Remuneration of liquidators – Sakr Nominees – 5 member NSWCA panel rights the ship

Today a 5-member panel of the NSW Court of Appeal overturned last year’s liquidator’s remuneration decision of Brereton J in the Sakr case. In an anticipated decision which will be welcomed by insolvency practitioners, their Honours held that in assessing the reasonableness of liquidators’ remuneration, the Court must have regard to the factors in s 473(10) and must have regard to the evidence. Fixing remuneration on an ad valorem basis by simply applying a percentage of realised assets considered appropriate to all liquidations, or to a particular size or class of liquidation without regard to the particular work done or required to be done, is not appropriate. To do so would pay no regard to the requirements of s 473(10) of the Corporations Act all of which, with the possible exception of s 473(10)(l), are directed to the particular liquidation under consideration by the Court. The judgment in full can be read at: Sanderson as liquidator of Sakr Nominees Pty Ltd (in liquidation) v Sakr [2017] NSWCA 38.

Facts

The liquidation commenced in September 2012. The only significant assets were three adjacent properties in North Sylvania which the liquidator realised for $3.72million. Subsequently the secured creditors were paid out, the unsecured creditors were paid out, and there remained a surplus of about half a million dollars. The creditors of the company had approved the liquidator’s remuneration up to 3 November 2014, but no further creditor approval could be sought as the creditors had been fully paid. Following paying out the creditors, an issue had arisen as to determining the identity of the contributories entitled to the surplus, and this had occasioned further work. There was a balance of $35,413 owing for work done, and approval of a further $22,385 for future work to compete the liquidation. The total remuneration claimed was $63,577 including GST. Upon hearing the application, Brereton J had approved only $20,000.

First Instance Approach

At first instance, Brereton J had stated that liquidators would not necessarily be allowed remuneration at their firm’s standard hourly rates, particularly in smaller liquidations. He stated that in smaller liquidations, questions of proportionality, value and risk loomed large, and that liquidators could not be expected to be rewarded for their time at the same hourly rate as would be justifiable if more property was available. He further stated that ad valorem or “commission based” assessment of remuneration is inherently proportionate and incentivises the creation of value rather than the disportioncate expenditure of time. See In the matter of Sakr Nominees [2016] NSWSC 709 at [15]-[16].

The Brereton J Series of Decisions – ad valorem assessment

This is far from the first time Brereton J has taken this position on the fixing of remuneration of insolvency practitioners in NSW. Last year in David Lewis Clout in his capacity as Liquidator of Mainz Developments Pty Ltd (in liquidation) [2016] NSWSC 1146, Robb J at [132] surveyed the following judgments of Brereton J over the previous 2 years, noting that the influence of a percentage-based, proportional approach suggested a level of inconsistency –

However the NSW Court of Appeal has now made it clear it does not agree with the approach taken by Brereton J.

The Court of Appeal’s Judgment

Section 473(10) provides –

In exercising its power under subsection (3), (5) or (6), the Court must have regard to whether the remuneration is reasonable, taking into account any or all of the following matters –

(a) the extent to which the work performed by the liquidator was reasonably necessary;

(b) the extent to which the work likely to be performed by the liquidator is likely to be reasonably necessary;

(c) the period during which the work was, or is likely to be, performed by the liquidator;

(d) the quality of the work performed, or likely to be performed, by the liquidator;

(e) the complexity (or otherwise) of the work performed, or likely to be performed, by the liquidator;

(f) the extent (if any) to which the liquidator was, or is likely to be, required to deal with extraordinary issues;

(g) the extent (if any) to which the liquidator was, or is likely to be, required to accept a higher level of risk or responsibility than is usually the case;

(h) the value and nature of any property dealt with, or likely to be dealt with, by the liquidator;

(i) whether the liquidator was, or is likely to be, required to deal with:

(i) one or more receivers; or

(ii) one or more receivers and managers;

(j) the number, attributes and behaviour, or the likely number, attributes and behaviour, of the company’s creditors;

(k) if the remuneration is ascertained, in whole or in part, on a time basis:

(i) the time properly taken, or likely to be properly taken, by the liquidator in performing the work; and

(ii) whether the total remuneration payable to the liquidator is capped;

(l) any other relevant matters.

The NSW Court of Appeal made the following observations, in considering whether Brereton J had erred in his determination of reasonable remuneration –

  1. Whilst not all of the factors in s 473(10) may be relevant in a particular case, for a court not to take any of them into account would constitute error. (See [53])
  2. The onus is on the liquidator to establish that the remuneration claimed is reasonable and it is the function of the Court to determine the remuneration by considering the material provided and bringing an independent mind to bear on the relevant issues. (See [54])
  3. That is not to say that the question of proportionality has no bearing on the task to be undertaken by the Court. It is a well-recognised factor in considering the question of reasonableness and the factors in s 473(10)(d)-(e) and (g)-(h), which have as their unifying theme the concept of proportionality. (See [55])
  4. The question of proportionality in terms of work done as compared with the size of the property the subject of the insolvency administration or the benefit to be obtained from the work, is an important consideration in determining reasonableness, as was recognised by the Full Federal Court in Templeton v ASIC [2015] FCAFC 137 at [32]. (See [55])
  5. The work done must be proportionate to the difficulty and importance of the task in the context in which it needs to be performed; that is what is encompassed in assessing the value of the services rendered: also stated in Templeton v ASIC at [33]. (See [55])
  6. Evidence as to the percentage that remuneration constitutes of realisation, will at least provide a measure of objective testing of the reasonableness of the remuneration claimed and will identify those cases in which there ought to be a real concern in that respect, as pointed out by Black J in Idylic Solutions Pty Ltd (in liq) [2016] NSWSC 1292 at [50]. (See [56])
  7. The mere fact that the work performed does not lead to augmentation of the funds available for distribution does not mean the liquidator is not entitled to be remunerated for it. The most obvious example is the work done by a liquidator in complying with his or her statutory obligations. As Farrell J pointed out in Warner, Re GTL Tradeup Pty Ltd (in liq) [2015] FCA 323 at [71], it is relevant to consider whether the work was necessary to be done. If it was, there is no reason the liquidator should not be remunerated for it. (See [57])
  8.  There are commonly cases where work is undertaken in an unsuccessful attempt to recover assets whether at the request of creditors or otherwise. Provided it was reasonable to carry out the work and the amount charged for it was reasonable, there is no reason a liquidator should not recover remuneration for undertaking the work. Indeed, there is a public interest in liquidators bringing recovery proceedings. However, the liquidator is obliged to make any decision to bring such proceedings with care, and negligence in the exercise of the power may lead to a liquidator being deprived of costs. (See [58])
  9. There is force in the criticisms of time based charging. However, it remains the responsibility of the Court to fix reasonable remuneration on the evidence before it, taking into account the matters referred to in s 473(10). That must include considering the work done by the liquidator, whether it was reasonable to carry it out and the appropriateness of the amount charged for it. Such an evaluative process, whilst difficult in some circumstances, does not seem to be beyond the competence of the Court. (See [59])
  10. It should not be concluded that a time based calculation will always be appropriate. The task of the Court is to fix reasonable remuneration having regard to the evidence before it and taking into account the matters in s 473(10). Thus for example the “Lodestar” approach explained by Finkelstein J in Re Korda, in the matter of Stockyard Limited (subject to DOCA) [2004] FCA 1682 at [47] may, in some circumstances, be an appropriate method of undertaking the task. (See [60])

The Court of Appeal concluded inter alia that Brereton J did not appear to have taken the evidence presented by the liquidator into account or considered any of the factors in s 473(10) relevant to the assessment of remuneration, and erred in failing to do so. (See [63]) Moreover his Honour had erred in his consideration of the question of proportionality. Proportionality is a relevant factor, but Brereton J focused solely on this issue, failing to give consideration to the work actually done and whether the amount charged was proportionate to the difficulty and complexity of the tasks to be performed. (See [64])

The decision was unanimous, with Bathurst CJ writing the judgment and Beazley P, Gleeson JA, Barrett and Beach AJA agreeing. Barrett AJA added the observation that in his view, it was impossible to say, as a general proposition, that any given basis – whether according to time, value, extent of recoveries, size of company, nature of company or any other factor – merits any claim to precedence over any other in the matter of determination of liquidators’ remuneration. (See [71]) The appeal was allowed and the application for approval of remuneration was remitted to a judge of the Equity Division for rehearing.

The Ship is Righted

The past few years have been somewhat alarming for insolvency practitioners in NSW, particularly those taking appointments to smaller liquidations which later turn out to involve some unheralded complexities. This decision of the NSW Court of Appeal gives useful guidance and should provide greater certainty to insolvency practitioners as to the approach to be taken henceforth in NSW on court applications for approval of liquidators’ remuneration. Of course evidence on such applications should always be marshalled paying careful regard to the factors set out in s 473(10) and the aim of demonstrating to the Court the reasonableness of the remuneration incurred, including for certain items why a more senior staff member was required to undertake a particular task, or why a particular task took as much time as it did.

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)].

Newsflash – High Court has just handed down its decision in COT v Australian Building Systems PL (in liq)

The High Court, by a 3:2 majority, has dismissed the Commissioner’s appeals from the Full Court of the Federal Court of Australia, in Commissioner of Taxation v Australian Building Systems PL (in liq) [2015] HCA 48. You can read the summary of the judgment published by the High Court on its website here, and the judgment in full here. Four separate judgments were written: by French CJ and Kiefel J and by Gageler J in the majority; Keane J and  Gordon J each wrote separate judgments in dissent.

For some background, my previous writings on this case as it has moved through the courts can be read (in chronological order) here, here, here and here.

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 – High Court grants special leave to the Commissioner in CGT/liquidators case

This is a brief heads up for those who have been waiting for this. Last week the High Court granted special leave to the Commissioner to appeal the decision of the Full Court of the Federal Court in Commissioner of Taxation v Australian Building Systems Pty Ltd (in liq) [2014] FCAFC 133. For my discussion of the first instance decision of Logan J, see my earlier post here

It will indeed be interesting to see the High Court’s decision on this, after the appeal is heard. For those interested, the transcript of the special leave hearing may be read here. It can be seen that the Commissioner emphasised several matters in oral submissions, including the Commissioner’s propounded construction of section 254 of the ITAA 1936, and what the Solicitor-General described as “the radical differences” between sections 254 and 255, the construction of the latter having been decided previously by the High Court in Bluebottle UK Ltd v Deputy Commissioner of Taxation [2007] HCA 54; (2007) 232 CLR 598. The High Court’s decision in Bluebottle was relied on heavily by the primary judge in his reasoning.

In oral submissions, the Solicitor-General advanced the argument that section 254(1)(a) creates a taxation liability in the trustee or agent. This, of course, is contrary to what the Full Federal Court had held. See, for instance, at [25] where Edmonds J observed (with whom Collier and Davies JJ agreed):

That s 254 is a “collecting section” and has no operation to render a trustee liable to be assessed to tax if the trustee is not otherwise liable to be assessed under the provisions of Div 6 of Pt III of the 1936 Act, comes out of two more recent High Court authorities.

The Solicitor-General argued that this taxation liability which he said is created by s 254(1)(a) is ancillary to the primary liability which, he acknowledged, will rest somewhere else in the Act. But he submitted that it was a true creation of a liability as well as then being a collection mechanism. He submitted that s 254(1)(b) makes that liability more explicit, that the trustee or agent must lodge returns and “be assessed thereon” in the representative capacity. And, so he submitted, then the critical paragraph (d), which is the collection mechanism, should be read in the light of what has gone before so that it is an authority and duty to “retain from time to time out of any money which comes to him or her in his or her representative capacity so much as is suffficient to pay tax which is or will become due in respect of the income, profits or gains.

High Court today pronounces on liquidators’ shelf orders and other extension of time orders in 2 judgments

The High Court of Australia has today handed down two judgments regarding shelf orders and other extension of time orders, both cases arising from the Octaviar liquidations.

1. In Fortress Credit Corporation (Australia) II Pty Ltd v Fletcher [2015] HCA 10 the Court unanimously dismissed an appeal from the NSW Court of Appeal and held that a court can make an order under s 588FF(3) of the Corporations Act 2001 (Cth) to extend the time within which a company’s liquidator may apply for orders in relation to voidable transactions, even though those transactions may not be able to be identified at the time of the order. There has previously been some discord between state courts on this issue, and this decision provides reassurance to liquidators as to the availability of shelf orders. The judgment may be read in full here, and the summary on the High Court’s website here.

2. In Grant Samuel Corporate Finance Pty Ltd v Fletcher; JP Morgan Chase Bank, National Association v Fletcher [2015] HCA 8 the Court unanimously allowed both appeals, holding that the rules of courts of the States and Territories cannot apply so as to vary the time dictated by s 588FF(3) of the Corporations Act 2001 (Cth) for the bringing of proceedings for orders with respect to voidable transactions.

Sub-section 588FF(3)(a) requires an application for orders in relation to voidable transactions to be made within a prescribed period. (Either 3 years from the relation-back day or 12 months after the first appointment of a liquidator in the winding up.) Sub-section 588FF(3)(b) allows a liquidator – only during that period (usually 3 years) – to bring an application to extend this time period.

In this case, the liquidators had applied for and obtained an order under sub-section 588FF(3)(b) extending the period within which they could bring proceedings under s 588FF(1) by four months beyond expiry of the prescribed period. During that four month extension – but after the expiry of the original period – the liquidators made a further application to again extend the period. The NSW Supreme Court made an order under r 36.16(2)(b) of the Uniform Civil Procedure Rules 2005 (NSW) varying the extension order by changing the date by which the liquidators could bring voidable transaction proceedings. The appellants applied to set aside that variation order, and it was this which lead to this High Court appeal. The appelllants were unsuccessful at first instance, and their appeal was dismissed by a majority of the NSW Court of Appeal, but they were ultimately successful in the High Court .

The High Court held that the bringing of an application within the time required by s 588FF(3) is a precondition to the court’s jurisdiction under s 588FF(1) to make orders as to voidable transactions, and that the only power given to a court to vary the period prescribed in s 588FF(3)(a) is that given by s 588FF(3)(b). It followed, so the Court held, that once the period in s 588FF(3)(a) had elapsed, the UCPR could not be utilised to further extend the time within which voidable transaction proceedings under s 588FF(1) could be brought. (See [23] and the discussion which precedes it.)

Thus if the liquidators needed more than 4 months beyond the initial 3 years to be in a position to issue voidable transaction proceedings, they could only extend the 4 months to a longer period by also bringing a second extension application before the 3 year period had elapsed. In practice, however, it might be unlikely to become aware of the certain enough need for a longer period to make a second application so soon after the first. Perhaps, in light of this decision, we will find Courts may now become willing to grant somewhat longer extension periods than before. However that may be doubtful, having regard to the legal policy favouring certainty which underlies s 588FF(3), per the observations Spigelman CJ in BP Australia Ltd v Brown [2003] NSWCA 216; (2003) 58 NSWLR 322 at 345-346 ([115] and [118]), which was quoted with approval by the High Court here (see [17]-[21]). I suggest it will usually depend upon the evidence in each case.

The judgment may be read in full here, and the summary on the High Court’s website here.

Newsflash: Full Federal Court dismisses appeal in CGT/liquidators decision

This is a brief heads up for those of you who have been awaiting this appeal judgment as I have. Yesterday the Full Federal Court dismissed the Commissioner’s appeal in Commissioner of Taxation v Australian Building Systems Pty Ltd (in liq) [2014] FCAFC 133. In short, the judgment confirmed that s 254(1)(d) of the Income Tax Assessment Act 1936 (Cth) (the ITAA) only imposes an obligation upon “trustees” (including liquidators) to retain funds to pay an anticipated CGT liability once a relevant tax assessment has issued.

Edmonds J who wrote the principal judgment went so far as to say that he was “firmly of the view” that the primary judge was correct in that conclusion (at [4]). For my discussion of the first instance decision of Logan J, see my earlier post here. There is more to be said about the significance of this conclusion of the Full Federal Court, which some of you will have heard me speak about following the first instance decision. My review of this appeal judgment to follow.  ***Time has beaten me as Christmas now approaches. My review is part-written, and will now follow in the New Year.

Newsflash – ASIC’s appeal in ASIC v Franklin successful

Today the Full Court of the Federal Court of Australia allowed ASIC’s appeal, concluding that on the grounds of a reasonable apprehension of bias, Messrs Franklin, Home and Stone ought be removed as liquidators of Walton Construction Pty Ltd and Walton Construction (Qld) Pty Ltd. The judgment in full is up on Austlii and may be read here. My review of the first instance decision of Davies J may be read here.

The second part of ASIC’s appeal, as to an alleged contravention of s 436DA as to disclosure in the DIRRI, was unsuccessful. I note in passing that at paragraph [38] Robertson J remarked that he did not regard the (then) IPAA’s Code of Conduct to be extrinsic material to be taken into account in construing ss 60 and 436DA of the Corporations Act.

Newsflash – High Court judgments today in Newtronics and Hills Industries

Further to my post on Sunday, the High Court has earlier this morning handed down two important judgments – one in insolvency law (Universal Distributing principle) and one in restitution (change of position defence): Stewart v Atco Controls Pty Ltd (in liquidation) [2014] HCA 15 and Australian Financial Services and Leasing Pty Ltd v Hills  Industries Limited [2014] HCA 14.

First, the High Court unanimously allowed the appeal of the liquidator of Newtronics Pty Ltd (in liquidation) from the Victorian Court of Appeal’s decision in Atco Controls Pty Ltd (in liquidation) v Stewart [2013] VSCA 132. The High Court held that the liquidator was entitled to an equitable lien over a fund constituted by a settlement sum with respect to costs and expenses incurred in getting in the fund, being his costs and expenses in litigation against the respondent, a secured creditor, and receivers appointed by the respondent.

The bench of Crennan, Kiefel, Bell, Gageler and Keane JJ held that:  “there is no basis for excepting this case from the application of the principle in Universal Distributing (at [65]). You can read the judgment in full here, the High Court’s judgment summary here, and my analysis of the Victorian Court of Appeal decision from which this appeal was brought here.

Secondly, the High Court unanimously dismissed the appeal of Australian Financial Services and Leasing Pty Ltd from the decision of the NSW Court of Appeal in Hills Industries Ltd v Australian Financial Services and Leasing Pty Ltd [2012] NSWCA 380; (2012) 295 ALR 147, holding that the first and second respondents would not be required to repay monies that had been mistakenly transferred to them by the appellant as a result of a fraud committed by a third party, because each respondent had established a defence that they had changed their position on the faith of the receipt of the payments.

While the decision was unanimous, three judgments were written. The joint judgment was that of their Honours Hayne, Crennan, Kiefel, Bell and Keane JJ. Their Honours French CJ and Gageler J each wrote a separate judgment. You can read the judgment in full here, the High Court’s judgment summary here, and my analysis of the NSW Court of Appeal judgment from which this appeal was brought here (the second case discussed there).

More to follow – I will endeavour to return to analyse the High Court judgments in each case as soon as time allows.