This post has been written by Nicolò Nisi, Research Assistant at Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg
On 10 March 2017, the German Bundestag finally voted the bill to facilitate the handling of domestic group insolvencies (Gesetzes zur Erleichterung der Bewältigung von Konzerninsolvenzen), which was initially presented in early 2013.
It is a much-awaited development, which follows the introduction in the new EU Insolvency Regulation (Regulation (EU) 2015/848) of specific provisions addressing the insolvency of EU groups of companies, i.e., groups where the parent company and the subsidiaries have their centre of main interests in at least two Member States.
Under current German law, each legal entity is subject to its own insolvency proceeding and the decision to open the proceedings is determined separately and independently for each entity (‘one company, one insolvency, one proceeding’). It means that different insolvency courts open separate proceedings for each insolvent group member, with the appointment – in many cases – of several insolvency practitioners. This approach has its benefits in terms of legal certainty, but it overlooks the wider picture of the group. It is, in fact, not suitable for the group restructuring or the sale of the group business as a going concern.
Although the principle that separate proceedings are to be opened in respect of different group members remains unchanged, the new provisions introduce four main innovations to the German Insolvency Code (Insolvenzordnung).
To begin with, they establish the possibility for a group company – not necessarily the (ultimate) parent – to apply for the opening of insolvency proceedings over the other insolvent group entities (so-called procedural consolidation), provided that such concentration of jurisdiction is justified by the common interests of the group’s creditors and the requesting company is not manifestly of minor importance for the group as a whole (§ 3a).
A ‘group venue’ is then established for all the group companies. In the case of more applications, a priority rule applies or, when not possible, the application made by the company with the highest number of employees in the previous financial year prevails. If a request to open insolvency proceeding against a group member is submitted afterward to a different court, the latter may transfer the proceeding to the group court (§ 3d).
Secondly, when insolvency proceedings in respect of various group members are opened in different courts, it is possible to appoint the same person as insolvency practitioner for all group companies concerned, insofar it is in the creditors’ interests and possible conflicts of interest may be covered by the appointment of a special practitioner (§ 56b). This should avoid the occurrence of frictions, inefficiencies and information asymmetries, which could endanger an optimal result.
Thirdly, the insolvency practitioners appointed in the proceedings opened in relation to different members of the same group are obliged to cooperate and share all relevant information, insofar as the interests of the creditors of the respective group company would not be prejudiced (§ 269a). Similar duties are also provided concerning insolvency courts (§ 269b) and creditors’ committees (§ 269c). Under the last provision, however, cooperation shall only take place by request of one of the creditors’ committees and through the appointment of a group creditors’ committee, which should assist the insolvency practitioners and the creditors’ committee within the individual proceedings.
Finally, each group company in whose respect an insolvency proceeding has been requested or already opened – alternatively the (preliminary) creditors’ committee of a group company – may request before the court of the group venue the opening of a ‘coordination proceeding’, which should further facilitate the coordinated liquidation or restructuring of insolvent groups (§ 269d). The coordination court shall then appoint an independent coordinator (§ 269e), who oversees the execution of the proceeding in the interest of creditors, in particular by submitting a coordination plan (§ 269f).
Such plan should describe in detail all the relevant measures to be implemented within the individual insolvency proceedings, including the proposals concerning (i) the restoration of economic performances of the group members; (ii) the settlement of intra-group disputes; and (iii) the contractual arrangements among insolvency practitioners (§ 269h).
It is worth stressing that the group coordination proceeding does not have a binding effect on the individual proceedings, in that the insolvency practitioners may decide not to follow the recommendations of the coordinator, only subject to the duty to explain to the creditors the reasons for doing so (‘comply or explain’) (§ 269i). However, if the creditors are not persuaded and vote in favour of the arrangements contained in the group plan, but the practitioner does not adapt accordingly the insolvency plan at the level of individual proceeding, he may risk to be held liable for damages.
Except for the first point on procedural consolidation, which is positively considered by the prevailing literature in the case of an integrated group as a tool to simplify the going-concern sale of the business or the global group-wide restructuring, the new German rules resemble closely the ones recently adopted in the Recast Insolvency Regulation. The latter, in fact, were proposed by the German delegations within the European Parliament and the Council. Also at the European level, a group coordination proceeding has been introduced in order to facilitate the group restructuring, even though the participation of various practitioners is not binding and rests on a voluntary basis (see Articles 61 et seq.).
This solution has been the object of different evaluations, mostly skeptical. Indeed, it seems that the introduction of a coordination proceeding will not make a significant difference in the practice of group insolvencies. Even overlooking the problems arising from non-compliance with the coordinator’s recommendations, one should pay attention to limiting the costs (including the coordinator’s remuneration under § 269g) and the duration of the proceeding, in order to preserve its efficiency and to ensure its success in the interest of creditors, thus avoiding it may result in additional complexity.