Corporate insolvency law is not merely concerned with the death and burial of companies. Important issues are whether corporate difficulties should be treated as terminal and whether it is feasible to mount rescue operations.
WHAT DOES INSOLVENCY MEAN?
Insolvency refers to the regulated legal process that ensues upon the bankruptcy of a company. Insolvency procedure registers and prioritizes claims, freezes other legal actions, limits company to business as usual, and tries to establish value from assets.
In a society that facilitates the use of credit by companies, there is a degree of risk that company creditors will suffer because the firm has become unable to pay its debts on the due date.
If a number of creditors were owed money and all pursued the rights and remedies available to them (for example, contractual rights; rights to enforce security interests; rights to set off the debt against other obligations; proceedings for delivery, foreclosure or sale), a chaotic race to protect interests would take place and this might produce inefficiencies and unfairness. This is what insolvency laws seek to prevent.
The end target of any restructuring or insolvency process is to return a company to financial health. Predominantly by lowering and decreasing its obligations. If the situation can’t be rectified, insolvency law will work to ensure a fair allocation of liquidated assets.
WHEN IS A COMPANY INSOLVENT?
There are two definitions of Insolvency, depending on the test applied by the court. Briggs J in Re Cheyne Finance Plc contrasted “a momentary inability to pay as a result of temporary liquidity soon to be remedied” with “an endemic shortage of working capital” which renders “a company insolvent, even though it may be able to pay its debts for the next few days, weeks or months before an inevitable failure.”
- A company is balance sheet insolvent where the company’s liabilities exceed its assets.
- A company is cash flow insolvent when the company is unable to pay its mature liabilities as they fall due. In this situation, the company may be balance sheet solvent and is experiencing temporary cash flow/liquidity problems.
Where a company is cashflow insolvent it may undergo restructuring through schemes of arrangement, administration, or receivership and be managed until it returns to profitability.
If the company cannot be returned to profitability, it may be wound up and its assets sold to satisfy creditors claims, after which the company is then liquidated.
Many companies would find themselves without access to funding or credit and may enter unnecessarily into insolvency proceedings if an arbitrary approach was taken to the balance sheet test. For this reason the cash flow test is used to identify companies that merely require a cash injection and those that need to be totally restructured.
In BNY Corporate Trustee Services Ltd v Eurosail-UK 2007-3BL Plc, The court held that the “balance sheet” test of insolvency may only apply where a company has reached a point of no return (where it is clear that the business will not be able to meet its future or contingent liabilities). However, if the cash flow test were the only relevant test for insolvency, then current and short-term creditors would in effect be paid at the expense of creditors to whom liabilities were incurred after the company had reached the point of no return because of an incurable deficiency in its assets.
An insolvency usually begins with an event of default (“EoD”) or inability to meet an agreed business obligation. This obligation may be a contractual debt, a bill payment or a business loan.
A period is sometimes allowed to repair the default (Cure Period); usually between 1 week to 3 months. If the Cure Period lapses or there isn’t one to begin with, the creditor has a right to declare EoD and pursue legal action against the company for the immediate payment of all outstanding obligations.
Final liquidations are a last resort, sometimes the best of both worlds can be achieved by a court approved private work out as creditors generally prefer private negotiation to judicial intervention.
Judicial proceedings are a fall back remedy, used when it is necessary to stay hold out creditors, bind dissentients, improve title, enhance foreign recognition, monitor gross unfairness and punish fraud.
When a corporate failure occurs, this may have a dramatic impact on the lives, interests and employment prospects of a number of parties. It is important to understand the nature of these potential effects. This would help us better manage the negative effects of corporate failure.