I have added a new article to my website reviewing an important decision of the Full Federal Court handed down in November 2020, addressing 3 key questions that arose at the intersection of trust law and bankruptcy law – Commissioner of Taxation v Lane  FCAFC 184 (COT v Lane). Some were similar to those which arise in the context of corporate insolvency law, and were addressed in recent years by the High Court in Carter Holt/Amerind and the Full Federal Court in Jones/Killarnee. The full article can be accessed here.
In an extraordinarily unheralded development, it has been reported that overnight Treasury issued a press release to major publications – then retracted it until midnight. It has announced significant planned reforms, primarily a new SME restructuring mechanism to catch the wave of insolvencies projected to hit in 2021 when the current pandemic-linked protections end. It is a debtor-in-possession model which adopts aspects of the US Chapter 11 bankruptcy process. The laws are intended to be passed in the coming months so that they take effect from 1 January 2021.
Key elements include –
- To be eligible, companies must have liabilities of less than $1million
- They will be able to keep trading while they develop a debt restructuring plan
- They will engage a specialist “small business restructuring practitioner” (SBRP) to help them prepare the plan, certify the plan to creditors, and oversee disbursements once the plan is in place
- They will have 20 business days to develop the plan, during which there is a moratorium on unsecured and some secured creditors taking action against the company
- As noted above, the SBRP “certifies” whether she/he considers the business can meet the proposed repayments and has properly disclosed its affairs (Note: this element could be significantly problematic. It will only be an opinion, and one that relies upon the information provided to the SBRP by those running the business. But it may be understood by creditors to be akin to a guarantee)
- Creditors will then have 15 business days to vote on the plan, including the remuneration of the insolvency practitioner to deliver on the plan
- Employee entitlements that are due and payable will be required to be paid in full before the plan is voted on by creditors (Note: this may exclude many failing SME’s from using this model)
- It will require a vote of more than 50% of creditors by value to approve the plan
- Related party creditors will be prohibited from voting on the plan
- There will be a streamlined liquidation process for companies that cannot be revived
The announcement was made without consultation with industry (what could possibly go wrong?) It is hoped this will take place now. Whilst the aspirations are understandable, commentators are already pointing out the problems and risks with the proposed new model.
The Treasurer is expected to announce more detail later today.
In the meantime, Treasury has released a fact sheet with Q&A and case study – see here.
In a last Amerind-tinged gift before Christmas, the High Court has today handed down another judgment on an issue which lies at the intersection between insolvency law and trust law, although this time in the bankruptcy context. It is the latest in a string of unfolding legal developments at this intersection, including the High Court’s decision in June in Amerind and the Full Federal Court’s decision last year in Killarnee. (For more in relation to those decisions see here (Amerind) and here (Killarnee).)
In this case the High Court unanimously dismissed an appeal from the Full Federal Court concerning whether property held by a bankrupt on trust for another vests in the bankrupt’s trustee in bankruptcy under s 58 of the Bankruptcy Act 1966 (Cth). The decision – which stems from a bankruptcy which has been before the Courts more than once – is Boensch v Pascoe  HCA 49.
The case arose from a claim by the bankrupt Mr Boensch for compensation under s 74P(1) of the Real Property Act 1900 (NSW) on the basis that his trustee in bankruptcy Mr Scott Pascoe had lodged, and later refused or failed to withdraw, a caveat without reasonable cause. Mr Boensch’s claim for compensation was unsuccessful at each stage.
To give you a snapshot of the principles and reasoning on the key issue –
- Upon a person becoming bankrupt, section 58 of the Bankruptcy Act vests “property of the bankrupt” in the trustee of the estate of the bankrupt.
- The “property of the bankrupt” includes real or personal property and any estate or interest in real or personal property belonging to the person at the time of bankruptcy and divisible among the bankrupt’s creditors: s 5(1) of the Bankruptcy Act (definitions of “property” and “the property of the bankrupt”).
- Excluded from the “property of the bankrupt” which vests in the trustee in bankruptcy is property held in trust by the bankrupt for another person: s 116(2)(a) of the Bankruptcy Act.
- It was settled in Octavo that where a person who is a trustee becomes bankrupt, and he/she has incurred liabilities in the performance of the trust, that person’s right to be indemnified out of trust property gives rise to an equitable interest in the property held on trust. This takes that property outside the exclusion in s 116(2)(a), on the basis that the exclusion is limited to property held by the bankrupt solely in trust for another person:  per Kiefel CJ, Gageler and Keane JJ.
- The bankrupt’s entitlement in equity to be indemnified out of the trust property, giving rise to the equitable interest in the property, is property belonging to the bankrupt that is divisible among the bankrupt’s creditors. The right of indemnity is therefore property that vests in the trustee in bankruptcy:  per Kiefel CJ, Gageler and Keane JJ.
- Octavo left open the question of whether the legal estate in the property held on trust by the bankrupt also vests in the bankruptcy trustee, where the bankrupt as trustee held a right of indemnity. This is part of the more general question of whether the legal estate in property held on trust by a bankrupt in which the bankrupt has an equitable interest vests in the bankruptcy trustee:  per Kiefel CJ, Gageler and Keane JJ.
- The more general question was substantially answered in Carter Holt Harvey Woodproducts Australia Pty Ltd v The Commonwealth (Amerind):  per Kiefel CJ, Gageler and Keane JJ.
- The short answer is yes it does. Under the Bankruptcy Act, where a trustee has no beneficial interest, the legal estate does not pass; but where he has, it does pass:  per Kiefel CJ, Gageler and Keane JJ, quoting with approval from Sir George Jessel MR in Morgan v Swansea Urban Sanitary Authority (1878) 9 Ch D 582 at 585. (However note that where, as here, the trust property is real estate, then pending registration on title, what is vested in the bankruptcy trustee by s 58(2) is the equitable estate:  per Kiefel CJ, Gageler and Keane JJ;  per Bell, Nettle, Gordon and Edelman JJ.)
- This answer is informed by a recognition of two things: (1) the fundamental nature of an equitable interest as something that “is not carved out of a legal estate but impressed upon it“; and (2) consistency with the objects of the Bankruptcy Act that the bankruptcy trustee automatically obtains the legal estate in property held by the bankrupt in which the bankrupt has an equitable interest in order better to secure the realisation of that equitable interest for the benefit of creditors:  per Kiefel CJ, Gageler and Keane JJ.
Their Honours held here that by reason of his having an entitlement to indemnification out of the trust property, the bankrupt Mr Boensch had an equitable interest in the Rydalmere property which subsisted at the time of his bankruptcy. It followed that that equitable interest, and with it the equitable estate in the Rydalmere property, vested in Mr Pascoe as the trustee in bankruptcy of the estate of Mr Boensch. The equitable estate so vested in Mr Boensch was a caveatable interest: - per Kiefel CJ, Gageler and Keane JJ.
Interestingly, the High Court decided this issue in the absence of a determination by the primary judge and the Full Court on the question of whether the bankrupt held a right of indemnity against the trust property, although the question was raised by the pleadings of the trustee in bankruptcy Mr Pascoe. Both judgments discuss this matter.
Broadly, where a bankrupt held property as a trustee and had a right of indemnity in the trust assets, the property will vest in the bankruptcy trustee, subject to the trust:  per Bell, Nettle, Gordon and Edelman JJ.
However where a bankrupt held property on trust for another but held no interest in the property at all, whether vested or contingent, and no matter how remote, that property will not vest in the bankruptcy’s trustee upon bankruptcy:  per Bell, Nettle, Gordon and Edelman JJ.
To put it this way, at  their Honours Bell, Nettle, Gordon and Edelman JJ quoted with approval from Farwell LJ in Governors of St Thomas’s Hospital v Richardson  1 KB 271 at 284 –
The property of the bankrupt does not include property held by the bankrupt on trust for any other person. But it does include property held by the bankrupt on any trust for his own benefit, and when … he holds property to secure his own right of indemnity in priority to all claims of any cestui que trust, and the retention of such property is necessary to give full effect to such right, it follows that the property, ie the legal estate, and right to possession vest in the trustee in bankruptcy to the extent to which they were vested in the bankrupt…
Just a note to alert readers that the latest decision of interest in this post-Amerind world dropped today in the Federal Court in Queensland. The liquidators of an insolvent corporate trustee successfully obtained orders appointing them receivers of the assets of two trusts to enforce the rights of exoneration and liens of the former trustee. The application was contested by the new trustee of the property trust, who sought to sell the key asset itself (a hotel – freehold title to the land). Note the orders made (order 6) as to recourse to the assets of the trusts for the receivers’ remuneration, costs and expenses regarding each trust and the winding up of the company generally.
The case was the decision of Derrington J in Connelly, in the matter of Gregorski Investments Pty Ltd (in liq) v 320 Nominees Pty Ltd as trustee of the Gregorski Property Trust  FCA 1400.
I have added a new article to my website reviewing last week’s important High Court decision in the Amerind appeal – Carter Holt Harvey Woodproducts Australia Pty Ltd v The Commonwealth  HCA 20; 368 ALR 390 (Amerind). The full article can be accessed here.
This morning the High Court has handed down judgment dismissing the appeal from the decision of the Victorian Court of Appeal in Commonwealth of Australia v Byrnes and Hewitt as receivers and managers of Amerind Pty Ltd (receivers and managers apptd)(in liq)  VSCA 41; (2018) 54 VR 230, which itself was the appeal of the decision of Robson J in Re Amerind (receivers and managers apptd)(in liq)  VSC 127; (2017) 320 FLR 118.
The bench comprised Kiefel CJ, Bell, Gageler, Keane, Nettle, Gordon and Edelman JJ. Whilst the decision to dismiss the appeal was unanimous, three separate judgments were written: one by Kiefel CJ and Keane and Edelman JJ, another by Bell, Gageler and Nettle JJ and the third by Gordon J. The decision is: Carter Holt Harvey Woodproducts Australia Pty Ltd v The Commonwealth  HCA 20.
My fuller review of the decision will follow. For now, some highlights –
- The High Court unanimously held that s 433 of the Corporations Act applies in the exercise of the power of exoneration in the receivership of a trustee company. Slight points of difference in reasoning between the judgments, but the same result. Kiefel CJ, Keane and Edelman JJ expressly pointed out that the same reasoning applies to s 561, which is the provision cognate to s 433 but relevant to liquidators rather than receivers.
- The High Court unanimously held that accordingly the statutory scheme of priority applies to distribution of the relevant trust property, being here the receivership surplus subject to the trustee’s right of indemnity. It follows from this that the Commonwealth’s claim to priority in the distribution of the receivership surplus by virtue of the payments it had made of employee entitlements under FEGS is vindicated.
- The High Court went on unanimously to hold that trust assets may only be used to pay trust creditors on exercise of the power of exoneration in a receivership or in the liquidation of a trustee company, not also non-trust creditors. Re Enhill was wrongly decided.
More to follow.
The High Court of Australia will be handing down judgment in the Amerind appeal this Wednesday 19 June 2019. Watch this space.
In the meantime, for my review and analysis of the Victorian Court of Appeal decision in Amerind which is the subject of this appeal see here.
For my article considering the Full Federal Court decision in Killarnee and the landscape for liquidating corporate trustees of trading trusts in light of both Amerind and Killarnee see here.
For those who want more, the submissions that have been filed for each of the appellant (creditor Carter Holt Harvey Woodproducts Australia Pty Ltd), the first respondent (the Commonwealth of Australia, which advanced $3.8m for former employees of the company under FEGS) and the second respondent (the Receivers of Amerind Pty Ltd (Receivers & Managers appointed)(in liquidation)) may be read on the High Court website here.
For now, I note that the submissions for the appellant creditor identified the following three issues for consideration in the appeal –
- Whether the “property of the company” of a corporate trustee under s 433(3) of the Corporations Act 2001 (Cth) includes not only the trustee’s right of indemnity but also the underlying assets to which the trustee company can have recourse.
- The precise nature of, and the limitations upon, a trustee’s right of indemnity where the trustee seeks exoneration in respect of unmet trust liabilities, in particular in the context of the insolvency of the trustee.
- Whether a corporate trustee’s right of indemnity from trust assets is “property comprised in or subject to a circulating security interest” for the purposes of s 433(2) of the Corporations Act.
The appellant submitted, inter alia, that –
- Properly understood, a trustee’s right of indemnity, especially the ‘exoneration arm’ of the right of indemnity, is no more than a right to have trust assets applied to meet trust debts. It confers upon the trustee no interest in the trust assets themselves, or the proceeds thereof.
- A trustee’s right of indemnity is not subject to s 433(2) of the Corporations Act because it is not a “circulating asset” and hence is not property which is “comprised in or subject to a circulating security interest”.
The appellant submitted that if either of these challenges be upheld, the Court of Appeal’s decision cannot stand.
The Commonwealth identified two issues for consideration in the appeal –
- On the basis that the trustee’s right of indemnity gave it a beneficial interest in the assets of the trust – was that interest “property of the company” within the meaning of s 433(3)?
- On the basis that s 433(3) applies to property coming into the hands of a receiver who is appointed by a debenture holder ‘secured by a circulating security interest’ – was it necessary that the trustee’s right of indemnity itself be ‘property comprised in or subject to a circulating security interest’? If so, was the trustee’s right of indemnity such property?
The Commonwealth submitted inter alia that –
- Sections 433, 556 and 561 of the Corporations Act give statutory priority to employees’ claims in insolvency. Insolvency law is statutory and primacy must be given to the relevant statutory text. That statutory priority has been recognised since 1883 in the case of corporate insolvency. The compelling reasons for the statutory priority of employees claims is well known. It is a strong thing to deprive employee creditors of their statutory priority merely because their employer had acted as a trustee.
- There are no non-trust creditors. There is only one trust. This case does not give rise to the question of whether creditors of the company who are not ‘trust creditors’ may be paid from the proceeds of realisation of trust assets.
- A trustee’s right of indemnity (whether by way of reimbursement or exoneration) confers on the trustee an interest in the trust assets which is a proprietary, beneficial interest, and takes priority to the interests of the beneficiaries of the trust. This submission relies on several previous High Court decisions, including Octavo Investments Pty Ltd v Knight (1979) 144 CLR 360 and Chief Commissioner of Stamp Duties (NSW) v Buckle (1998) 192 CLR 226.
- What matters in the Personal Property Securities Act‘s interaction with the Corporations Act is the nature of the security held by the secured party, not the nature of the interest in the personal property held by the grantor. Even if it was necessary to characterise the trustee’s right of indemnity as an asset subject to a circulating security interest, it was such an asset.
- It follows that, as the Court of Appeal held, s 433(3) was engaged. The Court of Appeal’s decision should be upheld.
We await Wednesday’s judgment with interest.
Recently the Victorian Court of Appeal upheld a decision to deny liquidators approval of a proposed settlement in McDermott and Potts as liquidators of Lonnex Pty Ltd (in liquidation)  VSCA 23. The creditors had been opposed to the settlement.
The liquidators of Lonnex (Ross McDermott and John Potts) had commenced proceedings pursuing claims which arose from a striking series of transactions. Lonnex and a related company Millennium Management Pty Ltd each operated two medical practices at different locations in Melbourne. The day after establishing a tax consolidated group with related entities, Lonnex and Millennium both sold their assets – their 4 clinics – to Lonnex & Millennium Management Holdings Pty Ltd (LMMH) for $22m and $18m respectively. These amounts were payable at LMMH’s option by way of intercompany loans.
On the same day, Lonnex and Millennium forgave those loans.
Under the transactions LMMH acquired some of their liabilities. However others, principally those owing to the Commissioners of Taxation and State Revenue, were left with Lonnex and Millennium. The owner of the shares in LMMH, Dr Geoffrey Edelsten, subsequently onsold them. (See -)
The liquidators of Lonnex claimed inter alia that the release of the debts given by Lonnex to LMMH was an uncommercial transaction under s 588FB of the Corporations Act 2001 (Cth), and an unreasonable director-related transaction under s 588FDA, and sought judgment in the sum of $22m. The liquidator of Millennium (Andrew Yeo) subsequently issued a corresponding proceeding. LMMH’s defence included arguments that the forgiveness of the loans was part of a larger composite transaction under which benefits flowed to Lonnex and Millennium, such that the impugned transactions were neither uncommercial nor unreasonable. (See )
Lonnex’s creditors were recorded in the judgment as including the Commissioner ($7.7m), the State Revenue Office ($264K), “perhaps” Dr Edelston ($3.6m) and minor creditors including Medicare. (See )
The Commissioner had funded Lonnex’s liquidators to conduct the Lonnex proceedings up to mediation. Agreement had not been reached on funding beyond that. (See )
Following mediation, Lonnex’s liquidators made applications under s 477(2B) and the then s 511 of the Corporations Act for orders directing that they were justified in compromising the proceeding and approving their entry into terms of settlement accordingly. An associate judge refused that application. The liquidators sought leave to appeal. The Commissioner of Taxation, being the largest creditor, appeared in opposition to the liquidators’ application. (See ) Indeed the proposed settlement was opposed by the Commissioner, the State Revenue Office, and the trustee in bankruptcy. (See )
Broadly, the liquidators argued that the proposed settlement was a reasonable commercial outcome and that they had not been put in funds to contest the proceeding further. The Commissioner disputed the wisdom of accepting the settlement and wanted a different liquidator appointed to pursue Lonnex’s litigation. (See ) Senior Counsel for the Commissioner informed the Court of Appeal that if Millennium’s liquidator Mr Yeo were to take over as liquidator of Lonnex, the Commissioner would be prepared to enter into a funding arrangement with him, and that Mr Yeo had consented to act as liquidator of Lonnex.
On the appeal, the liquidators submitted that the associate judge’s discretion had miscarried on several grounds. There was argument on the following issues –
- the significance of the fact that funding of the liquidation and the liquidators’ past and future expenses and liabilities had not been secured,
- the significance of the creditors’ opposition to the proposed settlement,
- the relevance and content of the legal opinion, and
- whether the proposed settlement was in the interests of creditors. (See )
Another proposed ground of appeal was the liquidators’ contention that the associate judge erred, or his discretion miscarried, in failing to give reasons or adequate reasons, for refusing leave under s 477(2B). (See ) The associate judge had stated that the s 477(2B) application was refused for the same reasons as the s 511 application. (See )
After the filing of the application, s 511 of the Corporations Act was repealed and replaced by the Insolvency Law Reform Act 2016 (Cth). The liquidators submitted that the principles which formerly covered s 511 applications applied equally to the replacement provisions contained in the Insolvency Practice Schedule (Corporations), namely ss 90-15 and 90-20. The case therefore proceeded as an application under s 511.
To pause here – for any practitioners looking to bring an application now under s 90-15 – I note that on an application for directions in Walley, In the matter of Poles & Underground Pty Ltd (Admin Apptd)  FCA 486 at , Gleeson J observed that the question of whether to exercise the power in s 90-15 was “to be answered by reference to the principles applied to the exercise of the discretions previously contained in s 479(3) and s 511 of the Act”. This has since been approved in El-Saafin v Franek (No 2)  VSC 683 at  (application by administrators for directions), in Re Hawden Property Group Pty Ltd (in liq)  NSWSC 481; (2018) 125 ACSR 355 at  (application for directions), in Krejci (liquidator), re Community Work Pty Ltd (in liq)  FCA 425 at  (application for directions and for s 477(2B) approval), in GDK Projects Pty Ltd re Umberto Pty Ltd (in liq)  FCA 541 at  (application for the appointment of special purpose liquidators), and in an unreported decision in which I appeared last year for the liquidator Re Cameron Lane Pty Ltd (in liquidation); Playaround Pty Ltd v Peter Robert Vince, Supreme Court of Victoria, 14 August 2018 (appeal from the rejection of a proof of debt).
Returning to the present case, section 511 of the Corporations Act relevantly provided –
(1) The liquidator, or any contributory or creditor, may apply to the Court:
(a) to determine any question arising in the winding up of a company; or
(b) to exercise all or any of the powers that the Court might exercise if the company were being wound up by the Court.
(2) The Court, if satisfied that the determination of the question or the exercise of power will be just and beneficial, may accede wholly or partially to any such application on such terms and conditions as it thinks fit or may make such other order on the application as it thinks just.
Section 477(2B) of the Corporations Act provides –
Except with the approval of the Court, of the committee of inspection or of a resolution of the creditors, a liquidator of a company must not enter into an agreement on the company’s behalf (for example, but without limitation, a lease or an agreement under which a security interest arises or is created) if:
(a) without limiting paragraph (b), the term of the agreement may end; or
(b) the obligations of a party to the agreement may, according to the terms of the agreement, be discharged by performance;
more than 3 months after the agreement is entered into, even if the term may end, or the obligations may be discharged, within those 3 months.
I pause here to draw attention to the fact – sometimes overlooked – that s 477(2B) is framed as a prohibition. However, if a liquidator has entered into such an agreement without prior creditor or court approval, it can in some cases be possible to obtain retrospective approval from the court (nunc pro tunc). Such an application is often made together with an application under s 1322(4)(a) and (d). By way of example, two cases in which I appeared for the liquidators in obtaining such approval are –
- Vickers, in the matter of York Street Mezzanine Pty Ltd (in liq)  FCA 1028 – an application before Gordon J under ss 477(2B), 479(3), 511 and 1322(4) on behalf of the liquidators of companies which were part of the Westpoint group, and
- Re Blackburne Pty Ltd (in liq)  VSC 92 – an application before Robson J under ss 477(2A), 477(2B), 511 and 531 on behalf of the liquidators of a trustee company which had provided finance to investors in the Environinvest eucalyptus managed investment scheme.
The Court of Appeal reviewed the key authorities at -. The passages cited by their Honours focussed upon several issues, including notably the importance of the views of the creditors. For instance at  their Honours cited this passage from the judgment of Lindley LJ in Re English, Scottish & Australian Chartered Bank  3 Ch 385, 409 –
If the creditors are acting on sufficient information and with time to consider what they are about, and are acting honestly, they are, I apprehend, much better judges of what is to their commercial advantage than the Court can be
At  the Court repeated the oft-cited observation of Giles J considering an earlier provision (s 377 of the NSW Companies Code prior to 1992 – authorisation to compromise) in Re Spedley Securities Ltd (in liq) (1992) 9 ACSR 83, 85-6 –
In any application pursuant to s 377(1) the court pays regard to the commercial judgment of the liquidator… That is not to say that it rubber stamps whatever is put forward by the liquidator but … the court is necessarily confined in attempting to second guess the liquidator in the exercise of his power, and generally will not interfere unless there can be seen to be some lack of good faith, some error in law or principle, or real and substantial grounds for doubting the prudence of the liquidator’s conduct. The same restraint must apply when the question is whether the liquidator should be authorised to enter into a particular transaction the benefits and burdens of which require assessment on a commercial basis. Of course, the compromise of claims will involve assessment on a legal basis, and a liquidator will be expected…to obtain advice and, as a prudent person would in the conduct of his own affairs, advice from practitioners appropriate to the nature and value of the claims. But in all but the simplest case, and demonstrably in the present case, commercial considerations play a significant part in whether a compromise will be for the benefit of creditors.
The Court observed that, significantly, Giles J went on to say that it is for these reasons that the attitudes of creditors are ‘important’ in these applications. (See )
Following their review of the authorities, their Honours then distilled the following principles at  –
- The nature of the inquiry undertaken by the court when approval is sought under s 477(2B) in relation to a proposed compromise of litigation is different from the nature of inquiry the court undertakes under s 511 when a liquidator seeks directions in relation to such a compromise.
- On a directions application the court must be positively persuaded that the liquidator’s decision to enter into the compromise is, in all the circumstances, a proper one. This necessarily involves a broad consideration of all the relevant circumstances. A direction will exonerate the liquidator.
- In contrast, the discrete consideration of an application under s 477(2B) involves a more circumscribed inquiry. The court reviews the liquidator’s proposal, satisfying itself that there is no error of law or ground for suspecting bad faith or impropriety, and weighing up whether there is any good reason to intervene. An order under s 477(2B) does not constitute an endorsement of the proposed compromise. An approval will not exonerate the liquidator.
- Given that the nature of the inquiry undertaken in relation to the directions application is broader than that under s 477(2B), it would usually be convenient to deal with with directions application first, and often that consideration would substantially overtake any discrete consideration of the application under s 477(2B).
- The court always pays due regard to the commercial judgment of the liquidator, and, on both applications, the attitudes of creditors are also important.
- On both applications, but particularly the application for directions, it would ordinarily be expected that a liquidator would have obtained appropriate legal advice in relation to the proposed compromise, and the nature and content of that advice is a relevant consideration.
- While the focus of s 477(2B) is delay, the inquiry under s 477(2B) still requires consideration of the substance of the proposed compromise. If a related application for directions reveals either that the directions should, or should not, be given, discrete consideration of the application under s 477(2B) may be superfluous.
Their Honours then added this at  –
It can be seen that the authorities present a tension in the circumstances of the applications the subject of the present case. The liquidator is ordinarily best placed to determine what course the liquidation should take, in the interests of creditors, any contributors and the proper recovery of the costs and expenses of the liquidation. the court will generally not enter into the merits of that determination, confining itself to the question whether the proposed course is a proper one for the liquidator to take. At the same time, the interests and wishes of creditors are highly influential and the creditors are, if properly informed, in the best position to evaluate what is in their own interests. As such, the views of the creditors as to the merits of the present proposal are a highly material consideration.
Principles from Newtronics – s 477(2B)
I pause here to note that the principles here distilled by the Court of Appeal are somewhat informed by the circumstances of this case, and partly focussed upon the different functions served by each of s 477(2B) and s 511. On s 477(2B) applications, the Courts often cite and apply the principles as distilled by her Honour Justice Gordon in Stewart, in the matter of Newtronics Pty Ltd  FCA 1375. It may be useful to repeat them here –
- The Court does not simply “rubber stamp” whatever is put forward by a liquidator. (The passage by Giles J in Re Spedley Securities, reproduced above, is often quoted in full together with this principle. Note that its final sentence makes clear that the key consideration is whether the proposal is for the benefit of creditors.)
- A Court will not approve an agreement if its terms are unclear.
- The role of the Court is to grant or deny approval to the liquidator’s proposal. Its role is not to develop some alternative proposal which might seem preferable.
- In reviewing the liquidator’s proposal, the task of the Court is – “[not] to reconsider all of the issues which have been weighed up by the liquidator in developing the proposal, and to substitute its determination for his in…a hearing de novo [but]…simply to review the liquidator’s proposal, paying due regard to his or her commercial judgment and knowledge of all of the circumstances of the liquidator, satisfying itself that there is no error of law or ground for suspecting bad faith or impropriety, and weighing up whether there is any good reason to intervene in terms of the ‘expeditious and beneficial administration’ of the winding up.“
- Further, in judging whether or not a liquidator should be given permission to enter into a funding agreement (whether retrospective or not), it is important to ensure, inter alia, that the entity or person providing the funding is not given a benefit disproportionate to the risk undertaken in light of the funding that is promised or a “grossly excessive profit”,
- Generally, the Court grants approval under s 477(2B) only where the transaction is the proper realisation of the assets of the company or otherwise assists in the winding up of the company.
(See Newtronics at  and the authorities there cited.)
The Court of Appeal – in the unanimous judgment of Whelan AP and McLeish and Hargrave JJA – held that the associate judge had not erred.
Their Honours found that the associate judge was correct to regard the wishes of creditors as a “very important consideration”. Indeed they noted that “he would have erred not to have done so” (see ). It was clear, however, that the associate judge did not consider himself bound to act in accordance with the creditors’ wishes, taking account of other matters including the funding position, the legal opinion tendered, the relevance of the Millennium proceeding and the possibility that Mr Yeo might be placed in funds to conduct the Lonnex proceeding. Their Honours noted that the fact that the source of those funds would be the principal creditor served to highlight the importance, in this case, of the attitude of creditors to the proposed compromise of the Lonnex proceeding. (See  & )
The Commissioner had also submitted that there would be adverse consequences for the Millennium proceeding if the Lonnex proceeding were to be settled, which the Court accepted had considerable force. (See )
The Court found the absence of funding for the Lonnex liquidators to continue the liquidation was not an “overriding factor” in this particular case. Here there were alternative options, including that the liquidators could resign so that Mr Yeo could be appointed. (See -) Notably, however, the Court observed that in a different case where no compromise has been achieved, it might be proper for a liquidator to discontinue litigation if funds to continue to conduct it are unavailable. (See )
This case serves as a warning to liquidators to take heed of the attitude of creditors to a proposed settlement of a claim, particularly majority, unrelated creditors. Certainly it is a reminder that the Courts will treat the creditors’ judgment of what is in their own commercial interests as of importance, in considering an application for approval to enter into a settlement deed and for directions.
Having said that, this was a somewhat unusual case. Each case will turn on its own facts. It will not always be the case when it comes to settling a proceeding that there is another proceeding arising out of the same transaction/s running in parallel, which may be adversely impacted by the settlement. Moreover, where liquidators are without the funds or a creditor willing to fund litigation, there will not always be an alternative convenient option waiting in the wings, of another liquidator who has consented to act with a creditor willing to fund him (and the majority creditor at that).
The first few days of next week are shaping up to be pretty big. As has been well covered in the press, the final report by of the Banking Royal Commission has now been handed to the Governor-General and will be publicly released on Monday afternoon 4 February 2019 at 4.10pm, coinciding with the sharemarket close. Reportedly Commissioner Kenneth Hayne’s final report stretches to more than 1000 pages.
Then on Tuesday 5 and Wednesday 6 February 2019 is the hearing of the High Court appeal in Amerind, set down for 2 days. To refresh your memories, for my review and analysis of the Victorian Court of Appeal decision in Amerind see here, and for my article considering the Full Federal Court decision in Killarnee and the landscape for liquidating corporate trustees of trading trusts in light of both Amerind and Killarnee see here.
For those who want more, the submissions that have been filed for each of the appellant (creditor Carter Hold Harvey Woodproducts Australia Pty Ltd), the first respondent (the Commonwealth of Australia, which advanced $3.8m for former employees of the company under FEGS) and the second respondent (the Receivers of Amerind Pty Ltd (Receivers & Managers appointed)(in liquidation) may be read on the High Court website.
The Amerind appeal to the High Court of Australia has reportedly been listed for a 2-day hearing on 5 and 6 February 2019. Watch this space.
In the meantime, for my review and analysis of the Victorian Court of Appeal decision in Amerind see here, and for my article considering the Full Federal Court decision in Killarnee and the landscape for liquidating corporate trustees of trading trusts in light of both Amerind and Killarnee see here.
For those who want more, the submissions that have been filed for each of the appellant (creditor Carter Holt Harvey Woodproducts Australia Pty Ltd), the first respondent (the Commonwealth of Australia, which advanced $3.8m for former employees of the company under FEGS) and the second respondent (the Receivers of Amerind Pty Ltd (Receivers & Managers appointed)(in liquidation)) may be read on the High Court website.