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The judgment of His Honour Judge Paul Matthews (sitting as a judge of the High Court) in Devon Commercial Property Ltd v Barnett and another is significant both for his consideration of the substantive law as to the duties owed by receivers, as well as practical questions regarding the evidence used to bring and defend these claims.
The defendant receivers had been appointed over a Devon cider factory by an assignee of the mortgagee, which was also one of the cider manufacturer’s competitors. Having marketed the factory and received limited interest, the receivers sold the factory to their appointor. The claimant alleged that the receivers acted in breach of their duties:
The judge dismissed the claim finding that the receivers had acted entirely properly.
Burden of proof
The judge rejected the claimant’s attempt to apply Silven to the facts of the case. The burden of proof may be reversed where the sale is to a party connected to the party conducting the sale (as where a mortgagee exercises its rights to sell property). Here the receivers were not selling to a party with which they were connected. There was therefore no ‘self-dealing’ such that the ‘fair dealing’ rule should be extended to the defendant receivers. But even if that were not the case, the burden of proof would not be reversed to require the receivers to show that every step they performed was taken in good faith. The burden of proving bad faith remained on the claimant.
On the question of conflict more generally, the judge held that a receiver is not precluded from placing him or herself in a position where the mortgagee’s and the mortgagor’s interests conflict or may conflict. He noted that those interests are present and in conflict from the outset and that the receiver will be entitled, or actually bound, to exercise the powers in the interests of the mortgagee.
Bad faith and dishonesty
The claimant alleged that the receivers had failed to act in good faith or had acted in bad faith. There was argument as to whether this required the court to make a finding of dishonesty (although the claimants subsequently confirmed it was not intended to allege dishonesty). The judge held that a breach of the duty of good faith owed by a receiver to the mortgagor must involve intentional conduct amounting to more than mere negligence and encompassing either an improper motive or an element of bad faith, but it need not amount to dishonesty.
Use of expert evidence
As an aside, the parties had permission to rely on expert evidence as to the duties of receivers. The judge did not find this evidence helpful, observing that they did not have experience of acting in a case where the receivers sold the property to an associate of the appointor. The judge also doubted that expertise in acting as a receiver was a recognised field of expertise governed by standards and rules of conduct. The function of a receiver was a ‘management function’ of the sort many people are required to perform and which the court is capable of assessing without expert evidence. The judge did not see that the court required (in the ordinary run of cases) expert assistance where somebody is alleged to have managed or sold an interest in land badly.
Evidential value of email communications
In dismissing the claims, the judge found that the claim was ‘(over-optimistically) bolstered by the judicious hewing of extracts from emails and other correspondence, to create an impression of some kind of conspiracy between the trade rival and the defendants’ when ‘there was nothing of that kind here’. Where, as in this case, the receivers are working from different offices and communicating by email, the claimant has the advantage of being privy to their thinking in a way that would not be available if their discussions took place in the same office. The judge recognised this in discounting the evidential value of unguarded comments in emails. In fact, as the judge recognised, the evidential value of those comments might be in tending to support the good faith or honesty of the defendants, rather than the contrary.
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