Civil Courts Structure Review: Final Report

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My critique of Lord Justice Briggs  long-awaited 299 page final report http://bit.ly/2ayk0qL. on the Civil Courts Structure Review:

The final report follows an extensive series of meetings with judges, practitioners, stakeholders and users of the civil courts, and a series of detailed written and oral submissions after the publication of the review’s interim report in January 2016. The review makes a series of recommendations intended to inform the current programme of wider court modernisation being undertaken by HM Courts and Tribunals Service.

It also makes a number of recommendations on different aspects of the civil justice system, such as enforcement of court rulings, the structure of the courts and deployment of judges. A summary of the main point follows.

Briggs LJ identified five main weaknesses of the civil courts structure:

Weaknesses

a. Lack of adequate access to justice due to excessive costs expenditure / risk and the “lawyerish culture and procedure of the civil courts”

b. Inefficiencies from the “continuing tyranny of paper” and inadequate IT facilities

c. Court of Appeal delays

d. Under investment in civil justice in the regions

e. Weaknesses in the processes of enforcement

Final Recommendations

1. The “Online Solutions Court”

To resolve a perceived access to justice defecit, Briggs LJ recommends introducing an Online Court and the extension of fixed costs. The new court is to have its own set of “user-friendly rules” created by a new cross-jurisdictional rules committee in place of the current Civil Procedure Rules, which will still apply to other cases.

Briggs LJ also sets out the appropriate appeals procedure, where permission would apply. Stage 3, the final adjudication, will be made by judges on paper, via a video/telephone hearing or by way of a traditional trial.

When implemented it should be dealing with “straightforward” money claims valued at up to £25,000. Despite this initial ceiling of £25,000, he suggests it may “pave the way” for change over “much wider ground” and will eventually become compulsory. It is not envisaged that the Online Court will apply to fast and multi-track personal injury cases, but, as Briggs LJ has previously indicated, it may apply to small claims track cases.

Recommendations are made on helping people who need assistance with online systems. Complex and important cases are to be transferred upwards to higher courts. Open justice and transparency issues are to be addressed.

Legal advice and expertise would be by way of unbundled solicitors’ services and direct access to barristers.

A target date of 2020 has been suggested.

2. Digitisation

The Online Court proposed is to be accessible via smart phones and tablets.To avoid duplication and “a parallel paper path”, Briggs LJ has endorsed the development of Assisted Digital resources and proposes the “digitisation of all the processes” of the civil courts, which will eventually be paperless.

Reforms have already been implemented to overcome the chronic workload and backlog of the Court of Appeal.

3. Case Officers

A senior body of court lawyers and other officials who can assist with certain functions currently carried out by judges, such as paperwork and uncontentious matters. To be trained and supervised by judges, and decisions subject to reconsideration by judges on request by a party. To operate independently of government when exercising their functions, transferring some of judges’ more routine and non-contentious work to case officers, under judicial training and supervision.

4. Increase in High Court threshold

A substantial increase in the minimum claim value threshold for commencing claims in the High Court – initially to £250,000 and subsequently to £500,000.

5. Enforcement of Judgments and Orders

There should be a single court as the default court for the enforcement of the judgments and orders of all the civil courts (including the new Online Court). This should be the County Court, but there would need to be a “permeable membrane” allowing appropriate enforcement issues to be transferred to the High Court, and special provision for the enforcement of arbitration awards, in accordance with current practice and procedure. All enforcement procedures to be digitised, centralised and rationalised.

6. Mediation/ADR

Re-establish a court-based out of hours private mediation service in County Court hearing centres prepared to participate, along the lines of the service which existed prior to the establishment and then termination of the National Mediation Helpline.

7. Deployment of Judges

The principle should be that no case is too big to be resolved in the regions. The current acute shortage of Circuit judges specialising in civil work in the County Court needs an urgent remedy.

8. Number of Courts and Future of the Divisions

There should be no general unification of the civil courts (ie combining the High Court and County Court). The time has come for a decision about the future of the High Court’s Divisions, but that is beyond the scope of the current review.

9. District Registries and Regional High Court Trial Centres

The concept of the District Registry as a place for the issue of High Court proceedings will eventually be replaced by a single Portal for the issue of all civil proceedings, and should then be abolished.

10. Routes of Appeal

There should in due course be a review of the question whether the recent reforms to the procedure of the Court of Appeal should be extended to cover appeals to the High Court and to Circuit Judges in the County Court, based upon better time and motion evidence than is currently available, and in the light of experience of the reforms in the Court of Appeal.

11. Boundaries between jurisdictions – the Family Court should be given a shared jurisdiction (with the Chancery Division and the County Court) for dealing with Inheritance Act and disputes about co-ownership of homes. There continues to be a case for convergence between the Employment Tribunal (and Employment Appeal Tribunal) and the civil courts, but the detail is a matter beyond the scope of this review.

Lord Justice Briggs said:

“It is for others to decide which of the above recommendations should be implemented, and by what means. In my view, if they are all substantially implemented, then the essentially high quality of the civil justice service provided by the courts of England and Wales will be greatly extended to a silent community to whom it is currently largely inaccessible, and both restored and protected against the weaknesses and threats which currently affect it.”

Comment

The stated aim of the reforms is laudable; to ensure our civil justice system is fit for purpose and open to all. However, this needs to be viewed in the context of enormous court fee increases e.g. last year’s issue fee increases of up to 600% in some cases, and last month’s application fee increases as follows:

  • contested applications made on notice — £255 (from £155)
  • applications without notice or by consent — £100 (from £50)

In Briggs LJ’s view, the new court, if successful, “may pave the way for fundamental changes in the conduct of civil litigation over much wider ground than is currently contemplated by its first stage ambition”.

The proposed timing for the launch of the system is April 2020, although Briggs LJ acknowledges that this will represent “a real challenge”.

The civil courts have come under increasing strain due to budget cuts and the phenomena of a large rise of litigants in person, the latter unpredicted and itself due to previous reforms and cost cutting exercises. This, combined with the lack of any significant positive track record in computerisation of government services represent significant further challenges, as do the requirement for such changes to be adequately funded and given sufficient Parliamentary and Ministry of Justice attention.

The ongoing hikes in court fees and previous termination of funding for Mediation initiatives contrast with the aspiration of increased access to justice and suggested allocation of funds from the Treasury for such a wide-ranging programme of reform.The challenge now lies in effective implementation of Lord Justice Briggs’ recommendations, and avoiding further reductions in access to justice.

First Published: 5.8.16 http://social.luptonfawcett.com/blog/civil-courts-structure-review-final-report

 

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Directors & Shareholder Claims: 3

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Understanding the options – 5 tips

As discussed in previous posts, Boardroom and shareholder disputes arise for many reasons. When they do, it is important to understand the legal rights of all parties and the options available. The consequences of allowing things to drift and potentially get worse shouldn’t be ignored. There are options which help make life easier.

  • If you are a minority shareholder in a company, what happens if you have a disagreement with the majority shareholder, or a group which has more control?
  • How do you solve the problem, or even avoid a dispute?
  • In the third of this series, here are five important tips:

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1] Shareholder Agreements

The House of Lords in Russell v Northern Bank Developments Corp Ltd[i] emphasised the practical utility of Shareholder Agreements. These are used for a wide variety of purposes, adding significantly to the company’s constitutional regime of Memorandum and Articles. This includes providing personal rights to minority shareholders who otherwise have no control over fundamental points.  The minority shareholder’s concerns would be more difficult to deal with unless specifically covered as an enforceable private contract between members.

These should be provided in the Shareholder Agreement, covering similar areas to partnership agreements.

The benefits include avoiding future misunderstandings and practical difficulties in running the business.

A Shareholder Agreement typically deals with issues such as:

  • restrictions on transferability of shares
  • lack of a market for sale of shares
  • establishing a purchaser
  • formulas for valuation and funding
  • pre-emption rights
  • compulsory transfer or option arrangements
  • protection of minority members by permitting a veto
  • preserving confidentiality
  • efficient transfer on death, disability, retirement
  • estate planning
  • regulating management and involvement of investors
  • mechanisms for dealing with stalemate.

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2] “Unfair Prejudice” Petition
Section 994 of the Companies Act 2006 permits a shareholder to petition the court on the basis that the shareholder’s interests have been unfairly prejudiced in the conduct of the Company’s affairs due to e.g. breach of:

  • the Articles of Association
  • the Shareholder Agreement
  • fiduciary duties by directors
  • exclusion of a minority from the running of the company in small “quasi-partnership” companies.

The Court has wide discretion to grant the relief it decides is appropriate. This is often an order that the aggrieved minority shareholder’s shares are purchased for ‘fair value’. This may include a premium on the actual value of the shares as recompense to the petitioner for any wrongdoing by the majority.

3] What is a ‘derivative claim’ – S.260 of the Companies Act 2006?

In certain circumstances a shareholder can ask the court to prevent action being taken by the Directors which is harmful to the company, or make a claim against the Directors for any loss suffered by the company as a result of their action.  The claim must be made by the shareholder on behalf of the company. The shareholder’s right to bring a claim “derives from” the company. This is a claim made in a “representative capacity” by the individual shareholder, not on the shareholder’s own behalf. It is the company which is suffering the harm.  The damage to the company may also harm the shareholder indirectly, e.g. if there is a reduction in profits or other damage suffered.

Derivative claims are relatively unusual because although it is the member who issues the court proceedings as claimant to launch the action, the court must give permission for the claim to continue to trial.  A number of tests have to be satisfied before the court will give permission.

The shareholder runs a risk on costs and at least initially has to fund the claim themselves. It is possible to obtain an order that the company indemnify the member, although they may obtain no immediate benefit themselves by launching the court case. However, if the claim succeeds, the company will have been protected. Ultimately, that should benefit the shareholder because it protects their investment in the company.

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4] What is a claim under S.122(g)  of the Insolvency Act 1996?

Any shareholder may apply to have a company wound up on “just and equitable grounds” including in quasi-partnerships, involving the shareholder’s right to manage the company – Ebrahimi  v Westbourne Galleries Ltd[ii]. The sole remedy here of winding up is draconian, available only in specific circumstances. This is the “nuclear option” in shareholder disputes – the aggrieved shareholder petitions the court for a winding up order to terminate the company.

Usually the shareholders’ differences have become irreconcilable and a ‘commercial divorce’ is the only way to move forward. When a company is wound up, if there is anything left after paying the creditors and the liquidator the proceeds are divided amongst the shareholders.

Not every aggrieved shareholder will be able to justify a winding up petition to the court. There must be compelling reasons showing that the company can no longer continue.  The aggrieved shareholder has to prove there will be a concrete benefit in making a winding up order.  If there is some alternative remedy, which would allow the company to continue, the court may refuse to make the order.

A typical scenario where a winding up may be justified is where there is deadlock or stalemate between two or more shareholders in a quasi-partnership company which can’t be resolved. Where there is an aggrieved minority shareholder, experience shows that the majority shareholder will seek to dispute:

  • the complaints by the minority that there was any “quasi-partnership” in the first place
  • the circumstances of any alleged unfairly prejudicial conduct
  • the alleged value of the business
  • the aggrieved minority shareholder’s share

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5] Finally

The sooner informed negotiations start, the more likely it is that a private business will survive a shareholder dispute. A comprehensive Shareholder Agreement can help to preserve operations and resolve matters quickly.

Expert legal advice early on could keep the process out of prolonged, expensive and destructive litigation. This is by providing the facts, insight and information to allow all parties to make informed decisions quickly. This would ultimately be to the benefit of the company as a whole and the shareholders individually.

For further information regarding minority shareholder / business disputes and unfair prejudice petitions contact Paul.Sykes@lf-dt.com

[i] [1992] 1 WLR 588

[ii] [1972] 2 All ER 492

Unfair Prejudice & Drag Along

Minority Shareholder wins Quasi Partnership claim

8 Ways to avoid a Business Dispute

Are you a Shadow or de facto director?

Service of a Claim Form on a Director

WHEN DIRECTORS FALL OUT

Disclaimer

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Directors & Shareholder Claims: 2

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Resolving Boardroom Conflict  – 5 More Tips

Disputes between shareholders of private companies are often emotional and can be as complicated as a personal divorce. The disruption to any business can be extremely damaging. Knowing what remedies are available to resolve matters quickly could be the key to survival.

  • What if the majority is taking unfair advantage of you?
  • What if you suspect co-shareholders are stealing from the company?
  • In the second of a series, here are five further important pointers to be aware of:

1/ Protecting the Minority

There is a common misconception that the complex laws and regulations relating to companies should achieve a just and fair relationship between a minority shareholder and the majority. However, there is very little law which protects the minority, unless the parties have agreed beforehand.

Differences between shareholders don’t always arise because of power struggles or personal animosity. Frequently, disputes are down to differences in approach where one party wants to retire or withdraw their investment. Disagreements may centre on

  • timing
  • valuation issues
  • the direction of the company

The public courts are unlikely to be the ideal venue for resolving shareholder disputes. Proceedings are in the public domain and the procedure can be expensive and slow.

Particularly where private companies are concerned, there are effective alternatives, including: negotiation, mediation and arbitration.

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2/ Shareholder Agreement

An effective way to address potential problems before they arise is a Shareholder Agreement. This sets out ground rules for the shareholders in given circumstances. Many potential and predictable problems can be addressed in advance in a Shareholder Agreement. This leaves the shareholders to concentrate on managing the business, rather than a future internal dispute.

Amongst other things, the agreement can cover:

  • management responsibilities
  • non-competition restrictions
  • bonus and remuneration formulae
  • approval/decision process for major corporate decisions
  • buy/sell provision – e.g. a “shotgun clause” to force a transaction
  • how a shareholder can realise his or her investment in the company
  • whether to impose any restrictions on selling shares
  • criteria on valuing the shareholding
  • exit provisions – timetable for sale
  • appointment of an independent third party to value the shares
  • a detailed dispute resolution framework

 

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3/ What is an “Unfair Prejudice” claim?

The majority shareholders are in a powerful position, even where there is a Shareholder Agreement. However, the court will protect the position of minority shareholders from being abused in certain circumstances.

Section 994 of the Companies Act 2006 allows a shareholder to apply to the Court for an order declaring that the affairs of the company are being conducted in a manner unfairly prejudicial to the minority shareholder’s interests. If the court agrees, it will usually order that the shares of the minority shareholder are bought for fair value. However, the Court has a very wide discretion as to what it can order, including:

  • purchase of the shares of any members of the company by other members or by the company itself and, in the case of the purchase by the company itself, the reduction of the company’s capital accordingly
  • conduct of the company’s affairs in the future
  • company to refrain from doing or continuing an act complained about, or to do an act about which the petitioner has complained that it has omitted to do
  • civil proceedings to be brought in the name and on behalf of the company by such persons and on such terms as the court may direct
  • company not to make any, or any specified, alterations in its articles without the court’s permission

4/ When might a court find “unfair prejudice”?

Where a minority shareholder believes that the company is being run in a way which is unfairly prejudicial to some of the shareholders, the aggrieved shareholder can make an application to the Companies Court for a remedy. Unfairly prejudicial conduct may include for example:

  • majority shareholders paying themselves excess remuneration
  • majority shareholders failing to pay dividends
  • breach of duty by diverting business to majority shareholders or their connected companies
  • directors selling or buying assets at an unfair price
  • failing to pay declared dividends
  • undertaking activities which are not permitted under the company’s Articles
  • doing something which might result in the company’s insolvency
  • failure to follow company law or proper procedure on meetings.
  • failure to issue annual accounts

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5/ “Quasi-Partnership”

In small to medium sized private companies, the court might be persuaded that a “quasi-partnership” exists. The aggrieved party may complain that there is a breach of their ‘legitimate expectations’ about what the company was set up to do, and how it would be run. E.g.

it was agreed, or a common intention is proved:

  • the company would carry on a particular business
  • all would be entitled to an equal say in how the company is managed
  • a mutual expectation of continued employment
  • the directors would be fair when deciding on the salaries to be paid, the amounts to be kept in the company to fund growth, and the dividends to be paid out

If the court decides that a quasi-partnership exists, termination of that arrangement or unfair prejudice to the minority may result in the majority being obliged to buy out the shares of the aggrieved minority shareholder. If the majority acts in breach of such

“legitimate expectations”

the court may intervene.

Where an aggrieved shareholder has cause for complaint, urgent action is required. The court may refuse to interfere if a minority shareholder let the matter slide. The court will treat this as acceptance of the action taken by the majority:

“delay defeats equity”.

The court will consider all of the background circumstances on an application, including the minority shareholder’s own conduct.

These applications are rarely straightforward and are often settled by negotiation before the court is asked to make a final decision.  Quite often, one or more of the shareholders leave with a package.

For further information regarding minority shareholder / business disputes and unfair prejudice petitions contact Paul.Sykes@lf-dt.com

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Directors & Shareholder Claims: 1

Unfair Prejudice & Drag Along

Minority Shareholder wins Quasi Partnership claim

8 Ways to avoid a Business Dispute

Are you a Shadow or de facto director?

WHEN DIRECTORS FALL OUT

Disclaimer

 

 

 

 

Directors & Shareholder Claims: 1

How to break the deadlock – 8 tips

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Boardroom and shareholder disputes can arise for many reasons. When they do, it’s important to understand the legal rights of all parties and the options available as well as the consequences of allowing things to get worse. However, there are some options which can make life easier:

  • If you are a minority shareholder in a company, what happens if you have a disagreement with the majority shareholder, or a group which has more control?
  • How do you solve the problem, or even avoid a dispute?
  • In the first of a series, here are seven important pointers to be aware of:

1/ Minimal Influence

In company law, a minority shareholder (anyone with 49% or less) has minimal influence over the management of the company or the distribution of its profits.  The standard constitution of a company and rules under the Companies Act give little protection to a minority shareholder.

Differences can and do arise as the business evolves and personal circumstances change:

  • there may be differences on strategy or the direction of the company
  • power struggles and poor personal relationships may develop
  • shareholders may wish to retire or disagreements occur on service contracts and remuneration.

There are ways in which the minority shareholder’s interests can be protected, either by agreement with the other shareholders or as a last resort by taking action through the courts.  It is easy for entrepreneurs to preference the initial brokering of a deal, and getting the new business up and running, over longer term, but equally important considerations.  But it’s always advisable to consider these scenarios at the beginning.

2/ Shareholder Agreements

A shareholder agreement is a must for a private company, especially where there are a relatively small number of shareholders who also manage the business. These don’t always arrive without (you) the minority shareholder/s pressing for one. You need to proactively pursue this as part of the start up, or failing that, you should put it at the  top of the agenda.  In a Shareholder Agreement, the majority shareholder usually gives up some rights to the minority.

The process of preparing the Agreement helps shareholders address points which could become potential problems. This encourages the key players to work through the issues early, when everyone is positive and communications are still good.

It’s much more straightforward and economic to deal with this as part of the start up, rather than risk the expense and uncertainty of going to court later.  All concerned will know where they stand where there is a Shareholder Agreements. It reduces the risk of conflicts arising or getting out of hand.

An existing businesses can certainly set up a Shareholder Agreement at whatever stage in its evolution, for example when one of the main shareholders is considering retiring or their circumstances have changed.

It is also worth remembering that a Shareholder Agreement

  • is confidential
  • doesn’t have to be filed at Companies House
  • sits behind the company’s public face
  • is a private document between the shareholders.

 

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3/ Points to Cover

A Shareholder Agreement can go a long way to ensuring disputes are avoided or at least, provide the mechanism that allows them to be settled quickly. An agreement identifies shareholders’ specific responsibilities and outlines how and where disputes are to be resolved. For example, it can specify forced buy/sell provisions during a dispute and even include a formula or other means to determine the transaction price.

Amongst other things, the Agreement can cover:

  • key objectives
  • financing and borrowing
  • dividends, directors’ fees and salaries / profit distribution
  • controls on the appointment of Directors
  • major expenditure
  • exit mechanisms – for shareholder deaths, misconduct, divorce, incapacity, etc.
  • fair valuation process for transfer of shares
  • succession arrangements – insurance of key persons
  • dispute resolution

The Shareholder Agreement gives minority shareholders a say in the business and some security. Without one, the minority would have little impact on decisions regarding the company and protecting their interests.

4/ How to enforce my rights as a shareholder?

Negotiation is the key, this should be explored first, rather than threatening legal action. However it is important to know your legal rights, and the provisions of the Company constitution.

  • How do these apply to your position and the other interested parties?
  • It may be necessary for you to obtain details or documents as part of the process, which the company is reluctant to provide.
  • Take legal advice early on as to the pros and cons, the likely outcome, and the likely timescales and costs

Even where proceedings are issued, frequently a solution is reached through negotiation. This is usually much quicker and cheaper than having a decision imposed by the court. However, it may be necessary to exercise leverage by relying on your strict legal rights to achieve any progress.

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5/ Solutions

There are various options, including:

  • proposing a resolution at a general meeting which redresses the situation
  • complaining to the police of any criminal acts
  • asking the board of directors to take action in the company’s name against an individual director (because the shareholders can’t sue in the company’s name)
  • using a mediation service to settle a dispute.

6/ Mediation

A mediator will be someone who is experienced in this area of law.  If agreement is reached with the help of the mediator, the compromise can be recorded in a legally binding document which can be enforced in the court, if one of the parties breaks it. The advantages of mediation include its relative cheapness compared to going to court, privacy (there is no public record) and speed.

If it isn’t desirable or possible to achieve an accommodation where the aggrieved shareholder stays in the company, other solutions include:

  • the other shareholders buy out the aggrieved shareholder at a fair price
  • the company buys back the aggrieved shareholder’s shares at a fair price
  • Make a reasonable offer to the aggrieved shareholder.

7/ Further Options

Where the Company refuses to cooperate, further options include:

  • applying to the court for an order that the company is acting or has acted unfairly (an “unfair prejudice” action under s.994 Companies Act 2006)
  • applying to the courts for the company to be wound up under s.122 of the Insolvency Act 1996
  • suing the directors for negligence by means of a Derivative Action under s.260  of the Companies Act 2006:

The courts encourage settlement of all disputes, including shareholder disputes. Where the majority has made a reasonable offer to the aggrieved minority shareholder to buy them out on reasonable terms, it is unlikely that the majority will have acted ‘unfairly’. Then it wouldn’t be ‘just and equitable’ to wind the company up. It is essential to take advice on the terms of any offer you make.

If you offer to go to mediation or alternative dispute resolution, you are also unlikely to have acted unfairly. However if the company is in financial difficulties a creditor may issue a petition under S.122 of the Insolvency Act, irrespective of the shareholders’ wishes.

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8/ Finally

Where the Court decides that a minority shareholder has been oppressed or unfairly prejudiced and the appropriate remedy is for the majority buy the minority shares, this is often done at a “fair value” i.e. fair market value, without deduction for a minority discount.

Where the majority gives an undertaking to buy the shares of the aggrieved minority at fair value, usually the court will adjourn the unfair prejudice petition.  However, the fundamental battle ground is frequently

  • the basis of the business valuation
  • the underlying assumptions
  • the data and criteria on which it is based.

The valuation of a private company is an area of potential significant difference between the parties. These can be quite complex disputes, but qualified and experienced legal advisors and valuation experts hired early in the process will help you through this potentially sensitive and difficult area.

paul.sykes@luptonfawcett.law

Disclaimer

LINKS

Unfair Prejudice & Drag Along

Minority Shareholder wins Quasi Partnership claim

8 Ways to avoid a Business Dispute

Are you a Shadow or de facto director?

 

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Shareholder and Boardroom Disputes: Tips (2)

images CALM GOLDEN RULES WHITE

In the second in a series of articles, read my piece in the link below on:

http://www.luptonfawcett.com/blog/minority-shareholder-boardroom-disputes-tips-2/

  • Minority Shareholders
  • Boardroom Disputes
  • Shareholder Agreements
  • Unfair Prejudice claims

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Shareholder & Boardroom Disputes: Tips (1)

imagesCA8KW2NT GOLDEN RULES RED

In the first of a series of articles, read my piece in the link below on:

  • Minority Shareholders
  • Boardroom Disputes
  • Shareholder Agreements
  • Unfair Prejudice claims

http://www.luptonfawcett.com/blog/minority-shareholder-boardroom-disputes-tips-1/

 

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