Insolvency, Litigation and Dispute Resolution

Calls for stronger whistleblower protections answered by recent passage of Whistleblower Bill

7 March, 2019

The last few years have seen the Commonwealth increasingly crack down on misuse of the Fair Entitlements Guarantee, or FEG, program. The cases that have resulted have led to various disputes in insolvency law about the priorities of different creditors. The priorities to be applied in insolvent trading trusts have been one issue recently puzzling lawyers and insolvency practitioners alike. Relief may well be around the corner, however, as the High Court is set to weigh in.

What the FEG?

FEG is a legislative scheme set up by the Commonwealth as a safety net for employees of insolvent companies.

Essentially, workplace law in Australia provides that employees have a number of entitlements, such as annual leave. In the event that the company you work for becomes insolvent, the Commonwealth (through the FEG scheme) guarantees that you will be paid certain entitlements (including wages, leave, and redundancy) up to a certain threshold.

The Commonwealth then “stands in the shoes” of the employees of the company in liquidation to seek to be reimbursed for the benefits that it has paid out. As in most liquidations, the Commonwealth, like any creditor, will typically only recover cents in the dollar.

Jumping in line

When a company goes into liquidation there are invariably more debts than there are money to go around. In addition, the liquidators of the company need to get paid. Furthermore, there may be costs associated with liquidating the company’s assets to discharge the creditors.

Accordingly, it is important to know who gets the first slice out of the pie. Sections 555 to 559 of the Corporations Act 2001 (Cth) set out the ordinary priorities for the division of the assets. Generally speaking, they are:

  1. costs of preserving, realising, or obtaining the property of the company;
  2. the liquidator’s costs and expenses;
  3. preferential debts; then
  4. remaining creditors.

Employees of a company have a preferential debt, and accordingly stand ahead of the unsecured creditors of a company. Accordingly, if the Commonwealth pays out employee entitlements pursuant to FEG and stands in the employee’s shoes, they will rank ahead of most creditors in the division of company assets.

The boulevard of broken trusts

The situation is made more complicated when the company in liquidation is a trading trust, that is, a corporate trustee that is trading for the benefit of its beneficiaries.

A trust holds its property for the beneficiaries. It is well established that a trustee has a right of indemnity from trust assets, and that trust property is not available to creditors in insolvency.

Therefore, when the corporate trading trustee is insolvent the creditors cannot touch the trust property, but the company will dip into those assets pursuant to its indemnity. The question puzzling the courts have been what, if anything, is the effect in doing so? Are all of the creditors subrogated and therefore stand in line equally, or do the ordinary priority rules set out above apply?

The question has long been debated. The issue has hinged on the words “property of the company” in the statutory provisions setting out the priority of creditors in the Corporations Act. If the trustee’s right of indemnity is “property of the company” then ordinary priority rules will apply (meaning that the liquidator and FEG get first bites at the pie). On the other hand, if a trustee’s right of indemnity is not property, then everything is to be distributed according to trust principles (no priorities).

Back in 1983, two different courts reached different conclusions. The Full Court of the Supreme Court of Victoria, in Re Enhill Pty Ltd [1983] 1 VR 561 found that the ordinary priority rules applied. The Supreme Court of South Australia found the other way in Re Suco Gold (1983) 33 SASR, holding that liquidators were not entitled to costs and expenses of winding up out of trust monies, as they were not “property of the company”.

In 2016, Brereton J of the Supreme Court of NSW followed the South Australian approach in Re Independent Contractor Services [2016] NSWSC 106, followed by Markovic J of the Federal Court in the 2017 decision of Mooney’s Contractors Pty Ltd (in liq) v Mooney [20017] FCA 653.

This has led to Victoria becoming increasing isolated on this issue. It appeared that this isolationism would be reversed by Robson J of the Supreme Court of Victoria in Re Amerind Pty Ltd (in liq) [2017] VSC 127. In that case, his Honour rejected Re Enhill and elected to instead follow Re Independent.

This uniformity was short lived, however, as the Court of Appeal of Victoria recently reversed Robson J’s decision on appeal in Commonwealth of Australia v Byrnes and Hewitt [2018] VSCA 41.

Byrning it all down

The reversal from the Victorian Court of Appeal appears to be based on a reading of the High Court’s decision in Octavo Investments Pty Ltd v Knight (1979) 144 CLR 360. In this case, the High Court held that in circumstances where a corporate trustee used its right of indemnity to pay a trust creditor from trust property, this could be subject to a clawback for an unfair preference.

The Court of Appeal reasoned that this clawback would only be possible if the trustee’s right of indemnity was property that vested in the liquidator. This conclusion is not expressly supported by the High Court’s judgment in Octavo.

The issue has been left further confused by the recent decision of the Full Court of the Federal Court in In re Killarnee Civil & Concrete Contractors Pty Ltd (in liq) [2018] FCAFC 40, which has followed Victoria’s lead on the issue.

Special leave granted

Fortunately this issue may finally have clear resolution. At the special leave hearing before the High Court last month, Gageler, Nettle, and Edelman JJ after hearing oral submissions (only from the respondent) granted special leave to appeal.

The key issue for the Court to resolve is whether “property of the company” includes a trustee’s right of indemnity and any trust assets. The case will likely be heard in the early new year. Insolvency practitioners and solicitors will be watching this decision closely and look forward to the High Court providing some certainty on this issue.

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Litigation and Dispute Resolution

Canadian Court elevates thumbs-up emoji to signature status

In June 2023, a Canadian Court in South-West Terminal Ltd v Achter Land and Cattle Ltd, 2023 SKKB 116, held that the "thumbs-up" emoji carried enough weight to constitute acceptance of contractual terms, analogous to that of a "signature", to establish a legally binding contract.   Facts This case involved a contractual dispute between two parties namely South-West Terminal ("SWT"), a grain and crop inputs company; and Achter Land & Cattle Ltd ("ALC"), a farming corporation. SWT sought to purchase several tonnes of flax at a price of $17 per bushel, and in March 2021, Mr Mickleborough, SWT's Farm Marketing Representative, sent a "blast" text message to several sellers indicating this intention. Following this text message, Mr Mickleborough spoke with Mr Achter, owner of ALC, whereby both parties verbally agreed by phone that ALC would supply 86 metric tonnes of flax to SWT at a price of $17 per bushel, in November 2021. After the phone call, Mr Mickleborough applied his ink signature to the contract, took a photo of it on his mobile phone and texted it to Mr Archter with the text message, "please confirm flax contract". Mr Archter responded by texting back a "thumbs-up" emoji, but ultimately did not deliver the 87 metric tonnes of flax as agreed.   Issues The parties did not dispute the facts, but rather, "disagreed as to whether there was a formal meeting of the minds" and intention to enter into a legally binding agreement. The primary issue that the Court was tasked with deciding was whether Mr Achter's use of the thumbs-up emoji carried the same weight as a signature to signify acceptance of the terms of the alleged contract. Mr Mickleborough put forward the argument that the emoji sent by Mr Achter conveyed acceptance of the terms of the agreement, however Mr Achter disagreed arguing that his use of the emoji was his way of confirming receipt of the text message. By way of affidavit, Mr Achter stated "I deny that he accepted the thumbs-up emoji as a digital signature of the incomplete contract"; and "I did not have time to review the Flax agreement and merely wanted to indicate that I did receive his text message." Consensus Ad Idem In deciding this issue, the Court needed to determine whether there had been a "formal meeting of the minds". At paragraph [18], Justice Keene considered the reasonable bystander test: " The court is to look at “how each party’s conduct would appear to a reasonable person in the position of the other party” (Aga at para 35). The test for agreement to a contract for legal purposes is whether the parties have indicated to the outside world, in the form of the objective reasonable bystander, their intention to contract and the terms of such contract (Aga at para 36). The question is not what the parties subjectively had in mind, but rather whether their conduct was such that a reasonable person would conclude that they had intended to be bound (Aga at para 37)."   Justice Keene considered several factors including: The nature of the business relationship, notably that Mr Achter had a long-standing business relationship with SWT going back to at least 2015 when Mr Mickleborough started with SWT; and   The consistency in the manner by which the parties conducted their business by way of verbal conversation either in person or over the phone to come to an agreement on price and volume of grain, which would be followed by Mr Mickleborough drafting a contract and sending it to Mr Achter. Mr Mickleborough stated, "I have done approximately fifteen to twenty contracts with Achter"; and   The fact that the parties had both clearly understood responses by Mr Achter such as "looks good", "ok" or "yup" to mean confirmation of the contract and "not a mere acknowledgment of the receipt of the contract" by Mr Achter.   Judgment At paragraph [36], Keene J said: "I am satisfied on the balance of probabilities that Chris okayed or approved the contract just like he had done before except this time he used a thumbs-up emoji. In my opinion, when considering all of the circumstances that meant approval of the flax contract and not simply that he had received the contract and was going to think about it. In my view a reasonable bystander knowing all of the background would come to the objective understanding that the parties had reached consensus ad item – a meeting of the minds – just like they had done on numerous other occasions." The court satisfied that the use of the thumbs-up emoji paralleled the prior abbreviated texts that the parties had used to confirm agreement ("looks good", "yup" and "ok"). This approach had become the established way the parties conducted their business relationship.   Significance of the Thumbs-Up Emoji Justice Keene acknowledged the significance of a thumbs-up emoji as something analogous to a signature at paragraph [63]: "This court readily acknowledges that a thumbs-up emoji is a non-traditional means to "sign" a document but nevertheless under these circumstances this was a valid way to convey the two purposes of a "signature" – to identify the signator… and… to convey Achter's acceptance of the flax contract." In support of this, Justice Keene cited the definition of the thumbs-up emoji: "used to express assent, approval or encouragement in digital communications, especially in western cultures", confirming that the thumbs-up emoji is an "action in an electronic form" that can be used to allow express acceptance as contemplated under the Canadian Electronic Information and Documents Act 2000. Justice Keene dismissed the concerns raised by the defence that accepting the thumbs up emoji as a sign of agreement would "open the flood gates" to new interpretations of other emojis, such as the 'fist bump' and 'handshake'. Significantly, the Court held, "I agree this case is novel (at least in Skatchewan), but nevertheless this Court cannot (nor should it) attempt to stem the tide of technology and common usage." Ultimately the Court found in favour of SWT, holding that there was a valid contract between the parties and that the defendant breached by failing to deliver the flax. Keene J made a judgment against ALC for damages in the amount of $82,200.21 payable to SWT plus interest.   What does this mean for Australia? This is a Canadian decision meaning that it is not precedent in Australia. However, an Australian court is well within its rights to consider this judgment when dealing with matters that come before it with similar circumstances. This judgment is a reminder that the common law of contract has and will continue to evolve to meet the everchanging realities and challenges of our day-to-day lives. As time has progressed, we have seen the courts transition from sole acceptance of the traditional "wet ink" signature, to electronic signatures. Electronic signatures are legally recognised in Australia and are provided for by the Electronic Transactions Act 1999 and the Electronic Transactions Regulations 2020. Companies are also now able to execute certain documents via electronic means under s 127 of the Corporations Act. We have also seen the rise of electronic platforms such as "DocuSign" used in commercial relationships to facilitate the efficient signing of contracts. Furthermore, this case highlights how courts will interpret the element of "intention" when determining whether a valid contract has been formed, confirming the long-standing principle that it is to be assessed objectively from the perspective of a reasonable and objective bystander who is aware of all the relevant facts. Overall, this is an interesting development for parties engaging in commerce via electronic means and an important reminder to all to be conscious of the fact that contracts have the potential to be agreed to by use of an emoji in today's digital age.

Published by Foez Dewan
29 August, 2023

Venues NSW ats Kerri Kane: Venues NSW successful in overturning a District Court decision

The McCabes Government team are pleased to have assisted Venues NSW in successfully overturning a District Court decision holding it liable in negligence for injuries sustained by a patron who slipped and fell down a set of steps at a sports stadium; Venues NSW v Kane [2023] NSWCA 192 Principles The NSW Court of Appeal has reaffirmed the principles regarding the interpretation of the matters to be considered under sections5B of the Civil Liability Act 2002 (NSW). There is no obligation in negligence for an occupier to ensure that handrails are applied to all sets of steps in its premises. An occupier will not automatically be liable in negligence if its premises are not compliant with the Building Code of Australia (BCA). Background The plaintiff commenced proceedings in the District Court of NSW against Venues NSW (VNSW) alleging she suffered injuries when she fell down a set of steps at McDonald Jones Stadium in Newcastle on 6 July 2019. The plaintiff attended the Stadium with her husband and friend to watch an NRL rugby league match. It was raining heavily on the day. The plaintiff alleged she slipped and fell while descending a stepped aisle which comprised of concrete steps between rows of seating. The plaintiff sued VNSW in negligence alleging the stepped aisle constituted a "stairwell" under the BCA and therefore ought to have had a handrail. The plaintiff also alleged that the chamfered edge of the steps exceeded the allowed tolerance of 5mm. The Decision at Trial In finding in favour of the plaintiff, Norton DCJ found that: the steps constituted a "stairwell" and therefore were in breach of the BCA due to the absence of a handrail and the presence of a chamfered edge exceeding 5mm in length. even if handrails were not required, the use of them would have been good and reasonable practice given the stadium was open during periods of darkness, inclement weather, and used by a persons of varying levels of physical agility. VNSW ought to have arranged a risk assessment of the entire stadium, particularly the areas which provided access along stepped surfaces. installation of a handrail (or building stairs with the required chamfered edge) would not impose a serious burden on VNSW, even if required on other similar steps. Issues on Appeal VNSW appealed the decision of Norton DCJ. The primary challenge was to the trial judge's finding that VNSW was in breach of its duty of care in failing to install a handrail. In addition, VNSW challenged the findings that the steps met the definition of a 'stairwell' under the BCA as well as the trial judge's assessment of damages. Decision on Appeal The Court of Appeal found that primary judge's finding of breach of duty on the part of VNSW could not stand for multiple reasons, including that it proceeded on an erroneous construction of s5B of the Civil Liability Act 2002 and the obvious nature of the danger presented by the steps. As to the determination of breach of duty, the Court stressed that the trial judge was wrong to proceed on the basis that the Court simply has regard to each of the seven matters raised in ss 5B and 5C of the CLA and then express a conclusion as to breach. Instead, the Court emphasised that s 5B(1)(c) is a gateway, such that a plaintiff who fails to satisfy that provision cannot succeed, with the matters raised in s 5B(2) being mandatory considerations to be borne in mind when determining s 5B(1)(c). Ultimately, regarding the primary question of breach of duty, the Court found that: The stadium contained hazards which were utterly familiar and obvious to any spectator, namely, steps which needed to be navigated to get to and to leave from the tiered seating. While the trial judge considered the mandatory requirements required by s5B(2) of the CLA, those matters are not exhaustive and the trial judge failed to pay proper to attention to the fact that: the stadium had been certified as BCA compliant eight years before the incident; there was no evidence of previous falls resulting in injury despite the stairs being used by millions of spectators over the previous eight years; and the horizontal surfaces of the steps were highly slip resistant when wet. In light of the above, the Court of Appeal did not accept a reasonable person in the position of VNSW would not have installed a handrail along the stepped aisle. The burden of taking the complained of precautions includes to address similar risks of harm throughout the stadium, i.e. installing handrails on the other stepped aisles. This was a mandatory consideration under s5C(a) which was not properly taken into account. As to the question of BCA compliance, the Court of Appeal did not consider it necessary to make a firm conclusion of this issue given it did not find a breach of duty.  The Court did however indicated it did not consider the stepped aisle would constitute a "stairway" under the BCA. The Court of Appeal also found that there was nothing in the trial judge's reasons explicitly connecting the risk assessment she considered VNSW ought to have carried out, with the installation of handrails on any of the aisles in the stadium and therefore could not lead to any findings regarding breach or causation. As to quantum, the Court of Appeal accepted that the trial judge erred in awarding the plaintiff a "buffer" of $10,000 for past economic loss in circumstances where there was no evidence of any loss of income. The Court of Appeal set aside the orders of the District Court and entered judgment for VNSW with costs. Why this case is important? The case confirms there is no obligation in negligence for owners and operators of public or private venues in NSW to have a handrail on every set of steps. It is also a welcome affirmation of the principles surrounding the assessment of breach of duty under s 5B and s 5C of the CLA, particularly in assessing whether precautions are required to be taken in response to hazards which are familiar and obvious to a reasonable person.

Published by Leighton Hawkes
18 August, 2023
Litigation and Dispute Resolution

Expert evidence – The letter of instruction and involvement of lawyers

The recent decision in New Aim Pty Ltd v Leung [2023] FCAFC 67 (New Aim) has provided some useful guidance in relation to briefing experts in litigation.

Published by Justin Pennay
10 August, 2023