s.239 of the Insolvency Act 1986 - Green (Liquidator of Stealth Construction Ltd) v Ireland [2011] EWHC 1305 (Ch) (20 May 2011)

Mr Justice David Richards has handed down his judgment in Green (Liquidator of Stealth Construction Ltd) v Ireland [2011] EWHC 1305 (Ch) (20 May 2011). The case concerns a purported preference pursuant to section 239 of the Insolvency Act 1986 (IA86). In relation to the desire test the learned judge notes: 

"As I earlier mentioned, it is the decision to give a preference, rather than the giving of the preference pursuant to that decision, which must be influenced by the desire to produce the effect set out in s.239(4) (b). For these purposes, therefore, the relevant time is the date of the decision, not the date of giving the preference.

In Re MC Bacon Ltd [1990] BCC 78, the company reached the limit of its overdraft facility on 14 April 1987. It was loss-making and had lost a major customer, and the directors were planning to retire. The bank was insisting that a debenture be granted if it was to continue to provide facilities to the company. Discussions took place during the second half of April and the first half of May. The company executed a debenture towards the end of May. In considering the time at which the company must be influenced by the desire to put the other party in a better position, Millet J said at p.88:
"It was also submitted that the relevant time was the time when the debenture was created. That cannot be right. The relevant time was the time when the decision to grant it was made. In the present case that is not known with certainty. It was probably some time between 15 April and 20 May, although as early as 3 April Mr Glover and Mr Creal had resigned themselves to its inevitability. But it does not matter. If the requisite desire was operating at all, it was operating throughout."

In Re Fairway Magazines Ltd [1992] BCC 924, a director agreed to provide funding to the company under the terms of a written loan agreement dated 21 August 1990, which provided for the grant of a debenture to secure the loans. Advances were made under the agreement and on 27 September 1990 the debenture was executed. It was signed by the lender on the same date as the loan agreement and the only reason for the delay in execution by the company was that the director who was to sign on behalf of the company was slow in doing so and returning it to the company's solicitors. Mummery J referred to Re MC Bacon Ltd as relevant for a number of purposes, including:
"Finally, the relevant time to consider is the time when the decision is made to grant the debenture, not the date of the execution of the debenture itself. In this case the relevant date is the date of the agreement on 21 August 1990."
By contrast, in Wills v Corfe Joinery Ltd [1997] BCC 511, where two directors lent sums to a company in January 1994 on terms that they would not be called in for a year and were repaid by the company in February 1995, Lloyd J held that the decision to repay was made not when the loans were made on the agreed terms as to the date of repayment, but when the cheques for repayment were signed in February 1995. He said at p.513:
"However, I do not accept that January 1994 was the date by reference to which it is appropriate to consider whether, in giving the preference that undoubtedly was given, the company was influenced by the relevant desire. It seems to me that all that happened in January 1994 at most was that the loans became repayable in January 1995. A lot of debts were payable by the company in January 1995 and a lot of them were not paid. The fact that the directors' loan accounts were repayable in January 1995 does not lead to the conclusion that there was not a relevant decision to give the preference by actually paying those debts. It seems to me that the relevant decision to make the payments was and could only have been made at the time, or immediately before the time, when the cheques were drawn, that is to say, on 2 February and 6 February 1995. Even if, as I am prepared to accept for present purposes, what passed in January 1994 meant that there was an obligation on the company to pay the debt in January 1995, it was necessary for the board to review at that time whether to honour that obligation. If the board had known that the company was insolvent or would be made insolvent by honouring that obligation, it could not have made the payment."

Most preferences involve the payment of some debts in preference to others. All debts stem from an enforceable obligation to make the payment. If the decision to incur the debt, rather than the later decision to pay it, was the relevant time at which the company's desire was to be judged, the payment of debts would rarely constitute a preference under s.239.

It might be argued that there is a distinction between the payment of debts on the one hand and other obligations, such as an obligation to grant a security, on the other. I do not see why in principle that should be so. Even if there had been an enforceable obligation incurred in October 2007 to grant a charge, there would in ordinary circumstances after a delay of 12 or so months be a further decision to comply with the obligation, just as in the case of a debt there would be a further decision to comply with the obligation to pay the debt. Precisely the same considerations would apply in the former case as Lloyd J said would apply in the latter:
"it was necessary for the board to review at the time whether to honour that obligation. If the company had known that the company was insolvent or would be made insolvent by honouring that obligation, it could not have made the payment."

The position is, of course, all the stronger in a case such as the present where the company was not subject to any enforceable obligation to grant the charge. It would be a voluntary act and, after an interval of 12 months or more, would necessarily involve a decision to proceed with the grant of the charge.

In my judgment, the question of when the decision is made is a question of fact to be determined in the particular circumstances of each case. An existing contractual obligation is neither necessary nor of itself sufficient. There was no prior obligation to grant a debenture in Re M C Bacon Ltd but on the facts of the case Millett J found that the decision to do so had been made at some time in the period of negotiations up to 20 May 1987. In Re Fairway Magazines Ltd, where the delay in execution of the debenture was simply because the director had been slow to sign for the company, the company's decision was found to have been when the loan agreement was made, and the lender signed the debenture, a few weeks earlier. By contrast, on the very different facts of Wills v Corfe Jointer Ltd, the decision to repay the loans was made long after the loans were made and the obligation to repay them was incurred.

Because Miss Gillis and Mr Costa did not give evidence, I do not know what discussions or decisions in fact took place in October to December 2008, except that the instructions to prepare the charge were given to Mr Saunders in that period. That itself is some evidence that the decision was then taken to grant the charge. In circumstances where there has been a delay of over a year and where the company was under no obligation to grant the charge, and where even then the charge was granted only because Mrs Ireland raised the issue, the reasonable inference is that Miss Gillis, whether on her own or with Mr Costa, decided that the company should proceed to grant the charge to Mrs Ireland.

The time for judging whether the company was influenced by a desire to improve the position of Mrs Ireland is therefore about November 2008. This is entirely an issue of the thought processes of the directors of the company. They knew that the company was unable to pay its debts, including the debt to Mrs Ireland, as they fell due. Objectively it would seem likely that Miss Gillis wished to improve the position of her sister but in any event, without calling Miss Gillis and/or Mr Costa to give evidence, Mrs Ireland is unable to rebut the presumption created by s.239(6)."

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