For company directors, the threat of personal liability for debts incurred in periods of actual or potential insolvency looms large. The creation of the ‘safe harbour’ provisions in the Corporation Act 2001 (Cth) that took effect in September 2017 may provide some welcome relief to company directors in periods of financial distress.
These changes arose from an acknowledgement by the Australian Government that our insolvency laws disproportionately stigmatise and penalise company failure, at the expense of entrepreneurship and innovation. It is hoped that these reforms will reduce instances of prematurely resorting to formal insolvency processes, resulting in better prospects of turnaround for companies and the preservation of value for creditors and shareholders. In turn, the Government hopes to see a cultural shift away from the stigmatisation of failure and towards reasonable risk-taking for the ultimate benefit of the companies and people involved.
So what are the safe harbour provisions?
Under the Corporations Act, a company director may be personally liable for debts incurred by the company if, at the time, they had reasonable grounds to suspect that the company was insolvent. The threat of personal liability can leads directors to liquidate companies that are in fact solvent or able to be turned around.
From 19 September 2017 a new section 588GA allows company directors to be protected from such liability if it can be shown that they were developing or taking a course of action which was reasonably likely to lead to a better outcome for the company, rather than proceeding directly to administration or liquidation. Section 588GA(2) contains a list of considerations that may support such a finding, such as steps taken to prevent misconduct, whether appropriate financial records have been kept, whether the director is obtaining advice from qualified parties, and whether they are developing or implementing a restructuring plan to improve the financial position.
The new provisions encourage directors to take reasonable risks aimed at turning their company around, without feeling pressure to leap straight into administration or liquidation. Whilst directors must still abide by all other duties owed to the company, the changes aim to encourage honest, diligent and competent directors to retain control of their companies and to be innovative in their recovery efforts.
While this reform is certainly a step in the right direction, it contains some significant ambiguities and judicial interpretation will be a key determinant of its effectiveness. For example, the requirement to ‘start developing … courses of action that are reasonably likely to lead to a better outcome for the company’ is riddled with uncertainties. What kinds of actions have to be taken? When is something ‘reasonably likely’ to lead to a better outcome?
The failure to give directors specific steps they can pursue to feel confident in their protection may inhibit its effectiveness in preventing premature administration or winding up. Directors may not find out until several years down the track whether they made it into safe harbour. Coupled with the uncertainty of the provisions, these changes may do little to dissipate the spectre of personal liability hanging over the heads of company directors.
Many of these issues may remain unresolved until directly contested in court. For now, it is crucial that directors who wish to take advantage of the safe harbour protections maintain a comprehensive record of evidence that demonstrates their compliance with the new obligations.