About carrieromesievers

I am a commercial law barrister in Melbourne Australia, specialising primarily in insolvency and corporations law.

Latest decision of interest in this post-Amerind world dropped today

Just a note to alert readers that the latest decision of interest in this post-Amerind world dropped today in the Federal Court in Queensland. The liquidators of an insolvent corporate trustee successfully obtained orders appointing them receivers of the assets of two trusts to enforce the rights of exoneration and liens of the former trustee. The application was contested by the new trustee of the property trust, who sought to sell the key asset itself (a hotel – freehold title to the land). Note the orders made (order 6) as to recourse to the assets of the trusts for the receivers’ remuneration, costs and expenses regarding each trust and the winding up of the company generally.

The case was the decision of Derrington J in Connelly, in the matter of Gregorski Investments Pty Ltd (in liq) v 320 Nominees Pty Ltd as trustee of the Gregorski Property Trust [2019] FCA 1400. 

 

New article on the High Court in Amerind – statutory priorities apply on insolvency of trustee companies, employee entitlements protected, Re Enhill is no more

I have added a new article to my website reviewing last week’s important High Court decision in the Amerind appeal – Carter Holt Harvey Woodproducts Australia Pty Ltd v The Commonwealth [2019] HCA 20 (Amerind). The full article can be accessed here.

 

Newsflash – the High Court’s judgment in Amerind is in

This morning the High Court has handed down judgment dismissing the appeal from the decision of the Victorian Court of Appeal in Commonwealth of Australia v Byrnes and Hewitt as receivers and managers of Amerind Pty Ltd (receivers and managers apptd)(in liq) [2018] VSCA 41; (2018) 54 VR 230, which itself was the appeal of the decision of Robson J in Re Amerind (receivers and managers apptd)(in liq) [2017] VSC 127; (2017) 320 FLR 118.

The bench comprised Kiefel CJ, Bell, Gageler, Keane, Nettle, Gordon and Edelman JJ. Whilst the decision to dismiss the appeal was unanimous, three separate judgments were written: one by Kiefel CJ and Keane and Edelman JJ, another by Bell, Gageler and Nettle JJ and the third by Gordon J. The decision is: Carter Holt Harvey Woodproducts Australia Pty Ltd v The Commonwealth [2019] HCA 20.

My fuller review of the decision will follow. For now, some highlights –

  • The High Court unanimously held that s 433 of the Corporations Act applies in the exercise of the power of exoneration in the receivership of a trustee company. Slight points of difference in reasoning between the judgments, but the same result. Kiefel CJ, Keane and Edelman JJ expressly pointed out that the same reasoning applies to s 561, which is the provision cognate to s 433 but relevant to liquidators rather than receivers.
  • The High Court unanimously held that accordingly the statutory scheme of priority applies to distribution of the relevant trust property, being here the receivership surplus subject to the trustee’s right of indemnity. It follows from this that the Commonwealth’s claim to priority in the distribution of the receivership surplus by virtue of the payments it had made of employee entitlements under FEGS is vindicated.
  • The High Court went on unanimously to hold that trust assets may only be used to pay trust creditors on exercise of the power of exoneration in a receivership or in the liquidation of a trustee company, not also non-trust creditors. Re Enhill was wrongly decided.

More to follow.

Newsflash – High Court to hand down judgment in Amerind this Wednesday

The High Court of Australia will be handing down judgment in the Amerind appeal this Wednesday 19 June 2019. Watch this space.

In the meantime, for my review and analysis of the Victorian Court of Appeal decision in Amerind which is the subject of this appeal see here.

For my article considering the Full Federal Court decision in Killarnee and the landscape for liquidating corporate trustees of trading trusts in light of both Amerind and Killarnee see here.

For those who want more, the submissions that have been filed for each of the appellant (creditor Carter Holt Harvey Woodproducts Australia Pty Ltd), the first respondent (the Commonwealth of Australia, which advanced $3.8m for former employees of the company under FEGS) and the second respondent (the Receivers of Amerind Pty Ltd (Receivers & Managers appointed)(in liquidation)) may be read on the High Court website here.

For now, I note that the submissions for the appellant creditor identified the following three issues for consideration in the appeal –

  1. Whether the “property of the company” of a corporate trustee under s 433(3) of the Corporations Act 2001 (Cth) includes not only the trustee’s right of indemnity but also the underlying assets to which the trustee company can have recourse.
  2. The precise nature of, and the limitations upon, a trustee’s right of indemnity where the trustee seeks exoneration in respect of unmet trust liabilities, in particular in the context of the insolvency of the trustee.
  3. Whether a corporate trustee’s right of indemnity from trust assets is “property comprised in or subject to a circulating security interest” for the purposes of s 433(2) of the Corporations Act.

The appellant submitted, inter alia, that –

  • Properly understood, a trustee’s right of indemnity, especially the ‘exoneration arm’ of the right of indemnity, is no more than a right to have trust assets applied to meet trust debts. It confers upon the trustee no interest in the trust assets themselves, or the proceeds thereof.
  • A trustee’s right of indemnity is not subject to s 433(2) of the Corporations Act because it is not a “circulating asset” and hence is not property which is “comprised in or subject to a circulating security interest”.

The appellant submitted that if either of these challenges be upheld, the Court of Appeal’s decision cannot stand.

The Commonwealth identified two issues for consideration in the appeal –

  1. On the basis that the trustee’s right of indemnity gave it a beneficial interest in the assets of the trust – was that interest “property of the company” within the meaning of s 433(3)?
  2. On the basis that s 433(3) applies to property coming into the hands of a receiver who is appointed by a debenture holder ‘secured by a circulating security interest’ – was it necessary that the trustee’s right of indemnity itself be ‘property comprised in or subject to a circulating security interest’? If so, was the trustee’s right of indemnity such property?

The Commonwealth submitted inter alia that –

  • Sections 433, 556 and 561 of the Corporations Act give statutory priority to employees’ claims in insolvency. Insolvency law is statutory and primacy must be given to the relevant statutory text. That statutory priority has been recognised since 1883 in the case of corporate insolvency. The compelling reasons for the statutory priority of employees claims is well known. It is a strong thing to deprive employee creditors of their statutory priority merely because their employer had acted as a trustee.
  • There are no non-trust creditors. There is only one trust. This case does not give rise to the question of whether creditors of the company who are not ‘trust creditors’ may be paid from the proceeds of realisation of trust assets.
  • A trustee’s right of indemnity (whether by way of reimbursement or exoneration) confers on the trustee an interest in the trust assets which is a proprietary, beneficial interest, and takes priority to the interests of the beneficiaries of the trust. This submission relies on several previous High Court decisions, including Octavo Investments Pty Ltd v Knight (1979) 144 CLR 360 and Chief Commissioner of Stamp Duties (NSW) v Buckle (1998) 192 CLR 226.
  • What matters in the Personal Property Securities Act‘s interaction with the Corporations Act is the nature of the security held by the secured party, not the nature of the interest in the personal property held by the grantor. Even if it was necessary to characterise the trustee’s right of indemnity as an asset subject to a circulating security interest, it was such an asset.
  • It follows that, as the Court of Appeal held, s 433(3) was engaged. The Court of Appeal’s decision should be upheld.

We await Wednesday’s judgment with interest.

Vic Court of Appeal denies liquidators approval of proposed settlement agreement

Recently the Victorian Court of Appeal upheld a decision to deny liquidators approval of a proposed settlement in McDermott and Potts as liquidators of Lonnex Pty Ltd (in liquidation) [2019] VSCA 23. The creditors had been opposed to the settlement.

Background

The liquidators of Lonnex (Ross McDermott and John Potts) had commenced proceedings pursuing claims which arose from a striking series of transactions. Lonnex and a related company Millennium Management Pty Ltd each operated two medical practices at different locations in Melbourne. The day after establishing a tax consolidated group with related entities, Lonnex and Millennium both sold their assets – their 4 clinics – to Lonnex & Millennium Management Holdings Pty Ltd (LMMH) for $22m and $18m respectively. These amounts were payable at LMMH’s option by way of intercompany loans.

On the same day, Lonnex and Millennium forgave those loans.

Under the transactions LMMH acquired some of their liabilities. However others, principally those owing to the Commissioners of Taxation and State Revenue, were left with Lonnex and Millennium. The owner of the shares in LMMH, Dr Geoffrey Edelsten, subsequently onsold them.  (See [4]-[6])

The liquidators of Lonnex claimed inter alia that the release of the debts given by Lonnex to LMMH was an uncommercial transaction under s 588FB of the Corporations Act 2001 (Cth), and an unreasonable director-related transaction under s 588FDA, and sought judgment in the sum of $22m. The liquidator of Millennium (Andrew Yeo) subsequently issued a corresponding proceeding.   LMMH’s defence included arguments that the forgiveness of the loans was part of a larger composite transaction under which benefits flowed to Lonnex and Millennium, such that the impugned transactions were neither uncommercial nor unreasonable. (See [8])

Lonnex’s creditors were recorded in the judgment as including the Commissioner ($7.7m), the State Revenue Office ($264K), “perhaps” Dr Edelston ($3.6m) and minor creditors including Medicare. (See [10])

The Commissioner had funded Lonnex’s liquidators to conduct the Lonnex proceedings up to mediation. Agreement had not been reached on funding beyond that. (See [11])

Following mediation, Lonnex’s liquidators made applications under s 477(2B) and the then s 511 of the Corporations Act for orders directing that they were justified in compromising the proceeding and approving their entry into terms of settlement accordingly. An associate judge refused that application. The liquidators sought leave to appeal. The Commissioner of Taxation, being the largest creditor, appeared in opposition to the liquidators’ application. (See [2]) Indeed the proposed settlement was opposed by the Commissioner, the State Revenue Office, and the trustee in bankruptcy. (See [10])

Broadly, the liquidators argued that the proposed settlement was a reasonable commercial outcome and that they had not been put in funds to contest the proceeding further. The Commissioner disputed the wisdom of accepting the settlement and wanted a different liquidator appointed to pursue Lonnex’s litigation. (See [2]) Senior Counsel for the Commissioner informed the Court of Appeal that if Millennium’s liquidator Mr Yeo were to take over as liquidator of Lonnex, the Commissioner would be prepared to enter into a funding arrangement with him, and that Mr Yeo had consented to act as liquidator of Lonnex.

On the appeal, the liquidators submitted that the associate judge’s discretion had miscarried on several grounds. There was argument on the following issues –

  1. the significance of the fact that funding of the liquidation and the liquidators’ past and future expenses and liabilities had not been secured,
  2. the significance of the creditors’ opposition to the proposed settlement,
  3. the relevance and content of the legal opinion, and
  4. whether the proposed settlement was in the interests of creditors. (See [41])

Another proposed ground of appeal was the liquidators’ contention that the associate judge erred, or his discretion miscarried, in failing to give reasons or adequate reasons, for refusing leave under s 477(2B). (See [40]) The associate judge had stated that the s 477(2B) application was refused for the same reasons as the s 511 application. (See [62])

The Provisions

After the filing of the application, s 511 of the Corporations Act was repealed and replaced by the Insolvency Law Reform Act 2016 (Cth). The liquidators submitted that the principles which formerly covered s 511 applications applied equally to the replacement provisions contained in the Insolvency Practice Schedule (Corporations), namely ss 90-15 and 90-20. The case therefore proceeded as an application under s 511.

To pause here – for any practitioners looking to bring an application now under s 90-15 – I note that on an application for directions in Walley, In the matter of Poles & Underground Pty Ltd (Admin Apptd) [2017] FCA 486 at [41], Gleeson J observed that the question of whether to exercise the power in s 90-15 was “to be answered by reference to the principles applied to the exercise of the discretions previously contained in s 479(3) and s 511 of the Act”. This has since been approved in El-Saafin v Franek (No 2) [2018] VSC 683 at [110] (application by administrators for directions), in Re Hawden Property Group Pty Ltd (in liq) [2018] NSWSC 481; (2018) 125 ACSR 355 at [8] (application for directions), in Krejci (liquidator), re Community Work Pty Ltd (in liq) [2018] FCA 425 at [46] (application for directions and for s 477(2B) approval), in GDK Projects Pty Ltd re Umberto Pty Ltd (in liq) [2018] FCA 541 at [33] (application for the appointment of special purpose liquidators), and in an unreported decision in which I appeared last year for the liquidator Re Cameron Lane Pty Ltd (in liquidation); Playaround Pty Ltd v Peter Robert Vince, Supreme Court of Victoria, 14 August 2018 (appeal from the rejection of a proof of debt).  

Returning to the present case, section 511 of the Corporations Act relevantly provided –

(1) The liquidator, or any contributory or creditor, may apply to the Court:

(a) to determine any question arising in the winding up of a company; or

(b) to exercise all or any of the powers that the Court might exercise if the company were being wound up by the Court.

(2) The Court, if satisfied that the determination of the question or the exercise of power will be just and beneficial, may accede wholly or partially to any such application on such terms and conditions as it thinks fit or may make such other order on the application as it thinks just.

Section 477(2B) of the Corporations Act provides –

Except with the approval of the Court, of the committee of inspection or of a resolution of the creditors, a liquidator of a company must not enter into an agreement on the company’s behalf (for example, but without limitation, a lease or an agreement under which a security interest arises or is created) if:

(a) without limiting paragraph (b), the term of the agreement may end; or

(b) the obligations of a party to the agreement may, according to the terms of the agreement, be discharged by performance;

more than 3 months after the agreement is entered into, even if the term may end, or the obligations may be discharged, within those 3 months.

I pause here to draw attention to the fact – sometimes overlooked – that s 477(2B) is framed as a prohibition. However, if a liquidator has entered into such an agreement without prior creditor or court approval, it can in some cases be possible to obtain retrospective approval from the court (nunc pro tunc). Such an application is often made together with an application under s 1322(4)(a) and (d). By way of example, two cases in which I appeared for the liquidators in obtaining such approval are –

Principles

The Court of Appeal reviewed the key authorities at [63]-[91]. The passages cited by their Honours  focussed upon several issues, including notably the importance of the views of the creditors. For instance at [66] their Honours cited this passage from the judgment of Lindley LJ in Re English, Scottish & Australian Chartered Bank [1893] 3 Ch 385, 409 –

If the creditors are acting on sufficient information and with time to consider what they are about, and are acting honestly, they are, I apprehend, much better judges of what is to their commercial advantage than the Court can be

At [72] the Court repeated the oft-cited observation of Giles J considering an earlier provision (s 377 of the NSW Companies Code prior to 1992 – authorisation to compromise) in Re Spedley Securities Ltd (in liq) (1992) 9 ACSR 83, 85-6 –

In any application pursuant to s 377(1) the court pays regard to the commercial judgment of the liquidator… That is not to say that it rubber stamps whatever is put forward by the liquidator but … the court is necessarily confined in attempting to second guess the liquidator in the exercise of his power, and generally will not interfere unless there can be seen to be some lack of good faith, some error in law or principle, or real and substantial grounds for doubting the prudence of the liquidator’s conduct. The same restraint must apply when the question is whether the liquidator should be authorised to enter into a particular transaction the benefits and burdens of which require assessment on a commercial basis. Of course, the compromise of claims will involve assessment on a legal basis, and a liquidator will be expected…to obtain advice and, as a prudent person would in the conduct of his own affairs, advice from practitioners appropriate to the nature and value of the claims. But in all but the simplest case, and demonstrably in the present case, commercial considerations play a significant part in whether a compromise will be for the benefit of creditors.

The Court observed that, significantly, Giles J went on to say that it is for these reasons that the attitudes of creditors are ‘important’ in these applications. (See [73])

Following their review of the authorities, their Honours then distilled the following principles at [92]

  1. The nature of the inquiry undertaken by the court when approval is sought under s 477(2B) in relation to a proposed compromise of litigation is different from the nature of inquiry the court undertakes under s 511 when a liquidator seeks directions in relation to such a compromise.
  2. On a directions application the court must be positively persuaded that the liquidator’s decision to enter into the compromise is, in all the circumstances, a proper one. This necessarily involves a broad consideration of all the relevant circumstances. A direction will exonerate the liquidator.
  3. In contrast, the discrete consideration of an application under s 477(2B) involves a more circumscribed inquiry. The court reviews the liquidator’s proposal, satisfying itself that there is no error of law or ground for suspecting bad faith or impropriety, and weighing up whether there is any good reason to intervene. An order under s 477(2B) does not constitute an endorsement of the proposed compromise. An approval will not exonerate the liquidator.
  4. Given that the nature of the inquiry undertaken in relation to the directions application is broader than that under s 477(2B), it would usually be convenient to deal with with directions application first, and often that consideration would substantially overtake any discrete consideration of the application under s 477(2B).
  5. The court always pays due regard to the commercial judgment of the liquidator, and, on both applications, the attitudes of creditors are also important.
  6. On both applications, but particularly the application for directions, it would ordinarily be expected that a liquidator would have obtained appropriate legal advice in relation to the proposed compromise, and the nature and content of that advice is a relevant consideration.
  7. While the focus of s 477(2B) is delay, the inquiry under s 477(2B) still requires consideration of the substance of the proposed compromise. If a related application for directions reveals either that the directions should, or should not, be given, discrete consideration of the application under s 477(2B) may be superfluous.

Their Honours then added this at [93]

It can be seen that the authorities present a tension in the circumstances of the applications the subject of the present case. The liquidator is ordinarily best placed to determine what course the liquidation should take, in the interests of creditors, any contributors and the proper recovery of the costs and expenses of the liquidation. the court will generally not enter into the merits of that determination, confining itself to the question whether the proposed course is a proper one for the liquidator to take. At the same time, the interests and wishes of creditors are highly influential and the creditors are, if properly informed, in the best position to evaluate what is in their own interests. As such, the views of the creditors as to the merits of the present proposal are a highly material consideration.

Principles from Newtronics – s 477(2B)

I pause here to note that the principles here distilled by the Court of Appeal are somewhat informed by the circumstances of this case, and partly focussed upon the different functions served by each of s 477(2B) and s 511. On s 477(2B) applications, the Courts often cite and apply the principles as distilled by her Honour Justice Gordon in Stewart, in the matter of Newtronics Pty Ltd [2007] FCA 1375. It may be useful to repeat them here –

  1. The Court does not simply “rubber stamp” whatever is put forward by a liquidator. (The passage by Giles J in Re Spedley Securities, reproduced above, is often quoted in full together with this principle. Note that its final sentence makes clear that the key consideration is whether the proposal is for the benefit of creditors.)
  2. A Court will not approve an agreement if its terms are unclear.
  3. The role of the Court is to grant or deny approval to the liquidator’s proposal. Its role is not to develop some alternative proposal which might seem preferable.
  4. In reviewing the liquidator’s proposal, the task of the Court is – “[not] to reconsider all of the issues which have been weighed up by the liquidator in developing the proposal, and to substitute its determination for his in…a hearing de novo [but]…simply to review the liquidator’s proposal, paying due regard to his or her commercial judgment and knowledge of all of the circumstances of the liquidator, satisfying itself that there is no error of law or ground for suspecting bad faith or impropriety, and weighing up whether there is any good reason to intervene in terms of the ‘expeditious and beneficial administration’ of the winding up.
  5. Further, in judging whether or not a liquidator should be given permission to enter into a funding agreement (whether retrospective or not), it is important to ensure, inter alia, that the entity or person providing the funding is not given a benefit disproportionate to the risk undertaken in light of the funding that is promised or a “grossly excessive profit”,
  6. Generally, the Court grants approval under s 477(2B) only where the transaction is the proper realisation of the assets of the company or otherwise assists in the winding up of the company.

(See Newtronics at [26] and the authorities there cited.)

Application 

The Court of Appeal – in the unanimous judgment of Whelan AP and McLeish and Hargrave JJA – held that the associate judge had not erred.

Their Honours found that the associate judge was correct to regard the wishes of creditors as a “very important consideration”. Indeed they noted that “he would have erred not to have done so” (see [98]). It was clear, however, that the associate judge did not consider himself bound to act in accordance with the creditors’ wishes, taking account of other matters including the funding position, the legal opinion tendered, the relevance of the Millennium proceeding and the possibility that Mr Yeo might be placed in funds to conduct the Lonnex proceeding. Their Honours noted that the fact that the source of those funds would be the principal creditor served to highlight the importance, in this case, of the attitude of creditors to the proposed compromise of the Lonnex proceeding. (See [95] & [98])

The Commissioner had also submitted that there would be adverse consequences for the Millennium proceeding if the Lonnex proceeding were to be settled, which the Court accepted had considerable force. (See [99])

The Court found the absence of funding for the Lonnex liquidators to continue the liquidation was not an “overriding factor” in this particular case. Here there were alternative options, including that the liquidators could resign so that Mr Yeo could be appointed. (See [95]-[96]) Notably, however, the Court observed that in a different case where no compromise has been achieved, it might be proper for a liquidator to discontinue litigation if funds to continue to conduct it are unavailable. (See [97])

Takeaway

This case serves as a warning to liquidators to take heed of the attitude of creditors to a proposed settlement of a claim, particularly majority, unrelated creditors. Certainly it is a reminder that the Courts will treat the creditors’ judgment of what is in their own commercial interests as of importance, in considering an application for approval to enter into a settlement deed and for directions.

Having said that, this was a somewhat unusual case. Each case will turn on its own facts. It will not always be the case when it comes to settling a proceeding that there is another proceeding arising out of the same transaction/s running in parallel, which may be adversely impacted by the settlement. Moreover, where liquidators are without the funds or a creditor willing to fund litigation, there will not always be an alternative convenient option waiting in the wings, of another liquidator who has consented to act with a creditor willing to fund him (and the majority creditor at that).

Big few days next week – not just the banking RC report, but the hearing of the High Court Amerind appeal

The first few days of next week are shaping up to be pretty big. As has been well covered in the press, the final report by of the Banking Royal Commission has now been handed to the Governor-General and will be publicly released on Monday afternoon 4 February 2019 at 4.10pm, coinciding with the sharemarket close. Reportedly Commissioner Kenneth Hayne’s final report stretches to more than 1000 pages.

Then on Tuesday 5 and Wednesday 6 February 2019 is the hearing of the High Court appeal in Amerind, set down for 2 days. To refresh your memories, for my review and analysis of the Victorian Court of Appeal decision in Amerind see here, and for my article considering the Full Federal Court decision in Killarnee and the landscape for liquidating corporate trustees of trading trusts in light of both Amerind and Killarnee see here.

For those who want more, the submissions that have been filed for each of the appellant (creditor Carter Hold Harvey Woodproducts Australia Pty Ltd), the first respondent (the Commonwealth of Australia, which advanced $3.8m for former employees of the company under FEGS) and the second respondent (the Receivers of Amerind Pty Ltd (Receivers & Managers appointed)(in liquidation) may be read on the High Court website.

 

Newsflash – Amerind High Court appeal listed for hearing

The Amerind appeal to the High Court of Australia has reportedly been listed for a 2-day hearing on 5 and 6 February 2019. Watch this space.

In the meantime, for my review and analysis of the Victorian Court of Appeal decision in Amerind see here, and for my article considering the Full Federal Court decision in Killarnee and the landscape for liquidating corporate trustees of trading trusts in light of both Amerind and Killarnee see here.

For those who want more, the submissions that have been filed for each of the appellant (creditor Carter Holt Harvey Woodproducts Australia Pty Ltd), the first respondent (the Commonwealth of Australia, which advanced $3.8m for former employees of the company under FEGS) and the second respondent (the Receivers of Amerind Pty Ltd (Receivers & Managers appointed)(in liquidation)) may be read on the High Court website.

When a payment of trust money is recovered as an unfair preference, does it become trust money once again?

Last Friday Derrington J in the Federal Court in Queensland tackled this question which remains unresolved in Australia, in  Lane (Trustee), in the matter of Lee (Bankrupt) v Commissioner of Taxation (No 3) [2018] FCA 1572. That is, when a payment is recovered as an unfair preference, and the original payment out was of trust moneys applied in payment of trust debt/s, does the recovered money become impressed with the trusts once again, or does it form part of the bankrupt’s general estate? (Or, on a liquidation, the company’s?) As a fungible, of course the funds recovered are not the same funds as those paid to discharge the debt.

Facts

Mr Lee was the sole trustee of the Warwick Lee Family Trust. Prior to his bankruptcy, Mr Lee operated the business of a Subway franchise in the suburb of Brassall in Queensland on behalf of the trust. In his capacity as trustee he employed a  number of staff and incurred a number of significant liabilities. In the course of the administration of Mr Lee’s bankrupt estate, the Bankruptcy Trustees recovered an unfair preference payment of $322,447.58 from the ATO, which had been paid by Mr Lee in discharge of tax liabilities arising from the operation of the Subway franchise. Of this sum, $171,659 had been paid using Mr Lee’s own money to pay this tax debt, and the balance of $150,778.58 had been paid from funds of the trust. The Bankruptcy Trustees had apportioned the unfair preference recovery accordingly between Mr Lee’s personal estate on the one hand and the trust on the other.

The question was whether they were right to do so. The debate centred on the recovery of payment of trust money, and whether the Bankruptcy Trustees were correct in their treatment of the $150,778.58 as becoming trust money “once again” upon its recovery.

Submissions

In broad terms, the Bankruptcy Trustees submitted that the funds recovered by them were impressed with the terms of the trust such that they (in the shoes of Mr Lee) would only be entitled to use them to discharge liabilities owing to trust creditors. His Honour noted the Trustees also seemed to submit that the trust creditors would be entitled to be subrogated to the equitable lien which attached to those funds in support of the trustee’s right of exoneration (at [7]).

The Commissioner generally submitted that the monies repaid by him were not subject to the terms of the trust and was available to be used by the Bankruptcy Trustees to meet the claims of all creditors (at [7]). The Commissioner submitted that although the trust funds were paid to him by Mr Lee as trustee utilising the right of exoneration, when an equivalent amount was repaid, the money was held free of all trust obligations and could be used to discharge the debts of non-trust creditors (at [20]).

Decision

As Derrington J observed at [25] that to date there is no sufficiently authoritative statement on this topic.

His Honour’s key reasoning is at [19]. He observes that attention needs to be focused on the entitlement to recover the sum paid from trust funds pursuant to Mr Lee’s entitlement to exonerate himself in respect of debts incurred in his capacity as trustee. Mr Lee’s entitlement to use trust funds only arose by reason of his position as trustee and because the debt arose from the administration of the trust. He concludes that the right to recover the payments of trust money from a transaction which was avoided was a right which was held for the benefit of the trust. Hence that right of recovery would be trust property vested in the trustee in that capacity and not in his / her /its personal capacity. “Rights which accrue from the performance of trust obligations tend to be trust property”, he adds.

At [24] his Honour concludes: “It would appear to be axiomatic that the right to receive repayment from the Commissioner consequent upon the avoidance of the preference payment was a right which vested in Mr Lee qua trustee such that the right is property of the trust, albeit one in which Mr Lee also had a beneficial interest.” He takes the view that at the very least, the right to receive the funds would be subject to the fiduciary duty that Mr Lee is not to profit from his position as trustee (at [28]).

Derrington J’s conclusion meant that the Trustee’s of Mr Lee’s bankrupt estate were correct to apportion the unfair preference recovery between the trust and Mr Lee’s general estate, in accordance with the source of the original payments that had been avoided. That is, the impugned payments of trust monies recovered as unfair preferences were to be treated as held for the benefit of trust creditors only (see [32]).

Conclusion

This should provide some guidance to bankruptcy trustees where the bankrupt had been a trustee who made preferential payments prior to bankruptcy.

However the question is more likely to arise in the corporate context, and will be particularly acute where a company was trustee of more than one trust, or also acted at times in its own capacity. The difficulty here is that some of his Honour’s reasoning was particular to the bankruptcy context (see [12]-[15]), and it is unclear if it would apply in the same way in the corporate context. Once again, because the Corporations Act fails to grapple explicitly with the liquidation of trustee companies and the issues which arise where trusts are involved, we are left with the question unresolved. Directions may need to be sought.

His Honour observes at [15] that the Bankruptcy Act confers no right of recovery or cause of action on the Bankruptcy Trustee (s 122 simply operates to avoid the preferential payments). It follows from this, his Honour says, that the Bankruptcy Trustee’s claim to recover the money is derivative upon a general law right acquired from the bankrupt. His Honour goes on to conclude that this right of the bankrupt is trust property which vests in the Bankruptcy Trustee by virtue of s 58 of the Bankruptcy Act (at [24]).

However unlike the Bankruptcy Act, s 588FF of the Corporations Act does provide a right of recovery and to seek other orders. For unrelated reasons , pursuant to s 588FF the right to bring the application is that of the liquidator, but the Court’s power is inter alia to order payment to the company . It is unclear whether the Courts would take the view where the impugned payment out had been a payment of trust money, that the rights of recovery under s 588FF are themselves trust property. And whether it would follow that any unfair preference recoveries received by a liquidator which had originally been payments out of trust moneys, were themselves subject to the obligation to use them in the manner required of the original funds, being for the purposes of discharging trust debts only, rather than available to the company in liquidation’s creditors generally.

Derrington J’s view expressed more than once was that neither a trustee, nor anyone claiming through it, has an entitlement to profit from their position as trustee and recover funds that had been a payment of trust moneys for their personal use (see eg at [31]). Perhaps this will inform the approach the Courts take to this difficult question.

Current state of uncertainty in the liquidation of trustee companies and the bankruptcy of individual trustees

Given that this case decides a question which leads to a conclusion as to whether unfair preference recoveries are available to all creditors or only trust creditors, one more point should be  noted. This is a Federal Court bankruptcy decision (in Queensland). For most of Australia, on the liquidation of a trustee company, proceeds of the trustee’s right of exoneration and supporting lien are not generally available for distribution to non-trust creditors. They may only be used to pay trust creditors. This was confirmed by the Full Federal Court in March of this year in Killarnee – Jones (Liquidator) v Matrix Partners Pty Ltd; Re Killarnee Civil and Concrete Contractors Pty Ltd (in liq) [2018] FCAFC 40; (2018) 354 ALR 436 (Killarnee). See my distillation of the propositions for which Killarnee stands as authority here, and my article reviewing the judgment and considering each of those propositions in more detail here.

In Victoria, however, a five member bench of the Court of Appeal in February of this year in Amerind concluded on this issue that until a subsequent appellate decision decides otherwise, Re Enhill continues to apply in Victoria and should continue to be followed by trial judges here, and the proceeds of the trustee’s lien on a bankruptcy or liquidation are available for division amongst the company’s creditors generally, not only among trust creditors –  Commonwealth of Australia v Byrnes and Hewitt as receivers and managers of Amerind Pty Ltd (receivers and managers apptd)(in liq) [2018] VSCA 41; (2018) 354 ALR 789 (Amerind). See my article reviewing that judgment here. Derrington J’s disapproval of this position can perhaps be seen in his observation at [9] that:  “In general terms, the decision in Amerind concluded that a corporate trustee’s right of exoneration, being the entitlement to use trust funds to pay trust debts, transmogrifies on insolvency into a right to use trust funds for the [trustee company’s] non-trust debts.”

Of course Amerind dealt with other issues as well, principally whether a trustee’s right of indemnity is property of the company, and whether upon the liquidation of a trustee company the distribution of property is governed by the statutory priority regime. Special leave to appeal to the High Court in Amerind has been sought and in August 2018 was granted, although the appeal has not yet been heard.  **Update: The High Court appeal was heard on 5 February 2019. As at the date of writing this update (15 Feb 19) the HCA decision is pending.

I note too that Derrington J’s earlier decision in the bankruptcy of Mr Lee dealing with whether trust assets can be used to pay all creditors or only trust creditors, and whether the scheme of priority in s 109 of the Bankruptcy Act applies to trust assets / proceeds of the trustee’s right of indemnity and lien –  Lane v Deputy Commissioner of Taxation [2017] FCA 953; (2017) 253 FCR 46 – has been appealed by the Commissioner. However given the granting of leave to appeal to the High Court in Amerind the Lane appeal it is not presently being progressed (see [9]).

 

Newsflash – High Court delivers reasons for upholding the holding DOCA in Mighty River

The High Court of Australia has this morning delivered reasons for orders it made in June 2018 dismissing two appeals from the West Australia Court of Appeal.

In Mighty River International Ltd v Brian Hughes and Daniel Bredencamp as Administrators of Mesa Minerals Ltd [2018] HCA 38 the DOCA in question inter alia provided for a moratorium on creditors’ claims, required the Administrators to conduct further investigations and report to creditors concerning possible variations to the Deed within 6 months, and provided that no property of Mesa Minerals be made available for distribution to creditors.

In Mighty River’s appeal to the High Court, it essentially made two submissions –

  1. The DOCA was not valid principally because it was an agreed extension of time not ordered by the Court under s 439A(6) and was contrary to the object of Part 5.3A, and
  2. The DOCA should have been declared void under s 445G(2) for contravening ss 438A(b) and 439A(4), or s 444A(4)(b), or both.

A slim majority of the High Court disagreed. The majority (Kiefel CJ, Edelman J and Gageler J) held that –

  1. The Deed was a valid deed of company arrangement. It was formally executed, and created and conferred genuine rights and duties. It did not involve an impermissible sidestepping of s 439A(6); the effect of extending the time for investigations by the Administrators was only incidental to the purpose of the DOCA (at the hearing there was some criticism from the bench of the use of the term “holding DOCA”). The moratorium was consistent with the object of Pt 5.3A, and
  2. The Deed was not required to be declared void under s 445G(2). Section 444A(4)(b) did not require the Deed to specify some property to be available to pay creditors’ claims, and the Administrators had formed and expressed the opinions required by s 438A(b) and, at the relevant time, s 439A(4).

In dissent their Honours Nettle and Gordon JJ took the view that in substance, the Deed did no more than purport to extend the administration of the Company (at [70]).

The judgment may be read in full here.

Newsflash – Special leave granted in Amerind

Earlier this morning special leave to appeal to the High Court was granted from the Victorian Court of Appeal’s decision in Amerind.  The bench comprised their Honours Gageler, Edelman and Nettle JJ. The transcript is not yet available on Austlii. Their Honours did not need to hear from counsel for Carter Holt Harvey Wood Products Pty Ltd, the creditor who had applied for special leave to appeal.

The five-member Victorian Court of Appeal decision from which special leave to appeal was granted can be read here: Commonwealth of Australia v Byrnes and Hewitt as receivers and managers of Amerind Pty Ltd (receivers and managers apptd)(in liq) [2018] VSCA 41 (Amerind).

My review and analysis of that decision can be read here. For my article considering the Full Federal Court decision in Killarnee and the landscape for liquidating corporate trustees of trading trusts in light of both decisions see here.