Latest Developments in Hong Kong Restructuring Law
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This article introduces the potential features of the new corporate rescue bill, the courts’ rulings on interactions bez tween winding-up petitions and arbitration agreements, the general principles in recognising and assisting foreign insolvency proceedings in Hong Kong and the new arrangement of mutual recognition of and assistance to bankruptcy proceedings between Hong Kong and mainland China.
- Development of the corporate rescue legal framework in Hong Kong
- Interactions between winding-up petitions and arbitration agreements
- Recognition of foreign insolvency proceedings
- Recognition of foreign provisional liquidators appointed on a soft-touch basis
- Recent developments on sanctioning schemes of arrangement
- Hong Kong-mainland China mutual recognition of and assistance to bankruptcy proceedings
Referenced in this article
- Dayang (HK) Marine Shipping Co, Ltd v Asia Master Logistics Ltd
- Re CEFC Shanghai International Group Ltd
- Re the Joint and Several Provisional Liquidators of China Oil Gangran Energy Group Holdings Limited
- Re Lamtex Holdings Ltd
- Re Ping An Securities Group (Holdings) Ltd
- Re China Singyes Solar Technologies Holdings Ltd
- Re Ando Credit Ltd
- Record of Meeting of the Supreme People’s Court and the Government of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region on Mutual Recognition of and Assistance to Bankruptcy (Insolvency) Proceedings between the Courts of the Mainland and of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region
As a special administrative region of the People’s Republic of China under the ‘one country, two systems’ principle, Hong Kong retains a common law legal system that is different from the system of law in mainland China.
As one of the world’s leading international financial centres, Hong Kong is a prime location for financial services and is home to many financial institutions. With minimal government intervention, Hong Kong’s financial markets operate under effective and transparent regulations that are in line with international standards and have attracted foreign investments from investors around the world.
Hong Kong also plays a vital role in offshore fundraising for Chinese enterprises. As at the end of 2020, 1,431 mainland Chinese companies were listed in Hong Kong – comprising H-share, red-chip and private companies – with total market capitalisation of around US$4.9 trillion or 80 per cent of the market total. Since 1993, mainland Chinese companies have raised more than US$935 billion via stock offerings in Hong Kong.
The promulgation of the Outline Development Plan for the Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macao Greater Bay Area on 18 February 2019 further signified Hong Kong’s role as the ‘super connector’ in the development of the Greater Bay Area. It is expected that Hong Kong, with the full support of the central government, will proactively integrate itself into the overall national development, thereby generating new impetus for growth to bring new development opportunities to different sectors of the community.
Development of the corporate rescue legal framework in Hong Kong
In Hong Kong, corporate insolvency is primarily governed by the remaining provisions of the old Companies Ordinance, renamed as the Companies (Winding Up and Miscellaneous Provisions) Ordinance (Cap 32), as amended by the Companies (Winding Up and Miscellaneous Provisions) Amendment Ordinance, which came into effect on 13 February 2017 (the Amendment Ordinance).
There is no statutory restructuring procedure available under Hong Kong law; however, it is possible for creditors of a Hong Kong company to negotiate an informal contractual restructuring agreement with the company, which will in general require the cooperation of all creditors of the company as any one creditor may still exercise its right to wind up the company. It is only possible to achieve a corporate rescue of a financially distressed company in Hong Kong through an out-of-court workout, a scheme of arrangement or following the appointment of provisional liquidators, which leaves the company’s creditors with limited options to rescue the company in times of financial difficulty.
With the impact brought about by the covid-19 pandemic, the number of corporate failures is expected to increase. In March 2020, the Hong Kong government announced that the drafting of the new corporate rescue bill has reached an advanced stage, and it intends to hold a fresh round of consultations on specific areas in the draft bill, with the aim of finalising the bill for introduction to the Legislative Council in the first half of the 2020/2021 legislative session; however, in June 2021, given the complexity of the issues, the number of the stakeholders involved and the different views expressed, the Hong Kong government indicated that it would continue to engage stakeholders to refine the legislative instructions.
In July 2014, the Hong Kong government published detailed legislative proposals on the introduction of a new statutory corporate rescue procedure and insolvent trading provisions (the 2014 Proposal). It remains to be seen the extent to which the key features of the 2014 Proposal would be included in the upcoming new bill, and how the government would address the concerns by various stakeholders in the previous legislative exercise.
If the legislation is enacted as envisaged under the 2014 Proposal, a financially distressed company would be given the option to initiate the corporate rescue procedure with a view to turning around its business as much as possible instead of pursuing winding-up immediately. The directors of those companies would also have to consider the financial position of those companies carefully before allowing them to continue to trade.
Recent developments on the interaction between winding-up petitions and arbitration agreements
As an international arbitration hub, and with growing policy emphasis on the use of arbitration, the Hong Kong Court has seen a growing number of winding-up cases where the parties’ underlying agreement contains an arbitration agreement. The impact of such an arbitration agreement on the Court’s discretion to grant a winding-up order has been reviewed by the Court.
Traditionally, the courts will only dismiss a winding-up petition in favour of arbitration if the opposing debtor is able to prove that it has a bona fide defence on substantial grounds to the underlying debt. This is because winding-up petitions are considered as a class remedy available to all creditors and do not involve the enforcement of a creditor’s rights against the debtor.
In practice, the courts will grant the creditor’s application to wind up the debtor if the debtor has failed to pay a debt without a credible defence, without requiring the parties to commence arbitration (the traditional approach).
Re Southwest Pacific Bauxite (HK) Ltd
In 2018, Mr Justice Jonathan Harris, being the judge in charge of the Companies Court, in Re Southwest Pacific Bauxite (HK) Ltd broadly followed the English Court of Appeal’s approach in Salford Estates (No 2) Ltd v Altomart Ltd (No 2), giving substantial weight to the policy consideration underlying the Arbitration Ordinance (Cap 609), which encourages and supports party autonomy in determining the means by which a dispute arising between them should be resolved.
Citing the related authorities, Harris J held that the courts should generally dismiss an insolvency petition in favour of arbitration when the following three requirements are met:
- the opposing debtor disputes the petitioning debt (it is sufficient for the debtor to show that the debt is not admitted);
- the contract under which the petitioning debt is alleged to arise contains an arbitration clause that covers any dispute relating to the debt; and
- the opposing debtor takes steps required under the arbitration clause to commence the contractually mandated dispute resolution process (the Lasmos approach).
Under the Lasmos approach, the debtor is able to stay insolvency proceedings in Hong Kong, simply by not admitting the underlying debt, and force the creditor to arbitrate, even though there is no ‘real’ dispute about the debt. The ruling in the Lasmos case establishes a substantial obstacle to winding-up petitioners where the underlying agreements contain an arbitration clause.
But Ka Chon v Interactive Brokers LLC
In mid-2019, the Lasmos approach was further considered in But Ka Chon v Interactive Brokers LLC  by the Court of Appeal on an obiter basis. In light of the statutory right conferred on creditors to petition for the winding up or bankruptcy of an insolvent debtor, the Court of Appeal took the view that such right is part of Hong Kong law, and absent any evidence of the legislative intent of the Arbitration Ordinance to change the insolvency legislation, the Lasmos approach represents ‘a substantial curtailment’ of creditors’ statutory rights by requiring the courts to exercise the discretion only in favour of arbitration except in wholly exceptional circumstances if the three requirements are met.
Although it remains to be seen how the Court of Appeal will rule in the future, and each case would be decided based on its facts, these obiter remarks indicate that there is a possibility that it may not follow the Lasmos approach.
Dayang (HK) Marine Shipping Co, Ltd v Asia Master Logistics Ltd
Recent developments in respect of the issue of winding-up petitions with the existence of an arbitration agreement in the underlying contract have shown that the court has shifted from the traditional view to the Lasmos approach and back to a more moderate approach in the But Ka Chon case.
In a recent judgment in Dayang (HK) Marine Shipping Co, Ltd v Asia Master Logistics Ltd  on 12 March 2020, Deputy High Court Judge William Wong SC deviated from the Lasmos approach and held that to dispute the existence of a debt, a debtor must show there is a bona fide dispute on substantial grounds, and that a bare denial or non-admission of the debt is not enough, regardless of whether the debt has arisen from a contract incorporating an arbitration clause. Further, the court must exercise discretion, irrespective of whether there is an arbitration agreement, and commencing arbitration proceedings itself is not sufficient proof of the existence of a bona fide dispute on substantial grounds, but may constitute relevant evidence of such a dispute.
The court in the Dayang case relied primarily on the traditional approach in deciding in favour of the creditor. The court spent over three-quarters of the judgment reviewing the recent developments in this area. Although it did not come to a conclusion on the matter in the judgment, in spending much time analysing it, the court demonstrated a clear intention to resolve this issue; therefore, we envisage that further developments in this area will be forthcoming.
Recognition of foreign insolvency proceedings
In recent years, the Hong Kong Court has extensively granted recognition and assistance orders, most commonly to facilitate debt restructuring of Hong Kong listed companies incorporated in an offshore jurisdiction.
However, in Re CEFC Shanghai International Group Ltd, for the first time the Court granted an order for recognition and assistance to mainland liquidators of a mainland China-incorporated company.
It was held that two criteria must be satisfied before recognition and assistance is granted to insolvency proceedings opened in a civil law jurisdiction: first, the foreign insolvency proceedings must be collective insolvency proceedings; and second, the foreign insolvency proceedings must be opened in the company’s country of incorporation.
Further, the Court noted that there are principles that circumscribe the common law power of assistance that could be exercised:
(a) The power of assistance exists for the purpose of enabling foreign courts to surmount the problems posed for a world-wide winding up of the company’s affairs by the territorial limits of each court’s powers. Therefore, the power of assistance is not available to enable foreign office holders to do something which they could not do even under the law by which they were appointed.
(b) The power of assistance is available only when it is necessary for the performance of the foreign officeholder’s functions.
(c) An order granting assistance must be consistent with the substantive law and public policy of the assisting court.
The Court refused to follow the decision in Galbraith v Grimshaw, where the House of Lords chose not to stay a garnishee order application, despite there being an appointment of trustee in bankruptcy. Had this case been followed, the effect would have been that no assistance would have been granted to the liquidators. It was explained by the Court that the decision in Galbraith is inconsistent with contemporary cross-border insolvency law, given that it was made well before the development of common law cross-border insolvency assistance.
Recognition of foreign voluntary liquidation
Contrary to the Privy Council’s obiter objection to recognising foreign voluntary winding up in Singularis Holdings Ltd v PricewaterhouseCoopers, the court in Re Joint Liquidators of Supreme Tycoon Ltd  held that the mere fact of a foreign liquidation being a voluntary liquidation does not prevent the court from recognising and assisting that liquidation under the principle of modified universalism.
In considering whether a foreign insolvent liquidation commenced by a shareholders’ resolution is eligible for common law recognition and assistance, the key issue for cross-border insolvency assistance is not whether the foreign insolvency office holder is or is not an officer of the foreign court. Rather what matters is whether the foreign insolvency proceeding is collective in nature in the sense that it is ‘a process of collective enforcement of debts for the benefit of the general body of creditors’.
Even though the company’s liquidation was commenced by a shareholders’ resolution, it was observed by the court that the company’s liquidation was a collective insolvent proceeding; therefore, the court granted the recognition order sought to allow the liquidators appointed to investigate the affairs of the company.
However, where the foreign liquidation is a solvent liquidation that is more akin to a ‘private arrangement’ as referred to by the Privy Council in Singularis Holdings Ltd, it would not fall within the principle of modified universalism and, hence, would not be recognised or assisted by the court.
A similar approach was adopted in the English case of Re Sturgeon Central Asia Balanced Fund Ltd (No 2), where the court terminated the recognition order concerning a Bermuda solvent liquidation because the solvency liquidation fell outside the scope of the UNCITRAL Model Law on Cross-Border Insolvency in Great Britain.
No approval for an examination that constitutes a fishing expedition
In Re A Civil Matter Now Pending in United States District Court for the Western District of Washington, the court rejected two letters of request issued by the United States District Court, Western District of Washington at Seattle (the Washington Federal Court) seeking to compel two distressed debt investors in Hong Kong to appear and provide oral testimony regarding certain alleged receivables owing to a foreign company.
In arriving at the decision, the court pinpointed that the requirements under section 75 of the Evidence Ordinance (Cap 8) (EO) must be met before an order for the taking of evidence in Hong Kong is to be granted. The court must be satisfied:
(a) that the application is made in pursuance of a request issued by or on behalf of a court or tribunal (the requesting court) exercising jurisdiction in a country or territory outside Hong Kong; and
(b) that the evidence to which the application relates is to be obtained for the purposes of civil proceedings which either have been instituted before the requesting court or whose institution before that court is contemplated.
Considering the above, the court stressed that the discovery was sought against persons who were not party to the judgments made by the Washington Federal Court and was for the purpose of ‘plotting the course’ of unspecified, possible future proceedings; hence, the proposed examination was found to be a pretrial discovery, which was essentially a fishing expedition that ought to be prohibited under section 76(3) of the EO.
The significance of this case in the context of insolvency and restructuring is that if liquidators wish to seek an order from the Hong Kong Court for the taking of evidence pursuant to a foreign court’s request, they should be careful in respect of whether the Court will construe their application as a fishing expedition that may jeopardise the chance of success of their application.
Recognition of foreign provisional liquidator appointed on soft-touch basis
In recent cases, the Hong Kong courts have held that their lack of power to appoint provisional liquidators only for facilitating restructuring and corporate rescue (ie, on a soft-touch basis) does not prevent the courts from recognising and assisting foreign liquidators appointed for this purpose.
Re Joint Provisional Liquidators of Moody Technology Holdings Ltd
In Re Joint Provisional Liquidators of Moody Technology Holdings Ltd, the Hong Kong Court of First Instance granted a recognition order to foreign provisional liquidators, who were appointed on a soft-touch basis, to explore and facilitate the restructuring of a company. This order was made despite soft-touch provisional liquidation being impermissible in Hong Kong.
The joint and several liquidators (JPLs) of Moody Technology Holdings Limited (Moody), a company incorporated in Bermuda, were appointed by an order made by the Supreme Court of Bermuda (Bermuda Court). Moody’s JPLs applied to the Hong Kong Court for recognising their appointment and powers as set out in the letter of request issued by the Bermuda Court.
Moody’s JPLs were appointed on a soft-touch basis to restructure Moody and its debts in Bermuda. The key question before the Hong Kong Court was whether it should give recognition to Moody’s JPLs while under current Hong Kong law, according to the Court of Appeal decision in Re Legend International Resorts Ltd, soft-touch provisional liquidation is impermissible.
The Court held that where circumstances warrant appointment of provisional liquidators, the provisional liquidators may be granted powers to explore and facilitate a restructuring of the company.
Re the Joint and Several Provisional Liquidators of China Oil Gangran Energy Group Holdings Limited
In Re the Joint and Several Provisional Liquidators of China Oil Gangran Energy Group Holdings Limited, the Hong Kong court continued the trend of recognising foreign soft-touch provisional liquidators.
Joint and several provisional liquidators were appointed over China Oil Gangran Energy Group Holdings Limited (China Oil’s JPLs) by the Cayman court, with a view to pursuing a debt restructuring. China Oil’s JPLs applied to the Hong Kong court for recognition of their appointment.
The court considered the general principles of recognising foreign insolvency proceedings in Re CEFC Shanghai International Group Ltd, and its past practice of recognising foreign soft-touch provisional liquidation, and accordingly granted the recognition order.
These two recent decisions reflect the Hong Kong court’s commitment to universalism and its position to facilitate cross-border restructurings. Although the Hong Kong court may not appoint domestic soft-touch provisional liquidators, the same cannot constitute a bar to recognising and assisting foreign soft-touch provisional liquidators.
Problematic use of soft-touch provisional liquidation
In Re Lamtex Holdings Ltd, the court refused to grant the adjournment of the winding-up petition sought by the joint provisional liquidators appointed in Bermuda and made an immediate winding-up order. The court was of the view that Lamtex did not have a credible plan to restructure its debt and was likely using the application in Bermuda as an attempt to engineer a de facto moratorium, which could not be obtained under Hong Kong law. The soft-touch provisional liquidation was described by the court as ‘questionable’.
In Re Ping An Securities Group (Holdings) Ltd, there were two proceedings concerning Ping An Securities. In the earlier proceedings, the court decided to adjourn the winding-up petition presented by the creditor for two months and make an order for recognition and assistance for the soft-touch provisional liquidation of the debtor in Bermuda. Notwithstanding the creditor’s opposition, the court was of the view that since the debtor satisfied the relevant criteria as explained in Re China Huiyuan Juice Group Limited, including the feasibility of restructuring, the petition should be adjourned.
However, in the later proceedings, as the provisional liquidators made no effort to contact the creditor and did not provide the creditor with any information about the progress of the restructuring, the court was of the view that the progress of the matter was entirely unsatisfactory and expressed concerns about the way soft-touch provisional liquidation, generally referred to as the Z-Obee technique, was being used. The court eventually exercised its discretion to order a normal winding-up order.
In both Re Joint Provisional Liquidators of China Bozza Development Holdings Ltd and Re Joint and Several Provisional Liquidators of Victory City International Holdings Ltd, the court was sceptical towards similar use of soft-touch provisional liquidation. More pertinently, in Re China Bozza, the court only granted an order for recognition as a matter of private international law and, for the first time ever, refused to grant the general assistance that was granted on previous occasions, because the way the joint provisional liquidators had approached the matter had failed to satisfy the court that they were protecting the creditors’ interests.
Scheme of arrangement
A scheme of arrangement in Hong Kong is an effective tool to compromise debts, even those governed by non-Hong Kong law, despite the old common law Gibbs rule.
In Re China Singyes Solar Technologies Holdings Ltd, the Hong Kong court considered an exception to the Gibbs Rule and more generally the principles of sanctioning a scheme.
China Singyes Solar Technologies Holdings Limited (Singyes) is incorporated in Bermuda and listed in Hong Kong. In 2018, as Singyes and its subsidiaries’ financial condition seriously deteriorated, Singyes defaulted in its mainland China and offshore obligations, comprising convertible bonds and notes.
Singyes proposed a Hong Kong scheme, compromising convertible bonds governed by English law and notes governed by New York law (the Scheme). In considering whether to sanction the Scheme, the court considered whether the Scheme would be effective in the relevant jurisdictions.
The court concluded that the Scheme would be substantially effective in those jurisdictions, even though there was no application to the English and US courts for recognition of the Hong Kong scheme. The court reasoned that the Scheme was effective in its place of incorporation because there was a parallel scheme in Bermuda.
It also reasoned that although the convertible bonds were governed by English law, there was no need to seek recognition of the Scheme in England. This is because 100 per cent of the holders of the convertible bonds voted in favour of the Scheme, which constituted an exception to the Gibbs rule. In reaching this decision, the court considered the observation in Re OJSC International Bank of Azerbaijan:
[T]here is an exception to the rule if the relevant creditor submits to the foreign insolvency preceding. In that situation, the creditor is taken to have accepted that his contractual rights will be governed by the law of the foreign insolvency proceeding.
Therefore, the Scheme would be effective in England.
The court also accepted that there was no need to seek recognition of the Scheme under US law as more than 99 per cent of the noteholders had acceded to the restructuring support agreement and voted in favour of the Scheme. The remaining creditors had not come forward, and there was no reason to believe that any of them would try to enforce their pre-scheme claims in the United States. The court accepted that the risk of adverse enforcement by a dissenting scheme creditor in the United States was de minimis.
Ultimately, the court held that the guiding principle is that the court should not act in vain or make an order that has no substantive effect or will not achieve its purpose. The principle does not require worldwide effectiveness nor worldwide certainty. The court will sanction a scheme provided it is satisfied that the scheme would achieve a substantial effect.
Although the Gibbs rule will continue to be valid in Hong Kong, this recent case shows that the rule is not a bar for parties to the success of cross-border restructuring.
Hong Kong-mainland China mutual recognition of and assistance in insolvency proceedings
In Re Ando Credit Ltd, the court dealt with the first-ever application for the appointment of provisional liquidators over a Hong Kong company with the purpose of seeking recognition in mainland China. The application was made with a view to allowing the Hong Kong liquidators to recover the very substantial receivables believed to be owed to the company by its debtors in mainland China.
The court affirmed the open attitude towards recognition and assistance in mainland Chinese insolvency proceedings and hinted at the possibility of reciprocity between Hong Kong and mainland Chinese courts to hear applications for recognition and assistance from liquidators of the two jurisdictions.
On 14 May 2021, the ‘Record of Meeting of the Supreme People’s Court and the Government of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region on Mutual Recognition of and Assistance to Bankruptcy (Insolvency) Proceedings between the Courts of the Mainland and of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region’ was signed. The arrangement highlights the unique role played by Hong Kong under ‘one country, two systems’ and will foster further legal cooperation in civil and commercial matters between the two jurisdictions.
The framework aims to facilitate the rescue of financially troubled businesses and provides better protection for the assets of the debtor company, as well as the interests of the creditors, and is conducive to the promotion of an orderly and efficient insolvency regime. The framework also covers bankruptcy compromise and reorganisation in mainland China, as well as debt restructuring in Hong Kong, thereby encouraging the use of debt restructuring to revive businesses, with a view to reaching consensus among creditors from both jurisdictions and abroad.
Shanghai, Xiamen and Shenzhen have been designated as pilot cities by the Supreme People’s Court, given their close trade ties with Hong Kong.
A liquidator or a provisional liquidator in insolvency proceedings in Hong Kong may apply to the relevant Intermediate People’s Court for:
- recognition of compulsory winding up, creditors’ voluntary winding up and corporate debt restructuring proceedings brought by a liquidator or provisional liquidator as sanctioned by a Hong Kong court in accordance with the laws of Hong Kong;
- recognition of his or her office as a liquidator or a provisional liquidator; and
- grant of assistance for discharge of his or her duties as a liquidator or a provisional liquidator.
An administrator in Mainland bankruptcy proceedings may apply to the Hong Kong High Court for:
- recognition of bankruptcy liquidation, reorganisation and compromise proceedings under the Enterprise Bankruptcy Law of the People’s Republic of China;
- recognition of his or her office as an administrator; and
- grant of assistance for discharge of his duties as an administrator.
A set of opinions and a practical guide have been issued by the Supreme People’s Court and the Hong Kong government, respectively.
 ‘Economic and Trade Information on Hong Kong’, research from the Hong Kong Trade Development Council: https://research.hktdc.com/en/article/MzIwNjkzNTY5.
 ‘Overview of Greater Bay Area’: http://www.bayarea.gov.hk/en/about/overview.html.
 http://www.hkreform.gov.hk/en/implementation/index.htm and Report No. 44 of the List of Reports Tabulated according to Implementation Status by the Law Reform Commission of Hong Kong (http://www.hkreform.gov.hk/en/docs/ajls2021.pdf).
 Legislative Council Panel on Financial Affairs, ‘Consultation Conclusions on Corporate Insolvency Law Improvement Exercise and Detailed proposals on a new Statutory Corporate Rescue Procedure’, 7 July 2014.
  2 HKLRD 449.
  Ch 589.
  HKCA 873.
  HKCFI 311.
 See, for example, Re Z-Obee Holdings Ltd  1 HKLRD 165.
  1 HKLRD 676.
 Para 8, supra.
 Para 11, supra.
  AC 508.
  AC 1675.
  HKCFI 277.
 Para 15, supra.
  EWHC 123 (Ch).
  HKCFI 1738.
 Para 22, supra.
  HKCFI 416.
  2 HKLRD 192.
  HKCFI 825.
 For example, see footnote 19.
  HKCFI 622.
  HKCFI 651,  HKCFI 1394.
  1 HKLRD 165.
  HKCFI 1235.
  HKCFI 1370.
 According to this well-established English principle laid down in Antony Gibbs & Sons v La Société Industrielle et Commerciale des Métaux  25 QBD 399, a foreign composition does not discharge a debt unless it is discharged under the law governing the debt.
  HKCFI 467.
  EWCA Civ 2802;  Bus LR 1130 at  (Henderson LJ).
  HKCFI 2775.