Trustees, beneficiaries and purchasers — good news all round

Good news from the Supreme Court last week for commerce: in particular, those purchasing assets from trustees. In Akers v Samba Financial Group [2017] UKSC 6 ASa Saudi businessman, held shares on trust for a company, SICLA: he disposed of the shares to Samba in satisfaction of a debt. Assuming Samba were in good faith, you might have thought there was no problem: they would take free of the trust. But SICLA was insolvent: and the liquidator sought an end-run round the rule of equity’s darling by invoking s.127 of the Insolvency Act 1986. This prohibits disposition of the assets of an insolvent company (including beneficial interests in trust property), and allows their claw-back, with only a judicial discretion to protect the alienee and no general good-faith purchaser protection. The Supremes refused to allow this attempted circumvention. Dispositions within s.127 implied dispositions by the company, not dispositions of the company’s (equitable) property by a trustee purporting to vest it in a third party. Result: purchasers, provided they are in good faith and without notice, can happily thumb their noses at alleged trust beneficiaries, even insolvent ones. Quite right too.

But there was also good news for beneficiaries. In the present case the trust was a Cayman trust; however, the shares, being shares in Saudi companies registered in Saudi Arabia, were situated in Saudi Arabia. Now, Saudi law doesn’t accept the existence of trusts. Nevertheless their Lordships made it clear that under the Hague Convention embodied in the Recognition of Trusts Act 1987, the English courts would recognise the trust (although under Art.11(d) of the Convention the question whether a purchaser of the shares took free of it would fall to be decided by the lex situs, Saudi law). We all thought that was probably the case anyway; but it’s nice to have confirmation of one’s prejudices, especially if (as here) they are sensible ones.

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