“He who is quick to borrow is slow to pay” (Old proverb)
A recent High Court decision means that, for the first time, creditors of debtor companies are specifically cleared to apply for the company’s directors to be declared “delinquent” in certain circumstances. And that has significant implications for both directors and creditors.
For directors – major long-term career risks
Company directors need to manage a whole range of duties, responsibilities and risks, including being declared “delinquent” in terms of the Companies Act. For more serious categories of misconduct a director risks disqualification from holding any directorship or senior management position for a period ranging from 7 years to a lifetime.
A wide range of less serious categories of misconduct can lead to “probation” orders, with possible disqualification for up to 5 years, supervision by a mentor, remedial education, community service and payment of compensation.
The fact that creditors can now make delinquency applications adds a new level of director risk, the reality being that of all the stakeholders out for blood after a corporate failure, unpaid creditors may well be the fiercest. Your best defence against any personal attack is to always be aware of, and to scrupulously comply with, all your many fiduciary duties.
For creditors – a new door opens
As a creditor on the other hand, your chances of recovering a company debt from a director personally will depend on a range of factors – whether you hold personal suretyships, whether you can prove personal liability for breach of statutory duties and so on (this is a complex topic – specific legal advice is essential).
Now another door has opened to you, and although as we shall see below you will have to convince the court that you are acting in the public interest, it will certainly make directors think twice about defrauding you or exposing you (and creditors and the public generally) to loss through corporate misconduct.
- The case in question stems from the creditors of a company in liquidation failing to recover their debt from it, and consequently taking action against the directors in their personal capacities for over R370m.
- They also asked the High Court to declare the directors delinquent, and one of the directors objected on the basis that creditors have no power to bring such an application. Indeed, the Companies Act gives this right only to a specific list of stakeholders – namely a shareholder, director, company director, secretary or prescribed officer, registered trade union, employee representative, Takeover Regulation Panel, some organs of state and the CIPC (Companies and Intellectual Property Commission).
- The Court however agreed with the creditors that they could apply under another provision of the Companies Act which allows anyone to apply “acting in the public interest, with leave of the court”. On the facts of this particular matter, the creditors were cleared to proceed under that provision.
- In reaching this decision, the Court took account of the (as yet unproven) serious allegations levelled against the directors – extreme breaches of fiduciary duty over a long period of time and involving substantial amounts of money, “a full panoply of misdemeanours” including gross abuse of position and gross negligence, the large number of directorships held by the directors, the (indirect) involvement of public entities – the list goes on.
- Importantly, the Court rejected the director’s argument that “the danger of giving the creditor such standing was that it could use the threat of a delinquency declaration to squeeze the proverbial few extra bob out of the directors.” Every case, said the Court, must be decided on its own facts, and the fact that creditors are suing directors personally does not automatically mean that they are acting cynically and opportunistically.
- But clearly, to succeed you will have to prove that you are acting in the public interest and not just in your own interest as a creditor. It will help to be able to argue, as the creditors in this case did, that “the general public and creditors deserve and require to be protected in their dealings, engagements and transactions with the companies and close corporations of which the defendants are respectively directors and/or members; and … the relief will protect the public from the defendants repeating or replicating their delinquent conduct in other entities.”
Disclaimer: The information provided herein should not be used or relied on as professional advice. No liability can be accepted for any errors or omissions nor for any loss or damage arising from reliance upon any information herein. Always contact your professional adviser for specific and detailed advice.