Business can be complicated but it doesn’t have to be.  We have helped thousands of clients and know about the key legal areas that will affect you and have just released our fully revised and updated “Doing Business in New Zealand” free handbook.  You can download it here.

New Zealand consistently ranks as one of the most business-friendly nations in the world. Given this appealing status and the interest we receive both from local and international investors, as well as form businesses and entrepreneurs, we produced the “Doing Business in New Zealand” handbook a few years ago and now have fully updated it.  It is intended to introduce and provide information for those who may be unfamiliar with how business is done here. The handbook provides introduction on business structures, investment rules, employment, disputes, property, intellectual property, immigration, privacy and social enterprise, just to name a few examples.

If you have further enquires please contact Steven Moe at stevenmoe@parryfield.com or on 021 761 292 or Kris Morrison at krismorrison@parryfield.com.

Be sure to check out our other free guides too, such as Startups: Legal Toolkit and Social Enterprises in New Zealand: A Legal Handbook.  We also provide free templates for resolutions, Non Disclosure Agreements and other resources on our site as well as many articles on key topics you should know about.

There is often confusion over Health and Safety – the rules have been around for a while now but we still get some common questions.  Below we set out some of the key points to consider to ensure compliance around volunteers. Check out our other guidance on these topics as well.

Is your organisation a PCBU?

Under the The Health and Safety at Work Act 2015, a PCBU has the primary duty to ensure the health and safety of its workers and others, so far as is reasonably practicable.

Reasonably practicable means that “which is, or was, at a particular time, reasonably able to be done in relation to ensuring health and safety.”  A PCBU is not expected to guarantee the health of safety of their workers but they must do what can reasonably be done to ensure health and safety.  Factors that will affect what is reasonably able to be done include:

  • The hazards and risks associated with the work and the likelihood of the hazard or risk occurring;
  • The severity of the injury or harm to health that could result from the hazard or risk;
  • What the person knows or reasonably should know about the hazard or risk and the ways of eliminating or minimising it;
  • What can be done to eliminate or minimise the risks and how available and suitable these risk controls may be;
  • The cost associated with eliminating or minimising the risk, including whether it is grossly disproportionate to the risk.

What about Volunteer organisations?

Section 17 of the Act states a “volunteer association” is not a PCBU.  The Act defines a volunteer association as “a group of volunteers (whether incorporated or unincorporated) working together for 1 or more community purposes where none of the volunteers, whether alone or jointly with any other volunteers, employs any person to carry out work for the volunteer association”.

If your organisation has no employees then it will be known as a volunteer association under the Act.  As a volunteer association your organisation would not be a PCBU and therefore the Act would not apply to your organisation.  However, frequently this exemption would not apply to organisations.

If your organisation has one or more employees then it is likely it will be a PCBU and thus the Act will apply.

If your organisation is a PCBU

If your organisation is a PCBU, it will have a duty to ensure the health and safety of others so far as is reasonably practicable.

So what about Volunteer officers?

Officers have a duty to exercise due diligence to ensure the PCBU complies with its duties and obligations under the Act.  In exercising due diligence, officers must take reasonable steps to:

  • Know about work health and safety matters;
  • Gain an understanding of the operations of the PCBU and the hazards and risks associated with those operations;
  • Ensure the PCBU has appropriate resources and processes to eliminate or minimise risks;
  • Ensure the PCBU receives information about incidents, hazards and risks;
  • Ensure there are processes for the PCBU to comply with the Act.

Volunteer workers

Under the Act a “volunteer worker” is a volunteer who carries out work in any capacity for a PCBU on a regular basis, with the PCBU’s knowledge and consent and is integral to the PCBU’s operations.  A PCBU would owe a duty to ensure, so far as is reasonable practicable, the health and safety of volunteer workers.

The volunteer worker would also have duties under the Act.  While at work they must:

  • Take reasonable care for his or her own health and safety;
  • Take reasonable care that his or her acts or omissions do not adversely affect the health and safety of other persons;
  • Comply, as far as the worker is reasonably able, with any reasonable instruction that is given by the PCBU to allow the PCBU to comply with the act or regulations; and
  • Co-operate with any reasonable policy or procedure of the PCBU relating to health or safety at the workplace that has been notified to workers.

“While at work” is not defined but likely means while at the workplace or at an event run by the PCBU.

Casual volunteers

A volunteer is not a “volunteer worker” if their voluntary work includes:

  • Participating in a fund-raising activity;
  • Assisting with sports or recreation for an educational institute, sports club or recreation club;
  • Assisting with activities for an educational institution outside the premises of the educational institution; or
  • Providing care for another person in the volunteer’s home.

Even though this volunteer would not be a volunteer worker, the PCBU would still have a duty to them to ensure their health and safety is not put at risk from the PCBU’s work.

The casual volunteer would not have duties under the Act.

If your organisation is a PCBU and something goes wrong the penalties can be high.  It is therefore very important that you are aware of whether your organisation is a PCBU or not.  In some cases this may be unclear.  We would be more than happy to talk with you about your particular situation to help you determine whether or not you are a PCBU.

This article is not a substitute for legal advice and you should contact your lawyer about your specific situation. Please feel free to contact Steven Moe at stevenmoe@parryfield.com

There is often confusion over Health and Safety – the rules have been around for a while now but we still get some common questions.  Below we set out some of the key points to consider to ensure compliance. Check out our other guidance on these topics as well.

Top 10 things to know

  • Be aware
    • The Health and Safety at Work Act 2015 has been in force for a few years and it has introduced greater accountability for Health & Safety for your organisation if you employ staff.
  • Are you a ‘PCBU’?
    • If you are a “Person Conducting a Business or Undertaking” then you are a PCBU.  A PCBU can operate in a voluntary way without primarily being set up to make money.  It has the primary duty of care in a workplace. See below for more on this.
  • Officers of PCBUs
    • Directors, managers and leaders of the PCBU also face significant penalties under the Act for failing to exercise due diligence in ensuring the PCBU carries out its duties.
  • To start: Identify risks
    • Ensure all risks and hazards are in your organisation are identified.  Start by looking at the facility, entry and exit points, stage areas, equipment used, the people, the weather … what are the risks where you are?
  • Control & Eliminate
    • Put procedures in place to control or eliminate risks to health and safety so far as is reasonably practicable.
  • Prepare
    • Maintain a health and safety policy with the help of your employees.  Put it into action and ensure your employees and contractors are aware of it and follow it – don’t just hide it in a drawer!
  • Tailor your documents
    • Customise your documents so they are practical for you.  One size does not fit all. It may be that a consultant is worth hiring to help you prepare documentation as well.
  • Check your visitors
    • If other contractors or other entities come on to your property you must ensure they have proper health and safety procedures in place and provide you with a copy.  Ask for it and check it!
  • Standing item
    • It is good practice to have this topic as a standing item at your board meetings.
  • Remember the penalties are high
    • Fines of up to $3 million and imprisonment of up to 5 years can be imposed.  “She’ll be right” is no longer OK. Think about these issues now, not later

This article is not a substitute for legal advice and you should contact your lawyer about your specific situation. Please feel free to contact Steven Moe at stevenmoe@parryfield.com

A. Introduction

In a gentle way, you can shake the world. Mahatma Ghandi

Governance for faith based organisations is not the same as for other entities. We have dealt with both types of structures for many decades and wanted to set out some key thoughts in this article. This was originally prepared as a paper presented at the Legalwise “Religion and the Law” conference held on 30 October 2021. The paper was written and presented by Steven Moe, a Partner at Parry Field Lawyers.

Faith based organisations have their own unique dynamic that can be distinguished from other Not for Profits. Albeit this being an important issue, there has not been much written about it in Aotearoa New Zealand to support leaders of faith based organisations. This article stipulates the unique nature of faith based organisations and provides practical recommendations for their governance.

This article addresses the following issues faced by faith based organisations:

  • What are the usual legal structures where these boards operate?
  • What are the key functions of boards of faith based non-profits?
  • How does the legal framework affect these boards?
  • What added dimensions shape governance?

Should you have any questions or comments about this article please feel free to reach out.

B. What are faith based organisations?

In New Zealand there are approximately 115,00 Not for Profits, with around 27,500 being registered charities. Of those, 8,000 are listed as advancing religion with Charities Services. Charities Services, as the regulator of charities, provides the following description of organisations which advance religion:

“The term “religion” includes many different faiths and belief systems (for example, Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism). Generally, however, to be religious there needs to be a body of doctrines that:

  • concern the place of humankind in the universe and its relationship with the infinite
  • go beyond that which can be perceived by the sense or ascertained through the scientific method
  • contain canons of conduct around which adherents structure their lives.”

They go on to provide that the doctrines involved and the conduct expected must be structured and serious enough to be capable of advancing religion. For example, a Jedi Society was denied charitable status. This promoted the ideology found in the Star Wars films.

C. Common legal structures

There are a range of legal structures that can be adopted by faith based organisations – from Charitable Trusts to Incorporated Societies to Unincorporated Associations. This article focuses on registered Charitable Trusts because in our experience it is the most common entity type for a faith based organisation.

A registered Charitable Trust has a written trust deed and trustees that advances its charitable purpose. Most often the purpose concerns advancing religion, however there may also be purposes concerning relief of poverty, education or purposes beneficial to the community. Moreover, it is understood that faith based organisations perform various functions within the communities that they operate. They may have associated initiatives that come under the umbrella of the main faith organisation or as a separate entity. For example, a faith based group may have itself, or have members that started, initiatives such as a preschool, counselling service, aged care, mental health services, teaching English as a second language, immigrant services, school related work, food banks and the like.

A Charitable Trust Deed is flexible in that there is no industry standard. Nevertheless, the common elements are set out in Annexure 1.

D. The bigger picture

A faith based organisation is founded on a very different paradigm of thinking than other organisations, such as a company. This is a fundamental point accounted for when framing our discussion on governance for faith based organisations. There is something much bigger involved with faith based organisations whereby the way of operating or describing entities in the legal sense does not touch on the “spiritual” side of what faith based organisations really represents.

This may be difficult to grasp so let’s consider this dynamic using a word picture:

Imagine a tree standing in a field. The leaves and branches are moving. We can talk about the tree because we can see it easily. However, that is not all that is at play. We may come to realise that what is being considered is not just the tree itself but also the wind. In other words, we cannot easily see and explain some aspects of the dynamics that are relevant when we turn to look at a faith based organisation. In this picture, the organisation is the tree and the wind represents other aspects such as faith, eternity, God and the spiritual. These are often unseen dimensions of life. A purely objective person might say “you are talking about a tree” whereas in fact we may be “talking about the wind”.

We often use the English word “Church” to describe certain types of organisations. Legally we might consider them to be entities that exist and are registered within our law. However, through the eyes of Christian faith the word “church” is something bigger and more profound than a registration number filed with a Government department. In fact, the term used for Church in the Bible falls on the Greek word used in the New Testament of ekklesia which refers to “a calling together”, that is people gathering to worship and serve God. Other religions have similar deeper conceptions about what is going on in the World than can be explained just with legal entities and formal documents. For example, in Hinduism there are concepts like Atman (eternal self – the self as spitirual rather than a material being).

These examples show that we must delve deeper than what exists at law. This is because for faith based organisations there is a lot more going on at a spiritual level.

E. Unique aspects of governance for faith based organisations

Let’s turn now to some of the aspects which make governance for faith based organisations a bit more unique than other forms of entity.

1. Purpose

The purpose of faith based organisations will likely be evident that they are about advancing religion. However, the issue is that sometimes such organisations get involved with activities that no longer align with their original purposes. As a result, it is often appropriate for those in governance to consider whether they are still within the remit of the original purposes or whether they need to revise those purposes (if possible) or set up another entity to perform the activities that they have since taken up.

2. Unincorporated associations

It is common for faith based organisations to have a long history. Therefore, it is also common that these organisations do not have a trust deed or governance in the same way we would today. Many entities are in fact unincorporated associations without the formality of a constitution or document setting out how they will operate. This can introduce challenges for governors today to govern in an acceptable way, such as appointing and removing people, decision making and liability. Therefore, it may be appropriate to look at the existing structure and determine whether it is the right one or if a new entity should be created or new rules adopted.

3. Statements of belief

It is common for a faith based organisation to have a statement of faith or belief set out in the schedule to the trust deed. This introduces an additional set of criteria which Board members need to be aware of. Anyone that proposes to join the board would usually be required to confirm that they adhere to those beliefs. As such, a statement of faith may add an extra level regarding who can qualify to join the Board. Further, it may be that on a yearly basis, or when requested, a Board member may be asked to reaffirm or sign that they agree to the statement of faith.

4. Conduct of Board members

As well as affirming a statement of faith it is likely that in the rules there may be reference to criteria to remain a trustee. While this is also common in other organisations it may be heightened in a Church organization with the ability to remove a trustee if, in the opinion of more than three quarters of the other trustees, doing so is in the best interest of the Trust. In other words, it is likely that the standard expected of trustees may be different to those in a different context. Therefore, the impact of conduct will be particularly important for those on Boards of faith based organisations.

5. Relationship to the Bigger Group

It is common for churches to be affiliated to a denomination. This can provide real benefits such as in the form of training, conferences, sourcing of content and decision making at a national level. It may also mean that the individual Church and the governing body will relate to the Denomination. This is different to a normal “independent” charity. It introduces interesting dynamics to discussions which will differ depending on the strength of the relationship. For example, some trust deeds will simply refer to assets going to the denomination on wind up. Others will have more direct relationships, particularly if the denomination holds the legal title of the land on behalf of the Church. This can affect ventures that the Church wants to take on, such as developing part of the site for social housing, taking on more debt to fund expansion or even selling the land. Some denominations will be very involved in the decision making process while others are not so involved. The context is critical. As such, it must be understood how the entity relates to the domination and when approvals are needed at that level.

6. Relationship with international bodies

Sometimes a faith based organisation will not have a New Zealand based body which it relates to. This may be because the organisation was set up by an overseas based charity to do work in New Zealand. Consequently, the same considerations in relation to a denomination mentioned above may apply here to the overseas entity, in that it must be fully understood how the board relates to any overseas groups. For example, trustees may need to be approved by the overseas body, big decisions may need to be brought to them for approval and they may continue to have international board members that they appoint. This raises interesting dynamics for the New Zealand entity over time, particularly if those involved locally may want to align more with local culture and trends. For example, this could relate to wanting to partner on Treaty matters or other areas not familiar to the overseas based charity.

7. Interaction with other Trusts

Often a religious group will have members that wish to do good in the local community. It is common for them to approach the Charity and seek to set up a new Charity that has the blessing of the original group. Sometimes the old Charity itself controls these new initiatives. For example, if the trustees of the older Charity itself have the right to appoint and remove the trustees of a community focussed trust then it is likely that this will count as ‘control’ for tax and accounting purposes, and the accounts will need to be consolidated with those of that original Charity. Trustees of a faith based group should consider if this is the right solution because it may be that these new initiatives should be given their own wings to fly independently of the original group. Accordingly, the organisation will have to be aware of accounting implications when they have control over other trusts.

8. Duties of Trustees

The Trusts Act 2019 imposes on trustees mandatory and default duties. It is essential for trustees of a charitable trust to know and understand the terms of the trust deed so that they can be sure of meeting their obligations and duties to the beneficiaries. The various duties of trustees are set out in other articles we have written, such as this.

9. “Special Character” and Governance standards

Sometimes there will be some unique considerations when it comes to this type of organisation. It must be considered whether those “called” by God are employees. Also relevant will be considerations in relation to schools that a Church may be associated with.

With regards to governance standards there are overseas resources that may be of interest. For example, the CMA Standards Council in Australia have produced Principles and Standards. Further, the “Nine Principles of Ministry Accountability” provide a unique framework for thinking about governance for faith based groups. Their focus is on accountability. It is helpful to look for resources that deal with faith based groups and consider what might be suitable for the particular organisation.

10. Back to the bigger picture

As mentioned earlier, for faith based organisations there is another factor at play: A higher power. This means that there will often be extra dimensions to decision making and process. For example, it is common for faith based boards to start meetings with prayer or a devotional reading. In addition, it is likely that all those involved will feel that the Trust and entity is a vehicle to achieving a much higher calling. Therefore it is essential to understand that there is more at play that just the words in a trust deed.

Conclusion

We have a great deal of experience in dealing with faith based organisations and in our experience none of them are the same as the next. If you’d like to talk about your situation then let me know by email to stevenmoe@parryfield.com. To come full circle with how we began this article, it is clear that there will be unique aspects of governance for faith based organisiatons. Being aware of those will help – whether you are in governance or providing advice to such an organisation. Those different drivers and stakeholders will be vital when taking action and ensuring that the organisation is successful.

 

 

 

ANNEXURE 1: USUAL CONTENT OF A CHARITABLE TRUST DEED

There is no industry standard for a charitable trust deed. Also, there is no particular format required in the Charitable Trust Act 1957, but it is normally expected for a charitable trust deed to cover the following key points:

  • That a settlor is setting up the trust by donating to create a fund (often $10)
  • The purpose of the trust
  • The name of the board
  • Who is on the board, such as min and max number of the trustees
  • How trustees are appointed
  • How they can be removed
  • Any process around how long they serve
  • How the property will be controlled by the board
  • Powers of the trustees
  • What funds will be used for
  • Conflicts of interest and how they are dealt with
  • Common seal (it is required)
  • Meetings of the board and quorum and notices
  • Preparation of financial accounts
  • How contracts entered into
  • Variations of the trust deed
  • How to wind up and what happens to assets

Our Partner Steven Moe has collaborated with Arts and Not for Profit leader Anne Rodda to co-write the White Paper, “Tomorrow’s Board Diversity: The Role of Creatives” which can be

downloaded here.

This is part of our ongoing initiative to support thought leadership regarding Governance and the Arts, NFP and ‘For Purposes’ initiatives in Aotearoa New Zealand. Other examples include the just released “Charting the Future: A Framework for thinking about Change” here. To find out more about us have a browse of this website and the free resources in the tab above. If you have comments on the paper we’d love to hear them, email stevenmoe@parryfield.com.

Advance readers of the White Paper have commented:

“This White Paper brings to light a topic which is often neglected: the role that creatives can play on boards. In our experience, directors who have a range of diverse and creative talent, capabilities and knowledge bring different perspectives to decision-making, planning and board culture – that will likely enhance an organisation’s performance, as well as better represent the stakeholders.”
Kirsten Patterson (KP), Chief Executive, New Zealand Institute of Directors.

“I have been fortunate to always have had a strong musical and artistic background that has become the pillar stone to my creative success in business.” Sir Michael Hill

Parry Field are now registered as a Service Provider under the Regional Business Partner Network. If you are looking to grow your business but require some support, you may qualify for vouchers to help pay for services, as Parry Field are able to provide legal support in the following categories:

Business Planning: We can provide training for Directors of businesses who are looking at their plans and considering what changes they might need to put in place or those who are looking to start a business and are planning the first steps they need to take when it comes to legal structures.

Capital Raising: Growing your business is important and we can provide training around how business owners can raise funding for their venture, covering topics such as types of investors, due diligence processes, Financial Market Authority rules and documentation often needed, such as share Sale and Purchase Agreements and Shareholder Agreements.

Governance: It is important that you have all the right practices, processes and policies in place in order to guide your business in the right direction. Therefore, it is important to know and understand how to run a business, as well as the legal obligations that are associated with it. We can provide you with the knowledge of different legal structures that will assist you in deciding the best structure for the business based on what stage it is at. We will also assist with director duties, governance documents, explain how these work and the importance of having the right documents in place.

If you would like to know more, please contact the Regional Business Partner Network www.regionalbusinesspartners.co.nz

The Government has announced several urgent insolvency and corporate law changes in response to the COVID-19 Pandemic, in an attempt to keep solvent businesses afloat during this turbulent economic period. These include:

  • permitting electronic signatures where necessary;
  • giving entities unable to comply with their constitutional obligations because of the pandemic temporary relief;
  • giving the Registrar of Companies authority to extend deadlines imposed by legislation
  • amending sections 135 (“reckless trading”) & 136 (“duty to relation to incurring obligations”) of the Companies Act 1993 to afford directors greater comfort when making difficult decisions regarding their ability to continue to trade;
  • bringing forward changes to the voidable transactions regime; and
  • introducing the business debt hibernation scheme.

Once enacted, the Government has confirmed their application will be given retrospective effect from 3 April 2020.

Changes to Directors’ Duties

In light of concerns directors may prematurely place companies into liquidation for fear of personal liability incurred should they continue to trade or to take on new obligations, two significant amendments have been made to sections 135 & 136 of the Companies Act 1993.

  • Section 135 places an obligation on directors to abstain from agreeing, causing or allowing for a company to be operated in a manner likely to create a substantial risk of serious loss to the company’s creditors.
  • Section 136 places an obligation on directors to abstain from taking on a new obligation if they do not believe, on reasonable grounds, that the company will be able to fulfil its obligations under the arrangement.

Under the  announcement, directors who continue to trade (including the taking on of new obligations), will be afforded a “safe harbour” period from potential claims providing these criteria are met:

  • the directors consider, in good faith, that the company is or will likely face significant liquidity problems in the next six months due to the pandemic;
  • the company was able to pay its debts as they fell due on 31 December 2019; and
  • the directors consider in good faith that it is more likely than not the company will be able to pay its debts as they fall due within 18 months (for example, utilising the business debt hibernation scheme to get the business back on track).

This “safe harbour” is to be enacted for (initially) a six month period. Notably, directors must continue to act prudently and in good faith in their dealings with creditors, as all other directors’ duties continue to apply including the duty to act in good faith and in the best interests of the company under s 131.

How the change to section 136 will be drafted will be of great interest to directors of companies currently under pressure as a result of the lockdown. The requirement that director(s) be satisfied that “…the company will be able to pay its debts as they fall due within 18 months” may be challenging for directors, who will have to show they has maintained appropriate financial records consistent with the size and nature of the company, that their assumptions are reasonable and (where appropriate)the directors have acted on advice. Contracts with longer-term obligations such as  leases may not fall within the safe harbour period so directors need to be prudent when accessing longer-term obligations, whether existing or new.

With this in mind, it is important to keep accurate and up-to-date financial information. This includes reasonable budgets and forecasts for the next 18 months. This will allow directors to reach an informed decision on the company’s likelihood of being able to meet its debts as they would fall due in 18 months.

Changes to sections 135 & 136 come at a time when directors are increasingly concerned about their civil liability when dealing with third parties while their business is struggling. Often this results in directors prematurely resigning and appointing an external administrator. This is in part due to the recent High Court decision in Mainzeal Property and Construction Limited v Yan discussed here under which the directors of Mainzeal Property Limited were collectively ordered to pay NZ$36 million for a breach of section 135.

In December 2019, the Companies (Safe Harbour for Insolvent Trading) Amendment Bill was proposed with a view to alleviating directors’ concerns regarding their liability when deciding to continue trading, notwithstanding the company being insolvent. This Bill reduces directors’ civil liability when a company is (or will become) insolvent and its directors undertake new debts in an attempt to improve the company’s position. It remains unclear what extent the amendments mentioned hereinabove will reflect contents of this Bill.

Changes to the Voidable Transaction Regime

According to the current voidable transaction regime, a liquidator can “claw-back” payments made from the debtor company to its creditors two years before its liquidation. It has been proposed to shorten the two year vulnerability period to six months when the debtor company and the creditor are unrelated parties. Originally, this change was contained in the Insolvency Law Reform Bill, however the Government has included it amongst the recent changes because of the increase of liquidations predicted.

Business Debt Hibernation

The Business Debt Hibernation Scheme (“the Scheme”) is to be introduced to the Companies Act 1993 to supplement the relief measures that already exist between creditors and businesses. Debt hibernation effectively allows businesses to place their existing debts into “hibernation” until they are able to start trading again.

With the rationale of enhancing a company’s ability to stay afloat in the face of the pandemic, the scheme aims to:

  • increase discussions between creditors and directors;
  • enable directors to keep control of their companies rather than appointing an external administrator;
  • encourage continued trading between the company and its creditors by providing certainty to both parties; and
  • be simple and flexible.

Companies wanting to participate in the Scheme will have to meet certain criteria. This has not been announced in full, but it is expected to include:

  • the business would have been solvent had the Pandemic not occurred;
  • it would be in the best interests of the business (including its ability to pay creditors) for the business to enter debt hibernation;
  • the creditors of the business will need to be notified of the company’s intention to enter into the Scheme;
  • once the company notifies its creditors of their intention to enter into the Scheme a one-month moratorium will take effect immediately while creditors cast their votes;
  • consent must be obtained by at least 50% of creditors;
  • if the business obtains the consent of 50% of creditors, the Scheme becomes binding on all creditors, except employees, and there will be a moratorium on the enforcement of debts for a six month period once the proposal is passed; and
  • further payments made by the company to third party creditors during the Scheme will be excluded from the voidable transactions regime – this affords third party creditors with greater protection that, in the event of the company’s insolvency, the advance will not be clawed back.

This article is not a substitute for legal advice and you should talk to a lawyer about your specific situation. Should you need any assistance with this, or with any other commercial matter, please contact Peter van Rij at petervanrij@parryfield.com or Tim Rankin at timrankin@parryfield.com

If a former Prime Minister of New Zealand is involved in a case then you know it is going to attract interest.  Dame Jenny Shipley was the Chair of the Board of Mainzeal and it was found that the directors had breached their duties – what happened, and most important, what can we learn from this?

As a director of a company you must act honestly, in the best interests of the company, and with reasonable care at all times. You must not act or agree to the company acting in a manner that is likely to breach the Companies Act 1993, other legislation or your company’s constitution.  The outcome of the Mainzeal case comes as a timely reminder to company directors of their duties and obligations.

Founded in 1968, Mainzeal was one of the leading construction companies in New Zealand, responsible for projects such as the ASB Sports Centre in Wellington and Spark Arena in Auckland, just to name a few. However, the construction industry was sent into shock when Mainzeal collapsed and was placed into liquidation in February 2013. Unbeknown to many, Mainzeal had been struggling financially for a number of years. So much so, that Mainzeal’s liquidators brought proceedings against the former Mainzeal directors, claiming they had breached their duties under section 135 of the Companies Act 1993.

What Happened?

The details are summarised at the start of the case: “In 1995, an investment consortium with a focus on investments in China acquired a majority shareholding in Mainzeal’s then holding company. This investment consortium was associated with the first defendant, Mr Richard Yan.  The company group came to be known as the Richina Pacific group.  In 2004, the group established a new independent board for Mainzeal with the third defendant, Rt Hon Dame Jennifer Shipley, as Chairperson.  It operated for nearly 10 years under this board until the company collapsed in February 2013.  Its collapse left a deficiency on liquidation to unsecured creditors of approximately $110 million.  The unpaid creditors were sub-contractors ($45.4 million), construction contract claimants ($43.8 million), employees not covered by statutory preferences ($12 million), and other general creditors ($9.5 million).  Mainzeal’s secured creditor, BNZ, was fully paid out.”

Were the director’s reckless?

The crux of the claim came under section 135 of the Companies Act . This section specifies that a director of a company must not—

  • agree to the business of the company being carried on in a manner likely to create a substantial risk of serious loss to the company’s creditors; or
  • cause or allow the business of the company to be carried on in a manner likely to create a substantial risk of serious loss to the company’s creditors.

Ultimately, the court had to consider if Mainzeal’s directors had been reckless in continuing to trade while Mainzeal’s balance sheet was in deficit, thus placing the company’s creditors at a substantial risk of serious loss?

Mainzeal had been trading as insolvent from as early as 2005, when Richina Pacific group extracted considerable funds from Mainzeal by the way of loans for investment in China. However, Mainzeal continued to operate as a going concern, as Richina Pacific provided letters of support for when Mainzeal’s accounts were audited. The directors were also given assurances by email and in meetings that support would be provided by the parent group if it was needed.  These representations  of financial support  were relied on by the directors – but they should have done more.  It is important to note that the promise to provide financial support when necessary was never formalised or legally binding (eg loan agreements or guarantees).

The ability for Richina Pacific to provide financial assistance when needed was also limited due to stringent foreign exchange controls exercised by the Chinese governmental authorities. Therefore, this made it extremely difficult to take money back out in China, once it had been taken from Mainzeal.

Mainzeal continued to trade, largely relying on funds that were owed to sub-contractors.  It must have been a difficult balancing act to work out how long to continue trading in those difficult circumstances.   Ultimately,  Mainzeal was unable to pay its debts and was placed into liquidation on 28 February 2013.

Looking at the case there are some fascinating exchanges by email between the Directors and representatives of the parent company.  For example, Dame Jenny Shipley wrote:

“While I note your desire to run a central treasury function for the NZ interests it is unreasonable to ask Mainzeal Directors to approve the associated related party transfers without the clear understanding if we are liable for these decisions and the associated obligation or of other persons or Directors are legally responsible. We are not informed as to the purpose of these transfers and would not need to be so if we had a clear indication from those responsible for the group that the request had been approved…”

So the directors were asking some questions – which is always good.  But they relied too much on answers like this one that came in reply to these comments above:

“Again, there are no independence issues here as it is ultimately the shareholders who are on the hook for everything. Mainzeal is no in way compromised and Richina has always supported it to the full extent even during its more dire situations…”

Another experienced director, Sir Paul Collins, wrote: “I would have to say I’m at my wits end.  I joined the board under the impression Mainzeal was solvent … I accepted all your representations re support and more recently redomiciling in NZ later this year and taking out the BNZ. As you will well appreciate I have dealt with a lot of bad news stories over the years and have found that matters can be worked through when you have all the cards on the table. I don’t have that confidence here. …”

What should the directors have been doing?  Asking questions – like they did.  What they failed to do was getting the answers documented in binding legal agreements.

The court found that the directors had breached their duties under section 135:

Whilst all the factors I address below are relevant, there are three key considerations that cumulatively lead me to conclude the duties in s 135 were breached:

  • Mainzeal was trading while balance sheet insolvent because the intercompany debt was not in reality recoverable.

(b) There was no assurance of group support on which the directors could reasonably rely if adverse circumstances arose.

  • Mainzeal’s financial trading performance was generally poor and prone to significant one-off loses, which meant it had to rely on a strong capital base or equivalent backing to avoid collapse.”

It was held that those were the three key elements in establishing that there had been a breach by the directors.  The Court then went on to confirm:

“The policy of trading while insolvent is the source of the directors’ breach of duties, however, such a policy would not have been fatal if Mainzeal had either a strong financial trading position or reliable group support. It had neither.”

As the directors had been found in breach of section 135, the court awarded $36 million in damages.  A large sum of money for anyone.  The Court found that three directors, Dame Jenny Shipley, Mr Peter Gomm and Mr Clive Tilby had acted honestly and in good faith, therefore each were held liable for up to $6 million jointly with Mr Yan.

This did not go unchallenged. The court left the door open for the parties, if they believed there had been a miscalculation in the amount of damages awarded. Both the liquidators and former directors believed there had been, however both parties had their cases dismissed. An appeal and cross-appeal have now been filed by the liquidators and former directors. This is scheduled to be heard in the Court of Appeal in 2020.

What can we learn: What should the directors have done?

There were a number of red flags for the directors throughout the years. With the benefit of hindsight, there are some important lessons that can be taken from this case:

  • It’s really simple, but ask questions. Understand the answers and document them well.  If someone says there is support, get it in writing.
  • If you are questioning the information you are receiving from others or it makes you feel uncomfortable, seek independent advice from a professional.
  • When relying on assurances from others, ensure these are in writing and legally binding.
  • Understand your duties as director. Ensure it is clear to whom your legal duties lie with. This is particularly important if your company is part of group of companies.
  • If you are facing financial difficulty, continue to review the situation and be extra-vigilant.
  • If you have been provided of assurances of financial support, ensure such assurances are clear – ask questions.

Examples of questions could include: How much financial support is available? Are the finances readily available and if not, how long will it take? What are the barriers that need to be overcome?  How can we ensure we can legally rely on these assurances?

 Conclusion

With an Appeal on foot, it appears that there is more to be said on this matter. However, what can be taken away from this case is the importance of the obligations and duties directors have to a company.   The case really emphasised the care that is required, especially if a company is in financial difficulty.  It also highlighted, if ever in doubt, seek independent advice, as it is better to be safe than sorry.  Also, ask questions and document the answers so there is a clear trail.

This article is not a substitute for legal advice and you should contact your lawyer about your specific situation.  Please feel free to contact Steven Moe at stevenmoe@parryfield.com or Kris Morrison at krismorrison@parryfield.com should you require assistance.

Uncertain times require stong leadership from company directors.  We are each adjusting to a new normal of video conferences replacing meetings and realising how much time we previously wasted on travel.  But there are also immediate and difficult questions which directors of companies are faced with as the implications of a nationwide lock down continues.  In this article we want to ask some of those hard questions so that you can proactively begin to prepare for the coming weeks and months.

Do Director duties apply still?

Yes, these continue even in difficult times.  They are outlined in detail in this article but the key ones relate to acting in good faith and in the best interests of the company (section 131) and acting with the care, diligence and skill of a reasonable director (section 137) taking into account:

  • the nature of the company;
  • the nature of the decision;
  • the position of the director; and
  • the nature of responsibilities undertaken by him/her.

The other duty which will be getting a lot more attention, if there is the impact on the economy predicted, is section 135 around reckless trading.  A director must not agree to, cause or allow the business of the company to be carried on in a manner likely to create a substantial risk of serious loss to the company’s creditors. This duty is aimed at preventing conduct by the directors which could jeopardise the company’s solvency. Unlike the best interests duty, the directors’ personal opinion as to the company’s ability to continue trading is irrelevant. Instead, a Court is likely to ask: “Was there something in the financial position of the company which would have alerted an ordinary prudent director to the real possibility that continuing to carry on the business of the company would cause serious loss to the creditors?”.  In the context of COVID-19 this is going to become a lot more relevant to consider.

Key considerations

As well as making sure you are complying with Director Duties it is important to think widely about all the stakeholders of the company rather than just the shareholders.  This includes employees, suppliers, customers – how are each of these groups impacted and what is the flow on effect on the company?  You might want to have an action plan regarding:

  • Employees: How are they doing?  Is clear messaging going out about the status?  How can you help reduce stress and anxiety through eg zoom catchups?
  • Wage subsidy: Will there be a 30% predicted drop in revenue?  If so, explore the subsidy described here.
  • Leases: Have you got one?  Read this article if so as now may be the time to contact your landlord.
  • Bank funding: Talk early with your funder and ensure you know what the position is in relation to any loans you have.  Are there any other funding sources to be exploring?
  • Shareholders: Is it worth considering raising some more capital from them (depends on unique context of your company as to whether that is an option but extra liquidity might not hurt).
  • Contracts: Do any of them have force majeure clauses in them – for your benefit, or not – that might mean these get paused? What impact will that have on your revenue? Have a read of this article for more on this.
  • Overseas suppliers/customers: Is there someone overseas that may have issues continuing due to the shut down that will flow on to impact you?Having considered all these factors does it impact on the viability of the company?  Is there a risk of later realising that the company was trading recklessly?  Can it continue to enter into new obligations if there is uncertainty about future revenue?  Is there some external advice required to make good decisions?

Conclusion

The point of this article and these questions is not to inspire fear it is to get directors thinking about the actual position of their company in light of many complex factors at work right now.  Directors should be asking questions of management – perhaps requesting more frequent updates and meetings – and documenting what their decisions are in minutes so there is a record of what they decide.  We will get through this and strong leadership from Company directors will be vital for organisations to cross the bridge and get to the other side of the crisis.

This article is not a substitute for legal advice and you should consult your lawyer about your specific situation. For any questions, feel free to contact Steven Moe stevenmoe@parryfield.com or Kris Morrison krismorrison@parryfield.com

We live in unprecedented times. In this short guide we have set out key issues which we think Businesses in New Zealand should be focussed on.

We will update this article as we have further information and expand it more.

Key Information

We recommend looking at this site for the latest Government announcements on COVID-19.

Government support

The government has confirmed that this wage scheme and leave scheme apply to businesses (this includes registered charities, non-government organisations, incorporated societies and other entities). These groups can apply if they meet the qualification criteria. We found that this information was the best to refer to but this summary from Deloitte is helpful as well.

Contracts

Consider seeing what they say about “Force Majeure” events – things outside of your control – there may be provisions which help to delay provision of services or goods at this time. Is some renegotiation needed around the terms? Price? Timing?

Governance

We suggest this is a great chance to look back at your purposes and ensure that they are being followed. Why not also check policies and other rules? We also suggest you ask questions as a governing body to ensure that everyone understands the finances and budgets – how will they be affected? Finally, if you are making important decisions then record them in minutes of meetings. It may be that due to physical distancing you will need to adjust how you have meetings – we use Zoom.

Leases

If you have a commercial lease have a look and see if there is an “Emergencies” clause. If you have such a lease it depends what it says – so it is worth checking your agreement with the Landlord. If you have a recent ADLS version Deed of Lease (which is industry standard) then there is a definition of “Emergency” which includes an epidemic. Clause 27.5 then has provision about access to the property in an emergency – see the screen shot – that refers to “a fair proportion of the rent and outgoings shall cease to be payable…” in some circumstances where you are unable to access the premises as a consequence of the emergency. Use that clause as the basis to talk with your Landlord in the coming weeks.
As a side note, if you only ever signed an Agreement to Lease, don’t panic that it doesn’t have that clause, as the Deed of Lease provisions are deemed to be incorporated into the Agreement to Lease as well (if it is an ADLS form) – see clause 4 of the ADLS Agreement to Lease form.

Other issues

Here are some articles from our website that may be worth a look as well on the topics of good governance, electronic signatures, relief against forfeiture, employer issues, director duties and liquidations.

Questions?

This article is not a substitute for legal advice and you should consult your lawyer about your specific situation. For any questions, feel free to contact Steven Moe stevenmoe@parryfield.com or Kris Morrison krismorrison@parryfield.com