The rule in Gibbs: safeguarding creditors’ rights or aiding and abetting "hold out" in foreign insolvencies?

Restructuring Alert | February.12.2018

There is an English common law rule that a debt governed by English law cannot be discharged or compromised by a foreign insolvency proceeding. This rule is derived from a Court of Appeal case: Antony Gibbs and sons v La Société Industrielle et Commerciale des Métaux (1890) 25 QBD 399.

The rule has been heavily criticised. Many do not consider it to be relevant in modern day cross-border insolvency proceedings following the continuing trend towards recognition of foreign insolvency proceedings (and their effects). As explained further below, some commentators see the rule as assisting creditors to "hold out" from participating in collective insolvency measures which are designed to benefit the creditor class as a whole.

The English court recently had the opportunity to review whether Gibbs still applied in Bakhshiyeva v Sberbank of Russia [2018] EWHC 59 (Ch). The court considered an application by a foreign representative to the English court on behalf of a debtor, International Bank of Azerbaijan, for a permanent stay on a creditors' enforcement of claims in England under an English law governed contract contrary to the terms of the foreign insolvency proceeding. Under local law, the English creditors were purportedly bound. The Azerbaijani proceedings were not "terminal" liquidation proceedings and therefore, any stay would need to apply beyond the duration of the proceedings to properly bind the English creditors and to permanently give effect to the insolvency proceedings.

The foreign proceedings were conducted in Azerbaijan and had been recognised in England under the Cross-Border Insolvency Regulations 2006 (the "CBIR") (implementing UNCITRAL Model Law). The CBIR are a procedural mechanism whereby foreign insolvency proceedings (conducted outside the EU) can be recognised and foreign representatives can seek "assistance" from courts in other jurisdictions to effect the insolvency proceedings (subject to any restrictions on the exercise of such power under local law).

The English High Court found that the rule in Gibbs did apply to prevent the court granting a permanent (or indefinite) stay on the enforcement of creditors' English law governed contractual claims. Any stay granted by the court would be more than simply procedural and would go to the substance of creditors' claims - the court would, in effect, be ordering the discharge of the creditor's claim and was prohibited from doing this, following the rule in Gibbs.

The message for creditors with English law claims which are purportedly extinguished under a foreign (non-EU) insolvency process is therefore, to adopt a "hold out" position. Following the expiry of the foreign proceedings (and any related stay on creditor action), objecting creditors may then take steps to enforce English law governed contractual claims provided however, that they have not participated in the foreign insolvency proceedings (they may otherwise be deemed to have accepted the jurisdiction of the foreign proceeding).

We note many holders of English law governed bonds issued by the Greek government adopted a "hold-out" strategy knowing that the English courts would not recognise any provision of Greek law extinguishing or amending the sovereign debt.

The "territorial" nature of the rule in Gibbs is, arguably, "out of step" with trends in modern insolvency law. In the US, for example, in proceedings under Chapter 15 of the Bankruptcy Code (the US statute adopting UNCITRAL Model Law) ("Chapter 15"), US courts have enforced foreign court judgements made in foreign proceedings, including judgements which alter or vary US law governed debts or claims. Chapter 15 does however, include important public policy protections for creditors designed to forestall recognition of clearly abusive procedures.

The US has a longstanding policy of recognising restructurings of US law governed financings of foreign companies. The Supreme Court's 1883 decision in the famous Gebhard case (Canada Southern Railway Co v Gebhard [1883] 109 US 527) set the precedent for US recognition of foreign restructuring processes in which Chief Justice Waite endorsed the recognition of the implementation of a Canadian scheme of arrangement with the words "under these circumstances the true spirit of international comity requires that schemes of this character, legalised at home, should be recognised in other countries".

The "public policy" exception to recognition under Chapter 15 only applies in "exceptional circumstances" and includes, for example, circumstances where a creditor was denied due process and notice of the foreign insolvency proceedings of the debtor; and the denial of privacy rights. The fact that a creditor may make a more limited recovery, and the fact that the substantive law of the insolvency proceeding was not the same as US law, were not held to be "manifestly contrary" to public policy.

We note the Gibbs rule has been disapplied in the context of EU insolvency proceedings, on the basis that English courts recognise the jurisdiction of courts in respect of insolvency proceedings in Member States under the European Insolvency Regulation ("EIR"); and similar "public policy" exceptions apply. It is difficult to justify the radically different approach English courts take to non-EU insolvency proceedings particularly given the UK's recent decision to leave the EU.

Our view is that as part of any withdrawal treaty of the UK from the EU, the parties should look to negotiate a process for mutual recognition of insolvency proceedings based on the EIR "recognition" approach. Looking outside of its relationship with the EU, it would also seem sensible for the UK to look to adopt an approach similar to US Chapter 15, for the UK courts to recognise foreign insolvency proceedings with safeguards for creditors to avoid the application of such rules only if limited public policy reasons exist to void the application of the foreign insolvency proceedings. The English court will want to avoid "re-litigating" issues dealt with under foreign insolvency proceedings, and should not examine actual recoveries made by creditors. However, a carve out on "public policy" grounds could protect English creditors if it captured circumstances where the process was evidently "discriminatory" to foreign (English) creditors.

We acknowledge there are strong arguments to retain the Gibbs rule. By entering an English law contract, creditors may feel strongly that they wish to retain the impartiality, commerciality and due process English courts are well known for.

As we near BREXIT, in this issue as in so many others, the UK has a decision to make: adopt English “exceptionalism” or take a more 'universalist' view implied by the recognition of foreign insolvency proceedings exemplified by the current arrangements under the EIR? The choice is looming.