The outbreak of Covid-19 has presented significant challenges for businesses and has caused severe business disruption. The Irish government has introduced new measures in the hope of mitigating the effects of Covid-19 on the Irish economy.
As part of these measures, the Government announced on the 2nd May 2020 that the Revenue will “warehouse” deferred tax debts associated with the Covid-19 crisis to assist small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) who may be experiencing cashflow problems and trading difficulties at this uncertain time.
New Revenue Scheme
This new scheme involves the effective parking of any unpaid VAT and PAYE (Employer) tax debts which arise as a result of the Covid-19 crisis, for a period of 12 months after businesses return to trading. In addition, a year after a business has returned to trading, a lower interest rate of 3% per annum will be placed on such “warehoused tax debts”. The Revenue has stated that it will operate these arrangements on an administrative basis pending the enactment of the required legislation.
Although this is welcome news for Irish businesses, any question arises as to whether these measures could expose directors to a higher risk of breaching their fiduciary duties further down the line.
Preferential Status in Liquidation
The Revenue enjoys preferential status in liquidation (i.e. it ranks ahead of other creditors for certain tax debts). In other words, if a company becomes insolvent and begins the process of winding up, the Revenue will be paid ahead of any other creditors of that company.
This could prove problematic for company directors, who have duties to their creditors. Does their duties to their creditors mean that they should not avail of the State’s assistance?
Section 228 of the Companies Act 2014 imposes a non-exhaustive list of fiduciary obligations on company directors. These include the duty to exercise the care, skill and diligence which would be expected of a reasonable person in the same circumstances and to act honestly and responsibly in relation to the conduct of the affairs of the company. However, where a company is insolvent or is threatened with insolvency this fundamental principal changes and directors will also owe a duty to act in good faith and to show the utmost care, skill and diligence to the creditors.
If a company avails of the Revenue’s “warehouse” deferred tax scheme and subsequently becomes insolvent, leading to the Revenue becoming a preferential creditor, it could lead to accusations from other creditors that the company’s directors acted in breach of their fiduciary duties. However, the alternative for company’s directors is not to avail of the Revenue’s “warehousing” measures and this could lead to companies going out of business.
If the situation arises whereby insolvency becomes a likelihood for the company, the focus of the company directors shifts from their members to the company’s creditors.
In the current circumstances, many companies find themselves needing to avail of State assistance. Some commentators have expressed concern that this may be seen as an admission of insolvency and (unless a rescue is possible), the company should cease to trade and begin to wind up the company. On reflection, this could be seen as an overly simplistic view of the legal position and illustrates quite a peculiar situation whereby the Government are, to an extent, encouraging a company to continue trading whilst being technically insolvent. It may be more appropriate that a company (and its directors) who avail of State support, to help preserve the company, should not face repercussions for continuing to trade.
Newspaper articles suggest that the Government is being urged to “dial down” our insolvency regulations here in Ireland, and to follow the temporary changes made in the UK to allow companies to continue trading through the crisis and any financial difficulties through inter alia the suspension of a director’s culpability for any worsening of the financial position of the company or its creditors during the period 1 March 2020 to 30 June 2020. Currently, directors in Ireland have personal liability for debt incurred if they are knowingly carrying on business when a company is insolvent. Any proposed changes would need to consider removing the penalties that apply in the event that a company continues to trade while insolvent if the company is merely trying to “weather the current crisis”.
For instance, the Australian Government has temporarily removed the potential for directors to incur personal liability for continuing to trade whilst insolvent, essentially directors are temporarily freed from risks of incurring personal liability and can focus on job preservation.
It is important to emphasise that the law does not penalise directors who have acted honestly and responsibly at the time the company was in financial difficulty. Professional advice from financial and legal experts ought to be obtained if directors do not believe that there is a likely future for their business or if they have concerns as to their liability in allowing their company continue to trade.
It may be the case that, once a new Government is in place in Ireland, further emergency legislation is passed to modify current insolvency laws so that the sanctions for directors trading while they may not be able to pay all of their debts as they fall due would be suspended for a period, provided that they are acting honestly and responsibly.
The Future Concern
The Central Bank of Ireland has announced that the current outbreak of Covid-19 has “triggered an extremely severe economic shock” which is fundamentally different from anything the economy has encountered previously. In its latest Quarterly Bulletin, the Central Bank outlined the possibility that the economy could shrink by 8.3% of GDP in 2020 and that the unemployment rate may rise to around 25% in the coming months.
It is likely that a number of businesses will be unable to pay outgoings due to severe cash flow shortages in the coming months, if not already in trouble and it is no doubt that the tapering off of the implemented subsidies will have a detrimental effect on many SMEs. In reality, the impact of these emergency schemes may be less advantageous than expected, especially for businesses that have experienced significant financial difficulties or have already shut down. It may be the case that businesses may see costs exceed income for many of the VAT periods covered by this deferral, in which case there is unlikely to be any net VAT payable anyway.
The duties of a company director are not absolute and the nature and scope of their obligations relates to their individual context. These duties extend to any commercial decision or strategic response taken by a company’s board of directors in periods of emergency. Naturally, every decision should be considered in depth and have the possible advantages, disadvantages and alternatives contemplated. Any decisions made by the board may be assisted by expert advice and opinion.
Directors who adopt appropriate corporate governance and good decision making, during the crisis will find themselves and their company in a better position to manage the challenges which lie ahead. Albeit strange, it is probable that the Irish Government will follow the approach that has been taken in both the UK and Australia whereby they encourage many businesses to continue trading whilst being ”balance sheet” insolvent. There is no doubt that the impending economic crisis will heighten the difficulties faced by companies but seeking advice from an expert can bring clarity to decision-making that preserves value.
Kane Tuohy Solicitors have a strong corporate recovery department which has experience acting in high profile liquidations, examinerships and receiverships. Kane Tuohy can provide assistance to your business in developing short-term and long-term strategies in response to this Covid-19 pandemic.
If you are concerned about as to how you can “future-proof” your business, please feel free to contact our office.
Anna Hollywood, Trainee Solicitor
Ciara Lennon, Trainee Solicitor
This Briefing Note is not intended as legal advice. For specific queries, please liaise with your usual contact in Kane Tuohy or with Hugh Kane (firstname.lastname@example.org / 087-9726164)