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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How (not) to cut red tape

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Wholesale changes to UK Companies legislation

Despite its cryptic title,

The Small Business, Enterprise, and Employment Act 2015

(SBEEA 2015), impacts extensively on all Companies: large, small and everywhere in between. Directors, company secretaries, shareholders (trustees and beneficial) and all stakeholders should be aware. The Act was brought in to effect on 26 May 2015 –  the timetable for change is robust.

The intention as ever is to make the UK more efficient and hospitable to business and to cut red tape. It seeks to achieve this laudable aim by amending, and adding extensively to the Companies Act 2006, (CA 2006) which at some 1300 sections, 16 schedules and seemingly endless guidance and over 70 statutory instruments was itself already reputedly the longest ever Act of Parliament, introduced under the then Government’s ‘Think Small First’ mantra.

 SBEEA 2015 joins the Deregulation Act 2015, squeezed through in the last weeks of Parliament, in pursuit of the Government’s Red Tape Agenda, so that the further ‘simplified’ company law regime is now governed amongst other provisions by:

  • The Companies Act 1985
  • The Companies Act 1989
  • The Companies (Audit), Investigations and Community Enterprise Act 2004
  • The Companies Act 2006
  • (SBEEA 2015)

That legislation only deals with companies that are going concerns. Regarding insolvent companies, applicable legislation includes:

  • The Insolvency Act 1986
  • The Company Directors Disqualification Act 1986
  • The two Insolvency Acts of 1994
  • The Insolvency Act 2000
  • The Enterprise Act 2002
  • Deregulation Act 2015
  • Extensive delegated legislation, regulations and statutory instruments

A company registered before the CA 2006 applied is an ‘existing company’. A ‘company’ is one that is registered under that Act.   There remains therefore two parallel universes for directors, shareholders, other stakeholders and practitioners to grapple with. Describing the further legislation as ‘simplification’ is paradoxical.

SBEEA could helpfully have been named “The Companies Act (Amendment) Act 2015. It introduces a series of major changes. Here we examine some of the key changes and the implications for businesses.

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  1. Business-to-Business contracts

The transparency of payment practices will be increased through a new reporting obligation on the UK’s largest companies. Notwithstanding the Act’s title, directed at “Small Business”, this provision exclusively affects “large” companies (including large LLPs) as defined by CA 2006; s.3 of SBEEA introduces a new power for the Secretary of State to require companies to publish information about their “payment practices and policies” regarding business-to-business contracts. These will apply to contracts for goods, services or intangible assets and may include information about standard and non-standard payment terms, processing and payment of invoices, applicable codes of conduct or standards, disputes relating to payment of invoices and about payments owed or paid by the company due to late payment of invoices, whether in respect of interest or otherwise.

The objective is to ameliorate the imbalance of power between large and small companies in negotiating fairer deals. Abuse of power will also be highlighted by large companies.

 

  1. Bearer Shares Abolished

Already effective 26 May 2015: Section 84 of SBEEA inserts a new section 779(4) of the CA 2006, prohibiting the creation of bearer shares, and irrespective of whether the company’s articles permit this. Schedule 4 of the Act sets out transitional arrangements for the mandatory cancellation or conversion of existing bearer shares.

  1. Changes to filing requirements and registers

Due to come into force in April 2016: SBEEA removes the requirement to file an Annual Return with Companies House. Instead, a company must provide Companies House with a confirmation statement that it has provided all of the information it was required to provide during the period covered by the statement. his statement must be provided every 12 months, within 14 days of expiry of the previous 12 month period. For new companies, the first statement should be provided 12 months from the date of incorporation of the company.

The Act also introduces the option for companies to elect to keep information on a central public register, rather than keeping and maintaining their own separate registers (such as the Register of Directors, Register of Members etc.) The aim of this is to reduce the administrative burden on companies by only requiring one register to be updated and maintained rather than several.

  1. New obligation to register persons with ‘significant control’ (“PSC”): This requirement is due to come into force from 1 January 2016

Details of all entities or persons with ‘significant control’ over a company must be identified and kept on a public register. It is vital to carefully consider how the rules will impact on your company, and it is important to note that PSCs may not appear on the register of members as, depending also on changing circumstances, they may include creditors, funders, commercial counterparties and investors etc.

A company will need to review various aspects when deciding its PSCs:

  • existing registers;
  • articles of association;
  • shareholders’ agreements;
  • financing agreements; and
  • other commercial agreements

Specified conditions of significant control:

a. shares – more than 25% shareholding (directly or indirectly)

b. voting rights– more than 25% of voting rights (directly or indirectly

c. board control  – to appoint or remove a majority of the board of directors (directly or indirectly)

d. significant influence or control over the company – (the meaning of this is currently unclear and is to be set out in statutory guidance)

e. trusts and partnerships – influence or control being exercised over a trust or partnership (T or P) where T or P itself satisfies any one of condition 1-4 in relation to a company

Details to be included for individuals include:

  • Name
  • Address
  • Date of birth
  • Nationality
  • Date of registration of the interest, and
  • Nature of the interest

Small Business, Enterprise and Employment Act 2015

Although details are awaited, this is likely to prevent someone holding the beneficial interest in shares ‘hiding behind’ a nominee shareholder.

  1. Ban on Corporate directors

Effective 26 May 2015; s. 87 of the Act inserts a new section 156A in CA 2006, requiring all directors to be natural persons and prohibits the appointment of corporate directors.

Any appointment made in contravention of this section will be void and it will be a criminal offence to breach this section. Until now, the rule has been that at least one Director of a Company has to be a human being, but the others or some of them can be Companies.

A new section 156B gives the Secretary of State the power to make regulations setting out the exceptions to the general requirement that directors must be individuals, but the details are yet to be revealed. If this power is exercised it must include the compliance process, including registration requirements, and must require that the company has least one individual who is a director.

The transition period for companies with corporate directors is dealt with in a new section 156C of CA 2006. This provides that after one year of section 156A coming into force, any remaining corporate directors will cease to be directors (subject to any exceptions set out in regulations made under section 156B).

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  1. Shadow directors

Effective 26 May 2015: Section 89 of the Act amends section 170(5) of CA 2006 to provide that the general duties of directors (as set out in sections 170 to 177 of the CA 2006) apply to shadow directors where and to the extent they are capable of applying. The Secretary of State also has the power to make regulations concerning the application of general duties of directors to shadow directors (section 89 (2)).

Section 90 of the Act also amends the definition of shadow director in section 251 of the CA 2006. Section 251(2) currently provides that a person is not to be regarded as a shadow director by reason only that the directors act on advice given by him in a professional capacity. Section 90 expands this provision to make it clear that directions or instructions given in exercise of a function conferred by or under legislation is not sufficient to meet the definition, nor is any advice or guidance issued by a Minister of the Crown.

Similar amendments are made in respect of the definitions of shadow directors contained in the Insolvency Act 1986 and in the Company Directors Disqualification Act 1986.

  1. Disqualification of directors

A new approach for liquidators, administrators and administrative receivers will be introduced on reporting misconduct by directors. There will also be two new grounds for disqualifying a director in the UK:

  • where they have been convicted of a company-related offence overseas; and
  • where they have instructed a disqualified director.

The range of matters a court must consider when disqualifying a director is expanded to include:

a. the nature and extent of harm the misconduct has had; and

b. the director’s track record in running failed companies.

The Secretary of State can seek compensation from a disqualified director where misconduct resulting in their disqualification has caused identifiable loss to creditors.

The time limit to apply to court for disqualification of an unfit director of an insolvent company is increased to 3 years from the date the company becomes insolvent (previously 2 years).

  1. Registration of directors

The Act removes the requirement to provide Companies House with a ‘consent to act’ from the person appointed as director (either in the form of a signature or, where the appointment is made online, the provision of certain personal identification information). This is replaced by an obligation on the company to provide a statement that the appointee has consented to act. This applies to both appointments on incorporation and further appointments after incorporation.

There is also a new application process to remove names from the register of directors where consent was not provided.

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  1. Access to finance

The Act includes a range of measures that are intended to improve the ability of small and medium businesses (SMEs) to access finance and seek loans away from their banks. For example, banks will, if requested, pass on details of SMEs they turn down for a loan to online platforms to match them with alternative finance options.

10. Red tape

Regulations affecting business will be reviewed frequently to ensure they remain effective. A target for the removal of regulatory burdens will be published in each Parliament.

An independent ‘Small Business Appeals Champion’ will be appointed for non-economic regulators. This role is designed to ensure  theat business needs are taken into account through a straightforward complaints and appeals process.

11. Employment

Zero hours contracts will not have exclusivity clauses stopping individuals from working for another employer. However, it has been suggested that this is relatively cosmetic, as no machinery for dealing with offenders or penalty is introduced.

12. Conclusion

The main corporate aspects of the Act are aimed at:

  • Increasing transparency of who controls UK companies
  • Deterring and sanctioning those who hide their interests
  • Simplifying company filing requirements to reduce duplication and improve flexibility in companies’ dealings with the Registrar
  • Amending the directors’ disqualification regime to strengthen the rules that prevent an individual from acting as a director where that individual has committed misconduct

Whilst these objectives are laudable, it appears that numerous provisions do not have essential specific details of the rules or exceptions yet decided, often where there is a criminal sanction for any breach.

The cost to business of familiarisation, implementation and compliance with these provisions, including where they are incomplete or based on shifting sands, is likely to have been substantially underestimated. Estimating direct savings is notoriously difficult and the costs of familiarisation are frequently higher than anticipated.

Further analysis of the Act and its application to Directors will follow. Meantime, manufacturers of red tape are unlikely to appear on the endangered species list any time soon.

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Single typo costs Companies House £8m

Companies House liable for mistakenly saying Company had been wound up

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Background

Companies House has been held responsible for the financial collapse of Taylor & Sons Ltd, of Cardiff, a 124 year old engineering company. On 20 February 2009, Companies House mistakenly recorded on the register that a winding up order had been made against it. But there was a typo; it was an entirely unconnected company with a very similar name, “Taylor & Son Ltd” that had been wound up. After 3 days the error had been corrected. By then it was too late.

Companies House had sold the records to credit reference agencies. Customers and suppliers wouldn’t trade with the blameless and solvent Taylor & Sons Ltd; they lost business, income and credit. Within two months the business, which employed 250 people collapsed and it was forced in to Administration.

 

Negligent Misstatement

 The Co-Owner and managing director of Taylor & Sons Ltd, Philip Sebrey took proceedings against Companies House, an executive agency of the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills. His claim was based on the law of negligence, which has been developing continuously since the leading 1963 Case of Hedley Byrne v Heller[i], extending the law of negligence. Where a careless statement is made which causes economic loss, the victim can claim damages. That now includes cases involving the careless exercise of statutory powers.

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Decision

After a 4 year battle, the claim for compensation succeeded. Sebry v Companies House [2015] EWHC 115[ii]. Although damages have not yet been decided, the claim is for approximately £8m.

The Judge, Mr Justice Edis said that the long standing 3 stage test in Caparo[iii] applied:

  • Forseeability: this was “obvious”
  • Proximity: the duty was owed to one individual company whose identity was readily discoverable. To say that it was also owed to every other company on the Register is only to say for example that a hospital owes a duty to each patient which it treats, and may come to owe duties to many thousands of people in the course of a year. Whilst true, this is not a reason for denying that the hospital ever owes any duty. Very large organisations such as hospitals who impact on the wellbeing of a very large number of people owe a very large number of duties to a very large number of people. The class is limited and its members ascertainable at the stage when treatment is given
  •  Whether it is fair, just and reasonable to impose a duty: The Judge could find no proper ground on which to conclude that it would not be fair, just and reasonable to impose a duty to avoid foreseeable harm to a sufficiently proximate victim.

Conclusion

“…..the Registrar owes a duty of care when entering a winding up order on the Register to take reasonable care to ensure that the Order is not registered against the wrong company. That duty is owed to any Company which is not in liquidation but which is wrongly recorded on the Register as having been wound up by order of the court. The duty extends to taking reasonable care to enter the Order on the record of the Company named in the Order, and not any other company. It does not extend to checking information supplied by third parties. It extends only to entering that information accurately on the Register….”

Ultimately, Edis J could see no legal principle or policy excusing Companies House for its negligence. Where there is a legal wrong, there ought to be a remedy. If Companies House had escaped liability, Mr Sebrey would have had no redress. The previous understanding of the law has been applied, and moderately extended under the doctrine of “incrementalism”.

For liability to be established, a claimant has to prove that it suffered losses directly as a result of reliance on a negligent misstatement. An executive agency carrying out a statutory function was not immune. However, the liability in these particular circumstances did not extend to other, less proximate or easily identifiable parties, including lenders and employees.

 

[i] [1963] 2AC 465

[ii] http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWHC/QB/2015/115.html

[iii] Caparo Industries v Dickman [1990] 2 AC 605

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Directors Hoodwinked out of €100 million broke duties to their Company

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The High Court has decided that two directors tricked by fraudsters failed in their duties to exercise reasonable skill and care. They paid €100 million of Company money in to a sham investment scheme induced by fraudulent misrepresentations.

Mr Justice Peter Smith said that, like many such fraud cases superficially the document looks technical and highly detailed. On closer reading it is full of incoherent phrases and expressions and is completely meaningless.

It is impossible to overstate the level of incompetence demonstrated by [the Group Legal Counsel’s] evidence at this trial. He did no checks on the background of these people trying to sell this transaction to him…He discovered nothing about the details of the transactions…He accepted without challenge anything they said. Finally in October 2011 he signed away control of €100 million, despite being required never to agree anything like that…He took comfort from documents that were meaningless…If he were uncertain as to the law, he should have obtained advice from somebody else. That is what one would expect of a senior in-house legal counsel who might have knowledge of generalities, but would not necessarily have knowledge of specifics. It is plain that he had no idea what the investments were, but was content to accept the vague descriptions provided by the defendants and fell into the trap of believing in the secrecy of everything.

The Directors committed the Company’s funds in a “ridiculous and reckless” way. It was difficult to understand how the directors had failed to spot the scam: an extremely modest level of probing the deal would have shown that it would fall apart. Their conduct was seriously inadequate regarding the discharge of the duties that they owed to Company as officers and senior employees / directors to perform their duties with reasonable skill and care.

Although this case was decided under Maltese law, the High Court’s conclusion that two directors were in breach of duty is noteworthy. The general application of English law was made clear. Directors in this situation could face personal liability to the Company for losses caused by third party fraudsters.

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However, there was no basis for findings of breach of their fiduciary duty or contributory negligence against them in favour of the Defendant (those involved in the scam). The Judge refused to reduce the damages payable to the Company by the fraudsters. The directors were duped and incompetent; fools not knaves in failing to spot that the scheme was fraudulent and bound to fail.

Director’s Duties

The Companies Act 2006 contains a general statement of directors’ fiduciary and common law duties.

  • S 171 to act within their powers
  • S 172 to promote the success of the company
  • S 173 to exercise independent judgement
  • S 174 to exercise reasonable care, skill and diligence
  • S 175 to avoid conflict of interests
  • S 176 not to accept benefits from third parties
  • S 177 to declare an interest in a proposed transaction with the company

The codified duties apply to all directors of a Company (including shadow directors and, in certain circumstances, former directors).

Director’s Potential Liability

This case decided the liabilities between the defrauded Company and the fraudsters. The award against the fraudsters was not reduced due to negligence by the gullible directors. However, it did not decide whether, or how much the directors should reimburse the Company for its losses.  

As here, where a director has broken his duty to exercise reasonable care and skill, but not his fiduciary duties, the court will consider what might have happened had it not been for the director’s breach. The court has to decide whether the Company would have suffered the losses any way. If not, the director may have to compensate the Company for all of its losses caused by his breach of duty to exercise reasonable care and skill

As a matter of public policy, the courts accept Company directors have to make judgments and take risks. Too harsh an approach to directors’ conduct would have a “chilling” effect; it would discourage people either from becoming directors, or make them too risk averse for the good of the business.

Conclusion

Directors who are in breach of duty can ask the court for relief from sanctions on the grounds that they acted honestly, reasonably and that it is fair in all circumstances of the case to relieve him of liability. A director may also be protected from liability by the company ratifiying his conduct. Alternatively, a Directors & Officers’ Insurance Policy may cover the relevant liability. Obviously, all of these are a very poor second best to remaining vigilant and following the old maxim: if it looks too good to be true, it probably is!

Although the case is being appealed, it is a timely reminder of the risks of fraud to which Companies are exposed, the duties on Directors, the consequences of breach and the need for vigilance.

Case:

Group Seven Limited v Allied Investment Corporation Limited and others [2014] EWHC 2046 (Ch).

Link:

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWHC/Ch/2013/1509.html

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