Personal Liability for Company Directors

Insolvent Trading Phoenix Activity Company Director Duties
By

A company is an association incorporated under the Corporations Act 2001 (Cth) (the ‘Act’). The effect of incorporation gives the company a separate entity, distinct from its directors and shareholders. It can enter into contracts, sue and be sued in its own right.

The Australian Investment and Securities Commission (ASIC) is the Government body authorised to administer the Act and may investigate and impose civil and criminal penalties for breaches under the Act.

As the company is a separate legal entity, generally its directors are not personally liable for the company’s actions. However, increasingly, creditors of companies that have limited assets and ASIC are pursuing recovery personally from company directors who may have breached their duties under the Act.

In certain circumstances, directors can be held personally liable for losses of the company. Some of these circumstances include:

  • Insolvent Trading;
  • Personal Guarantees;
  • Breaching directors’ duties;
  • Taxation debts and superannuation contributions; and
  • Phoenix activity.

Insolvent Trading

The Act prohibits a company from trading whilst it is insolvent.

Because a company is a separate legal entity, directors and shareholders are generally protected from being personally liable for the company’s debts. This protection however may be abused when directors allow companies to continue trading and incurring debt despite warnings of potential insolvency.

To circumvent unscrupulous or reckless trading, the Act provides that directors who allow a company to trade whilst insolvent will be in breach of both civil and criminal provisions of the Act and may be liable for its debts.

There are however certain defences available and directors may not be liable if:

  • they had reasonable grounds to expect the company was solvent at the time the debt was incurred and would remain solvent after that time; or
  • at the time the debt was incurred they did not participate in management due to illness or some other good reason; or
  • they took all reasonable steps to prevent the company from incurring the debt.

Arguably, the threat of confronting personal liability for insolvent trading could cause directors who are facing transient cashflow issues to succumb to the early appointment of an administrator, despite good prospects of survival. To find an appropriate balance between encouraging enterprise and protecting the community, additional protections for directors have been introduced.

The safe harbour provisions are available to directors who take positive steps that are reasonably likely to result in a better outcome for the company than administration or liquidation. Directors will not be liable for the debts of a company incurred whilst it is insolvent if:

  • after suspecting the company is in threat of insolvency, the directors begin to develop a course of action that could be reasonably likely to lead to a better outcome for the company than immediate administration or liquidation; and
  • the debts were incurred directly or indirectly in connection with this course of action.

Factors that may establish that a course of action would likely lead to a better outcome include:

  • whether the director properly informed himself / herself of the company’s financial position;
  • whether the director prepared a plan to improve the financial viability of the company such as a restructure;
  • whether the director retained a suitably qualified person to advise on the restructuring;
  • the taking of appropriate steps to prevent any misconduct within the company that could adversely affect its ability to pay its debts.

Directors generally cannot rely on the safe harbour provisions in circumstances where the company has failed to meet its obligations for employee entitlements as they fall due, failed to maintain accurate financial accounts and records, or failed to substantially comply with its reporting and filing requirements under taxation laws.

Personal Guarantees

A personal guarantee is a separate agreement between a director and a creditor where the director of a company agrees to pay a debt of a company in the event that the company does not make payment.

This could include a director providing security over personal assets such as a home.

Breaching directors’ duties

Under the Act, directors have certain duties that must be complied with.

Where a breach of any of these duties is committed and the company suffers a loss, directors can be personally liable.

In these circumstances, civil and criminal penalties under the Act will apply, including paying compensation to the company.

Taxation debts and superannuation contributions

Directors are personally responsible for companies complying with Pay As You Go (PAYG) withholding and Superannuation Guarantee Charge (SGC) obligations.

Where these obligations are not met by a company, a director can become personally liable for non-compliance and a penalty.

Phoenix Activity

This activity occurs where the directors of a company place it into administration or liquidation to avoid payment of creditors but continue the business under a new company name.

Not only can it result in civil and criminal penalties for directors, it can also result in a term of imprisonment.

Conclusion

Company directors hold a position of power and trust. The risk of personal liability is real but manageable and should not deter you from pursuing business and employment opportunities.

The best way to meet the obligations of being a director is to become familiar with your duties and to understand the legal obligations and the situations which could give rise to personal liability, be involved in the affairs and operations of the company and to obtain professional advice and assistance when needed.

If you or someone you know wants more information or needs help or advice, please contact us on 1800 640 509 or email mail@sajenlegal.com.au.

Tagged in: , , , , , , , , , , ,


You may also be interested in:

6 Things You Can Expect When Declaring Bankruptcy

Declaring bankruptcy should be your last resort when you are faced with financial difficulties, whether as an individual or as a business owner. It is not exactly a “Get Out of Jail Free” card, as it comes with many adverse consequences, which may significantly impact your financial standing over a considerable period. So what consequences continue reading

How do you determine if a company is insolvent?

The answer to the question “How do you determine if a company is insolvent?” is important because there are serious consequences for a director if debts are incurred after the company has become insolvent, including civil penalties, compensation proceedings and criminal charges. However, it is often difficult to know when a company has crossed the continue reading

What to do if you receive an ATO Director Penalty Notice

Did you know that company directors may potentially become personally liable for unremitted Pay As You Go (PAYG) deductions and Superannuation Guarantee Charges (SGCs)? The Australian Taxation Office (ATO) has significant powers to recover a company’s unpaid liabilities personally through its directors and may issue a Director Penalty Notice (DPN). This article focuses on the continue reading

Liability Limited by a scheme approved under professional standards legislation | Website by VA