The remuneration of liquidators and
It is in the area of
remuneration that the most obvious conflict between the commercial interests of
the practitioner and his or her firm, and the interests of the creditors and
the wider public interest is manifest.
The level at which liquidators and administrators have been remunerated
in Australia has been a source of complaint from creditors. From 2006–2010,
eight per cent of insolvency related complaints to the Australian Securities
and Investments Commission (ASIC) concerned remuneration issues, including
excessive fees and poor disclosure of remuneration. A further 12 per cent of
complaints were critical of insolvency practitioners failing to act in a timely
This inquiry has also received complaints of overcharging and over servicing by
Previous inquiries have recommended reforming the remuneration framework
for insolvency practitioners in Australia. In 1988, notably, the Australian Law
Reform Commission (ALRC) recommended that a statutory board should have
exclusive power to determine and set remuneration scales for insolvency
practitioners. The ALRC preferred maximum amounts to fixed remuneration scales,
but emphasised that fees must be subject to approval by creditors.
Another inquiry explicitly avoided proposing this type of regulation. In
2004, as part of a review of Australia's insolvency laws, the Parliamentary Joint
Committee (PJC) on Corporations and Financial Services argued that in light of
concerns about the impact on competition, a scale of maximum fees for
insolvency practitioners is 'inappropriate'. The committee insisted that the
market must determine the most efficient and cost-effective fee setting
However, the PJC did recognise that enhanced disclosure of the basis of
fee setting 'can address some of the concerns expressed by creditors'.
Specifically, if creditors can understand and negotiate meaningfully with
practitioners about fees, they are better able to protect their interests.
Accordingly, the committee recommended that ASIC:
...work with the professional bodies to encourage the promotion
of best practice standards in remuneration charging and in particular the provision
of adequate disclosure of the basis of fees charged by insolvency practitioners
and on a more timely basis.
Both ASIC and the Insolvency Practitioners Association of Australia
(IPAA) have since sought to clarify 'best practice standards' in remuneration.
In 2008, the IPAA introduced a section in its Code of Professional Practice
dealing with remuneration. The Code established three remuneration principles:
that the work is 'necessary and proper'; that a claim for a fee is accompanied
by 'sufficient, meaningful, open and clear disclosure'; and that approval is
gained and recorded before remuneration is drawn. The same year, ASIC released
an information sheet giving general information for creditors on the approval of
liquidators' and administrators' fees. The sheet included a section indicating
to creditors how they might decide if the amount of fees charged by the
liquidator or administrator is reasonable.
There has also been statutory reform of the requirements for insolvency
practitioners in setting and receiving their fees. The Corporations Amendment
(Insolvency) Bill 2007 amended the Corporations Act 2001 to require
liquidators and external administrators to prepare a report on their fees for
creditors. The report must contain information that will enable the committee
of creditors to make an informed assessment of whether the proposed fees are
reasonable (see paragraphs 8.54–8.56).
Despite these clarifications and reforms, there clearly remains disquiet
about the fees charged by insolvency practitioners and concern at the lack of effective
regulatory oversight. This chapter discusses the issues relating to insolvency
practitioners' fees in closer detail. It is divided into the following parts:
- the calculation of, and methods of charging for, insolvency
services (paragraphs 8.8–8.15);
- the level at which fees are charged, including the committee's
evidence of overcharging and over servicing (paragraphs 8.16–8.27);
- disbursement payments (paragraphs 8.31–8.38);
- the priority given to the payment of insolvency practitioners
the current regulatory framework including (paragraphs 8.53–8.64):
- the practitioner's report on proposed fees;
- the remuneration principles and guidelines of the IPAA Code of
- ASIC's information sheets for creditors on approving fees,
liquidation and voluntary administration; and
- the need for better data on fees in the insolvency industry
Methods of charging
There is no statutory direction or formula to provide a basis for
calculating the remuneration of insolvency practitioners in Australia. The
statutory and judicial expectation is that remuneration is 'reasonable'.
The IPAA's Code of Professional Practice notes that the fees of an
administrator may be calculated using one of four methods:
time spent by the administrator and their staff according to
- a quoted fixed fee based on an estimate of the costs; or
- a percentage, usually of the realised assets; and
- a success or contingency fee.
The IPAA has no preference for the method of calculating fees, although
fees are most commonly charged on hourly rates.
The IPAA does require full disclosure of the basis for calculation to be provided
to the parties that approve the external administrators' fees.
This requires a practitioner to maintain a system that requires staff to
- the period of time spent;
the categories of work performed; and
- details of the work being performed.
For time based charging, the practitioner must ensure that the number
and qualifications of staff allocated to an administration is appropriate for
the nature of work being performed. The IPAA Code notes that a balance needs to
be found between having sufficient staff to undertake the required tasks and
over servicing the administration.
Criticism of the hourly rate of
Some witnesses argued that the hourly rate of payment encouraged
overcharging. Professor Scott Holmes of the University of Newcastle argued in
his submission that:
Charging for services by the hour does not encourage an
efficient allocation of time and time allocated can prove difficult to dispute.
Often the fees accrued are substantial and there is no formal mechanism for
review, other than creditors calling a meeting and requesting a report. There
is no real control over outgoings, as the VA can basically operate at their discretion
in administering their duties. All of this has proven attractive to some individuals,
rorting the latent opportunities this provides.
Associate Professor David Brown of the University of Adelaide argued
that 'no amount of information or guidelines in a Code about method and basis
of calculation can prevent allegations that actual rates applied to time are
He also claimed that in the absence of caps on remuneration, it is very
difficult for a court as the final arbiter to assess or fix 'reasonable'
Mr Ian Fong of Carlovers Carwash Limited and Berjaya Corporation Berhad told
the committee of his preference for a fixed price regime because it will 'incentivise
the practitioner to do the work as quickly as possible...and allows the creditors
and the owners of the business to assess the cost benefit of choosing
administration or liquidation upfront'.
Similarly, Mr Pierre Della-Putta argued that many of the standard
services that liquidators undertake should be at a fixed scale of charges set
by an independent ombudsman. He argued that hourly rates should be used only
where no other system is possible.
The level of fees charged by
liquidators and administrators
Most of the committee's evidence on the issue of liquidators' and
administrators' remuneration was concerned not with how fees are set per se,
but the level at which they are charged. This section looks at some of the
factors that may—reasonably or otherwise—contribute to the high cost of a liquidator
or administrator's appointment. These include:
- the complexity of the work and the difficult task of
disseminating company accounts;
- the insolvency practitioner's high level of exposure to risk;
- where a practitioner performs fee generating tasks that are
extraneous to the liquidation, thereby extending the time charged;
- the need to employ third parties to assist with the liquidation;
- a practitioner overcharging to compensate for lack of fee
generating opportunities on small insolvency jobs.
Support for the current fee-setting
Some witnesses to (and commentary during) this inquiry expressed support
for the current system of remunerating insolvency practitioners. They noted
that while there might be cases of overcharging, insolvency practitioners by
and large earn their rewards within a system of remuneration that is fair and
In May 2010, former High Court Judge Michael Kirby argued that the 'pernickety'
work of administering an insolvency is inherently expensive because of the 'intensive
nature of the investigation of accounts that insolvency practitioners must
analyse and understand'. He added that unless the public is willing to absorb
all such costs, a significant burden on creditors is virtually inescapable'.
Mr Geoffrey McDonald, a former insolvency practitioner (see chapter 5),
told the committee that as a liquidator:
...you may or may not recover your fees. For a number of years
the fact that fees have not been recovered on insolvency appointment has been the
justification for having a relatively high base rate of fees. I do not see that
as necessarily the problem that needs to be addressed.
Mr Mark Korda, partner at the large liquidation firm KordaMentha, wrote
in a submission to this inquiry that the focus on liquidation costs is
understandable given that stakeholders are losing money. However, Mr Korda
defended the current system of insolvency practitioners being paid
predominantly on hourly rates in preference to a system where liquidators
receive a percentage of proceeds. He noted:
We have considered fees being paid as a percentage of
realisations. The problem then will be insolvency practitioners will be accused
of a quick sale of the assets so as to get paid. We also note that investment
banks in the restructuring areas charge significantly more than the hourly rate
based insolvency professionals. The hourly rates of the insolvency
professionals administering the larger companies are at the lower end of the
standard rates of accounting and legal professions.
Another large insolvency firm, McGrathNicol recognised that liquidators'
fees can often be a vexed issue, particularly with small and medium sized
businesses where the costs of insolvency relative to available assets is high.
However, the firm argued that the current provisions on creditor approval of
fees, rights of oversight by ASIC and appeal to the courts 'adequately provides
for the protection of creditors interests'.
McGrathNicol argued that in cases where the fee framework may have failed
creditors, it is important to address the source of the problem rather than
pursue wholesale reform of the system. It noted that these problems could include
poor understanding by complainants and the community generally as to the real
costs of insolvency.
Criticism of liquidators' excessive
Several submitters and witnesses to this inquiry were critical of the
largesse of insolvency practitioners' fees. Most notably, Mr Geoffrey Slater, a
barrister, told the committee that the insolvency industry is:
...an industry of 663 people where people are making millions
of dollars a year...For some of the larger firms in Australia we are talking well
over $4 million, or $5 million or $6 billion per year for the partners of
the insolvency. That is more than any of the partners make at the big firms
such as Allens Arthur Robinson or Clayton Utz or anywhere like that. I think
even the Prime Minister only earns about $300,000 or $400,000 a year. So the
lowest paid liquidator earns three times more than the Prime Minister—something
that the committee might want to consider.
In his evidence to the committee, Mr Slater recited excerpts of court
judgments critical of liquidators and their fees. He noted the comments of Justice
Palmer in Hall v Poolman 2009 [NSWCA]:
A liquidator is appointed to salvage as much as possible for
the benefit of creditors. If a proposed course of action—whether it be a legal
proceeding or a commercial transaction—is not likely to produce a worthwhile
benefit for creditors, the liquidator should not undertake it simply because it
will generate enough to pay the liquidator's fees in undertaking that very
transaction or litigation—a practice which is familiarly known in the market
place as 'churning and burning'.
As chapter 5 discussed, the Ariff case highlights the worst excesses of
liquidators' fee practices. Mr Fong told the committee that:
...one of his staff charged $60 for reading an article in the
newspaper about him. When we first broke this story to the media The
Australian published an article. His staff charged $60 just to read an article
about his boss doing something wrong.
Professor Holmes wrote in his submission that once a liquidator is
appointed and a fee schedule approved, creditors have little control over the
hours worked and the fees accrued. He added:
This is compounded by the fact that there are no controls
over the associated value of outgoings incurred by the VA. There is also no
need to keep returning to the creditors, or creditors' panel, to seek approvals
for drawing down fees and outgoings. As a result, Ariff went off to luxury
resorts, hired limousines and paid his father (who had no role in the actual administration
of Carlovers) a retainer of $10,000 a month in undertaking the Carlovers
The committee heard evidence that some liquidators deliberately inflate
their costs on the larger, long-running insolvencies to make up for the lack of
work (and opportunities to fee gouge) in smaller jobs. This observation was
made by Mr Slater:
A lot of the jobs that official liquidators take on they lose
money on. If we are really being honest about this, what we have is a system
whereby we let people make up for the loss jobs by absolutely ripping off
people on the good, fat and juicy jobs. So it is a cross-subsidy, and that is a
nasty little fact that nobody really wants to talk about because to really
solve that we have to talk about government funding of loss jobs. The
government probably just does not want to fund that. That is how we would solve
Associate Professor David Brown noted that under the 'cab rank'
principle, official liquidators receive small liquidations and 'do not necessarily
get paid for those'. However, he noted that liquidators 'do okay on the bigger
Associate Professor Christopher Symes suggested that ASIC could be made
responsible for undertaking no-asset liquidations.
Ms Kate Spargo, Chairperson of the Accounting Professional and Ethical
Standards Board, commented on the potential for cross-subsidisation in terms of
the responses of different-sized firms. She told the committee that:
...If there is a lot of that work available to a good firm then
they have a greater capacity to also take some other work that may not be at
that sort of rate. Some firms will not do that. Some firms will entirely look
for the stuff at the other end that I mentioned and will not do any. A lot of
good firms who want a good corporate reputation might temper what they do a bit
in terms of who the client is and so on. As soon as I say that it sounds wrong,
but there are ways to do it that are not wrong.
Ms Spargo was asked her view of a model whereby the government agency
performed the 'low end' jobs to free up the other work. She responded:
I think the dilemma is that the smaller entity...is often less
well resourced, has less sophisticated advisers et cetera and has a board that
is less sophisticated...So it is often the entity that really needs the help the
most. It often needs it at quite a sophisticated level. If you go up to the
other end of the spectrum with big entities, often they are extremely well
resourced, they have plenty of advisers and they have plenty of people hanging off
Criticism of the court appointed
The committee heard some criticism that the court appointed liquidation
process is inefficient and contributes to high fees. In his submission, Mr
Della–Putta identified a number of structural problems in the court appointed
process which enables liquidators to maximise their profits. These include:
- where solicitors actively encourage a court appointed liquidation
process as a means to resolve a dispute even if the company is not in financial
difficulty without any obligation to advise clients as to the accurate cost and
length of time of the process and with the knowledge that solicitor fees will
be paid during the liquidation process;
liquidators engaged on a non-competitive basis with no obligation
to define a scope of work and time line, or competitive fee proposal and under
no obligation to proceed only with work which is only required to maximise
return to shareholders or statutory obligations; and
- where the Court is in no position to make a detailed assessment
of whether the liquidator's claim for fees is reasonable without detailed
information from the shareholders which the liquidator is in a position to
Insolvency practitioners must account to creditors for disbursements or
third party costs. These expenses must be 'reasonable and necessary' although
they are not part of a practitioner's remuneration. ASIC's submission to this
inquiry noted that disbursement expenses might include:
retrieval costs for recovering the company's computer records;
storage costs for the company's books and records;
real estate agent's and auctioneer's fees; and
stationery, photocopying, telephone and postage costs.
Insolvency practitioners are not required to seek creditor approval for
disbursements, but creditors do have the right to question these costs and can
challenge disbursements in court.
Criticism of excessive disbursement
The committee also received comment that liquidators have been able to
circumvent the provisions of 449E of the Corporations Act and inflate
their remuneration through disbursement payments. Mr Stephen Epstein SC gave
the following example:
The liquidator will employ a third party to, say, send out
notices to creditors. The provision of that service, the posting out of
circulars to creditors, can have within it a profit element for whoever gets
paid for it. So if the liquidator does it himself, his profit in undertaking the
task of posting the circulars is part of his remuneration. If he engages an
outside party to post out the circulars to creditors and pays that outside
party and treats it as a disbursement then that charge is not the subject of
regulation in the same way that remuneration is. Where it is part of the
insolvency administrator's function, it ought to be remuneration and not
Mr Epstein suggested to the committee that a solution might be to have
regard to the decided case law on the meaning of remuneration and codify the
judicial definition of remuneration 'in some more complete fashion than simply
using the word without any explanation to it'.
What I am saying is that what is in truth remuneration and
not disbursements should be the subject of the regime which section 449E
prescribes...the insolvency administrator ought not to be allowed to outflank the
regime for remuneration, which section 449E prescribes, by characterising
payments which in substance are remuneration as activities which are merely
Mr Bill Doherty argued in his submission to this inquiry that
disbursement payments are an unusual feature of the insolvency industry. He
noted that 'one could reasonably expect' that the hefty hourly fees that
insolvency practitioners charge for both themselves and their 'managers' would
reflect an overhead component. Instead, photocopying, printing and internal meeting
room hire is all charged additionally.
Mr Slater also identified disbursement payments as a potentially
expensive and hidden area of liquidators' fee structure. He likened the
liquidation process to appointing a shark and the third party payments as 'a
whole lot of fish feeding behind'. Mr Slater elaborated:
You hear the headline figure the administrator, the
liquidator or the insolvency practitioner—or whatever description you want to
give them—is going to charge you $400, $600 or whatever per hour. What they do
not mention is that there are clerical staff at $300 an hour, the girl who
serves up the tea and coffee at the creditors' meeting is being billed out at $300
an hour and the photocopies are being charged out at $2 page and so are the
emails. Very quickly you get a cascade effect where you are not supporting the
liquidator; you are supporting an entire colony of people who are sucking off
the corpse of these companies. Suddenly, then comes a creditors' meeting and
they go to approve the remuneration—which is another problem. They say my
remuneration is X but, 'We forgot to mention all these disbursements'.
Various submitters gave their own personal experiences of where third
parties were engaged on an anti-competitive or unnecessary basis at
substantially above market value. Mr Della-Putta, for example, noted that in
his experience a sales agent was employed, a contractor to clear the site and
legal advisers 'to dissuade us from objecting to the liquidator's claim for
Mr Della-Putta recommended that liquidators should only engage third
parties on a competitive basis if it is required to facilitate the liquidation
or is likely to increase the return to shareholders. Third parties nominated by
shareholders to perform work should be selected by liquidators on the basis of
at least two fee proposals for any services. Further, he recommended that
copies of all invoices from third parties should be provided as part of the
report to creditors.
Priority payment for liquidators
Insolvency practitioners' remuneration is paid in priority to payments
to various other groups, including unsecured creditors. Subsection 556(1)(a) of
the Corporations Act provides that all proper costs, charges and
expenses of and incidental to the winding up (including the remuneration of the
liquidator) are payable out of the property of the company in priority to all
ASIC notes that generally, the order in which funds are distributed is:
costs and expenses of the liquidation, including liquidators' fees;
outstanding employee wages and superannuation;
outstanding employee leave of absence;
employee retrenchment pay; and
Each one of these categories must be paid in full before the next
category is paid. If there are insufficient funds to pay a category in full,
the available funds are paid on a pro rata basis and the next category will be
The Law Council of Australia argued in its submission that the
insolvency practitioner may take on personal liability and their personal
expenditure and remuneration is often uncertain. A practitioner may take on
litigation with a view to recovering assets or returning transactions, in which
case they face personal liability for all costs and expenses in the litigation.
The Council thereby argued that in the absence of statutory or standard
remuneration for activity in winding up assetless companies, the priority of
payment for insolvency practitioners should be maintained.
The Law Council did recognise the 'understandable dissatisfaction' arising
from individuals who have already suffered from a corporate failure, are
unfamiliar with the system 'and see practitioners charge large sums of money,
which are paid out in priority to their own claims'. Nonetheless, it argued
...given the personal exposure of practitioners, there is no
other readily apparent system, which would operate fairly or mitigate the risk
in fair manner for practitioners or the public.
The IPAA defended the priority payment system on the following basis:
Without such a priority, it is unlikely that an insolvency
practitioner would be prepared to undertake the work. An insolvent company
necessarily has a deficiency of assets over liabilities, and without a
priority, the insolvency practitioner would have no expectations of being paid,
except in relatively few instances. In this scenario, there would be no reason
for a practitioner to accept the appointment and its associated risks. In no
other profession is a highly qualified professional expected to work for free
on a regular basis.
Mr Bill Doherty, a victim of Mr Ariff (see chapter 5), took issue with
this argument. He told the committee that:
...the Insolvency Practitioners Association said in...[its]
submission that the IPs take on considerable risks which help to justify their
extraordinary fees—firstly, the risk of litigation. Actually they do not take a
risk there, because what they do is use the company they have seized control of
as a litigant. Also, that in taking on assetless administrations they have the financial
risk. They do not, because they simply do not do anything when they have them.
Other witnesses offered broader criticism of the priority payment
system, arguing that liquidators' fees effectively accounted for all costs
recovered. This point was made by Mr Fong of Carlovers Carwash Limited:
...the current system is very costly and inefficient. The fact
that fees to liquidators and lawyers usually equal what is recovered with no
return to creditors, again, says it all. You need to introduce a fixed price
regime or introduce more competition to reduce costs.
Mr Andrew Garrett, a winemaker, wrote in his submission that the
priority payment works against the public interest by encouraging insolvency
practitioners to make a claim over 'as many assets as possible to ensure the
payment (and overpayment) of fees'. He added:
Often the claims of insolvency practitioners over assets can
include unrelated assets that they know cannot be related to their appointment
but by making those claims the goal of the practitioners is not to act in the
public interest or properly exercise quasi judicial power but rather to act
solely in a personal interest resulting in the binding of all classes of assets
in claims that will require resolution by a court. As a result of binding all
classes of assets (related and unrelated) in such a way; an aggrieved person is
rendered impecunious. This has the unenviable consequence of resulting in an
aggrieved party often being unable to fund the acquisition of legal advice and
effectively contest the actions of insolvency practitioners.
Alternatives to the priority system
The remuneration of insolvency practitioners in the United Kingdom may
be set based on assets handled, time spent or a fixed fee. At the first
creditors' meeting, the practitioner may propose that fees be paid either:
- as a specified percentage of the value of either the property the
IP has to deal with (administration) or the assets which are realised or
distributed or both (insolvent liquidation);
- by reference to the time properly given by the administrator and
his staff in attending to matters arising in the administration/liquidation; or
- on a fixed basis, as of April 2010.
The practitioner is able to use any of the three bases, or a combination
of these methods, to set his or her remuneration. Different bases may be applied
to different functions performed by the practitioner (Amendment to Insolvency
In the United States, remuneration is determined by a court. The United
States Trustee is responsible for reviewing claims under section 330 and filing
objections with the Court, where appropriate.
In New Zealand, a liquidator is entitled to charge reasonable
remuneration for carrying out their duties. An Official Assignee who is
appointed as a liquidator must charge remuneration in accordance with rates
prescribed by the Governor General under section 277 of the Companies Act.
Canada's system of paying insolvency practitioners is somewhat similar
to Australia's. Section 39 of Canada's Bankruptcy and Insolvency Act
establishes that the remuneration of the trustee is voted on by a meeting of
creditors. However, where the remuneration of the trustee has not been fixed by
creditors, the trustee may receive remuneration in a sum not exceeding 7.5 per
cent of the amount remaining out of the realisation of the debtor after the
claims of the secured creditors have been paid or satisfied.
The regulation of liquidators' and
This inquiry has raised questions about the adequacy of current
arrangements to monitor both an individual practitioner's fees and the fee
structure of the insolvency industry at large. This section considers the
committee's evidence and consideration of these issues.
What is 'reasonable'?
A key issue in the regulation of liquidators' fees is how to indicate to
creditors that the fees are 'reasonable'. In December 2008, ASIC published Information
Sheet 85 titled Approving fees: A Guide for creditors. It details
the requirement that the external administrator must send creditors a report
when seeking approval of fees. It advises that if work is yet to be carried
out, a dollar cap should be set and if the work exceeds this figure, a further
creditors' meeting should assess whether to approve a further amount of fees.
The Information Sheet also notes a range of factors to guide creditors
in deciding whether the administrator's fees are reasonable and the options for
creditors if they believe the fees are not reasonable.
These factors are:
- the method used to calculate fees;
- the major tasks that have been performed;
- the fees for each of the major tasks;
- the size and complexity of the external administration;
- the amount of fees previously approved;
- where the fees are calculated on a time basis:
the period over which the work was performed;
- the time spent by each level of staff on each task; and
if there are fees for future work, whether they are capped.
Most of these factors should be apparent from the remuneration report.
Disclosure and the practitioner's remuneration
As mentioned earlier, the Corporations Amendment (Insolvency) Act
2007 introduced a requirement that insolvency practitioners must prepare a
report setting out such matters as will enable the approving body to make an
informed assessment as to whether the proposed remuneration is reasonable. The
report must include a summary description of the major tasks performed and
planned and the costs associated with those tasks.
This requirement is established in subsections 449E(5), 449E(6), 449E(7),
473(11), 473(12), 499(6) and 499(7) of the Corporations Act.
Insolvency practitioners must also lodge an account detailing their
receipts and payments at the end of the six month period beginning on the date
of their appointment. They must then lodge an account for every six month
period thereafter during which they are the administrator of the company,
detailing the aggregate amounts of receipts and payments since their
appointment (Corporations Act, subsection 438E(1)). ASIC may cause the accounts
of any administrator to be audited by a registered company auditor (subsection
438E(3)). The cost of this audit is fixed by ASIC, and forms part of the
expenses of administration (subsection 438E(7)).
A liquidator's view
Mr Bryan Hughes, Managing Director of Pitcher Partners, urged in his
submission to this inquiry that the existing 'extensive remuneration requirements'
are not added to. He noted that in accordance with the IPAA Code, practitioners
must prepare remuneration reports each time that approval for remuneration is
sought. These reports are on average 20 pages in length and address both
retrospective and prospective remuneration. Mr Hughes argued that, if anything,
the committee's inquiry into the matter of remuneration might consider:
Whether current Administrator's Reports contain too much
information for the average stakeholder to comprehend? Whether the information
is meaningful and able to be understood? Whether all stakeholders read such a
lengthy report? As always, there should be a cost/benefit analysis of the
Remuneration Report, especially when you consider the costs incurred to provide
this information, including staff hours required in reviewing timesheets,
preparing the report, additional photocopying and postage requirements, which
can be significant if you have 200 creditors or more.
In its submission, Pitcher Partners provided an example of an
Administrator's Report to Creditors (pursuant to section 439A of the Corporations
Act), which includes a remuneration report.
The remuneration report follows the template set out in the IPAA's Code of
The first section of the report lists expenses incurred to date, along
with a table showing the standard scale of fees for various staff
classifications within the firm. There is also a section on disbursements
divided into externally provided professional services (legal fees), externally
provided non-professional costs (taxis, parking, postage and advertising), and
internally provided non-professional costs (photocopying, telephone, fax and
A separate section of the remuneration report sought approval for
prospective expenses. It gave two options:
if a deed of company arrangement is approved, the firm 'will seek
remuneration for the administration and deed administration not to exceed
$606,993, plus GST and disbursements'; or
if creditors resolve to wind up the company, the firm 'will seek
remuneration for the administration and liquidation, not to exceed
For both options, the report gave an anticipated time period, a general
description of the likely tasks and a list of the specific actions the firm
would undertake to deliver these tasks.
Criticism of the fee vetting
Some witnesses expressed concern that insolvency practitioners are not
subject to the same rigour in scrutinising their accounts as are other
professions. Mr Greg Nash told the committee that:
As a lawyer, my accounts are subject to strict
scrutiny—absolutely strict scrutiny. I have to have cost agreement. I have to
advise people on how they can challenge my account. I have to have my account
submitted for assessment. If I miss some technical detail, I run the risk of
not being paid at all for any of my work. Liquidators do not do that. They just
give you a list of their charge-out rates. They are supposed to be approved by
the court and really that is just a rubber stamp. The court approves whatever
is put in front of them. I have never seen a court not approve a liquidator's
set of fees.
The need for better data on fees in
the insolvency industry
For the committee, one of the most striking deficiencies in the
insolvency regulation framework is the lack of public detail on the fees of the
insolvency industry. ASIC's Annual Reports contain no detail on liquidators'
and administrators' remuneration.
Encouragingly, ASIC's submission noted that it intends to:
- obtain statistical data from practitioners to allow an assessment
of the relationship between asset recoveries, remuneration charged and returns
to creditors. Results will be made available to creditors and the market; and
- capture detailed information of insolvency remuneration and other
key financial data following a redesign of Form 524 (Statement of Receipts and
Payments) and implementation of improved electronic data capture systems.
In its supplementary submission, ASIC noted that its forward program
includes a project titled Remuneration: Approval compliance and surveillance
project. The project includes consultation on what further information and
disclosures should be made to relevant stakeholders to increase the level of
informed approval decisions. ASIC adds that it may also consult and obtain
industry feedback on the appropriateness of using 'cost assessors' as an
alternative for stakeholders to assess the 'reasonableness' of remuneration.
The Chairman of ASIC, Mr Tony D'Aloisio, gave the committee an overview
of the rationale and focus of its future work on liquidators' fees:
[W]e want to delve much more deeply into the level of fees to
see whether we can come up with guides about relating them to the value of
assets recovered, for example. If you recover 50c in the dollar but it costs you
10c to get that 50c, if you have that sort of information as a creditor, you
might regard that as good value. If you have recovered 20c in the dollar but in
actual fact it then costs you 18c or 20c for that, as a creditor you are going
to be pretty annoyed...[N]ow that the framework has the disclosure, the returns
and the forms which give you this information, our challenge is going to be,
through surveillance and through specific cases, to delve into the quality of
the remuneration, the return and the advice that was given. We think that is
really to work with the professional because at the end of the day that is a
reputation issue for the profession and for the practitioners.
They have to demonstrate to their clients, ultimately to the
market, that the fees being charged in the context of what work was needed to
recover assets in that particular insolvency are reasonable. I see our role in
our forward program on the fees is to move from disclosure to testing the
quality of the disclosure and to assist creditors to then make judgments about
whether they have been treated fairly.
Several submitters to this inquiry have argued the need for insolvency
practitioners' fees to be collated, published and independently analysed on an
industry-wide basis. They claim that a central and publicly accessible database
of insolvency practitioners' fees would:
- enable a comparison of the level of liquidators' and
administrators' fees in Australia relative to other nations;
- allow ASIC to monitor a given practitioner's fees relative to an
industry average to indicate possible overcharging; and
educate the public about what costs are reasonable in a typical
A basis for comparison
Dr Colin Anderson from the Queensland University of Technology argued in
his submission the need for a better system of data collection on insolvency
practitioners' fees (among other matters) to allow an international comparison
of fee levels. He observed:
Currently there are academics such as ourselves and other
colleagues at various institutions around Australia who are willing to engage
in research in areas relevant to the enquiry but it is almost impossible to
obtain the appropriate data because it is simply too expensive to purchase it
from ASIC and possibly for financial reasons ASIC is unable to provide it
without payment. Whilst research funding is available to a certain extent it
will not cover the purchase of data. If we take one area relevant to this
enquiry – the professional remuneration and fees charged by insolvency
practitioners. We have no comprehensive data upon that. There is no
comprehensive data enabling any meaningful comparisons or conclusions to be
drawn. We would contrast this with the position in the United States where
funding by the profession itself has enabled comprehensive data to be collected
in this area. If such data were able to be collected in Australia some international
comparisons might be possible to see if charges here are higher than in comparable
countries. Because of our system it is not possible to obtain this data outside
of the government agencies of ASIC and ITSA.
Mr Jeffrey Fitzpatrick from Flinders University argued that the
collation of statistics on insolvency matters could be done by an independent
agency. The agency could be the Productivity Commission, the National Institute
of Labour Studies at Flinders University, the Australian Institute of
Criminology, or a new insolvency unit designated to look specifically at
Monitoring an insolvency
Better data on insolvency practitioners' fees would also serve as a
regulatory tool for ASIC to monitor overcharging and complaints against
individual practitioners. As Mr Slater told the committee:
Every time a liquidator does a job they have to put in a
detailed report as to how much money they make from the job and so on. Does
anybody actually collect all of this data and put it into a central database?
No. Should they? Yes. What would it tell us? It would tell us how much they are
charging. More to the point, it would operate as what we call a mineshaft
canary with respect to whether the fees are getting too big or there are too
many complaints. You could simply look at a histogram of complaints per
practitioner, in the same way that Medicare looks at doctor fraud—they say, 'You've
got a few too many pathology reports here' or 'Look at this guy: there is this
huge spike.' That is how they home in on people and use their resources more
efficiently. These are the basic sorts of things that should be done at ASIC,
which are not done.
Associate Professor David Brown from Flinders University also
acknowledged that one of the problems in the insolvency area is the lack of
statistics. He argued that, notwithstanding the existing fee disclosure
requirements, this is a legitimate role for a body like an ombudsman to
independently assess the reasonableness of liquidators' fees. Associate
Professor Brown told the committee:
I think the IPA code of professional practice devotes quite a
lot of its pages to remuneration and to disclosure of the basis of remuneration
of insolvency practitioners. This information is put before creditors who,
after all, are the ones who normally have the decision as to whether the
remuneration could be approved. However, as I have just said, creditors might
not always have sufficient skills to access that information. Notwithstanding
that there is nowadays more detailed disclosure both through the IPA code and
through various court decisions, I think, as Dr Brand identified, a lot of
creditors are not repeat victims and therefore are not able to assess the
information that comes to them, so some other channel for assessing whether the
remuneration rates are value for money is certainly to be welcomed. Whether
that is through the ombudsman using some sort of independent assessor or whether
the courts need an independent assessor when cases come to court on remuneration
is something else that could be developed.
Educating the public as to what is 'reasonable'
Dr Vivienne Brand from Flinders University acknowledged the need for
greater education of creditors to understand the work of liquidators and what a
reasonable fee structure might look like. She told the committee that
...might well live and work in an economy where to charge $850
an hour is just unbelievable. They do not know what the normal run of a
liquidation would look like, so they cannot really tell if they are being
ripped off. They do not have the information that the liquidator has. They do
not have access to the full understanding of the company's operations. It is
very hard for them to make an informed decision about whether or not the
liquidator is doing the right thing. I think the liquidator is, most of the
time...That is perhaps where an ombudsman has a particular role, because they
might be able to help those people understand: this is how it is and, in this
particular case, perhaps what happened had to happen.
In his evidence to the committee, Mr Fitzpatrick argued that an industry
ombudsman would assist to 'throw some sunlight onto the issue of fees'. He
envisaged that an ombudsman would also:
...probably be able to have an educative role as well so that
the creditors would have access to information about what is involved, what the
fees are or what the fees should be so they have got some idea of what is going
The issue of educating the public on a reasonable fee structure, and
various other matters relating to the insolvency profession, is discussed in
more detail in chapters 10 and 11.
This chapter has considered the often vexed issue of insolvency
practitioners' fees. It has identified specific areas of tension including
overcharging through excessive disbursement payments, unnecessarily prolonging an
appointment and 'cross-subsiding' jobs. The chapter also observed the fairly
weak current incentives for practitioners to become more price-competitive,
particularly given the security of the priority payment system and in the
absence of a competitive tendering process.
Nonetheless, as chapters 10 and 11 discuss in more detail, there are
currently in place important fee disclosure requirements for insolvency
practitioners. This is an important basis for better data on practitioners'
fees and better regulation of overcharging and over servicing.
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