The Supreme Court has recently decided the case of Yan v Mainzeal Property and Construction Limited which has direct implications for company directors. What can directors learn from this case and how will it affect how directors undertake their duties? We set out the key facts and principles so that you can stay safe.

Mainzeal was a property focussed company that went into liquidation owing approximately $110 million to creditors. As the Board was chaired by a former Prime Minister it has gotten a lot of attention. There were five directors and four were held liable for breaches.

This case primarily looked at directors’ duties under sections 135 and 136 of the Companies Act 1993. These sections recognise creditors interests that are to be considered by directors where a company is insolvent or near insolvent.[1] Section 135 provides that a director must not carry on a company’s business in a manner likely to create substantial risk of loss to its creditors. Section 136 outlines the duty of a director not to agree to incurring obligations unless they reasonably believe it will be able to be performed on time.

The Court upheld the Court of Appeals finding that the directors had breached their duties under these sections and compensation was granted under s 136 for new debt incurred but not under s 135 as net deterioration to creditors was not proved.[2]

The Supreme Court summarises the implications for directors of their approach to ss 135 and 136 liability. Three key takeaways for directors from this case are:

  1. Don’t rely on assurances
  2. Get advice early
  3. Know your duties


1. Don’t rely on assurances

Mainzeal had been balance sheet insolvent for years yet continued to trade because its directors primarily relied on assurances of support from companies it was associated with.[3] One company provided a formal letter of support, otherwise known as a “letter of comfort”, while other assurances were less formal.[4] However, these ‘assurances’ were far from sure and critically they were not legally enforceable.

The Supreme Court stated that where assurances are not legally or practically enforceable and not honoured, relying on them will raise questions as to the reasonableness of doing so.[5] In this way it may be found that relying on such assurances is unreasonable and may result in a breach of directors’ duties which may also lead to potential liability.

Key point: Assurances should be documented and legally binding.


2. Get advice early

The Court does consider this when looking at the actions a director took. Directors should seek professional or expert advice early and from sources that are independent from the company. This can help directors be sure of their duties and how to avoid potential breaches, and in turn avoid personal liability. It means they can squarely address whether there are potential risks of loss to creditors or doubt as to whether it is reasonable to believe that obligations incurred will be able to be honoured.[6] By engaging external advice early, directors allow themselves reasonable time decide the course of action they should take.[7]

Section 138 of the Companies Act 1993 specifically allows directors to rely on such advice where they act in good faith, make proper inquiries where circumstances require it and have no knowledge that relying on the advice is unwarranted.[8] Directors should ascertain whether the relevant risks can be avoided or a plan for continued trading can be used to avoid the serious loss or creditors and meet the obligations agreed to.

Directors that do this will be appropriately considering creditors interests and it may help prevent personal liability. Furthermore, the courts take into consideration whether directors obtained advice when determining the reasonableness of a director’s actions.[9]

We help directors stay safe by understanding their duties. Check out our free guides or arrange a conversation with one of our team on the support we can provide you.

Key point: If you are wondering about getting advice, that means you probably should.


3. Know your duties

Governance is all about continual learning. While the concept of limited liability protects directors from some liability it does not protect them from their breach of duties. All the more reason for directors to know their duties and learn how to effectively discharge these duties.

This case outlines some of the duties that directors should be aware of. But they are not the only ones. Directors are required to exercise the care, diligence and skill a reasonable director would exercise in the same circumstances.[10] To do this, they need to continue to monitor the company’s performance and prospects and must not carry on trading in a way that creates a likelihood of substantial risk of loss to the company’s creditors.

[11] This is objectively assessed and directors are at fault if they allow the company to keep trading when they recognised this risk or where they would have recognised it if they had acted reasonably and diligently.[12] Further, directors should not take on new obligations without measures in place to ensure they will be met or without the belief on reasonable grounds that they will be honoured.[13]

If you are a director it is vital to ensure you know what duties who owe to the company, shareholders and creditors in order to avoid breaching them and finding yourself personally liable for it.

Key point: Keep learning individually and as a board about your duties.


Mainzeal will be talked about for a long time to come and it perhaps signals that there is a broader need for reform of the Companies Act.  In the meantime there are some practical steps which you can take as a director to ensure you keep on the straight and narrow and avoid liability if you are involved in governance of a company which is getting close to insolvency.


Parry Field Lawyers could help with each step of the process. If you would like to find out more, get in touch to arrange a call or meeting.

This article is not a substitute for legal advice and you should consult your lawyer about your specific situation. Please feel free to contact us at Parry Field Lawyers:


[1] Yan v Mainzeal Property and Construction Limited (in Liq) [2023] NZSC 113 at [359].

[2] Yan v Mainzeal Property and Construction Limited (in Liq) at [371]-[375].

[3] Yan v Mainzeal Property and Construction Limited (in Liq) at [2].

[4] Yan v Mainzeal Property and Construction Limited (in Liq) at [36]-[37] and [42].

[5] Yan v Mainzeal Property and Construction Limited (in Liq) at [363]. 

[6] Yan v Mainzeal Property and Construction Limited (in Liq) at [270].

[7] Yan v Mainzeal Property and Construction Limited (in Liq) at [271].

[8] Companies Act 1993, s 138(2).

[9] Yan v Mainzeal Property and Construction Limited (in Liq) at [273].

[10] Companies Act 1993, s 137.

[11] Yan v Mainzeal Property and Construction Limited (in Liq) at [270] and [360].

[12] Yan v Mainzeal Property and Construction Limited (in Liq) at [360].

[13] Yan v Mainzeal Property and Construction Limited (in Liq) at [273] and [369].

The term ‘director’ usually refers to people formally appointed to a Board. However, some people who are not formally appointed may operate as ‘deemed directors’ or ‘shadow directors’. They are increasingly likely to be treated by the law in the same way as formally appointed directors.

Justice Millett in a well-known case said a ‘de facto’ director “… is one who claims to act and purports to act as a director, although not validly appointed as such. A shadow director, by contrast, does not claim or purport to act as a director. On the contrary, he claims not to be a director. He lurks in the shadows, sheltering behind others who, he claims are the only directors of the company to the exclusion of himself.”[1]

Justice Millett’s description is perhaps a little cynical. Some shadow directors may be trying to avoid the accountability that attaches overtly to appointed directors, while others may be quite open about the influence they have on directors and boards.

What does the Companies Act say? What matters is that de facto and shadow directors are captured in the Companies Act definition of ‘director’ as  a person in accordance with who directors or instructions the board of the company may be required or is accustomed to act. This means that whether or not they regard themselves as directors, these ‘deemed directors’ may be held accountable as though they were directors for any breaches.

Who might this capture? Looking at the definition, whether or not a board is “required or accustomed to act” for a deemed director is a matter of fact. The court will look at any evidence that shows a pattern of behaviour that amounts to directors being “accustomed to acting” on a deemed director’s instruction.

One legal commentator has suggested that the statutory wording of “required to” might extend the accountability net to include people who can be shown to have exercised control over the board even without a pattern of behaviour,[2] although this has not yet been tested in court.

An example in practice could be a large shareholder who is not a director but who behind the scenes is directly what the Board does.

Key points to note:

  • Parliament implemented this definition intentionally. It makes sense that if deemed directors have been instrumental in action or inaction that breaches directors’ duties, they too should be held accountable; perhaps even more so if they did this to avoid attention and liability.
  • Boards often rely on the professional advice from lawyers or accountants. It is important that relationships with advisors are purely advisory in nature and that directors or boards are not controlled or directed by the advisors.
  • If you are a shadow director, or your company has a relationship likely to be deemed a shadow director, be aware of the implications. One question to ask might be whether or not shareholders are aware of the shadow director, and if not, why not. Should the person just be appointed?

[1] Re Hydrodan (Corby) Ltd [1994] 2 BCLC 180 Ch, at 183.

[2] Taylor Lynn “Expanding the pool of defendant directors in a corporate insolvency: the de facto directors, shadow directors and other categories of deemed directors” New Zealand Business Law Quarterly 16(2) Jun 2010:203.


Should you require assistance, please contact: Steven Moe, Michael Belay, Sophie Tremewan or Yang Su at Parry Field Lawyers.

In New Zealand, directors may become liable for reckless trading (agreeing or causing or allowing 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) per the Companies Act, earlier than the point of unavoidable insolvency.

Interestingly, the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom ruled for the first time in October 2022 on what triggers the directors’ duty to have regard for creditors’ interests ahead of shareholders interests (that is the company). The case is BTI 2014 LLC v Sequana SA and others.

The appellants argued that the directors of an insolvent company should be liable to creditors for the amount of the dividend it had paid almost ten years before. Importantly, the company was neither insolvent nor on the verge of insolvency at the time of the dividend.

The appeal was dismissed based on the common law rule in the case, West Mercia. The rule effectively means that the fiduciary duty of directors to act in good faith in the interests of a company is widened when insolvency is imminent. It is only when insolvent liquidation or administration is unavoidable that the shareholders cease to have any interest in the company, and creditors’ interests become paramount.

The United Kingdom court rejected the idea that this can occur earlier, for example, when there is a ‘real and not remote risk’ of insolvency, per some Australian authorities.

In Sequana Lord Briggs’s comments that shareholder interests should remain more important than creditors up to this tipping point are persuasive, after all, liquidation may not happen and insolvency may be temporary.


Currently the United Kingdom view of when director obligations to creditors are triggered differs from New Zealand and Australia, being when insolvent liquidation or administration are unavoidable. The case is relevant because New Zealand courts often consider the outcomes of cases in other common law jurisdictions, such as the United Kingdom and Australia. The findings of this case may or may not influence New Zealand law in the future.

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 or Kris Morrison at should you require assistance.


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 or on 021 761 292 or Kris Morrison at

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

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

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

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

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 or Tim Rankin at