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 – 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.

Heads up #2 – Two other insolvency law appeals before the Courts

Two other insolvency law appeals have just been heard.

Today, a Full Federal Court bench of their Honours Jessup, Robertson and White JJ heard ASIC’s appeal from the decision in ASIC v Franklin (liquidator), in the matter of Walton Construction PL (in liq) [2014] FCA 68. At first instance, her Honour Davies J had refused an application by ASIC for the removal of liquidators because of an apprehension of a lack of independence and impartiality, brought under s 503 of the Corporations Act 2001 (Cth). ASIC had also claimed that the DIRRI (declaration of relevant relationships) made by the liquidators upon their appointment as administrators was deficient, and had sought a declaration that they had contravened s 436DA of the Act. This appeal decision is likely to be instructive, and worth looking out for. I wrote an analysis of the first instance decision and the then upcoming appeal in March of this year – link.

And on Friday, a Victorian Court of Appeal bench of their Honours Ashley, Neave and Almond JJA heard the directors’ appeal from the decision in Le Roi Homestyle Cookies Pty Ltd (in liquidation) v Gemmell [2013] VSC 452. This is an appeal from an interesting decision her Honour Ferguson J handed down in August last year. It concerned public examinations of directors for potential insolvent trading claims – including de facto and shadow directors – and the consequences of those individuals failing properly to maintain their privilege against self-incrimination for criminal or penalty proceedings. I wrote an analysis of that decision also, which may be read here.

I will endeavour to inform you when the appeal decisions are handed down.

ASIC appeals the decision in ASIC v Franklin (liquidator), in the matter of Walton Construction PL (in liq) [2014] FCA 68

On 13 February 2014 the Federal Court refused an application by ASIC for the removal of liquidators because of an apprehension of a lack of independence and impartiality, brought under s 503 of the Corporations Act 20001 (Cth). ASIC had also claimed that the DIRRI (declaration of relevant relationships) made by the liquidators upon their appointment as administrators was deficient, and had sought a declaration that they had contravened s 436DA of the Act. The case is that of Australian Securities and Investment Commission v Franklin (liquidator), in the matter of Walton Construction Pty Ltd (in liq) [2014] FCA 68.

It is important to note that ASIC did not challenge the liquidators’ independence and impartiality in the performance of their duties either as adminstrators, and then as liquidators, of the companies (Walton Construction Pty Ltd and Walton Construction (Qld) Pty Ltd). Rather, it was a matter of the appearance to the hypothetical fair minded observer. ASIC contended that a reasonable apprehension of a lack of independence and impartiality existed because of the following matters –

  • they were appointed administrators on the referral of the Mawson Group, which provides business advisory and restructuring services to companies in financial difficulty;
  • the Mawson Group had worked with the companies prior to their collapse;
  • shortly prior to going into administration the companies had assigned debts and sold assets, which transactions the liquidators would need to investigate, where –
  • * the other parties to the transactions appeared to be connected with the Mawson Group, based on company searches, and
  • * the effect of the debt assignments and asset sales was the transfer of a significant part of the business of the companies,
  • there was a need to investigate whether those transactions could be challenged as uncommercial transactions or unreasonable director-related transactions, whether the directors had breached their duties, and whether Mawson Group personnel were involved in such breaches, where –
  • * the Mawson Group was involved in the appointment of the insolvency practitioners who would be investigating the transactions involving entities connected to the Mawson Group,
  • * the Mawson Group had referred six other voluntary administrations to the firm of the liquidators,
  • * these referrals had generated a material volume of work with significant fees for the firm, and
  • * in 3 of the other 6 administrations, there were also antecedent transfers of assets and debt assignments by the companies, to entities connected with the Mawson Group.

ASIC contended that the significance of these matters was that the liquidators must investigate Mawson Group’s involvement in those transactions, and those associated with Mawson Group, in circumstances where the liquidators’ firm had an ongoing commercial relationship with the Mawson Group which generated significant fees for the firm, and where the persons who would be the subject of those investigations included those who referred the appointments to them. ASIC submitted that these matters gave rise to a reasonable perception or apprehension that the liquidators would not bring an impartial and unprejudiced mind to the investigation of the pre-appointment transactions, and would favour interests assocated with the Mawson Group at the expense of the interests of creditors, whether consciously or not.

This perception or apprehension of a lack of independence would be heightened by the alleged lack of full disclosures in the DIRRI, so ASIC contended, in the mind of the hypothetical fair minded observer.

The Legal Principles

Her Honour Davies J had regard to the following legal principles –

  1. It is settled law that a liquidator may be disqualified from continuing to act in the winding up of a company where the hypothetical fair minded observer would perceive a lack of independence or impartiality on the part of the liquidator in the discharge of his or her functions, even where independence and impartiality have in fact been maintained (see [2] and the authorities there cited);
  2. The disqualification principle gives due recognition to the requirement that liquidators must not only be independent and impartial, they must be seen to be independent and impartial, which is fundamental to the integrity of the winding up process (see [2] and the authorities there cited);
  3. Thus the discretion under s 503 of the Act will commonly be exercised in favour of removing a liquidator where it appears that the liquidator is in a position of apparent conflict because of some relationship (direct or indirect) or connection (see [2] and the authoriites there cited; note that I would query the use of the word “commonly” here);
  4. The test for determining whether a hypothetical fair minded observer would apprehend a lack of independence and impartiality requires the articulation of a logical connection between the matters which, it is said, may impede or inhibit the liquidators from acting impartially in the interests of all creditors in the discharge of their duties, and the feared deviation from discharging their duties and responsibilities impartially (see [6] and the authorities there cited);
  5. The test is an objective test viewed through the legal fiction of the hypothetical fair minded observer, and the apprehension of lack of independence must be reasonably formed. For the apprehension to be reasonable, it is axiomatic that the apprehension must be informed and arise upon an understanding of the actual circumstances in which the claim of apprehended lack of independence is made (see [6]).

The Court’s Decision

The question of the “logical connection” referred to in 4 above proved to be the tripping point. ASIC pointed to the character and nature of the liquidators’ business association with the Mawson Group, where the Mawson Group was involved in the very transactions that would need to be investigated, and the lawfulness of the conduct of the Mawson Group would come into question.

However the Court held that the logical connection was not made out. Davies J took the view (at [8]-[9]) that the knowledge attributed to the fair minded observer, appropriately informed, would include –

  • an awareness about the functions and duties of liquidators;
  • an awareness that liquidators have statutory duties and responsibilities that they must discharge;
  • an awareness  that it is the liquidators’ duty to discover whether any transactions are voidable, whether any conduct of persons has been in breach of the Act or given rise to some other civil or criminal liability;
  • knowledge that the liquidators’ firm is commonly referred voluntary administrations and other insolvency work by solicitors, business advisors and accountants, and that this was the nature of the liquidators’ firm’s business relationship with Mawson Group;
  • knowledge that as Mawson Group was a business advisory firm providing corporate restructuring advice to troubled companies, and its relationship with the companies in this case was a professional one;
  • knowledge that there is nothing about the conduct of the other insolvencies referred by Mawson Group to the liquidators’ firm that brings the firm’s independence and impartiality into question, having regard to their professional relationship with the Mawson Group; and
  • knowledge that if there was any deficiency in the DIRRI, such deficiency was inadvertent and not intended.

With an appreciation of those matters, the Court concluded, the fair minded observer may reasonably conclude that the liquidators would similarly discharge their statutory duties and responsibilities impartially and as required by law, uninfluenced by their relationship with the Mawson Group (at [9]).

The Court was not persuaded that there was any substance in the claim of apprehended lack of independence, and refused the application to remove the liquidators (at [10]).

Section 436DA – Disclosure in the DIRRI

At the time of their appointment as administrators, the (now) liquidators declared in the DIRRI that:

“The [companies were] referred by Mr P McCurry of Mawson Group, who refers us insolvency type matters from time to time. Referrals from solicitors, business advisors and accountants are common place and do not impact on our independence in carrying out our function as Administrators…”.

ASIC’s complaint was that this did not go far enough, and ought also have addressed why they did not believe that this referral relationship resulted in any actual or perceived conflict of interest or duty, in the context of the additional factor here – the potential need to investigate transactions involving the Mawson Group. ASIC contended that this omission meant the DIRRI was deficient by failing to meet the requirement of s 60(1)(b). ASIC contended that even if the liquidators were not aware of the involvement of Mawson Group in transactions they would need to investigate at the time of making the DIRRI, s 436DA(5) required that they update the DIRRI with the information when they did become aware of it. ASIC argued that the creditors needed to know that the Mawson Group may be investigated, to enable them to make an informed decision about whether to replace the administrators.

Davies J observed that the starting and end point is s 60 of the Act. Her Honour considered the policy objectives of s 60 and the passages in that regard in the relevant 2007 explanatory memorandum, commenting also upon the relevant 2004 Parliamentary Joint Committee Report and the 1998 CAMAC Report at [14]-[17].

However her Honour referred to the High Court’s judgment in Commissioner of Taxation v Consolidated Media Holdings Ltd [2012] HCA 55; (2012) 91 ACSR 359 at [39] and cautioned against looking at what the EM says over construing the text of s 60. Whilst accepting that the primary purpose of the DIRRI is to enable creditors to make informed decisions about whether to replace an administrator, the content of the DIRRI is a matter prescribed by statute, and it is necessary to examine what the section requires.

The Court noted that the liquidators had disclosed their firm’s business association with Mawson Group and explained why the referral relationship did not compromise their independence in carrying out their function as administrators. ASIC argued that the liquidators had not gone far enough in the DIRRI, but the Court disagreed and declined the declaration ASIC sought (at [22]-[23]).

Decision Appealed

The Federal Court of Australia portal shows that ASIC lodged a notice of appeal last week on 26 February 2014. Consent orders were made by Jessup J on 28 February 2014 that the hearing of the appeal be expedited and listed for hearing on an estimate of one day. The portal also shows that the appeal is listed for a callover before Marshall J on 29 April 2014.

Comment

Three points to make about this case.

First – the Court’s decision demonstrates clearly that, as with other cases such as Accord Pacific Holdings Pty Ltd v Gleeson as liquidator of Accord Pacific Land Pty Ltd (in liq) [2011] NSWSC 1021, the courts do not exercise their discretion in s 503 lightly, even where it is not an actual lack of impartiality or independence that is alleged, but the appearance of it.

Secondly, as was noted in the National Safety Council of Australia decision of the Full Court of the Victorian Supreme Court ([1990] VicRp2; [1990] VR 29), this judgment of the Federal Court was a discretionary judgment. Therefore the limitations upon a court of appeal’s interfering with such a judgment ought be borne in mind. The principles upon which an appellate court interferes in such a judgment were considered by the High Court in Lovell v Lovell [1950] HCA 52; (1950) 81 CLR 513. At 519 Latham CJ quotes from the judgment of Dixon, Evatt and McTiernan JJ in House v The King [1936] HCA 40; (1936) 55 CLR 499 at 504-5 where their Honours said this:

“The manner in which an appeal against an exercise of discretion should be determined is governed by established principles. It is not enough that the judges composing the appellate court consider that, if they had been in the position of the primary judge, they would have taken a different course. It must appear that some error has been made in exercising the discretion. If the judge acts upon a wrong principle, if he [or she] allows extraneous or irrelevant matters to guide or affect him, if he mistakes the facts, if he does not take into acount some material consideration, then his determination should be reviewed and the appellate court may exercise its own discretion in substitution for his if it has the materials for doing so. It may not appear how the primary judge has reached the result embodied in his order, but, if upon the facts it is unreasonable or plainly unjust, the appellate court may infer that in some way there has been a failure properly to exercise the discretion which the law reposes in the court of first instance. In such a case, although the nature of the error may not be discoverable, the exercise of the discretion is reviewed on the ground that a substantial wrong has in fact occurred.”

The onus upon ASIC here as a party seeking to have an appellate court interfere with a lower court’s exercise of discretion is a heavy one. As Kitto J observed in Lovell v Lovell at 533, it takes “a clear conclusion that the judge was plainly wrong” to justify the reversal of his or her decision.

Thirdly, it will be interesting to see on appeal whether, if this relates to one of the grounds of appeal, all of the matters listed above which Davies J in this case attributed as matters that would be within the knowledge or awareness of the hypothetical fair minded observer are upheld by the Full Court.

Newsflash: High Court today dismissed Willmott Forests appeal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Heads Up – Willmott Forests High Court Appeal – Judgment imminent

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

To refresh your memories as to developments to this point –

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

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

Appeal from liquidator’s decision to sell by tender causes of action against directors

Earlier this month Rein J of the NSW Supreme Court refused to grant an interlocutory injunction sought in proceedings brought under s 1321 of the Corporations Act 2001 (Cth) (the Act) appealing from the decision of the liquidator of a company to sell certain assets of the company by tender – see In the matter of SCW Pty Ltd [2013] NSWSC 578.

The company had been placed in liquidation not because of insolvency, but because of a deadlock between the two directors, Ms Cantarella and Mr Schirato. SCW was the holding company of a group controlled by Ms Canterella and Mr Schirato, which included a company Cantarella Bros Pty Ltd, the operator of a successful business as a fresh foods wholesaler specialising in products which included coffee under the Vittoria brand. The assets of SCW included significant real estate.

The liquidator, Jamieson Louttit of Jamieson Louttit & Associates, had been in the process of selling the assets of SCW and the liquidation was close to completion. In 2011 Mr Schirato indicated his interest in purchasing SCW’s rights against Ms Cantarella in relation to her role as a director. Mr Schirato provided the liquidator with an opinion by well-known Sydney silk Robert Newlinds SC. Mr Schirato indicated he, and a corporate entity, would be willing to pay $100,000 for the potential rights of SCW against Ms Cantarella Mr Newlinds discussed in his opinion.

The liquidator considered Mr Schirato’s proposal, and the opinion. He also had the allegations investigated, and obtained an advice from his own solicitors Piper Alderman. On these bases, he formed the view that contrary to Mr Schirato’s contention, SCW had no viable causes of action against Ms Cantarella. Prudently, however, he sought judicial direction under s 479(3) of the Act as to whether he would be justified in not treating with Mr Schirato in connection with the claimed causes of action. Both directors were represented at that hearing before Brereton J. In his decision, his Honour Brereton J held that the liquidator would not be justified in refusing to treat with Mr Schirato. That judgment may be read here, and see [3]-[9] for details of the potential causes of action that Mr Schirato was interested in pursuing.

Subsequently, the liquidator established a process whereby those parties who might have an interest in paying for an assignment to themselves of SCW’s causes of action against any of the corporate officers of SCW would be given an opportunity to tender. Those officers were the two directors Ms Cantarella and Mr Schirato, Ms Wannan (an alternate director) and Mr Jones (the company secretary).

Tenders were invited by a document sent out on 12 April 2013, which included certain aspects –

(1)  A tender must not be less than $100K,

(2)  The liquidator would accept the highest offer received if the terms were complied with, and

(3)  The liquidator would seek judicial approval for the execution of the deed of assignment .

The grounds upon which the applicants, Ms Cantarella and a corporate entity, challenged the decision of the liquidator to take this step included –

1.  The use of a tender process was unfair, as it gave the tenderers no opportunity to better the offer made by another tenderer;

2.  The description of the claims against “any past or present officer of the company other than the liquidator” or any other person connected in any way to any act or omission of any past or present officers of the company was too broad. This would impede a tenderer from offering as much as they might otherwise.

3.  The terms of the indemnity the liquidator sought in the proposed deed of assignment was too broad, which would also discourage a tenderer from making its highest bid.

4.  The tenderers were to provide cheques, to be held in the account of Piper Alderman, until the Court approves the execution of a deed of assignment. This, it was argued, exposed the potential tenderer to the risk that his her or its money would not be returned.

Rein J found it notable that the applicants did not complain about the range of persons to whom the tender letter was sent; it was sent only to the former officers of the company SCW.

His Honour notes the key principles as advanced by the applicants, at [12] –

(1)  The fundamental duty of a liquidator is to obtain the highest possible price for the company’s assets sold by him or her;

(2)  Where an appeal under s 1321(1)(d) against a discretionary decision of a liquidator is brought, the Court will reverse the liquidator’s decision “only when it is satisfied he was acting unreasonably or in bad faith”: Re Jay-O-Bees Py Ltd (in liq) [2004] NSWSC 818; (2004) 50 ACSR 565 at [46]; McGrath v Sturesteps [2011] NSWCA 315; (2011) 81 NSWLR 690, at [73].

There was no allegation of bad faith, but the applicants asserted that the liquidator was acting unreasonably, for the four reasons outlined above. Rein J took the view that since no point was taken that there was any unreasonableness in sending the invitation to tender only to former officers of the company, the liquidator’s decision to offer Ms Cantarella the opportunity to purchase the rights and thus stymie the claims that it appeared Mr Schirato sought to bring against her seemed fair and reasonable, as did the various aspects of the tender process challenged.

Rein J accepted that a tender process means that each tenderer does not know what the others may have bid, and thus has no opportunity to better other bids. But that is the process. Sale by tender is a legitimate method of selling property and did not appear to involve an unreasonable commercial decision. Whether it was likely to yield a higher or lesser figure than some other process, such as a round table auction, was a matter upon which the liquidator was required to exercise a commercial judgment, and he had done so. His Honour noted that a tender process had the additional advantage of removing the liquidator of involvement in a bidding process involving negotiations, which could be difficult to control.

Rein J held there was no discernible prejudice to the applicants in permitting the tender process to proceed, and he refused the injunctive relief sought.

One can see that the tender process in these circumstances put Ms Cantarella in an invidious, and expensive, position. It is indeed possible that any claims against her could, were they to be pursued, prove to be of insufficient merit. Yet even so, at this point in time, she faced a costly and unpalatable choice.

An interesting decision indeed.

Newflash – Willmott Forests investors mount High Court appeal

In a much anticipated move, Willmott Forests investors have lodged an application for special leave to appeal to the High Court of Australia, from the Victorian Court of Appeal’s recent decision on a question of disclaimer of leases by a liquidator, according to a report in today’s Australian Financial Review.

My review of the Court of Appeal’s decision – from which the Willmott Forests investors seek to appeal – is here. My reviews of earlier Willmott Forests decisions are here and here.

The Australian Financial Review article is here, and credit must go to my friend and colleague Sam Hopper for noting this development; his post is here.

Little is yet known publicly of the detail of the special leave application. I will monitor developments and seek to keep readers informed. In the meantime, I note that the website of one of the two investor groups involved in the litigation – Willmott Action Group Inc – appears to have been dismantled. It is unclear as to what, if anything, this signifies.

The High Court on GST in Qantas – What it may mean for Liquidators and other external administrators

** This article was subsequently republished with my permission in CCH’s online Insolvency and Bankruptcy news service in the week commencing of 5 November 2012 -http://www.cch.com.au/au/News/ShowNews.aspx?PageTitle=The-High-Court-on-GST-in-Qantas-—-What-it-may-mean-for-Liquidators-and-other-external-administrators&ID=38989&Type=F

This morning the High Court handed down what is perhaps the most important Australian judgment yet in the area of GST law, in Commissioner of Taxation v Qantas Airways Ltd [2012] HCA 41. It addresses a question which is the most fundamental issue in GST law – what is a “taxable supply”, so as to trigger liability to pay GST under the A New Tax System (Goods and Services Tax) Act 1999 (GST Act). I will come to the potential significance of this decision for liquidators and other external administrators in a moment.

This was an appeal by the Commissioner from a judgment of the Full Federal Court which had found in favour of Qantas (link). It concerned whether GST was payable by Qantas on airline tickets which it had sold to passengers who, for whatever reason, had not taken their flight – specifically the appeal concerned non-refundable tickets, and tickets where the passengers had a right to claim a refund which they had not pursued. Significant sums of GST were involved – in excess of $34m.

Put simply, the argument before the High Court boiled down to this – what is a “taxable supply”? In the context of airline tickets, is it the air journey, as argued by Qantas (and accepted by Heydon J)? Or is it the entry into obligations under the contract – here the conditional promise by the airline to use its best endeavours to carry the intending passenger and his or her baggage, as argued by the Commissioner? The majority found in favour of the Commissioner.

For liquidators and other external administrators who take appointment, the potential significance of the decision is with respect to contracts that a company has entered into but has not yet completed, at the time of appointment. Today’s judgment in Qantas may mean that the GST liability triggered by those contracts, which had previously been thought to fall upon the liquidator or other external administrator who completes the contract, may now fall upon the company itself. In the case of a liquidation, that would leave the Commissioner to prove in the liquidation for that GST liability, rather than be able to look to the liquidator personally for the GST.

Division 58 of the GST Act makes “representatives” (defined to include inter alia a trustee in bankruptcy, liquidator, administrator and receiver) of “incapacitated entities” liable to pay GST that would be payable by the entity, to the extent that the taxable supply is made in the course of the representative’s responsibility.

However in the wake of Qantas, if the taxable supply (which triggers GST liability) occurs upon the entry into obligations under a contract, rather than upon the actual supply of the goods or service or other obligation which is the core object of the contract (or to use the words of Heydon J, “the bargain”), then it may be open to liquidators and other external administrators to complete contracts entered into prior to their appointment, without incurring personal liability for the GST triggered by the transaction.

I suggest that this is a perhaps unintended consequence of the High Court’s decision. The majority’s judgment does not appear to confine itself, in its conclusions as to what is a “taxable supply”, to particular types of contracts such as those which are not completed.

For completeness, I note that this issue that I now raise, was addressed last year by the AAT in The Trustee for Naidu Family Trust and Commissioner of Taxation [2011] AATA 910. In that case a mortgagee in possession had contended that it was not required to pay GST on the sale of real property because the supply occurred at the time of the company’s entry into the contract of sale, rather than at the mortgagee in possession’s completion of the sale.  In finding against the mortgagee in possession, the Tribunal held that the taxable supply occurred at settlement, when the sale was completed, not when the vendor executed the contract of sale. I suggest that, in light of the decision of the majority of the High Court that Qantas made a supply at the time of contract, and subject to other complexities, the Tribunal’s decision may now be doubted.

* I must thank junior counsel for Qantas for drawing this important GST case to my attention.

Application for approval of funding agreement by Liquidators – s 477(2B) – Confidentiality and Privilege – Great Southern

On Thursday the Federal Court in Perth handed down its decision on an ex parte application by the Liquidators of the Great Southern companies (Great Southern Limited, Great Southern Managers Limited and Great Southern Finance Pty Ltd) for approval under s 477(2B) of the Corporations Act 2001 (Cth) (the Act) to enter into a funding agreement with Riverrock Capital Limited (Riverrock) and into an agreement as to the retaining of a specific firm of solicitors (Lipman Karas Lawyers). The case is Jones, Saker, Weaver and Stewart (Liquidators), In the matter of Great Southern Limited (in liq)(Receivers and Managers Appointed) [2012] FCA 1072. The judgment of Gilmour J may be read in full here.

The judgment is not long, and provides a neat illustration of a s 477(2B) application. These are commonly – but not exclusively – made in the context of funding agreements. (Settlement agreements incorporating long-tail obligations or instalment payment arrangement spreading over longer than 3 months, also commonly give rise to such applications.) This judgment serves as a useful reminder of the legal principles relevant on such applications, and the key factors relevant to the exercise of the Court’s discretion as to whether or not to grant approval. It also serves as a timely reminder for practitioners to ensure that their affidavit material is sufficient to properly address as many of the key factors as are relevant to a particular case. Here, the Liquidators had brought an earlier application seeking the same approval for the same funding agreement, which was refused due to the inadequacy of coverage of some of the material placed before the Court on that occasion (see [1]-[6]).

Section 477(2B) of the Act provides –

“Except with the approval of the Court, of the committee of inspection or of the 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)  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.”

In this case, the evidence before the Court identified investigations that the Liquidators had identified as worth pursuing and, subject to the outcome of those investigations, had identified claims worth pursuing, upon which counsel’s advice had been obtained. The Liquidators lacked the funds required to pursue those investigations, and hence had sought funding. They proposed to enter into a funding agreement with Riverrock which they also placed before the Court. As the Liquidators’ investigations and any consequential proceedings were unlikely to be resolved within 3 months of execution of the funding agreement, s 477(2B) approval was required.

Three points of interest to note –

1. Approval was sought prior to entry into the agreement

As it ought to be. Note the prohibitive terms of s 477(2B). However, if an agreement is entered into prior to the seeking of leave, all may not be lost. Leave can be sought – and may be granted, subject to the Court’s view on the proper exercise of its discretion in a particular case – nunc pro tunc. For a good example of this, see a case I was involved in last year – the judgment of Gordon J on an application by the Liquidators of the Westpoint Mezzanine Companies in Vickers, in the matter of York Street Mezzanine Pty Ltd (in liq) [2011] FCA 1028. Note that where leave is sought nunc pro tunc, the orders granting retrospective leave are framed in a particular way, although the practice varies somewhat from judge to judge.

2. Issues of Confidentiality and Waiver of Legal Professional Privilege in Opinions Placed Before the Court

In this case, the application was made ex parte. There was no contradictor. Only the members of the committees of inspection and the secured creditors who had executed confidentiality agreements were put on notice that this application was to be made.

As is usual – but is not a given – confidentiality orders were made here, pursuant to s 50(1) of the Federal Court of Australia Act (1976) (Cth). These included as to the placing of the affidavits, submissions and transcript in a sealed Court envelope bearing an inscription as to confidentiality. If satisfied that it ought to do so, the Courts make these orders in the public interest in the due administration of justice concerning insolvent companies. Indeed while this is not always the case,here an order was sought – and granted – that the application be heard in camera.

For the Court’s discussion of the relevant principles and factors bearing upon the making of confidentiality orders in this case, see [8]-[22]. On the general issue of confidentiality, in the context of applications for approval of compromise agreements, I also refer you to the judgment of Lindgren J in Elderslie Finance Corporation Limited v Newpage Pty Ltd (No 6) [2007] FCA 1030; (2007) 160 FCR 423 at [43].

Confidentiality – specifically whether confidentiality will later be maintained in the face of challenge and applications for access to the material – is often a concern on these applications. This is particularly so with regards to the placing of counsel’s opinions or other legal opinions before the Court. On the one hand, in broad terms evidence must be placed before the Court to demonstrate why a long term contract (at least, longer than 3 months) is warranted in a particular case, and why on balance it is in the creditors’ interests. On the other hand, this means disclosing, in detail, information that may be either commercially sensitive or sensitive with regards to potential litigation the Liquidators may embark upon. This includes information going to, and the foundation for, the Liquidator’s good faith opinion about the merits of prospective litigation. Typically, the material placed before the Court includes the advice of counsel upon which the Liquidator’s opinion as to merit is based; indeed, the application may be unlikely to succeed without it.

These concerns were heightened by three decisions handed down in 2010-2011, two of them arising as part of the One.Tel litigation. They called into question the extent to which privilege in such legal opinions may be maintained once they are used in an application before the Court. Those decisions were: Australian Power Steering Pty Ltd v Exego Pty Ltd [2010] VSC 497, Weston v Publishing and Broadcasting Ltd [2010] NSWSC 1288 and Weston v Publishing and Broadcasting Ltd [2011] NSWSC 14. I will not delve into those decisions in detail here, but I refer you to Gordon J’s judgment in York Street Mezzanine referred to above, in the passages addressing these matters at [40]-[49].

I recommend practitioners take particular note of her Honour’s discussion of the leading authority of Macedonian Orthodox Community Church St Petka Inc v His Eminence Petar; the Diocesan Bishop of the Macedonian Orthodox Church of Australia and New Zealand [2006] NSWCA 160; (2006) 66 NSWLR 112. Especially in a case where this may be a particular concern, I commend you to have regard to the circumstances which bring a case squarely within the ambit of Macedonian Orthodox, and so best protect the Liquidators’ privilege in the legal opinion from later challenge and argument that the privilege has been waived by its use in the application for approval. Gordon J in York Street Mezzanine at [48] identifies those circumstances as being –

  1. the opinion is not provided to the Court by adduction of evidence: see Macedonian Orthodox at [44]-[45]; and
  2. the opinion is provided to the Court only after the Court has indicated that doing so is necessary before it can be in a proper position to give the judicial advice or directions sought: see Macedonian Orthodox at [51].

3. The Principles and Factors Relevant to the Court’s Discretion as to Whether to Approve the Agreement

The Principles

In this case Gilmour J identifies three relevant principles at [29], those being –

1. The role of the Court is to grant or deny approval to the Liquidator’s proposal: Re The Bell Group Ltd (in liq) [2009] WASC 235 at [57];

2. The task of the Court is not to reconsider all of the issues which have been weighed up by the Liquidators or to second guess the Liquidators’ judgment. Thus the Court’s role is not to determine if the Liquidators’ proposal is the best available option, to develop some alternative proposal which might seem preferable or to substitute its own views for those of the Liquidators: Re The Bell Group Ltd (in liq) at [57]; Re Addstone Pty Ltd (In Liquidation) (1998) 83 FCR 583 at 593-594; and

3. Rather, the Court must review the Liquidators’ proposal to “be satisfied that the liquidator is acting in good faith in the making of the commercial judgment in respect of which the Court is being asked to make an order”: Re Addstone Pty Ltd (In Liquidation) at 594. The Court’s approval of the proposal is thus not an endorsement of the proposed agreement. It is merely a permission to the Liquidators to exercise their own commercial judgment in the matter.

His Honour also observed at [30] that if the Court is satisfied that in entering into the Funding Agreement, the Liquidators have acted in good faith and for proper purposes the Court will give the Liquidators considerable latitude in exercising their commercial judgment: Re ACN 076 673 875 Ltd (rec and mgr apptd) (in liq) (Bendeich as liq) [2002] NSWSC 578; (2002) 42 ACSR 296 at [16] and Re Imobridge Pty Ltd (in liq) (No 2) [2000] 2 Qd R 280; see also Re Spedley Securities Ltd (in liq) (1992) 9 ACSR 83 at 85-86 per Giles J.

I refer you also to the six principles distilled by Gordon J in Re Stewart; Newtronics Pty Ltd [2007] FCA 1375 and reproduced by her Honour last year in York Street Mezzanine at [26].

The Factors

At [31]-[32] his Honour observed that in reviewing a Liquidator’s proposal to enter into a funding agreement the authorities have identified a non-exhaustive list of factors relevant to the exercise of the Court’s discretion. Not all of these factors will be relevant in all cases. None are determinative. These factors include –

  1. The nature and complexity of the matter and the risks involved in pursuing a claim or claims;
  2. The prospects of success of the proposed action;
  3. The amount of costs likely to be incurred in the conduct of the action and the extent to which the funder is to contribute to those costs;
  4. The extent to which the funder will contribute towards the opponent’s costs in the event that the action is not successful or towards any order for security for costs;
  5. The circumstances surrounding the making of the contract, including the ability of the funder to meet its obligations;
  6. The level of the funder’s premium;
  7. The extent to which the Liquidators have canvassed other funding options and consulted with the creditors of the company;
  8. The interests of creditors and the effect that the funding agreement may have on creditors of the company;
  9. Possible oppression to another party in the proceedings; and
  10. The extent to which the Liquidators maintain control over the proceedings.

Two remarks to make about those factors. First, you can see as you read through these factors how they shed light upon different ways in which a proposed agreement may be to the advantage or to the disadvantage of creditors. Secondly. in relation to factor 9, this contemplates prejudice of specific types, not the general “oppression” of a party facing the unpleasant prospect of litigation should the agreement be approved. In this regard, see the judgment of Austin J in Re ACN 076 673 875 Ltd (rec and mgr apptd) (in liq) [2002] NSWSC 578; (2002) 42 ACSR 296 at [25] and the passages immediately thereafter.

In preparing affidavit material in support of a s 477(2B) application, and evaluating what to include and as to how much detail to descend, close regard should be had to these principles and factors. This judgment may be found to be instructive on the issue of the adequacy of material on such applications.