Types of liquidation and reorganisation processes

Voluntary liquidations

What are the requirements for a debtor commencing a voluntary liquidation case and what are the effects?

Under the Act, both the members of the company and the creditors have the option, under certain circumstances, to commence a voluntary winding up of a company. Neither procedure requires court sanction. The determinative factor for which a voluntary regime may be pursued is the company’s solvency position.

Members’ voluntary winding up

A members’ voluntary liquidation is a solvent winding up. It requires that the directors of the company make a declaration of solvency under section 494 of the Act. The declaration of solvency requires that the directors of the company must form the opinion, after an inquiry into the affairs of the company, that the company will be able to discharge its debts in full within 12 months of the commencement of winding up. This is coupled with a special resolution (ie, at least 75 per cent of votes cast by members entitled to vote on the resolution) of the members to wind up the company. Subsequently, a copy of this resolution must be lodged with the Australian Securities and Investments Commission (ASIC) within seven days, to be published in the gazette within 21 days.

Creditors’ voluntary winding up

A creditors’ voluntary winding up arises when the company is in fact insolvent. It can occur in a number of circumstances, including in situations where a liquidator appointed by the members forms the opinion that the company is in fact insolvent. This will convert the process from a members’ voluntary winding up into a creditors’ voluntary winding up. A company may also enter a creditors’ voluntary winding up at the end of an administration if the creditors resolve to at the second creditors’ meeting.

Voluntary reorganisations

What are the requirements for a debtor commencing a voluntary reorganisation and what are the effects?

Voluntary administration

The purpose and operation of voluntary administration is outlined in Part 5.3A of the Act. Voluntary administration has been compared to the Chapter 11 process in the United States; however, unlike the Chapter 11 process, voluntary administration is not an ‘in situ’ debtor process. In a voluntary administration, the creditors control the outcome to the exclusion of management and members. The creditors ultimately decide on the outcome of the company, and in practice it rarely involves returning management of the company back to the former directors.

The purpose of Part 5.3A is to administer the business, property and affairs of the insolvent company in a way that either: maximises the chances of the company, or as much as possible of its business, continuing in existence; or results in a better return for the company’s creditors and members than would result from an immediate winding up, if it is not possible for the company or its business to continue in existence.

There are three possible ways an administrator may be appointed under the Act:

  • by resolution of the board of directors that in their opinion the company is, or is likely to become, insolvent;
  • a liquidator or provisional liquidator of a company may, by writing, appoint an administrator of the company if he or she is of the opinion the company is, or is likely to become, insolvent; and
  • a secured creditor who is entitled to enforce security over the whole or substantially whole of a company’s property may, by writing, appoint an administrator if the security interest is over the property and is enforceable.

An administrator has wide powers and will manage the company to the exclusion of the existing board of directors. Once an administrator is appointed, a statutory moratorium is activated that restricts the exercise of rights by third parties under leases and security interests and in respect of litigation claims. The purpose of this statutory moratorium is to allow the administrator the opportunity to investigate the affairs of the company, and either implement change or be in a position to realise value, with protection from certain claims against the company. A secured creditor with security over the whole or substantially the whole of the assets of the company has 13 business days following the appointment of the administrator to exercise its right under the security granted in its favour (ie, appoint a receiver).

There are two meetings over the course of an administration that are critical to the outcome of the administration. Once appointed, an administrator must convene the first meeting of creditors within eight business days (at this meeting, the identity of the voluntary administrator is confirmed, the remuneration of the administrator is approved, and a committee of creditors may be established). The second creditors’ meeting is normally convened 20 business days after the commencement of the administration (this may be extended by application to the court). At the second meeting, the administrator provides a report on the affairs of the company to the creditors and outlines the administrator’s views as to the best option available to maximise returns. There are three possible outcomes that can be put to the meeting: enter into a deed of company arrangement (DOCA) with creditors (discussed further below); wind the company up; or terminate the administration.

The administration will terminate according to the outcome of the second meeting (ie, either by progressing to liquidation, entry into a DOCA or returning the business to operate as a going concern (although this is rare)). When the voluntary administration terminates, a secured creditor that was estopped from enforcing a security interest because of the statutory moratorium becomes entitled to commence steps to enforce that security interest unless the termination is because of the implementation of a DOCA approved by that secured creditor.

DOCA

A DOCA is effectively a contract or compromise between the company and its creditors. Although closely related to voluntary administration, it should in fact be viewed as a distinct regime, where the rights and obligations of the creditors and company differ from those under a voluntary administration.

A DOCA may incorporate terms that make its operation similar to a voluntary administration (giving similar rights to a deed administrator as a voluntary administrator), but may also provide for, inter alia, a moratorium of debt repayments, a reduction in outstanding debt and the forgiveness of all, or a portion of, the outstanding debt. It may also involve the issuance of shares and can be used to achieve a debt-for-equity swap.

Entering into a DOCA requires the approval of a bare majority of creditors, both by value and number voting at the second creditors’ meeting. A DOCA will bind the company, its shareholders, directors and unsecured creditors.

Upon the execution of a DOCA, the voluntary administration terminates. The outcome of a DOCA is generally dictated by the terms of the DOCA itself. Typically, however, once a DOCA has achieved its goal it will terminate. If a DOCA does not achieve its goals or is challenged by creditors it may be terminated by the court.

Schemes of arrangement

A scheme of arrangement is a restructuring tool that sits outside of formal insolvency: the company may become subject to a scheme of arrangement whether it is solvent or insolvent.

A scheme of arrangement is a proposal put forward (with input from management, the company or its creditors) to restructure the company in a manner that includes a compromise of rights by any or all stakeholders. The process is overseen by the courts and requires approval by all classes of creditors. The pre-existing management retains control of the company during the process (and also depending on the terms of the scheme itself after its implementation). In recent times, schemes of arrangement have become more common, in particular for complex restructures involving debt-for-equity swaps in circumstances where the number of creditors within creditor stakeholder groups may make a contractual and consensual restructure difficult.

A scheme of arrangement must be approved by at least 50 per cent in number and 75 per cent in value of creditors in each class of creditor. Classes are determined by reference to commonality of legal rights and only those creditors whose rights will be affected, compromised or amended by the scheme need be included. It must also be approved by the court to become effective. The test for identifying classes of creditors for the purposes of a scheme is that a class should include those persons whose rights are not so dissimilar as to make it impossible for them to consult together with a view to a ‘common interest’. The outcome of a scheme of arrangement is dependent on the terms of the arrangement or compromise agreed with the creditors, but most commonly, upon implementation, a company is returned to its normal state as a going concern but with the relevant compromises having taken effect.

The scheme of arrangement process does, however, have a number of limiting factors associated with it, including cost, complexity of arrangements (ie, class issues), uncertainty of implementation, timing issues (ie, because of various procedural requirements for holding the meetings, and as it must be approved by the court it is subject to the court timetable and can only be expedited to a certain extent) and the overriding issue of court approval (ie, a court may exercise its discretion to not approve a scheme of arrangement, despite a successful vote, if it is of the view that the scheme of arrangement is not equitable).

These factors explain why schemes of arrangement tend only to be undertaken in large corporate restructures and in scenarios with sufficient time for execution and implementation to accommodate the procedural and courts’ requirements.

Successful reorganisations

How are creditors classified for purposes of a reorganisation plan and how is the plan approved? Can a reorganisation plan release non-debtor parties from liability, and, if so, in what circumstances?

Scheme of arrangement

A scheme of arrangement must be approved by a majority of creditors voting on the resolution and holding at least 75 per cent in value and 50 per cent in number of voting creditors in each class. Classes are determined by reference to commonality of legal rights and only those creditors whose rights will be affected, compromised or amended by the scheme need be included. If approved by the creditors, supplementary approval by the court is required at the second court hearing. Schemes of arrangement may provide for the release of third parties (as opposed to DOCAs where the courts have held that such releases are not possible).

DOCA

In the context of a voluntary administration, a majority of creditors with at least 50 per cent in number and 50 per cent in value may resolve that the company should execute a DOCA. The company must execute the instrument within 15 business days of such a resolution. A DOCA can be varied by either a subsequent resolution of creditors or by the court. A DOCA will bind the company, its shareholders, directors and unsecured creditors. A validly passed DOCA can bind all creditors but does not prevent a secured creditor from dealing with their security interest so long as the secured creditor does not vote in favour of the DOCA. Unlike a scheme of arrangement, court approval is not required for a DOCA to be implemented provided it is approved by the requisite majority of creditors.

Involuntary liquidations

What are the requirements for creditors placing a debtor into involuntary liquidation and what are the effects? Once the proceeding is opened, are there material differences to proceedings opened voluntarily?

Under Australian law, a compulsory liquidation involves the application to and orders from the court. A creditor or other eligible applicant must lodge an application with the court to wind up a company. On an application to wind up the company in insolvency, the creditor must show that the company is unable to pay its debts as and when they fall due.

There are two situations in which a company will be held to be unable to pay its debts: if the company has not paid a claim for a sum due to a creditor exceeding A$2,000 within 21 days of service of a prescribed written statutory demand (the Act sets out specific requirements); or if it is proved to the court as a question of fact that the company is unable to pay its debts as and when they fall due.

Grounds are also available for a creditor to apply to the court for winding-up orders against a company not necessarily related to solvency, including that it is ‘just and equitable’ to do so or because of a deadlock at a shareholder or director level affecting the ability to manage the company.

After a winding-up order, management of the company is removed from the directors and the company will likely cease as a going concern (except as is necessary to proceed with the winding up). The liquidator appointed will take control of the affairs of the company and his or her duties include realising the company’s assets for the benefit of the creditors as a whole.

There are no material differences between a liquidation ordered by the court and a creditors’ voluntary liquidation.

Involuntary reorganisations

What are the requirements for creditors commencing an involuntary reorganisation and what are the effects? Once the proceeding is opened, are there any material differences to proceedings opened voluntarily?

Receivership

Unlike in the United Kingdom, receivership is still an option available to secured creditors in Australia. Receiverships, particularly coordinated appointments at a holding company level, can and have been used to effect corporate restructures and reorganisations.

There are two ways in which a receiver or receiver and manager may be appointed to a debtor company. The most common manner is pursuant to the relevant security document granted in favour of the secured creditor when a company has defaulted and the security has become enforceable. Far less common in practice is the appointment of a receiver pursuant to an application made to the court. Court appointments are usually done to preserve the assets of the company in circumstances where it may not be possible to otherwise trigger a formal insolvency process. However, given the infrequency of court-appointed receivers, this chapter focuses on privately appointed receivers.

For a privately appointed receiver, the security document itself will entitle a secured party to appoint a receiver and will also outline the powers available (supplemented by the statutory powers set out in section 420 of the Act). Generally, a receiver has wide-ranging powers including the ability to operate, sell or borrow against the secured assets. The appointment is normally effected contractually through a deed of appointment and indemnity, and the receiver will be the agent of the debtor company, not the appointing secured party.

On appointment, a receiver will immediately take possession of the assets subject to the security. Once in control of the assets, the receiver may elect to run the business if the receiver is appointed over all or substantially all of the assets of a company. Alternatively, and depending on financial circumstances, a receiver may engage in a sale process immediately. While engaging in a sale process, a receiver is under a statutory obligation to obtain market value, or in the absence of a market, the best price obtainable in the circumstances. This obligation is enshrined in section 420A of the Act. It is this duty that has traditionally posed the most significant stumbling block to the adoption of pre-packaged restructure processes through external administration. Often referred to as a ‘prepack’, this is where a restructuring is developed by the secured lenders prior to the appointment of a receiver and is implemented immediately or very shortly after the appointment is made. There is a concern that a pre-packaged restructuring that involves a sale of any asset without testing against the market could be seen to be in breach of the duty under section 420A. Sales processes conducted immediately prior to appointment or the potential for immediate dilution of value are increasingly facilitating receivership sales without a full testing of the market.

Once a receiver has realised the secured assets and distributed the net proceeds to the secured creditors (returning any surplus to subordinated security holders or the company) he or she will retire in the ordinary course.

The appointment of a receiver to all or substantially all of the assets of a company will usually lead to, or will closely follow, the appointment of voluntary administrators by the directors, with both processes proceeding in tandem.

Voluntary administration

As referred to in question 7, a secured creditor can often appoint an administrator to effect a reorganisation as an alternative to exercising its security. Once the voluntary administration occurs, the creditors are in control of the company’s fate (including any restructuring or reorganisation), the success of which will be dependent on the relevant majority, by number and dollar value, voting in favour of it. The effects of this procedure are referred to in questions 7 and 8, ‘voluntary administration’ and ‘DOCA’.

Expedited reorganisations

Do procedures exist for expedited reorganisations (eg, ‘prepackaged’ reorganisations)?

The voluntary administration regime was introduced into the Act to provide distressed companies with a process to initiate an expedited reorganisation without court approval. A voluntary administrator is required to complete the investigations relating to the company’s business, property, affairs and financial circumstances about four to six weeks after his or her appointment. The administrator is then required to convene a creditors’ meeting at which the administrator provides the creditors with a detailed report of the investigation and recommendations.

The creditors then decide between three alternatives: to execute a DOCA, to wind up the company or to end the administration. There is no legislation that specifically facilitates pre-packaged reorganisation (Productivity Commission Inquiry Report ‘Business Set-up, Transfer and Closure’ dated 30 September 2015 (www.pc.gov.au/inquiries/completed/business/report/business.pdf, accessed 9 November 2019)).

As to a ‘pre-packaged restructure’ in the context of a receivership, see question 10.

Unsuccessful reorganisations

How is a proposed reorganisation defeated and what is the effect of a reorganisation plan not being approved? What if the debtor fails to perform a plan?

Scheme of arrangement

A scheme of arrangement may either be defeated by a creditors’ vote or if it is not sanctioned by the court. Should either of these occur, there is no automatic process that occurs; rather, the company reverts to its pre-existing state (which may include financial difficulties).

DOCA

A proposed reorganisation through a DOCA may be defeated by a majority of creditors at the second meeting. At this meeting, the creditors may vote for the company to be wound up or to give back control of the company to the directors, thus ending the administration, rather than executing a DOCA. Further, if the company fails to execute a DOCA within 15 business days of a successful resolution at a second creditors’ meeting, the company will enter into a creditors’ voluntary winding up. Once executed, if there is a material contravention of the DOCA by the debtor company, a creditor or other interested person may apply for the termination of an executed DOCA by an order of the court. If an order is granted, the company again enters into a creditors’ voluntary winding up.

An aggrieved creditor might also look to terminate a DOCA on the grounds of, for example, unfair prejudice.

Corporate procedures

Are there corporate procedures for the dissolution of a corporation? How do such processes contrast with bankruptcy proceedings?

Deregistration can be voluntary upon the application of the company, a director, a member or a liquidator, and can be initiated by ASIC or court-ordered in circumstances where the company has no assets or liabilities, or its winding up has been finalised. Upon the deregistration of the company, it ceases to exist as a corporate identity.

In addition, ASIC may unilaterally deregister a corporation if it has reason to believe that the company is no longer carrying on its business, has been fully wound up, has been at least six months late in lodging its annual return or has not lodged the relevant corporate documentation (including financial reports) required by the Act in the preceding 18 months. There is, however, a process under the Act for the reinstatement of deregistered companies in certain circumstances.

Conclusion of case

How are liquidation and reorganisation cases formally concluded?

Voluntary administration

As described above, there are three outcomes of a voluntary administration upon which the creditors decide: entering into a DOCA; winding the company up; or terminating the administration.

The outcome chosen will dictate how the voluntary administration ends. Once a DOCA is executed, the company comes out of voluntary administration, and if the administration terminates, the administrative control vests back in the board of directors.

Liquidation

At the conclusion of a liquidation, the company is deregistered. The process of deregistration is regulated by Chapter 5A of the Act. After the company’s affairs are fully wound up, the liquidator must produce an account showing how the winding up has been conducted and the company’s property disposed of. ASIC must deregister the company when three months have elapsed after the liquidator has lodged the account, or minutes if a final meeting is held, with ASIC.

In a compulsory winding up, the liquidator may also apply to the court, pursuant to section 480 of the Act, for an order that the liquidator be released and that the company be deregistered after the liquidator has: realised all the property of the company or so much of that property as can in his or her opinion be realised without needlessly protracting the winding up; distributed a final dividend (if any) to the creditors; adjusted the rights of the contributories among themselves; and made a final return (if any) to the contributories. The court must be satisfied that no creditor will be adversely affected by the order.

Receivership

A receivership concludes when the secured assets are realised and the secured creditors are repaid (either in full or where there are no further assets to realise, to the maximum extent possible). In such circumstances, control of the company is handed back to either the directors or voluntary administrator, and in most instances the company is deregistered or wound up.