Pay Up or I’ll…Wait For It!

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The 7-day letter is one of the oldest forms of legal communication. Asking your lawyer to write to a debtor telling them to pay up or be sued has been around since Victorian times, and indeed for a lot longer. The exact form, and the period given, has varied over the years. When I qualified (a disturbing time ago now) it was usual to give 7 days, although the court were fairly sanguine if you gave less, and given that all communication was by letter, and all payments by cheque, the debtor would have to get their skates on to get payment to you in time. The letter could be very short and to the point, and no information other than the amount due and perhaps the invoice number was required.

Then the Pre-Action Protocol in the CPR increased the length of time to at least 14 days, and required certain basic information, and the provision of details of where to get help to be given to non-businesses. This was generally felt to be a good idea, although some debtors would play the system, asking for extra time to take advice when they had no intentions of taking any. But it meant that you might get offers of settlement before you issued proceedings rather than afterwards, which did at least save the issue fee. And you might be able to weed out the debtors who had no income or assets and so weren’t worth suing at all.

Well, everything has now been turned on its head, at least in respect of claims against individuals by businesses by the Pre-Action Protocol for Debt Claims which comes into force on 1st October 2017.

The Scope of the Protocol

It covers any business (including sole traders and public bodies) claiming payment of a debt from an individual (including a sole trader). It complements any regulatory regime applying to the creditor (eg  under the Financial Conduct Authority) which must be complied with as well, but does not apply to debts covered by other Protocols , such as the Construction and Engineering, or the Mortgage Arrears Protocols, or to claims by HMRC for taxes and duties (covered by PD7D).

So a claim against a consumer or a sole trader (eg F Bloggs t/a The Red Lion PH) is covered. A claim against a partnership or a limited company (eg F Bloggs Ltd t/a The Red Lion PH) isn’t.

What is Required

I am afraid that there is no alternative to setting a lot of the Protocol out in this piece, although I have summarised where I can. The exact wording can be seen via the link here and above.

  1. The Letter of Claim

The creditor has to send a Letter of Claim to the debtor. So far no real change. Note however that this must be sent by post – email or other electronic means will not do unless the debtor has expressly requested that the post is not used. And the Letter of Claim needs a lot more information than before, including:

  • the amount of the debt
  • whether interest or other charges are continuing
  • details of any oral agreement
  • the date and parties of any written agreement and an offer to supply a copy on request
  • assignment details if relevant
  • if regular instalments are being offered, or paid, an explanation of why the offer is not aceptable and why a court claim is being considered
  • how the debt can be paid – where and how – and how to discuss payment terms
  • the address where the completed Reply Form should be sent

The creditor also needs to send

  • an up to date statement of account, or details of how the claim is made up including any interest and administrative charges
  • the Information Sheet and Reply Form in Annex I
  • a Financial Statement form (like the example at Annex II)

2. The Response by the Debtor

If the debtor does not respond within 30 days the creditor can start proceedings.

If they do (using the Reply Form) they can ask for copies of any relevant documents, supply any document sof their own, and make proposals. The creditor should allow at least 30 days from receipt of the Reply Form, or 30 days from provision of any documents requested before issuing proceedings. If the debtor needs more than 30 days to get debt advice they can ask for it and the creditor should allow extra time if reasonable in the circumstances.

Any proposals for payment by instalments should be considered and if not acceptable the creditor should give the debtor reasons in writing. And a partly completed Reply Form should elicit an attempt to contact the debtor to obtain further information.

3. Disclosure of Documents

If the debt, including any interest or time for payment etc, is disputed the parties should exchange information and documents to enable them to understand each other’s position. And if the debtor asks for a document or information it should be provided within 30 days, or an explanation should be given as to why it is unavailable.

4. Attempts to settle and ADR

Parties should negotiate on any points still in dispute using ADR if appropriate. This can range from discussions to formal steps such as mediation in a larger case.

If the parties reach agreement on repayment the creditor should not start court proceedings while the debtor complies with the agreement. And if they wish to start court proceedings at a later date they must send a new Letter of Claim and start the Protocol afresh, although they don’t need to send documentation again if it has been sent in the last 6 months.

5. Taking Stock

If the debtor has responded to the Letter of Claim but agreement has not been reached the creditor should give them at least 14 days’ notice of their intention to start court proceedings, to allow both parties to review their positions and see if proceedings can be avoided.

The Consequences of not Complying with the Protocol

These are the usual consequences of not complying with a Pre-Action Protocol – the court can give more time, penalise in costs or interest or in other ways. But it looks at the substance, and is not concerned with minor or technical breaches.

It is not clear at present how far the courts are going to enforce compliance with the Protocol, given the enormous number of debt claims that go to a default judgment and enforcement without any court officers actually looking at them. The other protocols generally cover areas which are disputed and where the parties can raise breaches in a Defence or application of some kind. Most debt claims are undefended and with most debtors unrepresented they may not know if corners have been cut or even avoided altogether. See below.**

The Annexes

You really need to read the Protocol for these. They set out

  • An Information Sheet (compulsory)
  • A Reply Form (also compulsory)
  • A Standard Financial Statement (an example)

So What does a Creditor Do?

This cannot be ignored. It will have a radical affect on the recovery of debts from individuals, and unless businesses adapt appropriately they may suffer a disastrous hit to their cashflow. Because today’s 14 day letter will turn into between 30 and 104 days under this new regime, and possibly more if the debtor goes through the process, agrees to pay and then only pays a couple of instalments, when the Protocol must start again.

Possible suggestions:

  1. Don’t allow credit – get paid up front before the goods or services are supplied. You may lose some customers, but customers who don’t pay aren’t worth having.
  2. If you deal with businesses consider avoiding sole traders. Claims against partnerships and companies are not affected by this. Although a small company may not be worth suing either, for different reasons.
  3. And make sure you know who you are contracting with (always a good idea anyway). Is The Red Lion PH run by a sole trader, or a partnership, or a company, and if so who are they?
  4. Credit-check you customers before you do business with them, not just before you sue them.
  5. Start the process very early – the moment that the payment becomes overdue.
  6. Send non-protocol letters chasing debts as present, knowing that at the end of the day you probably won’t sue for claims below a certain value.
  7. Insure, or factor, or sell your debts, or consider doing so. 50% of a debt that is actually paid is better than 100% of a debt that isn’t.
  8. Get some training so you can get things right, or pass the debt collection to an outside collector who knows the ropes.
  9. And get your paperwork in order. The new system will expose errors that you used to be able to hide in the past.
  10. Or hope for the best and see above.**

And the Verdict?

When the Mortgage Arrears Protocol was introduced a number of years ago there was much concern in the industry that the new procedure, not that different to that given here, would make mortgage arrears impossible to recover. In fact, once the lenders had got used to things I understand that it made very little difference, and although the process took longer this merely allowed the borrowers who could pay if given time a bit more time to pay, to everybody’s advantage. The borrowers who couldn’t pay were evicted a bit later, but as most of the debts were covered by the security of the houses the lenders got paid in the end. So on the whole it was a good result.

I’m not sure that this will happen here. Consumer debts aren’t covered by security on the whole, and small businesses can be badly affected by delays in payment. There is a lot of scope for the ingenious debtor to delay things and play the system.

These procedures may be appropriate for a finance company, or a credit card company which is recovering debts on a large scale, although they are already covered by the FCA’s requirements which are not that different. They are less appropriate for the plumber or nursery, or indeed the  friendly local solicitor who don’t insist on payment in advance at the moment. Although that may have to change.

It will be interesting to see how this works out.


 

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Why All Businesses are Risky

This isn’t my normal legal/land-law sort of piece. However, in another life I attend networking breakfasts in Leamington Spa, and this piece is based on a talk that I gave there.

I’ve spent over 35 years as a litigation solicitor. This gives you a very jaundiced view of things. People only come to see me when things have gone wrong. So I’m very used to risk – a major part of my work is managing risk. What can I pass on?

All businesses have risk

If you’re an employee you get paid a salary which doesn’t normally depend too precisely on how much money you are making for your employer. But if you are in business you charge your clients/customers/patients fees and you incur expenses such as salaries, rent, and the cost of materials, and the two sides of the equation are only distantly related to each other. If your income is larger than your expenses you make a profit, and if they aren’t you make a loss, and in many businesses the difference is a very thin line. So there is a risk.

It is part of being a business. You can’t eliminate it. You have to recognise it, and then live with it. And do remember there is the world of difference between being good at an activity  – say photography – and being able to trade successfully as a photographer. You need many extra skills. Risk management is one of them.

Going into business is risky – but then so is living. We could all avoid the risk of being knocked down by a bus by staying at home all day. But we don’t – we just remember to look both ways for the large red (or blue) things. And the budding photographer can manage his risk by getting his staging checked, having the children chaperoned, and taking lots of pictures so that some of them are what the clients want.

Risk isn’t bad in itself. It’s unmanaged, unrecognised risk that is the problem. You have to have a sense of proportion. You walk a lot closer to the edge of a kerb than you do to the edge of  a cliff because the consequences of getting things wrong are so much more serious. So you factor the chances of failure against the consequences of failure and act accordingly.

Of course you don’t always have to take the risks offered. If you don’t like what you see

  • avoid the activity. I don’t know much about conveyancing. So I don’t do it, and any that comes my way is sent on to others who know better;
  • protect by taking precautions, or undertaking training, or by limiting your potential liabilty by contract, or whatever;
  • protect things by insurance, or laying off liability on sub contractors, so you aren’t in the line of fire if things do go wrong.

And remember, risk can be a reason for you to charge a premium price for a tricky job. And if you do enough of something you ought to get pretty good at it, so you have a niche, and are doing things that are well within your comfort-zone. Taming lions doesn’t bother a lion-tamer, although it would certainly bother me.

Risk is good.

Types of risk

It’s essential to recognise & evaluate risk when you see it. At any rate you have to know when there is a problem. As a partner said when I was a trainee in London:

You don’t need to know where the mines are. We have people to tell you that. But you’ve got to know that you’re in a b****y minefield!

A major reason for business failure is not providing for risks properly. If you’re a buy-to-let landlord you have to factor the risk of voids, or the 6-9 months it takes to get an eviction, or changes in the tax on interest, or changes in the law (eg on s21 or the definition of Houses in Multiple Occupation) into your business plan or you will make a lot less than you were expecting, possibly fatally so.

Or say that you are an IT company and allow one customer to account for say 40% of your turnover. You are very vulnerable if their business fails, or is taken over by somebody who doesn’t continue the relationship. We all know to our cost that big and apparently healthy companies can fail – BhS or Austin Reed are only the latest examples. And if they ask you to cut your charges, or give them freebies, you may be unable to resist. Think of farmers, supermarkets, and the price of milk. You have to have your wits about you all the time.

There are two main types of risk – risks of trading, and personal risks – and here are a few examples.

Risks of Trading

  • bad debts/insolvent debtors.
  • changes in the market -new competitors, changes in fashion, technological breakthroughs.
  • changes in cost of fuel, or changes in law or tax.
  • unexpected costs of repairs or research, or a court case.
  • supply problems.
  • employee problems.
  • landlord or tenant problems.
  • black swans – totally unexpected developments that you could not foresee (like the discovery of black swans in Australia when all the rest of the world’s swans are basically white.)

Do remember that most businesses fail because of cashflow problems, not lack of profits as such.

Personal Risks

  • illness/death of owner or family, or key workers
  • divorce of owner(s) or key workers.
  • internal disputes inside company.
  • age and succession.

What to do

Before you start research the business thoroughly. The internet is a wonderful tool, as are books, but they are not enough in themselves. Not everything they say is right, and your particular type of work, or location, or skills, may be different. There is no substitute to practical hands-on working as close to your proposed business as possible. But do remember that if you are working with the vendors of the business that they might not be entirely balanced in their view of things. They are unlikely to undervalue their business or its prospects.

Once you have started take as much advice as you can. You don’t need to follow all of it, indeed you’d be a fool if you did. But you ought to consider it. There are a lot a potential places to get advice – colleagues (if you can), contacts in your trade, networking contacts, friends and relations (although they may not know much about your business), formal mentors, formal training courses and qualifications, and professionals – accountants (the key advisor for most small businesses), lawyers, surveyors, IT techies. And pick the right one – ask around, don’t just read their blurb or go for price.

And then take precautions:

  • set up your organisation properly. Register with HMRC. Get a partnership agreement, or shareholders’ agreement to avoid internal disagreements. Get employment contracts.
  • get terms of business and contracts – either from your trade body or from a lawyer – and use them.
  • set up systems, and follow them.
  • keep records, and back them up regularly.
  • insure against risks that you don’t want to cover yourself.
  • talk to banks before you’re in trouble rather than afterwards.
  • take up credit references for customers and suppliers – accounts at Companies House can be 2-3 years out of date.
  • keep your life/work balance under control.
  • don’t fall out with your wife, or business partner. That will really mess things up.
  • and don’t fall out with suppliers, or competitors unless completely unavoidable. A bit of good will goes a long way.

If you are in trouble seek help early. All professionals find it so much easier to help you if they are called in before matters are going terminal. They may be able to stop you making things worse.

And manage risk. Do what you are good at, and comfortable with. Get others to do the rest. These can be employees, or sub-contractors, or suppliers, or agents. There will be a cost, but it may be worth it. Alternatively, don’t do it at all – like me and conveyancing. And if you are doing something new, start in a small way and work up with time.

What not to do

Don’t ignore problems, or only address them at the last minute.

But don’t get over-protective either. Don’t lose a good oppertunity by refusing to raise modest amounts of finance for it. Or get wildly over-insured against all possible risks, or spend a disproprtionate amount of time and money on seeking advice (I never said that business choices were easy to make.)

Obviously don’t take wild, unassessed risks. But more importantly don’t let your staff or colleagues do so either – often without realising the nature of the risks they are taking, if they have less experience or expertise than you. Or if you haven’t filled them in about the potential problem.

And don’t get too worried either. If you are sick with worry all the time you ought to be doing something else.

Legal dangers – the realities

There is a lot more to taking people to court than just getting the law right, although that undoubtedly helps. Courts are slow and expensive. Opponents go bust and are unable to pay judgments, or the winner’s costs. A lot of management time has to be put into fighting a case which could more productively be used earning money for your business. Big opponents can be very difficult to deal with, as they can throw vast resources both in cash and in manpower at a problem that you can’t match.

You need to be almost certain to win sometimes for it to be all worthwhile. Because if you are certain to win the other side is certain to lose, and can usually be persuaded to do a deal. The courts are really only just a method of getting the parties round a table to settle things, so the sooner you can convince them of this the easier it will be. And if you have good documentary evidence, created at the same time as the events, then any judge is almost certain to find in your favour, so this is the thing to do. Record, get receipts, take photos, confirm things in writing. Don’t just rely on your memory, and an impressive witness-box manner, because that rarely wins these days.

Further information

There is a lot of training out there which can give you useful skills and some of it is essential – if you want to drive an HGV lorry you have to have a licence. And there is genuine expertise and proven techniques in marketing, sales and management, which can be learned, as well as the more classical skills like book-keeping. Look around and pick what suits you.

Obviously keep your technical knowledge up to date. This is what your customer expects and might give you a competitive edge. Things can change very quickly – don’t get left behind.

Books, the internet, trade periodicals and so on can be excellent in showing you the way into a problem, or in keeping an overview on an aspect that you don’t come to very often, or in showing the current trends and interests in your field.

If you need detailed help in a technical area you can go to a professional, for a price. For most small businesses the accountant is the first port of call, and they should be able to direct you to appropriate lawyers or surveyors or whatever if it isn’t their sort of problem.

However, do beware that a lot of “training” is really just a way for the trainer to make a living, rather than being a lot of practical use to you. And some professionals aren’t worth much either.

Finally

So, as I said before

Risk is Good.

Or more accurately

Managed, understood, recognised, prepared risk can be good in appropriate circumstances.

But even then, beware of black swans. Such as the referendum leading to Brexit, which nobody expected when my own business was set up a few years ago, and and the long-term result of which is impossible to predict. A definite risk – but perhaps one for another day.

Law and Business – Here be Dragons

In my day job (which as I may have mentioned is no longer in Coventry) I advise clients on a range of litigation-based topics, and not just housing and landlord-and-tenant. Most of them are small businesses of one sort or another. And I’ve been horrified by how little they know about really basic bits of law, despite having lived here for so many years. As one of my principals said when I was a trainee in London:

You don’t need to know exactly where the mines are. We’ve got people who can tell you that. But you DO need to know that you’re in a minefield.

I thought that Dragons would be better for the title, but the meaning’s the same. If you don’t know there might be a problem you go blundering on until it blows up in your face. Or has you for lunch.

Lawyers aren’t needed by most businesses every day. They get called in when the owners reckon they have a legal problem. So it’s the businesses which need to know what can be a problem and what is basically harmless. They need to learn a little law in the same way that you learn a little first aid – enough to deal with the minor cuts and bruises you get every day, but also enough to know that somebody with  excruciating pain in the chest radiating down the arms is beyond a sit-down and a nice cup of tea, and needs urgent help from the paramedics.

And it doesn’t help if they believe various myths, fairy stories and legends. Like the Four Humours of ancient Greek medicine, beliefs that chest pains are caused by an excess of black bile and are cured by applications of poultices of lettuce leaves, or whatever, aren’t just ineffective, they are downright harmful and prevent or at any rate delay proper treatment being given. Possibly until it’s too late.

COVENTRY MAN’S BASIC GUIDE

So here are a few points that have come to me, in no particular order.

Leases

Business Leases are always tricky. A lot depends on what isn’t there (which you can’t see) as well as what is (which you can). You are tying up large amounts of money for long periods of time, and if you get things wrong you may be risking the entire business. ALWAYS take advice on these. If the lawyer misses something you can sue him. If you do,  and you are far more likely to do so,  you don’t have this option.  And do note the key dates etc for break clauses, payment of rent, service of notices and so on. They really matter.

Residential leases are slightly easier. If it is a long lease (eg 99 years) you will both need lawyers as it’s conveyancing and any mortgagees will insist on it, apart from anything else. If it is a short AST lease then a landlord needs at the least to get a standard lease from a reputable source (eg one of the landlords organisations) and read it carefully. A tenant may get away without paid advice, but again reading things through and asking questions (preferably in writing) is vital.

KEY POINTS

  • If you are served with any sort of formal notice take advice. It is probably important, and undoubtedly has a time-limit for a response.
  • If you want to serve a formal notice take advice too, at least the first time. There are often prescribed forms, and if you don’t use them, or don’t fill them in properly they probably won’t be valid.
  • If you are the tenant, or one of the tenants, then you are liable for ALL the rent for the WHOLE term of the lease. So are the other tenants going to pay their share? Are any sub-tenants too, because you’re liable for their rent as well. And do you want to stay there for as long as that?
  • If you are the landlord do remember that the most reliable tenants can go bankrupt/get wound up, or die, and you may have void periods. And that guarantors aren’t always entirely reliable either.
  • Most tenants with business leases can renew them when they expire. Unless this right has been excluded, which it often is. And there are a lot of important time limits and notices involved with this area. Beware.

Contracts

Business contracts don’t have to be in writing but really ought to be. It is so much easier to prove things 2 years later if you can produce a copy. Especially if your salesman doesn’t work for you any more. So confirm everything by email or letter and for heaven’s sake keep copies. Do remember though that you can make an oral contract, over the phone or in a meeting, so be careful what you say. Keep a note.

KEY POINTS

  • It’s well worth while having standard terms of business that set out your normal conditions in an organised way. They can cover things like time for payment, limitation of risk to say invoice price, time for complaints, agreement to  variations, interest on arrears, choice of law, arbitration clause and so on. Get this prepared by a lawyer – he’ll get it right. And the cost is quite small in the scheme of things.
  • If the other party sends you their terms look at them and consider if there is anything that you can’t agree. Can you inspect the goods in 48 hours? If there are specifications are they correct? Do you agree the day work rates?
  • Be very careful if the contract says it is an ENTIRE CONTRACT and that the parties haven’t relied on any pre-contract representations. This means that you have to get all of the terms in it, and that the letter from their managing director that says that the coating has been approved by the MoD, when it hasn’t, can’t normally be relied on. So you may be stuck. Unless you get this put into a schedule somewhere.
  • If it’s a big valuable contract GET ADVICE. The time to negotiate things is before you sign up, not afterwards.
  • Although the courts can vary contracts if they are on one party’s standard terms and are unreasonable, they can only do so in some limited ways, and their general attitude is that it is up to businesses to drive their own bargains, so they aren’t enthusiastic.
  • Besides, litigation is expensive and risky. A good contract will settle things from the outset.

Insolvency

All businesses ought to know something about this.

KEY POINTS

  • If somebody goes bankrupt, or if a company is wound up or goes into administration it is very unlikely to be able to pay its debts in full, especially its unsecured debts.
  • Accounts get out of date very quickly. If a potential customer’s or supplier’s latest accounts are 2 years old they may not mean very much at all.
  • There are rules to prevent a debtor off-loading their assets on a spouse or a friend, but they don’t work every time, so just because X has a villa in Tuscany doesn’t mean he’ll still have it in 6 months when he goes bust.
  • And nothing ever seems to hold its value when the Trustee sells it. Especially business debts that are down in the accounts as Debtors. These are frequently worthless.
  • People and businesses go bust because of cash-flow, not long-term profitability. You may be on course to make £5m when you sell the plant in 3 years’ time, but if the bank insist of getting their £500k back now you’ve got a serious problem.
  • And every time a large business fails there are lots of smaller suppliers, sometimes even including the lawyers, who will have to write off invoices that previously looked fine, and which they were relying on to pay their own way.

Other Areas

A business has a lot of bits of knowledge to cover as well as its core business – tax, planning, environmental protection, health and safety, employment, immigration and the rest. These need to be dealt with. And the owners may have family law issues following the break-up of a marriage which can really mess up a family-owned business. Or the plans for the future generation are spoiled by a badly-drafted will, or indeed no will at all.

Plan ahead. Have a will. Keep records. And take advice.

In Summary

I do hope that not too many local business read and follow this advice, as it will reduce the amount of litigation, and the cost of the litigation, considerably. So I’d better stop here, as I’ve a living to make. But I hope that it’s been useful to some.