Amending insolvency legislation in response to the COVID-19 crisis

By Gert-Jan Boon, Leiden University (The Netherlands)

Gert-Jan Boon

The COVID-19 (corona) virus has reached pandemic status. It currently spreads over the world and is expected to infect a majority of all people within the next month(s), according to health experts. The medical urgency justifies the current extraordinary measures taken by many governments globally, measures that, at the same time, also have devastating effects on businesses and entrepreneurs as sectors slow down or are effectively closed down.

Weathering the storm: a European perspective

In Europe and beyond, strong appeals have been made to prevent bankruptcies caused by the COVID-19 crisis. The exogenous economic shock hits both financially reasonably healthy companies, which depend on a smooth inflow of liquidity, and companies with fundamentally solid business models. Many companies with a viable business model at start of 2020 would now be forced to file and possibly suffer a piecemeal liquidation in the resulting insolvency proceedings. Under the current, distressed market conditions there is a significant risk of sales at an under value.

Not surprisingly, many governments and institutions have announced economic measures to prevent an outbreak of businesses entering into liquidation proceedings. This includes the US Government with the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act. Similarly, measures to strengthen economies have been taken by many European countries and institutions such as the World Bank, IMF and ECB.

At a European Union level, the European Commission published several communications dealing with the economic consequences of the COVID-19 crisis. In the first Communication on a coordinated economic approach the Commission announced several liquidity measures and described which complementing measures EU Member States may take that fall outside the scope of EU state aid rules. In the second Communication, the Commission announced a Temporary Framework for State Aid setting out and broadening the scope of state aid measures that fall within current EU state aid rules. Also, the Commission expressed its commitment for ‘using every available euro in every way possible to protect lives and livelihoods’. Furthermore, a bank package has been adopted to facilitate bank lending to businesses.

Prevent unnecessary bankruptcies

The extraordinary economic situation raised by the COVID-19 outbreak requires legislators to undertake extraordinary measures. This extends also to insolvency legislation in order to prevent unnecessary bankruptcies. Insolvency legislation which is effective under normal market conditions may prove insufficient or ineffective in the current situation. Measures in these times should be effective without too many formalities, especially when courts and public authorities may not be fully available due to lockdown measures.

The Executive of the Conference on European Restructuring and Insolvency Law (CERIL) — an independent non-profit organisation of European lawyers and other restructuring and insolvency practitioners, law professors and (insolvency) judges — also considers that existing insolvency legislation in Europe may not provide adequate responses to the situation in which many businesses currently find themselves. In a statement published in March 2020, the Executive calls upon EU and European national legislators to take immediate action to adapt insolvency legislation to prevent unnecessary corona bankruptcies. Although prepared for the European context, these recommendations may also be an inspiration for legislators in other parts of the world.

Adapting insolvency legislation

CERIL suggests that two steps should be taken immediately by European national legislators. First, the duty to file for insolvency proceedings based on over-indebtedness should be suspended. Such duties exist in several EU Member States, for instance Austria, Germany, Greece, Italy, Latvia, Poland and Spain. The current economic uncertainty hampers the effectiveness of this duty which is aimed at selecting non-viable businesses. In recent days, some countries have suspended (Germany) or extended (Austria) this duty. Second, in response to a (partial) shutdown of businesses for a number of weeks or months, urgent measures are required addressing the illiquidity of businesses.

In addition, the CERIL statement recommends that EU and national legislators consider further measures. In urgently adapting insolvency legislation, they should include measures to make available interim (crisis) finance, suspend the duty to file based on inability to pay, provide for ‘hibernation’ (going into winter sleep) of (small) businesses by means of a general moratorium or deferral of payments, and provide support for the livelihood of entrepreneurs and their employees.

The CERIL Executive Statement on COVID-19 and insolvency legislation is available here.

This is an amended version of the blog that appeared before on the Oxford Business Law Blog.

* Gert-Jan Boon is Researcher and Lecturer in insolvency law at Leiden University.

Bankruptcy Tourism and the European Union’s Corporate Restructuring Quandary: The Cathedral in Another Light

By Samir D. Parikh (Lewis & Clark Law School)

Samir D. Parikh

For the last decade, the European Union has been reconceptualizing its corporate restructuring framework with the hope of bolstering capital markets and improving cross-border lending. Unfortunately, the system remains plagued by two intractable problems: divergent substantive law at the Member State level and jurists unaccustomed to guiding reorganization cases. The result is a system beset by uncertainty and disparate treatment. The EU is intent on addressing these problems, but progress has been elusive. The EU must work through recommendations and directives to encourage Member States to align substantive restructuring law with policy design. But Member States have been unresponsive to the EU’s recent efforts. The prospect of addressing these intractable problems in the foreseeable future is grim. Therefore, this Article breaks with current scholarship and urges the EU to adopt a radical alternative. The EU should consider making legal and structural changes that will facilitate bankruptcy tourism. I argue that affording corporations increased discretion as to the location of restructuring cases will aid in creating judicial hubs of optimal law and experienced jurists. The EU has the power to adopt my recommendations by simply modifying its own law and procedure, which should accelerate implementation timelines.

Ultimately, economists foresee an impending financial correction. The EU’s restructuring framework is unprepared to offer predictable and comprehensive reorganization outcomes for the next wave of distressed corporations. This Article proposes a novel vantage point from which to assess policy alignment.

For previous Roundtable posts on for bankruptcy tourism, see Wolf-Georg Ringe, “Bankruptcy Forum Shopping in Europe.”

The full article is available here. Forthcoming in the University of Pennsylvania Journal of International Law.

The Impact of Brexit on Debt Restructuring and Insolvency Practice

By Manuel Penades and Michael Schillig (King’s College London – The Dickson Poon School of Law).

With its flexible restructuring framework and experienced courts, England has become the foremost restructuring destination in Europe. A restructuring typically combines a scheme of arrangement with a pre-pack administration. Under the former, lenders exchange their debt for equity or new debt in a new corporate holding structure; the latter facilitates the transfer of the business to this new holding structure. The effectiveness of these restructuring measures in all EU Member States is currently guaranteed by the combined effect of the European Insolvency Regulation (EIR), the Judgments Regulation (Brussels Ibis), and the Regulation on the law applicable to contractual obligations (Rome I).

This regime currently ensures the availability of English-law pre-pack administration and other insolvency procedures to many EU debtors. The EIR ties exclusive jurisdiction and applicable insolvency law to the debtor’s Centre of Main Interests (COMI). Insolvency measures issued by the opening court are automatically recognised and enforced throughout the EU. Subject to a COMI transfer to England, any debtor can benefit from English insolvency and restructuring mechanisms (including pre-pack administration) and their automatic EU-wide effect.

Post-Brexit, the EIR will cease to apply in the UK and insolvencies opened therein will lose their automatic EU effect. English domestic law alone will be insufficient to achieve this result. Only a new international instrument, probably in the form of a convention, could maintain the effectiveness of the current practice.

By contrast, schemes of arrangement are not covered by the EIR and their enforceability across the EU is currently ensured by Brussels Ibis and/or Rome I. The UK will be able to retain the Rome I regime through a unilateral instrument, but not the Brussels Ibis, which requires reciprocity, like the EIR.

Given that schemes and insolvency procedures are usually combined, absent new international instruments, Brexit is likely to result in significant uncertainty and disruption for European restructuring practice.

The article is available here.