Chief Bankruptcy Registrar Stephen Baister, who is also President of the Institute of Credit Management, gave the IPA annual lecture in Pall Mall on Thursday evening. The event attracted around 100 guests to hear Baister deliver a highly critical analysis of the Government’s proposals.
Baister began his address and set the tone for the evening by stating that, in his opinion, the Insolvency Service proposals were so badly thought out in their reasoning that they were deserving of satire rather than serious consideration.
One of the main planks of the Insolvency Service proposal is that the current court process is replaced by an online facility for petitioning for bankruptcy and winding-up, with an adjudicator – a civil servant in the Service – making the final decision in most undisputed cases. The Government’s aim is to streamline the process and remove the court from the majority of cases; the process would be largely electronic and therefore effectively in secret as there would be no advertising of petitions. It would become, he suggests, little more than an extension of a creditor’s private debt collection activity.
A fundamental flaw in the proposed new system, he argues, is that it ignores the fact that many ‘ostrich’ debtors will not respond to the letters, emails and text messages sent by the creditor or adjudicator, and the result of that will be many more bankruptcies and company liquidations than anyone wants. Creditors want their money, first and foremost, rather than the satisfaction of seeing a struggling company closed down. Currently many winding-up petitions result in settlement of the debt, though often very late in the process – in the ‘last chance saloon’, perhaps after a court adjournment. Many of those cases in the future could end up with businesses being shut and employees dismissed.
Baister made the point that in other areas of law, there is a general move towards increasing visibility not reducing it, as the Insolvency Service is currently proposing. He stressed that a bankruptcy order has a wide ranging impact that should not be put in the hands of an unqualified civil servant. Referring to the late Sir Kenneth Cork, architect of much of the current insolvency legislation, Baister reminded his audience that the nature of insolvency work has always been regarded, rightly, as encompassing complex technical, legal and accounting issues that require a suitably qualified person to manage the process – something which Baister feels the Insolvency Service now appears to be overruling.
He invited everyone to consider whether a purely administrative ‘automatic’ mechanism to obtain a bankruptcy order might be the ‘thin end of the wedge’; what next, he wondered? ‘Undisputed’ divorces without court involvement?
Perhaps Baister’s most telling remarks were reserved for his observations about the proposed new adjudicator. He questions whether a Government employee could have the experience and knowledge, and therefore the competence, to adjudicate on the validity of disputes in potentially complex areas of law, and he points to an inherent conflict in placing the adjudicator in the same Government agency as the Official Receiver.
Effectively, the same department will determine whether a bankruptcy order should be made, it will then make the order and administer the bankruptcy estate from which it will draw a fee (typically up to £4,000, utilising most of the available funds, in low income cases).
Commenting, David Kerr, Chief Executive of the IPA said:
“The annual lecture once again was a great success. It has become a must attend event for our members and other professionals with an interest in insolvency. We share some of the Registrar’s concerns, particularly about the lack of independence of the new adjudicator. But we are also worried that these plans will make it much easier for a debtor to file for his/her own bankruptcy – a step that Stephen rightly says should not be undertaken lightly – and that many more bankruptcies will result, needlessly. As presently envisaged, this will simply increase the flow of work into the Official Receiver, to the detriment of creditors. There are, in our view, inadequate provisions regarding the need to properly and fully explore alternatives.
Bankruptcies in which the only funds are payments from a debtor’s income are invariably more expensive than other solutions, such as Individual Voluntary Arrangements. Measures allowing the courts to explore this before making an order will be lost in the new regime, and that will mean creditors’ bad debts increasing – a no doubt unintended but nevertheless unwelcome consequence in the present economic climate.”
The consultation closes on 31 January and we would urge our members that have not yet submitted responses to do so.
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