Warning: a statutory demand for part of a debt will be set aside

Imagine this very common scenario.  Before attempting to recover a debt, a creditor learns of circumstances which give rise to a genuine dispute about part of it, but there is still some undisputed part left over.

The creditor quite logically makes a demand for the undisputed part, knowing it cannot swear in a supporting affidavit that the whole of the debt is due and payable and that there is no genuine dispute as to the existence of all of the debt.

Two recent cases have ruled that a statutory demand made in these circumstances does not comply with s459E of the Corporations Act 2001 and is liable to be set aside.

The decisions cause practical difficulties for creditors attempting to recover the undisputed balance of a debt.

The cases are Garuda Aviation Pty Ltd v Commonwealth Bank Of Australia [2012] WASC 115 (link) and Candetti Constructions Pty Ltd v M & I Samaras (No 1) Pty Ltd  [2011] SASC 165 (link).

In Candetti, a creditor was owed $1,457,935 for crane services nett of amounts already paid.  In correspondence, the debtor had disputed liability for the nett amount but had admitted that only $308,151 was payable.

Section 459E (link) governs the content of a statutory demand and among other things requires that the demand relate to a single or one or more debts that are due and payable.  The existence of the debt, that it is due and undisputed must be verified by affidavit.

Justice Blue of the South Australian Supreme Court construed s459E (see paras 47 to 53 of the judgment) to require that the whole of the debt demanded must be undisputed, since the wording of s459E(1) was silent as to whether a part of a debt could be demanded.  The purposive basis of the decision was that a debtor seeking to set aside the demand would not know which “part” of the debt to dispute, and would in effect have to raise a dispute as to the whole of the debt.

In the Garuda case, the Commonwealth Bank was owed USD16,650,000 by Garuda under a facility agreement, secured by a chattel mortgage over a Gulf stream aircraft and a director’s guarantee.  The facility was in default.

At the time the demand was to be issued, CBA believed it had a debt claim against Garuda for USD6,896,535.05.

In related proceedings that had gone to trial between CBA and the guarantor in which judgment was pending, issues had been raised which clearly gave rise to a genuine dispute as to all but USD2,099,047.13 of that amount.

Accordingly, CBA served a demand only for USD2,099,047.13 in anticipation of a genuine dispute being raised as to the balance.

Master Sanderson of the WA Supreme Court took the view that a demand for part of a debt was valid as a matter of statutory construction.  His analysis was:

[21] It is worth bearing in mind the nature of the statutory demand procedure. The party who claims a company is indebted to it and who says there is no genuine dispute about the debt can issue the demand. A company served with a demand has three options. It can pay the amount demanded. It can seek to have the demand set aside on the basis there is a genuine dispute between the parties, or the company has an offsetting claim greater than the amount demanded, or the company can do nothing. If the application to set aside the demand is unsuccessful or if the company does nothing a presumption of insolvency arises. The party making the demand then has a choice — it can apply to wind up the company or it can do nothing. If an application to wind up is made and the presumption of insolvency is not rebutted by the company then it would be wound up. All this is nothing more than the practical manifestation of the principle that a company which cannot pay its debts as and when they fall due is insolvent. Insolvent companies should be wound up. That is a basic principle of the law of corporate insolvency.

[22] Looked at in this way it does not really matter whether the demand has been made for the whole of an outstanding debt or part of it. If a company cannot pay part of a debt, that part not being disputed, it is presumed to be insolvent. So long as the amount demanded is more than $2,000 (the statutory minimum) a presumption arises. In my view, it is to unnecessarily complicate what is a simple procedure not to allow a party to claim anything other than the full amount of the debt.

[23] There are also practical difficulties about that approach. In this case for instance, it is difficult to see how the supporting affidavit could possibly have attested to there being no dispute as to the entire debt. Perhaps it could have been done — after all the respondent has argued [in the related proceeding] before Le Miere J it is entitled to judgment for the full amount. But any affidavit would have to in some way acknowledge the existence of a dispute. So a party in the position of the respondent would never be able to serve a statutory demand despite the fact a portion of the debt was not in dispute and despite the fact the inability of the applicant to pay that debt may mean it was insolvent and liable to be wound up.

….

[25] In my view, it is open to construe s 459E(1)(a) as allowing a party to serve a statutory demand for part of a single debt. This section refers to “a demand relating to a single debt”. That would be sufficiently wide to allow a demand for part of a single debt. It would do no violence to the wording of the section and would allow for a practical outcome in a case such as the present.

However, Sanderson M accepted a submission that given the national scheme of the Corporations Act, despite his own analysis, he ought to follow the earlier decision of Blue J in Candetti until overturned by a higher court.

The effect of these decisions are very troubling because a creditor who is aware of a dispute as to part of a debt seems to be unable to issue a demand for any of the debt or the undisputed part of it.

One would expect an appeal court or single judge to favour the analysis of Sanderson M in future decisions.

Regards

Mark

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