The nature of security created under a security document does not always match its description in the document. Charlotte Drake explains how this recharacterisation risk can apply to security assignments. 

Is an "absolute" security assignment legal or equitable?

Legal assignments – key requirements

Lenders commonly take security over "choses in action" (such as debts or rights under contracts) by way of assignment. An assignment involves the transfer of either legal ownership (legal assignment) or equitable ownership (equitable assignment).

Section 136 of the Law of Property Act 1925 dictates the formalities for taking a legal assignment. It requires that a legal assignment must (among other things):

  • be in writing;
  • be executed by the assignor; 
  • be "absolute";
  • not be expressed to be "by way of charge" only; and
  • be notified in writing to the person against whom the assignor could enforce the assigned rights (the third party).

Legal assignments by way of security

There has been much case law on what "absolute" means. An assignment will not be absolute if it is conditional, or of part of a debt. However, a security assignment can qualify (provided it is not "by way of charge"): the fact the assignor has an equity of redemption under a security assignment does not of itself prevent the assignment from being "absolute". Security assignments sometimes use the term "absolute" to make clear they are intended to be legal assignments. However, the terminology used is not decisive. An assignment will not be "absolute" unless the third party can then deal with the assignee alone in respect of the assigned rights. The assignee owes an obligation to the assignor to reassign the rights on discharge of the secured liability. But the third party can continue to deal with the assignee until it receives notice of that reassignment.

In practice, this usually presents a considerable stumbling block to taking security by way of a legal assignment. Security assignments often allow the assignor to continue to deal with the third party, which commercially suits assignor, assignee and third party alike. However, such an assignment will not be "absolute" and so will take effect in equity only, even if the security document claims to effect a legal assignment.

The recent case of Ardila Investments NV v. ENRC NV and another1 highlighted this. The judge accepted that the assignment clause in the document used "the words of a legal assignment". However, he pointed to other clauses in the assignment document which suggested the parties had intended it to take effect in equity rather than law. One of these clauses obliged the assignor to "pursue its rights" under the assigned contracts, which is clearly inconsistent with an absolute assignment.

Legal or equitable – does it matter?

Often not. A notified equitable assignment has as strong a priority against other interests in the assigned rights as a legal assignment.

One advantage of a legal assignment is that a legal assignee can sue the third party without the assignor's involvement. Received wisdom used to be that an equitable assignee could not sue alone and the assignor (as owner of the legal interest) must be joined in as party to proceedings (either as co-plaintiff if willing, or as co-defendant if not).

In Ardila the judge held that the assignment took effect in equity and that both assignor and assignee should join in the proceedings as co-claimants. As it happened, when the hearing took place, the assignor had been joined as co-claimant anyway. In other cases, an equitable assignee has been able to sue the third party alone. As a purely practical matter, even if the assignor does need to be joined into proceedings this is unlikely to be more than an inconvenience.

Could a security assignment be "floating" security?

Could there be another, more unpalatable, result of control remaining with the assignor following a security assignment? In Re Spectrum Plus2 , the House of Lords of course held that a charge over a debt will be floating, not fixed, if the security holder fails to exercise control over the debt proceeds. Is a security assignment of a debt or similar contractual right also at risk of being recharacterised in this way? This is far from a settled point, but these obiter comments from Lord Scott in Re Spectrum Plus (at paragraph 107) suggest so: 

"Suppose, for example, a case where an express assignment of a specific debt by way of security were accompanied by a provision that reserved to the assignor the right, terminable by written notice from the assignee, to collect the debt and to use the proceeds for its (the assignor's) business purposes, ie, a right, terminable on notice, for the assignor to withdraw the proceeds of the debt from the security. This security would, in my opinion, be a floating security notwithstanding the express assignment.

There is some logic in this approach. If it were possible to "solve" Re Spectrum Plus by renaming all charges over debts as security assignments, the case would not have taken on the significance that it has. The risk of this type of recharacterisation is most obvious in a UK insolvency, where there is a clear distinction between the application of fixed and floating recoveries. In this context, at least, the "fixed/floating" distinction is likely to be more of a concern to a lender than whether its security assignment is "legal" rather than "equitable".