Major implications for company directors
Taking on the responsibility of a directorship is not a decision to be taken lightly. For New Zealand directors, the magnitude of the director role has been hammered home with the decision of the Mainzeal case from the Supreme Court in late August.
This decision has sent a strong signal from the New Zealand justice system that directors can, and will be, held personally liable for financial losses experienced by creditors if the directors allow the company to trade recklessly and/or trade while insolvent.
Mainzeal Property and Construction Limited was one of the largest New Zealand construction companies in the years leading up to its financial collapse. In 2013, the company went into receivership and liquidation owing unsecured creditors around $110 million. The Mainzeal liquidators believed that the directors of the company had breached s135 (reckless trading) and s136 (insolvent trading) of the Companies Act 1993 and should be held personally liable for the losses of the company’s creditors.
Supreme Court decision
While going into the nuances of each of the court hearings is too complex for the scope of this article (the Mainzeal case has been heard in the High Court, Court of Appeal and Supreme Court), it is noteworthy that each court accepted that the directors should be held personally liable to some extent for a breach of their director’s duties.
At the highest court in New Zealand, the Supreme Court, the judges found that the directors should be liable for $39.8 million plus interest payable at 5% pa from the date of liquidation (together more than $50 million). The chief executive of Mainzeal is responsible for the full sum, and the liability of the three other directors was capped at $6.6 million each plus interest.
Facts rather than intentions
Critically, personal liability falling on a director due to a breach of directors’ duties under s135 (reckless trading) and s136 (insolvent trading) is a matter of facts, not intentions.
The Mainzeal directors were not accused of any conflict of interest or lack of honesty, and were taken on their word that they acted with good intention while running the company. Regardless, it mattered that on the facts they permitted the company to trade in a way that was reckless and allowed the company to trade while it was insolvent.
Companies Act 1993 may need a refresh
Both the Court of Appeal and Supreme Court indicated that a review and update of the Companies Act will be helpful.
The Mainzeal case reinforces to directors the consequences of failing to avoid reckless or insolvent trading, however the current legislation does not provide additional guidance or safe harbour for directors and their decision-making. Adding new guidance for directors’ duties into the Companies Act could enable directors to more confidently navigate the complexities of commercial decision-making with a need for accountability to their creditors.
After the announcement of the Supreme Court decision, many directors may want to take a moment to step back and allow the lessons of Mainzeal to sink in. Becoming personally liable for a company’s debts is a significant risk associated with accepting (or continuing) a director role.
Every director of a company should ensure they feel adequately knowledgeable about all key aspects of their company and the sector in which it operates. Accepting a directorship role where there are gaps in skills, or knowledge of the company or sector, can lead to an increased risk that the director may unwittingly allow, or join their other directors in, a decision that permits the company to trade in a reckless or insolvent manner, opening up personal liability and prejudicing creditors.
If you are considering taking on a directorship, you should take independent legal and accounting advice to not only carefully assess whether your skills are a good match for the company and sector, but also to be clear on any potential personal liability.
If you would like some help in assessing whether a directorship is a good fit for you, please don’t hesitate to contact us for further guidance.
 Yan v Mainzeal Property and Construction Limited (in liquidation)  NZSC 113.
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