March 1, 2022
“When debtors once have borrowed all we have to lend, they are very apt to grow shy of their creditors’ company” (John Vanbrugh)Bad debt is a major issue for many businesses in these hard economic times – not taking robust steps to collect it could be fatal to your own financial position. So if you are being given the run-around by a recalcitrant corporate debtor, take advice on whether an appropriate and cost-effective remedy for you might be an application for the company’s liquidation (“winding-up”). Cynical misuse of the liquidation process as a debt collection tool or to avoid any genuine disputes over liability is likely to end badly for you (you risk a heavy costs order for “abuse of process”). Be aware also that if your application is successful and a liquidation order is granted, you might be in for more than your own legal costs (ask for advice on the “danger of contribution” in winding-up matters). But properly used, a liquidation application will certainly get your debtor’s attention very effectively. It’s often the only strategy that has any effect on a “dodging debtor”. The threat of a liquidator knocking at the door to take over control of the company is a great motivator to actually do something – pay up, or make a genuine settlement offer, or at least disclose whether something is in dispute so you can deal with it. The practical challenge can however be in proving that the debtor is actually financially unable to pay its debts. That’s often not easy, and mere failure by the debtor to pay the debt is not sufficient.
The “section 345 demand” shortcutHowever there is a shortcut – serve on the company’s registered office a demand for the debt. You may hear it referred to as a “section 345 letter”, that being the section of the Companies Act which makes this all possible. If the debt is not paid (or secured or resolved by agreement) within three weeks, the company is deemed to be unable to pay its debts, making a liquidation application much easier to support. The 2021 High Court case of a municipality struggling to recover debts due to it by two property companies provides a good example of this letter of demand process in action…
Letters of demand sink two property companies
- Two related companies, one a property-owner and the other a tenant, owed the local municipality for unpaid rates, service charges, and electricity accounts.
- The municipality served the appropriate letters of demand on the companies’ registered offices, but still they failed to pay up. Their attempts to settle with the municipality having failed, the municipality applied to the High Court for liquidation.
- The High Court duly granted provisional liquidation orders against both companies, finding on the facts that they had failed to rebut the presumption that they were unable to pay the debts. Nor were they able to convince the Court to exercise its discretion to refuse the liquidation orders.