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Money Advice Update – April 2009

Money Advice Update – April 2009

First published in the April 2009 edition of SCOLAG.

The first quarter of this year, unsurprisingly, has been one of rumours and speculation for the money advice community.  Advisers have been eager to discover what changes the Scottish Government would introduce to help normal, hard working families with the credit crunch. 

As the picture begins to crystallise, the wait is almost over.

DEBT ACTION FORUM

Fergus Ewing, the Minister for Community Safety, began by announcing on the 13th of January that he was launching a Debt Action Forum to ensure the Scottish Government was doing everything within its powers to assist debtor’s struggling with the current financial downturn. There would also be a special housing sub-group to look at the issue of what else the Government could do to prevent repossessions[1].

The Forum has now met four times and is due to submit its proposals by the end of May.

Already a number of proposals have been considered, such as voluntary protocols for collections agencies and contribution only trust deeds, which may exempt debtors’ homes, with the consent of creditors.

It has also been mooted the possibility of the AIB expanding its functions, to provide an online and telephone advice service[2]. This is the reoccurrence of an earlier debate that took place during the passing of Bankruptcy (Scotland) Act 1993.

Then it was dismissed as a possible conflict of interest and it is believed many of the arguments which were valid then, are still valid today. It has also been expressed that it will be a duplication of existing services, provided by the National Debtline. A service already funded by the Scottish Government.

DEBT ARRANGEMENT SCHEME

The Accountant in Bankruptcy has also announced she will be taking over the full administration of the Debt Arrangement Scheme, including the management of cases. It is hoped this will free up the time of local Money Advisers, in order that they can devote more time to providing face to face advice to clients.

Other proposed changes to the Debt Arrangement Scheme, will be:[3]

  • Debtors being able to apply directly to the Scheme, through an online application process or an Approved Adviser
  • There no longer being a requirement for debtors to have two or more debts, allowing debtors with single debts to apply
  • The abolition of deemed consent, which allowed a creditor’s consent to be implied, when they fail to respond to notifications
  • The extending of the DAS Administrator’s power to apply a fair and reasonable test, in deciding if a payment programme should be approved, unless creditors’ with more than 50% of the total debt, actively express their consent.
  • A requirement for debtors to be able to make a minimum payment of £100 per month, or 1% of their total debt, whatever is the highest, towards their programmes and complete it within 10 years at most

It is hoped these changes will provide one point of contact for all debtors and creditors and increase the legitimacy of the scheme, as a result of it being operated by a Scottish Government agency.

It is also intended, despite the expansion of the gateway into the Scheme, debtors will still be encouraged to seek the advice of money advisers first. Although this will remove the requirement for Approved Money Advisers, it is likely money advice services will continue to play a pivotal role in the Scheme, particularly if the low Income, Low Asset Bankruptcies are an indication of the needs of debtors, where up to 90% of all applications are being made via advisers.

The other change, that debtors with single debts will be able to apply, will address some of the concerns that too much court time is taken up with Time to Pay Directions and Orders under the Debtors (Scotland) Act 1987. However, it is unlikely this provision will not be as successful as it could be, if debtors with single debts are still required to make a minimum payment of £100 per month. In the case of multiple debts, the minimum payment criteria is unlikely to be too great an obstacle, as the average payment in a Debt Payment Programme is already well in excess of this.

The removal of deemed consent will address the AIB’s concerns with lengthy repayment programmes being approved as a result of creditor’s failing to respond (over 90% of DPPs are currently approved as a result of deemed consent)[4].

It is, however, unlikely to do anything to address the lack of participation by creditors, and is likely only to encourage their continued lack of involvement.

BANKRUPTCY AND DILIGENCE ETC (SCOTLAND) ACT 2007

The new statutory Action of Arrestment and Furthcoming appear set to come in to force from April 22nd 2009, as are the further changes to inhibitions (see SCOLAG 375).

Earning Arrestments

From the 6th of April, new Earning Arrestment Schedules will be implemented.

The minimum amounts protected from arrestment, will change  to:

  • Daily: exceeding £13.50
  • Weekly: exceeding £94
  • Monthly: exceeding  £410

There will now be a clear flat rate of arrestment of 20% from any amount above those figures, up to:

  • Daily:  £88
  • Weekly: £617
  • Monthly: £2,680

After which 50% of the earnings will be deducted.

Land Attachments and Adjudication for Debt

Alex Salmond’s announcement in August 2007, at the Citizen Advice Scotland conference, that he will not allow the new diligence of Land Attachment to be used against the principal home, continues to delay its implementation.

Gillian Thompson, the AIB, has also expressed concerns that there may need to be further changes to the BAD Act 2007, as the legislation may no longer hang together.  There is now likely to be a three month consultation on the future implementation of the changes in diligence, beginning in March 2009[5].

What is of more concern, however, is the continued delay in abolishing Adjudication of Debt, which should have been abolished with the implementation of Land Attachments.

The delay allows creditors to increasingly use this diligence, interest in which has been revived, with the number of adjudications being registered in 2007/2008 being in their hundreds, whereas a few years ago, the number registered could have been counted on one hand. 

This situation is clearly contrary to the policy of the current Government, that is unsecured creditors should not be able to attach the principal home of debtors.

Money and Residual Attachments

It is now intended the new diligence of Money Attachments, will be implemented in July 2009. This will allow Sheriff Officers to attach the money of debtors, when it is in their possession, but not when it is kept in a dwellinghouse.

Residual Attachments, which, it is expected, will be used to arrest intellectual property, will be implemented from autumn 2009 onwards.

BANK CHARGES

The bank charges test case continues to work its way through the English legal system.

After the banks involved in the case decided to appeal the decision of the High Court, the Court of Appeal has now decided the charges can be subject to the fairness test contained in the Unfair Terms in Consumer Contract Regulations.

Although the Court refused the right to appeal, it is likely the banks will appeal directly to the House of Lords.

All cases, challenging the legality of the charges are likely to remain on hold, until the case is decided definitively.

MORTGAGE TO RENT AND SHARED EQUITY                    

Mortgage to Rent

The Scottish Government has now released details of their new Mortgage to Rent Scheme, which was launched in March 2009.

The Scheme aims to allow social landlords to take over the ownership of the homes of homeowners who are at risk of losing their property, either as a result of arrears with secured lenders or through insolvency and allow them to remain in possession as tenants.

The eligibility criteria for the Scheme will largely remain the same as before, although a list of average prices for homes throughout Scotland will be published and, other than in exceptional circumstances, it will not be possible to apply should the homeowners’ property be above the average value. The value of the property will be the value of the home, with all necessary repairs carried out to make it habitable.

A £6,000 grant will be available to the Social Landlord to carry out all necessary repairs.

If repairs, costing more than £6,000 are required, the application will only go through if the excess can be found from other sources.

Where there is equity, the debtor will be able to retain £8,000 of it, when under 60 years of age and £12,000m, when over 60 years of age. This source can be used to pay for repairs in excess of £6,000.

It will also not be possible to apply should the homeowner have more than 25% equity, unless the debtor is in a Trust Deed or has an interest only mortgage.

One important change will be that it will no longer be necessary for the home to be in imminent danger of being repossessed or for the lender to have initiated legal proceedings. Now, providing the owner has not made 3 months full payments and there are one month arrears, it will be possible to apply, providing all other UK home rescue schemes have first been exhausted.

Mortgage to Shared Equity

The Government Mortgage to Shared Equity Scheme will be similar to the Mortgage to Rent Scheme, in its’ intentions: that is to keep families in their homes. However, unlike the Mortgage to Rent Scheme, this entirely new remedy aims to allow debtors to retain some ownership of their property.

It will not be open to anyone with less than 25% equity and again debtors will need to exhaust all other UK home rescue remedies first. It will also not be available to any debtor who is insolvent, either as a result of signing a Trust Deed or applying for Sequestration.

Debtors applying for this Scheme will also need to have a capital and interest repayment mortgage.

It is intended a Government adviser will assess what level of share of the debtor’s home the Government will need to purchase, in order to reduce their monthly mortgage payments to an affordable level.

The debtor will not be required to pay rent to the Government for their share of the home. 

In order to apply for both Schemes, debtors will first need to seek advice from an agency that is a Citizen Advice Scotland or Money Advice Scotland member.

[1] http://www.aib.gov.uk/News/releases/2009/01/13215620

[2] http://www.aib.gov.uk/News/releases/2009/03/13163726

[3] http://www.aib.gov.uk/News/releases/2009/03/13114653

[4] http://www.aib.gov.uk/Resource/Doc/4/0000669.pdf

[5] Reaching for Reform, Credit in Scotland Supplement, Credit Today, issue March 2009

Principal Home Protection in Bankruptcy

Principal Home Protection in Bankruptcy

First published in the March 2009 edition of SCOLAG.

Alan McIntosh argues Fergus Ewing’s new Debt Action Forum needs to consider making personal insolvency in Scotland more consumer friendly and increase protection for homeowners.

The traditional view in Scotland of personal debt, has been the debtor who becomes notour bankrupt, becomes embarrassed by their debts and should realise all their worldly assets for the benefit of their creditors and, hopefully, obtain their forgiveness.

Whether this should be the view in 2009 is debateable. Much has changed with regards insolvency and the stigma attached to it. It is no longer seen, necessarily, as something people should be embarrassed about, but rather as one of the unfortunate financial risks we all face in today’s society, the causes of which are as much out of our control as within it. Also, it needs to be questioned the desirability of such a legal remedy having such dire effects and carrying an embarrassing social stigma in today’s society. It was one thing this being the case, when even as recently as 1985, the number of personal insolvencies in Scotland could have been counted in their hundreds[1], but by the end of this financial year, that number could be closer to 20,000[2]. Also, is it fair the individual should bear the full burden of their downfall, when both the Government and the finance industry are, at least, partly if not equally culpable?  From the 1980s onwards, where the origins of this current credit crisis lies, Government done everything possible to deregulate financial services and encourage the growth of the consumer market (underpinned with vast amounts of easily accessible, unsecured credit).

The question now needs to be asked, as we enter the severest recession in 60 years, is whether the thousands of debtors who now find themselves in the position they do, partly as a result of the government and the finance industry’s actions and incentives, should face Dickensian style ruin?

One of the biggest dangers facing many normal working families in the years ahead is their large quantities of unsecured personal debt. It is not uncommon for these debts to equate to 1-2 times the debtor’s net annual income. That is, levels of debt that it should have been obvious to creditors, if not the debtors themselves (many of whom lacked proper financial skills), was ever repayable.

One argument, which has been advocated already by others in Scotland’s wider legal community[3] is personal insolvency is now primarily a remedy for consumers and needs to be modernised, like the sale of goods and contracts for and of services were, to make it more consumer friendly. This would arguably include new protections for debtors and their families.  Such protections could include the protection of the family home and the income of debtors’[4], ensuring they and their families are not forced into poverty.

Unlike many legal systems, however, Scotland’s bankruptcy laws have never treated the home of homeowners as an essential item, but as a realisable asset, to be used to swell insolvent estates for the benefit of creditors.

This may have been acceptable in the past, where the number of bankruptcies were small and social housing was more prevalent, but there is something nonsensical about a legal remedy, which treats the toys of a child as an essential item, but not the home the child lives in; or considers a personal computer or television to be something a debtor cannot do without, but does not afford the same consideration to where the debtor lives.

Although, numerous measures have already been implemented by both the UK and Scottish Government to prevent repossessions by secured lenders, little has yet to be done to protect debtors from losing their homes as a result of unsecured debts.

One possibility is for the Debt Action Forum to urgently consider a Dwellinghouse Exemption Act or provisions, exempting the principal residence of debtors, to some degree, if not completely, in sequestrations and protected trust deeds.

Such a measure may seem radical, but is commonplace in many other legal systems. In the USA, for example, Homestead Exemption provisions exist preventing the homes of debtors from being sold by unsecured creditors. In Texas there is no value to the property protected and in urban areas covers up to 10 acres[5]; In New York the home is protected up to the value of $50,000[6]; whilst in Alaska there is a $54,000 exemption[7]. Similar provisions exist in Canada and vary from province to province.

It would seem pointless for legislators, in response to the credit crunch, to take steps to protect homeowners from repossession, only for them to lose their home as a result of failing to pay a credit card or personal loan.

The vast majority of debtors who have accrued large amounts of unsecured debts were never cautioned, like they would have been with secured lending, that their home were being placed at risk, but for thousands of Scottish debtors, this is the reality they face as they now default on credit cards and personal loans.

The difficulty in measuring the true extent of this problem is although it may be possible to determine how many homeowners were sequestrated or signed trust deeds, it not always possible to determine how many of these resulted in the debtor losing their home. Trustees do not regularly force the sale of debtors’ property, although they have the power to. Most bankrupts “agree” to the sale.

As the credit crunch continues to unfold and the true extent of irresponsible lending becomes clear, there is now emerging a danger, for not only over indebted homeowners, but for the public purse, that it will have to mop up this overspill from toxic, unsecured, financial products.

Yet this is already occurring through the publicly funded Mortgage to Rent Scheme, which was initially set up to protect debtors from losing their homes as a result of repossessions. Under the current rules, the social landlord who buys the debtor’s home, with the assistance of a public subsidy, only pays the secured lenders up to the market value of the property or that which is secured over it, whichever is the lesser. Where there is equity, the debtor is only entitled to £8,000 (if under 60) or £12,000 (if over 60). This means often the full price is not paid, but the debtor gets to remain in the home as a tenant. Where, however, the debtor has been sequestrated or has signed a protected trust deed, the trustee is treated as a secured creditor and is paid the full equity. Effectively, therefore, where this Scheme is used for bankrupts to keep them in their homes, public funds are being used to pay the trustees fees and the debtor’s unsecured creditors.

In addition the availability of affordable, appropriate housing in the public sector is already scarce and Shelter has said the Scottish Government needs to make available up to 30,000 homes for rent over the next three years. These numbers may have to increase if the demand on social housing is increased as a result of bankruptcy.

There, however, is an opportunity, with a Dwellinghouse Exemption Act or provisions, to reduce the social affects of the deepening recession and the pressure on increasingly strained public resources.

If the principal home was exempt in bankruptcy, unsecured lenders would have to evaluate the risks attached to their lending more cautiously, especially if they realised they would only be able to recover unsecured debts from moveable assets. This is likely to promote responsible lending.

Another consequence may be debtors will also find it more difficult, even after the economy recovers, to access similarly large amounts of unsecured credit, with more lenders seeking securities for their loans. This will have a cautionary affect on debtors and will avoid the situation where one partner in a family runs up unsecured debts, unbeknownst to the other and is later sequestrated, placing the whole family at risk of losing their home.

It may even create a situation where our homes become just that and not speculative assets, which give people a false sense of wealth and encourage over indebtedness.


[1] 1-21, McBryde, W, Bankruptcy, W.Green/Sweet & Maxwell, 1995 (First Edition)

 

 

[2] That is sequestrations and Protected Trust Deeds

 

 

[3] Donna McKenzie Skene, & Adrian Walters, Consumer Bankruptcy Law Reform in Scotland, England & Wales

 

 

[4] Scots Law does recognise that debtor’s should be allowed to retain amounts needed for their ailiment, but this now needs to be developed with the recommendation in AIB guidance that Trustees use trigger figures when calculating debtor’s essential expenditure. This is current practice in the Debt Arrangement Scheme.

[5] Chapter 41.001, Title 5, Texas Property Code

 

 

[6] S5206, CPLR, Consolidated Laws of New York

 

 

[7] S09.38.010 Homestead Exemption, Alaska Statutes

 

 

 

 

 

 

Money Advice Update – January 2009

Money Advice Update – January 2009

First published in the January 2009 edition of SCOLAG

Bankruptcy and Diligence Etc (Scotland) Act 2007

Although at the time of writing no draft regulations or precise dates are available, the next stage of implementation for the Bankruptcy and Diligence Etc (Scotland) Act 2007,  appears to have been delayed and will be at the end of April 2009, rather than early 2009, as initially intended.

Actions of Arrestment and Furthcoming

Previously a common law diligence, Actions of Arrestment and Furthcoming are commonly used to arrest bank accounts, but can be used to arrest any moveable property held by a third party. Soon to be almost entirely a creature of statute, the Debtors (Scotland) Act 1987 is to be amended to include the rules governing them under a new Part 3A[1].

Importantly, there will now be protection for a minimum amount held in bank accounts[2]. The amount to be protected from arrestment will be the monthly amount, under which no deduction can be made using an earnings arrestment: currently £370[3].

There will be no automatic protection for social security benefits or tax credits held in bank accounts, but a recent decision by Sheriff Principal Kearney[4], held where social security benefits and tax credits, paid into an account can be identified, it will not be possible to subject those funds to arrestment[5]. This leaves open the possibility that where benefits paid into an account exceed £370, then providing they can be identified, it may be possible to protect funds over the minimum amount.

Under the new provisions, despite the heading under Part 10 of the 2007 Act, there will no longer be an Action of Furthcoming, with funds arrested being automatically released to creditors after 14 weeks[6], unless the debtor agrees to the early release of the funds.

There will be no automatic release of property, however, where the debtor, the arrestee of a third party submits a notice of objection[7]. Notices of objection must be intimated within 4 weeks of the arrestment being executed or final decree being obtained (in the case of arrestment on the dependence). Grounds of objection are the warrant authorising the arrestment is invalid, the arrestment was executed incompetently or irregularly or the property is owned solely by the third party or in common with the debtor[8] (this could include joint accounts or funds held in trust for the maintenance of others, such as children).

Automatic release will also be prevented where a debtor or other person, who the court believes has an interest, applies for release of all or some of the funds on the grounds the arrestment is unduly harsh[9]. In considering whether the arrestment is unduly harsh, the Sheriff shall have regard to the source of the funds (possibly also that they are benefits) and whether other arrestments are already in place (including possibly earning arrestments and the fact diligence has being executed twice on the same funds).

Where a Sheriff finds an objection founded or that an arrestment is unduly harsh, he may restrict or recall the arrestment.

New provisions will also be implemented to oblige arrestees to disclose to creditors, within 3 weeks, the nature and value of the property arrested[10].

Inhibitions

New provisions will also be implemented in relation to inhibitions, which will abolish the bills and letters procedure and will include the authority to apply for an inhibition in extract decrees and documents of debt[11].

A Sheriff will also now be able to grant a warrant for diligence by inhibition, on the dependence of an action[12].

Inhibitions will also no longer confer preference in bankruptcy or insolvency proceedings[13] and will take effect from the date of recording[14].

Accountant in Bankruptcy Reviews

The awaited reviews of the Debt Arrangement Scheme and Low Income Low Asset Bankruptcies have now been published and are available from the AIB website[15].

Unfortunately, the AIB has used different geographic regions to show the number of applications being made with regards both Schemes, making any meaningful geographical comparison of use of the schemes, not possible. More importantly with regards the Debt Arrangement Scheme, it appears the AIB do not currently have figures showing the numbers of homeowners in Debt Payment Programmes. This is unfortunate, as it could reveal to what extent the DAS is being used as a remedy to protect homeowners from sequestration.

Where it would appear LILAs have been a huge success, with over 2,929 debtors applying for bankruptcy using the route between April and July 2008, the Debt Arrangement Scheme has not been as successful, although take up has significantly increased since June 2007 (a five fold increase on that of the previous year).

Significant emphasis continues to be placed by DAS Administrator on the problem of lengthy payment programmes (23% of the cases in the review period are expected to last more than 10 years), but this may only reflect the fact that for an increasing number of debtors, other than surrendering their homes and possibly making themselves and their family’s homeless, such programmes are the only option available.  Again the lack of figures regarding homeownership by debtors in DPPs appears to be a missed opportunity to understand use of the scheme.

The main concern with DAS remains its accessibility for debtors, with, in the review period, no DPPS being applied for or approved in 7 local authority regions.

The AIB has proposed a number of options for the DAS. The options outlined in the review are: do nothing and allow it to continue; abolish it; introduce composition (which could address the issue of DPPs which will last beyond 10 years); the AIB taking over the administration of cases and finally the AIB taking over the administration of cases and removing the need for debtors to apply through Approved Money Advisers.

With regards the last two options, the concept of debtors applying themselves seems unrealistic, when it is considered one of the issues most commonly raised by approved money advisers is that the application process is complex and time consuming.

With regards the DAS Administrator taking over the administration of cases, this may have merit if it was to reduce the workload on approved money advisers. The problems remains, however, the majority of work on cases is at the set-up stage and in carrying out variations. It is likely this work would still have to be carried out by money advisers and, therefore, the benefits of the work being taking in house seem negligible.

The reality is, the problem with DAS is not that it is an unattractive option to some debtors, although introducing composition could make it more so, but there is difficulty in accessing it. Considering the fifth option of removing approved money advisers as a gateway to the scheme is not realistic and in reality money advisers would still need to make most of the applications for debtors, as they currently do for LILA, the issue of increasing the number of approved money advisers remains the only plausible option.

Furthermore, as increasing measures are being taken by both the UK and Scottish Government to protect homeowners from repossession, DAS remains the only credible options open to those with multiple debts facing sequestration and protects them from losing their homes. Indeed, it would seem ridiculous to increase protection for debtors from secured lenders, only for them to lose their home through the actions of unsecured lenders.

Abolition of the Scheme, in these times, cannot, therefore, be a serious option..

In light of this, one suggestion is to leave the rules governing it intact and focusing on increasing access through increasing numbers of approved money advisers.

If any changes to the Scheme should be considered, possibly one is that the current procedure, which allows a debtor to intimate an intention to apply for a DPP and obtain six weeks protection from sequestration, should be increased to six months. This would allow those who can demonstrate a significant drop in income to safeguard their homes, for a period, whilst seeking new employment or methods to increase their income.

It is expected any changes that are introduced, however, will be introduced by June or July 2009 and left unchanged for 5 years to allow them to bed in.

Time to Pay Directions/Orders

Council Tax and Summary Warrants

There appears to be some confusion with regards time to pay measures under the Debtors (Scotland) Act 1987 and their use with regards Council Tax. Prior to April 2008, neither remedy was competent in relation to a debt constituted by Summary Warrant, but now is in relation to Council Tax.

Despite the legislation and explanatory notes to the 2007 Act, suggesting Time to Pay Directions are competent with regards council tax debt, the summary warrant procedure does not allow an application to be made.

Debtors have to wait until a Charge for Payment is served and then they are able to apply for a Time to Pay Order. The detriment to the debtor is this results in them incurring the cost of the charge being served, whereas if they were able to apply earlier, as intended, the further expense could be avoided.

Transferring Powers to Award Proposed

Indications are that the Accountant in Bankruptcy will now be proposing to the Scottish Government that she takes over the role of granting Time to Pay Directions/Orders under the Debtors (Scotland) Act 1987.

It is probably to be welcomed the possibility of removing these remedies from the adversarial environment of the courts and it would make the process of applying, less stressful for debtors.

It raises the issue, however, whether the AIB are now taking on a judicial role.  They now award sequestration, when debtors’ apply, where previously this was the role of the courts. If they are to take over the role of awarding Time to Pays, will this also mean  decrees, which when currently granted by the courts results in an instalment decree. It also begs the question what will happen when debtors wish to dispute the level of their liability and apply for a Time to Pay. Will the AIB adjudicate on these issues or will the courts retain authority on these matters? A further issue is whether debtors or their representatives, will retain the right to make oral representations, as they can currently in front of a Sheriff, or whether that right will be lost? Importantly it will need to be clarified whether the process will remain free to debtors.

With the proposed changes to the DAS, this could see a huge increase in the role of the AIB.

There clearly needs to be proper discussions as to whether this possible increased role is in the wider pubic interest and whether it is appropriate that a government agency takes on such judicial functions. If they take over the role of deciding time to pays under the Debtors (Scotland) Act 1987, why not Time Orders under the Consumer Credit Act 1974 or S2 orders under the Mortgage Rights (Scotland) Act 2001?

Historically, the AIB’s expertise has been in Insolvency and case administration, not in the provision of advice and performing what were previously, judicial functions. If the AIB is to take on wider roles, such as this, there must be more transparency in their decision making process: not just providing guidelines for advisers, but also publishing the detailed guidance they make available to their decision makers.


[1] Section 206, Part 10 of the Bankruptcy and Diligence Etc (Scotland) Act 2007

[2] S73F Debtors (Scotland) Act 1987 (as amended) – when S206 of the 2007 act is commenced

[3] Table B, The Diligence Against Earnings (Variation) (Scotland) Regulations 2006

[4] North Lanarkshire Council v Shirley Crossan & Airdrie Savings Bank, unreported, Airdrie Sheriff Court 2nd May 2008

[5] Although the case Sheriff Principal Kearney decided dealt with arrestments under the common law, the case concerned the inalienability of benefits under S187 of the Social Security Administration Act 1992 and S45 of the Tax Credits Act 2002. It is likely, therefore, the decision may still be relevant for the new arrestments.

[6] S73J Debtors (Scotland) Act 1987 (as amended) – when S206 of the 2007 act is commenced

[7] S73L Debtors (Scotland) Act 1987 (as amended) – when S206 of the 2007 act is commenced

[8]  S73M Debtors (Scotland) Act 1987 (as amended) – when S206 of the 2007 act is commenced

[9] S73Q Debtors (Scotland) Act 1987 (as amended) – when S206 of the 2007 act is commenced

[10] S73G Debtors (Scotland) Act 1987 (as amended) – when S206 of the 2007 act is commenced

[11] S146, Bankruptcy and Diligence etc (Scotland) Act 2007

[12] S15A Debtors (Scotland) Act 1987 (as amended) – when S169of the 2007 act is commenced

[13] S154, 2007 Act

[14] S149 2007 Act

[15] www.aib.gov.uk

The Debt Arrangement Scheme – Is it working the way it was intended?

The Debt Arrangement Scheme – Is it working the way it was intended?

The Debt Arrangement Scheme (DAS) is now approaching its fourth anniversary, but before it reaches that it will go through its second review, which is expected to run between July and December this year. The first review, which was implemented at the end of June 2007, allowed, inter alia, for the automatic waiving of interest and charges on debts included in debt payment programmes, providing they were successfully completed. It also extended the role of the DAS Administrator[1] in the scheme, reducing the role of the Sheriff, and allowing the Administrator, whenever a creditor refused consent, to apply a fair and reasonable test, before approving or refusing a Programme under the Scheme.

Although, there will be a process of consultation in the review, allowing for all stakeholders to participate, it is clear that what is being asked is whether the Scheme is working the way it was intended. The DAS Administrator has indicated she will be looking at a number of factors in relation to the Scheme, primarily the quality of applications being made by Approved Money Advisers[2] and the use of the Scheme by debtors.

The Application Process for Debt Payment Programmes

The Administrator has clearly indicated, through her staff, she is concerned with the proposed duration of some of the programmes being applied for. When the Scheme was originally implemented, there were two principles in the legislation which underpinned when a programme should be approved. The fist of these was contractual freedom, that is the client and the creditors can reach whatever agreement suits them.”[3] The second was where a creditor did actively refuse consent that a fair and reasonable test should be applied.

The DAS Administrator’s concern that the Scheme is being used in a way that was not intended appears to be directed to the first of these routes for a payment programme being approved: that is through the agreement of the debtor and the creditors. This is partly because, at present, where a creditor fails to reply to a notification that a Debt Payment Programme is being applied for, they are deemed to have implied consent. A programme can, therefore, be automatically approved despite the fact no creditor has actively agreed to it, even if it will take twenty years or more to complete. These cases are being automatically approved as a result of the creditor’s active and implied consent. It is true many creditors are prepared to wait lengthy periods for their debts to be repaid, knowing they will in all likelihood recover far less if the debtor chooses another route, such as personal insolvency. It is also true, however, that another significant reason for these programmes being approved is poor creditor participation, resulting in them being deemed to have consented when they fail to reply within the statutory time limits.

Does this constitute misuse of the Scheme? In the situation where all creditors actively consent it would be hard to argue there is any abuse and, therefore, little justification for limiting the principle of contractual freedom, as surely the parties involved must be presumed to know what is in their best interests. When the programme is approved as a result of deemed consent, the question is more complex. There is a strong public interest in the DAS: it provides a remedy for those in debt and restricts the right of creditors, by implying they have consented, when they have not. Where those creditor rights are lost as a result of a legal fiction, there is a duty for the DAS Administrator to ensure any infringement is limited and proportionate.

However, removing the concept of deemed consent is unlikely to be the solution. For a start, the concept is hardly an alien one, already existing in Scots Law in relation to Protected Trust Deeds and was recently reaffirmed with The Protected Trust Deeds (Scotland) Regulations 2008. In the case of trust deeds, the creditor who fails to respond loses far more rights, than the creditor who fails to respond to a notification of an application for a Debt Payment Programme (DPPs pay 90p in the pound in comparison to Protected Trust Deeds, which on average pay only 10-20p in the pound). Also if the concept of deemed consent was removed from the DAS, it would not necessarily increase creditor participation and, arguably, would remove one of the incentives that currently exist for creditors to participate in the scheme: that is, they ignore it at their peril. In terms of restricting the rights of creditors, the approval of a programme still allows creditors to apply for a variation or appeal, on a point of law, and although the DAS does currently include an element of debt relief for debtors from interest, fee and charges, this is only realised if the DPP is successfully completed. The creditor, therefore, retains the right to pursue the debtor for these sums should the plan fail. The creditor whose debts are included in a Debt Payment Programme, therefore, is in a significantly stronger position in regard to his rights, than the creditor with debts included in a Protected Trust Deed or Sequestration. Arguably, therefore, the rights of the creditor who fails to respond to notification are outweighed by the public interest of ensuring creditors act responsibly and meet their obligations to assist debtors facing financial difficulties. It cannot be argued, for example, that the creditor is obstructed from participating in the procedure or is having his rights infringed upon without due process.

In light of this, it is difficult to argue that those programmes currently being applied for, which may have proposed durations of twenty or more years are in actual fact abuses of the scheme. Firstly, the DAS Administrator has said, in the guidance provided, that where it is felt a case is fair and reasonable, an application should be submitted.[4] What is fair and reasonable will always depend on the particular facts of a case and also the views of those involved. It is not possible for an Approved Money Adviser to know in advance whether a creditor will respond or what his view will be.

The possible reason why it is felt such applications may be a misuse of the scheme appears to derive from the second way a DPP can be approved. That is, when a creditor actively refuses consent. As mentioned above, in such situations the DAS Administrator has to apply a ‘fair and reasonable’ test. There is nothing in the legislation that stipulates such a test should apply to a programme when creditors don‘t refuse consent. It would appear, however, the fair and reasonable test is being used as a benchmark against which cases where creditors either do consent, or are deemed to have consented, are being measured. If this is the case, the question needs to be: should the fair and reasonable test be used as a benchmark in all cases?

Possibly the first question that needs to be asked, is how is the fair and reasonable test being applied? At present there is nothing in the primary or secondary legislation stipulating how long a DPP should last, although, The DAS Guidance for Approved Money Advisers does state “…the DAS Administrator is likely to approve anything under 5 years in duration and refuse to approve anything over 10 years. Between these periods will be a matter of individual assessment”.[5]

Although, such guidelines can be helpful, they are arbitrary. They appear to be more for convenience than because they have any basis in fact or in law in determining when a case is fair and reasonable. The regulations do, however, provide a list of other factors that the administrator should consider, such as the total amount of debt, the level of equity a debtor has in his home, the extent to which creditors have consented and any other factors considered appropriate.[6]

At present there is little information what weight is being given, on a case to case basis, to these factors and what other factors are considered relevant. For example, there is no indication whether relevant factors would include the length of time the original debt was for, or whether a client risks losing their home.

The current practice is that when an application is rejected, the Administrator states the application failed the fair and reasonable test. This lack of specificity creates two problems: first it is near on impossible to decide if there are any grounds for appeal by the debtor (albeit it would need to be on a point of law). And, secondly, without any understanding as to the reasoning behind decisions, money advisers are not able to improve the quality of the applications they make.

If the DAS Administrator is determined to restrict the duration of payment programmes under the scheme, possible solutions could be sought from examining English Administration Orders. Although these orders have no statutory limit on their duration, it is generally accepted debts included in such schemes should be repaid within a reasonable time. Where repayment plans are likely to exceed such a reasonable time, a Composition Order can be imposed, only requiring the debtor to repay a percentage of the debt. The DAS could be reformed along the lines of such a model. This would help resolve some of the issues concerning the duration of programmes, although it would involve a greater infringement on the rights of creditors.

Another option used in Administration Orders would be to impose limits on the level of debt that can be included in DPPs, although caution needs to be exercised here as the scheme could become too restrictive. It should also be noted such limits are believed to be the reason behind the declining use of this remedy in England and Wales.

It would still need to be decided, however, how programmes get approved. That is whether the fair and reasonable test should be applied in all cases or whether the principle of contractual freedom should still apply, with or without deemed consent. Also, arguably the grounds of appeal should be widened to include appeals not only on points of law but also on the merits of the case. This would not only improve decision making and accountability, but considering the gravity of the decisions on both creditors and debtors alike and the fact composition of debts could be included, would be in the interests of justice. This would also be in line with the Administration Order model.

Freezing of Interest

The other issue the DAS Administrator has raised through her staff, concerns the reforms that arose after the first review of the scheme. Currently, when a debtor’s programme becomes approved, all interest, fees and charges on their debts are frozen and ultimately waived, should the programme be successfully completed.

Concerns have been raised that some debtors are opting for the Scheme as a less expensive alternative to consolidation loans and as a way of evading their contractual obligations to pay interest. This is without doubt a possibility. However, two points are being ignored: firstly, under the present climate many debtors are not able to access consolidation loans; secondly, even when debtors are able to obtain consolidation loans, they usually face adverse interest rates. This often exacerbates the debtor’s financial situation and can eventually be the precursor to the debtor becoming insolvent.

The same concerns could also be raised with regards sequestration and protected trust deeds, but there is no suggestion that access to these remedies should be restricted because debtors have not yet borrowed enough. The purpose of debtors using these remedies is that they are acting responsibly to manage their financial difficulties and not acting irresponsibly, posing a hazard to other lenders.

Recognising there is the potential for abuse, the qualifying criteria should be that the debtor should be able to demonstrate with their financial statement that they cannot meet their contractual obligations and are, to that extent, practically insolvent. The alternative to this, that the debtor either must first have defaulted on their debts or that a creditor has obtained a court order, would mean that a debtor would need to wait much later before they can act. It was never intended the DAS would work like this, as the idea was to reduce litigation and encourage debtors to act sooner rather than later.

The Future of the Debt Arrangement Scheme

On average, at present, the number of Approved Money Advisers fluctuates between 90 -100 and in some local authority regions in Scotland there are still no Approved Money Advisers being employed by the public and voluntary sector. Part of the problem has been stretched public and voluntary sector services.

As Approved Money Advisers are the gateway which debtors must pass through to enter a Programme, this creates a significant problem. The Debt Arrangement Scheme is a legal remedy and like other remedies, in the interest of justice people must be able to access it. The equivalent would be to say to people you are able to go bankrupt, but only if you live in certain parts of the country and not others.

In the coming review, therefore, attention should be focused on increasing access to the Scheme, either by providing further resources or countenancing greater private sector involvement.

If the private sector is to be encouraged to increase their involvement, the current standards must be maintained, for the sake of both the creditors and the debtors. One of the driving principles behind the DAS, however, was that it should be a free service. This, however, will have to be squared with the fact any private sector involvement will need to be commercially viable.

This isn’t an impossible task. One option would be to expand the statutory fees that creditors are liable for when their debts are included in a Programme. Currently, they pay 10% to the Payment Distributor. If they also had to pay 10% to the Money Advice Service Provider, this could act as an incentive for increased private sector involvement in providing access to the Scheme. Increased take up of the Scheme may also encourage greater creditor involvement.

Creditors, even with an additional charge, would still receive greater dividends than they do when debtors becoming insolvent and would benefit from no longer having to pursue customers for payment.

Whatever reforms come out of the review, what is important, is not only that some of the above problems are resolved, but that the Scheme continues to provide relief to debtors and an organized method for them to manage their complex multiple debt problems.


[1] The DAS Administrator is the Accountant in Bankruptcy.

[2] All applications for a Debt Payment Programme under the Debt Arrangement Scheme, currently have to be made through an Approved Money Adviser.

[3] Pg 2, Foreword, DAS Guidance for Approved Money Advisers (version 4)

[4] A3.3 DAS Guidance for Approved Money Advisers (version 4)

[5] A3.3 DAS Guidance for Approved Money Advisers (version 4

[6] Regulation 26 (2)