18 August 2015

Dangers for nominee directors - and those appointing them

Directors' responsibilities in sharp relief, and a piercing of the veil of limited liability?

There may be nothing new in the idea that a nominee director must exercise independent judgement and act in the interests of his own particular company, rather than the interests of a parent company or the person appointing him, but Central Bank of Ecuador v Conticorp SA provides an eye-watering illustration to make nominee directors sit up and think!

A Mr Taylor, acting as nominee of a banking group, was the sole director of a Bahamas company. He acted only on the instructions of the banking group, and was paid the princely sum of $2,500 a year for acting as director. On instructions, he signed away a portfolio of assets worth $190m in a transaction at an undervalue. He made no enquiries as to the commercial benefit to his company of the transaction, and did not exercise any independent judgement. Because of that, he was fixed with the knowledge of the nature of the transaction of those instructing him. He was found personally liable for the whole $190m, plus interest that took the claim over $1/2billion.

That can easily happen when someone takes the office of director without taking seriously the attached responsibilities. Perhaps more interesting from  a legal perspective, and more worrying for corporate groups, is that the court also found that other group companies, and individuals in them, were also liable for the full amount due to their "dishonest assistance" of a breach of fiduciary duty. That potentially gives a claimant a much wider range of defendants to aim at, and could effectively avoid the limited liability of the company. It is not only the deluded nominee director who is at risk, but also those who give him instructions and devise the company's transactions. The other people involved could could not honestly have considered the transactions to be in the company’s interests, in the light of what they knew, so they were liable for dishonest assistance.

Turning a blind eye can be enough to establish liability for dishonest assistance: “Dishonest assistance requires a dishonest state of mind on the part of the person who assists in a breach of trust. Such a state of mind may consist in knowledge that the transaction is one in which he cannot honestly participate (for example, a misappropriation of other people’s money), or it may consist in suspicion combined with a conscious decision not to make inquiries which might result in knowledge..." (Barlow Clowes International Ltd v Eurotrust International Ltd).

No-one should ever act as a "nominee" director, in the sense of blindly acting on the instructions of someone else; but nor should anyone assume that they can safely let such arrangements go ahead when it is plain that there is a breach of duty, or  plain enough to require further investigation.

03 August 2015

Insolvency and consumer credit businesses

A trap for administrators and a workload for the FCA

Consumer credit businesses used to be licensed by the OFT, in a fairly relaxed licensing regime. It included not only consumer credit lenders, but also businesses with a tangential involvement in credit such as credit brokers, debt collectors and debt advisers. Credit brokers include most businesses who introduce consumers to credit providers, such as motor, furniture and electrical retailers. Many large businesses held consumer credit licences for minor activities outside of their main businesses, such as employee loan schemes or other employee benefits.

The Financial Conduct Authority has now taken over regulation of consumer credit, with all the complexity of the financial services regime. Consumer credit businesses have become "authorised persons" (including those who have the transitional "interim permission"). That has many consequences, some of them possibly unforeseen. One of them is the application of the FSMA insolvency legislation to all consumer credit businesses.

A possible major trap is that an appointment of an administrator by the directors of a consumer credit authorised business, or of one that should be authorised, needs the prior consent of the FCA (section 362A FSMA 2000). The directors must obtain the consent of the FCA before filing a Notice of Intention to Appoint Administrators, or if there is no qualifying floating charge holder and therefore no need to file such a notice, the consent must be filed at the same time as the Notice of Appointment of Administrators. Failure to obtain the FCA’s consent renders the administrator's appointment invalid; but the case of Peter Lloyd Bootes and others v Ceart Risk Services Ltd holds that this is a curable defect, so the appointment will take effect when the consent is obtained and filed.  

If there is a qualifying floating charge holder, and it makes the appointment, no prior consent of the FCA is required. But all documents in relation to the administration issued to creditors must also be sent to the FCA, and similar requirements apply to other forms of insolvency.

This is yet another thing for insolvency practitioners to look out for before appointment, and a potential source of uncertainty in the validity of appointments. A search of the FCA register should probably be routine (and the separate specialist registers, including the consumer credit register), but even that is not complete protection: if the business should have been authorised, for instance because it introduced consumers to credit providers, the FCA's consent is still needed. Whether the FCA will give timely consents in respect of firms it has never heard of, or precautionary applications for consent, remains to be seen.