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In what is believed to be the first reasoned judgment dealing with an appeal from a decision of the adjudicator not to make a bankruptcy order, we consider the judgment in Re Budniok; Budniok v Adjudicator, Insolvency Service.
Re Budniok; Budniok v Adjudicator, Insolvency Service  Lexis Citation 16,  All ER (D) 02 (Mar)
The High Court of Justice allowed the applicant's appeal against a decision of the adjudicator of the Insolvency Service, in which the adjudicator refused to make a bankruptcy order in relation to him. On the evidence, there was nothing to prevent the order being made. The court also gave consideration to general issues arising out of appeals under the Insolvency Act 1986 (IA 1986).
On 6 April 2016, debtors' bankruptcy petitions were abolished and replaced by online bankruptcy applications that are determined by the adjudicator (a government official working for the Insolvency Service) rather than by a judge. That change in process has therefore removed the court from the process of making a bankruptcy order at the debtor's instigation, save that there is a right to appeal to the court where the adjudicator refuses to make a bankruptcy order following a review of her earlier refusal not to make a bankruptcy order.
That was the situation in this case. The debtor applied to the adjudicator for a bankruptcy order. As permitted by IA 1986, s 263L, the adjudicator sought further information on two occasions from the debtor in order to determine his application. The issue in this case—and which the adjudicator's information requests appeared to focus on—is that the debtor had moved to England from Germany in or about June 2014. Under IA 1986, s 263I(1)(a) the adjudicator only had jurisdiction to determine the bankruptcy application if the debtor's COMI was in England and Wales. Having received and considered further information received from the debtor, the adjudicator refused to make a bankruptcy order on the ground that she was not satisfied that the debtor's COMI was in England and Wales.
The debtor exercised his right under IA 1986, s 263N and requested that the adjudicator review her decision and offered to provide any further information necessary to verify his residence. However, the adjudicator confirmed her initial assessment and that her earlier decision not to make a bankruptcy order remained (under IA 1986, s 263N(2) the adjudicator has to review her earlier decision only with the information available to her at the time she made her earlier decision—so in this case she was unable to accept the debtor's offer to provide further information).
Accordingly, the debtor appealed to the court under IA 1986, s 263N(5) against the adjudicator's refusal to make a bankruptcy order. For the purpose of the appeal, the adjudicator sent an email to the debtor in which she elaborated on her decision to refuse to make a bankruptcy order. While the debtor provided a witness statement in support of his application, no evidence was filed by the adjudicator in response (although she did try to seek to informally put before the court some internet material that she had obtained prior to making her first determination on the debtor's application).
Given the recent introduction of the debtors' bankruptcy applications regime and the lack of case law exploring the relevant provisions of the IA 1986 and the Insolvency Rules 1986, SI 1986/1925 (IR 1986) in relation to that new regime, a number of preliminary issues were raised by both the chief registrar and counsel for the adjudicator:
Finally, the chief registrar went on to consider the appeal itself.
It was submitted—and accepted by the chief registrar (para )—that the word 'satisfied' in IA 1986, s 263K(2) should be given its ordinary, natural meaning. Further, the adjudicator must be satisfied on an objective basis.
The chief registrar identified this issue as the most difficult of the preliminary issues by reason of the use of the word 'appeal' in the IA 1986 and IR 1986 in different senses—ie both in respect of an appeal from a court order (to which CPR Part 52 applies), and an appeal from a decision of an office-holder (for example to reject a proof of debt). This distinction is important is because of the general restriction on the former to only consider the information that was before the judge at the time of the decision being appealed, whereas an appeal of the latter kind allows the court to review the matter afresh on the basis of evidence before it at that time.
It was submitted that it was plain from the wording of the new regime (or alternatively that it was Parliament's intention) that an appeal from her second decision to refuse to make a bankruptcy order was an appeal to which CPR Part 52 applied, and that to allow a court on appeal to consider the matter afresh would undermine the statutory scheme enacted by Parliament, which should be 'viewed as a whole [as] a closed procedure, self-contained and deliberately restricted in its scope'. For instance, the adjudicator has no discretion whether or not to make a bankruptcy order—if she is satisfied that the various conditions have been met, she must make a bankruptcy order; conversely, if she is not satisfied that any one of the conditions is met, she must not make a bankruptcy order.
However, the chief registrar did not agree that any of the material cited in support of the submission dealt with the question as to the nature of an appeal, and held that 'in the absence of anything in the statute dealing with the nature of the appeal, the intention of the legislature was to provide for an appeal, leaving it open to the court to apply the principles and procedure it would usually apply or which are most appropriate for dealing with it. It seems to me that the whole of the insolvency regime and the way in which it makes provision for decisions to be appealed or reviewed, not just to the adjudication process' (para ).
The chief registrar (at para ) rejected the submission that the court must determine an appeal from the adjudicator's decision only on the materials that were before the adjudicator. The court may (but is not obliged to) decide to consider the matter afresh based on new evidence. However, on the facts of this case (where no evidence was in fact adduced which was not before the adjudicator when she made her decision), it was not strictly necessary for the chief registrar to decide the issue, though he tentatively suggested that an appeal from the decision of an adjudicator is more akin to an appeal from an office-holder's decision rather than an appeal to which CPR Part 52 applies.
Only the debtor adduced evidence in support of his appeal; the adjudicator adduced no evidence, supporting her neutral stance in respect of the appeal. The chief registrar reminded himself of the long established principle that 'evidence given...by witness statement is not to be rejected as untrue unless it had been tested in cross-examination or is plainly unreliable or false because, for example, it is preposterous or so at odds with contemporaneous or other documentation that it can safely be disregarded' (para ). The chief registrar recognised that different issues may arise in an appeal from a decision of the adjudicator—at one end of the scale, it may simply be sufficient for the evidence to consist of the material that was before the adjudicator at the time of her decision; at the opposite end of the scale, it may be necessary for written evidence to be adduced and cross-examined at a hearing. For that reason, and because of the newness of the bankruptcy applications regime, the chief registrar did not seek to prescribe any hard and fast rules as to evidence, but otherwise suggested (at para ) that it would be a matter for the court seised of the appeal having regard to the overriding objective and the need for a fair hearing.
The chief registrar agreed (at para ) with the submissions made that:
It was submitted that, as creditors are only entitled to inspect the bankruptcy file after a bankruptcy order has been made and there is nothing in the relevant rules regarding notifying creditors of an appeal, it was Parliament's intention that creditors should ordinarily play no role in an appeal.
The chief registrar agreed with this submission (para ), but also pointed out that this meant that, uniquely in insolvency, bankruptcy applications were a private matter between the debtor and the adjudicator and that this 'is an unfortunate departure from a key principle', 'sets one insolvency procedure apart from any other conducted under IA 1986 or the related legislation' and that 'it is particularly odd given that the adjudicator must be satisfied she has jurisdiction (which involves considering the location of the debtor's centre of main interests, something about which creditors may have a great deal to say)'. He also made reference to the fact that bankruptcy is a collective insolvency proceeding under Regulation (EC) 1346/2000 on Insolvency.
However, as it was 'ordinarily' the case that creditors should not play a role in an appeal from a decision of the adjudicator, there would be some cases where it would be desirable to allow third parties to appear and be heard. Indeed, in this case, the chief registrar had at an earlier directions hearing ordered that creditors be given notice of the appeal (before he had heard argument on the issue), albeit that no creditor took part.
It was submitted that IR 1986, r 6.50A identifies the court to which appeals under IA 1986, s 263N(5) are to be made, usually being the debtor's own county court centre (defined in IR 1986, r 6.50A(3)) and that such appeals should be heard by a district judge (or a registrar in the limited circumstances where an appeal is heard in the High Court). Further, as a result of IR 1986, r 6.40A being repealed (which provided for the High Court to deal with debtors' bankruptcy petitions where the debtor resided or carried on business in the London insolvency district and the unsecured liabilities totalled more than £100,000), an appeal by a debtor residing or carrying on business in the London insolvency district will be dealt with by the county court, regardless of the amount of unsecured liabilities.
Although the issue was not explored in detail, the chief registrar took the view that these submissions were correct, while expressing his regret that the role of the High Court had been reduced.
It was submitted that, as the court is entitled under IR 1986, r 6.50(4) to access a copy of the electronic bankruptcy file created by the adjudicator under IR 1986, r 6.50(1), the court should exercise such right and direct that no hearing bundle be prepared. If for whatever reason that is not possible, the debtor should prepare a hearing bundle.
The chief registrar considered that the parties should follow the relevant Practice Directions and the Chancery Guide, meaning that the debtor will generally be expected to prepare a hearing bundle and provide copies to the court, the adjudicator and any other who intends to appear at the hearing. However, there may be occasions where the adjudicator should prepare the bundle where it is beyond the debtor's ability to do so.
The hearing bundle should contain copies of the following documents:
IR 1986, r 6.47(6) provides that the adjudicator is not personally liable for costs incurred by any person in respect of an application made to court under IA 1986, s 263N(5). It was submitted—and accepted by the chief registrar—that this is the case even where the debtor's appeal is successful.
In relation to the adjudicator's costs of the appeal, it will fall the court's usual wide discretion to decide whether or not these are paid by the debtor.
Accepting that the adjudicator, in determining the debtor's application, was limited both in terms of time and the nature and extent of the information she was able to request, the chief registrar held that the adjudicator had misdirected herself in her approach to assessing the debtor's COMI, and that the decision she reached was wrong.
The issue in this case was the determination of the debtor's COMI, and whether that was in England and Wales. As the chief registrar identified, such inquiry often involves a complicated mixed question of law and fact, and he expressed his regret that the new regime contained no provision allowing the adjudicator to refer such questions to the court.
In considering the point afresh, the chief registrar held that the debtor was able to amply demonstrate by his evidence that his COMI was in England and Wales, and that the adjudicator gave too much weight to her concerns regarding the business that the debtor was promoting. Further, the debtor, in his evidence, had made two important assertions that he:
As the adjudicator had not filed any evidence challenging these assertions, the chief registrar was bound to accept them at face value as they were not inherently unbelievable and not contradicted (but instead supported) by the documentary evidence.
Accordingly, the chief registrar allowed the appeal and made a bankruptcy order.
As noted above, it is understood that this is the first reasoned judgment in relation to a new area of law, and to that extent it is very helpful in that it deals with some of the preliminary issues in relation to appeals against the adjudicator's refusal to make a bankruptcy order.
The judgment also identifies some of the perceived shortcomings in the procedure and practice relating to the new regime of debtors' bankruptcy applications, and it will remain to be seen whether those perceived shortcomings are accepted by the Insolvency Service and whether the legislation is amended. This will undoubtedly depend on what proportion of bankruptcy applications result in a refusal (the adjudicator must make a bankruptcy order when satisfied that England and Wales is the correct jurisdiction and that the debtor is unable to pay their debts), and the proportion of refusals that are a result of what might be called 'complex issues', such as the determination of the debtor's COMI.
If you are a LexisPSL Subscriber, click the link below for further information:
The immediate effects of a bankruptcy order on the bankrupt
Reviews of orders from the insolvency court: what is the process and how can you appeal or review a decision and which court do you apply to?
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