Directors: Reckless Trading and Personal Liability in the Time of Coronavirus

Businesswoman looking at strategy sketch

Some businesses are flying with the many new opportunities presented to them by the lockdown crisis, but many others now face serious cash flow and liquidity problems.

Now more than ever directors need to be keenly aware of their ongoing obligations in terms of the Companies Act. Failure to live up to the Act’s high standards of care risks personal liability as well as criminal prosecution.

This then is a timely reminder to all “directors” (we explain how widely defined that term is in this context) of the dangers of reckless trading. What is reckless trading? Does the recent CIPC Notice absolve you from liability? How can you minimise your risk? Read on for some thoughts…

“Better safe than sorry” (wise old proverb)

The COVID-19 pandemic and its ongoing economic fallout have left many businesses struggling with cash flow and even viability challenges. 

The result is that an increasing number of companies are either trading in insolvent circumstances, or in grave danger of doing so.

Reckless trading and your risk of personal liability

To quote from the Companies Act (section 22(1)): “A company must not carry on its business recklessly, with gross negligence, with intent to defraud any person or for any fraudulent purpose.” 

And per section 77(3) any director “is liable for any loss, damages or costs sustained by the company as a direct or indirect consequence of the director having … acquiesced in the carrying on of the company’s business despite knowing that it was being conducted in a manner prohibited by section 22(1)”. 

That’s a lot of potential for liability and it demands very careful management at any time – but perhaps even more so in these times of uncertainty and heightened economic risk.

What is “reckless trading”?

As the Supreme Court of Appeal has put it: “If a company continues to carry on business and to incur debts when, in the opinion of reasonable businessmen, standing in the shoes of the directors, there would be no reasonable prospect of the creditors receiving payment when due, it will in general be a proper inference that the business is being carried on recklessly.” A lot of companies must currently be in danger of falling into that net.

Who is at risk? Not just directors… 

The Companies Act defines a “director” for the purposes of personal liability as including an “alternate director”, a “prescribed officer” (which brings many senior managers into the net), a “person who is a member of a committee of a board of a company, or of the audit committee of a company”, “irrespective of whether or not the person is also a member of the company’s board”.

Does the CIPC Notice protect you?

On 24 March 2020 the Companies and Intellectual Property Commission (CIPC) issued a formal Notice to the effect that it will not exercise its power to issue a compliance notice to a company “which is temporarily insolvent and still carrying on business or trading” but only where “it has reason to believe that the insolvency is due to business conditions, which were caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.” That practice, said the CIPC, will lapse 60 days after the declaration of a national disaster has been lifted. 

That announcement has been interpreted by some commentators as “allowing” reckless trading by companies, and indeed it may well be that at least some directors under attack will give that defence a try. 

But that is not what the CIPC Notice actually says, and the more cautious view is that the Companies Act’s prohibition against reckless trading remains intact and that all that has changed is a temporary waiver by CIPC of its power to enforce statutory compliance.

So what should you do if your company is struggling?

We are in uncharted territory here with the pandemic, and on the principle of “better safe than sorry” this is no time to take chances. If your company is financially distressed or the prospect of trading in insolvent circumstances looms, take professional advice immediately on how best to proceed. Business rescue or even liquidation may be unavoidable or you may be advised to pursue another route after full good-faith discussion with all role-players, but whatever the outcome quick and decisive action is critical.