Case brings comfort to creditors
Supreme Court of Appeal suggests their claims against sureties are not affected by a business rescue plan
ONE of the most significant judgments affecting the business rescue regime to date was handed down late in December 2014. The Supreme Court of Appeal delivered what should be the final word, unless a constitutional court challenge is launched, on how courts will treat sureties who had stood and provided security for the debts of a company (principal debtor) that subsequently went into business rescue and adopted a business rescue plan.
Up until this point, the question had been whether such suretyships would remain unaffected and enforceable. The December judgment, New Port Finance Company (Pty) Ltd and others v Mostert and others, is now set to have far-reaching consequences in the banking and finance arena and should provide a
Up until this point, the question had been whether such suretyships would remain unaffected and enforceable
The plans provided for the restructuring of the borrower companies’ debts.
An argument was raised on behalf of the sureties that because the business rescue plan allegedly had the effect of altering or compromising the underlying principal debt, the lenders could not pursue the sureties or enforce their claims against them until the business rescue process had run its course. In this regard, reliance was placed on the recent Western Cape High Court case of Tuning Fork (Pty) Ltd t/a Balanced Audio v Greeff and another, where it was held that the adoption of a business rescue plan must have, as a point of departure, a very specific clause in the deed of suretyship or business rescue plan itself preserving the lender’s right to pursue the surety for the full original amount of the debt, failing which the lender’s claim may be compromised.
The Supreme Court of Appeal in New Port, however, adopted a more creditor-friendly interpretation of the business rescue provisions. In the first place, the deeds of suretyship in this case contained the standard clauses which deal with the eventuality of the principal debtor compromising or otherwise rearranging its debts generally with its creditors. The court held that these clauses undoubtedly bring business rescue within their ambit and cater for such eventuality, such that the adoption of a business rescue plan would not prejudice the lender’s (full) claims against the sureties on a joint and several basis.
This in itself is a big decision in favour of creditors, and the court’s stance on this aspect should give comfort to the many creditors in SA who have that standard wording, or similar wording along those lines, as terms in their deeds of suretyship. However, the court went even further and suggested (but without deciding) that even in the absence of such wording, the creditor’s rights against sureties are not necessarily affected by the adoption of a business rescue plan.
The finding in New Port confirms that creditors’ claims against sureties are not affected by a business rescue plan entered into with a principal debtor unless specific wording to that effect is contained in the plan itself.
The lender was, to some extent, assisted by the fact that independent judgments had been obtained against the sureties in New Port.
The New Port judgment nonetheless represents one of the most important and far-reaching decisions to date under the new business rescue regime, a regime which is being tested and interpreted on a regular basis by the High Court.
It is still recommended that deeds of suretyship contain express clauses fully preserving the creditor’s rights in instances where the borrower company generally compromises its debts (such as business rescue), as the New Port judgment at the very least solidifies that such a clause will preserve the creditor’s rights to pursue the surety for the full debt.