Business Breakfast Club October Summary - Discharging your Director's Duties: Keeping it Legal

This month at Business Breakfast Club, we discussed the types of matters directors should be contemplating when making decisions, and we explored some recent cases around how far directors’ duties may extend including where a failure to fulfil duties becomes criminal. Katie Innes and Shaneel Parikh shared some of their insights on the topic.

Directors Duties Generally

Directors are held accountable to a number of duties under the Corporations Act 2001 or, if you are a director of a charitable organisation, duties under the Australian Charities & Not-for-Profit Commission Act 2012. Principally among these duties is the requirement that directors exercise their powers and discharge their duties with the degree of care and diligence a reasonable person would exercise in their position. Directors must actively inform themselves about the subject matter of the decision, must not have a material personal interest, and must make the decision in good faith and for a proper purpose.

When inviting people to become directors of a company, the Board should comprise of individuals who have appropriate skills and knowledge relevant to the company and those invited individuals should inform themselves about the company and its business and whether they can contribute meaningfully to the decision making process. It is not enough to delegate the decision making power or to rely on external advisors without question once you are appointed. By making uninformed decisions about the affairs of a company, directors are exposing themselves to serious risk and personal liability.

Stepping Stone Liability

The ‘stepping stone’ approach to director’s liability is, on its face, simple. The first stepping stone involves a company breaching the Corporations Act or another law. The establishment of corporate fault then leads to the second stepping stone: a finding that the director has breached their duty of care for failing to prevent the company’s contravention.

To date, most cases involving stepping stone liability have been in relation to breaches of the ASX continuous disclosure regime by public companies. ASIC have used the stepping stone approach to find liability where company conduct has fallen below acceptable community standards, despite not necessarily causing loss to investors. An example of this is the proceedings brought against James Hardie Industries that concluded in 2012.

Interestingly, what recent case law has suggested is that a company does not need to have been found to have breached a provision of the Corporations Act or any other law in order for directors to be found liable for a breach of their duties under stepping stone liability; it may be enough that the director has unreasonably or intentionally committed acts which are extremely likely to involve a serious breach of the law. It is also important to understand that where a company has breached the law, a breach of duty is not presumed. It requires a consideration of whether the director has exercised reasonable care, to ‘prevent a foreseeable risk of harm to the interests of the company‘.

For more information, please contact either Katie Innes. The next Business Breakfast Club will be on Business Succession Planning and will take place on 9 November 2018. If you would like to attend, please contact us.