Debtor Not Paying? Consider a Liquidation Application

Debtor Not Paying? Consider a Liquidation Application

“When debtors once have borrowed all we have to lend, they are very apt to grow shy of their creditors’ company” (John Vanbrugh)

Bad debt is a major issue for many businesses in these hard economic times – not taking robust steps to collect it could be fatal to your own financial position.

So if you are being given the run-around by a recalcitrant corporate debtor, take advice on whether an appropriate and cost-effective remedy for you might be an application for the company’s liquidation (“winding-up”).

Cynical misuse of the liquidation process as a debt collection tool or to avoid any genuine disputes over liability is likely to end badly for you (you risk a heavy costs order for “abuse of process”). Be aware also that if your application is successful and a liquidation order is granted, you might be in for more than your own legal costs (ask for advice on the “danger of contribution” in winding-up matters).

But properly used, a liquidation application will certainly get your debtor’s attention very effectively. It’s often the only strategy that has any effect on a “dodging debtor”. The threat of a liquidator knocking at the door to take over control of the company is a great motivator to actually do something – pay up, or make a genuine settlement offer, or at least disclose whether something is in dispute so you can deal with it.

The practical challenge can however be in proving that the debtor is actually financially unable to pay its debts. That’s often not easy, and mere failure by the debtor to pay the debt is not sufficient. 

The “section 345 demand” shortcut

However there is a shortcut – serve on the company’s registered office a demand for the debt. You may hear it referred to as a “section 345 letter”, that being the section of the Companies Act which makes this all possible. If the debt is not paid (or secured or resolved by agreement) within three weeks, the company is deemed to be unable to pay its debts, making a liquidation application much easier to support.

The 2021 High Court case of a municipality struggling to recover debts due to it by two property companies provides a good example of this letter of demand process in action…

Letters of demand sink two property companies
  • Two related companies, one a property-owner and the other a tenant, owed the local municipality for unpaid rates, service charges, and electricity accounts.
  • The municipality served the appropriate letters of demand on the companies’ registered offices, but still they failed to pay up. Their attempts to settle with the municipality having failed, the municipality applied to the High Court for liquidation.
  • The High Court duly granted provisional liquidation orders against both companies, finding on the facts that they had failed to rebut the presumption that they were unable to pay the debts. Nor were they able to convince the Court to exercise its discretion to refuse the liquidation orders.

As an end note, it is essential that your letter of demand is correctly drawn and correctly served.  If it isn’t, your application is headed for failure – and that can be a very expensive exercise.

Disclaimer: The information provided herein should not be used or relied on as professional advice. No liability can be accepted for any errors or omissions nor for any loss or damage arising from reliance upon any information herein. Always contact your professional adviser for specific and detailed advice.

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Directors, Creditors – Do Personal Suretyships Survive Business Rescue?

Directors, Creditors – Do Personal Suretyships Survive Business Rescue?

“Creditors have better memories than debtors” (Benjamin Franklin)

In these hard times of pandemic and economically destructive unrest, an unfortunate number of businesses face collapse, and many will opt for the “first aid for companies” option of business rescue.   

Creditors coming out of that process with a shortfall (only the luckiest creditors are likely to emerge with full settlement) will naturally look to any personal suretyships they hold to cover that shortfall.

A recent SCA (Supreme Court of Appeal) decision has brought welcome clarity to the question of whether – and in what circumstances – such personal suretyships will survive the business rescue process.

Both directors and creditors need to understand the outcome, and to act accordingly.

Sued for R6m, a CEO’s defence crumbles
  • A company CEO (Chief Executive Officer) signed a personal suretyship in favour of a creditor supplying the company with petroleum products.
  • When the company fell upon hard times it was placed into business rescue. Eventually a business rescue plan was adopted, the rescue process was terminated, and the creditor sued the CEO for the shortfall on its claim of just over R6m.
  • The CEO’s main defence was that his liability as surety was an “accessory obligation” – in other words, if the creditor’s claim against the principal debtor (the company) fell away, he should be released from his liability as surety.
  • But, held the Court, although a principal debtor’s discharge from liability does indeed ordinarily release the surety, our law allows the creditor and the surety to agree otherwise.
  • And the suretyship agreement in this case did just that. It contained “unobjectionable” and “standard” terms which included a specific agreement by the surety that he would remain liable even if the creditor “compounded with” the company by accepting a reduced amount in settlement of its claim. Nor was there any mention in the business rescue plan of its effect on creditor claims against sureties (it could, for example, have provided specifically for sureties to remain on the hook, or to be released). But the deciding factor remained that the wording of the suretyship was such that the creditor did not abandon its claim against the surety by supporting the business rescue plan.
  • Bottom line – the CEO goes down over R6m, and the creditor has another shot at emerging unscathed from the mess.

Heed these lessons from the judgment!

The SCA in its judgment undertook a comprehensive interpretation of the terms of the deed of suretyship, of the business rescue plan, and of the relevant legislation. Although the detail will be of more interest to lawyers and academics than it will be to the average director or creditor, it did bring welcome clarity to an issue of great practical importance, and the valuable lessons therein should be heeded –

Directors: As always, think twice before signing any personal suretyship, and if you absolutely have no alternative, at least understand fully what you are letting yourself in for both legally and practically. Equally, ensure that the business rescue plan lets you fully off the hook as regards any possible personal liability; you may be advised to go further and have a separate release agreement with any creditor/s holding your surety. Although not directly relevant to this article, think also of managing any risk of personal liability beyond suretyship, such as allegations of reckless trading and the like.

Creditors: You on the other hand should always try for watertight and upfront suretyships from directors and others with attachable assets (again not directly relevant to this article, but also take whatever security you can over company assets such as debtors, fixed property etc). And when it comes to the business rescue plan, make sure that it leaves your claim against sureties unaffected.

Upfront professional advice and assistance is a real no-brainer here!

Disclaimer: The information provided herein should not be used or relied on as professional advice. No liability can be accepted for any errors or omissions nor for any loss or damage arising from reliance upon any information herein. Always contact your professional adviser for specific and detailed advice.

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Bodies Corporate: Before You Sequestrate to Recover Arrears…

Bodies Corporate: Before You Sequestrate to Recover Arrears…

“Bankruptcy – a fate worse than debt” (Anon)

One of a Body Corporate’s fundamental duties is to collect monthly levies from the scheme’s members, and to take robust action to recover any arrears. As with any other creditor/debtor relationship however, trying to recover debt can be an exercise in frustration and delay, and the more recalcitrant the debtor, the greater the temptation to “go straight for the jugular” by applying to sequestrate the debtor’s estate.

You will have to show that the sequestration is to the advantage of creditors as a whole – not just to you – but that isn’t the only consideration. You will be throwing good money after bad if you end up having to pay a “contribution to the costs of sequestration”.

The recent case of a sectional title Body Corporate, which perhaps thought that it was protected from this particular danger because of its statutory preferences for recovery of arrear levies prior to transfer, illustrates the danger.

But before we get to the facts and the outcome of that case let’s have a quick look at the general principles involved.    

What is a “contribution to costs” and who has to pay it?

If you want to share in the net proceeds of an insolvent estate, you must formally prove your claim at a meeting of creditors convened by the trustee of the insolvent estate. If you don’t do that, you wave goodbye to any possible dividend and will be writing off the debt.

On the other hand, if you decide to prove your claim you may be at risk of having to pay into the estate as well as writing off the debt – talk about adding insult to injury! That danger arises if the costs of sequestrating the estate exceed the funds in the estate available to pay them. In that event the trustee of the insolvent estate will recover a “contribution to costs” from proved creditors – including you if your claim was proved as above.

The special danger of being the “petitioning creditor”

The creditor who applies for the debtor’s sequestration is – as “the petitioning creditor” – liable to contribute to the shortfall even without proving a claim. In other words, unlike other creditors, you cannot protect yourself from contributing to costs by holding back the claim – you are “deemed” to have proved it. That’s why, although applying for sequestration can be an excellent way of recovering debt from a recalcitrant debtor, it is essential to first consider the danger of contribution.

How “secured creditors” can protect themselves

Also relevant to our story is that a creditor holding security (such as a bond over the insolvent’s property) must prove its secured claim in order to be paid out the net proceeds of its security. A secured creditor can, if it suffers a shortfall after being paid out those net proceeds of its security, also share in the “free residue” of the estate. The “free residue” is the net proceeds of all unencumbered assets available for distribution to creditors. The secured creditor’s share in this event will be based on the “concurrent” portion of its claim, in other words it is now a concurrent creditor.

This is where the danger comes in because any contribution payable is payable in the free residue by concurrent creditors. A secured creditor can largely protect itself from this danger by “relying on the proceeds of its security” to satisfy its claim. By doing so it waives its concurrent claim for the shortfall, but equally it no longer has to contribute along with the other proved (or petitioning) concurrent creditors. It will now only have to contribute when there are no other such creditors, or when other contributors are unable to pay their share.   

The case of the Body Corporate that sequestrated to recover arrears – and paid the price

Let’s see how those principles were applied in a recent Supreme Court of Appeal (SCA) case –

  • The owner of two sectional title units, bonded to separate banks, was unable to pay his levies. The Body Corporate sequestrated his estate, and his two units were sold. Only the two banks proved claims.
  • This was where the Body Corporate’s statutory protection for arrear levies came in. No transfer can be registered in the Deeds Office until all rates and taxes (and levies in the case of Bodies Corporate and Homeowners Associations) have been paid in full. Thus the arrear levies were paid in full to the Body Corporate by the transferring attorneys. “Done and dusted” thought the Body Corporate, but it was not to be.
  • There was a shortfall in the insolvent estate, and the trustee tried to recover the resultant contribution from the two banks (the bondholders) who had proved their claims in the estate.
  • The banks objected, arguing that because they had relied on their security in proving their claims, they were not liable to contribute (as above). The Body Corporate, they argued, was as the petitioning creditor liable for the contribution despite not having proved its claim.
  • The Body Corporate on the other hand argued that it could never be liable for a contribution. Although it was indeed the petitioning creditor, it had never proved a claim against the estate and the arrear levies had been paid to it in full, as required by law, before transfer of the properties.
  • To cut a long story short, the dispute wound its way through our courts and ended up in the SCA, which, after a detailed examination of the relevant law, held the Body Corporate as petitioning creditor to be solely liable for the full amount of the contribution to costs (R46 663.16).
Bodies Corporate beware!

The Court’s reasoning in reaching this conclusion will be of great interest to the lawyers amongst us, but the bottom line for Bodies Corporate is this – if you sequestrate to recover arrears, you could well end up carrying the full brunt of any contribution to costs.

So perhaps take advice on whether you can/should rather use other debt collection processes, including perhaps applying to the CSOS (Community Schemes Ombud Service) to order and enforce payment of the arrears.

Disclaimer: The information provided herein should not be used or relied on as professional advice. No liability can be accepted for any errors or omissions nor for any loss or damage arising from reliance upon any information herein. Always contact your professional adviser for specific and detailed advice.

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Buying a Business? Make Sure the Seller Publishes Notice of the Sale

Buying a Business? Make Sure the Seller Publishes Notice of the Sale

“The purpose of the legislature in enacting s 34(1) is to protect creditors by preventing traders who are in financial difficulty from disposing of their business assets to third parties who are not liable for the debts of the business, without due advertisement to all the creditors of the business.” (Extract from judgement below)

With our economy in trouble and the ongoing pandemic and lockdown damaging more and more businesses by the day, sales by distressed companies and traders are likely to rocket. 

If you are a prospective buyer here, be aware of one particular danger lurking in the wings for you. 

Follow this rule to protect yourself – before you buy any business, its goodwill or assets forming part of the business, take legal advice as to whether or not the sale must first be advertised in terms of section 34 the Insolvency Act. You stand to lose both the business and the purchase price if section 34 requires the sale to be advertised and it isn’t.

Your risk is that if an unadvertised sale is challenged by a liquidator/trustee (or by a creditor if there is no liquidation/sequestration) within 6 months of the sale, it is likely to be declared void.  In that event, you will be lucky to get even a portion of your purchase price back – with the seller in financial difficulty your concurrent claim is probably worthless.

As a creditor…

The advertising requirement is designed to protect you as a creditor from having to claim from a debtor which suddenly becomes a worthless shell having quietly sold away its business and/or assets beyond your reach. 

Note that you only have protection if you have instituted proceedings against your debtor “for the purpose of enforcing [your] claim” before the transfer of the business – a good reason not to drag your heels when suing a recalcitrant debtor.

When advertisement isn’t necessary

The sale will only be valid without advertisement if –

  • The sale was made “in the ordinary course of business” (unlikely where the business subsequently fails), or 
  • It was made for “securing the payment of a debt” (unlikely to be under your control as buyer), or
  • The seller wasn’t a “trader”.  As “trader” is widely defined in the Act, and as the onus of proof here is squarely on the buyer, that’s not going to be easily proved. As we shall see below, you can be a “trader” in property as much as in any other commodity.

As a general rule therefore, it is safest to insist on the sale being properly advertised before you pay out the purchase price, but there are grey areas and pitfalls here so take specific advice. Note also that the Act’s requirements for the timing and manner of advertisement are strict and must be followed to the letter.  

As a recent High Court case shows, as a buyer (in this case of a property business) you could lose everything if you lose sight of this very real danger…

An R8m claim and a property transfer (and bond) set aside
  • A property owner bought and developed a property firstly into a shopping centre and later into a shopping centre with 11 sectional title units.
  • Whilst being sued by a creditor for R8m, the owner sold a section to a buyer and transferred it to him, and a bank registered a bond over the property.
  • The creditor obtained judgement against the owner only to find that it had been placed into liquidation. It asked the High Court to set aside the sale on the basis that the sale had not been advertised in terms of section 34 and was therefore void.
  • The buyer countered by denying that it was a “trader” as defined in the Insolvency Act. Its core business, it said, was to acquire and then rent out properties, “its business objective was not the buying and selling property per se as its stock in trade”.
  • Finding on the facts that the owner was indeed a “trader” when it sold the property to the buyer, the Court set aside the sale, the transfer to the buyer, and the bank’s mortgage bond.

Disclaimer: The information provided herein should not be used or relied on as professional advice. No liability can be accepted for any errors or omissions nor for any loss or damage arising from reliance upon any information herein. Always contact your professional adviser for specific and detailed advice.

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Directors at War and the Liquidation Option – A Tale of Sibling Rivalry

Directors at War and the Liquidation Option – A Tale of Sibling Rivalry

“Family quarrels are bitter things. They don’t go according to any rules” (F. Scott Fitzgerald)

A company’s directors have both the power and the duty to manage the company’s affairs for its benefit.

When two or more directors are in place, it’s perhaps natural for the occasional disagreement to arise between them. Indeed, regular expression of a variety of different viewpoints and ideas can make for a strong, dynamic board and business. Provided, that is, that the directors are in the end result still able to agree on the decisions vital to their company’s continued operations. 

What happens though when disagreements and disputes escalate and make it impossible to continue running the business? Typically, communications break down to the extent that decision-making is paralysed. First prize will of course always be an amicable settlement – through formal mediation perhaps, or negotiation to buy out a dissenting director’s shareholding. But if these attempts fail, the company is in big trouble. 

Fortunately our law offers you an effective remedy in the form of the “just and equitable” liquidation. It comes with its own risks and can be costly, so it’s often regarded as a last-resort option (ask your lawyer for advice on the various other remedies that may be available to you), but it works. A recent High Court decision illustrates…

Sister v brothers in a deadlocked development company
  • A sister and her two brothers owned, through their trusts, equal shares in a farm (partially inherited from their father and partially purchased from their uncle’s deceased estate).
  • They were also the three directors (and, again through trusts, the equal shareholders) of a company formed to subdivide, develop and sell residential plots on parts of the farm.
  • The company operated successfully and profitably for many years, paying substantial dividends to the shareholders, and has always been and remains solvent.
  • Trouble began brewing it seems several years ago, primarily between the sister and the brother in charge of the day-to-day running of the company’s business. Serious disagreements arose around an unhappy saga of sibling fallout – including the disputed existence of a partnership, alleged fraudulent stripping of over R6m by the brothers, and a litany of purported personal and familial abuse.
  • All these allegations were hotly denied, although an undertaking by the brothers to not “emotionally abuse” their sister in a settlement agreement at one point clearly indicated to the Court that the relationship breakdown was not confined to the siblings’ professional affairs. The relationship between the directors and shareholders was, said the Court, “that of partners in a family context”.
  • The sister applied for the liquidation of the company on the grounds that it was “just and equitable”. This is a procedure provided in the Companies Act for a court to have the discretion – even though a company is solvent – to liquidate it in order that an independent liquidator can take over.
  • The brothers opposed the application, claiming that there was no deadlock in the functioning of the company or between the directors and shareholders, but the Court disagreed. Its order liquidating the company, and its reasons for doing so, provide a useful summary of how this particular law works in practice…
3 grounds on which to wind up a solvent company

The Companies Act allows a court to liquidate a solvent company on application by director/s or shareholder/s on any of three grounds –

  1. “The directors are deadlocked in the management of the company, and the shareholders are unable to break the deadlock, and
    • Irreparable injury to the company is resulting, or may result, from the deadlock; or
    • The company’s business cannot be conducted to the advantage of shareholders generally, as a result of the deadlock;
  2. The shareholders are deadlocked in voting power, and have failed for a period that includes at least two consecutive annual general meeting dates, to elect successors to directors whose terms have expired; or
  3. It is otherwise just and equitable for the company to be wound up.”

That last “just and equitable” ground gives courts a wide discretion to reach a decision based on all the facts of each particular case. The Court in this matter found that the involvement of all the directors in the business had effectively come to a standstill and took into account the facts that there had not been a directors’ meeting since 2014 plus the sister had refused to sign the latest financial statements. 

It concluded that “the directors do not communicate and there is clearly immense personal animosity between them, and a lack of trust and confidence”, making it difficult to see how the company could continue its business. The lack of substantiation provided by the sister to back up some of her disputed allegations did not, said the Court, detract “from the fact of the breakdown in their relationship, and the lack of trust and confidence”.

It was therefore just and equitable that the company be wound up.

Disclaimer: The information provided herein should not be used or relied on as professional advice. No liability can be accepted for any errors or omissions nor for any loss or damage arising from reliance upon any information herein. Always contact your professional adviser for specific and detailed advice.

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Business Rescue: Are Your Suretyships Enforceable? A R5.5m Lesson for Directors and Creditors

Business Rescue: Are Your Suretyships Enforceable? A R5.5m Lesson for Directors and Creditors

“Some people use one-half their ingenuity to get into debt, and the other half to avoid paying it” (George Prentice, newspaper editor and author)

You are owed a lot of money by a company that goes into business rescue. The business rescue plan provides for creditors like you to accept a dividend of only a few cents in the Rand in settlement of your debt. You stand to lose heavily.

But perhaps there’s hope yet – a director with assets has signed personal suretyship. Can the director now say “sorry, you adopted the business rescue plan so your claim no longer exists”, and refuse to pay you? 

The directors’ defence
  • A creditor was owed R6.5m for the lease of mining equipment to a company which was placed under business rescue. In terms of a business rescue plan approved by the creditor it was paid only a portion of its claim, losing its right to claim anything further from the debtor company.
  • The two directors of the debtor had signed a deed of suretyship in terms of which they stood as co-sureties and co-principal debtors with their company for all amounts owing.
  • The creditor duly sued the directors for its shortfall of some R5.5m The directors’ defence was that they were not liable because – 
    • The suretyship entitled the creditor to go after them only for “any sum which after the receipt of such dividend/s or payment/s may remain owing by the Debtor.” (Own underlining). 
    • Nothing remained owing by the debtor which had been released from its debt by the business rescue plan.
  • In other words, argued the directors, nothing was owed by the debtor company, so they were liable for nothing. 

  • Not so, said the Court. That “would render the terms of the deed of suretyship nonsensical and militates against the very reason for a creditor obtaining security against the indebtedness of a debtor i.e. to mitigate the risk of the debtor being unable to fulfil its obligations due to inter alia business rescue.” The business rescue plan made no provision for the position of sureties and therefore “the liability of the sureties is in my view preserved. And while the debt may not be enforceable against [the company], it does not detract from the obligation of the sureties to pay in the circumstances of this case.” In other words, a surety’s liability is unaffected by the business rescue unless the plan itself makes specific provision for the situation of sureties.
  • Bottom line – the directors must personally cough up the R5.5m (plus interest and costs).
Lessons for directors and creditors

The outcome here could have been very different had the wording of either this particular suretyship or the business rescue plan supported the directors’ defence.

Creditors – when securing your claim with a director’s suretyship check that you are fully covered in any form of business failure situation.  And ensure that a business rescue plan specifically provides that its adoption does not release sureties. 

Directors – when you sign personal surety understand exactly what you are letting yourself in for. And if you are unlucky enough to find yourself in the middle of a business rescue, actively manage your personal liability danger – particularly when it comes to the wording of the rescue plan.

Disclaimer: The information provided herein should not be used or relied on as professional advice. No liability can be accepted for any errors or omissions nor for any loss or damage arising from reliance upon any information herein. Always contact your professional adviser for specific and detailed advice.

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