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.