Speaking in Kuching on the Companies Bill

I have been invited by CLJLaw to speak on 16 January 2015 at the Pullman Hotel, Kuching.The registration form is over here.

Due to the good response in KL the last time for the Companies Bill seminar, this will now be held over in Kuching.

 

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A lot of us are expecting the new Companies Bill to be tabled during the Parliamentary sitting in March 2015. The Bill and the changes it brings have been long-awaited.

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Insolvency and Arbitration: Will a winding up petition be stayed in favour of arbitration?

I am just setting out my thoughts and where I will be planning to write a more extensive article on this area. I have always been fascinated on the interaction of the statutory process of winding up and the contractual bargain of arbitration. Will one process always necessarily trump the other?

There are now several cases which try to deal with whether there can be a form of a stay of the Court winding up proceedings in favour of arbitration. The winding up itself can arise from either a creditor petitioning on the grounds of insolvency or a shareholder petitioning on the just and equitable grounds. In the former scenario, the petition may be grounded on a debt arising from a contract containing an arbitration clause. In the latter, the shareholder’s complaints may be arising from a shareholders’ agreement with the other shareholders. I now just record down some cases in the scenario of a petition being presented by a creditor on the grounds of insolvency.

There is a recent English Court of Appeal decision in Salford Estates (No. 2) Limited v Altomart Limited [2014] EWCA 1575 Civ  which held that the mandatory stay provisions in the English Arbitration Act would not apply to stay winding up proceedings. Instead, the Companies Court would exercise its usual discretion in whether to stay or dismiss a winding up petition, for example, if there was a bona fide dispute of the debt on substantial grounds.

This is a similar approach taken in Hong Kong, where its Arbitration Ordinance closely follows the Model Law (and therefore, may be more persuasive in Malaysia). The case of Jade Union Investment Limited [2004] HKCFI 21 also similarly held that the mere existence of an arbitration clause does not mean that the mandatory stay provisions under the Arbitration Ordinance would apply. The Court would still apply the test as to whether there was a bona fide dispute of debt when hearing the petition. Another case of Re Sinom (Hong Kong) Ltd [2009] HKCFI 2201 similarly followed Jade Union when deciding whether to grant an injunction to restrain the presentation of a petition.

It will be interesting to see how such a situation would play out in Malaysia. I am not aware of any such case involving a stay of a winding up petition or an injunction to restrain presentation based on the Arbitration Act 2005 (“AA”). I know of one or two cases under the old Arbitration Act 1952 where a stay of winding up proceedings was sometimes granted and sometimes not.

If there is an arbitration clause in a contract and a statutory demand is made for payment under the contract, would the other contracting party be able to apply under section 11 of the AA for an injunction to restrain the presentation of the petition? What would the test for such an injunction be? Would it still be the Tan Kok Tong Court of Appeal test of a bona fide dispute of debt on substantial grounds? Or would the mere existence of an arbitration clause be sufficient? Or would an application for an injunction have to be grounded outside of the AA and the Court would exercise its inherent jurisdiction to grant a Fortuna injunction to restrain the presentation?

If the Petition was filed, would a stay of those Court proceedings be allowed under section 10 of the AA? The test for a stay under section 10 of the AA will not require the Court to decide on whether there is a bona fide dispute (that original provision has been taken out) and it is almost mandatory for a stay unless the arbitration clause can be questioned (e.g. the clause is null and void or inoperative).

I will try to deal with these questions in my more extensive article and after I have done more research.

The Repetitive Restraining Orders

Background and History to the Restraining Order

Under the scheme of arrangement framework, the Court can grant a restraining order under section 176(10) of the Companies Act 1965 (“Act”) to restrain further proceedings in any action against the company undertaking a proposed scheme. This allows the financially distressed company to have a moratorium and have breathing space from creditor action, while the company attempts to restructure or compromise its debts. Ordinarily, it would be the company itself which would apply for a restraining order but section 176(10) of the Act allows any member or creditor of the company to also make such an application. I had earlier written a general overview on the law of schemes of arrangement.

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The restraining order would have to strike a balance between different interests. On the one hand, a moratorium may be beneficial to the overall pool of creditors in order to prevent the scramble by creditors to execute against the distressed company’s assets. The restraining order could therefore facilitate the orderly restructuring of the debts where there was a genuine and viable scheme proposal. On the other hand, a wide stay of legal proceedings could also be abused. A company could sit on a restraining order, without any viable scheme proposal, and frustrate the actions by the creditors.

The potential for the abuse of the restraining order may have led to the amendment to our Act in late 1998 to tighten up the use of restraining orders. Additional restrictions and creditor-protection provisions were built in through the introduction of sections 176(10A) – (10G) of the Act. Essentially, it limited the grant of each restraining order to prima facie not more than 90 days with certain mandatory requirements to be met. Further, once the restraining order was granted, there could not be the disposition of any property of the company outside the ordinary course of business.

A recent case highlighted a situation where there could be the repeated use of a restraining order. That might delay legal proceedings by creditors but it may also be a lifeline for an ailing company, if there was a viable scheme proposal.

The Repeated Use of a Restraining Order

In the unreported case of Dynawell Corporation (M) Sdn Bhd (in provisional liquidation) v Universal Trustee (M) Berhad (Seremban High Court Originating Summons NCVC-24M-63-06-2013) (see [2013] 1 LNS 1391), the High Court was made aware of multiple applications for a restraining order and made a finding that the application for a restraining order was mala fide. Dynawell can also be read together with the related High Court decision in RHB Bank Berhad v Gula Perak Berhad [2013] 1 LNS 1409. From a reading of both the cases, the brief facts appear to be as follows.

Gula Perak Berhad was listed on the stock exchange and in May 2010, it was classified as a PN17 company. It was eventually de-listed in May 2011. In turn, Dynawell is a wholly-owned subsidiary of Gula Perak Berhad and where its core asset is the Dynasty Hotel. Several secured lenders initiated legal proceedings against both Gula Perak and Dynawell, including foreclosure proceedings on the Dynasty Hotel. Winding up proceedings were also taken against Gula Perak and Dynawell and where both companies had Provisional Liquidators appointed over them.

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During the course of these legal proceedings, there appeared to be at least 6 different applications filed in different Courts seeking for a restraining order on the basis of a proposed scheme of arrangement. Applications were filed in Kuala Lumpur, Shah Alam, Seremban and Taiping. There were different applicants, some may have been creditors or members of Gula Perak/Dynawell or in the Dynawell case, it was Dynawell itself. It was noted in the Dynawell judgment that the proposed schemes of arrangement applications had similar grounds and traits and where the averments in the affidavit in support were largely the same. Justice Zabariah Yusof remarked that this indicated that it originated from the same source or author.

Procedurally, an application for such a restraining order would ordinarily be taken out ex parte. This is because  only the Applicant would need to apply and need not necessarily add in any other party, or to add in any of the other creditors with pending legal proceedings for instance. Once the initial restraining order is granted ex parte, and this should only be for a limited time not exceeding 90 days, it will then have a universal effect in restraining all legal proceedings by all the creditors listed in the proposed scheme. The onus then shifts to the opposing creditors to intervene and to attempt to set aside the restraining order or to oppose the extension of the restraining order.

Hence, the two judgments show that the opposing creditors had to go to each of the different Courts to apply to set aside the restraining orders obtained by different parties. The restraining orders and the related legal proceedings also delayed the foreclosure and the winding up proceedings.

The history of the litigation then led to the High Court in Taiping and in Seremban making orders that any further application for a restraining order be made inter partes and for such an application to be advertised in 3 newspapers.

Justice Zabariah Yusof made the following critical remarks:

“In view of the circumstances and the time line of the ex parte Originating Summons in Enclosure 2 filed, clearly shows the mala fide intent of Dynawell to conceal the application from UTB and at the same time concealing the material and relevant facts from the court.

Section 176(1) of the Companies Act does not state that an RO application may be made ex parte. It merely states that a party may apply. However, given the chequered history of Dynawell, the propose (sic) scheme of arrangements and the ROs applications which have been explained above, this is a case of abuse of process of the highest order. I would be failing in my duty if I do not invoke my inherent jurisdiction to curb further abuse by Dynawell.”

Costs of the setting aside of the restraining order were then made personally against the director of Dynawell.

Conclusion

A restraining order is usually a useful and often crucial mechanism to achieve a viable restructuring. However, this case shows how the repeated use of a restraining order could amount to an abuse of process. The present provisions in the Act, and the impending amendments to the Act, will not address this potential for abuse. An application for a restraining order can continue to be taken out ex parte, and where an applicant may still attempt to bypass the mandatory protection laid in the section 176(10A) requirements. Any creditor or member of the company could potentially also apply for a restraining order, thereby resulting in multiple and parallel restraining orders. The protection against any abuse of process therefore rests on the vigilance of the Courts when hearing such ex parte applications.

Auditors Beware: Auditors Owe a Duty of Care to Company’s Investors

[this article was originally published in Skrine’s Legal Insights Issue 3/2014]

The Court of Appeal in CIMB Investment Bank Bhd v Ernst & Young & Another Appeal [2014] 6 CLJ 438 (see the Grounds of Judgment from the Kehakiman website) held that in carrying out statutory audits under the Securities Industry Act 1983 (“SIA”), the auditors of a fund management company owed a duty of care to the company’s investors.

This appellate decision is significant as it confirms the tests to be applied to ascertain whether auditors owe a duty of care to the company’s investors. On the facts of this case, the auditors’ agreement to conduct an SIA audit for a fund manager created a special relationship between the auditors and the company’s investors which gave rise to a common law duty of care on the part of the auditors to undertake a proper audit in the course of carrying out their statutory duty.

BACKGROUND FACTS

SJ Asset Management Sdn Bhd

The appeal centred on SJ Asset Management Sdn Bhd (“SJAM”), a licensed fund management company under the SIA and the Capital Markets and Services Act 2007 (“CMSA”). The appellants in one appeal were clients, or in other words investors, of SJAM. In the second appeal, the appellant had caused its clients to invest in SJAM. SJAM held, administered and managed various investments of the appellants.

SJAM had engaged the respondent auditors to perform the necessary statutory audits under the Companies Act 1965 (“CA”) and under the SIA. Pursuant to their engagement, the auditors produced audit reports.

Following complaints against SJAM, the Securities Commission (“SC”) investigated SJAM, revoked its capital market services license and eventually wound up SJAM.

The appellants, in turn, appointed their own accountants to investigate the accounts of SJAM. Based on their accountants’ findings of fraud in the management of the funds of the clients, the appellants commenced the High Court action against the auditors based on negligence. The appellants’ contentions were that they had relied on the auditors’ audit reports to make, advise on or facilitate investments in SJAM.

Preliminary Issues for Determination by the High Court

In the High Court action (reported in CIMB Investment Bank Bhd v Ernst & Young and Another Case [2014] 3 CLJ 322), the Court heard an application for the determination of the issue on whether the auditors owed a duty of care to the appellants in the two situations that arose in this case.

The first situation was when the auditors were carrying out the statutory audits in accordance with the CA for SJAM and issuing the CA audit reports. The second situation, and what was more significant in this appeal, was when the auditors were carrying out the statutory audits in accordance with the SIA for SJAM and issuing the SIA audit reports.

The High Court decided in favour of the auditors and found that the auditors owed no duty of care to the appellants in both situations. For the CA audit reports, it was held that CA audit reports were not intended for the appellants, as investors of the company, but were meant for SJAM and its shareholders in the general meeting. As for the SIA audit reports, it was held that they were not meant for making investment decisions but to enable SJAM to furnish such information to the SC.

Therefore, the appellants’ claims were dismissed. The appellants appealed to the Court of Appeal.

FINDINGS ON THE DUTY OF CARE

Guiding Principles on Establishing a Duty of Care

The Court of Appeal was guided by the Federal Court decision in The Co-operative Central Bank Ltd v KGV & Associates Sdn Bhd [2008] 2 CLJ 545 in accepting the guidelines laid down by the House of Lords in Her Majesty’s Commissioners of Customs and Excise v Barclays Bank [2007] 1 AC 181.

The Federal Court in Co-operative Central Bank acknowledged that three general tests could be used to determine whether a duty of care existed in cases that involved economic loss.

The first is the ‘assumption of responsibility’ test as to whether the defendant assumed responsibility for what he said and did vis-à-vis the claimant, or is to be treated by the law as having done so. The second is the threefold test: whether loss to the claimant was a reasonably foreseeable consequence of what the defendant did or failed to do; whether the relationship between the parties was one of sufficient proximity; and whether in all the circumstances it was fair, just and reasonable to impose a duty of care on the defendant towards the claimant. The third is the incremental test.

Against this backdrop, the Court of Appeal found that the High Court had determined the existence of the duty of care solely on the basis of the threefold test. In applying this test, the High Court had ruled that the appellants had failed to satisfy the ‘sufficient proximity’ element. The Court of Appeal held that instead, the High Court should have applied the guidelines in Barclays Bank, in particular, the first test of assumption of responsibility.

Duty of Care on the Part of the Auditors

The application of the assumption of responsibility test would mean that:

(a) reliance on the auditors’ report is no longer an essential ingredient to establish a duty of care;
(b) no anterior relationship between the appellants and the auditors is necessary to satisfy the ingredients of foreseeability and proximity; and
(c) the ingredient relating to proximity is satisfied so long as the assumption of responsibility may be inferred by reason of the existence of a special relationship.

The Court of Appeal drew a distinction between the CA audit and the SIA audit and found that Parliament could not have intended for both audits to be for the same purpose. There would be a difference in the scope and approach of the SIA audit as compared to the CA audit.

The focus of the SIA audit included the safeguarding of the assets of the appellants held by SJAM. The report by the auditors would serve to alert the SC and/or the relevant government authority to take such further action as is required. If in the course of the audit, the auditors come across a transaction or an accounting entry that does not comply with the provisions of Division 3 of Part VII of the SIA, the auditors had a duty to look deeper. The auditors could not ignore the irregularity or breach. Therefore, the SIA audit framework is a critical means of both ensuring compliance and detecting non-compliance by SJAM in relation to the management of the appellants’ assets.

The Court of Appeal also disagreed that any breach of the SIA provisions could only be enforced by the SC. Further, this was an appropriate case where the legislative framework in the SIA could be a basis to found the claim for breach of the common law duty of care arising from the careless performance of a statutory duty.

In concluding that the auditors owed a duty of care, the Court of Appeal stressed that the appellants were in an unusual situation whereby their funds and investments were in the hands of a trustee fund manager (SJAM) but over which funds they had no control. The auditors’ agreement to conduct the SIA audit for SJAM with knowledge or imputed knowledge of the unusual situation in which the appellants were placed, gave rise to a duty on the part of the auditors to undertake a proper audit in the course of carrying out their statutory duty. This obligation created a relationship between the auditors and the appellants so as to give rise to a common law duty of care.

If the auditors had not breached their duty of care, the SIA audit reports would have been qualified and the irregularity in the accounts of SJAM would have been reported to the SC. Such a report to the SC, in turn, would have caused the SC to take the appropriate action thereby causing SJAM to cease trading and consequently, diminish the losses of the appellants. However, because the audit reports that were produced by the auditors were ‘clean’, the SC took action much later and the ensuing winding up of SJAM was correspondingly delayed, thereby causing substantially more losses to the appellants.

The Court of Appeal therefore ruled that the auditors owed a common law duty of care to the appellants. The Court of Appeal ordered that the matters be remitted to the High Court for the trial on the issue of the liability of the auditors, if any, to the appellants.

CONCLUSION

This decision is significant in confirming that auditors who carry out a statutory audit under the SIA for a fund management company owe a duty of care to the investors of that company. Although the SIA has been repealed and replaced by the CMSA, it is likely that a similar duty of care on the part of the auditors would arise under the CMSA.

It is also likely that the Court would still impose such a duty in favour of the investors of the company even if the auditors build disclaimers into such a statutory audit (whether under the SIA or CMSA) to exclude liability or obligations to third parties.

MIA International Conference 2014

I will be moderating a session at the Malaysian Institute of Accountants Conference 2014 this Wednesday 5 November 2014. It will be on the new Companies Bill and its impact on Malaysian businesses and economy. It should be a very interesting session and I have been liaising with the speakers on the panel. Will keep the format as a group discussion and try to draw out all the different issues.

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Shareholder Oppression Action Not Arbitrable

The Singapore High Court in the Silica Investors case (Silica Investors Ltd v Tomolugen Holdings Limited and others [2014] SGHC 101) refused a stay of an oppression action initiated by a shareholder pending a reference to arbitration. The Court found that based on the facts of the case, the minority oppression claim was non-arbitrable. There were relevant parties, including other shareholders, who were not parties to the arbitration. Further, the Plaintiff in the oppression action was seeking for remedies that the arbitral tribunal could not grant, including winding up.

Briefly, there was an arbitration clause in an agreement between only two of the shareholders. The Plaintiff filed an oppression action against both the party to the arbitration agreement as well as against non-parties (being the directors and some of the other shareholders of the Company). The Plaintiff sought a share buy-out order, an alternative prayer for winding up, and for several declaratory orders.

The Judge took great lengths in looking at the developments in Australia, Canada and the UK, and the academic commentary arising from those cases. In particular, the Judge distinguished the English Court of Appeal decision in Fulham Football Club (1987) Ltd v Richards and another [2012] Ch 333 (where an unfair prejudice action was stayed pending arbitration) as the unfair prejudice relief in that case was for a specific injunction Order. There was no possibility of a share buy-out or winding up in that case.

This is a fascinating area of the law where there is still no clear answer on the right balance to be struck. On the one hand, there is the policy of interpreting an arbitration clause as wide as possible in order for contracting parties to be bound by their bargain to go to the exclusive forum of arbitration. On the other hand, parties e.g. shareholders, may still want to rely on their statutory remedies and the Court will have to consider whether a dispute is arbitrable or not.

Corporate Rescue Talk at MIA

I was invited by the Malaysian Institute of Accountants to deliver a talk on 4 March 2014 focusing on the insolvency-related provisions of the Companies Bill. It was an interesting session, with a lot of questions and a lively discussion among the participants. The areas I touched on were the changes to the receivership, winding up and schemes of arrangement provisions, and the introduction of judicial management and the corporate voluntary arrangement.

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A copy of my slides can be downloaded here.