For over a century, U.K. company law has enabled a company to propose, to its creditors or shareholders, a compromise or arrangement of their rights which, if approved by the requisite majority and then by the court, is binding on all of the relevant creditors or shareholders. This process—a scheme of arrangement under Part 26 of the Companies Act 2006—has been frequently used by companies (including those non-U.K. companies that fall within the winding up jurisdiction of the English courts, to whom the court's scheme jurisdiction extends) to implement a wide variety of different forms of financial restructuring, despite it not being a formal insolvency proceeding. In June 2020, the U.K. Government introduced a new form of restructuring plan under a new Part 26A of the Companies Act 2006, that would be focused on the needs of companies facing financial difficulties. In this briefing, we examine how the new restructuring plan differs from a scheme of arrangement and how it is likely to be used going forward.
In its 2018 Insolvency and Corporate Governance Response (the "Government's 2018 proposals"), the Government recognised the need for a new form of restructuring plan (the "Plan") that would sit alongside schemes of arrangement and would be focused on the needs of companies facing financial difficulties. The Corporate Insolvency and Governance Act 2020 ("CIGA") introduced the Plan by inserting a new Part 26A into the Companies Act 2006 ("CA").
While much of the Plan legislation looks similar to the existing scheme legislation, there are six key changes.
- Availability of the Plan In order to use a Plan, the company must be in financial difficulty, and the Plan must address that financial difficulty.
- Disenfranchisement The company can apply to court to disenfranchise a class of creditors or members from voting if that class has no genuine economic interest.
- Numerosity The majority required to approve a Plan is now 75% or more in value in each class of those voting (subject to disenfranchisement or cram down) and, in contrast to a scheme, there is no additional requirement to have a majority by number of those voting to approve.
- Cram Down Probably the most significant change, and a novelty in U.K. restructuring law, is the ability to "cram down" via court sanction, another class (or classes) of creditor or member, potentially even a senior class, that votes against the Plan. In contrast, under a scheme, each class has an effective veto on the scheme compromising their rights.
- Moratorium Veto A special category of moratorium creditors (if the company has entered into a moratorium before the Plan) may have a veto on the Plan's application to them (and also any legacy scheme).
- Pensions Last minute amendments to the legislation give certain defined benefit pension related persons notification and potentially voting rights.
PROCESS FOR IMPLEMENTING A PLAN
Before examining the new changes, it is helpful to examine the Plan process generally.
The new Plan procedure will operate in a very similar way to the way in which schemes operate. This is evident from the first Plan very recently proposed by Virgin Atlantic.
This means that, apart from the basic legal requirement of having to involve some form of compromise of rights as opposed to their mere confiscation, there will be few limits on the types of restructuring in its Plan that a company may propose to its creditors or members for their approval. Schemes will also remain a viable tool for companies that do not (or choose not to) satisfy the financial difficulty conditions or do not need to rely on any of the other key features of a Plan. Schemes in particular will continue to be used by solvent companies (for example, shareholder schemes of arrangement) to implement corporate shareholder transactions.
Like a scheme, a Plan may also make provision for the reconstruction or amalgamation of companies under which the whole or part of the undertaking or property of the "Plan" company is transferred to another company, although the limitations in My Travel (requiring there to be a substantial similarity as between the shareholders of the transferor and the transferee company) and Doncasters v Nokes (a transfer not being capable of overriding restrictions on assignments) will continue to apply.
An application to the court will be required, both to convene meetings of creditors or members to approve the Plan and to seek the court's sanction of the Plan once it has been approved. The Plan will bind all affected creditors or shareholders (referred to as members), whether or not they voted in favour of the Plan.
New Practice Statement
A new Practice Statement has been issued by the courts setting out the process to be followed when applying to initiate a scheme or a Plan and this focuses very much on ensuring adequate notice is given to creditors or members of the convening hearing (to allow class and disenfranchisement issues to be raised in good time). It is anticipated that the Practice Statement Letter approach of sending a letter with sufficient information for complex schemes will be used for Plans. In Re ColourOz at the convening hearing, the court was keen to emphasise the application of the new Practice Statement and the importance of sufficient notice being given.
Convening Hearing—Order to Convene Meetings
A company wishing to initiate a Plan must apply to the court for an order convening a meeting or meetings of creditors or members to approve the Plan. An application may also be made by a creditor or member of the company, as well as by its liquidator or administrator, although, as with schemes, there would likely be significant practical, as well as legal, difficulties for a creditor or member who wished to propose a Plan without the support of the company concerned.
Under the scheme process, while creditors are theoretically able to propose the scheme, this is rarely done because (i) creditors may not have access to all the information that the court would expect to be disclosed to other creditors or members in the explanatory statement which is required to be disseminated as part of the process and (ii) the court requires the company to have approved the scheme, see Re Savoy.
This poses some issues in relation to creditors wishing to promulgate a scheme against the wishes of the shareholder(s). Often, this is achieved by ensuring that the directors (including those appointed by the shareholder) are aware of their duties to act in the interests of the company, which, in a restructuring context, very often means the creditors. Further, under English law, certain steps can be taken to prevent destructive shareholder action (for example, restraining shareholder resolutions to wind up a company) or creditors may be in a position to apply to put the company into administration which will then allow the administrators to manage the company and promulgate the scheme. It will be interesting to see if the courts reassess Re Savoy in the Plan context, given that the Plan specifically allows for potential shareholder disenfranchisement or cram down.
The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.