How to Unwind a Voluntary Winding Up

The Singapore High Court in Zi-Techasia [2014] SGHC 09 analysed the considerations to be applied in staying a voluntary winding up and the effect of such a stay. This case is interesting since as far as I am aware, Malaysia does not have a reported decision touching on these same issues.

Members Voluntary Winding Up

As a quick introduction, this case involved a members voluntary winding up. This process involves the members passing the necessary special resolution to resolve that the company be wound up and the members appoint the liquidator. Unwinding such a voluntary winding up cannot be done through the members subsequently passing a resolution to reverse this process.

Decision

As recognised by the Singapore High Court, the Court has the power under the Companies Act to grant an Order to stay a winding up. In Malaysia, that would be the equivalent power set out in section 243 of the Act. However, this power is only provided to the Court where it involves a Court-ordered winding up and therefore, this section 243 of the Act would have to be read together with section 274 of the Act. Section 274 allows the liquidator or any contributory or creditor to apply to the Court to exercise all or any of the powers which the Court might exercise if it were a Court-ordered winding up. The test to be applied therefore in staying a voluntary winding up would be the same principles for a stay of a winding up under section 243 of the Act (in Malaysia, the leading case on these principles are set out in the Federal Court decision of Vijayalakshmi). In essence, one would have to show that the creditors are not prejudiced.

The Singapore High Court expressed some doubts as to whether the Court could ever exercise its inherent jurisdiction to set aside or stay a winding up and made a passing reference to the Malaysian Court of Appeal decision of Megah Teknik (I have written about this decision previously).

In determining when such a stay should come into effect, the Singapore High Court held that the stay should only take effect from the date of the stay Order and is not backdated to the date of the winding up Order or date of the commencement of the voluntary winding up. The winding up is merely stayed moving forward, and not set aside or rescinded. Therefore, such a stay does not undo the actions of the liquidators but only halts the proceedings. The Court was guided by the Malaysian Court of Appeal decision in American International Assurance Bhd (another decision I had written on previously).

Postscript

By way of postscript, the Court also highlighted two interesting questions in the present stay regime that may require legislative intervention. The first is the proper procedure if the defendant company were to be wound up in future. It might be thought that as the winding up is only stayed, it would be open to any interested party to apply to court to have the stay order set aside or varied so that winding up could, in a sense, continue. However the present winding up proceedings were commenced on the footing of a members’ voluntary winding up and it is uncertain whether, in future, should the company become insolvent, a creditor could apply afresh for the company to be wound up by the court. In Re Intermain, Hoffmann J was of the opinion that an existing petition should be regarded as exhausted by a perfected winding up order which being stayed would make it necessary for a fresh winding up petition to be presented. But nothing was said whether this principle would apply also to cases of voluntary winding up.

The second issue is on the powers of directors. There is an issue that were the directors to quit office whether through the efflux of time or by the effect of provisions in the Articles of Association, there could be nobody to take up the reins of the company in the case that winding up was stayed altogether. This was the concern raised by Young J in Austral Brick. In such a case the court may need to make further orders to appoint new directors, but we currently have no statutory provisions dealing with that. By way of comparison, s 482(3) of the Australian Corporations Act 2001 states that where a court has made an order terminating a winding up, it may also give directions for the resumption of the management and control of the company by its officers, including directions for the convening of a general meeting of members of the company to elect directors of the company to take office upon the termination of the winding up. Also, I do not doubt that there may be other conceptual conundrums thrown up because a permanent stay of winding up is, in the words of Tipping J in Re Kim Maxwell Ltd [1992] 1 NZLR 69, a contradiction in terms. The insolvency regime may benefit from legislative clarity on the issue.

Malaysia’s Amendments to the Companies Act

Under the pending Companies Bill, we will be introducing a mechanism (as set out in Clause 477 of the present version of the Bill) to give the Court the power to also terminate a winding up. This is in addition to the present power to order a stay of winding up. In deciding on a termination of winding up, the Court may take into account the satisfaction of debts, agreement by parties or other facts that the Court considers appropriate. This would in future allow for an easier route to unwind a winding up. However, based on the present termination clause in the Bill, it would still not resolve the above two issues highlighted by the Singapore High Court. Further, the power to terminate a winding up would also appear to only take effect from the date of the Order. It does not appear to provide for the winding up to be rescinded or set aside and therefore have retrospective effect as if the winding up never was.

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