Heads up – Judgment in Killarnee to be delivered this afternoon

The Full Federal Court matter of Killarnee is listed for handing down of judgment at 5.15 this afternoon. Watch this space.

For more as to the issues arising at the point where trust law intersects with insolvency law, see my review of the recent Victorian Court of Appeal decision in Re Amerind – here.

 

The Amerind appeal – trading trusts, statutory regime of priority applies on receivership of the trustee, employee entitlements protected

As noted in my alert yesterday morning, the Victorian Court of Appeal has handed down it’s decision on appeal from Re Amerind (receivers and managers apptd)(in liq) [2017] VSC 127; (2017) 320 FLR 118. The appeal judgment is now up on Austlii and 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; (2018) 54 VR 230.

The five member bench comprised their Honours Ferguson CJ, Whelan JA, Kyrou JA, McLeish JA and Dodds-Streeton JA. The judgment was unanimous. At least for Victoria, it resolves the uncertainty  of the past few years following Independent Contractors and Re Amerind as to whether receivers and liquidators should apply the statutory priorities under sections 433, 556 and 560 of the Corporations Act when distributing the assets of corporations who have conducted their businesses through trading trusts. They should; the statutory scheme of priority applies. The fact that the funds are the proceeds of trust assets does not displace the priority regime.

The judgment was divided into two parts. The first part, commanding the bulk of the judgment, dealt with the issue of how a corporate trustee’s right of indemnity from trust assets is to be dealt with in insolvency, whether the receivership surplus in that case was properly characterised as trust property or property of the trustee, and whether the statutory scheme of priority applied. It is this first part I propose to address below.

The second part of the judgment dealt with the second ground on which Robson J had held that s 433 did not apply, namely that the right of indemnity was not subject to a ‘circulating security interest’.

Summary snapshot

To get straight to it, their Honours on the Amerind appeal held that –

  • A corporate trustee’s right of indemnity from trust assets is property of the trustee company within the meaning of s 433 of the Corporations Act. Not property of the trust, as Robson J had held at first instance.
  • The statutory scheme of priority applies to distribution of the relevant property, being the receivership surplus subject to the right of indemnity. This had the result 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 was vindicated.
  • (In the second part of the judgment – certain assets in dispute fell within the ambit of property secured by a ‘circulating security interest’. Their Honours held that the relevant assets in this context was not the right of indemnity but the trust assets. The correct date for assessing whether property is subject to a circulating security interest under s 433 is the date the receiver is appointed and takes possession. The Court also held that on the proper construction of s 340(1) of the PPSA the two limbs (a) and (b) are alternatives. Either may be satisfied to bring property within the definition of a ‘circulating asset’.)

Their Honours took the opportunity to state clearly that Re Enhill remains authoritative in Victoria and must be followed by trial judges here.

However, the Court left open the question of how non-trust creditors (if any) are to be treated on the insolvency of a trustee company. That is, whether on an insolvency a trustee’s right of indemnity must be used in payment of trust debts only, or of non-trust debts of the company also, ranking pari passu. I discuss this below.

Similar issues were also considered by the Full Court of the Federal Court in August last year in a hearing before their Honours Allsop CJ, Siopis and Farrell JJ in In the matter of Killarnee Civil & Concrete Contractors Pty Ltd (in liq) (WAD181/2016). Their judgment must surely be imminent, and it will be interesting to see how their Honours treat the issues. Given the prevalence of the use of trading trusts in Australia, it would be preferable to have both certainty and a national approach on the receivership or liquidation of corporate trustees.

**This concludes the summary. There now follows a more detailed treatment of the judgment, for those interested in reading on.

**********

The facts

The relevant facts and events are summarised at [3]-[8] and [14] of the appeal judgment and [50] at first instance. The key facts were these –

  • The company Amerind carried on business acting solely in its capacity as trustee of a trading trust
  • It had no assets of its own (save for a nominal sum settled to establish the trust)
  • The liabilities were incurred by Amerind acting as trustee
  • The creditors it had were therefore trust creditors
  • Amerind did not have its own money to meet trust liabilities and then seek to be reimbursed from the trust (by a trustee’s right of recoupment)
  • Rather, Amerind sought to be indemnified from the trust assets for liabilities it incurred in carrying out the trust (also called a trustee’s right of exoneration)
  • As all trust liabilities exceeded the trust assets, the beneficiaries’ interest had been entirely supplanted by Amerind’s right of indemnity
  • The Commonwealth had advanced accrued wages and entitlements totalling $3.8million to Amerind’s former employees pursuant to FEGS (the Fair Entitlements Guarantee Scheme)
  • Following repayment to the Bank through the receivers’ realisation of the Bank’s securities, and after providing for their own estimated remuneration, the receivers held a net surplus of $1,619,018.

Issues then arose as to how that surplus was to be applied. The Commonwealth’s position was that the priority regime provided for in the Corporations Act applied. It followed that by operation of s 560 of the Corporations Act, the Commonwealth had the same rights of priority in respect of the money advanced as do employee claims in a winding up under s 556 of the Act.

The receivers sought directions from the Court.

Submissions and authorities

The receivership surplus was subject to a right of indemnity (supported by a lien) held by the insolvent corporate trustee Amerind. The Commonwealth argued the receivership surplus was therefore the trustee company’s property, not trust property, and it should be applied in accordance with the priority regime provided for under the Corporations Act. The receivers agreed at first instance, and did not take a position on appeal. A creditor Carter Holt Harvey Woodproducts Australia Pty Ltd (CHH) opposed the Commonwealth’s position, contending that the Commonwealth was not entitled to priority because s 433 did not apply. At first instance, Robson J agreed with the creditor CHH. He held that s 433 did not apply to the receivership surplus.

Before addressing the issue the Court went on a journey from [19], giving detailed consideration to key principles and tracing through the authorities on the difficult questions that arise in resolving this issue. As it may be useful for practitioners to be aware of what was said, I will summarise those remarks here.

Nature of trust liabilities. Ordinarily a trustee is entitled to be indemnified from the trust assets against liabilities properly incurred. The trustee has a charge or lien over the trust assets for the purpose of enforcing that indemnity. In some circumstances creditors of the trustee whose debts were incurred in discharge of the trust may be subrogated to the trustee’s rights (at [22])

Nature of the trustee’s right of indemnity and creditors subrogation. A trustee’s right of indemnity may take the form of recoupment / reimbursement for trust debts already paid from the trustee’s own money, or of exoneration for trust debts not yet paid (at [23]-[27]).

I pause here to note that unlike the Court in the Re Amerind appeal, in Lane v Deputy Commissioner of Taxation [2017] FCA 953 (discussed below) Derrington J saw this distinction between the two distinct forms of a trustee’s right of indemnity as critical. At [36] of Lane Derrington J observed –

“[T]he right of a trustee to be indemnified from the assets of the trust falls into two distinct parts. First where a trustee has discharged a trust debt out of their own funds, the trustee is entitled to reimbursement out of the trust funds in an equivalent amount. That occurs by money being transferred by trust funds to the trustee who receives an absolute, beneficial interest in that money. That right in relation to satisfied trust liabilities is often referred to as the right of “recoupment”. Second, the trustee is entitled to meet unsatisfied trust debts directly from the trust assets by utilising the right of “exoneration”. Pursuant to this right, the trustee directly applies trust assets to discharge the indebtedness by paying trust funds directly to the trust creditor…This process of “exoneration” does not involve the trustee obtaining any beneficial interest in the assets which are used to discharge the trust debts.”

At [38] of Lane, Derrington J goes on –

“The important distinction between these two aspects of the trustee’s right of indemnity is usefully essayed in…[two texts on subrogation]. In the former work the learned author identifies that a trustee is restricted in the use of the right of exoneration to use it for the purpose of discharging his liability to the trust creditors and no other.”

Finally at [40] Derrington J concludes –

“[S]ome of the authorities concerning the trustee’s right of indemnity from the trust assets do not always maintain this critical distinction between the right of “recoupment” or “reimbursement” on the one hand, and the right of “exoneration” on the other. However the distinction is fundamental. If what comes into the hands of a bankruptcy trustee is a trustee’s right of recoupment, it is a right to take money from the trust funds for the benefit of the insolvent trustee’s estate. It is, in effect, the payment of an amount owing to the trustee for the purposes of reimbursing the trustee’s personal estate. Such a payment is received by the bankruptcy trustee as part of the bankrupt’s personal estate and is available to meet the claims of both trust and non-trust creditors. However, the position is markedly different when what the bankruptcy trustee receives is merely a right or entitlement to have trust assets applied to discharge trust debts. That is a considerably more limited right.”

As will be seen below, this view was not shared by the Court of Appeal.

Returning to the Amerind appeal judgment, from [28]-[56] the Court reviewed English and Australian authorities on this issue handed down between 1802 and 2012. At [57] their Honours distilled these conclusions from those authorities –

  1. There has been long standing, if not uniform, acceptance of the proposition that upon insolvency the trustee’s right of indemnity passes to the insolvent trustee’s insolvency administrator.
  2. Trust creditors deal with the trustee on the footing of the trustee’s personal liability. They may be subrogated to the trustee’s right of indemnity, but any such subrogation cannot yield greater rights than the trustee itself has.
  3. The right of subrogation is better characterised as a remedy. It is based upon the unconscionability of liabilities incurred to augment trust assets not being met out of those assets. Its goal, as revealed by the early cases, was not the protection of trust creditors, but rather the prevention of the unjust enrichment of beneficiaries.
  4. In re Richardson [1911] 2 KB 705 suggests that the right of indemnity cannot be exercised so as to meet the claims of non-trust creditors. Liverpool and the NZ decision in Jarvis would confine In re Richardson to circumstances where the indemnifying party (the beneficiaries, in effect) is ‘concerned’ as to the application of the money. (Note this may rarely be the case on insolvency.)

The statutory insolvency regime. The pari passu principle for the equal treatment of creditors’ claims applying what remains of the insolvent’s property is embodied in s 555 of the Corporations Act. Section 556 then provides for certain debts to be paid in priority to all other unsecured debts. Property held by the insolvent on trust is not property of the company and is excluded from distribution to the company’s creditors.

Employee claims have long been accorded priority over the claims of the holder of a floating charge or circulating security. Section 433 provides that a receiver who takes possession or assumes control of property of the company secured by a ‘circulating security interest’ must pay, out of property coming into his her or its hands, specified debts in priority to any claim for principal and interest under the debentures. Those specified debts include those afforded priority under s 556(1)(e),(g) or (h) or s 560 of the Act. These are the provisions which give priority to employee claims, and to those who advance funds to meet them.

The High Court in Octavo, Buckle and Bruton. The High Court’s decision in Octavo Investments Pty Ltd v Knight [1979] HCA 61; (1979) 144 CLR 360 establishes that an insolvent trustee’s right of indemnity against trust property for trust debts, gives the trustee a proprietary interest in the trust property (at [96]). On liquidation, the trustee company’s liquidator has access to that proprietary interest for the benefit of the trustee’s creditors.

The Court of Appeal expressed the view that Octavo establishes not only that the right of exoneration is property which passes to the trustee in bankruptcy (vests) or the liquidator (control), but also that the respective statutory regimes must apply to the disposition of that property. The Honours’ view was that Octavo does not, however, provide clear guidance on whether distribution is confined to trust creditors (at [100]). Indeed the Court noted that Octavo gives conflicting guidance on this question. The plurality in Octavo made conflicting remarks as to whether the proceeds of a trustee’s right of indemnity would, on insolvency, be confined to trust creditors, or whether the trustee’s non-trust creditors (if any) could share in the distribution (see [98]).

Twenty years later in Chief Commissioner of Stamp Duties (NSW) v Buckle [1998] HCA 4; (1998) 192 CLR 226, the High Court recognised the traditional distinction between rights of exoneration (for trust debts not yet paid) and recoupment (for trust debts already paid by the trustee). However the Court affirmed that the trustee’s right of indemnity, in either manifestation, conferred on the trustee a beneficial proprietary right in the trust assets (at [106]). The High Court affirmed this in Bruton Holdings Pty Ltd (in liq) v Federal Commissioner of Taxation [2009] HCA 32; (2009) 239 CLR 346. The High Court there characterised the trustee’s right of indemnity as a proprietary interest in the trust assets, irrespective of whether it took the form of recoupment or exoneration, by virtue of the lien which survived the loss of office as trustee (at [114]).

The Court of Appeal concluded that the High Court has made it clear that the trustee’s right of indemnity, both as to recoupment and exoneration, constitutes a proprietary interest in the trust assets which, in the corporate insolvency context, is ‘property of the company’. The statutory provisions governing corporate insolvency have changed over time, but none of those changes have altered or affected this position (at [124]).

I pause here to note that it is interesting how different courts in Australia can review the same High Court authorities and draw different conclusions from them as to what they establish as authoritative. In contrast with the Re Amerind appeal decision, see Lane at [96]-[99].

Re Enhill, Re Suco Gold, Independent Contractors. From [125] their Honours reviewed cases applying the English and High Court authorities on the trustee’s right of indemnity and insolvency, prior to the Amerind decision. The main cases considered were these –

Re Enhill Pty Ltd [1983] VicRp 52; [1983] 1 VR 561 is discussed from [136]. There Young CJ observed that the Victorian Full Court had to treat Octavo  as authority for the proposition that the right of a trustee to be indemnified out of the assets of the trust, or the proceeds of the exercise of that right, are assets of the trustee in a winding up.

Young CJ took the view that 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 (at [144]). Lush J agreed, taking the view that although the case before him in Re Enhill did not concern a competition between trust and non-trust creditors, they should stand on the same footing (at [154]-[155]). He acknowledged however that there can never be exacted from the trust property, by the trustee or by the trust creditors, an amount which is greater than the trust debts (at [158]).

Shortly after Re Enhill in Victoria, the Full Court of the South Australian Supreme Court handed down Re Suco Gold Pty Ltd (in liq) (1983) 33 SASR 99. As in Re Enhill, the practical problem exposed in Re Suco was that the winding up could not proceed unless the liquidator could have recourse to trust funds to meet the costs and expenses of liquidation. King CJ rejected the liquidator’s submission, based on Re Enhill, that the right of exoneration entitled the trustee to transfer trust property to himself to meet unpaid trust debts, which property then ceased to be trust property and was, on insolvency, divisible amongst the general body of creditors. King CJ noted this to be ‘in conflict with fundamental principles of the law of trusts’ (at [171]).

Unlike Young CJ’s application of Octavo in Re Enhill, King CJ in Re Suco stated that in his view Octavo did not lead to the conclusion that the trust assts (to the extent of the trust liabilities) pass to the trustee in bankruptcy or the liquidator for the benefit of the general body of creditors (at [175]).

King CJ acknowledged that the trustee’s indemnity passes to the trustee in bankruptcy or liquidator, and that the proceeds of that indemnity were therefore part of the estate divisible amongst creditors. However King CJ drew a crucial distinction between the right of recoupment and the right of exoneration. In cases of recoupment, the right of indemnity can produce proceeds for division among the creditors generally. However not so in cases of exoneration. If a trustee takes trust property into his possession to satisfy his right to be indemnified for unpaid trust liabilities, that property retains its character as trust property and may be used only for the purpose of discharging the liabilities incurred in the performance of the trust (at [176]).

On the case before him, King CJ concluded that the liquidator was bound by s 292 of the Companies Act to pay the debts (which were all trust debts) in the specified order of priority, having recourse to the property of each trust to pay the debts incurred in performing it, and if there was any surplus after the priority payments, paying other trust debts pari passu (at [180]).

The turning point came in 2016 in Re Independent Contractor Services (Aust) Pty Ltd (in liq)[No 2] [2016] NSWSC 106; (2016) 305 FLR 222, when Brereton J held that the statutory priority scheme in s 556 did not apply to trust assets, and the creditors share pari passu in the trust assets after providing for the costs of administration. His Honour’s view was that s 556 was concerned only with the distribution of assets beneficially owned by a company and available for division between its general creditors, and trust principles provided that trust creditors’ claims rank pari passu (from [186]).

First instance judgment in Re Amerind.  In Re Amerind (receivers and managers apptd)(in liq)[2017] VSC 127; (2017) 320 FLR 118 Robson J controversially held that the trustee’s right of indemnity was not ‘property of the company’ within the meaning of s 433(3) of the Corporations Act and was not available to meet other liabilities of the company. Rather, the right of indemnity and lien could only be used to satisfy liabilities incurred on behalf of the trust (at [194]). His Honour concluded that the corporate trustee’s right of indemnity and lien, of which the receiver’s surplus was the proceeds, was ‘property held in trust’, rather than ‘the corporate trustees own beneficial personal property’. In his view the indemnity was not a personal asset of the trustee; rather it was trust property (at [197]). Hence he found that the receivers were justified in proceeding on the basis that the receivership surplus was properly characterised as property of the trust (at [201]).

Robson J acknowledged that Re Enhill and Re Suco Gold had both held that the statutory regime did apply where the assets of a company are held on trust. However his Honour preferred Brereton J’s reasoning in Re Independent that the statutory provisions applied only to ‘property of the company’ and that the trustee’s right of indemnity was not ‘property of the company’ (at [203]). His Honour took the considered view that the Victorian Full Court’s decision in Re Enhill, which had not been followed in the Federal Court or any other state of Australia, was not binding on him (at [208]).

Before the Court of Appeal, the Commonwealth submitted that Robson J erred in denying employees their rightful status as priority creditors. His Honour’s reasoning was contrary to the High Court’s recognition in Octavo, Buckle and Bruton that the trustee’s right of indemnity (including for exoneration) was a beneficial interest in trust property amounting to a proprietary interest. That analysis was applied by the Full Courts in Re Enhill and Re Suco Gold so as to conclude that the statutory order of priorities applied to the distribution of the property (at [212]).

Lane v Deputy Commissioner of Taxation [2017] FCA 953. Five months after Re Amerind,  Derrington J held in Lane that contrary to Re Independent and Re Amerind, the trustee’s right of indemnity for exoneration was a proprietary right which vested in an insolvent trustee’s trustee in bankruptcy and, by analogy, would also be ‘property of the company’ in the corporate context. But it was a limited right with a sole purpose to pay trust debts, which did not alter on insolvency (at [239]).

In Lane the question was whether trust funds were distributable to all creditors, or only to trust creditors. His Honour held that the right to be indemnified out of trust property (right of exoneration) was personal property of the trustee, “being a right to exercise power with respect to property within the meaning of s 116(1)(b) [of the Bankruptcy Act]…” (at [244]).

As touched on above, in Lane Derrington J analysed the nature of the indemnity, emphasising the distinction between rights of exoneration and recoupment, and concluded that the trustee is restricted in the use of the right of exoneration to using it for the purpose of discharging his liability to the trust creditors and no other (at [246]). The entitlement of trust creditors to be subrogated to the trustee’s right of indemnity was an important factor in Derrington J’s analysis. It gave them in his view a favoured position, and while it did not make them secured creditors, in Derrington J’s view they were akin to secured creditors in some respects (at [256]). His Honour also doubted whether, in the corporate context, ss 555 and 556 could apply to property comprising a trustee’s right of exoneration (at [258]).

Both Re Enhill and Re Suco Gold had characterised the trustee’s right of indemnity as property of the company divisible among creditors according to the statutory order of priorities (at [260]).

From [263] the Court of Appeal compared the reasoning in Re Enhill with that in Re Suco Gold, on the question of whether the trustees’ right of indemnity for exoneration in insolvency could only be used for the satisfaction of trust creditors’ claims, to the exclusion of general creditors. They noted that this question had less practical significance than perhaps anticipated. Many of the decided cases concerned trustee companies with trust liabilities only. Typically the only claims arguably not trust-related were the liquidator’s claims for costs, fees and expenses. It has been held that where it is established the liquidator’s work and costs were essential or beneficial to the trust, the related claims may be satisfied on the basis of Re Suco Gold, alternatively under the principles of Universal Distributing (at [260]).

Their Honours noted that prior to Lane, it seemed that no court had found it necessary to determine the controversy generated by the different holdings in Re Enhill and Re Suco Gold over whether the proceeds of the right of indemnity for exoneration are divisible amongst all creditors or trust creditors only. That was also the position in the instant case, as Amerind had only trust creditors. (at [261]).

At [266] the Court of Appeal noted that Young CJ in Re Enhill took the view that when insolvency intervened, the antecedent obligation to exercise the right of indemnity to meet the claims of trust creditors only was overriden by the prescribed statutory order of priorities. They noted that this approach had the advantage of consistency, but also drawbacks. It renders the trust creditors’ right of subrogation of little or no substance in the very circumstance which would trigger it. It creates a position where, on one view, there is an unauthorised application of trust assets.

However their Honours did not attempt to resolve the issue of whether the right of exoneration can be applied to pay trust creditors only, or trust and general creditors of the trustee, and seemed to doubt that it could be resolved at all:

“It seems to us to be unlikely that any analysis can comprehensively reconcile the competing considerations at play, all of which are supported to some degree in the diverse relevant authorities.” (at [267])

1. Is the right of indemnity property of the trustee company?

The answer given was yes, the right of indemnity by way of exoneration is property of the insolvent trustee company. They categorically overturned Robson J’s holding on this, stating that:

“The primary judge’s conclusion that the corporate trustee’s right of indemnity by way of exoneration was not ‘property of the company’ cannot be sustained in the light of relevant High Court authority.” (at [269])

They discussed and disagreed with his Honour’s reasoning, and observed that as Derrington J had cogently explained, in the light of the High Court decisions in Savage, Octavo, Bruton, Buckle and CPT, it cannot be seriously doubted that the right of indemnity by way of exoneration is property of the insolvent trustee company (at [273]).

2. Is the distribution of the relevant property governed by the Corporations Act?

The answer given was yes.

In Lane, Derrington J held that the right of exoneration was property of the insolvent trustee, but that the provisions of the Bankruptcy Act governing distribution of the insolvent’s property did not apply. He declined to follow Re Suco Gold and Re Enhill on this point (at [274]).

However the Court of Appeal held that in their view Re Suco Gold and Re Enhill are correct on this issue, repeating twice that:

“Once it is accepted that the right of indemnity is property of the insolvent, the insolvency legislation must apply.” (at [276] and [281])

Their Honours conceded that whilst it might be accepted that, at least where beneficiaries have an interest in the discharge of trust debts, the right of exoneration must only be used for that purpose, the imposition of a requirement of ‘directness’ was not, in their view, a requirement found in the existing authorities (at [279]). In any event, the existence of an inherent limitation on what use the right of indemnity could be put (ie to pay only trust creditors), given that it is ‘property’ in the relevant sense, would not justify a conclusion that the statutory regime did not apply (at [280]).

3.  Is the distribution confined to trust creditors? 

The Court of Appeal returned to this issue, but concluded it was unnecessary to decide this question on the application before them. The right of indemnity is property of the company, and the statutory regime applies to its distribution.

“Whether that property has an inherent characteristic which confines its distribution to trust creditors is not one that we need to decide, as all of Amerind’s creditors are trust creditors.” (at [282])

Their Honours recognised that principles of trust law favoured the approach in Re Suco Gold trust giving cogency to the view confining the use of the right of exoneration to the payment of trust debts only (at [283]). However at [284] their Honours then listed four considerations in favour of the Re Enhill approach that trust creditors and general creditors rank equally on a distribution of property constituted by the right of exoneration.

The Court of Appeal concluded that the receivership surplus was not trust property but was trustee property, and that the priority regime in ss 433(3), 556 and 560 applied to that surplus insofar as those assets were circulating assets at the relevant time (at [285]). They then clearly laid down the following guidance –

“[W]hilst the discussion above discloses that there must be some doubt about which of Re Enhill or Re Suco Gold is correct, it suffices to say that unless and until a subsequent appellate decision decides otherwise, the law as it stands in Victoria as articulated in Re Enhill should continue to be followed by trial judges in this State.” (at [286])

Conclusion

As noted above, their Honours concluded that the receivership surplus subject to the trustee’s right of indemnity was not trust property (but rather property of the trustee company), and the priority regime in ss 433(3), 556 and 560 of the Corporations Act applied to that surplus insofar as those assets were circulating assets at the relevant time.

Two final points. First, I would suggest that in bankruptcy cases (as opposed to corporate insolvency) Derrington J’s judgment in Lane is likely to trump the Court of Appeal’s decision on the Amerind appeal as authoritative in the bankruptcy context.

Secondly, Re Amerind had been having a disturbing ripple effect in other insolvent trading trust cases handed down in the intervening months before the appeal decision, which should now ease. For instance, in a case I appeared in for which judgment was delivered by Robson J last week, Re Mamounia Pty Ltd (in liq) (No 2) [2018] VSC 65, a question arose as to whether the liquidators of a trustee company had power to direct payment of a sum held by a firm of solicitors under a solicitors’ general possessory common law lien to be applied in payment of the solicitors’ fees. (Due to the nature of the common law lien, the solicitors’ right was only a passive right to retain the sum, without a power to pay themselves the fees owing by the insolvent client on multiple files.) The doubt arose in light of the then principle in Re Amerind  that a trustee’s right of exoneration itself was a trust asset and not an asset of the trustee, from which it followed that the power the liquidators would otherwise have under s 477 of the Corporations Act in dealing with property of the trustee company may be lacking. The liquidators of Mamounia, a bare trustee, sought power to be conferred upon them or the company under s 63 of the Trustee Act, if otherwise justified in directing the payment to be made. His Honour agreed to make orders conferring the requisite power under s 63 of the Trustee Act, also noting that Universal Distributing may assist the liquidators, at least for the portion of fees owing that related to work performed in producing the sum held.

At least in Victoria, then, calm has largely been restored and life as it was for insolvency practitioners administering insolvent trustees of trading trusts pre-Amerind may resume. However it remains to be seen what the future holds.

No doubt much virtual ink will be spilt in discussing the Court of Appeal’s judgment in the coming days and weeks. We wait with interest to see how the Full Court of the Federal Court treats these issues in its decision which is surely imminent in In the matter of Killarnee Civil & Concrete Contractors Pty Ltd (in liq) (WAD181/2016). Given the prevalence of the use of trading trusts in Australia, it would be preferable to have both certainty and a national approach on the receivership or liquidation of corporate trustees.

*Postscript #1 – the Full Court of the Federal Court handed down its decision in Killarnee on 21 March 2018. My post giving a snapshot analysis of the decision may be read here, and my article reviewing the decision in Killarnee more closely may be read here.

*Postscript #2 – this decision was appealed to the High Court, which handed down judgment on 19 June 2019 unanimously dismissing the appeal. My summary posted the morning of the decision is here

Newsflash – judgment in the Amerind appeal handed down this morning

This morning a 5-member bench of the Victorian Court of Appeal handed down judgment in the appeal from the decision of Robson J in Re Amerind (receivers and managers apptd) (in liq) [2017] VSC 127; (2017) 320 FLR 118. The bench comprised Ferguson CJ, Whelan JA, Kyrou JA, McLeish JA and Dodds-Streeton JA.

In a unanimous judgment overturning the decision of Robson J, the plurality held that Amerind’s right of indemnity as trustee over trust assets for liabilities it incurred on behalf of the trust was property of the company (not, as his Honour had held at first instance, property of the trust) and that the priority regime in the Corporations Act therefore applied.

The Court held that the Commonwealth (following its advance under FEGS) was entitled to be paid by the Receivers before other creditors from particular assets.

Their Honours did however uphold Robson J’s decision that certain property in issue was subject to a circulating security interest, including cash in Amerind’s trade account, funds advanced to Amerind under a factoring arrangement, and miscellaneous receipts.

I note that there is also a judgment which addresses similar issues pending since it was heard on 10-11 August 2017 by the Full Court of the Federal Court in In the matter of Killarnee Civil & Concrete Contractors Pty Ltd (in liq) (WAD181/2016). I will keep an eye on that also.

More to follow re Amerind, with links to the judgment, once it is up on Austlii.

If anyone cannot wait that long, I recommend that you read the bankruptcy judgment from August last year of Derrington J in Lane v Deputy Commissioner of Taxation [2017] FCA 953. In it, Derrington J took a different view to some of the conclusions of Robson J in Re Amerind. On the question of whether the trustee’s right of indemnity and lien was property of the trust or of the trustee, Derrington J queried whether a conclusion that the right of exoneration was property of the trustee necessarily meant that it was available to the trustee’s general creditors. His Honour took the view that whether the right of exoneration was a trust asset or a trustee asset, there was only one method by which the right could be exercised and that was by the application of trust funds to paying the claims of trust creditors (whether by the trustee or by the trust creditors exercising their right of subrogation to the right of exoneration and lien). Even if the right of exoneration is an asset of the trustee, any property received by a bankruptcy trustee is subject to all of the liabilities and equitable interests existing prior to the bankruptcy. Accordingly the trustee, and subsequently its bankruptcy trustee or its liquidator, could only ever apply trust funds in discharge of trust debts (at [94]-[117]). Derrington J concluded in that case that a trustee’s right of exoneration from trust property was an asset of the trustee.

Watch this space.

Extending time for convening the second meeting of creditors

In January Gardiner AsJ delivered his reasons for orders made in December 2016 granting an extension of time for the convening of the second creditors’ meeting in Re Southern Riverina Dairy Group Pty Ltd (Administrators appointed) [2017] VSC 4. The case provides a handy reminder of when such orders are likely to be made, and the judgment includes a useful summary of the key legal principles and the reasons for which the courts tend to grant such extensions.

Facts

Southern Riverina Diary Group Pty Ltd operated a 320 hectare dairy farm in southern New South Wales, and milked about 750 cows. In 2016 Souther Riverina experienced financial difficulties. It reached a point where it was unable to meet its financial obligations, became the subject of various court judgments in 2016 and was facing a pending wind up application. (There was evidence that the petitioning creditor’s issues with the Company had been resolved, but that another creditor had applied to be substituted as petitioning creditor.) The Company had seven employees and it appeared the ATO may be owed unpaid Superannuation Guarantee Charges. There were multiple secured creditors owed a total amount of approximately $2.7 million, and a preliminary assessment of the total of unsecured debts was in excess of $4.569 million.

The Administrators of Southern Riverina – Glenn Franklin, Jason Stone and Petr Vrsecky – had been appointed by secured creditors of the Company under s 436C of the Corporations Act on 6 December 2016. If not extended, the convening period for the second meeting of creditors was to expire on 12 January 2017, pursuant to s 439A(5)(a) (see [2]).

The Administrators’ application for extension of time was heard on 19 December 2016. There was evidence of several DOCA proposals in the process of being formulated, but not yet submitted . One of the directors had asked for more time to formulate a DOCA proposal, and requested the second creditors meeting be held after 7 February 2017. Another potential investor was interested in putting forward a DOCA proposal but required until February 2017. There was a further complication in that one potential investor would need to go through the Foreign Investment Review Board process, which was said to take six weeks.

The Administrators submitted that they needed the further time to complete their investigations into the Company’s affairs, and to prepare a proper and informative report to creditors. The report is required to contain their opinions and the reasons for those opinions pursuant to s 439A(4) of the Act, as to whether it would be in the creditors’ interests for the Company to execute a proposed DOCA, for the administration to end, or for the Company to be wound up. This is difficult to do when the DOCA proposals were not yet received and able to be considered as to merit, and comparisons reached as to likely returns under those proposals as compared with a liquidation.

Unusually, the Administrators filed the application prior to holding the first creditors meeting (at [24]). This was because of the timing of the administration and the looming interruption of the Christmas period. The meeting was held several days before the hearing, and the evidence was that all creditors in attendance had indicated their support of the extension of time (including the creditor who had applied to be substituted as petitioning creditor in the wind up application). No objection was raised. The secured creditors who were owed the majority of secured debt had informed the Administrators they had no objection. Other secured creditors had not attended the first meeting nor given their proxy. His Honour observed that presumably, given the attitude of the proposed substituted creditor, it would assent to an adjournment of the winding up application, which would be a powerful factor in the exercise of the Court’s discretion under s 440A(2) of the Act when that matter returned to Court on 25 January 2017.

On 19 December 2016 his Honour made the orders extending the convening period under s 439A(6). The primary reasons (cited at [5]) for the Administrators’ seeking the extension were –

(a) to facilitate the progression and consider the proposals intended to be made for a DOCA,

(b) so the Administrators could be in a position to prepare a report to creditors in advance of the second meeting containing the requisite opinions as to the three options referred to in s 439A(4).

Legal Principles and Key Factors 

The principles to be applied in these applications have been summarised by Judd J in Algeri; Re Colorado Group Ltd [2011] VSC 260 and by Dodds-Streeton J in Re FEA Plantations Ltd [2010] FCA 468.

In Re Colorado Group, Judd J observed at [24] –

When an application is made for an extension of time to convene a meeting, the court will attempt to strike a balance between the expectation that the administration will be conducted relatively speedily and summarily, and the need to ensure that undue speed will not prejudice sensible and constructive actions directed towards maximising the return for creditors and shareholders. Where the relevant business group is large and complex, or there is a prospect of successful realisation of assets through negotiations with third parties, as in the present case, the administration process is often given more time. There is no place for a predisposition against granting an extension.

In Re FEA Plantations Ltd (quoted with approval by Judd J in Re Colorado Group), Dodds-Streeton J observed at [19] –

Relevant authorities recognise that strict compliance with the tight timeframes for convening the second meeting (statutorily imposed to avoid the prolongation of the voluntary administration procedure and its concomitant moratorium and impact on rights) may not be feasible in large and complex administrations, if the administrators are to produce informed recommendations based on adequate investigations, and a sufficiently comprehensive and detailed report capable of providing meaningful assistance to the creditors in deciding the fate of the company.”

In Re Riviera Group Pty Ltd [2009] NSWSC 585; (2009) 72 ACSR 352 at [13] Austin J had noted that extensions had been granted for the following broad categories of reasons –

  1. The size and scope of the business,
  2. Substantial offshore activities,
  3. Large number of employees with complex entitlements,
  4. Complex corporate group structure and intracompany loans,
  5. Complex transactions entered into by the company (for example securities lending or derivatives transactions),
  6. Complex prospects of recovery proceedings,
  7. The time needed to execute an orderly process of disposal of assets,
  8. The time needed for thorough assessment of a proposal for a deed of company arrangement,
  9. Where the extension will allow sale of the business as a going concern,
  10. More generally, that additional time is likely to enhance the return for unsecured creditors.

(See the passages set out at [26] of Gardiner AsJ’s judgment and the cases there cited for each of these categories.)

Application of Principles

Gardiner AsJ noted that in Re Colorado Group Judd J had pointed to the administrators’ inability to prepare and circular a meaningful report to creditors so as to comply with their obligations under s 439A(4) of the Act. Similarly here, Gardiner AsJ found that the preparation of such a report in the absence of receipt and analysis of the foreshadowed DOCA proposals, would be premature.

His Honour also noted that in Re Diamond Press Australia Pty Ltd [2001] NSWSC 313, Barrett J considered that the Court’s function was to strike a balance between the expectation that the administration would be speedy, and the requirement that undue speed should not prejudice sensible and constructive actions directed towards maximising the return to creditors.

Based on the evidence in this case, Gardiner AsJ identified the following factors as prominent and in favour of the grant of the extension sought (at [29]) –

  1. the time needed for a thorough assessment of DOCA proposals,
  2. additional time was likely to enhance the return for unsecured creditors, and
  3. it would enable the preparation of a report which complied with the requirements of s 439A(4) of the Act.

Gardiner AsJ also took into account in this case the following factors (note there is some overlap between these factors set out from [31] and summarised below, and those his Honour identified as prominent at [29]) –

  1. the fact that the extension proposed was modest and was focussed around information received as to the timing of DOCA proposals – at [31]. (As to the former, without the extension the report to creditors would need to be issued by 23 December 2016 and the second meeting held by 10 January 2017 – see [21].)
  2. the intervention of the Christmas holiday period – at [32]-[33]
  3. the need for there to be fully formed proposals capable of proper analysis, in order for administrators to form opinions and produce a proper report to creditors in accordance with their statutory obligations – see discussion at [34]
  4. whether the creditors generally support the extension – they did – see [35]
  5.  if no extension were granted, the administrators would be forced to convene the second creditors meeting and recommend it be adjourned and held at a later time, with the associated wasted expenditure – see [36]
  6. there was evidence of a potential better return to creditors on a DOCA as opposed to an immediate winding up, a matter that has been recognised as relevant to the balancing exercise the Court undertakes on an extension application – [37] & [39]
  7. the significant factor of any material prejudice to those affected by the moratorium imposed by administrations, including lessors of property. Here those owners, although informed, had not taken objection to the proposed extension. There was no evidence of likely prejudice to them, and indeed the potential for benefit. The majority secured creditors supported the extension – [38].

His Honour held there were substantial grounds for making the order sought for extension of time under s 439A(6) of the Act. His Honour also made several ancillary orders, including a Daisytek order, permitting the administrators to convene the second meeting at any time during the extended convening period or within 5 business days thereafter.  (see [40]-[44])

Comment

This decision provides a handy reminder of the key legal principles that apply and the categories of factors which will tend a Court to favour the granting of an application for extending the convening period of a second meeting of creditors in a voluntary administration.

Practitioners should take care when it comes to preparation of the affidavit evidence . Note that even where there may be an apparently good case with factors favouring an extension of time, practitioners should also be mindful of matters tending against. It is important to consider the impact of an extension, and to inform the Court with evidence of any prejudice that an extension may occasion, as well as the attitude of creditors to the proposed extension. Without this evidence properly put before it, the Court cannot weigh up reasons to extend against the consequences of an extension, and may be less likely to grant the order sought. As Gardiner AsJ observed at [30], the Court will be mindful as to whether –

  1. the evidentiary case has been properly prepared,
  2. there is no evidence of material prejudice to those affected by the moratorium imposed by an administration, and
  3. the Court is satisfied that the administrators’ estimate of time has a reasonable basis.

(These remarks of his Honour at [30] set out the matters drawn from the judgment of Austin J in Re Riviera at [14].)

A refresher – Liquidators’ section 483(1) applications

Section 483(1) of the Corporations Act 2001 (Cth) is concerned with the “delivery of property to the liquidator” and provides –

The Court may require a person who is a contributory, trustee, receiver, banker, agent or officer of the company to pay, deliver, convey, surrender or transfer to the liquidator or provisional liquidator, as soon as practicable or within a specified period, any money, property, or books in the person’s hands to which the company is prima facie entitled.

The section provides a summary procedure to avoid the expense of the company bringing actions against company officers and others who obtain their authority from the company, in possession of the company’s property.[1]

In short, if the company in liquidation is “prima facie entitled” to the property the subject of the application, the Court has a discretion to order it delivered up to the liquidator without resolving the issue of who is the owner of the property. This may be so even where there is a genuine dispute as to ownership of the property the subject of the application [2].

However, somewhat similarly (though not identically) to the position with applications to set aside statutory demands, this may not be the appropriate procedure to employ where there is a real question of ownership to be tried between the company and the proposed respondent to the application. There can be a fine line, though, when the dispute raised does not appear to be well-founded.

Principles

The following is my distillation of the key principles to be derived from the authorities –

  1. The issue for the Court to determine is whether the company is prima facie entitled to the property the subject of the application.[3]
  2. The Court does not inquire into and finally determine or resolve a dispute as to title to the property,[4] if there is one.
  3. The Court may determine the question of whether the company is prima facie entitled to the property and order its delivery up to the liquidator –
    1. Even if there is some evidence to the contrary,[5] and
    2. Even if there is a genuine dispute as to ownership of the property in question,[6] but
    3. Not if a claim is made by the person in whose hands the assets are found that is adverse to the company, such as a claim that that person is entitled to the assets.[7]
  4. If there is a dispute, the Court may determine that the company is prima facie entitled and order the delivery up of the property in question without resolving the issue of who is the owner of the property.[8]
  5. The Court’s jurisdiction to make the order is discretionary.[9]
  6. The persons identified in the subsection are all persons who either derive their authority from the company or are accountable to it.[10]
  7. There is authority for the proposition that “receiver” in s 483(1) refers to a receiver appointed by the company to a debtor; not a receiver appointed to the company by a secured creditor: Home v Walsh [1978] VR 688.
  8. There is authority for the proposition that a constructive trustee may not be a “trustee” for the purpose of s 483(1):  Re United English and Scottish Assurance Company; Ex parte Hawkins (1868) 3 Ch App 787; Re Mischel & Co Pty Ltd (in liquidation) [2014] VSC 140; (2014) 284 FLR 320; cf Evans v Bristile Ltd (1992) 8 ACSR 344 (WASC).

Case Studies

Home v Walsh

In Home v Walsh [1978] VR 688, receivers and managers had been appointed to a company by a debenture holder prior to the winding up order and appointment of the liquidator. Thus the receivers were in possession of the moneys, property, books and records of the company. The liquidator brought an application under a predecessor of s 483(1) of the Corporations Act 2001 (s263(3) of the Companies Act 1961) for delivery up of the company’s moneys, property, books and records.

The application succeeded at first instance, but was overturned on appeal. This was on  several bases. One was that there was a genuine dispute between the parties as to the entitlement of the company to possession of the property in question. Another was that the provision is directed at “insiders” of the company – those who either derive their authority from the company or are accountable to it. Thus the expression “receiver of the company” in the provision refers to a receiver appointed by a company to its debtor; not a receiver appointed by a secured creditor to the company. In the latter case – at least on the terms of the debenture in this instance – that receiver is the agent of the secured creditor and derives its authority from and is accountable to the secured creditor, not the company.

Sidebar:  I note that this conclusion as to the extent that a receiver appointed to a company is or is not an agent for the company (vs his or her secured creditor appointed) may turn on the terms of the debenture or security agreement in question: see the line of authorities following Sheahan v Carrier Air Conditioning Pty Ltd [1997] HCA 37; (1997) 189 CLR 407 where this question has arisen in a number of different contexts, including:  a preference dispute as to whether payments made by a receiver were payments by an agent of the company (Sheahan v Carrier Air Con); a privilege dispute in one of the many Westpoint cases (Carey v Korda and Winterbottom [2012] WASCA 228).

Boyles Sweets

Boyles Sweets (Australia) Pty Ltd (in liq) v Platt [1993] VicSC 389; (1993) 11 ACSR 76 was one of several cases where a liquidator has made an application for delivery up of property where it appeared there may have been phoenix activity and the liquidator regarded the transaction in question as a sham. In this case the liquidator applied for delivery up of two Boyles Sweets businesses, one operating at Melbourne Central and the other at the Tea Tree Plaza in South Australia, as well as some records of the company.

The respondents to the application were one of the two directors of the company (who were husband and wife) and a company related to them Madame Pier Pty Ltd. They argued that the businesses were the property of Madame Pier, and the company was merely the manager of the businesses, and relied upon a written management agreement as evidence of these matters. The liquidator agued this alleged agreement was a sham.

Hayne J observed that the weight of authority suggests that the summary procedure available under s 483(1) is not available where a claim is made by the person in whose hands the assets are found that is a claim adverse to the company. His Honour found that there was a real question to be tried as to the ownership of the business, and the liquidator’s application was denied.

Re Mischel & Co

Re Mischel & Co Pty Ltd (in liquidation) [2014] VSC 140; (2014) 284 FLR 320 was another case where, on the evidence reported in the judgment, it appeared there may have been phoenix activity. The liquidator of Mischel & Co Pty Ltd applied under s 483(1) to recover the books and records of the company from Mischel & Co Advisory Services Pty Ltd, claiming the company was prima facie entitled to those books and records. The second defendant was an undischarged bankrupt, and the former director of Mischel & Co Pty Ltd. Before that company had gone into liquidation, it sold its advisory business to Mischel & Co Advisory Pty Ltd, a company controlled by the second defendant’s son. It thereafter carried on the business from the same premises. Subsequently it ceased trading and became dormant.

Upon the liquidator becoming aware of electronic books and records being stored on computers at the premises and that some work was to be done on those computers, he issued these proceedings on an urgent basis together with an application for a search order under order 37B of the Supreme Court (General Civil Procedure) Rules 2005 (Vic).  The records were seized and copies made, with orders having been made for a procedure allowing the defendants to object to inspection of any electronic book or record seized. They objected to production to the liquidator for inspection of a large quantity of the material.

This was a hearing of the liquidator’s application under rule 37.01 for inspection of that material. It was submitted for the liquidator that he believed the sale of business was sham and might be set aside, and that Mischel Advisory held the business and its assets, including the books and records, on a constructive trust for Mischel & Co. Subject to inspection of the records, separate proceedings might be initiated.

The liquidator was unsuccessful, on several bases –

  1. Robson J held that s 483(1) cannot be used to resolve the issue of whether the sale of business was a sham such that the property in question was held for the company. The Court has no jurisdiction under s 483(1) to decide the issue. (See [101])
  2. Mischel Advisory does not fall within the class of persons to whom s 483(1) may be directed, even if it was sought to characterise Mischel Advisory as a constructive trustee. Mischel Advisory was an “outsider”. (See [101])
  3. Even if that were not so, there were competing ownership claims. Michel Advisory had a claim to the property of the advisory business adverse to the liquidator. The authorities have established that the Court has no jurisdiction under s 483(1) to resolve such a contest as to ownership between the plaintiff liquidator and defendant. (See [102])
  4. Further, there was no evidence to support the contention that the company Mischel & Co was prima facie entitled to the advisory business. (See [102]).

For these reasons, his Honour held he would not exercise his discretion to order inspection under r 37.01 to assist the liquidator in seeking in s 483(1) proceedings to obtain an order for delivery up of the advisory business in the possession of Mischel Advisory.(See [103])

Note that at [71]-[96] his Honour sets out a useful review of the authorities as to the scope and purpose of s 483(1) and its predecessors.

Re United English and Scottish Assurance Company

I will finish with a case decided a century and a half ago – Re United English and Scottish Assurance Company; Ex parte Hawkins (1868) 3 Ch App 787. In this case the liquidator sought to recover moneys obtained from the company’s bankers by a creditor under a garnishee order obtained between the presentation of the winding up petition and the order for winding up. The Court held that the money could not be ordered to be returned under an English predecessor to s 483(1).

At first instance, the liquidator had successfully argued that the creditor was a “trustee” within the meaning of the section, and obtained an order for delivery up of the money. On appeal, however, the Court held that it had no jurisdiction under the provision to make such an order, on several grounds –

  1. The section applies to contributories and officers of the company, and others in the position of trustee (or, broadly, agent), and not to others. The defendant was a creditor of the company, and was not in possession of the money in a position of a trustee or receiver.
  2. The money was not the property of the company at the time of the winding up petition. It was paid to the creditor prior to the making of the winding up order.

*******

[1] Re Mischel & Co Pty Ltd (in liquidation) [2014] VSC 140 per Robson J at [77], citing Re United English and Scottish Assurance Company; Ex parte Hawkins (1868) 3 Ch App 787, 790.

[2] Re Mischel & Co Pty Ltd (in liquidation) [2014] VSC 140 per Robson J at [76].

[3] See s 483(1); see also Re Mischel & Co Pty Ltd (in liquidation) [2014] VSC 140 at [76].

[4] Boyles Sweets (Australia) Pty Ltd (in liq) v Platt [1993] VicSC 389, 10-11 per Hayne J; Home v Walsh [1978] VR 688, 704 per Harris J; Blackjack Executive Car Services PL v Koulax [2002] VSC 380 at [17] per Habersberger J.

[5] Home v Walsh [1978] VR 688, 704 per Harris J.

[6] Re Mischel & Co Pty Ltd (in liquidation) [2014] VSC 140 per Robson J at [76].

[7] Re Mischel & Co Pty Ltd (in liquidation) [2014] VSC 140 per Robson J at [75] citing Home v Walsh and Boyles Sweets and [96(3)].

[8] See s 483(1); see also Re Mischel & Co Pty Ltd (in liquidation) [2014] VSC 140 per Robson J at [76].

[9] Re Mischel & Co Pty Ltd (in liquidation) [2014] VSC 140 per Robson J at [96(2)].

[10] Home v Walsh [1978] VR 688, 700 per Harris J; Re Mischel & Co Pty Ltd (in liquidation) [2014] VSC 140 per Robson J at [96(7)].

Tax laws v Insolvency laws – Bell Group and post-liquidation garnishee notices

Last week the Federal Court declared void two s 260-5 “garnishee” notices which had been issued by the Deputy Commissioner of Taxation to NAB requiring payment of post-liquidation tax liabilities assessed against a company in liquidation and its liquidator of over $298 million and $308 million, in The Bell Group Limited (in liq) v Deputy Commissioner of Taxation [2015] FCA 1056.

The Court held that the Commissioner had no power to issue the notices for post-liquidation tax liabilities. It held that –

  • A section 260-5 notice is an attachment for the purposes of s 468(4) of the Corporations Act (see [75]). (Section 468(4) provides that: “Any attachment, sequestration, distress or execution put in force against the property of the company after the commencement of the winding up by the Court is void.”)
  • A section 260-5 notice that relates to a post-liquidation tax-related liability does not avoid the operation of s 468(4) as a remedy specifically provided for or preserved by s 254(1)(h) of the ITAA36. It is not so preserved (see [75]). (Section 254(1)(h) of the ITAA36 provides that: “For the purpose of insuring the payment of tax the Commissioner shall have the same remedies against attachable property of any kind vested in or under the control or management or in the possession of any agent or trustee, as the Commissioner would have against the property of the taxpayer in respect of tax.”)
  • Indeed the preferable construction of s 254(1)(h) of the ITAA36 is that it does not confer any remedy on the Commissioner against the property of a company after the commencement of the winding up of the company because such property is not “attachable property”. Thus s 254(1)(h) of the ITAA36 does not override or “trump” s 468(4) of the Corporations Act (see [66]-[69]),
  • Nor can s 468(4) be read down to permit such an attachment even if the Commissioner has some level of priority in respect of post-liquidation tax-related liabilities (pursuant to s 556(1)(a) of the Corporations Act) (see [75]),
  • Applying the High Court’s reasoning in Bruton Holdings with respect to pre-liquidation tax debts, the Commissioner also has no power to issue s 260-5 “garnishee” notices to a company in liquidation (or its liquidator) in respect of post-liquidation tax-related liabilities. The High Court’s reasoning as to the regime in s 260-45 of Schedule 1 of the TAA is equally applicable to the scheme in s 254 of the ITAA36. There is no relevant distinction between the two statutory schemes. “Both require the liquidator to set aside amounts to meet expected tax debts, but leave questions of payment and priority to the Corporations Act.” (see [79] and [81])
  • The Commissioner had no power to issue the notices in this matter. (see [81])

The Facts 

In summary the key facts – which were not in dispute (see [6]-[20]) – are these –

On 24 July 1991, a liquidator was appointed to The Bell Group Company Limited (TBGL) and related entities by the Supreme Court of Western Australia. On 3 March 2000 Mr Antony Woodings was appointed an additional liquidator, and he became sole liquidator on 21 August 2014.

Back in 2000 the well-known, long-running Bell Group litigation commenced against a number of Australian and overseas banks. On 28 October 2008 in his 2,643 page judgment, Owen J found against the banks and ordered them to pay TGBL and related entities total amounts exceeding $1.5 billion. This was increased on appeal by the WA Court of Appeal to over $2 billion.

The banks then sought and obtained special leave to appeal to the High Court. However prior to hearing, a settlement was agreed. The Deed of Settlement provided, amongst other things, for the banks to pay a settlement sum of just under $1 billion plus adjustments to the liquidator Mr Woodings to be held on trust for TGBL and related entities in certain specified proportions. Broadly, the key clauses provided that Mr Woodings held the sum on trust for each of the “Bell Judgment Creditors” in specified proportions, and that the settlement sum was to be held in an interest bearing trust account or accounts, and the same parties would have a vested and indefeasible interest in their proportion of the interest earned.

TBGL’s proportion of the settlement sum specified in the Deed in 2008 had been just over $5 million, plus a share of the adjustment amounts.

Although the Deed provided for the distribution of the settlement sum, for reasons which Wigney J observed were not necessary to go into, the funds held on trust were not distributed, either pursuant to the settlement deed or in the winding up generally. His Honour noted that it appeared not to be disputed that at some stage the funds would be distributed.

At the time of this hearing, Mr Woodings held $300 million paid pursuant to the Deed of Settlement in a NAB term deposit account in the name “ALJ Woodings as Trustee for the Bell Judgment Creditors”. This investment matured on 2 October 2015.

On Wednesday 5 August 2015 Mr Woodings, in his capacity as liquidator of TBGL (as head company of a consolidated group), caused TGBL to elect to form an income tax consolidated group under Part 3-90 of the Income Tax Assessment Act 1997 (Cth) (ITAA97), and the companies entered into a tax sharing agreement for the purposes of Division 721 of the ITAA97. It was common ground that the terms of both of these had no bearing on the validity of the garnishee notices.

On Monday 10 August 2015 the Commissioner issued a notice of assessment to TBGL as head company of the consolidated group for the 2014 income year, assessing TBGL’s taxable income in the amount of over $1 billion and the tax payable in an amount of over $308 million.

On 18 August 2015, due to a calculation error in the assessment, the Commissioner issued an amended assessment to TBGL assessing the 2014 taxable income as nearly $994 million and the tax payable as over $298 million.

Corresponding assessments were also issued to Mr Woodings in his capacity as liquidator of TBGL, relating to the same income and the assessed tax payable of over $298 million.

On 14 August 2015 the Deputy Commissioner issued the two garnishee notices to NAB – one in respect of the assessment issued to TBGL and the other to Mr Woodings. The TBGL notice specified the amount originally assessed of over $308 million, although the NAB was subsequently advised that the amount due under the notice was varied to just over $298 million.

Objections were lodged by both TBGL and Mr Woodings.

Summary – Submissions

TBGL and its liquidator submitted that the reasoning in Bruton Holdings PL (in liq) v Commissioner of Taxation [2009] HCA 32; (2009) 239 CLR 346 applied to the two garnishee notices even though Bruton Holdings dealt with the scheme for pre-liquidation tax-related liabilities in s 260-45 of Schedule 1 to the Tax Administration Act 1952 (Cth) (TAA), as opposed to post-liquidation tax-related liaiblities, and involved the operation of s 500(1) rather than s 468(4) of the Corporations Act. They argued – successfully – that –

  • The Hight Court made emphatic and unequivocal statements in Bruton Holdings, in particular at [10], [19] and [39], that the power conferred on the Commissioner by s 260-5 of Schedule 1 to the TAA does not extend to the case of a company in liquidation, including where there has been a court ordered winding up.
  • The High Court’s reasoning applies equally to the case of post-liquidation tax-related liabilities. This is because post-liquidation tax-related liabilities are also the subject of a specific scheme, being the scheme in s 254 of the ITAA36 and Chapter 5 of the Corporations Act, in particular s 556.
  • That specific scheme excludes the more general provision in s 260-5 of Schedule 1 to the TAA for exactly the same reasons as those given by the High Court in Bruton Holdings in respect  of the specific scheme in s 260-45 of Schedule 1 to the TAA. (See [56])

Contrary to this, the Commissioner submitted that the reasoning in Bruton Holdings was inapplicable to the circumstances of this case because –

  • The statutory scheme in respect of post-liquidation tax-related liabilities in s 254(1) of the ITAA36 is different to the scheme in s 260-45 of Schedule 1 to the TAA in respect of pre-liquidation tax-related liabilities.
  • The main difference is that s 254(1)(h) of the ITAA36 – properly construed – specifically provides for or preserves the availability of hte Commissioner’s remedy in s 260-5 of Schedule 1 to the TAA.
  • As a result, s 254(1)(h) operates to “trump” the more general provision in s 468(4) of the Corporations Act.
  • The Commissioner pointed to several authorities which he argued provided support for the proposition that preference is to be given to specific schemes in taxation legislation designed to protect the revenue over “more general schemes in the Corporations Law”. Those authorities included the High Court’s decisions in COT v Broadbeach Properties PL [2008] HCA 41; (2008) 237 CLR 473 and DCOT v Moorebank PL [1988] HCA 29; (1988) 165 CLR 55, and the NSWCA in Muc v DCOT [2008] NSWCA 96; (2008) 73 NSWLR 378.

Alternatively, the Commissioner submitted that –

  • Even if s 254(1)(h) of the ITAA36 did not operate as he contended, the word “attachment” in s 468(4) of the Corporations Act should be read down so as to permit s 260-5 notices in respect of priority debts.
  • Post-liquidation tax-related liabilities were a priority debt because they would be an expense within s 556(1)(a) of the Corporations Act.
  • Given that priority status, there was no basis for reading the term “attachment” in s 468(4) of the Corporations Act so as to exclude the giving of a s 260-5 notice to enforce that statutory priority. (See [57]-[58])

The Judgment

His Honour Justice Wigney held that the notices were void for two related reasons –

  1. Each notice was an attachment against the property of TBGL and therefore void by operation of s 468(4) of the Corporations Act, and
  2. That conclusion supports the more general proposition that the power conferred on the Commissioner to issue notices under s 260-5 of Schedule 1 to the TAA is not available where the relevant “debtor” for the purposes of that section is a company which is being wound up (or its liquidator). That is so even where the relevant debt is for tax payable on income derived after the commencement of the winding up. (See [59]-[61])

His Honour observed that –

  • The High Court concluded in Bruton Holdings that a s 260-5 notice is an attachment for the purposes of s 500(1) of the Corporations Act. (Section 500(1) provides: Any attachment, sequestration, distress or execution put in force against the property of the company after the passing of the resolution for voluntary winding up is void.”) While in some respects this finding was secondary to the broader finding as to the Commissioner’s power to issue a notice in respect of a tax debt of a company in liquidation, it was nonetheless an unequivocal and unqualified finding.
  • It applies equally to s 468(4) of the Corporations Act, which is in identical terms to s 500(1) (save that the latter applies to voluntary liquidations, and the former to Court-ordered liquidations).
  • The High Court’s conclusions in Bruton Holdings at both [19] and [39] refer to winding up by court order, “thus clearly indicating that the court saw no relevant distinction between ss 468(4) and 500(1) of the Corporations Act”.

Wigney J noted that the Commissioner “in effect” accepted that a s 260-5 notice was an attachment for the purposes of s 468(4) of the Corporations Act. He referred to the Commissioner’s arguments that s 468(4) did not however render such a notice void if the notice related to post-liquidation tax-related liabilities, because either s 254(1)(h) of the ITAA36 “trumped” s 468(4), or because s 468(4) should be read down. His Honour’s assessment of these arguments at [64] was crisp and succinct: “Neither contention has any merit.”

Construction of s 254(1)(h) of the ITAA36

His Honour took issue with the Commissioner’s contentions as to the proper construction of s 254(1)(h) of the ITAA36 – see [65]-[69]. He discussed the use of the word “attachable” in s 254(1)(h), and took the view that it evinced a legislative intention to avoid any potential conflict between s 254(1)(h) and provisions such as ss 468(4) and 500(1) of the Corporations Act, that prevent attachment of certain types of property. Wigney J observed that a construction of s 254(1)(h) which allows it to operate harmoniously with ss 468(4) and 500(1) of the Corporations Act is to be preferred to one that potentially puts the provisions of two Commonwealth statutes in conflict, or results in a provision of one statute overriding (or “trumping”) a provision in another statute.

His Honour noted at [68] that this meant s 254(1)(h) effectively has no application in the case of a company in liquidation, but found that that does not militate against its availability. The subsection still has significant work to do, even if it does not apply to liquidators, because it operates also in the case of all agents and trustees who derive income in a representative capacity, or by reason of their agency. Subsection 254(1)(h) still has work to do in the case of other agents or trustees, where attachment of property under their control or management is not prevented by provisions equivalent to ss 468(4) and 500(1) of the Corporations Act.

Wigney J held that “the preferable construction of s 254(1)(h) of the ITAA36 is that it does not confer any remedy on the Commissioner against the property of a company after the commencement of the winding up of the company because such property is not attachable property.” See [69])

Whether s 468(4) of the Corps Act should be read down to permit s 260-5 notices for post-liquidation tax debts

Wigney J discussed the Commissioner’s submission that s 468(4) of the Corporations Act should be read down to permit s 260-5 notices for post-liquidation tax debts and noted that it seemed to rely on two propositions: (1) that ss 468(4) and 500(1) of the Corporations Act only operate to render void an attachment if the effect of the attachment is to secure priority for the payment of a debt that is not otherwise a priority debt; and (2) that the Commissioner has priority in respect of post-liquidation tax-related liabilities. His Honour again crisply dispatched these too: “Neither proposition is correct.” (See [70])

Whether the Commissioner has priority for post-liquidation tax debts

On this point Wigney J gave consideration to what priority is afforded the Commissioner by reason of s 556(1)(a) of the Corporations Act at [72]-[74]

  • It is not strictly correct to say that the Commissioner has priority in respect of post-liquidation tax-related liabilities by reason of s 556(1)(a) of the Corporations Act.
  • Subsection 556(1)(a) gives priority to expenses incurred by, relevantly, a liquidator, in preserving, realising or getting in property of a company, or in carrying on the company’s business.
  • By reason of s 254(1)(e) of the ITAA36, a liquidator is personally liable for the tax payable in respect of post-liquidation income to the extent of any amount that he or she has, or should have, retained under s 254(1)(d) of the ITAA36. **Sidenote: See below under the heading “Comments” – there is an important appeal that has just been heard by the High Court on ss 254(1)(d) and (e) of the ITAA36.
  • If, for whatever reason, the liquidator does not discharge the company’s tax-related liabilities from its available assets, but instead personally pays (or is required to personally pay) that amount, it might well be regarded as an expense in getting in property of the company or carrying on its business.
  • The liquidator would have priority in recovering that expense by reason of s 556(1)(a) of the Corporations Act.
  • That does not mean however, his Honour observed, that the Commissioner has priority in respect of post-liquidation tax-related liabilities.
  • Wigney J noted that in any event, that expense would not rank any higher than other expenses incurred by the liquidator that might also fall within s 556(1)(a) of the Corporations Act. If there are a number of these but insufficient assets to meet them all, they would rank equally and be met proportionally. His Honour noted that this proportionate system of entitlement would be subject to potential disruption if the Commissioner had full garnishee rights in relation to post-liquidation tax debts in those circumstances.

No Power to issue the Notices

Wigney J referred to the High Court in Bruton Holdings conclusion that the power to issue garnishee notices conferred by s 260-5 of Schedule 1 to the TAA does not extend to a company in liquidation. This is expressed three times in the judgment – at [10], [19] and [36] in clear, unequivocal and unqualified terms.

His Honour took the view that the reasoning of the High Court in Bruton Holdings, insofar as it involved consideration of the regime in s 260-45 of Schedule 1 to the TAA in respect of pre-liquidation tax-related liabilities, is equally applicable in cases which involve the scheme in s 254 of the ITAA36 in relation to post-liquidation tax-related liabilities. There is no relevant distinction between the two statutory schemes. “Both require the liquidator to set aside amounts to meet expected tax debts, but leave questions of payment and priority to the Corporations Act.”

Accordingly, Wigney J held that the Commissioner had no power to issue the notices in this matter. (See [76]-[81])

Trustee Capacity Issue 

Whilst noting it was strictly unnecessary, Wigney J addressed the submission for TBGL and its liquidator that the notices were either invalid or not engaged, because the funds held in the NAB account were held by Mr Woodings in his capacity as trustee for the Bell Judgment Creditors. By reason of the definition of “entity” in the relevant provisions of the ITAA97, Mr Woodings is taken to be a different entity in that trustee capacity, than his capacity as liquidator of TBGL.

His Honour took the view that this argument had some merit in the case of the notice referable to the liquidator Mr Woodings, having regard to the applicable proviisons of the ITAA97. NAB did not owe money to Mr Woodings in his capacity as liquidator of TBGL, but in his capacity as trustee. Therefore, even if the Woodings Notice was not void by reason of s 468(4) of the Corporations Act, it would nevertheless have no application to the NAB account. His Honour took the view that this capacity issue did not, however, affect the validity of the TBGL Notice, if it were not otherwise void by reason of s 468(4). (See [82]-[89])

COMMENT

Tax Laws v Insolvency Laws – Another current case – COT v Australian Building Systems

As many of you will know, this is not the only significant case before the courts at present, involving a clash of sorts between provisions of the tax legislation and insolvency provisions of the Corporations Act.

Just last month the High Court heard the Commissioner’s appeal from the decision in Commissioner of Taxation v Australian Building Systems Pty Ltd (in liq) [2014] FCAFC 133, a CGT case largely concerned with s 254(1)(d) and (e) of the ITAA36. For my previous posts discussing the first instance decision of Logan J in that case and the High Court’s hearing of the special leave application, see here and here respectively. The transcript of the hearing in the High Court can be read here.

At first instance this case was, at least in part, more squarely run as a clash between these provisions of the ITAA36 and the scheme of priority laid down by the Corporations Act; particularly notable given that the former crown priority for unpaid tax debts was abolished in the early 1980’s with the passing of legislation. However the appellable issues were narrowed by the reasons for judgment given at first instance. On appeal to the High Court, the submissions filed for the parties show that of the 3 issues raised in the appeal by the Commissioner, only one was contested by the liquidators. (The parties’ submissions may be read here.) That issue was this:

Whether, following the derivation by a trustee or agent of income profits or gains in a representative capacity, but prior to a tax assessment, s 254(1)(d) requires and authorises the agent or trustee to retain moneys then in their hands or thereafter coming to them so much as is sufficient to pay tax on it; or whether s 254(1)(d) only authorises and requires a trustee or agent to retain such moneys after an assessment for tax on the income profits or gains.

Note that the personal liability imposed upon agents and trustees (including liquidators by s 254(1)(e) applies to the extent of any amount that he or she has retained, or should have retained under paragraph (d).

It will be interesting to see the extent to which the High Court grasps the opportunity in COT v Australian Building Systems to clarify the operation of both ss 245(1)(d) and (e) in its decision in this case, and provide certainty for liquidators as to their potential scope for personal liability under s 245(1)(e). That is, as to how s 245(1)(e) operates – in light of the conclusions the Court may reach as to the proper construction of s 245(1)(d) – and the extent to which s 245(1)(e) might (as the Commissioner argued in Bell Group vis a vis s 245(1)(h)) serve to override or “trump” certain provisions of the Corporations Act; here the scheme of priorities laid down in the Corporations Act. It is unfortunate but it may be the case that as events have transpired, it may not turn out to be the ideal test case vehicle for this issue.

The Bell Group Collapse – 20+ years and counting – mixed messages as to handling of distribution 

You may recall in the chronology above that the Deed of Settlement was reached in 2008 and we presume that payments made thereunder in about 2008. The next step in the chronology recited above is the activity in August 2015 in relation to taxation matters.

Between those points in the chronology, I ought to interpose the observation that reportedly there had been other litigation both threatened and run about the distribution of money from the pool both in the WA Supreme Court and in the British High Court. In May 2015, it was reported by ABC news that according to the WA State Government, the total $1.7 billion settlement sum was going to be disbursed through a statutory authority. ABC News reported that WA Treasurer Mike Nahan had mentioned the introduction of legislation to ensure there was certainty about the process of distributing funds to treasurers. They reported that a bill had been introduced to Parliament by Dr Nahan to dissolve the companies and place the assets under the control of a statutory authority that would administer and distribute them. Dr Nahan reportedly said that the four major creditors owed money were the Insurance Council of WA, the ATO, and two other legal parties. Dr Nahan, it was reported, said that “the bill would ensure an expeditious end to the Bell litigation and the equitable distribution of the pool of funds.” One cannot know all that transpired thereafter. Perhaps the forming of the consolidated group for taxation purposes may have triggered the ATO’s actions. However it would appear possible that the Commissioner may not have concurred with the approach put forward in the bill.

Newsflash: Great Southern settlement deed approved

Yesterday in Melbourne Justice Croft approved the deed of settlement ending the Great Southern class action proceedings – Clarke (as trustee of the Clarke Family Trust) & Ors v Great Southern Finance Pty Ltd (Receivers & Managers Appointed)(in liquidation) & Ors [2014] VSC 516. I will not make comment on this case, but instead will refer to a few key parts of the judgment –

The principal terms of the Deed of Setlement are set out at [57] and are usefully summarised at [64], which summary is reproduced here –

  1. “The insurers of GSMAL will pay $23.8 million, to be disbursed as follows:
    1. $20 million to M+K Clients, to be disbursed pro rata based upon amounts paid by each M+K Client to M+K for legal fees and disbursements;
    2. $250,000 to Javelin Asset Management Pty Ltd; and
    3. $3.55 million to be disbursed pro rata to investors who invested pursuant to a Product Disclosure Statement issued in relation to a scheme managed by GSMAL, such disbursement to take place in accordance with the terms of a proposed Scheme of Arrangement.
  2. Group Members’ loans entered into to fund the investments and now held by Bendigo and Adelaide Bank Limited (or its related entities) will be admitted as valid and enforceable, and the BEN Parties will waive interest relating to overdue amounts accrued and unpaid as at the Approval Date.
  3. Group Members’ loans entered into to fund the investments and now held by Javelin Asset Management Pty Ltd will be admitted as valid and enforceable, and borrowers with Javelin loans will have 28 days from the Approval Date to make an election to either:
    1. make payment of the outstanding loan balance in full within 14 days of making the election and receive a 20% discount on the loan balance (being the balance as at 1 May 2014); or
    2. agree to a deferred settlement with the loan balance discounted by 17% if the balance is met by way of 12 equal monthly payments; or
    3. agree to an extended term where the terms are varied so that the first 12 months after the Approval Date are interest free and then 5% per annum for the remainder of the Revised Term.
  4. The Lead Plaintiffs, on behalf of themselves and on behalf of Group Members, will release the other parties (and their related entities or persons) from all Claims arising out of the contents of each Product Disclosure Statement, the Loan Agreements and or the allegations made in or the facts giving rise to all the relevant proceedings.
  5. The Group Proceedings will be dismissed with the parties bearing their own costs.”

His Honour took the unusual step of annexing the mammoth 2012 page unpublished judgment he had written but had never been delivered (calling them the “Great Southern Reasons”) to this judgment approving the settlement deed. His Honour notes at [2] that the trial of the Great Southern proceedings had extended over 90 sitting days from October 2012 to October 2013. Judgment was reserved. On Wednesday 23 July 2014 the parties were informed that the judgment was ready and listed for delivery on Friday 25 July. Within hours, the Court was notified that the proceedings had settled.

At [3] Croft J notes that the Great Southern Reasons are not published as reasons for judgment, simply annexed to this one, which suggests that as a precedent to future cases their status may be uncertain, and perhaps something less than obiter. Nevertheless his Honour explains why he has had regard to his Great Southern Reasons in considering whether to approve the Deed at [50]-[56], in particular at [56].

7.3% of the 21000 group members notified the Court of their objections to the settlement. These are considered by his Honour from [83].

As Croft J’s approval judgment at [6] makes clear, if the proceeding had not settled and the Great Southern Reasons had been handed down as his Honour’s judgment in the case, the plaintiffs’ claims would have been wholly unsuccessful. Moreover, given the length and expense of the proceedings and the trial, costly adverse costs consequencse for the plaintiffs are likely to have followed. This settlement avoids that outcome and achieves finality in the litigation.

When will a DOCA be terminated on the grounds of commercial morality?

Happy New Year, and welcome to my first post for 2014. At the end of last year, the Queensland Court of Appeal handed down judgement in a notable case, in favour of termination of a deed of company arrangement on public interest grounds. The DOCA had been approved by related party creditors, but their Honours took the view that it was detrimental to commercial morality by precluding public investigation into questionable related-party dealings of a company in administration – in Promoseven Pty Ltd v Prime Project Development (Cairns) Pty Ltd (Subject to a Deed of Company Arrangement) [2013] QCA 405.

Background

In 2005 Prime Project Development (Cairns) Pty Ltd (Prime) and Promoseven Pty Ltd (Promoseven) entered into a joint venture agreement to carry out a property development in Cairns. The joint venture vehicle was a company named Bluechip Development Corporation (Cairns) Pty Ltd (Bluechip). HSBC provided $21 million to fund the development, secured by a first registered mortgage. Both Prime and Promoseven advanced millions of dollars in funds to Bluechip to progress the development, some of which was secured by a second registered mortgage given by Bluechip over the development.

The development was completed in 2009, and was then progressively being sold down by Bluechip. HCBC’s indebtedness was discharged, save for the claim of one subcontractor. However by 2010 Prime and Promoseven were in dispute. Promoseven succcessfully applied to have Bluechip wound up in insolvency, and Prime was ordered to pay Promoseven’s costs (relevantly, making Promoseven a creditor of Prime).

At the heart of the case, was this:  In August 2011, Prime transferred all of its interest in the Bluechip mortgage – alleged to have been valued at some $9 million – to a related company Refund. This dealing is discussed in more detail below.

Prime went into administration in May 2013. It had eleven creditors on administration. One was Promoseven. Of the other ten creditors, nine were related parties. The related parties voted to adopt a DOCA which would give the unrelated creditors a return of 4.3 to 7.4 cents on the dollar. Without a liquidation, there would be no investigation into the affairs of Prime and no public examination of its directors.

Promoseven applied inter alia under s 445D of the Corporations Act 2001 (Cth) for an order terminating the DOCA on the basis that it produced an injustice, by precluding an investigation into Prime’s pre-administration related-party dealings.

Promoseven also relied upon s 600A of the Act, which deals with the powers of the court where the outcome of voting at a creditors’ meeting has been determined by related entities. Broadly, it empowers the Court to make certain orders, including an order setting aside the resolution, if it is satisfied inter alia that the resolution would not have passed without the related party votes, and that the voting outcome was contrary to the interests of creditors or a class of creditors as a whole, or is unreasonably prejudicial to the interests of the non-related creditors.

(It should be noted that under reg 5.3A.07(1)(a) of the Corporations Regulations (2001) (Cth), a company that has executed a DOCA that is later terminated under s 445D by the court, “is taken to have passed a special resolution under s 491 that the company be wound up voluntarily“.)

First Instance

As the Court of Appeal noted at [42], under s 445D there are effectively four grounds upon which a DOCA can be terminated. These are –

(a) if effect cannot be given to the deed without injustice or undue delay – s445D(1)(e);

(b) if the deed, or something done under it, would be oppressive, unfairly prejudicial to, or unfairly discriminatory against, one or more of the creditors – s 445D(1)(f)(i);

(c if the deed, or something done under it, is contrary to the interests of the creditors of the company as a whole – s 445(1)(f)(ii); and

(d) if the deed should be terminated for some other reason – s 445D(1)(g).

At first instance, Martin J of the Queensland Supreme Court noted that under sub-section 445D(1)(e) it is the “effect” of the deed rather than its purpose which is to be considered. The question, his Honour said, is whether the effect of the deed is unfair or inequitable in the impact it has upon one or more of the creditors bound by it (at [15]).

In considering s 445D(1)(f), his Honour said a court does not proceed “upon mere possibility or speculation, it makes a determination on the characteristics of the deed as they are seen to be at the date of the hearing“. One looks, his Honour said, to the effect of the deed as a whole and assesses its unfairness, if any, to the applicant being in mind the scheme of Pt 5.3A and the interests of other creditors, the company, and the public generally (at [16]).

The applicant Promoseven made two allegations –

(1) That the vast majority of creditors were related entities of Prime. The inference ought be drawn that the creditors who voted for the DOCA were either controlled by or friendly to Prime. This does not of itself require that anything be done, but it detracts from the arguments for the DOCA that a majority of creditors has made a commercial decision as to what is in the interest of creditors as creditors (at [23]);

(2) The DOCA would have the effect of precluding investigation into the transfer by Mr Knell of a chose in action (a second registered mortgage) valued at $9 million to a related company called Refund (at [24]).

In relation to this last point, his Honour remarked pointedly that Promoseven did not allege that it was inevitable that this transaction would be unwound; rather it argued that the transaction “might be voidable” and “there is a prospect” that proper enquiries into Prime’s affairs would result in a greater return to creditors than that offered under the DOCA (at [25]).

He noted that even if the transfer were set aside, Promoseven had failed to demonstrate the unfairness or prejudice required to engage the various sections on which it relied – (at [31]). Martin J also observed that the administrators had recommended the DOCA, and there was unchallenged expert evidence that whilst the DOCA would result in a small dividend to creditors, under a winding up the likely return to creditors would be nil (at [27]).

Martin J cited the object of Pt 5.3A of the Act, set out in s 435A which provides –

“The object of this Part is to provide for the business, property and affairs of an insolvent company to be administered in a way that:

(a) maximises the chances of the company, or as much as possible of its business, continuing in existence; or

(b) if it is not possible for the company or its business to continue in existence – results in a better return for the company’s creditors and members than would result from an immediate winding up of the company.”

His Honour took the view that the orders sought by the applicant Promoseven would be inconsistent with the object of Pt 5.3A (at [31]), and that Promoseven could not demonstrate the effect necessary to engage s 445D or the prejudice which s 600A requires to be shown (at [32]). (There was also an issue as to whether the liquidators would be funded properly if the DOCA was set aside and the company was wound up – see [33]).

His Honour was in little doubt of the correct course to take on this application. He held that “the overwhelming weight in the balance of this application” was that even if the company was liquidated and the transfer was unwound, the creditors would suffer. In dismissing the application, he observed:

“While the public interest is an element to be considered, the applicant’s case did not rise high enough to demonstrate that it was sufficient to overcome the other factors to which I have referred.”

The Appeal Decision

The Court of Appeal disagreed, and took an entirely different approach.

The Court examined the dealings between the related companies Prime and Refund in greater detail, and had distinct reservations about the commerciality of the arrangement, in particular –

  • on the face of the Agreement there was no attempt to quantify the value of Prime’s half interest in the second mortgage, making it difficult to conclude that it was sold for value, particularly between related entities (at [53]);
  • the purchase price was difficult to identify. It was defined to mean “$3,710,701.23 plus any lawful adjustments to the loan account as at the date of completion or revision thereafter made hereunder“. The sum stated was acknowledged in Recital B to be simply the state of the loan account between the companies as at a certain date (at [54]);
  • the purchase price was then met not in the form of money, but by the issuing of redeemable preference shares by Refund. The Agreement said nothing about payment being made that way. There was no evidence as to how that came to pass. However 3,710,702 shares were issued to Prime which, on the face of it, suggested that each preference share was worth one dollar. But there was no evidence that this was so (at [55]);
  • the Administrators’ Report was the only source of evidence about the adjustments to the purchase price. It noted that a final accounting was completed on 21 March 2013, resulting in Refund being required to and issuing a further 4,668,658 preference shares to Prime. However there was no evidence to show that this equated to an advance of $4,668,658. And there was nothing to show why Refund was “required” to issue further preference shares (at [56]);
  • the question of the value of the redeemable preference shares in Refund was unanswered. The Administrators’ Report was the only source of information on this, but it was not sworn and the basis for some of the information it set out was not apparent. What information there was, cast doubt on the true worth of the preference shares (at [57]);

The effect of the agreement was that Prime sold its interest in the mortgage – its only substantive asset – to Refund for a consideration, the value of which would be determined by Refund, and dependent on how Refund chose to structure its business affairs (impacting whether any dividends would become payable to redeemable preference shareholders, like Prime). Related though they were, Prime could not control how Refund went about its affairs. Their Honours concluded that the result was that the consideration was uncertain, if not illusory (at [58]).

What made it worse – particularly notable where transparency was a problem – was Recital G, which provided that the purchase price would be left outstanding, by way of loan or similar transaction, so that “the start up business activities of [Refund] may be funded“. Nowhere was it explained why it would be in Prime’s interest to defer receipt of the purchase price to this end. Prime was divesrting its only substantive asset. It was not at all clear why it had any legitimate interest in being Refund’s benefactor, the Court noted (at [59]).

The Court of Appeal remarked twice on the fact that even though the transaction was between companies controlled by “the one set of directors” (a husband and wife Mr and Mrs Knell), no director went on oath to depose as to the rationale of the agreement. It required explanation, and they did not explain it. The Court said it made it very difficult to reach a conclusion that there was commercial justification to the Agreement (at [50]-[51] and [60]).

There were also a series of related transactions, which raised concerns. In summary –

  • Prime subsequently contracted with a company called Bypass to purchase $4.2 million worth of shares in Bypass, in part-payment of which it transferred to Bypass the 3,710,702 preference shares it held in Refund. (These were the shares Refund had issued to Prime, in part satisfaction of the price Refund had to pay to purchase Prime’s interest in the second mortgage over Bluechip.)
  • Then in June 2012, Bypass transferred those 3,710,702 preferential shares in Refund to another related company called Radanco (owned and operated by Mr Knell’s nephew), purportedly for $10 million. The ASIC document detailing that transaction was signed by Mrs Knell.
  • Less than 2 months later, those same shares were purportedly transferred by Radanco to MDA, another company controlled by Mr and Mrs Knell, for only $15,000. Mrs Knell signed the ASIC document for that transaction also. (It was this company – MDA – which had proposed the DOCA in question, proposing to contribute $80,000, most of which was to pay administration costs.)

There was no material put before the Court explaining how it could be commercially justifiable that the same shares which are transferred for $10 million in June 2012 could then be transferred for $15,000 two months later. Nor, in the face of allegations by the Knell family that Prime did not in fact contract to purchase Bypass shares and that there had been a fraud, did they explain why two Knell family companies would then seek to take transfers of shares which had been obtained from Prime in circumstances of fraud. The Court remarked that those unexplained transactions did little to dispel the sense that Prime had been involved in transactions without an apparent commercially justifiable basis.

The Court of Appeal concluded that the circumstances surrounding Prime’s transfer of its interest in the mortgage to Refund was such that an investigation by a liquidator should not be prevented by the related parties forcing a DOCA on the other creditors. A public examiation of the affairs was warranted, and the institution of claw back litigation may prove to be warranted. It would, in the sense of the terms used by the Full Federal Court in Emanuele v ASC (1995) 63 FCR 54 at 69-70, “be deterimental to commercial morality to dispense with the opportunity which the winding up law provides for the investigation of the affairs of Prime” (at [84]).

The Court of Appeal did not consider that the absence, at that point in time, of a final commitment to fund a liquidator in full to completion of the liquidation weighed against the conclusion.

Comment

This case illustrates how fine a line it can sometimes be between success and failure, on applications to terminate deeds of company arrangement. The Court at first instance took one approach and reached a firm conclusion that the DOCA should stand; the Court of Appeal took an entirely different approach, with a different emphasis and analysis, and unanimously reached the opposite conclusion.

Cases such as these tend to turn on their own facts in the same way that, for example, shareholders oppression actions do. In each case it will be a matter of evaluating and adding together the various aspects and circumstances of the pre-administration dealings in question to test whether, considered together, the balance is tipped in favour of scrutiny of what took place, over letting a decision of creditors to endorse a DOCA stand. If, as was the case here, there is a lack of transparancy or certainty about key aspects of an arrangement where a significant asset is being transferred away from the company, and questions are raised which are not answered or explained by those who could do so, it becomes more likely that a Court may conclude that the interests of the public require investigation into what took place. In Promoseven, the Court was so concerned that it gave precedence to the public interest in commercial morality, without requiring that it be satisfied as to the utility of the investigations and the likelihood of a satisfactory recovery and better return for creditors.

One example of a case where the balance tipped the other way, was the NSW Court of Appeal’s decision in Vero Insurance Ltd v Kassem [2011] NSWCA 381; (2011) 86 ACSR 607. There, although Young JA noted that the transactions had ‘some indicia that they are worthy of investigation‘, all three judges of the Court of Appeal declined to terminate the DOCA, considering that good reason is required to override the choice of a majority of creditors to enter a DOCA. An example of another case where, like in Promoseven, the balance tipped in favour of terminating the DOCA which was described by the Court as “a device by which Mr Triguboff and his associated companies are avoiding scrutiny of a number of highly questionable transactions the net effect of which is to allow TMPL to walk away from a tax debt of $19,551,033.77…” is Deputy Commissioner of Taxation v TMPL Pty Ltd (subject to a Deed of Company Arrangement)(No 3) [2011] FCA 1403.

 

Newsflash: High Court today dismissed Willmott Forests appeal

In a 4:1 judgment the High Court today held that liquidators of landlord companies – not only liquidators of tenant companies – can disclaim leases under s 568(1) of the Corporations Act 2001 (Cth), and that the disclaimer terminates the tenants’ rights arising under the leases. The judgment in Willmott Growers Group Inc v Willmott Forests Limited (Receivers and Managers Appointed)(In Liquidation) [2013] HCA 51 is now on Austlii and can be read in full here.

The majority was French CJ, Hayne, Kiefel and Gageler JJ, with his Honour Gageler J delivering his own judgment. The dissenting judgment was that of Keane J.

Their Honours French CJ, Hayne and Kiefel JJ identified the central question of construction of s 568(1) as being whether a lease granted by a landlord company to a tenant is “a contract” within the meaning of s 568(1)(f). It is, according to their Honours, by virtue of s 568(1A) of the Act which provides that “[a] liquidator cannot disclaim a contract (other than an unprofitable contract or a lease of land) except with the leave of the Court”  (see [4]). The question then became whether the reference to “a lease of land” in s 568(1A) should be read as referring to any lease to which the company is a party, or only to leases of which the company is the tenant? Their Honours concluded the former was correct.

Broadly, the power of disclaimer of liquidators under s 568(1) is expressed as a one to “disclaim property of the company”. What such “property” includes is then set out in sub-paragraphs, (f) of which is “a contract”.

The appellant advanced two principal arguments. The first was that the only relevant property of the landlord company capable of being disclaimed was its unsaleable reversionary interest in the land the subject of the leases; the second, that the tenants’ leasehold estates would survive disclaimer of the lease contracts (see [27]). Their Honours French CJ, Hayne and Kieffel JJ considered and rejected the first of these arguments at [28]-[50] and the second at [51]-[55].

In relation to the second, their Honours held that it follows from the operation of s 568D(1) that, from the effective date of the disclaimer, the company’s liability to provide the tenant with quiet enjoyment of the lease property and the tenant’s rights to quiet enjoyment of the property are terminated. If the tenant suffers loss thereby, the tenant may prove for that loss in the winding up (see [8]). At [57], to make the point clear, their Honours expressly held that from the day on which the disclaimer takes effect, each tenant’s estate or interest in the land would be terminated.

Strikingly, though, their Honours added their own observation, under the sub-heading of “Questions not considered”, demonstrating a consciousness of at least some of the ramifications of their judgment, a matter to which I will later return:

Obviously, a tenant whose lease has been disclaimed by the liquidator of a landlord may consider that being left to proof as an unsecured creditor in the winding up gives little effective compensation for what has been taken away. Whether that is so in this case was not examined in argument and is not considered. Nor has there been any occasion to consider in this case whether the liquidators require the leave of the “Court” before disclaiming the investors’ leases or, if they do require leave, what considerations would inform the decision to grant or refuse leave. It may be noted that the Act does provide expressly, in s 568B(3) that the “Court”, on application, may set aside a disclaimer “only if satisfied that the disclaimer would cause, to persons who have, or claim to have, interests in the property, prejudice that is grossly out of proportion to the prejudice that setting aside the disclaimer would cause to the company’s creditors” (emphasis added). Again, however, whather or how that provision would apply in this case was not explored in argument.”

Heads Up – Willmott Forests High Court Appeal – Judgment imminent

The High Court of Australia is to hand down judgment in the Willmott Forests High Court appeal this Wednesday 4 December. I will be interstate for a mediation, but will provide an update as soon as I am able.

To refresh your memories as to developments to this point –

  • February 2012 – The first instance decision of Davies J of the Victorian Supreme Court as to whether the disclaimer of a lease by the liquidator of the landlord’s company extinguishes the tenant’s proprietary interest in the land is handed down. Her Honour held that it did not – see my post here;
  •  September 2012 – The Victorian Court of Appeal overturns the judgment of Davies J and holds that a leasehold interest in land is extinguished by the disclaimer of the lease agreement by the liquidator of the lessor, pursuant to s 568(1) of the Corporations Act 2001 (Cth) – see my post here;
  • May 2013 – The High Court grants special leave to appeal that decision – see my post here;
  • August 2013 – The High Court hears the appeal – see my post here.

No doubt many of us are awaiting the High Court’s decision with interest.