LEGAL GUIDE TO RECOVERING A TRADE DEBT

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1 LEGAL GUIDE TO RECOVERING A TRADE DEBT Howat Avraam Solicitors A: FLEET STREET, LONDON, EC4A 2DQ T: E:

2 Unpaid invoicing is a fact of life for most businesses, regardless of the sector in which they operate. As businesses rely on a dependable cashflow, it is hugely important that trade debts are recovered quickly and with minimal disruption to the business. This Legal Guide sets out a summary of the options available to recover a trade debt within the jurisdiction of England and Wales. THE MAIN OPTIONS Reminder and Pre-Issue Demands : We firstly recommend that every business should have in place a timely and robust reminder and demand process in respect of its overdue invoicing. Debtors will not pay up if they are unaware that they owe any money. This process should involve clear deadlines for payment and should escalate from a polite reminder to a threat to go legal if the debtor continues to withhold payment. These deadlines must be strictly applied and acted upon in order to send a clear message that non-payment will not be tolerated and that threats of escalation are not hollow and should not be ignored. In the event that payment continues to remain outstanding, the following legal options are available and are summarised in further detail later within this Legal Guide: 1. TRADITIONAL COURT PROCEEDINGS a) Small Claims Court (debts up to 10,000); b) County Court Claims (debts between 10,000 and 100,000); and c) High Court Claims (debts over 100,000 or particularly complex matters). 2. INSOLVENCY PROCEEDINGS a) Statutory Demands; b) Bankruptcy Petitions (for individuals); and c) Winding up Petitions (for companies). Settlement : In addition to the above, we would also note that the legal options detailed within this Legal Guide do not preclude the parties from also engaging in simultaneous settlement discussions, which can often lead to a sensible commercial outcome. As the issues start to clarify within the legal process and each party s case is explained, parties can often find a middle ground. Where they cannot, the following legal options shall apply.

3 COURT PROCEEDINGS When should Court Proceedings be used? The more traditional route of issuing County Court or High Court Proceedings is primarily appropriate in situations where a debt is disputed on genuine grounds. Unlike Insolvency Proceedings, the County Court and High Courts processes are designed to invite and make judgment upon disputes, whether in relation to questions of fact or law. What are the Stages of Court Proceedings? In summary, there are 5 stages to contested Court Proceedings, which are as follows: 1. Issuing Proceedings - The drafting and issuing of a Claim Form and Particulars of Claim setting out the basis on which the money is alleged to be outstanding from the debtor / defendant. 2. Defence Upon receipt of a Claim, the debtor / defendant will draft and file a Defence, which sets out the basis on which the debt is disputed and details any set-off or counter-claim that might exist. 3. Disclosure This stage involves the exchange by both parties of all documentation that is relevant to the Proceedings, whether or not it damages their case. The disclosure stage ensures that both parties are on a level footing and that no documentary surprises will arise at trial. The Court s emphasis is on transparency to enable parties to settle their disputes as early within the Court process as possible. 4. Witness Statements In much the same way as document disclosure, parties are required to detail in writing all of the evidence that their witnesses will give at final trial. Again, the emphasis is on early discovery in the hope that settlement might prove possible. 5. Final Trial In the event that settlement does not prove possible within the above process, the parties and their witnesses will attend a Trial at which a Judge will hear each party s evidence and legal arguments and make a decision (referred to as a Judgment ). This Judgment need not necessarily be conclusively in favour of either party and can apportion liability and blame between the parties, as may be appropriate. Liability for costs will likely follow this apportionment and can by itself be a source of further litigation. Points to Note before Issuing Court Proceedings Debtor Finances - Has the debtor / defendant got any assets against which a Judgment can be enforced? If it hasn t then the Judgment, which is effectively an I.O.U, will be unlikely to lead to any recovery. Thought should always be given to exactly how a Judgment can be enforced before Court Proceedings are issued.

4 Be in it for the long haul - Be cautious about issuing Court Proceedings if you are not prepared to see them through. If you change your mind or decide to discontinue (for whatever reason), you will almost certainly be liable for an opponent's costs up until the point of discontinuance (upon the basis that the opponent has been put to these costs solely as a result of the Proceedings). Whilst a settlement in respect of costs can often be negotiated, this cannot be relied upon. What are the Timescales of Court Proceedings? The below timings are indicative of the standard Court process and will of course depend upon the caseload of any particular Court. Note also that various interim applications are available to parties within the Proceedings, which may either short-fuse Proceedings (e.g. Summary Judgment applications where the opponent s case has no prospect of success) or delay Proceedings (e.g. Further Disclosure applications where the opponent is withholding information or documentation) so the below should only be used as a rough guide. Stage What is required? Estimated length of time between each stage 1 Issuing a Claim form and Particulars of Claim 2 Filing Acknowledgment of Service 14 days (from deemed date of service of claim form in stage 1) 3 Drafting and serving Defence (and Counterclaim) 28 days (from deemed dated of service of claim form in stage 1) 4 Completing Allocation Questionnaire 28 days (from stage 3) 5 Drafting and exchanging Disclosure Lists 4-6 weeks (from stage 4) 6 Reviewing other sides Disclosure Lists 7-14 days (from stage 5) 7 Drafting Witness Statements 8-12 weeks (from stage 6) 8 Reviewing opponent s Witness Statements 2-3 weeks (from stage 7) 9 Preparations for Final Trial weeks (from stage 8) 10 Final Trial 4 8 weeks (from stage 9)

5 COURT PROCEEDINGS THE PROCESS

6 INSOLVENCY PROCEEDINGS The starting point to note is that Insolvency Proceedings are not intended to be used for debt recovery. However, the threat of Insolvency Proceedings may be sufficient to persuade some debtors to settle their debts. It can also provoke debtors to set out their reasons for failing to pay, including any dispute as to the specific amount claimed. The primary Insolvency options available are Statutory Demands, Bankruptcy Petitions and Winding up Petitions, which we shall deal with in turn below. STATUTORY DEMANDS What are Statutory Demands and when should they be used? A Statutory Demand is a formal demand for payment of an undisputed debt in excess of 750. Upon receipt of a Statutory Demand, the receiving party must within 18 or 21 days (see below) either make payment (or agree an acceptable repayment plan), reduce the debt to below 750 or raise genuine dispute in respect of the debt claimed. In the event that the dispute is without merit and/or is not accepted by the party that served the Statutory Demand, the receiving party must, if an individual, apply to set-aside the Statutory Demand or, if a limited company, apply for an injunction to restrain ongoing Insolvency Proceedings (namely a Winding up Petition against the limited company see below). Is a Statutory Demand issued at Court? A Statutory Demand is a private document between the parties and is not issued at Court. Notwithstanding this informality, the Statutory Demand must be personally served upon a debtor (or, if the debtor is avoiding service, by substitited servcice following the a letter of appoint) in order for the 21 day response period to commence. Evidence of this personal service will be required in the event of further Insolvency Proceedings, as detailed below. Correspondingly, if the debtor makes immediate payment upon receipt of the Statutory Demand, the parties can agree between them that the Statutory Demand simply be ripped up and forgotten. What if the debtor ignores a Statutory Demand? Failure to take any action within the 21 day period causes an assumption that the debtor is insolvent and will likely lead to the presentation of a Bankruptcy Petition (in respect of an individual) or a Winding-Up Petition (in respect of a company). Accordingly, a Statutory Demand is an aggressive and effective way of recovering admitted sums from a non-paying party who simply cannot ignore it without suffering very serious consequences.

7 STATUTORY DEMANDS THE PROCESS

8 BANKRUPTCY PETITIONS What is a Bankruptcy Petition? A Bankruptcy Petition is a request to the Court to declare a particular individual Bankrupt where it can be shown that the individual is insolvent (within the meaning of the Insolvency Act 1986). Bankruptcy Petitions can only be issued against individuals as Winding up Petitions are the appropriate insolvency remedy for limited companies. Is a Statutory Demand required? Before a Bankruptcy Petition can be issued, a Statutory Demand must be personally served and the 21 day response period must have expired without payment or any application to set-aside the Statutory Demand (i.e. in the event of dispute). There is no way to short-fuse this process and the Courts will require evidence that the Statutory Demand was correctly served and has expired before the Bankruptcy Petition was issued. What happens after a Debtor is declared Bankrupt? Once declared Bankrupt, a Trustee in Bankruptcy will be appointed over the Bankrupt s assets. The Trustee in Bankruptcy will either be the Official Receiver or a privately appointed Insolvency Practitioner and the Trustee s role is to collect in all of the Bankrupt s assets and to distribute any proceeds from those assets amongst all of the Bankrupt s creditors (by way of pence in the pound). Before issuing a Bankruptcy Petition, it can often be useful to obtain a wealth report on a debtor as this can show not only what assets the Trustee in Bankruptcy will be able to recover but also the level of other creditors to whom the debtor owes money. Note that it is with this general body of creditors that any proceeds of the Bankrupt s estate will have to be shared the greater the level of creditors, the less the likely return will be.

9 BANKRUPTCY PETITIONS THE PROCESS

10 WINDING UP PETITIONS What is a Winding up Petition? A Winding up Petition is a declaration to the Court that a limited company is insolvent and should therefore be wound up and placed into compulsory liquidation. The Petition is often made on the basis that a debt is outstanding and that the debtor company is unable to satisfy its debts as and when they fall due. The process is started by issuing a Winding up Petition at Court, which is then listed for a Hearing. The Court will then decide at the hearing whether or not to make a Winding up Order, having heard evidence from both parties. Is a Statutory Demand required before a Winding up Petition can be issued? There is no requirement for a Statutory Demand to be served upon a limited company before a Winding up Petition can be issued. It should be noted, however, that the Courts will likely penalise a party in respect of costs where it issues a Winding up Petition in respect of a genuinely disputed debt. It is therefore common practice to serve a Statutory Demand before issuing a Winding up Petition. Specialist advice should be sought upon this issue. What is the effect of a Winding up Order? Following the Court s decision to place a limited company into liquidation (i.e. to wind it up), a liquidator is appointed. The liquidator will either be the Official Receiver or a privately appointed Insolvency Practitioner who will invite each of the company's creditors to submit a proof of debt stating the amount that they are owed. The liquidator will then collect in and realise all of the company s assets, which will (after payment of certain charges) be distributed amongst the company s creditors, if any surplus money exists. Considerations before issuing a Winding up Petition Threat A Winding up Order is fatal for a limited company, which will then cease to trade. Therefore, where a debt is admitted and no grounds to withhold payment exist, the issuing of a Winding up Petition can be extremely effective in focusing a debtor s attention on paying a particular debt before any others that may also be outstanding. Possible Dispute? Where it is unknown as to whether a debt is disputed, it can be a risk to issue a Winding up Petition without first serving a Statutory Demand. As a non Court-issued document, a Statutory Demand is less formal, much easier to dispose of and has far less consequences in the event that a genuine dispute is raised, albeit the dispute not having been raised at any time in prior correspondence. Publicity A Winding up Petition is a publicly available document, which is often noticed by financial institutions and credit rating agencies. The mere issuing of a Winding up Petition, even in the event that the Petition is later withdrawn and no Winding up Order made, can have significant and damaging consequences for the receiving party. Careful consideration should therefore be given as

11 to whether all possibilities for resolution of a matter have been considered before a Winding up Petition is issued. The Petition should be an option of last resort. Lack of Control - Winding up is a class remedy. This means that, once a Winding up Petition has been issued, even if the Petition debt is then repaid in full, another creditor may take over conduct of the Petition, which may in turn cause the company to be wound up in any event (whether or not this was the actual intention of the original Petitioner). Furthermore, where a Petition debt is paid after a Winding up Petition is issued and another creditor then goes on to wind up the debtor company, the Petition debt is likely to have to be repaid to the liquidator for the benefit of the general body of creditors. Delayed Payment It should be borne in mind that, where a company goes into compulsory liquidation, there is likely to be a substantial delay before a dividend is paid to unsecured creditors. The Insolvency process is not a quick fix.

12 WINDING UP PETITIONS THE PROCESS

13 POINTS TO NOTE BEFORE COMMENCING ANY INSOLVENCY PROCEEDINGS Existence of a Dispute - Note that it is an abuse of process to issue a winding up Petition against a limited company, or issue a Bankruptcy Petition against an individual where it is known (or ought reasonably to be known) that a genuine dispute exists. In such situation, the Courts will likely penalise the wrongdoing party with a costs order to pay their opponent s costs in full. Backup Documentation The existence of supporting documentation will be hugely beneficial in establishing a clear entitlement to payment as Insolvency Proceedings do not usually permit parties to rely upon witness evidence. The more documentation there is to support a party s case, the more likely it is that the Court will accept that party s case to be sufficiently made out. Effect of Insolvency It is more common than not that, where a debtor is declared insolvent, only a small proportion of the monies owing to each creditor will be paid out, if anything at all. Any money or assets that a debtor has will, after the payment of certain costs in the insolvency, be proportionately distributed amongst the debtor s unsecured creditors as pence in the pound. SEEK SPECIALIST LEGAL ADVICE Howat Avraam Solicitors are Dispute Resolution specialists with a depth of experience advising and assisting individuals and companies recover monies rightfully due and would be pleased to discuss your situation on a no obligation basis. Contact Matthew Howat, Company and Dispute Resolution Partner, on or

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