One of the obligations on the liquidators of insolvent companies, whether appointed by the shareholders or the Court, is to review the books, records and affairs of the company to identify any potential causes of action that could lead to a benefit for creditors.
This could include identifying potentially voidable transactions, where an individual creditor has received a payment, giving it preference ahead of the body of creditors, or the transfer of assets or property to other parties for no, or insufficient, consideration.
It could also include identifying breaches of duties by the directors which has caused creditors of the company to suffer increased losses.
While many such causes of action are identified and settled by agreement between the liquidators and the parties concerned there are also cases where there is no agreement and the liquidator is left with the options of either initiating legal proceedings or dropping the matter.
In making that decision, the liquidator will consider the strength of the case, the likely costs to be incurred in proceeding and how these could be funded, and the level of return to creditors that could eventuate from such action.
The funding of the proceedings is the major obstacle the liquidators need to overcome and many good cases are not actioned because of the inability to raise the funds.
Broadly speaking, a liquidator has 5 potential avenues of funding available –
Realisations from the Liquidation:
If the liquidators have realised sufficient funds from the liquidation of the company’s unencumbered assets, they are entitled to use those funds to cover the costs of their investigation and any legal proceedings.
In those circumstances, the liquidators have to give careful consideration to the likelihood of success in the legal proceedings and, if those proceedings are successful, the likelihood that any amounts ordered are collectable and will result in a distribution to creditors.
It could leave a liquidator open to criticism if they use up funds, that could have been distributed to creditors, on a risky action against a director and ended up with no recovery or only sufficient recovery to cover the costs of the liquidator’s investigations and the legal costs incurred in running the case.
Liquidators’ Own Funds:
The Liquidators can decide to fund the proceedings from their own resources. This will be done by allowing their time to accumulate as unpaid Work in Progress (WIP) and by paying any legal costs from their own funds and recording those payments as a disbursement to be recovered when, or if, funds are available.
This is a reasonably common practice amongst insolvency practitioners, but the same things will be considered when making the decision. The bottom line is, will the actions lead to a return to creditors?
It is not the liquidator’s job to take proceedings that will lead to a penalty being imposed on the defendant that only pays the liquidators costs. If legal actions are not likely to lead to a benefit for the creditors, but the director’s actions warrant it, the Liquidators can, and should, report the breaches committed by the director to the Registrar of Companies, with a view to having them banned.
Creditors of a company in liquidation can be approached by the liquidators to see if they are prepared to provide funding to allow legal action to be undertaken. Those creditors that do agree to provide funding receive a priority ahead of other unsecured creditors pursuant to clause 1 (1) (e) of the Schedule 7 of the Companies Act 1993.
This allows payment of the unsecured debt of that creditor, and the amount of the costs incurred by that creditor in helping to recover the funds, ahead of some other preferential creditors and the rest of the unsecured creditors.
Third Party Litigation Funders:
The use of 3rd party litigation funders is increasing in New Zealand but is generally limited to the larger cases, such as the Mainzeal Property & Construction Limited (in Liquidation) claim against its directors.
There have been questions raised about the ethics of this form of funding but, whilst there is no specific legislation about the use of 3rd party funding, it has been approved in various proceedings. The Law Commission is currently undertaking a review of class actions and litigation funding
The 3rd party funders provide the funding for proceedings, which would otherwise be unaffordable, in exchange for a percentage of any recoveries. If there are no recoveries, the 3rd party funder carries the cost, so there is no downside for the creditors.
Liquidation Surplus Account:
Section 316 of the Companies Act 1993 establishes, and regulates the use of, the Liquidation Surplus Account (“the account”).
Funds that represent unclaimed assets from a liquidation must be paid to the Public Trust and will, if they remain unclaimed for a period of 12 months, become part of the account.
Liquidators can apply to the Official Assignee for New Zealand for a payment from these funds to cover the cost of proceedings, advice, or expert witnesses.
To be eligible for the funds, the liquidator must prove that it is fair and reasonable for the costs to be met out of the account. There should be a public interest element in the proceedings and the application must relate to the claims of the creditors in the liquidation.
It is understandable that the creditors of a failed company want to see errant directors held to account and forced to cover the losses they have incurred because of that director’s actions and they expect liquidators to do that.
The options outlined above all include one party or another taking on the often substantial risks and costs involved in taking legal proceedings, so, while the main objective is always to recover funds for the benefit of the creditors, any actions taken have to be carefully considered and reviewed objectively.
Throwing good money after bad, or spending money, that could have provided some return to creditors, without any recovery, is not in the best interests of either the creditors or the liquidators.