What is a Distribution?
Article 114(1) of the Companies (Jersey) Law 1991, as amended, (the “Law”) defines a distribution, in relation to a company, as “every description of distribution of the company’s assets to its members as members, whether in cash or otherwise.”
Article 114(2) of the Law states that a distribution does not include:
- an issue of shares as fully or partly paid bonus shares;
- the redemption or purchase of any of the company’s own shares;
- any reduction of share capital by extinguishing or reducing the liability of any of the members on any of the company’s shares in respect of capital not paid up; or
- a distribution of assets to members of the company on its winding up.
Funding a distribution
A Jersey company may make a distribution from any source (other than nominal capital account and capital redemption reserve). In particular, a distribution can be made from a share premium account (for a par value company) or a stated capital account (for a no par value company) and in either case from a profit and loss account, even where a company has accumulated losses.
A Jersey company can make a distribution at any time, but:
- where the company is an open-ended investment company, the directors who are to authorise the distribution must reasonably believe that immediately after the distribution has been made the company will be able to discharge its liabilities as they fall due; and
- where the company is not an open-ended investment company, the directors who are to authorise the distribution must make a statement (a “Solvency Statement”) that they have formed the opinion:
that, immediately following the date on which the distribution is proposed to be made, the company will be able to discharge its liabilities as they fall due; and
that, having regard to (i) the prospects of the company and to the intentions of the directors with respect to the management of the company’s business; and (ii) the amount and character of the financial resources that will in their view be available to the company, the company will be able to continue to carry on its business and discharge its liabilities as they fall due until the expiry of the period of 12 months immediately following the date on which the distribution is proposed to be made or until the company is dissolved under article 150 of the Law (that is, on a the basis of a solvent winding up).
The above is referred to in this briefing as the “Distribution Procedure”.
A Solvency Statement is required even where the Jersey company has distributable reserves.
The Solvency Statement could be made orally by a director at a board meeting, and evidenced in board minutes, but we recommend that a separate written statement is made and signed by the relevant directors.
Articles of Association
In some instances, the articles of association of the Company will impose restrictions, preferences or procedural requirements on the making of distributions and they should therefore be reviewed in all cases. In particular, the articles of association of most companies incorporated prior to the recent changes to the distribution regime will permit directors to pay interim dividends only if it appears to them that they are justified by the profits of the company available for distribution.
Ratification of an unlawful distribution
The statutory requirement that the solvency statement under the Distribution Procedure is to be given by directors “who are to authorise” the distribution, suggests that the statement must be given prior to the distribution. On this basis, a distribution made without complying with the Distribution Procedure cannot subsequently be ratified.
However, on the basis that a distribution made without complying with the Distribution Procedure is not properly authorised and therefore a subsequent solvency statement can be made together with a (subsequent) approval of the distribution, a satisfactory outcome can often be achieved, though it is likely that the payment or transfer to the member will be treated as an advance for the period prior to authorisation, rather than as a distribution.
Consequences of breach of Distribution Procedure
A director who makes a Solvency Statement without having reasonable grounds for the opinion expressed in the statement is guilty of an offence punishable by up to 2 years imprisonment or a fine, or both (Article 115(5) of the Law). Further, under common law the directors who authorise an unlawful dividend may be held personally liable to reimburse the company for any distribution unlawfully made.
If a distribution is made without complying with the Distribution Procedure, then the member who received the distribution is liable to pay it or part of it (or, if the distribution was made otherwise than in cash, to pay a sum of equivalent value) if at the time of the distribution the member knows or has reasonable grounds for believing that the distribution is made in contravention of the statutory requirements (Article 115A of the Law).
The ability to make a distribution out of any source (other than nominal share account and capital redemption reserve) provides welcome flexibility for Jersey companies, while the Distribution Procedure and sanctions provide sufficient safeguards for creditors.
However, care should be taken in relation to the following:
- where the distribution results in a reduction of capital, for example a distribution out of a share premium account or stated capital account, a special resolution of the shareholders will be required (though this requirement is expected to be lifted shortly);
- certain transactions might, unintentionally or unwittingly, constitute distributions so that if the Distribution Procedure is not complied with, they might be unlawful. At the more obvious end of the scale might be transactions that involve a transfer of assets to a member at less than fair market value or a loan on less than commercial terms or a loan that almost certainly cannot be repaid. More difficult to assess would be the grant by the company of a guarantee, indemnity or security, either in favour of a member or in respect of liabilities of a member.