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