Before the High Court For Whom the Bell Tolls: Directors' Duties to Creditors after Bell

Lawbook Co.
Publication Type:
Journal Article
Sydney Law Review, 2013, 35 (2), pp. 433 - 450
Issue Date:
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It is now established, following High Court dicta in Walker v Wimborne and Spies, that directors owe a duty to consider creditors interests upon corporate insolvency, and that such a duty is one of imperfect obligation that is incapable of direct enforcement by the creditors. Notwithstanding such orthodox authority, the precise nature and scope of directors duties to creditors upon corporate insolvency remains a vexed issue that continues to plague the judiciary as a consequence of the absence of any detailed consideration of such issues by the High Court. The recent appellate court decision in the Bell Group case exemplifies the legal uncertainties on this topic, which arose upon the directors exploration of corporate rescue plans in the context of looming insolvency. In particular, it is now unclear whether directors must go beyond consideration of creditors interests and ensure that creditors are protected in conformity with the pari passu principle. The extent to which the judiciary can intervene to adjudicate on the directors beliefs and business judgments is also clouded by uncertainty. The High Court of Australia will consider such issues in an upcoming appeal. This note discusses the context of the decision and argues that the directors duties to consider creditor interests, while beneficial, should not be elevated to ensure pari passu treatment when directors make commercial decisions to save the company. To hold directors to be in breach of fiduciary duties in such circumstances, when they have acted in good faith, runs the risk of hindering corporate rescue opportunities, as well as undermining the business judgment of directors. Further, the goal of creditor protection can be achieved by existing legal rules and does not require the elevation of the duty from one of consideration to one of protection.
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