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Liquidation and bankruptcy petition dangers

Creditors who petition the court for the winding-up of a company or the bankruptcy of an individual as a debt-collecting remedy are not free from risk.

HHJ Peter Coulson QC sets out in Jacob v Vockrodt [2007] EWHC 2403 (QB) when petitioning is an abuse of process that could involve the tort of malicious presentation of a bankruptcy petition.

The key parts of the judgement on abuse of process are:

Mr. Davies relied on the well-known passage in the judgment of Harman J in Re a Company [1983] BCLC 492 in which he said:

"First, it is trite law that the Companies Court is not and should not be used as (despite the methods in fact often adopted) a debt-collecting court. The proper remedy for debt collecting is an execution upon a judgment, a distress, a garnishee order or some such procedure. On a petition in the Companies Court, in contrast with an ordinary action there is not a true lis between the petitioner and the company which they can deal with as they will. The true position is that a creditor petitioning the Companies Court is invoking a class right (see Re Crigglestone v. Coal Co. [1986] 2 Ch 327) and his petition must be governed by whether he is truly invoking that right on behalf of himself and all others of his class rateably, or whether he has some private purpose in view. It has long been an order that a petition presented for the purpose of putting pressure on the company is not properly presented: see Re a Company [1894] 2 Ch. 349 and, in a slightly different context, Re Bellador Silk Ltd. [1965] 1 All ER 667."
It is, of course, right that a bankruptcy petition must not be utilised where the petitioner knows that the debt is the subject of a bona fide dispute, but chooses to proceed with the petition in any event, so as to put illegitimate pressure on the other party to pay the debt. But the authorities cited above cannot be taken as authority for any wider principle or proposition. In my judgment, the correct approach to the facts, in a situation where the petition has failed and it is subsequently suggested that the presentation was malicious, was that applied in Partizan Ltd v OJ Kilkenny & Co Ltd [1998] 1 BCLC 157 by Rimer J, when he concluded at page 173:

"It follows that I am not satisfied that, when it presented the petition, Kilkenny was moved by notice or considerations different in any way from those which ordinarily motivate creditors who petition to wind up a company on the grounds that a debt claimed to be due to them (not being one which is regarded by the petitioner as disputed on substantial grounds) is unpaid despite demand; namely, at least an element of hope that, if the company can pay the debt despite its previous failure to do so, it will pay it and, if it cannot do so, a hope and expectation that it will be placed in liquidation so that there can be an orderly realisation of its assets for the benefit of its creditors generally."
What the cases show (and the point I take Rimer J to be addressing by the phrase in brackets in the quotation from his judgment set out above), is that the presentation of a petition is an abuse of process only if the petitioner knows or believes that the debt is in truth the subject of a substantial dispute.
Take care when petitioning if there is a substantial dispute!



Date: 20th January, 2008
Author: Chris Laughton


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