Re Econ Corp Ltd (in provisional liquidation) (No 2)

JurisdictionSingapore
CourtHigh Court (Singapore)
JudgeV K Rajah JC
Judgment Date05 March 2004
Neutral Citation[2004] SGHC 49
Citation[2004] SGHC 49
Date05 March 2004
Subject MatterInsolvency Law,Provisional liquidator,Sections 268(2), 311 Companies Act (Cap 50, 1994 Rev Ed),Winding up,Principles and factors to be considered,Application by former provisional liquidators seeking court's determination of appropriate remuneration for work done
Docket NumberOriginating Summons No 1791 of 2003
Plaintiff CounselAnthony Lee and Gan Kam Yuin (Bih Li and Lee)
Published date25 March 2004
Defendant CounselAmeera Ashraf and Tan Yi Tyng (Wong Partnership)

5 March 2004 Judgment reserved.

V K Rajah JC:

1 This application deals with an important aspect of insolvency practice: How does an insolvency practitioner justify the remuneration he should receive for his services? This is definitely a matter of public interest, given that our insolvency practitioners play a significant role in lubricating the wheels of commerce. They are, in a number of insolvency situations, officers of the court, instrumental in ensuring that returns from failed commercial enterprises are maximised. Their fees could range from a few thousand dollars for routine work to perhaps millions of dollars in major corporate insolvencies. There is no question that they must be adequately remunerated. They have no charter, however, to charge excessive or unnecessary fees.

2 The law requires all liquidators in Singapore to have their remuneration “determined” by the High Court, if they cannot reach an agreement with their creditors. However by dint of legislative caprice, the Companies Act (Cap 50, 1994 Rev Ed) (“the Act”) appears to allow judicial managers to fix their remuneration outside the supervisory jurisdiction of the court.

3 How does the court assess whether a liquidator’s fees are excessive or have been fairly and justly earned? Our statutes, apart from merely requiring court approval of such fees, do not afford any guidelines. Unlike other jurisdictions, Singapore case law has not imposed any criteria or yardstick by which these amounts are to be assessed. Insolvency practitioners now usually value and assess their efforts on a time-costing basis, often without due regard to critical factors such as complexity, speed, actual effort and value added. This practice has crystallised into the norm over the years despite:

1. the effluxion of time which has radically changed the nature of their working practice(s); and

2. the ever-widening spectrum of cases they handle which range from the very simple to the highly complex.

4 Lamentably, the relevant local supervisory bodies have not attempted to regulate this aspect of practice unlike their counterparts in several other common law jurisdictions. The absence of discernible criteria has inevitably led to a widely-held perception in commercial circles that the fees of insolvency practitioners are sometimes arbitrarily fixed and are not commensurate with either the efforts rendered or value contributed.

5 Should this current trend persist and be allowed to continue? This application squarely raises this all-important question. I observed half in jest, during the hearing, that the interim judicial managers (“IJMs”) who were contesting the quantum claimed were unsheathing a double-edged sword. Admittedly, my views may not have any immediate relevance to them given the present context of liquidation and the different statutory scheme for remuneration in judicial management; but it is obvious that the principles to be applied ought to be the same.

6 Interestingly, the court in Hong Kong only addressed this issue for the very first time in 1998. This arose as a consequence of the infamous Peregrine saga where the court was asked to approve fees and disbursements for work done over a period of nine weeks that purportedly amounted to the mind-boggling sum of HK$76m. It should come as no surprise that this provoked a massive public outcry. While nothing of this magnitude has arisen in the local context, the present position in Singapore, bereft as it is of clearly defined guidelines, is far from satisfactory. In the circumstances, it is not only appropriate but imperative that clearly articulated criteria and parameters be firmly established so that the court, committees of inspection, creditor committees and all interested creditors can properly assess whether insolvency practitioners in Singapore are justly and reasonably remunerated.

The application

7 This is an application by the former provisional liquidators (“the applicants”) of Econ Corporation Limited (“the company”). They request, pursuant to ss 268(2) and 311 of the Act, that the court determine their remuneration for the period of their appointment from 26 November 2003 to 10 December 2003. The application seeks that the remuneration of the applicants be fixed on an indemnity basis and that the assessed amount be paid out of the assets of the company as a priority debt.

8 The application is opposed by IJMs of the company who were appointed on 6 January 2004. The parties first appeared before me on 21 January 2004. The applicants had applied for an adjournment to file an affidavit in response to the IJMs’ affidavit which had just been served on them. I acceded to this request and directed that the parties ascertain the legal position on the issue of remuneration in certain common law jurisdictions that I singled out, given my knowledge of specific developments in these jurisdictions.

Background facts

9 The company is the second largest local construction company. Its total liabilities exceed its assets by around $88m. On 26 November 2003, the directors resolved to place the company under a creditors’ voluntary winding up and appointed the applicants as provisional liquidators. This happened after the court declined on 24 November 2003 to sanction a scheme of arrangement proposed by the company: see Re Econ Corp Ltd [2004] 1 SLR 273. The applicants had been the company’s proposed scheme administrators in that unsuccessful application. The company’s creditors had apparently not been consulted about the applicants’ subsequent nomination as provisional liquidators. Some of the creditors were dissatisfied with the appointment of the applicants and sought to displace the applicants as provisional liquidators and place the company under judicial management instead. On 6 January 2004 an order was made for the appointment of the IJMs, thereby displacing the applicants. The applicants handed over the company’s assets and documents to the IJMs but not before they had set aside the sum of $564,000 in order to meet their fees and disbursements.

10 The applicants’ initial affidavit in support of this application was rather bare in its details. They seemed to assume that the court’s sanction of their remuneration would be a mere formality – as it had been from time to time in the past. They cursorily adverted to their former appointment and appended various resolutions and forms to substantiate that they had been validly appointed. The only reference to the actual work done, is a sentence in the affidavit referring to a “copy of a summary of work done” by the applicants for the period from 26 November 2003 to 10 December 2003. This is a nine-page document which begins with a summary of their time costs for the relevant period:

Numbers of Staff

Total no of hours Spent

Charge Out Rate

Total Costs S$

Directors

4

87

S$1,000 per hour

87,000.00

Managers

3

256

S$400 per hour

102,400.00

Assistant Manager

1

121

S$210 per hour

25,410.00

Senior Associate

1

121

S$130 per hour

15,730.00

Associate

1

121

S$110 per hour

13,310.00

Graduate Assistants

2

242

S$80 per hour

19,360.00

Administration Staff

2

11

S$45 per hour

495.00

Total

12

959

263,705.00

11 The remaining pages consist of abbreviated references to the various areas of work carried out by them including administrative matters, bank matters, employee matters, project matters, assets, legal matters, debtors and creditors. This first affidavit, before we even embark on an evaluation of applicable criteria, is plainly unsatisfactory. There is clearly neither sufficient nor concrete data for the court to evaluate the actual amount of work done by the applicants, let alone the complexities involved or the value the applicants brought to the matter.

12 Not unexpectedly, the IJMs took serious exception to this affidavit. In their response affidavit they expressed incredulity that in 11 days of provisional liquidation the applicants and their supporting team had spent 959 hours of their time on matters purportedly relating to the provisional liquidation. Using simple mathematics, this would translate to each member of the 12-member staff team spending a total of 7.3 hours per day on the provisional liquidation, an assertion they found “extraordinary”.

13 They took issue with the summary of work, bluntly asserting that the applicants had failed to “provide a detailed breakdown of the time taken for each type of work done, and a description of the staff involved in the particular items of work”. Mr Timothy Reid, one of the IJMs, deposed that he had written to the applicants on 16 January 2004 requesting “all documentation in your custody, possession or power pertaining to the affairs of the Company that have been obtained or generated by you during your tenure as Provisional Liquidators”, in order to assess the reasonableness of the costs associated with the work done. He had also written to the applicants on 19 January 2004 requesting for a detailed breakdown of the summary of work identifying the following:

(i) the persons or the grades of the persons who were involved in doing work;

(ii) the dates on which work was done;

(iii) what work was actually done on the relevant date;

(iv) the time taken for the work; and

(v) the remuneration claimed for each type of work.

14 Without the benefit of details of the summary of work as requested, the IJMs vigorously assert that the extent of remuneration sought is “excessive”. They are also of the view that certain items of work included in the applicants’ summary of works are ex facie outside the scope of the applicants’ duty to preserve the status quo pending the creditors’ input. The IJMs contend that unless full disclosure of the information that they have sought is made, the applicants ought to be denied the sum of $263,705.00.

15 The applicants, in their reply affidavit, filed on 24 January 2004, display their pique over...

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