[This article was originally published in the Chartered Institute of Arbitrators, Malaysia branch newsletter Issue 1/2015].
Lee Shih analyses the tension between the contractual bargain to arbitrate and the statutory right to bring winding up proceedings based on a debt. Would an arbitration agreement trump the winding up process?
Introduction: Statutory Right vs Contractual Bargain
Liquidation, or winding up, is a statutory process which leads to the end of the life of a company. It allows for an equitable realisation and distribution of the assets of a company to discharge its debts. It is a procedure of an inherently collective nature, and each creditor forfeits its individual right to take action to enforce any debt owed and must depend on the result of the collective procedure.
By contrast, arbitration arises from the bargain that has been struck between the contracting parties. Disputes arising from the contract between the parties are to be resolved through the private dispute resolution mechanism of arbitration.
This article covers the possible conflict between the statutory right to wind up a company and the contractual bargain to arbitrate disputes with that company. For example, can a creditor, who alleges that a debt is due, bypass the arbitration clause and instead, bring a winding up action? This article will set out how different jurisdictions have attempted to resolve this tension.
Singapore: Larsen Oil
The Singapore Court of Appeal decision in Larsen Oil and Gas Pte Ltd v Petropod Ltd (in official liquidation in the Cayman Islands and in compulsory liquidation in Singapore)  3 SLR 414 (“Larsen Oil”) dealt with limits of the arbitrability of disputes relating to an insolvent company.
The respondent, Petropod Ltd (“Petropod”), entered into an agreement with the appellant, Larsen Oil and Gas Ltd (“Larsen Oil”). Certain payments were made by Petropod and its subsidiaries to Larsen Oil, which Larsen Oil claimed were payments due under the agreement.
Petropod was subsequently placed under liquidation. Petropod’s liquidators commenced proceedings for the avoidance of a number of the payments made to Larsen Oil on, among others, the ground that these payments were unfair preferences or transactions at an undervalue under the relevant winding up provisions. Larsen Oil applied for a stay of these proceedings in favour of arbitration, relying on an arbitration clause in the agreement.
The Court of Appeal set out the difference in approach for two situations relating to an insolvent company and when these disputes may be non-arbitrable.
Firstly, there may be a dispute involving an insolvent company due to the operation of the insolvency regime. This insolvency regime would trigger statutory provisions to recoup assets for the benefit of the company’s creditors caused by the misfeasance and/or malfeasance of its former management. This is especially true of the avoidance and wrongful/fraudulent trading provisions. A further consideration is that some of these remedies may include claims against former management who would not be parties to any arbitration agreement. Therefore, the insolvency regime’s objective of facilitating claims by a company’s creditors against the company and its former management overrides the freedom of the company’s former management to choose the forum where such disputes are to be heard. Disputes arising from the operation of the statutory provisions of the insolvency regime per se are non-arbitrable.
Secondly, there may be a dispute involving an insolvent company that stem from its pre-insolvency rights and obligations. In instances where the agreement was only to resolve the prior private inter se disputes between the company and another party, the Court would usually observe the terms of the arbitration agreement. The proof of debt process was merely a substituted means of enforcing debts against the company, and did not create new rights in the creditors or destroy old ones. Allowing a creditor to arbitrate his claim against a wound up company in such circumstances would not undermine the insolvency regime’s underlying policy aims.
Based on the above principles, the Singapore Court of Appeal affirmed the Singapore High Court’s decision to dismiss the stay of proceedings since the subject matter of the claim, being inter alia claims of unfair preference, was non-arbitrable.
However, if there was merely a dispute of a debt between the company and an alleged creditor, this may fall within the Larsen Oil formulation of a prior private inter se dispute between the company and alleged creditor. Such a dispute may be allowed to go for arbitration instead of being resolved within the winding up proof of debt process.
Hong Kong: Jade Union
In the Hong Kong Court of First Instance case of Re Jade Union Investment Limited  HKCFI 21 (“Jade Union”), the petitioner presented a winding up petition against the company, Jade Union, based on a debt arising from four interim payment certificates. There was an arbitration clause in the underlying contract. Shortly after the presentation of the petition, the petitioner also commenced arbitration proceedings against Jade Union for outstanding payments under the contract, including the claims under those interim payment certificates. Jade Union applied to stay the winding up petition and one of the grounds was based on the arbitration clause.
The Court dismissed the stay application. It was held that a winding up petition is different from an action between the parties, in which the parties seek the court’s determination as to their respective rights and liabilities. In a winding up petition, a creditor invokes the court’s jurisdiction under the Companies Ordinance to wind up a company on one or more of the grounds set out in the Ordinance. In doing so, the creditor exercises a class right available to all of the company’s creditors.
Even if a winding up order is made, the creditor is still obliged to submit a proof of debt, along with other creditors of the company, and the liquidator will then decide how much the creditor is entitled to receive from the assets of the company. It follows that by making a winding up order the court does not thereby adjudicate the petitioner’s rights to recover any particular amount from the company.
Therefore, the existence of an arbitration agreement did not affect the Court’s jurisdiction under the Companies Ordinance and it appeared that the winding up regime took precedence over the arbitration agreement.
England: Salford Estates
The legal position in England on this area has been evolving and now it appears that a Court would not automatically apply the stay provision in the arbitration legislation to stay a winding up petition.
Initially, the English High Court decision of Rusant Ltd v Traxys Far East Ltd  EWHC 4083 (Ch) (“Rusant”) held that if a petition is based on a disputed debt identified in a statutory demand and that dispute is the subject of an arbitration agreement, it must be referred to arbitration first. The High Court therefore granted an injunction to restrain the presentation of the winding up petition.
However, the English Court of Appeal in Salford Estates (No. 2) Limited v Altomart Limited  EWCA 1575 Civ (“Salford Estates”) has now disagreed with the decision in Rusant. In Salford Estates, a winding up petition was presented against the company based on the ground of its inability to pay its debts. The company applied under the English Arbitration Act 1996 for a stay of the winding up petition as the debt on which the petition was based arose out of a contract containing an arbitration agreement.
The English Court of Appeal held that the stay provision under the English Arbitration Act 1996 would have no application to the winding up petition. Firstly, if the petition proceeded, there could be no reference to arbitration of any of the debts because the making of the winding up order bring into effect the statutory scheme for proof of debts which supersedes any arbitration agreement. Secondly, it would be highly improbable that Parliament, without any express provision to that effect, intended the stay provision to confer on a debtor such a right to a non-discretionary order. That would strike at the heart of the jurisdiction and discretionary power of the Court to wind up companies in the public interest where companies are not able to pay their debts.
However, the Court proceeded to consider the winding up provision under the English Insolvency Act 1986 which confers a discretionary power to wind up a company. It was held that this discretion should be exercised in a manner consistent with the legislative policy embodied in the English Arbitration Act 1996. Therefore, the Court exercised its discretion under the Insolvency Act 1986 to stay the petition so as to compel the parties to resolve the dispute on the debt through arbitration.
So while the English position is that the statutory jurisdiction for winding up is unaffected by the statutory stay provision under the arbitration framework, the English Courts can still exercise its discretion as to whether to compel parties to adhere to their contractual bargain to arbitrate.
One Approach in Malaysia: Company Court would not adjudicate on the disputes subject to arbitration
In Malaysia, a winding up petition may be presented on the ground of the company’s inability to pay its debts (section 218(1)(e) of the Companies Act 1965 (“CA 1965”)). A creditor may issue a statutory demand under section 218(2)(a) of the CA 1965 to seek payment of any debt of more than RM500 and thereafter, present a winding up petition. The underlying debt may however be disputed by the company and the company may want to rely on the arbitration agreement in the contract.
The Malaysian Courts have addressed the issue on whether to proceed with a winding up petition where the underlying dispute between the parties is subject to arbitration.
In both the High Court decisions of Syarikat Lian Ping Enterprise Sdn Bhd v Cygal Bhd  2 CLJ 814 (“Syarikat Lian Ping”) and Liew Yin Yin Construction Sdn Bhd v Yata Enterprise Sdn Bhd  3 MLJ 249 (“Liew Yin Yin”), a winding up petition was presented against the respondent companies based on a debt due to the petitioner. The debt arose from a contract which contained an arbitration agreement. The High Court in both cases ordered that the petitions be struck out. The underlying reasoning was that the Court, sitting as a Companies Court, would not be used to resolve the disputes between the parties and that the disputes should be resolved by arbitration. The Court would not inquire into the disputes as that would have amounted to the Court adjudicating on the disputes, thereby frustrating the arbitration agreement with a Court should normally act on.
In both the cases, the respondent did not rely on the stay provision under the old Arbitration Act 1952 to attempt to stay the winding up petition. Nonetheless, the decisions appeared to foreshadow the English approach in Salford Estates in demonstrating the Court’s exercise of discretion to effectively put a stop to the winding up petition in order to uphold the parties’ bargain to arbitrate.
Another Approach: Party to an arbitration can still present a winding up petition
A winding up petition may also be founded on another ground to establish a company’s inability to pay its debts. Under section 218(2)(c) of the CA 1965, the Court can take into account the contingent and prospective liabilities of the company.
This was the route taken by the petitioning creditor in the High Court case of KNM Process Systems Sdn Bhd v Mission Biofuels Sdn Bhd  8 MLJ 434 (“KNM Process Systems”). The petitioning creditor had claims against the respondent for outstanding payments arising from a construction project. The petitioner’s initial suits against the respondent for these payments were stayed pending arbitration.
Despite the ongoing arbitration, the petitioner presented a winding up petition against the respondent based on section 218(2)(c) of the CA 1965.
The respondent applied to strike out the petition and the Court ordered that the striking out be heard together with the petition. The Court found that the petitioner had the locus standi to present the petition. The petitioner was held to be a contingent creditor of the respondent due to the possibility of succeeding in its arbitration against the respondent. The Court then proceeded to determine whether the respondent was unable to pay its debts. After examining the respondent’s financial reports, the Court found that there was insufficient evidence to justify a finding that the respondent was insolvent. Therefore, the Court dismissed the petition.
Although not raised in KNM Process Systems, it may have been open to the respondent to apply for a stay of the winding up petition based on section 10 of the Arbitration Act 2005 (“AA 2005”). What would have been the competing arguments in such an application?
On the one hand, the respondent could have argued that it is mandatory to stay the petition under section 10 of the AA 2005 unless the Court finds that the arbitration agreement was null and void, inoperative or incapable of being performed. The argument would be that the petitioner’s status as a creditor hinged on the ongoing arbitration between the parties. In echoing the Singapore Court of Appeal decision of Larsen Oil, it may be argued that the disputes on the debts were essentially private inter se disputes between the petitioner and the respondent. The legislative policy embodied in the AA 2005 should mandate the staying of Court proceedings in support of arbitration.
On the other side of the divide, the petitioner would have several strong arguments to resist such a stay application. In applying both the Hong Kong decision of Jade Union and the English decision of Salford Estates, the petitioner may argue that the presentation of the winding up petition is essentially a class right available to all the company’s creditors. More so in the case of KNM Process Systems where the winding up petition was not based on any particular debt but based on a company’s overall liabilities. It may have been argued that a stay under the AA 2005 cannot oust the jurisdiction and the discretionary power of the Court, as a Companies Court, to wind up in the public interest when a company is unable to pay its debts.
Arbitration practitioners would generally welcome the approach set out in Syarikat Lian Ping and Liew Yin Yin in that a Companies Court should not be called on to adjudicate on disputes where parties had agreed to arbitrate. A Court, whether exercising its powers under section 10 of the AA 2005 or its discretion under the winding up provisions, may put a stop to the winding up petition.
However, the approach in KNM Process Systems would effectively allow a party to an arbitration agreement to bypass the arbitral process by filing a winding up petition. This is particularly in a case where the petition is based on section 218(2)(c) of the CA 1965. This route would not require any statutory demand giving the 21-day notice and where the respondent company would have no notice until the petition was served. Even if the winding up petition is eventually dismissed, the company may have still suffered from the prejudicial effects of the presentation of the petition, through the advertisement and the possible freezing of its bank accounts.
The Court may also find it more difficult to stay or strike out any winding up petition in favour of arbitration if other parties are involved in the petition. For instance, creditors and contributories can file a Notice of Intention to Appear and are effectively treated as parties to the winding up proceedings, or the Court may have appointed a Provisional Liquidator pending the hearing of the petition.
This tension between the private dispute resolution process of arbitration and the public statutory winding up process is not easy to resolve. The Court would have to carefully examine the different considerations in play to balance these two different processes.