Here’s a tip for the student of insolvency law and practice. Don’t look to legislation or legal judgments for all the answers. Some of the official rules are contained in “regulatory guides” which can easily escape your attention.
But even more problematic is the occasional, obscure, almost unwritten, rule which is the result of a pragmatic arrangement between regulators and insolvency practitioners.
A good, current example , is deregistration of a company following a creditors’ voluntary liquidation. Here, the pragmatic twist to the law dwells in the text on a non-prescribed form, and in the text of an even more obscure document, a statement issued by the Insolvency Practitioners Association of Australia (IPAA or IPA) to its members.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Look up Part 5.5 of the Corporations Act 2001 (the Act), under the heading “Final meeting and deregistration”, and you will find law (section 509) which states that “ASIC must deregister the company at the end of the 3 month period after the (final) return was lodged.” This requirement is sometimes referred to as “automatic deregistration”.
To get to this point in a creditors’ voluntary liquidation where the liquidator lodges a final return, the Act states that the liquidator “must convene a general meeting of the company, or, in the case of a creditors’ voluntary liquidation, a meeting of the creditors and members of the company, for the purpose of laying before it the account and giving any explanation of the account” .
On the face of it, these provisions would appear to be the law. Put simply, a company which has entered into a creditors’ voluntary liquidation is deregistered automatically 3 months after the liquidator’s return of the final meeting is lodged.
If you, the student, wanted this confirmed, you might consult a book on corporate insolvency law in Australia, where you would almost definitely find such confirmation.
But what you and the author of the book (and, of course, creditors and the general public) don’t know is that ASIC has modified the law.
How? Well not – as far as I can see – through the official process of issuing a regulatory document, such as a Regulatory Guide or Information Sheet (of which there are a great many).
Instead, the modified rule finds its expression in companies Form 578 (which is not a prescribed form). The form is headed “Deregistration request (liquidator not acting or affairs fully wound up)”. One of the two tick boxes on the form, which constitute the basis for requesting deregistration, states:
“There are no funds left in the creditors’ voluntary liquidation to hold a final meeting and also the affairs of the company are fully wound up.”
So, dear student, the “law” relating to deregistration of a company following a creditors’ voluntary liquidation has been modified by inserting an escape clause. If there are no funds left in the liquidation and the affairs of the company are “fully wound up”, the requirement to hold a final meeting is nullified or overlooked, and deregistration can be achieved by simply ticking a box and lodging a form.
This change is a result of ASIC “exercising its discretion”, says the IPAA in a submission to Treasury in 2009:
“This issue concerns the application of s 601AB of the Corporations Act in finalising a creditors’ voluntary liquidation as an alternative to holding a final meeting of the company’s members and creditors under s 509. After consultation with ASIC, the IPA issued a Practice Update in the June 2008 issue of its journal. The Update informs members that ASIC has advised the IPA that in situations where the liquidator is without funds to cover the cost of holding the final meeting, ASIC will exercise its discretion and accept lodgement of a Deregistration Request (Form 578) under s 601AB(2). It may be that the words of that subsection need clarifying to accord with what appears to be this intent of the section. “
But, dear student, you should also know that there is apparently a proviso attached to the phrases “no funds left to hold a final meeting” (ASIC) and “without funds to cover the costs of holding the final meeting” (IPAA). Whether the staff in ASIC who process Form 578 applications are aware of this proviso is not clear. Nevertheless, in a statement to members in 2008 (which was published again in July 2010 due to a number of queries from members) the IPAA states that:
“Only liquidators that are without funds are eligible to use section 601AB(2). “Without funds” does not include situations where the liquidator distributes all available funds via a dividend to creditors. Therefore, liquidators should ensure that sufficient funds are retained to cover the cost of a final meeting when a dividend is paid.”
Personally, and like most people, I am strongly opposed to obscure or unwritten rules in any area of law, and especially so when they come into being with little debate and are at odds with the principle or intention of the law as it is expressed in applicable legislation.
No doubt there are practical reasons for the procedure authorized by Form 578:
1. Liquidators receive a benefit, particularly when they are winding up a company that does not have enough funds to pay the costs of calling a final meeting of members and creditors. Without this short cut to deregistration these liquidators would be out of pocket. However, the saving in each case may not be great, given that there is (apparently) no requirement to give notice of the final meeting other than by means of one advertisement in the Government Gazette.
2. The government regulator (ASIC) receives a benefit by getting more dead companies off its Register with less “fuss”, thus reducing its workload in this area and thereby saving taxpayers some government expenditure.
But what of the creditors of the company in liquidation?
Financially, the Form 578 short cut to deregistration appears to make no difference to the creditors, for if the company is able to pay them a dividend the procedure cannot be utilized; and if the company is unable to pay them a dividend, it remains unable to pay them a dividend.
From the intangible views of justice and equity, it can be seen that, in the case of creditors of a company which is unable to pay a dividend, the Form 578 short cut deprives creditors of the right to receive a final account of the winding up and the opportunity to discuss the winding up with the liquidator and others at a final meeting.
Apart from the fact that these rights and opportunities seem to be enshrined in sections 509(1), the short cut method overlooks one of the main themes of recent attempts to reform insolvency laws, namely the need to improve information to creditors.
Is this short cut justified by the financial savings and improved efficiency? Let’s have a debate.
The comments and materials contained on this blog are for general information purposes only and are subject to the disclaimer.