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COVID-19 –What Debt will Scuttle Passage to the New Safe Harbours?

By Ellen Ferris, a Solicitor in Matthews Folbigg’s Insolvency, Restructuring and Debt Recovery Group.

Amendments in March of this year have brought about changes to the Corporations Act 2001 which allow for an additional temporary safe harbour to protect directors from insolvent trading, –  see our blog here.

However, companies do not automatically qualify for the protection. To qualify, the debt must be incurred as follows:

  • In the ordinary course of the company’s business;
  • During the six month period starting from the date the new law commenced (being 24 March 2020); and
  • Before any appointment of an administrator or liquidator.

The evidentiary burden of proof is on the person seeking to rely on the safe harbour relief, which means that it will be up to directors to make sure they obtain and keep evidence that their debt meets the criteria.

According to the explanatory memorandum in respect of the amending legislation, a director will be taken to have incurred a debt in the ordinary course of business if the debt “is necessary to facilitate the continuation of the business during the six month period that begins on commencement of the subparagraph”. This is narrower than the criteria for the existing safe harbour provisions, which focus on debts incurred in the pursuit of a course of action likely to lead to a better outcome for the company than liquidation. The Explanatory Memorandum gives the following examples for debts incurred in the ordinary course of business:
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Insolvent Trading Advice for Clients Affected by COVID-19

By Ellen Ferris, a Solicitor in Matthews Folbigg’s Insolvency, Restructuring and Debt Recovery Group

In the current climate, many accountants may have clients experiencing financial distress, including directors seeking advice on how to avoid personal liability for trading whilst insolvent.

What advice should accountants be giving their clients in this environment? What advice do directors need to hear?

Insolvent Trading – The Danger

Firstly, it is important to understand how the law defines insolvent trading. The law defines insolvency as an inability to meet debts as and when they are due and payable. Insolvent trading, in simple terms, relates to debts incurred whilst a company is insolvent.

Secondly, however, determining insolvency at any point in time is a very complex assessment.  It does not include a temporary shortage of liquidity, but looks at the company’s assets as a whole and its cash-flow.  In the current COVID-19 climate, many businesses will be experiencing temporary liquidity problems, however the questions is whether these are going to lead to longer term shortages of capital.  Given what is going on in the world, who knows?
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Employer and Director Heavily Fined

The Federal Circuit Court has relied upon the recently-introduced “protecting vulnerable workers” legislation to impose a heavy penalty on a company and its director who underpaid an apprentice employee and failed to keep time and wages records.

The new “protecting vulnerable workers” legislation:

  • increased penalties by up to 10 times for serious contraventions
  • strengthened the Fair Work Ombudsman’s evidence gathering powers
  • reversed the evidentiary onus in underpayment claims where employers fail to make and keep time and wages records

In FWO v Pulis Plumbing Pty Ltd & Anor:

  • the employer underpaid an apprentice employee by almost $27,000
  • the employer was unable to explain why it underpaid the apprentice or why it failed to keep time and wages records for the apprentice’s hours of work
  • in the absence of such records the Federal Circuit Court relied upon detailed records kept by the apprentice of his working hours
  • the company’s contained refusal to pay the apprentices wages was stated to be ‘nothing short of avarice’
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