Schemes of arrangement

Jun 02, 2020
Although the cost of examinership may be prohibitive for smaller entities, Companies Act 2014 provides two alternative restructuring mechanisms that are both less complicated and less costly. Declan de Lacy reports.

The restrictions imposed to stem the spread of COVID-19 have caused an unprecedented economic shock. The IMF’s Economic Outlook forecasts that the global economy will experience its worst recession since the 1930s, with Ireland experiencing a fall of nearly 7% in GDP and a rise of almost 150% in unemployment.

The oncoming recession will inevitably result in companies failing at even higher rates than were seen during the downturn a decade ago. It is equally inevitable that many of the companies which will ultimately fail could be made viable by restructuring their debts and other obligations.

It is incumbent on our profession to steer troubled companies through this crisis and give them the best possible chance of survival.

The examinership process is the most widely recognised mechanism for restructuring insolvent companies. This mechanism is not suitable for small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), for whom the cost of examinership is prohibitive. That is not to say that formal debt restructuring is not accessible for SMEs. Companies Act 2014 provides two alternative restructuring mechanisms that are both less complicated and less costly.

These mechanisms are the schemes of arrangement provided for by Sections 449-455 and Section 676 of Companies Act 2014. Neither mechanism is well-known or widely used, even though they have existed in one form or another for more than 50 years. Companies Act 2014 introduced the most recent version of these schemes and made the Section 449 scheme much more accessible.

The infrequency with which these mechanisms are used is not a reflection on their effectiveness. They have recently been used by international companies to restructure hundreds of millions of euro worth of debt. They were also used to restructure the obligations of the property funds operated by Custom House Capital and by the company at the centre of the pork dioxin scare of 2008.

Both schemes provide mechanisms by which a company may propose an arrangement in which the amounts due to creditors are either written off, deferred or otherwise compromised. If the requisite majority of creditors approve the arrangement, it can then become binding on all creditors.

In practice, creditors need to be offered some quid pro quo to induce them to accept the proposals. This might be the introduction of new funds to partially reduce creditor balances or future payments linked to trading results. In each case, the outcome for creditors must be no worse than in a liquidation scenario as otherwise, an aggrieved creditor would have grounds to ask the court to refuse to permit the implementation of the arrangement.

It is not necessary to treat all creditors in the same manner. Indeed, it is likely that any arrangement would involve secured creditors, preferential creditors and trade creditors being treated differently. Unlike examinership, neither scheme provides a mechanism by which onerous leases may be disclaimed. Notwithstanding this, landlords are likely to support proposals to reduce excessive rents to market rates if the alternative is the termination of the contract when their tenant goes into liquidation.

A significant advantage of a scheme of arrangement over an examinership is that a company’s directors can commence the process without going to the High Court. There is also no requirement for an independent accountant’s report to be prepared. This means that a scheme of arrangement can be implemented for a fraction of the cost of an examinership. A further advantage of a scheme of arrangement is that the company does not automatically go into liquidation if a scheme is proposed, but not approved.

The Section 449-455 Scheme

There are no criteria that a company must satisfy before proposing a scheme of arrangement under Section 449-455.

The first step in preparing to implement an arrangement is to identify the separate classes of proposed affected creditors. These might typically include preferential creditors, secured creditors, trade creditors, and related parties. A meeting of each category of creditor must be convened to consider the proposed arrangement.
A ‘scheme circular’ must be prepared, in which the company sets out details of the proposed arrangement and how each class of creditor will be affected.

Once notice of the class meetings has been issued, the company may apply to the Court for an order giving it protection from existing and new proceedings. This application is unlikely to be made unless a company is under immediate pressure from creditors.

An arrangement becomes binding on all of a company’s creditors if 75%, by number and value, of the creditors represented at each class meeting votes in favour, the arrangement is sanctioned by the Court, and a copy of the order is filed with the Companies Registration Office (CRO). The Court has recently held that it should sanction a scheme unless “it is satisfied that an honest, intelligent and reasonable member of the class could not have voted for the scheme”.

By comparison, a proposal by a company in examinership may be approved by the Court if it is agreed to by more than 50% of only one class of affected creditors.

The Section 676 Scheme

Any company that is either being, or is about to be, wound-up may propose a scheme of arrangement under Section 676 of Companies Act 2014. This means that the company must be in liquidation, or that a winding-up petition has been filed, or that an extraordinary general meeting (EGM) and creditors meeting to pass a winding-up resolution and appoint a liquidator has been summoned. Of course, if the proposed arrangement is approved, the winding-up need not proceed.

A scheme pursuant to Section 676 is less complicated to implement than either an examinership or a scheme under Section 449-455. There is no requirement to distinguish separate classes of creditors or to obtain separate approval from each class. Additionally, an arrangement approved by the requisite majority of creditors becomes binding without the need to be sanctioned by the Court. The Court only becomes involved in the arrangement if an aggrieved creditor applies to have it amended or varied.

The major disadvantage of the Section 676 arrangement is that it must be approved by 75% of all of the company’s creditors, and not only by 75% of those represented at the meeting where it is considered. This means that a proposed arrangement could fail through creditor apathy and not because of any opposition by creditors.

Conclusion

Neither scheme offers a perfect solution, either for companies or their creditors. The requirement in a Section 449 scheme to obtain the agreement of a majority of all classes of creditor means that a class comprising a small fraction of a company’s overall indebtedness can frustrate the wishes of the majority. The requirement in a Section 676 scheme to obtain the agreement of 75% of all creditors, and not only those who choose to make their views known, means that a meritorious proposal could fail due to creditor apathy. In many cases, onerous contracts, including leases, may be the reason for insolvency and the absence of a means to repudiate them is a defect in these schemes.

It is not controversial to say that the restructuring options available to SMEs require improvement. As long ago as 2011, the programme for government adopted by Fine Gael and Labour included plans to introduce new restructuring mechanisms for SMEs that did not require court involvement. The Company Law Review Group made recommendations on the matter in 2012. More recently, in 2019, the European Union issued a new directive on restructuring and insolvency, which will require changes to our restructuring law and must be implemented by July 2021. In the meantime, directors of SMEs will need expert guidance if they are to avail of the imperfect restructuring options available to them today.

Members of the Institute should be mindful that they must hold an insolvency practising certificate to advise companies in connection with arranging schemes of arrangements.


The approach of Revenue and public bodies to schemes of arrangement

In most companies, the debt due to the Collector General will represent more than 25% of the debts due to the preferential class of creditors. In such circumstances, Revenue’s agreement will be essential to securing the agreement of 75% of each class of a company’s creditors, as required for a Section 449 arrangement to succeed.

Companies Act 2014 explicitly states that State authorities may accept proposals made under a scheme of arrangement that would result in their claim being impaired. This means that debts for taxes, local authority rates, and redundancy payments may be compromised as part of an arrangement.

Notwithstanding this, the section of the Revenue Commissioners’ collection manual dealing with Section 449-455 proposals indicates that, where a company “wishes to put forward proposals, Revenue would be prepared to consider them but that they are unlikely to be accepted if they do not provide for full payment of the tax debt”.

Interestingly, the section of the same document that deals with examinership indicates that “Revenue’s position will depend on the circumstances of the case (e.g. previous tax collection history, whether there will be a change of directors etc.)”. It therefore seems that Revenue approaches proposed write-downs of tax debts in examinership cases with a more open mind than they would for Section 449 proposals. This suggests that SMEs, for which the cost of examinership is prohibitive, may be treated less favourably by Revenue than larger enterprises, for which examinership is an option.

Revenue’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic has been extraordinary and has gone so far as to suspend debt collection procedures entirely. In this context, it might be expected that Revenue will now adopt a more open mind to proposed arrangements in the interest of preserving industry and employment.
 
Declan de Lacy leads the Advisory and Restructuring Department at PKF O’Connor, Leddy & Holmes.