On appeal from:  EWCA Civ 112
This appeal raised questions of considerable importance for company law. It provides the first opportunity for the Supreme Court to consider the existence, content and engagement of the so-called “creditor duty”: the alleged duty of company directors to consider, or to act in accordance with, the interests of the company’s creditors when the company becomes insolvent, or when it approaches, or is at real risk of, insolvency.
In May 2009, the directors of a company called AWA caused it to distribute a dividend of €135 million to its only shareholder, the respondent. This extinguished almost the whole of a larger debt which the respondent owed to AWA. At the time the May dividend was paid, AWA was solvent. However, it had long-term pollution-related contingent liabilities of an uncertain amount and an insurance portfolio of an uncertain value. There was a real risk that AWA might become insolvent in the future, though insolvency was not imminent, or even probable.
AWA went into insolvent administration almost ten years later, in October 2018. The appellant, BTI 2014 LLC, is the assignee of AWA’s claims. BTI sought to recover the amount of the May dividend from AWA’s directors. It argued that the directors’ decision to distribute the May dividend was taken in breach of the creditor duty because the directors had not considered or acted in the interests of AWA’s creditors. Both the High Court and the Court of Appeal rejected the creditor duty claim. In the judgment of the Court of Appeal, the creditor duty did not arise until a company was either actually insolvent, on the brink of insolvency or probably headed for insolvency. Its provisional view was that the creditor duty became paramount as soon as the company became insolvent. Since AWA was not insolvent or on the brink of insolvency in May 2009, BTI’s creditor duty claim failed. BTI appealed to the Supreme Court.
HELD – Appeal unanimously dismissed. All members of the Court agree that AWA’s directors were not at the relevant time under a duty to consider, or to act in accordance with, the interests of creditors in the circumstances of this appeal.
Issue 1: Is there a common law creditor duty at all?
Section 172(1) of the 2006 Act requires directors to act in the way they consider, in good faith, would be most likely to promote the success of the company for the benefit of its members as a whole. It codifies the long-established common law fiduciary duty to act in good faith in the interests of the company, implementing the recommendations of the Steering Group of the Department of Trade and Industry’s Company Law Review. The Supreme Court held that, in certain circumstances, this duty is modified by the common law rule that the company’s interests are taken to include the interests of the company’s creditors as a whole.
Lord Briggs uses “creditor duty” as a convenient label for this modifying rule. However, he agrees with Lord Reed that it is in truth an aspect of the director’s duty to the company, rather than a free-standing duty of its own. Lord Reed and Lady Arden prefer to describe the modifying rule as “the rule in West Mercia” after the leading case.
The creditor duty should be affirmed for the following reasons. First, the duty is supported by a long line of UK case law. Second, the majority hold that the duty is affirmed, or its possible existence is preserved, by section 172(3) of the 2006 Act. Third, the duty has a coherent and principled justification. Creditors always have an economic interest in the company’s assets, but the relative importance of that economic interest increases where the company is insolvent or nearing insolvency. In those circumstances, the directors should manage the company’s affairs in a way which takes creditors’ interests into account and seeks to avoid prejudicing them.
Directors owe their duties to the company, rather than directly to shareholders or to creditors. The creditor duty is not a free-standing duty that is owed to creditors.
Issue 2: Can the creditor duty apply to a decision by directors to pay an otherwise legal dividend?
The Court held that the creditor duty can apply to a decision by directors to pay a dividend which is otherwise lawful, for two reasons. First, Part 23 of the 2006 Act is subject to any rule of law to the Contrary (see section 851(1)). Since the creditor duty is part of the common law and is recognized by section 172(3) of the 2006 Act, it is not excluded by Part 23. Second, a decision to pay a dividend that is lawful under Part 23 may still be taken in breach of duty.
Issue 3: What is the content of the creditor duty?
Where the company is insolvent, or bordering on insolvency, but is not faced with an inevitable insolvent liquidation or administration, the directors should consider the interests of creditors, balancing them against the interests of shareholders where they may conflict. The greater the company’s financial difficulties, the more the directors should prioritize the interests of creditors.
The interests of creditors are the interests of creditors as a general body. The directors are not required to consider the interests of particular creditors in a special position. Where an insolvent liquidation or administration is inevitable, the creditors’ interests become paramount as the shareholders cease to retain any valuable interest in the company.
Issue 4: When is the creditor duty engaged? Was it engaged on the facts of this case?
The creditor duty was not engaged on the facts of this case. This is because, at the time of the May dividend, AWA was not actually or imminently insolvent, nor was insolvency even probable. The duty does not apply only because the company was at a real and not remote risk of insolvency.
The majority hold that the creditor duty is engaged when the directors know, or ought to know, that the company is insolvent or bordering on insolvency, or that an insolvent liquidation or administration is probable. Lord Reed and Lady Arden agree that the duty applies when the company is insolvent or bordering on insolvency, or when an insolvent liquidation or administration is probable. However, they leave open the question of whether it is essential that the directors know or ought to know that this is the case.
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