Minimal Mercy for Miscreant Marauders: Delinquency Orders for Directors and the Effects in terms of the Companies Act

Minimal Mercy for Miscreant Marauders: Delinquency Orders for Directors and the Effects in terms of the Companies Act

One of the most significant innovations of the Companies Act No. 71 of 2008 (“Companies Act“) includes an order declaring a director a delinquent in terms of section 162 of the Companies Act. This powerful protective remedy “ensure[s] that those who invest in companies are protected against directors who engage in serious misconduct of the type that violates the ‘bond of trust’ that shareholders have with the people they appoint as directors” (Gihwala and Others v Grancy Property Limited and Others, 2017).

Recent articles on our blog discuss director duties as set out in the common law and section 76 of the Companies Act. What this should make you recognise is that this represents the one side of the coin, being the duties that are owed to the company and its true stakeholders. On the other side of the coin, however, are the consequences of such actions. One is a declaration of delinquency or probation in terms of section 162.

The object of this section clearly establishes such an order as a protective remedy in the public interest. The remedy provides an applicant with protection from a director that proves unable to manage the business of a company or has failed or neglected their duties and obligations owed to a company. In other words, the remedy not only protects the applicant but serves to protect other companies from the delinquent director’s conduct as well.

This remedy takes the form of a court application for an order declaring a director a delinquent, the result being a prohibition on being a director for any company for seven years, or even indefinitely in serious cases, being placed on a register of delinquent directors and, as an “automatic inherent effect of such a declaration” (Kukama v Lobelo, 2012), a director found guilty of such conduct shall automatically be removed from any current board seat held.

What is interesting to note is that this amounts to an indirect manner for the removal of a director from a company and it does not matter what the subjective motive of the applicant is; if there is objective merit for delinquency this may be a viable way to remove a director, even if the sole motive of the applicant is to have the director removed by a court (Msimang NO and Another v Katuliiba and Others, 2013).

Following from the above, it is, of course, important to recognise who can bring an application for delinquency. Quite a wide net is cast in this regard, which may include the company itself, a director, shareholder, company secretary or a prescribed officer of a company. The right to initiate such an application goes even further and includes a registered trade union that represents the employees of the company or another employee representative, the Companies and Intellectual Property Commission, the Takeover Regulation Panel and, to a limited extent, an organ of state responsible for the administration of any legislation.

There is a distinction in the application of Section 162 as it relates to an order of delinquency and an order for probation. Whereas an order for probation requires a court to apply its discretion, an order of delinquency does not require such discretion, meaning that, for purposes of an order of delinquency, a court must declare a director delinquent if one of the following grounds are established as provided in the Companies Act, this being considered by the courts as a substantive abuse of power (in terms of sections 162(5)(a),(b),(d),(e) and (f)):

  • consenting to serve as a director, or acting in the capacity of a director or prescribed officer, while ineligible or disqualified in terms of the Companies Act;
  • while under an order of probation, acting as a director in a manner that contravened that order;
  • repeatedly being subject to a compliance notice or similar enforcement mechanism;
  • being convicted twice personally of an offence or being subject to an administrative fine or penalty in terms of any legislation; or
  • within a period of 5 years, being a director of one or more companies or being a managing member of one or more close corporations, or controlling or participating in the control of a juristic person (irrespective of whether concurrently, sequentially or at unrelated times) that was convicted of an offence or subjected to an administrative fine or similar penalty in terms of any legislation.

The Companies Act, furthermore, provides for more substantive abuses under section 162(5)(c) of the Companies Act, the confirmation of which will result in an order for delinquency as well and includes:

  • gross abuse of the position, while acting as a director;
  • taking personal advantage of information or an opportunity, or intentionally or by gross negligence inflicting harm on the company or a subsidiary of the company, contrary to section 76(2)(a) of the Companies Act; or
  • acting in a manner that amounts to gross negligence, wilful misconduct or breach of trust or in a manner contemplated in sections 77(3)(a), (b) or (c) of the Companies Act (unauthorised acts, reckless trading or fraud).

Of interest is the repetition of sections 76 and 77 of the Companies Act in the above-mentioned grounds, which refers to the fiduciary duties of directors and their personal liability. What this means is that, in addition to personal liability, it is possible for a director to also be declared delinquent. This remedy takes the common law duties of directors, which have been codified in section 76 of the Companies Act, and gives them teeth – quite significant teeth.

Regarding the grounds recorded in section 162(5)(c), case law has provided a significant amount of guidance and it is clear that the common law principles codified in sections 76 and 77 of the Companies Act continue to steer the courts’ approach, these being regarded as substantive abuses of office, leading to a lack of genuine concern for the prosperity of a company (Grancy Property Limited v Gihwala, 2014).

Regarding gross abuse of the position of director (see section 162(5)(c)(i) of the Companies Act), a court will have to use its discretion as to whether a gross abuse is present, this term not being defined in the Companies Act. However, an abuse must relate to the use of the position as director and not relate to the performance of the director. An example of such an abuse would include the usurping of confidential information or a corporate opportunity meant for the company and using this for the director’s personal advantage, whether for another company or personally (Demetriades and Another v Tollie and Others, 2015), this amounting to a breach of a director’s fiduciary duties, irrespective of whether the actions undertaken by the director have caused harm to the company or not. This seems to overlap closely with the common law corporate opportunity rule (which has been codified to a certain extent in section 76 of the Companies Act) and which dictates that any contract, opportunity or information that arises for a company, irrespective of whether it could be taken up or used by a company or not, belongs to the company and a director is prohibited from usurping the aforementioned for him or herself.

Taking personal advantage of information or an opportunity meant for a company (see section 162(5)(c)(ii) of the Companies Act) is a ground similar to the above-mentioned ground of abuse, however, it is narrower in that it applies only if a director usurped information or an opportunity meant for a company, for the personal advantage of the director as a natural person. To date, courts have found this ground to be present for two dominant types of conduct, one being the appropriation of a business opportunity that should have accrued to the company and secondly, insider trading.

The grounds established in terms of sections 162(5)(c)(ii) and (iv) of the Companies Act, being the infliction of harm intentionally or by gross negligence and/or breaching trust, whether directly or indirectly places an element of discretion on the court. In effect, conduct aimed at harming a company or recklessness while aware of the harm that certain conduct may cause, will be used by the court to navigate the relevant questions in this regard. Actions which could result in the presence of these grounds could include the conducting of a business by a director in competition with a company that he or she is also a director of, the misappropriation of company funds, the failure to keep proper accounting records and possibly the appropriation of financial benefits for certain directors to the exclusion of shareholders. What is important to note is that the court will take into consideration holistically the actions undertaken by a director and will have to establish whether or not such action amounts to wilful misconduct or gross negligence, thereby intimating of course that a bona fide mistake or error will not automatically result in an order for delinquency. What is required is more, namely gross negligence, wilful misconduct or a breach of trust.

Further common law rules that may influence the above-mentioned grounds (in addition to the corporate opportunity rule) may include the common law no-conflict rule and no-profit rule. In terms of the no-conflict and no-profit rule, which to an extent overlaps, a director owes a company a fiduciary duty not to place themselves in a position in which there may be a conflict between their personal interests and the interests of a company. Furthermore, profits made by a director acting in that capacity are for the company and cannot be retained by him or her, resulting in those profits having to be disgorged. It is important to note in such circumstances that ‘profit’ is not only limited to money but could be any advantage or gain experienced by a director and, furthermore, it is irrelevant whether a company could have secured the particular profit for itself.

This discussion should clarify that a director acts as an extension of a company and therefore has more strict obligations placed upon his or her shoulders when compared to an agent, for example. It goes further in that a core misuse of this position for his or her own benefit or a serious conflict can be responded to with severe consequences. Many individuals think that they can use a company and play the victim card thereby side-stepping personal liability, in legal terms, hiding behind the corporate veil. However, you can note from the above that the Companies Act does indeed have some teeth and, depending on the veracity of the grounds, a court will not and, to a certain extent, cannot hesitate when relevant grounds for delinquency are proven and if they do, may a Judge have mercy on your miscreant soul.

Gimme hype, Jo-anna!

Gimme hype, Jo-anna!

*Disclaimer – of course, a legal document needs to start with a disclaimer: our firm has a Slack channel called the #unlawyerzone, where we post adventures that team members get up to that are slightly less serious. This blog post comes from the hidden ether of our #unlawyerzone and should be read in that context. Also, I couldn’t resist butchering the title of that most famous and brilliant song (with apologies to Eddy Grant) to sugar up this rant.

I’ve been working as a commercial attorney for about 10 years and something that we inevitably see a lot of is how most of the business world seems to go into crazy mode whenever a new hyped idea comes along.

Any honest lawyer will admit that hype in the business world is to lawyers’ what blood is to sharks (with apologies to sharks). Hype does create work for us, but like that hairstyle you were so proud of in varsity: you may just be investing time and money in something that will be redundant (at best) and scary (at worst) a couple of years down the line.

Remember when the new Companies Act came into effect and you just had to adopt a new MOI for your company by midnight or the world would go up in flames? It was long before I joined our firm, but I’m glad to see that my partner Adrian Dommisse put things into perspective for our clients at the time with a slightly less Armageddonesque view on the situation.

Our firm has always been hesitant on hyped subjects (without being stuck in the past), but we’ve found that even if you don’t run towards the noise whenever there is an air of excitement in the business world, the party inevitably tends to move to your doorstep after a while.

I’m thinking of all the queries from people who wanted to put everything they ever owned into a Section 12J fund and how hyped that was a few years ago. People with no investment experience at all wanted to start Section 12J funds on every corner, until they learned about all the rules and red tape!

When every millennial with an online Python course in the bag started their own crypto fund from their garage, the queries took a different shape (often the misplaced shape of pyramids). Then there was the period when it was almost frowned upon not to refer to your start-up company as “the Uber of this or that…” or “the Spotify of organic vegetables”, but I see that we’re (mostly) past that now.

My goal is not to be the Grinch who stole hype – I have just been reflecting a lot over the years about what the best position is to take when the next best thing arrives. Our approach as a firm is simple: use hype to learn, but only spend your time and exert your energy on ideas or businesses that have substance.

For example, I think some of the hype around Section 12J has died down a bit over the last few years, with mostly only the serious players (who genuinely want to invest in exciting scalable businesses in the way that the Tax Man intended) still plying their trade in this way. Similarly, with the crypto world having come down to earth over the last year or two (read: the quick buck barbarians have left town), we can now focus on the amazing possibilities offered by blockchain technology.

Even though the dust has settled on the hype around topics like these, we are wiser on these topics now than we were before the circus came to town, so we can now use our tricks for real-world solutions. And how fulfilling it is to work with clients who are using blockchain technology to build or invest in real-world businesses that will improve the lives of people and take the friction out of exchanging and growing value.

Mergers and amalgamations in terms of sections 113 and 116 of the companies act

Mergers and amalgamations in terms of sections 113 and 116 of the companies act

Corporate mergers and acquisitions play a significant role in many companies’ growth strategies. They are among the most effective tools utilised by forward thinking boards to scale and grow a business.

With the fast-paced society that we live in today and access to information being so readily available, businesses are scurrying to build shareholder value, taking advantage of potential complimentary industries and making the necessary corporate decisions to gain a bigger share of the markets they operate in.

Since the Companies Act, 71 of 2008 (as amended) (“the Companies Act“) came into effect on 1 May 2011, there has been a paradigm shift in the regulation of South African mergers and amalgamations.

The Companies Act introduced a new form of statutory merger which exists in addition to, and not in substitution of, the pre-existing methods used by companies wanting to effect business combinations, i.e. a sale of shares or a sale of business as a going concern.

The statutory merger is governed in terms of section 113 and section 116 of the Companies Act and the merger agreement is a mandatory requirement in terms of section 113(2).

In addition to each amalgamated or merged company passing the solvency and liquidity test in terms of section 113(1), section 113(2) provides further mandatory terms and conditions that must be addressed in the merger agreement, namely:

  1. the proposed Memorandum of Incorporation of any new company to be formed by the amalgamation or merger, must be included in the merger agreement;
  2. the name and identity number of each proposed director of any proposed amalgamated or merged company must be included;
  3. the manner in which the securities of each amalgamating or merging company are to be converted into securities of any proposed amalgamated or merged company, or exchanged for other property, needs to be detailed;
  4. if any securities of any of the amalgamating or merging companies are not to be converted into securities of any proposed amalgamated or merged company, the consideration that the holders of those securities are to receive in addition to or instead of securities of any proposed amalgamated or merged company;
  5. the manner of payment of any consideration instead of the issue of fractional securities of an amalgamated or merged company or of any other juristic person the securities of which are to be received in the amalgamation or merger;
  6. details of the proposed allocation of the assets and liabilities of the amalgamating or merging companies among the companies that will be formed or continue to exist when the merger agreement has been implemented;
  7. details of any arrangement or strategy necessary to complete the amalgamation or merger, and to provide for the subsequent management and operation of the proposed amalgamated or merged company or companies; and
  8. the estimated cost of the proposed amalgamation or merger.

Further to the above, a thorough regulatory investigation is required to ensure compliance with the relevant regulatory bodies and to ensure that the necessary consents and/or approvals are obtained (i.e. Takeover Regulation Panel approval or exemption, Competition Commission approval, etc.).

A compliant merger agreement, addressing all the requirements in terms of the Companies Act, is imperative for a successful merger. Should you need assistance perfecting a merger, don’t hesitate to give one of our lawyers a call.

Disclaimer. The articles on our website are provided for general information purposes only. We have taken care to ensure accuracy, however the content is not intended as legal advice. Always consult an attorney on your specific legal problems.

Observations on company names

Observations on company names

Choosing a name for your new company may seem simple, but what may not be clear is that you cannot call your company whatever you want, as South African law regulates what a company name can and cannot be. Section 11 of the Companies Act, 71 of 2008 (“the Companies Act“) sets out the criteria for company names. In essence, the name of your company may comprise of words in any language together with any words or letters / numbers / symbols and / or punctuation marks. However, the name of your company may not be the same (or similar to) the name of another company or close corporation, someone else’s defensive name (a name registered up to two years which is aimed at preventing trade marks from being included in the new company name), business name or registered trademark or a mark on any merchandise. Your company name must not falsely imply that the company is part of any other person / entity, is an organ of state, is owned by a person having any particular educational designation, who is a regulated person or is owned by any government or international organisation. Importantly, your company name must not include anything that may constitute propaganda for war, incitement of imminent violence or advocacy of hatred against any right entrenched in the Bill of Rights.

Registered vs trading names:

The registered name of a company is the name which has been reserved, approved and then registered with the Companies and Intellectual Property Commission (“the CIPC“). In terms of the Companies Act, a company is required to display its registered name (and registration number) on all forms, notices and correspondence with others and failure to do so constitutes an offence.

Despite that, it is common practice for entrepreneurs to acquire shelf companies or to register a company with a non-distinctive name and to simply trade under a different name. Although a trade name does not need to be registered, the assumption is that a reasonable level of investigation would have been conducted to ensure that a trade name is not already in use. In reality, this often leads to the infringement of third party trademarks or causes confusingly similar names to exist.

For the above reason, the Consumer Protection Act 68 of 2008 (“the CPA“) has introduced changes to the way in which “trading as” names (which the CPA calls “business names“) may be used. The provisions relating to business names are contained in sections 79 to 80 of the CPA, and will only come into effect upon a date to be determined by the Minister of Trade and Industry (“the Minister“) and published in the Gazette. This has not happened yet, but it is likely that when it does, the Minister will allow a certain amount of time after the published date for companies to comply with these new provisions.

The intention of the legislature in this regard, is to seek to enforce the consumer’s right to information concerning suppliers. The aim is to prevent a situation where a business would trade under one name but fail to disclose the identity of the actual entity behind the transactions, thereby frustrating the attempts by the consumers to seek redress in pursuing the correct entity.

What you need to know and the CPA’S requirements

In terms of section 79 of the CPA:

A person must not carry on business, advertise, promote, offer to supply or supply any goods or services, or enter into a transaction or agreement with a consumer under any name except:

  • the person’s full name as:
  • recorded in an identity document or any other recognised identification document, in the case of an individual; or
  • registered in terms of a public regulation, in the case of a juristic person; or
  • a business name registered to, and for the use of, that person in terms ofsection 80, or any other public regulation.

What the above means is that an individual or company (as the case may be) may not operate / carry on business with a business name unless it is registered in terms of the CPA. This information will then be publicly available on the business names register as maintained by the CIPC. The implication is that, should any business operate with any other name other than those as set out in section 79, the National Consumer Commission (“the NCC“) can issue a compliance notice and failure to comply will result in a fine or prosecution as a criminal offence.

As some assurance, however, the CPA provides a certain degree of relief for businesses which have been in trade before the business name provisions come into force – the NCC may not enforce the business name requirements against a business if it has been trading under the business name for a period of at least one year.

Procedure

Section 80 of the CPA provides for the procedure in registering the business name of a company. As mentioned before, these provisions are not yet in force since the business names registry and the registration process have not yet been established.

When the provisions come into force, a person may file a notice with the CIPC to register any number of business names currently used by your entities. If the business, under which the business name has been registered does not carry on business for a period exceeding 6 (six) months, the CIPC reserves the right to cancel such business name.

Possible difficulties

These provisions may cause difficulties for franchises because there are normally multiple franchisees trading under the same name as the franchisor. However, the registered name for each franchisee, may be completely different. The new requirements therefore force each separate franchisee to register the same business name leading to multiple entries of the same name being reflected on the records of the CIPC. This could be somewhat counter-intuitive since the confusion that it creates may defeat the purpose of the consumers’ right to information in the first place. Furthermore, franchisors may not be happy allowing each and every franchisee incorporating what is effectively their “trade mark” as the franchisees business names.

Going forward

Although these provisions have not come into effect yet, in the interests of avoiding the rush of changing branding and registering new names at the CIPC, the provisions above should be duly considered when choosing a business name as the criteria will most likely need to be adhered to in the near future.

Bitcoin, Blockchain, Cryptocurrencies and ICOs: Legal enigmas for start-up’s operating on the future frontier

Bitcoin, Blockchain, Cryptocurrencies and ICOs: Legal enigmas for start-up’s operating on the future frontier

The latest buzz words shaking up the technology, business, financial and legal establishments are not to be treated lightly. These terms are uniting (hard as it might be) all the major role players in their quest to evaluate the potential far-reaching effects it might hold for the future of commerce globally. It is difficult to ignore the fast-paced development of the latest technological advances, as we find ourselves amid the fascinating transition phases nestled between the Third and Fourth Industrial Revolutions. More importantly, as the universal compatibilities envisioned for this technology have now progressed from hypothetical online discussions between “tech-developers” and futurists to functioning real-life applications, passionate debates have erupted across a variety of diverse forums. Ranging from the corridors of legislators and financial regulators to the living rooms of the Stokvel run by Joe Soap, as people are curious (and watchful) about the industries based on the Future Frontier – and rightly so.

As the terminology is complex, we will not aim to explain what the Blockchain, Cryptocurrencies (which include BitCoin) or Initial Coin Offerings (“ICO”) are. We will also not attempt to define or address the application possibilities of these initiatives in this post, as the possibilities are vast and beyond the scope of this post. (For more information on the technical aspects relating to these terms, please see the links below explaining this in more detail.[1]) We will only briefly aim to highlight some aspects start-ups and potential investors should bear in mind when investigating the opportunities created by the technology found on this Future Frontier.

For Start-Up’s

Start-ups looking to venture into the industries of the Future Frontier are advised to note that there is still a lot of uncertainty as to the regulations governing and enforcing the practical application thereof. As such, carefully considering the current legislative frameworks in existence (and more importantly, the purpose behind it) might provide a helpful understanding of the things entrepreneurs should consider when developing their business models for the market. In a South African context, start-ups should consider the following legislative and regulatory concerns which might be applicable to them:

  • FICA, Money-Laundering and Know-Your-Client (KYC) legislation: due to cryptocurrencies trading far more anonymously over various encrypted platforms entrepreneurs are encouraged to familiarise themselves with the relevant FICA, Money laundering and KYC processes. Especially in industries where payments are being made by potential payment or payment systems operators;
  • Business of a Bank and Collective Investment Schemes: Business models based around the collecting and pooling of fees and/or accepting deposits for investments into cryptocurrencies and ICO’s might be considered to be Collective Schemes or structures conducting the business of a bank, both of which are strictly regulated by the SARB and FSB, respectively;
  • Financial Advisory and Intermediary Services Act (Twin Peaks Financial Sector Regulation Bill): any current or potential services aimed at the financial advisory or intermediary industries are strictly regulated by the Financial Services Board (and will soon fall under the Twin Peak Provisions);
  • Exchange Control Regulations: Strict requirements regarding the outflow of capital and funds exist in South Africa. As a result, certain apps or services designed to facilitate transfers of this kind without prior SARB approval, tax clearance from SARS or adherence to existing policies may pose some concern to regulators;
  • Companies Act: A very popular means to raise funds for start-ups focusing on Future Frontier industries is by way of an ICO. During an ICO the start-ups issue their own crypto- tokens to participants at a discount and often raise vast amounts of capital. However, an ICO might, depending on the rights attached to these crypto-tokens, in some cases be regarded as a thinly veiled offer of securities to the public. If that is the case, the Companies Act and accordingly, the strict laws relating to the issue of securities by way of an offerings to the public will be applicable. Since the Securities Exchange Commission of the USA recently declared this position (not without criticism), other jurisdictions may follow suit; and
  • Consumer Protection Laws: The loss of virtual cryptocurrencies value, tokens issued to paying participants without any underlying value and other types of blockchain transaction issues such as erroneous payments and systems breaches, hacks or Ponzi schemes are things to consider. If not adequately managed, this may create serious liabilities, not to mention reputational damage, to any start-up involved in these types of commercial venture.

These are merely some of the myriad questions start-ups are urged to consider as a starting point into the regulatory and compliance frameworks regulating the industries on the Future Frontier.

Investors

Warren Buffet once said the following: “What counts for most people in investing is not how much they know, but rather how realistically they define what they don’t know”.

In keeping with this thought, we would therefore urge any investors considering investing into start-ups which focus on the Future Frontier industries to not stray too far from established investment principals. Especially in determining what the Investor does not know, conducting an adequate due diligence investigation (or “DD“) into the envisioned Start-up’s proof of concept, management of regulatory and compliance issues and the viability of their intended financial and business models should be considered a minimum requirement. Further to this, investors would do well to consider special escrow arrangements for any transfer of investment funds irrespective of whether these funds are done by way of crypto-funds/tokens and/or fiat currency. Also using respected and knowledgeable service providers may mitigate against any risks involved in these investments.

Conclusion

There are various levels of uncertainty regarding the practical and legal implications of these Future Frontier industries. This accordingly provides ample grey area for entrepreneurs and investors alike to either flower or flounder through. As such, we would recommend that any Start-Ups or investors contemplating to venture into these Future Frontier Industries to make sure that they have a clear view of the legal nature of the transaction at hand. If the legal nature of the transaction is clear, it enables the parties to take a measured approach to control the relative risk associated and build in the protective mechanisms that the law requires.

We hope to see legislators work with other industry experts to create a legislative framework that promotes certainty, without smothering the revolutionary initiatives and staggering opportunities presented by Future Frontier technology.

[1] For further detailed information regarding how Cryptocurrencies and the Blockchain function and operate please make use of the following recommend sources:

 

Conversations and agreements – when are they binding?

Conversations and agreements – when are they binding?

Introduction

A major cause of disputes occurs over the content of agreements. Sometimes these disputes are a result of poorly drafted contracts; content and deliverables not being adequately described; or as a result of variations to the original contract. Another source of dispute is verbal contracts and conversations where the parties dispute the content of what was agreed upon.

Both verbal and written contracts are, in general, legally binding. However, sometimes writing is unavoidable and is a formality for the contract to be valid, for example: the sale of immovable property, antenuptial contracts, wills and executory donations. Along with the preceding list, all documents that have to be submitted to and registered with the Deeds Office must also be set out in writing.

Written contracts have various advantages, among others, they:

  • ensure that both parties are fully aware of the contents of their agreement;
  • create transparency between the parties;
  • create and maintain trust between parties;
  • can stipulate formalities that must be met for validity; and
  • serve to avoid unnecessary disputes.

Electronic communication

The Electronic Communications and Transactions Act 25 of 2002 (“ECTA“) recognises electronic messages (or “data messages“) as the functional equivalent of writing, meaning that data messages have the same legal validity as content written on paper. This results in any formality requiring writing to be met when the information is in the form of a data message. ECTA, however, imposes a requirement of accessibility to accompany data messages by requiring data messages to be easily accessible to the parties thereto.

The validity of electronic messages was confirmed by the Supreme Court of Appeal (“SCA“) in November 2014 in the case of Spring Forest Trading v Wilberry (Pty) Ltd. The court held that variations to an agreement between the parties made via email were binding – the arguments put forth were that the variation to the agreement was required to be made in writing and signed by both parties in order for it to be valid and that this requirement had not been met because the variations were only discussed and agreed to via email. The court stated that the email signatures at the bottom of the emails amount to signatures and that the email messages constituted writing in terms of ECTA.

Conclusion

Written contracts are always recommended. The rationale being that oral agreements offer no objective or clear record of the details of the agreement and the specific terms are often difficult to establish when a dispute arises. Well drafted agreements should include useful information and guidance to the parties to ensure a fair and smooth resolution of disputes or disagreements. The guidance information should address when parties may cancel the agreement, what constitutes breach and how the breach should be remedied.

Written agreements should also set out that any changes to the agreement are not valid if they are not in writing (and signed by both parties) – which prevents disputes over any amended terms of the agreement. This also prevents quarrels of a “he said, she said” nature as everything has been recorded. As set out above, this can be done via email or other electronic messages, including Whatsapp, for example, however, the name of the sender must be signed at the end of the message for it to be valid.

It is important to understand that following the abovementioned judgment, parties to a contract should specifically refer to an “advanced electronic signature” – which is a special signature provided for in ECTA – being required to amend the agreement if the intention is for the usual email type correspondence not to effect an amendment to the agreement.

Remember, you could be bound to a contract where you have willingly signed it even if you have not yet read it.

Important take-aways

  • electronic communication is legally binding and is the equivalent of writing;
  • some agreements can only be altered if the variation is in writing and signed by both parties;
  • some agreements must be in writing and signed (and sometimes commissioned or notarised) in order to be valid and binding; and
  • oral agreements are binding (but not advised!).
The Edcon Ruling: What to take away from it

The Edcon Ruling: What to take away from it

1. BACKGROUND

Credit providers assist customers who cannot afford to make all payments in cash. In turn for the risk they take, they are allowed to charge certain costs and fees.  When credit agreements are within the ambit of the National Credit Act 34 of 2005 (“NCA” or “the Act“), the Act imposes maximum limits on these fees. Irrespective of the type of credit agreement, section 101 of the NCA provides for a closed list of the fees that a credit provider may charge the consumer in relation to a credit agreement. These fees include, amongst others, initiation fees, service fees, interest, credit insurance and/or default administration charges

2. INTRODUCTION

It has become common practice for retailers to make membership clubs available to consumers in exchange for a monthly “membership/club fee”. Typically, when a consumer becomes a club member he or she would earn points or similar consideration for different reasons – such as a percentage of the purchase price being earned in points. Depending on the type of club joined and/or amount of points earned by that club member, he or she would be entitled to convert his or her points into some form of benefit or product (for example, entertainment, travel, spa, gym etc.). For credit providers who want to offer similar “clubs” there is a challenge in that the NCA does not provide for this kind of “club fee”.

3. THE EDCON RULING

More recently, the National Credit Regulator (“NCR“) started to investigate this business practice and focused on a well-known credit provider retailer: Edcon Holdings Limited (“Edcon“). Following the investigation, they initiated action against Edcon by referring the matter to the National Consumer Tribunal (“NCT“) seeking an order declaring that Edcon has, among other things, repeatedly contravened the provisions of the NCA relating to prohibited charges – by charging a fee not allowed for in the NCA.

The NCT considered the matter from a broader legal perspective, namely whether the NCA allows a credit agreement to contain any fee or charge other than those permitted by the NCA. Edcon argued that the club membership was a stand-alone product, not intended to be part of the credit agreement.

As a starting point, the NCT concluded that the NCA unambiguously prohibits credit providers from charging any fee or charge other than those listed in and provided for in the Act.  The NCT found that Edcon was not allowed to charge its credit customers any fee or charge other than that permitted by the NCA and could therefore not charge the club membership fees. In conclusion, it was held that, by doing so, Edcon had engaged in repeated prohibited conduct in terms of the NCA.

The NCT emphasised that the business practice of charging “membership/club fees” is explicitly prohibited by the NCA and any credit provider who does business in this way may face dire consequences. From perusal of the ruling, the likely consequences that Edcon faces may include being directed to refund consumers charged club and membership fees from 2007 to date and/or an administrative fine on Edcon. According to media reports, Edcon has indicated that they will appeal the ruling.

4. CONCLUSION

The above ruling raises a red flag to many credit providers or credit retailers who may be involved in similar business practices. Retailers should take the following away from this ruling:

  • irrespective of whether customers voluntarily choose to purchase this type of (club) product, a membership/club fee may be seen as a cost of credit if it is inseparably linked to a credit agreement; and
  • review your credit agreements to ensure you do not include any provisions or charges not allowed in terms of the NCA.

Please note that not all club memberships will fall within the ambit of this ruling and club structures will need to be considered on a case to case basis. Please do not hesitate to contact us should you have any queries.

Companies Act, 71 of 2008 Series Part 7:  Distributions – a few important points to consider

Companies Act, 71 of 2008 Series Part 7: Distributions – a few important points to consider

When considering distributions by a company, we most often think of cash dividends, being one form of return on investment for investors. This is something most start-up clients consider being a future event in their life cycle and don’t often give much thought to upfront. We’ve set out a few important points to take into account when considering whether or not a company should declare a distribution.

What is a distribution?

Firstly, it is important to bear in mind that the shareholders of a company only have an expectation (and not a right) to share in that company’s profits during its existence. There is therefore no obligation on a company to declare distributions to its shareholders.

The Companies Act, 71 of 2008, as amended, (“the Act”) provides a very wide definition of a “distribution”, which goes much further than just cash dividends. This definition can be broken up into three categories, namely, the direct or indirect: (i) transfer by the company of money or other property (other than its own shares) to or for the benefit of one or more of its shareholders; (ii) incurrence of a debt or other obligation by the company for the benefit of one or more of its shareholders; and (iii) forgiveness or waiver by the company of a debt or other obligation owed to the company by one or more of its shareholders.

The definition is further extended to include any of the above actions taken in relation to another company in the same group of companies, but specifically excludes any of the above actions taken upon the final liquidation of a company.

The first category in the definition of a “distribution” includes cash dividends, payments by a company to its shareholders instead of capitalisation shares, share buy-backs and any other transfer by a company of money or other property to or for the benefit of one or more of its shareholders, which is otherwise in respect of any of the company’s shares. This last sub-category is intended as a “catch all” provision, making the definition that much wider.

Who can make a distribution and in what circumstances?

Section 46 of the Act sets out the requirements that a company must meet before making a distribution. A company must not make any proposed distribution to its shareholders unless the distribution: (i) has been authorised by the board of directors by way of adopting a resolution (unless such distribution is pursuant to an existing obligation of the company or a court order); (ii) it reasonably appears that the company will satisfy the solvency and liquidity test immediately after completing the proposed distribution; and (iii) the board of the company acknowledges, by way of a resolution, that it has applied the solvency and liquidity test and reasonably concluded that the company will satisfy same immediately after completing the proposed distribution.

For purposes of the solvency and liquidity test, two considerations must be taken into account. Firstly, whether the assets of the company, fairly valued, are equal to or exceed the liabilities of the company, fairly valued (this is often referred to as commercial solvency). Secondly, whether the company will be able to pay its debts as they become due in the ordinary course of business for a period of twelve months after the test is considered, or in the case of a distribution contemplated in the first category of the definition, twelve months following that distribution (this is often termed factual solvency). While the Act attempts to specify what financial information must be taken into account when considering the solvency and liquidity test, the provisions are not that clear, apart from requiring the board to consider accounting records and financial statements satisfying the requirements of the Act and that the board must consider a fair valuation of the company’s assets and liabilities. This leaves a lot of room for interpretation as to what can and should be taken into account when considering the solvency and liquidity test.

An important point to note here is that it is the board of directors of the company that must declare a distribution, and not the shareholders. The company’s Memorandum of Incorporation and/or shareholders’ agreement can place further requirements on the company in relation to declaring distributions, for example, a distribution must also be approved by a special resolution of the shareholders. This does not, however, change the fact that the distribution must first be proposed by the board of directors and ultimately be declared by the board of directors.

What happens if a distribution is authorised by the board but not fully implemented?

When the board of the company has adopted a resolution, acknowledging that it has applied the solvency and liquidity test and reasonably concluded that the company will satisfy the solvency and liquidity test immediately after completing the proposed distribution, then that distribution must be fully carried out. If the distribution has not been completed within 120 business days after the board adopts such resolution, the board must reconsider the solvency and liquidity test with respect to the remaining distribution to be made. Furthermore, the Act states that the company may not proceed with such distribution unless the board adopts a further resolution to that effect.

Directors liability for unlawful distributions

If a director does not follow the requirements for making a distribution and resolves to make such distribution (either at a meeting or by round robin resolution) despite knowing that the requirements have not been met, then that director can be held personally liable for any loss, damages or costs sustained by the company as a direct or indirect consequence of the director failing to vote against the making of that distribution.

There are, however, limitations placed on a director’s potential liability, in that such liability only arises if: (i) immediately after making all of the distribution (no liability can arise for partial implementation), the company does not satisfy the solvency and liquidity test; and (ii) it was unreasonable at the time of the resolution to come to the conclusion that the company would satisfy the solvency and liquidity test after making the relevant distribution.

A director who has reason to think that a claim may be brought against him (other than for wilful misconduct or wilful breach of trust), may apply to court for relief. The court may grant relief to the director if he has acted honestly and reasonably or, having regard to the circumstances, it would be fair to excuse the director.

There is a limit on the amount that a director can be held liable for in relation to not meeting the requirements of a distribution – section 77(4)(b) provides that such amount will not exceed, in aggregate, the difference between the amount by which the value of the distribution exceeded the amount that could have been distributed without causing the company to fail to satisfy the solvency and liquidity test and the amount (if any) recovered by the company from persons to whom the distribution was made.

Conclusion

Distributions by a company of its assets to its shareholders, whether in the form of cash or otherwise, are carefully regulated by the Act. This is clearly to protect the interests of creditors and minority shareholders of the company. You will also have noticed that the Act does not deal separately with the different types of distributions and includes a wide variety of transactions which will be regarded as a distribution under the Act. We trust that the issues highlighted above will give you some insight and guidance on this topic. If you would like to discuss any of these topics in more detail, please feel free to contact our commercial department and we will gladly assist.

If you would like to discuss any of these topics in more detail, please feel free to contact our commercial department and we will gladly assist.

Companies Act, 71 of 2008 Series Part 6:  Share capital – what to consider?

Companies Act, 71 of 2008 Series Part 6: Share capital – what to consider?

The monies raised by a company through the issue of shares is commonly referred to as the share capital of that company. The Companies Act, 71 of 2008 (as amended) (“Companies Act“) regulates certain aspects regarding share capital, which every director, shareholder and potential investor should be aware of. Set out below are 8 of the most important things you should know in order to manage your company’s share capital and to help you make informed decisions about potential equity investments.

  1. Where is the share capital recorded?

A company’s memorandum of incorporation (“MOI“) must set out the classes of shares, the number of shares of each class that the company is authorised to issue and any specific preferences, rights, limitations and other terms associated with the shares. The share capital is therefore located in the MOI, which is theoretically a public document available for inspection from the Companies and Intellectual Property Commission (“CIPC“).

  1. The distinction between the authorised and issued shares of a company

The authorised shares are the shares which the company is entitled to issue in terms of its MOI. Authorised shares have no rights associated with them until they have been issued. The issued shares are shares that are authorised and issued to shareholders, and to which certain rights are then attached.

  1. Basic rights attaching to every share

Save as provided otherwise in the MOI of the company, a share affords every holder of such share the right to certain dividends when declared, the return of capital on the winding up of the company and the right to attend and vote at meetings of shareholders. These rights can, however, be limited, for example, dividend preferences or liquidation preferences may attach to one class of shares but not the others. Non-voting rights may also attach to a class of share. However, every share issued gives that shareholder an irrevocable right to vote on any proposal to amend the preferences, rights, limitations and other terms associated with that share. This is an unalterable right under the Companies Act.

  1. How many authorised shares is appropriate?

This of course depends on the circumstances, but there is no limit to the number of authorised shares a company can have in its share capital. When starting a business an entrepreneur will often acquire a “shelf company”, which typically has an authorised share capital of 1 000 shares. This is suitable if there are only one or two shareholders. If more shareholders are anticipated, the authorised share capital will need to be increased. It is advisable to have enough authorised shares to avoid having to create further shares (and go through the process set out in point 5 below) every time the company needs to issue further shares.

  1. Amendment of the share capital – how is the CIPC involved?

The authorisation, classification, number of authorised shares, and preferences, rights, limitations and other terms associated with the shares, as set out in the company’s MOI, may only be changed by way of an amendment of the MOI. Such amendment can be approved by resolution of the board of the company, or by special resolution of the shareholders of the company, depending on which method is provided for in the MOI. It is common practice to restrict the board’s powers in this regard and reserve such matters for approval by the shareholders (in the MOI).

Any amendment of the MOI must be submitted to the CIPC for acceptance and registration. This process could take anywhere between 1 – 3 months, depending on the CIPC’s capacity and any backlogs.

  1. What happens if shares are issued in excess of the authorised share capital?

In the event that more shares are issued than are authorised (or shares are issued that have not yet been authorised), the board may retroactively authorise such an issue within 60 business days of “issue” – otherwise the share issue is void to the extent that it exceeds the authorised share capital. In such circumstances, the company must return to the relevant person the fair value of the consideration received in terms of such share “issue” (plus interest) and the directors could be held liable for any loss, damage or costs sustained by the company as a consequence of knowingly issuing unauthorised shares.

While these consequences can be severe, the potential costs and damages to the company (and its board) can be limited in the event that all the shareholders are willing to participate in rectification steps that would need to be taken and simultaneously waive their rights to claim any return of consideration and damages, where such actions were not taken knowingly and not timeously retroactively authorised.

  1. Share capital may comprise of different classes of shares

Not all shares in a company need have equal rights and preferences. Some shares may have preferential rights as to capital and/or dividends, privileges in the matter of voting or in other respects. A company may, for example, create one class of shares for the founders of the company, another class of shares for its investors and a third class of shares for its employees, with each class having its terms tailored for specific purposes. Note that the preferences, rights, limitations and other terms of shares distinguish the different classes, but are always identical to those of other shares of the same class.

  1. Shares in a company incorporated under the “old” Companies Act, 61 of 1973 (as amended) (“1973 Companies Act”)

Any issued shares held in a company that was incorporated under the 1973 Companies Act and were issued before 1 May 2011, being the effective date of the Companies Act (“Effective Date“), continue to have all the rights associated with it immediately before the Effective Date. Those rights may only be changed by means of an amendment to the MOI of the company.

All shares of companies incorporated under the Companies Act are no par-value shares. Under the 1973 Companies Act, however, a company could have a par-value share capital. If par-value shares had been issued as at the Effective Date, such company may still issue further authorised but unissued par-value shares, but the authorised par-value share capital itself may not be increased. In the event that such a company wishes to increase its authorised share capital, it can either convert its existing par-value shares to no par-value shares and then increase such number of authorised shares, or alternatively, create a further class of no par-value shares thereby also increased the total number of authorised shares.

Concluding remarks

Although at first glance the exact composition and structure of a company’s authorised and issued share capital may not be considered a top priority for busy entrepreneurs to worry about, we trust that the issues highlighted above will give you some insight and guidance into how and why your company’s share capital should be of great importance to your shareholders and any potential investors. If you would like to discuss any of these topics in more detail, please feel free to contact our commercial department and we will gladly assist you.