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.

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: