Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code of India has been the subject of interpretation at various judicial forums from Adjudicating Authority to Appellate Tribunal to Apex Court of India. Last amendment in 2018 brought in home buyers as financial creditors but many questions remained unanswered as most of the homebuyers did not participate in the voting process. New issues relating to distribution to operational creditors in a resolution plan cropped up with the judgment of Appellate Tribunal in Essar Steel in July 2019, which is now under a stay by the Apex Court.
The IBC Amendment Bill 2019, introduced in Rajya Sabha on 24 July, 2019 was passed by Rajya Sabha on 29thJuly and by Lok Sabha on 1stAugust, 2019. It is awaiting President’s assent and the Central Government’s notification.
Here is the analysis of the 2019 amendments in IBC:
Ascertaining existence of default in 14 days by NCLT
A provision exists in the Code which mandates the Adjudicating Authority (NCLT for Corporate Insolvency) to ascertain the existence of default within 14 days of the receipt of the application from a financial creditor for initiating corporate insolvency resolution process. The use of the word `shall’ in the mandate cannot be overemphasized. However, this wasn’t being put to practice. The reasons could be either too much workload at hand (the application filed is not listed so soon before NCLT after filing) and the Courts reading principle of natural justice in this provision by issuing notice of the application filed to the corporate debtors. Naturally, the process of filing reply and rejoinders took longer than required 14 days.
The amendment now requires the NCLT to record reasons if the ascertainment of existence of default is not done within 14 days of filing of application. Under the existing provision, it is incumbent upon the NCLT to dispose of the application within 14 days of the receipt of application and not only ascertain the existence of default. It is important to refer to section 64 of the Code which provides for expeditious disposal of the applications by NCLT. It also provides that NCLT should record reasons if the application is not disposed of within the prescribed time frame and that an extension should be sought from the President of NCLT by the Adjudicating Authority giving reasons of delay and the President is empowered to extend it for maximum of 10 days on the basis of reasons recorded. Looking through this prism, the existing provision intended to achieve the same objective that is now sought to be achieved. From a practical perspective, section 64 was rendered nugatory by the judgment of Appellate Tribunal in J.K.Jute Mills Company Limited vs Surendra Trading Company, 1stMay, 2017, wherein by a stroke of pen, the Appellate Tribunal held that the period of 14 days within which NCLT is mandated to admit or eject the application is directory and not mandatory. Unfortunately, this part of judgment wasn’t touched by the Apex Court in an appeal before it.
Being already covered by this judgment of Appellate Tribunal, the proposed amendment is a non-starter from the word go. If not, judiciary will find a way through this. It is flummoxing why a similar amendment has not been brought in section 9 and 10 which also mandate the NCLT to pass an order within 14 days of receipt of application.
Fixing the outer time-limit for completion of Corporate Insolvency Resolution Process
The Code boldly announced that corporate insolvency resolution process shall be completed within 180 days with an extension of maximum of 90 days; in all 270 days. The experience says as on 30thJune, 2019, 445 insolvency processes are going on beyond 270 days out of the total pendency of 1292; a whopping 34%. Time period of 270 days does not look to be practical due to cases going back and forth to Appellate Tribunal and to Supreme Court.
The amendment now provides that whatever may be the reason of delay including the period consumed in litigation or stay, the overall time period for a corporate insolvency resolution process cannot exceed 330 days under any circumstance. The use of the phrase “shall mandatorily be completed”reflects the urgency and dictate of the Parliament. While granting outer limit of 330 days, the provision has been couched in a language which covers extension and exclusion of period for any reason curtailing the power of the Adjudicating Authority granted to it under the judgment of Appellate Tribunal in Quinn Logistics India P. Ltd. v. Mack Soft Tech Pvt. Ltd.whereby the Adjudicating Authority could exclude certain period from the 270 days for good grounds and unforeseen circumstances.
There have been spurt in exclusion applications after this judgment and in few cases, the Adjudicating Authority has allowed exclusion of 270 days on the ground of non-cooperation by the personnel of the corporate debtor! The amendment wishes to rein this in but again judiciary may have the last laugh. The big question that arises is whether Quinn Logisticssurvives after this amendment? The amendment nullifies the judicial decision for now, but it remains to be seen – how long.
In cases where 300 days have already gone by, the amendment provides that they must be completed within 90 days from the date of commencement of the Amendment.
Allottees’ (Homebuyers) Majority Decision Makes Their Voting Share Absolute
The allottees were considered as a ‘class of creditors’ and attained the status of financial creditors by an amendment in 2018 to be represented by an Authorised Representative in a Committee of Creditors (CoC), who used to vote in the CoC on their behalf as per the voting pattern by each allottee. Their voting share were counted on the basis of the debt due to each of them. Experientially, all the allottees never voted and they always fell short of their aggregate voting share. For example, in a CoC, if the voting share of 560 allottees was 66% and assuming only allottees holding 56% voting share voted, the decision was left at the mercy of other financial creditors in the CoC. The amendment takes care of this anomaly and it provides that once the allottees in a class of creditors take a decision by more than 51% vote (correct phrase would have been fifty one percent or more), the Authorised Representative shall cast the vote as if 100% of them have approved it. Here, more than fifty one percent is calculated on the basis of the votes cast and not total votes. Let us understand by way of an illustration:
|Voting Share of aggregate of allottees in CoC||66%|
|Voting Percentage of votes cast in favour of an item by allottees||56%|
|Voting Percentage of votes cast against the item by allottees||10%|
|Voting Percentage of abstention of allottees||34%|
|Overall Voting Share of allottees for the purposes of voting in CoC (prior to amendment)||36.96 (56% of 66%)|
|Overall Voting Share of allottees for the purposes of voting in CoC (after amendment)||66%|
This is beneficial for the allottees as law now assumes that 100% of the allottees have decided in one way or the other if decision is represented by more than 51% of the votes cast. This makes their voting share in CoC absolute even though the actual voting share may be lesser. Authorised Representative shall, henceforth, vote as a group of ‘class of creditors’ and not as per wish of each allottee.
Anticipated Problem Due to Erroneous Drafting in 2019 Amendment
The problem, however, does not end here. The erroneous drafting is bound to make things complex. Assuming, the votes cast to arrive at a decision do not attain the benchmark of ‘more than fifty one percent’ (Votes cast in favour – 50.80% and against – 49.20%). It is not clear how the Authorised Representative will vote in such a situation. Instead of the phrase, ‘more than fifty one percent’, the use of ‘by majority’would have been appropriate and practical.
Protecting Interest of Operational Creditors and Dissenting Financial Creditors in a Resolution Plan
In order to further protect the interest of the operational creditors, amendment has been made in section 30. Now it is mandatory for a resolution plan to provide for minimum payment to operational creditors, which should be higher of amount that would have been paid to operational creditors under liquidation in accordance with section 53 or amount that would have been paid to operational creditors if the amount under the resolution plan would have been distributed as per order of priority stated in section 53 of the Code. Prior to amendment, it was restricted to the amount that would have been paid to the operational creditors under liquidation.
The change now enhances their chances of being considered for payment on a higher footing. Under liquidation, the amount would have restricted to ‘liquidation value’ but now the order of priority for operational creditors would be considered higher of ‘liquidation value’ and ‘amount under resolution plan’.
The dissenting financial creditors are also allowed to be paid the amount not less than the amount payable in accordance with order of priority in section 53 of the Code. The manner of such payment has been left to be specified by the Board. Consequent amendment has been made in regulation making power of the Board in section 240.
Interestingly, this provision will operate retrospectively for all cases where the approval of Adjudicating Authority to a resolution plan is pending, or appeal is pending or time for filing appeal has not lapsed, or where any other legal proceeding is pending against the decision of the Adjudicating Authority in respect of a resolution plan. Retrospective application of these provisions would make the process slow, complicated and may result in unintended consequences. Let us take a case where the application for approval of resolution plan is pending under section 30/31, the resolution plan, which is not in accordance with the amended provisions, will have to be re-drawn and re-approved by the committee of creditors. If the corporate insolvency resolution period is already over (original period allowed plus extension of 90 days plus exclusion), embargo of 330 days in section 12 will apply and it would make it legally impossible to grant more time eventually leading to liquidation of such a corporate debtor.
To overcome recent Essar Steel judgment of the Appellate Tribunal which paved way for parity of payment to operational creditors, the amendment now provides that the manner of distribution proposed must take into account the order of priority amongst creditors as laid down in Section 53 and the value of security interest of a secured creditor. The mandatory consideration of ‘value of the security interest of a secured creditor’ seems ambiguous and unnecessary. Section 53 disregards the value of security interest of a secured creditor, which means if the secured creditor relinquishes the security interest, the amount available is distributed proportionately amongst secured creditors regardless of the value of the security interest and ranking of their charge. This amendment is prospective and will not apply retrospectively to plans approved but pending for approval of adjudicating authority or pending in appeal or other legal proceeding.
Resolution Plan Binding on Government and Government Authorities
An amendment has been made in section 31 providing that the resolution plan once approved shall also be binding of Central Government, State Government, local authority in respect of statutory dues owed to them. This amendment is clarificatory in nature as there was not any doubt in this regard but in some cases, the statutory authorities such as Income Tax etc interpreted it otherwise. By specifically including them here, the amendment paves the way for resolution plan being binding on Government and government authorities.
Decision to Liquidate Can Be Taken at Any Stage
The unamended provision gave ample powers to the committee of creditors to take the decision to liquidate at any stage of corporate insolvency resolution process. But some benches of NCLT ruled otherwise and in few cases passed strictures against committee of creditors if they decided to liquidate at early stages of corporate insolvency resolution process. Fortifying the intent of the Code that commercial decision to resolve or liquidate fall within the exclusive domain of the committee of creditors, the amendment now seeks to clarify that the committee of creditors is free to take decision to liquidate at any stage even before the preparation of information memorandum. This amendment would reduce the financial burden on the members of the committee of creditors as they will not be required to shell out CIRP costs and costs relating to keeping the corporate debtor as a going concern when they foresee no viability in the business of the corporate debtor. The amendment strengthens the decision-making power of the committee of creditors. However, this may not take away the power of Adjudicating Authority or Appellant Tribunal or the Supreme Court to examine whether such a decision has been taken fraudulently.