BY Pallavi Mishra, A FOURTH-YEAR STUDENT AT HNLU, RAIPUR
Amidst the Covid-19 pandemic, companies have been facing an increased threat of undergoing an insolvency resolution process due to the default in repayment of loans as well as failure to abide by other statutory demands for many consecutive months now. In light of this, governments throughout the world have introduced changes in their insolvency laws to relieve companies from the stress of liquidation. The author in this article lays down the key measures taken by the United Kingdom (‘UK’) government, parallel to the status in India. It suggests the need to introduce long-term changes in the Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code which extends beyond the Covid-19 situation.
To overcome the hue and cry surrounding t the UK Government has recently enacted the Corporate Insolvency and Governance Bill as a recovery attempt for the survival of the companies which in turn, directly impacts the employment market. This approach towards a debtor-friendly regime consists of both temporary and permanent measures.
- Autonomous moratorium period
The bill proposes an autonomous moratorium period, which gets triggered not only upon the initiation of the insolvency process but also before such formal commencement. This will provide space for giving effect to the restructuring proposals which a corporate debtor may find feasible for getting new credit influx into the company. The intent behind this is to give a ‘break’ to the company from the continuous piling of monthly loans leading to an increment in the claims of the creditors. As of now, 20 days of initial moratorium has been suggested which may be extended further for another 20 days by the management of the company. The directors shall remain in control of the company during this period. However, similar to an administrator, a qualified insolvency practitioner shall be appointed as the ‘monitor’ to overlook the entire process. While this provision gives relaxation to the loans incurred prior to the moratorium, the loans incurred during the moratorium shall remain payable after 20 days, or such extension as granted.
- Cross-clam down provision
Further, the bill seeks to introduce cross-class clam down provision. This provision has its origin from Chapter 11 of the US Bankruptcy Code. In the simplest sense, it allows for the implementation of a restructuring plan despite the fact that some creditors may have expressed dissent against the provision. The provision has been meticulously enacted – the proposal for restructuring has to be submitted before the court. The court shall then direct the convening of a meeting of creditors who will vote on the plan. The threshold for approval of the plan has been kept at 75% and binding on both secured and unsecured creditors. The court will assess the alternatives, and the reasons for dissent, and may “clam-down” the dissenting votes if it is seen that the creditors may not be worse-off than if such restructuring plan was not approved. The restructuring plan must provide a “better alternative” than the option of liquidation or insolvency for every class of creditors.
- Demands for winding up petitions
If any petition for winding up of a company was filed between the months of April and June (“relevant period”), pursuant to the non-fulfillment of statutory demands, such petitions shall not be given effect. It will be deemed that the corporate debtor underwent financial stress due to the Covid-19 pandemic, resulting in failure of its obligations under the statute. However, this has not been imposed as a blanket ban; meaning that if a creditor is able to rely on the balance sheets, accounts as well as the prior records to show that the company would have still undergone the insolvency process irrespective of the Covid-19 pandemic, then such winding-up petitions shall be entertained by the court as prescribed. This has been introduced as a temporary measure.
- Relaxation on the personal liability of directors
The threats of personal liability on a director arising from indulgence in any wrongful trading have also been relaxed. This is a temporary measure curbing the rights of the liquidators to take any action against the directors who continued to trade during the relevant period despite the director’s knowledge of the company’s position with respect to its future prospects. The intent is to reduce the personal liability of the directors if later the company is to face liquidation due to any liability resulting within the relevant period. However, the directors will continue to have a deemed responsibility to act in the best interests of the company. Provisions with respect to fraudulent trading and preferential transactions shall also continue to have an effect.
While the above provisions have been introduced in the UK, parallel to these, India too has enacted an array of amendments including the promulgation of the Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code (Amendment) Ordinance, 2020. The main changes include suspension on filing of insolvency proceedings for a year as well as raise in the threshold of default to Rs. 1 Crore. While this announcement has come as a rescue call for the corporate borrowers, the creditors, lenders and guarantors will definitely have to find other solutions to overcome the delay in loan repayment. The author believes that the insolvency regime in India requires long term changes not just limited to the effects of the present circumstances.
This quest for an alternative is also essential to reduce the backlog of cases and burden upon the Adjudicating Authority once the abeyance of the IBC is over.
- Pre-Packaged Insolvency Resolution Process
To this effect, the author believes that an alternate as well as a complementary mechanism to the Corporate Insolvency Resolution Process (‘CIRP‘) is a Pre-Packaged Insolvency Resolution Process (‘PPIRP‘) which allows for a similar outcome while leading to the achievement in a much cost-effective, simplified and a shortened manner.
A unique benefit of the PPIRP is that it allows for a pre-planned arrangement of assets with an objective of relieving stress upon the company much before the default has actually accrued. In fact, in some jurisdictions, the company is allowed to manage its operations throughout this process and even after the default has occurred.
The implementation of the IBC, though has shown positive results, has not particularly led to a smooth process for approval of the resolution plans. As of January 31, 2020, 3455 cases were admitted under the CIRP. Of these, only 265 could get a resolution plan approved, while 826 of them went into liquidation. In 2019, the World Bank had put India at 52nd position in resolving insolvency in the Ease of Doing Business rankings and overall 63rd position in the Ease of Doing Business report of 2020. As far as recovery is concerned, India stands at 5%, compared to an average of 20% in the developed economies.
Within the corporate arena, liquidation poses a major threat to any company but unfortunately is the automatic result arising out of a failure of the CIRP. To combat this issue, the PPIRP provides an additional level of protection to the corporate debtors. It is proposed that the PPIRP be introduced in a manner wherein the creditors are mandated to initiate it first. Only upon its failure should they proceed for filing of the CIRP before the Adjudicating Authority. This will allow for a caveat to introduce important changes to the plan in case it fails to get adequate votes or approval by the Adjudicating Authority at the PPIRP stage. It will also stand as a safeguard against liquidation especially in the Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises (MSMEs) wherein there is an acute paucity of investors and liquidation in fact poses a major concern. Another incentive for the creditors to indulge in a PPIRP rather than the traditional CIRP is to avoid the usual media coverage, defamation and elongated harm which is caused to the reputation of the company in a CIRP.
A PPIRP is a viable option even through the eyes of company law as it gives a negotiating table for the formulation of lucrative proposals to the creditors and the corporate debtor. Most importantly, this out-of-court mechanism may be considered to be a “peaceful method of settling the dispute.”
- Other alternatives to suspension of the IBC
The Government has inserted Section 10A prohibiting the commencement of CIRP for the defaults made by the company post March 25, 2020 for up to a year. This provision lacks enough criteria to determine which companies have actually defaulted in their payments due to Covid-19. The provision may be misused by willful defaulters in the absence of guidelines to differentiate companies who defaulted during that period but not as a result of the pandemic.
By now, it is definitely understood that the effects of the pandemic will have a huge impact on the economy and employment sector. Keeping this in view, the Government should take steps forward to enact permanent measures which will serve as a balanced approach between the creditors and the corporate debtors in the long run. PPIRP, clear categorisation of companies facing financial distress, need to introduce alternatives to suspension of the CIRP are some of the inspiration points from the UK Corporate Insolvency and Governance Bill.