Beware the precise wording of insolvency practitioners’ letters of engagement!

Beware the precise wording of insolvency practitioners’ letters of engagement!

When you as a director approach an insolvency practitioner for advice and support in connection with your insolvent company, the IP has to provide you with a letter of engagement.  The purpose of that letter is to set out:

  • Your legal responsibilities as a director
  • The legal processes that need to be followed to put your company in to CVL / Creditors Voluntary Liquidation (or similar), and in the period immediately after then (including the creditor decision procedure)
  • What the IP’s duties are and what you will do to help them fulfil those duties
  • How the IP gets paid
  • A good number of other things the IP must point out either because his governing body or law require him to do so.

The prime purpose of such letters is to ensure you and the IP both know exactly where each stand.

But do you really know where you stand?

I’ve been approached several times recently by directors looking for a second opinion, a different set of eyes, after they’ve taken advice from bigger firms of IPs.

And they brought with them the IPs’ letter of engagement… which in my view was impossible for the directors to fully understand because the letters were incredibly long, detailed and complicated.  But it goes further than that… a few words amongst the ten pages – which were explained erroneously by the work getter in the IPs’ firm – would have had a major impact on the directors.

Let’s explore this…

The basis of the IPs’ fees were explained in the letter – they would be paid an agreed sum for the work they did up to the date the creditors decide whether or not to allow them to carry out the liquidation, and then once their appointment was confirmed their fees would be agreed by the creditors, or in another way which the directors / shareholders had no input into.  Quoting one such case, £5k plus VAT, ie £6k up to the creditor decision date, but no figure estimated for their post decision fees.

The letter in that case said that ‘in the event that the assets of the company are insufficient to discharge our fees, any shortfall will be paid by the directors of the company personally.  The signature of the enclosed copy of the letter of engagement letter by the directors shall be evidence and confirmation of your joint and several guarantee of all monies owed to us’.

Tell me… how much have you guaranteed?

Nothing, because you hope the IP realises at least £6k.  £5k, the figure before vat (can the IP claim back the vat?)? £6k?  £10k?  £20k? More?

The point is you don’t know, you have no idea?  Did you notice the word ‘all’ in the last few words of the quotation?

Because of this you are guaranteeing the IPs’ entire fees, including that post the creditors’ position.

And you have no control over the his fees or the extent of his work post creditor decision – here his fees will probably be calculated as follows:

    1.  At his rate per hour per staff grade – you have no control over
      -what grade of staff they get to do what;
      – whether he asks the creditors to enhance his rates (he can do so under Insolvency Law if he thinks his work or the circumstances of the case make it appropriate he’s paid more) – and it’s the creditors who get to decide, not you; or
      – by how much he increases his charge out rates each year – you only know his current charge out rates – and as you will see, they are hefty)multiplied by
    2. The number of hours spent – post creditor decision, you have no control over:
      – what work they choose to do;
      – What complexities are caused by others, such as creditors, employees, HMRC etc
      – how many hours they spend;
      – how long the liquidation takes (the longer it takes generally the more time is spent).

All you know is it’s a minimum of £6k plus the reasonable fees of the IP post creditor decision date – work on at least double the £6k figure as a bare minimum.  In reality by signing the letter of engagement you’re signing a blank cheque in favour of the IP.

So was that explained to you?

No it never is – it’s always explained that you’re guaranteeing the IPs’ fees only up to the decision date, his costs after that are conveniently ignored, never raised with you.

And that is why it’s often a good idea to get a second opinion, even if you’ve been introduced to the IP by someone you trust such as our accountant – because the person who introduced you will simply not know about these issues, you’re putting blind trust in your adviser’s recommendation, blind trust that could cost you dearly.

If you would like to arrange a meeting for a second opinion, call me on 01902 672323.

Should I be worried about getting banned as a director?

This is a question I’m often asked.  In the vast majority of cases, it really isn’t a worry, but for you while it isn’t the biggest concern you might have over your company’s failure, it’s pretty high on your list.  There are several reasons for this…

First off, let’s explore why you are worrying…

You have probably not recognised that we live in a country that encourages entrepreneurialism, that encourages people like you to have a set up in business.  Without that encouragement our economy would be in tatters, we’d all be working for someone else, not taking any risks.  And being in any business is quite risky, in fact more businesses have always failed than succeed, nowadays with technology moving as fast as it is even more so .  A level of failure is expected by the authorities.  It’s just how you fail…

You probably feel at least some level of personal responsibility for creditor losses.  You have looked back at every decision you did and didn’t make, and assume that if, with hindsight, if you now consider some of those decisions to have been the wrong ones, you are liable to be banned.

For you, the company’s failure is personal, it’s a massive event in your life, one which probably hasn’t happened to you before and thus of which you have no prior experience.  as you are going into uncharted territory, you feel vulnerable.

The figures involved, at least for you, might appear be big, but in the grand scheme of things are often relatively small.  If you don’t have £40,000 to pay your debts, it’s a huge figure for you.  In your mind it might as well be £400,000.  To the outside world there is a huge difference between £40,000 and £400,000.   The level of the problem in your mind could be out of proportion to the actual figures, to the problem in others’ eyes.

Now, let’s look at who the authorities are looking to ban …

Those who are prone to be banned include directors who:

  1. Abuse the principle of limited liability.  Let me explain.  If your company goes into say insolvent liquidation, a good many of its debts are written off, unless you have given a personal guarantee, you’re not liable to pay them.  This is a privilege, and with privileges, there has to be some accountability.  Abuse that privilege, abuse the fact creditors have put their confidence in you by effectively lending money to your company in one way or another and you pay the penalty.
  2. Break the law.  Break any law, for example if you breach health and safety laws, fail to supply merchandisable goods, or commit a fraud on creditors generally or a specific creditor, and you could be banned.  Ignorance of the law is no excuse, you’re expected to know and abide by all the laws that apply to your business.  The reasons for being banned do not have to be financial, operational ones matter too.
  3. ‘Take’ money off HMRC or the general public.  The nature of your creditors matters.  For example HMRC have no choice but to extend credit to your company, so there’s an obligation on you to treat them fairly, especially as regards VAT where you are effectively deemed to have held on to their money.  Get involved in any fraud on HMRC, eg MTIC/carousel fraud, and you will be banned.  If you accept deposits from the Public in advance of supplying them with goods / services but do not protect their money, you’re at risk.
  4. Are involved in certain sectors which are considered rife for fraud or wrongdoing. The sectors continually change as new scams are invented by miscreants.
  5. The size of the failure and regularity of failures with which you are involved.  Directors of bigger businesses and companies going into liquidation with £1m+ debts attract more attention by the authorities and a higher level of skill is expected than say if you are a director of a small corner shop that fails with £50,000 of debts.  If you have a string of insolvent liquidations behind you, whatever the size, the government might form the view that creditors need to be protected from you.
  6. Fail to take, or take but choose to ignore, professional advice, who fail to take advise from a licensed insolvency practitioner in the lead up to insolvency.  The authorities expect you, someone who probably has no prior experience of such difficulties to go and get help, not somehow muddle through, trust to luck or take advice and do what they want to anyway (especially if doing so profits them).

Here’s a link to some government guidance you might like to read – Gov.UK

And here’s a link to a page that’s continually updated where the government publish details of the directors who have been banned in the previous 3 months… Link.  Clicking on the individual bans will give you an idea of where the government’s focus lies.

Here are a few questions for you…

  1. Have you or have you caused the company to break any laws?
  2. Do you owe a lot of money to HMRC?  Have you caused the company to retain and use that money for other purposes?
  3. Should you have ceased trading earlier?  If so, in doing so, have you caused creditors to suffer a larger levels of losses?
  4. Have you somehow taken money or assets out of the company for your own personal gain or that of people you are close with?
  5. Have you treated everyone fairly?
  6. Have you been involved with multiple failures?

If your answer is no to all of these, you’re probably not at risk of being banned, especially if you’ve personally sunk and lost a lot of your own money in the company.  If your answer is possibly, it might be worth you taking some advice, or if I’m to be appointed as your insolvency practitioner, we need to talk early.  If your answer is yes, you might be at risk of being banned, take advice, there are legal firms who specialise in helping directors like you – a Google search on director disqualification solicitors will produce a long list.

We hope that you find this article of help, if all it does is enable you to sleep a bit better at night…