) sets the notice period of 3 business days for the S100 decision on the appointment of the liquidator and “any decision made at the same time on the liquidator’s remuneration”. If the S100 decision is sought by deemed consent and a fees decision is sought by a correspondence vote, two processes are set in motion. That’s fine so far: you could set both processes going with the same decision date, say 14 September. With R15.11(1) in mind, let’s “deliver” the notices on 8 September, to give a clear 3 business days’ notice.
If a >10% creditor objects to the deemed consent decision, then that process terminates and the director must now convene a physical meeting for the purpose of seeking the S100 decision on the appointment of a liquidator. But what happens to the correspondence vote process? This is a different process altogether, so it seems to me that it keeps on going.
But does this create a problem? Yes, I think so. As I mentioned, R15.11(1) sets the notice period for a “decision made at the same time” as the S100 decision at 3 business days, but the correspondence vote decision has now deviated from the S100 decision; the decisions will no longer be made at the same time. However, the notice period for correspondence votes not made at the same time as a S100 decision is 14 days, so in hindsight the liquidator/director has failed to provide enough notice for the correspondence vote. Does this mean that the correspondence vote decision is invalid? Could you abandon the correspondence vote process? There doesn’t seem to be any power in the rules to postpone or cancel a correspondence vote process once started (unless it is terminated by reason of a physical meeting request).
Ok, so one solution might be to make sure that the correspondence vote is arranged with at least 14 days’ notice in any event, so that you don’t fall foul of the notice period if the two processes were to diverge. That may be so, but surely the fact that you could breach the statutory notice period in hindsight in this way is an indication that it was not envisaged that the rules would provide that two independent processes could run concurrently with a shorter notice period.
- Clashing timelines (2)
Returning to the example above: notices of a S100 deemed consent decision and a correspondence vote are delivered on 8 September with decision dates of 14 September. What happens if a >10% creditor submits a request for a physical meeting on 15 September? That’s a silly question, you may think, surely they are out of time as the decisions have been made.
I would agree that they out of time for the S100 decision, because R6.14(6)(a) states that “such a request may be made at any time between the delivery of the notice… and the decision date”. However, are they out of time for the correspondence vote? As the correspondence vote for fees is not provided for in R6.14, it would have a deadline for physical meeting requests of 5 business days from the date of delivery of the notice (R15.6(1)). Therefore, notwithstanding that the decision date had already passed, it seems that the creditor’s physical meeting request could impact the proposed fees decision. That’s nonsense, you say. I would agree, so I believe this is another reason why the rules could not have been intended to provide for a correspondence vote to run concurrently with a S100 deemed consent process.
Ok, what if you followed the same solution suggested above: convene the correspondence vote with at least 14 days’ notice? Wouldn’t this easily accommodate the 5 business days timescale for requesting a physical meeting? Yes, I suppose it could, but imagine then that you received a request for a physical meeting on business day 6. What would be the consequence: would you consider that the request only stopped the S100 liquidator decision, whereas the correspondence vote on fees could continue to its original decision date? Interesting… so the S100 physical meeting could decide on a different liquidator, who would take office with an already-approved fees decision in which he had taken no part. That would be odd!
So where does this leave correspondence votes running concurrently with a S100 deemed consent decision?
I think that, for these reasons, concurrent correspondence votes just do not work: the statutory timescales throw up all sorts of impossible or at least risky scenarios, but more fundamentally there is no one empowered by the rules to sign the notice of decision procedure.
But then why do the rules allow proposed liquidators to issue fees-related information?
I believe this is because a fees decision could be proposed pre-appointment: via a S100 virtual – or indeed, where required, a physical – meeting.
Such meetings do not suffer any of the problems described above:
- the notice of the meeting decision procedure is signed by the director under R6.14;
- the fees decision(s) can be proposed and made at the meeting “at the same time” as the S100 liquidator decision and therefore the fees decisions can be sought on 3 business days’ notice;
- there is no possibility of the S100 liquidator decision and the fees decisions diverging, because a S100 virtual meeting can only be stalled by a physical meeting request (not also by a deemed consent objection) and this would terminate the virtual meeting process set up to consider all the decisions; and
- as the fees decisions have been proposed via a notice of decision procedure issued under R6.14(2)(b), the deadline for requests for a physical meeting is set by R6.14(6), which would apply to all decisions proposed for consideration at the virtual meeting.
- The possibility of proposing fees decisions via a S100 virtual/physical meeting also makes sense of R18.16(10), because in order for the creditors to consider a fees decision at the meeting, the proposed liquidator needs to send the fees-relevant information beforehand.
Haven’t we been here before?
I accept that my concerns above are purely technical. I am reminded that so too was the debate that arose in October 2015 about whether IPs could issue fee-related information before they were appointed liquidators so that fees resolutions could be considered at the S98 meetings. It seemed to me that the profession quickly became divided into two camps: those who took comfort in Dear IP 68 that stated that the intention was not to preclude pre-appointment fee estimates and those who, notwithstanding the clarification of such intention, chose to avoid falling foul of an apparent technicality in the rules by seeking fee approval only after appointment. The 2016 Rules – R18.16(10) referred to above – have resolved that old issue, but we now have a different set of technicalities affecting attempts to seek fee approval by S100-concurrent correspondence votes.
Can we expect the regulators to clarify their intentions and regulatory expectations on this question? We can only hope! However, if the answer were on the lines of Dear IP 68 (i.e. the rules might not exactly say this, but this is what we intended), then would this help or would we, without a legislative fix, still be left to choose between two camps? I hasten to add that I have no idea on which side of the fence the regulators might fall on this new question in any event.
Are the issues only about the technical?
In exploring the above issues with people at the Insolvency Service and the IPA, both have raised concerns – aside from the purely technical – about the appropriateness of proposing decisions on liquidators’ fees before appointment.
I understand that there are concerns about the huge amount of documentation – the Statement of Affairs, SIP6 information, fees and expenses related information – that creditors would be expected to absorb and vote on potentially in less than 3 business days. There seems to be slightly less concern attaching to fee-approval sought via a S100 virtual meeting, I think because this is seen to provide creditors with a forum in which to explore matters in an attempt to assess the reasonableness of fee requests. However, I believe there are also concerns about how IPs can put forward a reasoned and justifiable case for post-appointment fees before they have got stuck into the appointment.
There are clearly lots of factors to weigh up here, factors that may impact more than simply the rights and wrongs of correspondence votes running concurrently with S100 deemed consent decisions. In view of the serious ramifications of getting fees decisions wrong, I do hope that the regulators put their heads above the parapet and tell us all their views on these matters soon.
2. IVAs incorporating 1986 Rules
The Problems with VAs based on 1986 Rules: the story so far
The issue I’ve blogged about before (http://thecompliancealliance.co.uk/blog/2016-rules/new-rules-interpretations-part-1/) is: how far should you apply the 2016 Rules as regards VAs that incorporate 1986 Rules?
Dear IP 76 contains the following statements by the Insolvency Service:
- the IVA Protocol’s Standard Terms’ reference to calling meetings “in accordance with the Act and the Rules” means the amended Act and the 2016 Rules;
- the Act and 2016 Rules “remain silent on how decisions are taken” in VAs;
- supervisors should not “feel restricted to only using a physical meeting”; and
- the Insolvency Service “expect[s] supervisors to take advantage of the new and varied decision making procedures”.
I blogged my concerns about these statements:
- If calling meetings “in accordance with the Act and the Rules” means the new provisions, which are indeed silent as regards meetings in approved VAs, then we must look to the statutory provisions for Trustees, because paragraph 4(3) of the Protocol Standard Terms states that supervisors should “apply the provisions of the Act and Rules in so far as they relate to bankruptcy with necessary modifications”. Therefore, does this mean that in fact a supervisor is prohibited from calling a physical meeting by reason of S379ZA(2) in the same way as a Trustee is?
- How can a term stating that “a supervisor may… summon and conduct meetings” equate to “a supervisor may seek a decision by, say, an electronic vote”?
- Dear IP focused on the wording of the IVA Protocol, whereas I believe that consideration of the R3 Standard Terms leads to very different conclusions, because the R3 Standard Terms are almost entirely independent from any Act and Rules provisions.
However, after I’d blogged, R3 issued its own statement, which included:
“The current R3 Standard Conditions refer to ‘meetings of creditors’ rather than making specific reference to the Rules. R3 is also of the opinion that IPs are not restricted to using physical meetings of creditors only when seeking the views of creditors and that the full range of decision making procedures introduced by the new Rules are available to the supervisor. It could also be argued that section 379ZA of the Act which prevents physical meetings being held except in limited, defined circumstances, applies to existing arrangements…
“We are of the opinion that the current version of the Standard Conditions continues to be relevant and supervisors using the current version of the Standard Conditions for arrangements approved post 6 April 2017 should apply the new Rules when seeking decisions of creditors. For the avoidance of doubt however nominees may wish to seek their own legal advice on the wording to be used when seeking variations of the arrangement and supervisors may wish to seek their own legal advice on the procedures to be followed for decisions of creditors to be taken on arrangements approved before the introduction of the new Rules.”
My problems with R3’s Statement
R3’s statement floored me. Not only did it repeat what I consider are the Insolvency Service’s flawed arguments, but in view of the wording of R3’s Standard Conditions for IVAs, it gave me even more reasons to disagree:
- Again, how can the R3 Standard Conditions’ “meetings of creditors” be translated to mean “the full range of decision making procedures”, especially as the R3 Standard Conditions do not make specific reference to the Rules? That is, the R3 Standard Conditions contain the entire process of calling and holding a meeting, which is not dependent on any Rules, and so what entitles a supervisor of an IVA incorporating the R3 Conditions to walk away from those Conditions and decide to do something completely different contained in Rules, which are “silent” on VA processes?
- I am doubtful that S379ZA “applies to existing arrangements” that incorporate the R3 Standard Conditions. The reason why I blogged that S379ZA(2) might apply to Protocol IVAs is because the Protocol Standard Terms refer to calling meetings “in accordance with the Act and the Rules”, but these words are missing from R3’s Standard Conditions. S379ZA(1) states that the section “applies where, for the purpose of this Group of Parts, a person seeks a decision from an individual’s creditors about any matter”. The “Group of Parts” comprises Ss251A to 385, but as we all know this Group of Parts does not refer to a decision to vary an IVA (it only speaks of approving the IVA). Therefore, how can S379ZA, which prevents physical meetings from being held unless requested by creditors, apply to already-approved IVAs incorporating R3’s Standard Conditions? I appreciate that R3 has only stated that “it could… be argued”, but is it responsible to give some weight to such a feather-light argument?
- I am also not persuaded that “supervisors using the current version of the Standard Conditions for arrangements approved post 6 April 2017 should apply the new Rules when seeking decisions of creditors” because of the principles in the case set out below.
- (And, if I wanted to be really picky, I’d question what “nominees” have to do with varying arrangements!)
William Hare Ltd v Shepherd Construction Ltd
In the case of in William Hare Ltd v Shepherd Construction Ltd  EWHC 1603 (TCC) (25 June 2009), a subcontractor (“H”) was engaged in December 2008 to carry out some work for the main contractor (“S”). The sub-contract defined the employer’s insolvency with reference to: the appointment of an administrative receiver, insolvent liquidation, winding-up by court order and “an administration order made by the court”.
When the employer was placed into administration, S issued notices withholding payment. H argued that, because the employer had gone into administration via a directors’ appointment and not via a court administration order, the withholding notices were invalid, as the employer had not gone insolvent according to the sub-contract’s definition. S argued that it would be absurd for the sub-contract to be construed as ignoring the later amendments to the 1986 Act and that all routes to administration under the 1986 Act as amended were covered by the wording of the sub-contract.
The judge was “in no doubt” that H’s construction of the sub-contract was to be preferred and he held that the court should not rewrite the sub-contract to allow for the amendments to the 1986 Act. His reasons included the following:
- The meaning of the words was plain and there was no reason to believe that the parties did not intend to use the words as they were written or that they had made a mistake in using the words. In contrast, S’s construction involved “a significant rewording of the clause”.
- The sub-contract had been made long after the Act had been amended. In this case, the parties agreed that they must be deemed to have known about the amendments to the Act when they made the sub-contract. “In these circumstances it is appropriate to view the failure to amend clause 32 as a choice, as a deliberate decision to include one particular method of administration.”
- If it were needed, the principle of contra proferentem – that, when there is doubt about the meaning of a contract term, the words may be construed against the person who put them forward – supported H’s construction.
- Because the sub-contract was executed after the change in the legislation, sections 17 and 23 of the Interpretation Act 1978 (which incidentally are the provisions that Dear IP cited in support of the opinion that the 2016 Rules replaced the 1986 Rules in the Protocol Terms, because they refer to the 1986 Rules “as amended”) were not relevant.
The relevance of this case to New IVAs using Old Rules Terms
Say, you are a supervisor of an IVA that was approved last week and the IVA Proposal incorporates R3’s current Standard Terms (or indeed any Terms) that continue to refer throughout to the 1986 Rules.
Surely the principles in the case above cast serious doubt on whether you are free to translate those 1986 Rules into 2016 Rules, don’t they? You, as the debtor’s adviser, had deliberately put forward a Proposal that refers to 1986 Rules in the knowledge that the Rules have changed and it seems that the Interpretation Act 1978, which was the backbone of the Insolvency Service’s argument set out in Dear IP 76, is of no effect. Therefore, is there not a strong argument that you intended to incorporate 1986 Rules into the IVA?
I think also about the debtor and unsophisticated creditors: based on the Terms, they might expect a meeting of creditors in order to vary the Proposal, so what could their reaction be if they were to receive notice of a correspondence vote or perhaps even a notice seeking deemed consent? It seems to me that, if you were to say: “ah yes but the 2016 Rules changed things”, I might respond: “yes, but those changes happened in April, so why did you produce Terms after this that still referred to creditors’ meetings?”
Maybe I should accept that the Emperor is wearing clothes!
I have no doubt that the Insolvency Service and R3 have opinions backed up with legal advice. Of course, I am not suggesting for one moment that their statements should be ignored, but I feel I must say things as I see them. I am also not the only one who believes that the InsS and R3 have got this one wrong. I am not surprised therefore that R3 refers to seeking legal advice. No one can be certain how a challenge in court would pan out.
But in practice does the answer to this question really matter? If debtors, creditors and supervisors are happy to consider agreeing variations proposed in a manner that is not strictly according to the Terms, who is going to challenge it? Presumably also the RPBs aren’t going to take a different tack to that set out in Dear IP. And even if a debtor were to dispute the soundness, say, of a creditors’ decision to terminate an IVA, maybe the court would conclude that it was simply a technicality that has no real practical effect on the majority creditors’ wishes… but nevertheless it could make for an expensive debate.