Judgment Title: Star Elm Frames Limited & Companies Acts
Neutral Citation:  IESC 57
Supreme Court Record Number: 449/13
High Court Record Number: 2013 442 COS
Date of Delivery: 10/12/2013
Court: Supreme Court
Composition of Court: Denham C.J., O'Donnell Donal J., Laffoy J.
Judgment by: Laffoy J.
Status of Judgment: Approved
Outcome: Allow And Set Aside
THE SUPREME COURT
[Appeal No. 449/2013]
IN THE MATTER OF STAR ELM FRAMES LIMITED
Judgment of Ms. Justice Laffoy delivered on.10th December, 2013
1. Star Elm Frames Limited (the Company) was incorporated on 19th July, 2011. In September 2011 it acquired the assets and goodwill of the business of another company, Star Elm Limited (SEL), which was being wound up, from the liquidator at the price of €130,000, of which the sum of €65,000 remains due and owing to SEL (in liquidation). Since the acquisition was completed, the Company has carried on the business acquired, the manufacture and delivery of casement windows, doors and patio doors, from premises at Raheen Business Park, Raheen, County Limerick, which are held by it on lease. At present the Company has thirty one employees.
2. During its first year of trading, to mid-August 2012, the Company incurred an operating loss of €329,739, which represented 8.28% of turnover. In the following trading year, to mid-August 2013, it incurred an operating loss of €166,276, which represented 4.85% of turnover, which had diminished by 14.03% in that year. However, expenses as a percentage of turnover had also been reduced in that year.
3. On 26th September, 2013, the first date in respect of which the Court has an estimated statement of affairs, the Company had a deficit of €277,638 on a “going concern” basis. The Revenue Commissioners were the Company’s largest creditor. According to the Revenue Commissioners, the Company has a total tax liability of €418,237, comprising €384,374 in respect of VAT for periods November/December 2012, March/April 2013, May/June 2013 and July/August 2013 and €33,863 in respect of PAYE/PRSI for 2013. While there had been engagement between the Company and the Revenue Commissioners prior to October 2013, what appears to have precipitated the Company’s actions which led to these proceedings was the fact that on 1st October, 2013 the Revenue Commissioners placed an attachment on the Company’s bank account, in consequence of which the Company was going to be unable to discharge wages which were due to be paid on 3rd October, 2013.
5. When the petition came on for hearing before the High Court (Charleton J.) on 4th November, 2013, in addition to the Independent Accountant's Report, there was before the Court an affidavit of the Interim Examiner, which exhibited a report of the Interim Examiner covering the period from his appointment on 3rd October, 2013 to 4th November, 2013 (the Interim Examiner’s First Report). There was also before the Court an affidavit sworn by Philip Moloney, an officer of the Revenue Commissioners, on 1st November, 2013. It was made clear in that affidavit that, while the Revenue Commissioners were bringing certain concerns they had to the attention of the Court to assist the Court’s adjudication on the petition, they were neutral as to the Company’s application for protection. At the hearing of the petition counsel for the Revenue Commissioners maintained the “guardedly neutral” approach to the application to appoint an examiner.
The decision of the High Court on the petition
7. In an ex tempore judgment Charleton J. set out his reasons for refusing the application. First, the petitioner had failed to satisfy him that the Company was in a position where it had a reasonable prospect of survival as a going concern. Secondly, he was not satisfied that he should exercise the discretion conferred on the Court by the Act of 1990 in favour of the Company, which had collected VAT but had not remitted it to the Revenue Commissioners over a period of a year going back to November 2012, in circumstances where the Company had already defaulted on a “scheme to repay” insisted on by the Revenue Commissioners.
The sources of evidence before the Court on the hearing of the appeal
(b) an affidavit of the Interim Examiner sworn on 8th November, 2013, which exhibited a report of the Interim Examiner covering the period from 5th November, 2013 to 7th November, 2013 (the Interim Examiner’s Second Report);
(c) a further affidavit of the Interim Examiner sworn on 12th November, 2013, which exhibited a further report of the Interim Examiner covering the period from 8th November, 2013 to 12th November, 2013 (the Interim Examiner’s Third Report), to which there was appended a document entitled “Proposals for a Compromise and Scheme of Arrangement between the Company and its Members and Creditors” (the Scheme Proposals), which had been prepared by the Interim Examiner; and
(d) an affidavit sworn by the Interim Examiner on the 26th November, 2013 exhibiting a further report of the Interim Examiner for the period from 13th November, 2013 to 26th November, 2013 (the Interim Examiner’s Fourth Report).
Hearing of the Appeal
13. Sub-section (1) of s. 2 of the Act of 1990 empowers the Court to appoint an examiner to a company which complies with the requirements set out in paragraphs (a), (b) and (c) of that sub-section, which I am satisfied are complied with by the Company, “for the purposes of examining the state of the company’s affairs and performing such duties in relation to the company as may be imposed by or under” the Act of 1990. Sub-section (2) of s. 2, as amended, provides:
14. Of particular relevance to the application of those provisions, by reference to the requirements of sub-sections (3A) and (3B) of s. 3 of the Act of 1990 in relation to the report of an independent accountant which must accompany the petition under s. 2 and the contents of the report, to the circumstances of this petition is the approach adopted by the Supreme Court to the application of those provisions in In the Matter of Gallium Limited. Having stated that the onus of proof is on the petitioner, Fennelly J. stated (at para. 46):
48. The Court has to take account of all relevant interests. The independent accountant must consider whether examinership would ‘be more advantageous to the members as a whole and the creditors as a whole than a winding-up of the company . . .’. This does not limit the range of interests to be taken into account by the court under section 2. The interests of employees cannot be excluded. In the case of an insolvent company, it is natural that the creditors will have the greatest interest in the future, if any, of the company. The court will take a balanced approach, as suggested by the reference to the creditors as a whole.”
15. The opinion of Mr. Tobin in the Independent Accountant's Report, based on the projections of the Company’s profit or loss over the twelve months to September 2014 which had been prepared by the directors of the Company and which, in his opinion, appeared to be viable, was that, subject to certain conditions, the Company has a reasonable prospect of survival as a going concern. The conditions he stipulated were:
(b) the ability of the directors to implement and maintain efficiencies which were planned and were already implemented on an ongoing basis; and
(c) the approval of a Scheme of Arrangement by the members, creditors and the High Court.
16. In the Interim Examiner’s First Report, which was before the High Court, the Interim Examiner, who had then been in place for thirty three days, expressed the view that the conditions set out in the Independent Accountant's Report are achievable. In his subsequent reports, which were prepared for this Court, the Interim Examiner maintained the belief that the Company has a reasonable prospect of survival based on projected trading, which, in turn, was based on current turnover and reduced cost. In the Interim Examiner’s Third Report his view was expressed in a very forthright manner. He stated that he was firmly of the view that the projections are reasonable and achievable. In the Interim Examiner’s Fourth Report, the belief of the Interim Examiner that the Company has a reasonable prospect of survival was reiterated in similar terms.
17. The attitude of the largest creditors has not changed since the matter was before the High Court. As has been made clear, the largest creditor, the Revenue Commissioners, while having raised issues which have been of considerable assistance to the Court, have made it clear that they are not opposing the petition. The second largest creditor is the Company’s main supplier, Profile 22 Systems (Profile 22), which is based in England. The Interim Examiner had put before the High Court an undated letter from Profile 22 confirming that it had continued to supply the Company since the petition was presented and would continue should the appointment of an examiner be confirmed. Further, it was stated that Profile 22 supports the application for the appointment of an examiner. The Interim Examiner appended to the Interim Examiner’s Fourth Report a letter dated 19th November, 2013 from the landlord of the unit occupied by the Company at Raheen Business Park, which is a creditor of the Company. That letter stated that the landlord supports the application to appoint an examiner. This Court was informed by counsel for the Company that the liquidator of SEL (in liquidation) also supports the appointment of an examiner, although no written communication to that effect has been put before this Court.
18. The most significant difference between the factual picture which was presented to the High Court and the evidence before this Court is that the Interim Examiner has put before this Court the Scheme Proposals. While it is no function of this Court to express a view on the Scheme Proposals, which will be the function of the High Court under s. 24 of the Act of 1990 if the examinership proceeds, the information contained in the Scheme Proposals, which was not before the High Court, is pertinent to the determination of the core issue which this Court has to determine on the appeal – whether it can be satisfied that the Company has a reasonable prospect of survival as a going concern. In broad terms, the Scheme Proposals envisage funds of €150,000 being available to implement the proposals. Those funds are to be made up of –
(b) Company funds in the amount of €30,000, which have been generated since the Interim Examiner was appointed.
(ii) the so-called “Lien Creditor”, meaning the liquidator of SEL, will be repaid the debt due to SEL (in liquidation) by sixty equal monthly instalments, the first instalment to be paid on 1st January, 2014;
(iii) the Revenue Commissioners’ debt is to be paid in full, 21% of it, which amounts to €87,500, to be paid within thirty days of the Scheme becoming effective and the balance over a period of seven years by three monthly equal instalments, the first instalment payable on 31st March, 2014; and
(iv) the Company’s landlord and the unsecured creditors will be paid 2.5% of their respective debts within thirty days of the Scheme becoming effective.
19. The Revenue Commissioners have reserved their rights as regards the Scheme Proposals and, in particular, the right to make submissions in respect of the proposals if and when the issue of confirmation of such proposals has to be determined by the Court in accordance with s. 24 of the Act of 1990. Counsel for the Revenue Commissioners submitted that this Court should be sceptical as to whether an injection of €120,000 is going to transform the fortunes of the Company and enable it to pay back the Revenue Commissioners and to avoid further arrears of tax accruing in the future. In particular, he highlighted that the costs of the examinership (€52,000) and the first payment to the Revenue Commissioners (€87,500) is coming out of that investment, the conclusion this Court was invited to draw being that there is no clear evidence before this Court now that the Company has a reasonable prospect of survival as a going concern.
20. Counsel for the Revenue Commissioners also questioned the reliability of projections in relation to cash flow and profitability contained in the Independent Accountant's Report, which was before the High Court, when compared with the actual performance of the Company during the eight weeks of the interim examinership prior to the hearing in this Court and of the projections of the Interim Examiner appended to his letter dated 27th November, 2013 for the following six weeks. There are undoubtedly inconsistencies in that data, which are difficult to reconcile or rationalise. The strongest point made by the Interim Examiner in support of his recent projections is that they were based on a very strong order book and the current debtor’s ledger as at 27th November, 2013.
22. On an application to court under s. 2, the court is usually to a very considerable extent reliant on the report of the independent accountant which is required to accompany the petition in accordance with s. 3(3A) and (3B) of the Act of 1990, although it may be supplemented, in a case where an interim examiner has been appointed by the court, by the report furnished by the interim examiner to the court at the hearing of the petition, in determining the crucial question as to whether it is satisfied that the company has a reasonable prospect of survival as a going concern. That being the case, while it is appreciated that the directors of the company will be the primary source of the material on which they form their respective opinions as to the prospect of the company surviving, both the independent accountant and the interim examiner must act independently of the company and of its directors and members in giving their respective opinions to the court. Further, s. 4A of the Act of 1990 imposes a strict duty of “utmost good faith” in the preparation of the presentation of the petition on the petitioner and on the independent accountant. It is particularly important that both the independent accountant and where appropriate the interim examiner are scrupulous in discharging their duty which involves giving the Court the benefit of their independent opinion, setting out the reasons for it and where appropriate indicating any contrary factors. In this case, genuine concerns have been raised and cogent arguments made on behalf of the Revenue Commissioners. I am of the view on balance however that there is not a sufficient basis for rejecting the opinions put before this Court in the Independent Accountant’s Report and in the various reports furnished by the Interim Examiner that the Company has a reasonable prospect of survival, and, accordingly, on balance, I accept that is so.
23. Turning to the “wide discretion” which, the petitioner having got over that threshold, is reposed in the Court, having regard to all of the circumstances, I consider that the discretion should be exercised in favour of continuing the protection of the Court and appointing the Interim Examiner as examiner for the purposes of s. 2(1) of the Act of 1990. On the evidence now before this Court, it is reasonable to conclude that an examinership would be more advantageous to the creditors as a whole than a winding up of the Company, which is the only alternative. It is of particular relevance that no creditor has opposed the appointment of an examiner. Three of the major creditors, Profile 22, the liquidator of SEL (in liquidation) and the Company’s landlord, have signified support for the petition. While the Revenue Commissioners, the largest creditors, apprised the Court of their concerns, it was made clear that they were not opposing the petition. The interests of the Company’s thirty one employees, who would inevitably become unemployed if the application were refused, favour continuing the protection of the Court and appointing the Interim Examiner as examiner. At this point in time the interim examinership has been in place for over two months and a considerable amount of work has been done by the Interim Examiner in examining the affairs of the Company and in formulating the Scheme Proposals. Subject to the observations in the next paragraph, the overall picture at this point in time indicates that the continuance of the protection and the appointment of the Interim Examiner as examiner is the course which is least prejudicial to the interested parties and, in particular, to the creditors as a whole.
24. As has been made clear earlier, although they have been outlined in very general terms, nothing in this judgment is to be construed as an endorsement of the Scheme Proposals which will, if appropriate, be considered at a hearing under s. 24 and where interested parties will have the opportunity of making their views known. On the contrary, it does seem that a very meagre provision is made in the Scheme Proposals for the Company’s unsecured creditors. It is recommended that the proposed provision for the unsecured creditors should be re-assessed by the Interim Examiner on his appointment as examiner.