Can a debtor’s pre-insolvency transactions be challenged? If so, by whom, when and on what grounds? What is the effect of a successful challenge and how are the rights of third parties impacted?
Restructuring & Insolvency
Certain transactions can be set aside if the debtor is declared bankrupt and they were carried out during a specific period before the bankruptcy adjudication or before publication of the petition to be admitted to the In-court Settlement procedure (suspect period). These include:
- gratuitous acts or payment of debts not yet due and payable when bankruptcy is declared if carried out in the two-year period before the bankruptcy adjudication. These will be ineffective with regard to creditors by operation of law;
- acts that will be set aside on simple demand by the trustee, unless the third party defendant can prove he entered into the transaction without any knowledge of the debtor's insolvency, including: onerous transactions whose terms and conditions are significantly disadvantageous for the bankrupt debtor, if carried out in the year before the bankruptcy declaration; payment of debts using non-customary means made in the year before the bankruptcy declaration; pledges and mortgages created by contract, if established a year before the bankruptcy adjudication as security for outstanding debts not yet due and payable; and pledges and mortgages, whether created by contract or imposed by court order, if established six months before bankruptcy as security for due and payable debts that have remained unpaid;
- acts, transactions or payments that will be set aside if the trustee proves that the third party defendant knew or could not have ignored the debtor's insolvency at the time the act was performed, including: payments and other non-gratuitous acts of disposition made by the bankrupt debtor in the six months before the bankruptcy adjudication; and security interests, if the contemporaneous creation of the debt and grant of security occurred in the six months before the bankruptcy adjudication.
Certain transactions are expressly exempted from being set aside, including payments for goods and services in the normal course of business on standard terms and payment of employees' wages.
If, during the suspect period, a debtor's property was transferred at an undervalue to a purchaser who then transferred it to a sub-purchaser, the setting aside of the first transaction will affect the sub-purchaser's right: (i) by operation of law where the transfer was gratuitous, or if the sale to the sub-purchaser was not registered in the competent Land Register before registration of the claw-back action by the trustee or (ii) only if the trustee proves the sub-purchaser's bad faith, where the sale to the sub-purchaser was registered in the competent Land Register before registration of the claw-back action by the trustee.
The insolvency administrator can challenge any pre-insolvency transaction carried out by the debtor in the two years before its declaration of insolvency if the transaction or merely the action is considered detrimental to the insolvency estate. Under article 71 of the Spanish Insolvency Act, the general terms in which a claw-back action can be initiated are as follows:
- Temporary requirement: only actions (or omissions) carried out in the two years before the declaration of insolvency can be rescinded.
- Objective requirement: actions or omissions to be rescinded must be detrimental to the insolvency estate.
- Qualitative requirement: even actions carried out without fraudulent intent can be rescinded.
The claw-back action can also be exercised by any creditor who has requested the insolvency administrator to do so, but does not seek the rescission within two months from the date of the creditor’s written request (subsidiary legitimacy).
Actions carried out in the debtor’s ordinary course of business and under market conditions cannot be rescinded. Moreover, some refinancing agreements may receive indemnity for actions of this kind if they meet the requirements set forth under article 71bis – Fourth Additional Disposition Spanish Insolvency Act.
Under the Spanish Civil Code, the debtor’s actions can also be challenged by means of revocatory actions or actions seeking for them to be declared void.
In bankruptcy proceedings, a debtor’s pre-insolvency transactions may be challenged by the trustees. The trustees must exercise this right through court proceedings within two years after the commencements of bankruptcy proceedings.
There are two elements to the grounds for such challenges. The first pertains to the timing of the transactions, and they need to be conducted after the debtor falls into financial crisis. The other is the harmfulness of the transactions to the debtors.
If such challenges are successful, the subject transactions basically become null and void. Bona fide third parties, however, may be protected from such challenges.
In special liquidation proceedings, such challenges are not available, but creditors may challenge transactions which are harmful to creditors based on the Civil Code. This challenge is not special to insolvency proceedings, and may apply to transactions in general.
On certain conditions, the debtor’s pre-insolvency transactions may be avoided by the insolvent estate. Avoidance means that an otherwise valid transaction made by the debtor is reversed if the transaction in question has defeated the assets of the estate or increased the debtor’s debt.
If the trustee believes that that debtor’s actions are contrary to the avoidance rules of the Danish Insolvency Act, the insolvent estate must no later than 12 months from the issue of the insolvency order institute legal proceedings against the third party or creditor that was given preference by the debtor’s voidable transaction.
The debtor’s voidable transactions under the Danish Insolvency Act include:
- gifts from the debtor;
- payment of debt,
- transactions giving preference to a creditor over the other creditors;
- transactions that mean that the debtor’s assets avoid being included in the assets of the insolvent estate; and
- transactions that mean that the debtor’s debt increases.
If the trustee is successful in the claim for avoidance against a third party, the third party must give up and return the preference to the insolvent estate that he has obtained through the debtor’s voidable transaction, but not more than the loss of the estate.
Under Australian law, antecedent transactions will only be vulnerable to challenge where a company is in liquidation. A liquidator has the power to bring an application to the court to declare the following types of transactions void:
- insolvent transactions (which includes both unfair preferences and uncommercial transactions) if entered into, in the case of unfair preferences, during the 6 month period ending on the relation-back day (the relation-back day is generally the date of the application to wind up the company or the date of the appointment of a liquidator if the company had previously been in administration) or in the case of uncommercial transactions, during the two-year period ending on the relation-back day;
- unfair loans, which are voidable if entered into any time before the winding up began;
- unreasonable director-related transactions, which are voidable if entered into during the 4 years ending on the relation-back day; and
- transactions entered into for the purpose of defeating, delaying or interfering with creditors’ rights on a company’s winding up, which are voidable if entered into during the 10 years ending on the relation-back day.
Uncommercial transactions and unfair preferences are voidable if the company was insolvent at the time of the transaction or at a time when an act was done to give effect to the transaction. Australian courts have held that a transaction is ‘uncommercial’ if a reasonable person in the company’s circumstances would not have entered into it. An unfair preference is one where a creditor receives more for an unsecured debt than would have been received if the creditor had to prove for it in the winding up. The other party to the transaction or preference may prevent it being held void if it can be shown that they became a party in good faith, they lacked reasonable grounds for suspecting that the company was insolvent and they provided valuable consideration for, or changed position in reliance on, the transaction.
Australian courts have also determined that loans to a company will be ‘unfair’ and thus voidable if the interest or charges in relation to the loan were, or are, not commercially reasonable. This is to be distinguished from the loan simply being a bad bargain. Any ‘unreasonable’ payments made to a director or a close associate of a director are also voidable, regardless of whether the payment occurred when the company was insolvent.
Upon a finding of a voidable transaction, a court may make a number of orders impacting the rights of the third parties to those transactions. Those orders include directions that the offending person pay an amount equal to some or all of the impugned transaction; direct a person to transfer the property back to the company; or direct an individual to pay an amount equal to the benefit obtained.
Certain antecedent transactions may be subject to challenge pursuant to section 99 (avoidance of property dispositions), section 145 (voidable preference), section 146 (avoidance of dispositions at an undervalue) and section 147 (fraudulent trading) of the Companies Law.
Section 99 provides that any disposition of a company's property (or transfers of its shares) made after the deemed commencement of the winding up shall be void, unless validated by the Court. In the event of a successful challenge by a liquidator under section 99, the liquidator will be entitled to seek appropriate relief to require either the repayment of the funds or the return of the asset.
Transactions entered into by a debtor prior to the commencement of the liquidation may be subject to challenge by a liquidator as either a preference or a disposition at an undervalue. In each case, the debtor company must have been unable to pay its debts at the time of, or as a result of, the relevant transaction.
A transaction may be subject to challenge as a preference if it took place in the six month period before the commencement of the winding up and a liquidator can establish a 'dominant intention to prefer' on the part of the insolvent company. If the preferred party is related, there is a presumed intention to prefer. The ability of an official liquidator to assert a clawback claim in circumstances in which a preference is established was recently affirmed in the decision of the Cayman Islands Court of Appeal In Re Weavering Macro Fixed Income Fund Limited (In Official Liquidation) (CICA No.2 of 2016).
If a transaction is set aside as a preference then it is void and the creditor will be required to return the payment or asset and prove in the liquidation for the amount of its claim.
Any disposition at an undervalue made by or on behalf of the insolvent company in the six year period prior to the commencement of the winding up with an intention to defraud its creditors will be voidable at the instance of the liquidator.
If the Court is satisfied that a transferee has not acted in bad faith, the transferee shall have a first and paramount charge over the property of an amount equal to the entire costs properly incurred by the transferee in the defence of any proceedings challenging the relevant disposition, which will be set aside subject to the proper fees, costs, pre-existing rights, claims and interests of the transferee.
If the business of the company was carried on with an intent to defraud creditors or for any fraudulent purpose, section 147 of the Companies Law provides that a liquidator may apply for an order requiring any persons who were knowingly parties to such conduct to make such contributions to the company's assets as the court deems proper.
The following avoidance actions are available to the relevant insolvency practitioner or a creditor (if the relevant rights have been assigned to it):
- Avoidance of gratuitous transactions targets, in particular, all gifts and all dispositions made by the debtor without any or without adequate consideration;
- avoidance for over-indebtedness targets the granting of a security interest for existing debts without a prior contractual obligation, the settlement of a monetary claim in a manner other than by usual means of payment and the payment of a debt which was not yet due, in each case provided that the recipient is unable to prove that it was unaware and must not have been aware of the debtor's over-indebtedness; and
- avoidance for intent targets dispositions and other acts made by the debtor if the disposition was made by the insolvent with the intent to disadvantage its creditors or to prefer certain of its creditors to the detriment of other creditors and if the privileged creditor knew or should have known of such intent.
Targeted transactions must have occurred during certain look-back periods: Avoidance of gratuitous transactions and avoidance for over-indebtedness is available where a relevant act has occurred during the year prior to the opening of bankruptcy proceedings, the granting of a moratorium or the seizure of assets. A five years period applies to avoidance for intent. Following the opening of bankruptcy proceedings or the conclusion of a composition agreement with assignment of assets, the avoidance claims must be pursued within two years (statute of limitations).
For all challenges, it is further required that the challenged transaction has caused damages to other creditors of the debtor. In addition, it is noteworthy that the rules regarding avoidance for intent as well as avoidance of gratuitous transactions provide for an inversion of the burden of proof whenever these transactions are entered into by related parties (including affiliated entities).
If all requirements are met, the court orders the defendant to return the specific assets to the estate. If this is no longer possible, the court may order the defendant to compensate the estate in cash. The defendant has a return claim for its own performance which is to be performed in kind as an obligation of the estate or, if no longer possible, by admittance of an unsecured and non-privileged insolvency claim.
German insolvency law entitles an insolvency administrator or trustee in self-administration cases to claw-back certain transactions made by the debtor prior to insolvency.
The insolvency administrator is only able to challenge transactions that prejudice the creditors as a whole by reducing the insolvency estate. Furthermore, at least one or more of the specific statutory requirements set out in Sec. 130 et seq Insolvency Code must be met in order to challenge a transaction.
Transactions may only be avoided if they were effected during certain “hardening periods”, i.e. certain periods before insolvency proceedings were opened. The respective hardening period varies between three months prior to the filing of an insolvency petition and up to ten years before filing, dependent upon the specific grounds for the challenge.
Cash transactions (Bargeschäfte), however, provide a notable exception for certain transactions that could otherwise be successfully challenged: Transaction under which (i) the consideration received is equivalent to the consideration given and (ii) the time span between both is no longer than (in most cases) two weeks are generally not subject to the avoidance rules because they are not detrimental to the estate (Sec. 142 Insolvency Code).
The terms congruent acts (kongruente Deckungen) and incongruent acts (inkongruente Deckungen) generally refer to conveyances of parts of the debtor’s estate during the three month hardening period prior to the insolvency petition or thereafter up until the insolvency proceedings are opened. Under German law, insolvency proceedings do not automatically commence with filing (see Question 4), however, transfers made in the period between filing and the commencement of proceedings are liable to avoidance by the insolvency administrator.
An act is generally termed to be congruent (Sec. 130 Insolvency Code) if the creditor receives payment on his claim or security for his claim in strict accordance with the existing contractual obligations. On the other hand, a conveyance is generally deemed incongruent (Sec. 131 Insolvency Code) if the creditor receives payment or collateral in a manner other than that contractually specified (eg, security instead of payment), at a point in time other than specified (eg, before the payment was due), or if the creditor did not have a right to demand satisfaction at all (eg, the claim was time barred).
Congruent acts during the hardening period may only be challenged if the creditor was aware that the debtor was unable to pay its debts as they fell due at the time of the transactions. If the transaction took place after filing, then it suffices that the creditor was aware of either (i) the filing or (ii) the debtor’s inability to pay its debts as they fell due. The cash transactions rules are applicable. Accordingly, when restructuring financing is provided, collateral should be taken in a timely fashion and only in respect of any new money.
Any transaction which is an incongruent act and is concluded in the month prior to the filing for insolvency is liable to be avoided by the insolvency administrator. Incongruent acts concluded during the three month hardening period prior to filing for insolvency, but not in the month prior to filing, are liable to be avoided if either (i) the debtor was unable to pay its debts as they fell due at the time of the transaction or (ii) the creditor knew that the transaction would be prejudicial to the creditors as a whole. The cash transaction rules are not applicable to incongruent acts.
An insolvency administrator can also void a transaction as a “deliberate impairment” (Sec. 133 InsO) by alleging that the transaction was made with the intent of prejudicing creditors by reducing the value of the estate. Such fraudulent conveyances that take place within the 10 years (!) preceding filing for insolvency are liable to claw back. The cash transactions rules do not apply, as the reason for avoidance is the debtor’s intent to defraud. For such challenge (i) the debtor must have intended to prejudice its creditors and (ii) the transaction counterparty must have had knowledge of such intent. Such knowledge is deemed to exist if the counterparty knew that there was a threat of the debtor becoming unable to pay its debts as they became due and that the transfer would be detrimental to the creditors. For the debtor to have the requisite intent it must be at least reckless as to whether the transaction is to the creditors’ detriment. In litigious cases, the burden of proof regarding such circumstances generally lies with the insolvency administrator. The provision has recently gained more practical relevance due to an extensive interpretation by the German Federal Supreme Court (Bundesgerichtshof). As actual intent is difficult for an insolvency administrator to prove, various circumstantial evidence will be considered by German courts in determining a debtor’s intent to prejudice its creditors. As the 10 year period is deemed to be too long, the German legislator has most recently started an initiative to reduce this time frame to four years only. It is likely that the relevant provision will be changed in 2017.
Gratuitous transfers if they take place within the four years preceding filing for insolvency can be clawed back by the insolvency administrator.
Where a repayment is made in respect of a debt owed to a shareholder and that payment is made in the year prior to filing for insolvency, it can be clawed back under Sec. 135 Insolvency Code. Where security has been granted in respect of such debt, it can be avoided if it was granted in the decade prior to filing for insolvency.
Yes, during the Mediation Stage creditors (the “Recognized Creditors”) holding title to recognized claims (i.e. claims recognized and ranked by the Insolvency Court, the “Recognized Claims”) may challenge any pre-insolvency transaction carried out by the insolvent entity when such transaction is deemed or presumed fraudulent pursuant to the Insolvency Law.
Any action consummated by the insolvent entity prior to the date of the Insolvency Judgment will be deemed fraudulent when the insolvent entity is knowingly defrauding its creditors, and the third party participating in any such action had actual knowledge of such fraudulent intent. If the action is gratuitous, the action will be deemed fraudulent even if the third party had no actual knowledge of the fraudulent intent.
As a general rule, the Insolvency Judgment will become effective retroactively on the date that is 270 calendar days (which could be extended in certain particular cases) prior to the date of the applicable Insolvency Judgment (the “Effective Date”).
Any action consummated by the insolvent entity at any time after the Effective Date, (i) will be deemed fraudulent when, inter alia, (a) the insolvent entity receives no consideration, or the consideration received or paid by the insolvent entity, or the terms and conditions of the transaction, are clearly or materially below market, or (b) the insolvent entity makes a payment of indebtedness not yet due, or forgives receivables owed to it; and (ii) will be presumed fraudulent, unless the interested third party proves that it was acting in good faith, when, (a) the insolvent entity grants or increases collateral that was not originally contemplated, and (b) the insolvent entity makes any payments in-kind that were not originally contemplated. In addition, certain transactions among related parties will also be deemed fraudulent.
The effects of challenging pre-insolvency transactions that are deemed or presumed fraudulent is to declare such transactions null and void, thus returning things to their former conditions as though the transactions shall have never existed.
British Virgin Islands
Part VIII of the IA provides a number of voidable-transaction claims by which a subsequently appointed liquidator may seek to recover company funds and property, thereby swelling the assets of the insolvent estate for the benefit of its creditors.
There are four types of voidable transaction that a liquidator may consider upon a company going into insolvent liquidation: unfair preferences, undervalue transactions, voidable floating charges and extortionate credit transactions. In relation to most of these, several defined terms are used: ‘insolvency transaction’, ‘vulnerability period’ and ‘connected person’.
In relation to unfair preferences, undervalue transactions, and voidable floating charges, the liquidator must show that the transaction was an ‘insolvency transaction’: the transaction in question must either have been made at a time when the company was insolvent, or have caused the company to become insolvent. For these purposes, ‘insolvency’ excludes balance-sheet insolvency: only cash-flow insolvency and technical insolvency are sufficient. The liquidator is not required to prove that an extortionate credit transaction is an insolvency transaction, and in relation to other types of voidable transactions, the court will sometimes presume that the transaction was an insolvency transaction, as explained below.
In relation to unfair preferences, undervalue transactions, and voidable floating charges, the ‘vulnerability period’ is the period beginning six months before the onset of insolvency and ending on the date on which the liquidator was appointed. If the transaction was with a person connected to the company, this period is extended to two years. In the case of extortionate credit transactions, the vulnerability period begins five years before the onset of insolvency and again ends with the appointment of the liquidator. In relation to clawback actions brought in the context of liquidations, the term ‘onset of insolvency’ is defined as meaning the date on which the application for the appointment of a liquidator was filed (in the case of insolvent liquidations by order of the court), or the date on which the liquidator was appointed (in the case of voluntary insolvent liquidations).
A person is treated as being ‘connected’ to a company if they fall within the list of persons set out in Section 5 IA. This list includes directors or members of a company or of a related company, a different company that has a common director with the company, a company that is a subsidiary or holding company of the company, and relatives of directors.
A company gives an unfair preference if it enters into a transaction that would have the effect of putting a creditor in a better position in the event of the company’s liquidation than the position in which he or she would have been if the transaction had not occurred: section 245 IA. It should be noted that unlike in many other common-law jurisdictions it is not necessary that the liquidator show that the transferor had any intention or desire to achieve this result for the recipient.
The transaction will not be an unfair preference if it was entered into in the ordinary course of business. As stated above, the liquidator must show that the transaction was an insolvency transaction and that it took place within the vulnerability period. If the transaction took place between the company and a connected person, it will be presumed that the transaction was an insolvency transaction and that it did not take place in the ordinary course of business, unless the contrary is proved.
A company enters into a transaction at an undervalue if it transfers an asset to another for no consideration, or sells an asset for consideration that is worth significantly less than the asset’s market value: section 246 IA. Again, and as stated above, the transaction must be an insolvency transaction and it must have taken place within the vulnerability period. The transaction will not be an undervalue transaction if it can be shown that the company acted in good faith and for the purposes of its business, and if at the time of the transaction there were reasonable grounds for believing the transaction would benefit the company. If the transaction is entered into between the company and a connected person, the court will presume that the transaction was an insolvency transaction and that the company did not act in good faith or have reasonable grounds for believing the transaction would benefit the company.
If the grant of a floating charge took place within the vulnerability period and was either made at a time when the company was insolvent or caused the company to become insolvent (ie, was an insolvency transaction), it will be voidable: section 247 IA. If, however, the charge was not created in order to secure an existing debt, but secured new borrowing or liabilities, it will not be voidable. If a charge was created in favour of a connected person, it is presumed that the charge was an insolvency transaction.
Finally, a transaction is an extortionate credit transaction if it is concerned with the provision of credit to the company and either the terms of the credit arrangement require grossly exorbitant payments to be made in respect of the provision of credit (whether unconditionally or on the occurrence of certain contingencies) or otherwise grossly contravenes ordinary principles of fair trading: section 248 IA. It is not necessary to show that the extortionate credit transaction was an insolvency transaction.
Despite this group of liquidator claims coming within the Part of the IA that is headed ‘voidable transactions’, a successful claim by the liquidator does not necessarily result in the transaction being voided or becoming voidable at the liquidator’s election: the court has a very broad discretion as to what relief to grant, and may make any order it deems appropriate. It may order that the transaction be set aside in whole or in part, but it is not required to do so; alternatively or additionally, it may also make such orders as appropriate to restore the parties to their original positions or otherwise.
In addition to these four IA claims that are available to liquidators of insolvent companies, section 81 of the Conveyancing and Law of Property Ordinance of 1961 permits any person prejudiced by a conveyance of property to apply to the court for an order avoiding that conveyance. This cause of action may be used by liquidators to recoup funds, shares, or other assets that have been paid away and unlike the IA claims does not require that the company was insolvent at the time of the transfer.
There are three key types of pre-insolvency transaction that can be challenged:
- Voidable preferences: Any conveyance or other disposition of property made within six months before the commencement of the winding up is void if made with the intention to fraudulently prefer one or more of the company's creditors and the company was insolvent on the cashflow basis at the time (section 237(1) Companies Act 1981).
- Unlawful floating charges: A floating charge is voidable if created within 12 months of the commencement of insolvency proceedings for no consideration (section 239 Companies Act 1981).
- Fraudulent conveyances: An eligible creditor can apply to have a transaction or disposition of property set aside where the company’s dominant purpose was to put the property beyond the creditors' reach (sections 36A to 36G Conveyancing Act 1983).
In addition, any disposition of the property of the company, including things in action, and any transfer of shares, or alteration in the status of the members of the company, made after the commencement of the winding-up, shall, unless the Court otherwise orders, be void (section 166 Companies Act 1981). The “commencement of the winding up” is the date of the resolution in the case of a voluntary liquidation and the presentation of the petition in a compulsory liquidation.
Transactions entered into by the debtor in the period between commencement of the cessation of payments, as this is defined by the competent court, and the declaration of bankruptcy (“suspect period”, which cannot exceed two (2) years) and that are deemed detrimental to the debtor’s creditors are either mandatorily revoked by the court or are revocable at the court’s discretion. An application for the revocation of the above transactions before the competent court is filed by the bankruptcy trustee. Exceptionally, a creditor may file such application if it requests the bankruptcy trustee to apply for a revocation and the latter fails to take any action within two (2) months from the creditor’s request.
The following transactions which are entered into within the suspect period are deemed to be detrimental to the creditors of the insolvent entity and are mandatorily revoked by the court: (a) donations, gratuitous dispositions and all transactions done at an undervalue; (b) payments of obligations that were not due and payable; (c) payments of due and payable obligations that were not made in cash or in the agreed means of payment; and (d) provision of security in order to secure pre existing claims for which the debtor had not assumed an obligation to provide such security, or in order to secure new claims assumed by the debtor in replacement of pre existing obligations.
Any contract or payment of due and payable obligations within the suspect period may be revoked at the court’s discretion provided that the third party knew that the debtor was in cessation of payments and that the payment was detrimental to the debtor’s creditors. Such knowledge is presumed for persons and entities which are affiliated with the debtor/legal entity in accordance with art. 32 of Greek law 4308/2014 (the law on consolidated accounts).
In addition, acts of the insolvent debtor concluded during a five year period before the declaration of bankruptcy are revoked if the debtor acted with the intention to harm or to benefit certain of its creditors and its counterparties knew that the debtor was acting maliciously.
Upon declaration of bankruptcy there is a moratorium (suspension) on enforcement of claims by creditors. In particular, it is prohibited to initiate or continue any enforcement procedures as well as to file any new lawsuits or continue any (pending) litigation against the insolvent debtor in connection with the insolvency estate.
The above prohibition does not apply in case of creditors the claims of which have been secured by specific privilege or security in rem on specific assets of the insolvency estate. The above though does not apply in cases where such assets are functionally and directly connected with the debtor’s business activity, i.e. the suspension of enforcement shall apply in this case as well for a maximum period of 10 months from the declaration of bankruptcy.
The avoidance provisions found principally in the Companies Act and the Bankruptcy Act enable the unravelling of certain transactions that would, but for the winding up or judicial management, have remained binding on the company. If successfully invoked, they mandate the clawing-back of property transferred by the transactions or a reversal of their effects.
Where a floating charge has been created within six months of the commencement of the winding up, such a charge shall be invalid except as to the amount of any cash paid to the company at the time of, or subsequent to, the creation of and in consideration for the charge, together with interest on that amount at the rate of 5 percent per annum; unless it is established that the company was solvent immediately after the creation of the charge.
A liquidator or a judicial manager has the power to set aside transactions at an undervalue, where such transaction(s) was given when a company was insolvent, or became insolvent as a result of the transaction(s) in question. A transaction at an undervalue can be impugned if it took place within five years before the commencement of winding up or judicial management. There is a presumption of insolvency if the transaction is entered into with an “associate”.
For transactions at an undervalue, such transactions must have been entered into for no consideration or consideration of significantly less value in monetary terms is provided. Alternatively, the value of the consideration given by the company significantly exceeds the value received by the company.
A liquidator or a judicial manager has the power to set aside an unfair preference given when a company was insolvent or, as a result of which, the company became insolvent. An unfair preference, which is not a transaction at an undervalue, and which is given to an associate of the company, can be challenged if it took place within two years before the filing of a winding up application. Any other unfair preference can be challenged if it took place within six months before the filing of the winding up application.
Any security created by a registrable but unregistered charge is void against the liquidator of the company or any creditor of the company. Upon the making of the winding up order, a statutory trust is imposed on the assets of the company for the purpose of discharging the company’s liabilities. However, the statutory trust does not confer beneficial or proprietary interests on the unsecured creditors, who therefore do not have locus standi to avoid an unregistered charge.
Credit transactions are extortionate if either the terms are such as to require grossly exorbitant payments be made in respect of the provision of the credit, or it is harsh and unconscionable or substantially unfair. Such transactions may be set aside or varied by the Court if they are entered into within a period of three years before the commencement of winding up or judicial management. It has to be demonstrated that not only were the transactions unfair, but were oppressive and reflecting an imbalance in bargaining power of which the other party took improper advantage.
Lastly, the liquidator or judicial manager has the right to recover dissipated assets in respect of certain sales to or by a company.
When a company has entered a formal insolvency process, certain transactions entered into by the company before the start of the insolvency may be challenged under provisions in the Insolvency Act 1986.
Possible grounds of challenge include transactions at an undervalue, preferences, extortionate credit transactions, avoidance of floating charges, and transactions defrauding creditors. Each of these grounds aim to unwind transactions that would otherwise have frustrated or otherwise allowed the company to avoid the payment of creditors on insolvency in accordance with the statutory priority of claims. In most cases, only an administrator or liquidator of a company may bring a claim challenging a reviewable transaction; however, where there is fraud, any party that is a victim of the transaction may make a challenge.
A successful challenge will result in the offending transaction being unwound by a court order. The court order will not affect third parties who acted in good faith and for value. Typically, a look back period will range between two years for connected parties (which includes directors, shadow directors, associated persons or companies) to six months for other parties. Penalties for these transactions can include: accounting for profits for proceeds to the company or the transaction being voided.
Yes, a debtor’s pre-insolvency transactions may be challenged. The Bankruptcy Law and the ICC recognize an “Actio Pauliana” suit. An Actio Pauliana suit is an effort made by creditors (under Article of 1341 of ICC) or the receiver to cancel any legal acts of the debtor performed before the declaration of bankruptcy, which may harm their interests by filing a lawsuit in the relevant court.
The Actio Pauliana suit may be accepted if it can prove that at the time of the performance of the legal acts, the debtor and the parties with whom the debtor performed the legal acts knew or should have known that the acts would adversely affect the other creditors, unless the acts were required under agreements and/or laws.
The legal acts that would adversely affect or harm the interests of the other creditors mean any transaction entered into less than a year before the bankruptcy declaration which the bankrupt debtor was not required to enter into and:
- the transaction was an agreement under which the obligations of the debtor exceeded the obligations of the party with whom the agreement was entered into; or
- the transaction constituted payment of, or security for, a debt which was not yet due and payable.
If the court ruling grants the “Actio Pauliana” suit, it is enforced against the debtor as well as the counter-party (the third party) to the agreement entered into.
French law provides for some rules which make it possible to declare certain transactions entered into by the company void or voidable during the so-called “hardening period” which is the period between the date of insolvency (which may be carried back up to 18 months prior to the judgement opening the insolvency proceeding) and the opening of insolvency proceedings.
Some transaction entered into during the hardening period are automatically void and include in particular;
- any deed entered into without consideration transferring title to movable or immovable property;
- any bilateral contract in which the debtor’s obligations significantly exceed those of the other party;
- any payment by whatever means, made for debts that had not fallen due on the date when payment was made;
- all payments for outstanding debts, if not made by cash settlement or wire transfers, remittance of negotiable instruments, or “Daily assignment of receivables”;
- any mortgage or pledge granted to secure a pre-existing debt.
In addition, any payment made or any transaction entered into during the hardening period may be at the discretion of the court, subject to two conditions: (i) the payment or transaction took place during the hardening period and (ii) at the time of the payment or transaction, the contracting party knew that the debtor was insolvent.
The claw-back action is exercised by the administrator, the legal representative, the Commissioner in the implementation of the plan (juge-commissaire) or the prosecutor.
Any transaction carried out in the three months immediately prior to the liquidation order, which prefers one creditor over the others (Article 355, Companies Ordinance), can be challenged. So as not to undermine the company's ability to conduct its business in the period leading up to the liquidation order, these provisions apply only to transactions outside the company's ordinary course of business. Such transactions fall into two categories: (i) transactions that are exceptionally large in scope or significance; and (ii) transactions where the value of the services or assets received from the creditor is inconsistent with the consideration paid by the company.
Dutch law contains provisions as a result of which certain transactions can be nullified by the trustee on the basis of fraudulent conveyance. A transaction may be nullified on the basis of fraudulent conveyance if:
- it has been voluntarily performed;
- it prejudices the available means of recovery of one or more creditors; and
- the debtor and beneficiary knew or should have known that the transaction would prejudice creditors.
The burden of proof regarding the above in principle rests on the trustee. A successful claim based on fraudulent conveyance renders the transaction void. Outside of bankruptcy, creditors can try to nullify transactions on similar grounds.
The debtor’s pre-insolvency transactions can be affected by insolvency procedures if they were concluded during the hardening period or “période suspecte”. Such period runs from the moment of the cessation of payments to the date of the declaratory judgement of bankruptcy, though the exact date of the cessation of payment is fixed by the court at a maximum of 6 months and 10 days before the opening of the bankruptcy procedure.
Certain payments made, as well as other transactions concluded or performed during the hardening period can then be subject to cancellation by the court on proceedings initiated by the bankruptcy receiver. The following transactions must be set aside or declared null and void upon request by the bankruptcy receiver:
- contracts entered into by the insolvent company, if its obligations in such contracts are significantly more onerous than the obligations of the other party (similar to transaction at an undervalue risks in English law);
- the payment of debts that have not fallen due;
- any payment made in kind (eg. asset transfer) by the insolvent company in respect of debts that are due (excluding cash and negotiable instruments);
- the granting of a security interest for antecedent debts (ie. for post consideration); and
- the payment of certain debts that have fallen due entered into during the hardening period (or the ten days preceding it).
Additionally, certain payments made for matured debts, as well as other transactions concluded for consideration, during the hardening period are subject to cancellation by the court if they were concluded with the counterparty’s knowledge that the company was insolvent at the time.
Finally, the insolvency receiver may, without any limitation in time, challenge any transaction or payment made in fraud of the creditors’ rights.
There are a few statutory exceptions to the rules governing the hardening period.
- Security interest qualifying as financial collateral agreements may be enforced at any time, notwithstanding the insolvency procedures (except in cases of fraud);
- Special provisions govern the insolvency of an assignor when future claims are assigned to a securitisation undertaking.
Upon request of the trustee, certain pre-insolvency transactions must or can be declared unenforceable against the bankrupt’s estate if they were performed by the debtor between the date of cessation of payments and the date of the bankruptcy order (suspect period).
The date of cessation of payments usually coincides with the date of the bankruptcy order. However, the bankruptcy court may determine a suspect period (maximum six months), if sound and objective circumstances show that the debtor already ceased payments before the date of the bankruptcy order.
Given their unusual nature, these actions will be declared unenforceable against the body of creditors if performed during the suspect period: (i) gifts and transfers for no consideration, (ii) sub value contracts, (iii) payments of undue debts, (iv) payments in kind of due debts, and (v) security interest granted for antecedent debts. The court may declare acts unenforceable if they took place during the suspect period and if the third party was aware of the cessation of payments by the debtor. Finally, any fraudulent acts or payments to the detriment of the creditors, whenever performed, can be declared unenforceable (actio pauliana).
In case of insolvency, certain transactions made by the debtor before the insolvency was declared might be challenged.
In a general report issued by the liquidator (síndico) after admitting or denying credits and creditors to the liquidation process, a date on which cessation of payments started will be established. Certain transactions done during the period comprised between the date on which cessation of payments started and insolvency was declared (suspicious period) can be challenged in a process that can be started by the liquidator.
Gratuitous acts, advance payments of debts and granting mortgages or pledges or giving preferences to credits which have not matured and originally did not have a security are considered void acts and there is no necessity of filing any action. They are just declared void by the judge and the resolution can be challenged at the court of appeal.
Any other act detrimental to creditors during the mentioned period can also be declared invalid if the party to the act knew of the debtor’s cessation of payments. In this case, the action should be started by the liquidator with the authorization and thus consent of a majority of unsecured creditors. Also, if the liquidator does not file the action, any creditor can do it by their own means.
Under the U.S. Bankruptcy Code, a debtor may: (a) avoid a voluntary security interest that, at the time the petition is filed, is not properly perfected; (b) avoid the fixing of certain statutory liens; (c) avoid fraudulent transfers; (d) avoid unauthorized postpetition transfers of property; or (e) recover prepetition preferential transfers. The U.S. Bankruptcy Code requires a debtor to pursue any avoidance action within two years of the bankruptcy filing; the relevant “look back” period with respect to any particular action varies based on the nature of the action.
A debtor may “avoid” transactions as constructively or actually fraudulent. If successful, the pre-transaction status quo is restored by either unwinding the transaction or entitling the prevailing party to money damages. The debtor may avoid certain transfers of property (or incurrence of debt) made within two to six years before the petition date.
A transfer is actually fraudulent if it was made the transfer “with actual intent to hinder, delay or defraud any creditor.”
A transfer is treated as a constructive fraudulent (i.e., treated as fraudulent because of its effect on other similarly situated creditors, as opposed to the debtor’s intention) if the debtor received less than equivalent value in exchange for such transfer, and (a) the debtor was insolvent when the transfer was made or became insolvent as a result; (b) the debtor was left with unreasonably small capital; or (c) the debtor intended to incur, or believed that the debtor would incur, debts beyond the debtor’s ability to pay as such debts matured.
While proving constructive fraud is based on objective criteria, actual fraud involves the state of the debtor’s mind. Direct evidence of the debtor’s state of mind is seldom available, must be shown by circumstantial evidence and inferred from observable conduct. Courts have identified typical patterns of behavior that create suspicion of fraud, known as “Badges of Fraud.”
In addition to fraudulent transfers, a debtor may avoid preferential transfer, which is defined as: (a) a transfer of an interest of the debtor in property; (b) to or for the benefit of a creditor; (c) for or on account of an antecedent debt; (d) made while the debtor was insolvent (presumption of insolvency within 90 days of bankruptcy filing); (e) made on or within 90 days of bankruptcy filing (or within 1 year for transfers to insiders); and (f) that enables the creditor to receive more than it would in a hypothetical chapter 7 liquidation. Like fraudulent transfers, a preference action, if successful, will unwind the challenged transaction or the court will award the plaintiff with a claim for money damages.
Even if a debtor proves the prima facie case for a preference, the U.S. Bankruptcy Code includes certain defenses to preferences actions. The purpose of the exceptions is to encourage creditors to continue to deal with troubled debtors without fear that they will have to disgorge payments received for value give. Typical defenses include: (a) the debtor receives contemporaneous exchange for new value from a creditor (e.g., check tendered for delivery of goods, cash on demand transactions; (b) the debtor receives contemporaneous new value from a party other than the creditor; and/or (c) recurring, customary credit transactions that are incurred and paid in the ordinary course of business of the debtor and the debtor’s transferee.
While it may be easy to spot a preferential transfer, that does not always mean that the debtor will avoid it. In a large case, there can be thousands of preference actions. Most will typically be resolved without need for a trial. Debtors sometimes forego preference campaigns to maintain go-forward relationships with trade partners/customers. Any transferee from whom a debtor recovers a preferential payment is entitled to an unsecured claim equal to the amount of the recovered payment.
Section 544 of the U.S. Bankruptcy Code provides additional avoidance powers to the estate. Section 544(a) of the U.S. Bankruptcy Code provides that a debtor shall have, as of the commencement of the case, and without regard to any knowledge of the debtor or of any creditor, the rights and powers of, or may avoid any transfer of property of the debtor or any obligation incurred by the debtor that is voidable by lien creditors under applicable non-bankruptcy law (which typically provides that an unperfected security interest is subordinate to the rights of a lien creditor and that a lien creditor may avoid any such unperfected security interest).
Section 544(b) goes a step further by providing that a debtor may avoid a transfer that is “voidable by a creditor” under applicable state law (which often means the Uniform Fraudulent Transfer Act, which has been enacted in more than 40 states). For a debtor to bring a fraudulent transfer cause of action under section 544(b) based on state law, the debtor must first prove the existence of an actual unsecured creditor who (a) holds an allowable claim on the date the bankruptcy petition was filed and (b) has the ability and power to void a transfer or obligation of the debtor as either constructively or actually fraudulent under the applicable state fraudulent transfer law. If the debtor fails to prove the existence of a triggering creditor, the debtor is prohibited from pursuing a section 544(b) actual or constructive fraud claim under applicable state law, regardless of the potential merits of the claim. If the debtor does prove the existence of such a triggering creditor, it then can step into that creditor’s shoes to bring and prosecute the fraudulent transfer action under applicable state law.
The U.S. Bankruptcy Code permits the debtor to use the single triggering creditor’s standing and cause of action under applicable law to avoid the entire transaction or obligation for the benefit of all creditors. This is a particularly powerful tool: in recent cases, debtors and other creditors have asserted that this provision permits the debtor to step into the shoes of the IRS—which typically is an unsecured creditor in every bankruptcy case and benefits from a 10-year lookback period (rather than 2 years, provided by the U.S. Bankruptcy Code, or four to six years, as provided by state law)—to pursue avoidance actions.
The U.S. Bankruptcy Code also allows debtor to avoid certain statutory liens. The first type are liens that first become effective against the debtor due to the debtor’s financial distress (so-called “springing liens”), e.g., liens that become effective upon: (a) the commencement of a case concerning the debtor under the U.S. Bankruptcy Code or the commencement of an insolvency proceeding concerning the debtor other than under title 11; (b) the appointment of a custodian or a custodian being authorized to take or takes possession of the debtor’s property; (c) the insolvency of the debtor; (d) the debtor’s financial condition failing to meet a specified standard; and (e) the execution against the debtor’s property at the insistence of an entity other than the statutory lien holder.
The second type of avoidable liens are those which would not be perfected or enforceable at the commencement of the case against a hypothetical bona fide purchaser who purchases the property at the commencement of the case. Enforceability of a statutory lien depends upon the status of its perfection under nonbankruptcy law at the time of the filing of the bankruptcy case. Where the applicable nonbankruptcy law permits a statutory lien to defeat the rights of a bona fide purchaser, the lien is valid against a trustee. The trustee will prevail where nonbankruptcy law specifically or by implication prohibits enforcement of a statutory lien against a bona fide purchaser. Note, however, certain statutory amendments basically render it impossible to avoid tax liens.
Rights of Third Parties and Standing
While avoidance actions are property of the bankruptcy estate that the debtor may pursue, bankruptcy courts may grant standing to other parties (such as an official committee of unsecured creditors) to pursue such actions, in which case a third party may step into the shoes of the debtor. To obtain standing, a creditor must file a motion with the bankruptcy court and demonstrate that: (a) a colorable claim exists; (b) the creditor has made a demand upon the debtor to pursue a claim; (c) the debtor has refused to pursue the claim; and (d) it is in the best interests of the debtor’s creditors for the creditor seeking standing to pursue the claim, i.e., the projected recovery on the claim will exceed the potential costs associated with pursuing the claim.
Pre-insolvency transactions are ineffective or would/could be declared ineffective towards the bankruptcy estate in certain situations, including the following:
- any transaction made by a bankrupt within one year prior to filing a bankruptcy motion which concerns the disposal of its assets if performed gratuitously or for consideration given or promised on the part of the bankrupt that is glaringly in excess of the consideration in return;
- the payment of obligations which are not yet due and payable or the establishment of security with regard to such obligations made by a bankrupt within six months prior to filing a bankruptcy motion are ineffective towards the bankruptcy estate (however, a beneficiary may apply for the recognition of the relevant action as effective if it was not aware of the grounds for the declaration of bankruptcy at the moment when the payment was received or when the security interest was established);
- any legal action in relation to which the bankrupt paid consideration within six months prior to filing a bankruptcy motion if such action was made with certain entities/persons connected with the bankrupt through various corporate/personal chains, unless the other party to the relevant action proves that creditors have not been harmed; and
- certain in rem securities established over the bankrupt’s assets if established to secure the obligations of a third party within one year prior to filing a bankruptcy motion and provided that the bankrupt did not receive consideration for establishing such security or the consideration was significantly lower than the value of the security so established (however, irrespective of the value of the consideration, the judge-commissioner will decide that the security is ineffective towards the bankruptcy estate if it secures obligations of entities/persons referred to in paragraph (iii) above, unless the beneficiary of the security proves that there was no detriment to other creditors).
In addition, in the case of remedial proceedings (discussed in paragraph (iv) of the response to question no. 7 below), certain transactions of the debtor that are substantially less favourable than arm’s-length terms, as well as certain security interests established by the debtor, both within one year prior to filing a motion for the opening of remedial proceedings, are ineffective towards the remedial estate.
If an action of a bankrupt or debtor is or is declared ineffective:
- the performance made by the bankrupt/debtor or the performance which did not enrich the bankruptcy or remedial estate as a result of such action needs to be returned to the bankruptcy or remedial estate; and
- the mutual performance made by a third party needs to be returned to such third party if such performance is separated in the bankruptcy or remedial estate or if the bankruptcy or remedial estate is enriched by it.
The Companies Act 2014 provides that any conveyance, mortgage, delivery of goods, payment, execution or other act relating to property made or done by or against a insolvent company within 6 months of the commencement of its winding up (or two years in the case of a connected person) with a view to preferring that creditor over others, shall be deemed to be an unfair preference and accordingly, the transfer is void and the property must be returned to the company. Where the transaction involved a connected person, there is a rebuttable presumption in law that the intention was to unfairly prefer that connected party.
Where a person acting with bona fides has acquired an interest in the assets of the company for value, that person’s rights are not affected by a determination that the transaction concerned was an unfair preference.
Improperly transferred assets
Under the Companies Act 2014, if it can be shown to the satisfaction of the High Court that company property was disposed of (which would include by way of transfer, charge, security assignment or mortgage) and the effect of such disposal was to “perpetrate a fraud” on the company, its creditors or members, the High Court may, if it deems it just and equitable, order any person who appears to have “use control or possession” of such property or the proceeds of the sale or development thereof, to deliver it or pay a sum in respect of it to the liquidator on such terms as the High Court sees fit.
There is no requirement to prove fraud – it must merely be proven that the effect of the disposition was to perpetrate a fraud. It is not necessary for the company to be insolvent at the time of the disposition, although the application can only be made in respect of a company that is being wound up. In addition, there is no time limit specified under the section, therefore, theoretically at least, any transaction could be challenged.
The Court, in making any order with regard to property that has been improperly transferred, must have regard to the rights of person who have bona fide and for value acquired an interest in the property concerned.
Breach of fiduciary duty to preserve the assets of the Company
Where a company is insolvent, that company ceases to be the beneficial owner of its assets and the directors no longer have the power to dispose of the assets. The Irish Supreme Court has held that in such a situation, the directors owe a duty to the creditors to preserve the assets to enable them to be applied in discharge of the company’s liabilities. Where directors of an insolvent company are aware or ought to be aware of its insolvency, they hold the assets of that company in trust for the benefit of the company’s creditors.
The rights of a person that bona fide and for value acquires an interest in the property of a company that is insolvent, and who is not on notice of that insolvency, will not be affected by the lack of capacity of the directors.