Protections for minority shareholders
Gannons were excellent. They fought to ensure that our rights were respected. Helen is an intelligent lawyer and a pleasure to work with
We specialise in minority shareholder rights, how to value the shares, tax, and useful strategies to deploy for a fair result in any negotiation
Minority shareholders do have rights. But, often a minority shareholder is overlooked and opportunities are missed. We specialise in minority shareholder rights, how to value the shares, tax, and useful strategies to deploy for a fair result in any negotiation. We are discrete. In some cases the directors or controlling shareholders abuse their position and cause jeopardy. We explain what can be done.
Please do call us to discuss your position.
Basic minority shareholder rights
The Companies Act does give all shareholders certain basic rights. But, rights afforded to minority shareholders under the Companies Act are very limited.
The way to enhance minority shareholder rights is via the articles or a shareholders’ agreement. There is no limit on the extent of enhancement over and above the Companies Act that is possible. It is all a matter of knowing what rights you will need and what you can agree.
Based on past experience we find the most common problems we are asked to solve include:
- Reviewing investment agreements and shareholders’ agreements to enhance the rights for minority shareholders;
- Resolving minority shareholder disputes;
- How to prevent abuse of power by directors and/or controlling shareholders.
Basic articles and the Companies Act
If the company has standard articles issued upon incorporation and no amendments have been made, in all likelihood your shareholder rights will be limited to the basic rights set out below. Assuming there are no specially designed articles or a shareholders’ agreement in place providing enhanced rights for minority shareholders the rights of shareholders set out under the Companies Act break down as follows:
Shareholding of 5% or more
- Able to require the circulation of a written resolution.
- Able to require the company to call a general meeting.
- Able to prevent the deemed re-appointment of an auditor.
Shareholding of 10%
- Able to call a poll vote at a general meeting.
- Able to require an audit.
Shareholding greater than 10%
- Able to block consent to short notice of a general meeting.
Shareholding greater than 25%
- Able to block a special resolution.
- Able to block compromise arrangement with members or a class of members.
Shareholding of 50%
- Able to block ordinary resolutions.
Shareholding greater than 50%
- Able to pass an ordinary resolution.
Shareholding of 75%
- Able to pass a special resolution.
- Able to approve compromise or arrangement with members or a class of members (also needs court sanction to be effective).
Shareholding greater than 90%
- Able to consent to short notice of a general meeting.
- Able to squeeze out minority shareholders where a takeover offer has been made.
- Right for minority shareholders to be bought out by a bidder making a takeover bid.
Protecting the rights of minority shareholders
Any of the above powers available under the Companies Act can be improved for the protection of any or all shareholders under the articles and or shareholders agreement.
When a dispute arises, it is often too late to amend the articles to cover minority shareholder rights. Amendment to any set of articles requires at least 75% of the shareholders to vote in favour of the amendment. In cases of dispute, it is fair to assume that the majority shareholders will not be willing to pass a resolution to assist a minority. This leaves the aggrieved shareholder with only the limited statutory rights.
Time and cost can be saved if minority shareholder protection is agreed via the articles or a shareholders’ agreement before the shares are acquired.
Information rights for minority shareholders
Often minorities suspect the business is not being managed properly but lack evidence. All claims need evidence. Controlling shareholders and directors will often refuse to voluntarily disclose evidence. Therefore, in practice, one of the most important provisions to include for a minority shareholder is the right to access financial records. The right to see financial data will not arise automatically under the Companies Act but can be created via the articles or shareholders agreement.
Linked in with access to financial records is the financial reporting. Sight of internal management accounts can be helpful and act as a warning to minority shareholders that management may not be as expected. Ultimately, it is the sight of financial records which can be most important.
Power of veto given to minority shareholders
Minority shareholders can with changes to the articles or shareholders agreement be given powers of veto. A power of veto can be used to block actions unless the minority consents. For example, a minority shareholder could be given the power to block:
- Business sales and mergers;
- Expenditure above prescribed limits;
- Winding up or voluntary liquidation;
- Large scale investment;
- New business avenues; and
- The sale of a substantial shareholding if similar terms are not offered to the minority.
Dilution of shares
Under the Companies Act shareholders are given the right to subscribe for shares under any new share issue. In some companies this right is dis-applied in the articles or shareholders’ agreement. In other cases the shareholder may not be able to subscribe and hence suffer dilution – wealthy shareholders may use this power to drown out minorities by fixing artificially high subscription prices.
Minority shareholders should look at dilution and building in protection when they invest.
Preventing abuse of minority shareholder rights
Shareholder problems can often be solved quickly and effectively if the shareholders’ agreement includes a dispute resolution clause. There are a variety of approaches to take. We will work with you to pick the right approach for your shareholding.
Dispute resolution ideas
Ideas often revolve around:
- Bringing in a third party (mediator) in an attempt to reach an amicable settlement if shareholders are in dispute;
- Including a right for a minority shareholder to have his shares bought out; or
- Controlling the transfer of shares to avoid them being transferred into undesirable hands.
Transfer of shares by a minority shareholder
Transferring shares in private companies from a minority shareholder to a family member or a third party can be effectively prohibited under basic articles. This is because the directors have a discretion to refuse a transfer. Directors have to use discretion fairly but they can usually come up with an excuse. If the company is owned 50:50% by directors and shareholders, in a deadlock situation it is impossible to pass a resolution.
Minority shareholders should think about their likely exit route when they invest and agree how they will be able to dispose of shares.
Problem for minority shareholders
The Companies Act does not deal with how shares will be valued where there is a share sale by private agreement of a personal shareholding. For example, it has to be taken into account the lack of influence a minority shareholding may carry or is the value to be based on a whole company valuation – the parties will have to argue that out in the absence of a written agreement.
The Companies Act does not provide any mechanism by which the company can force the sale of shares. A range of problems can arise if share transfers are not dealt with in the articles or shareholders’ agreement. One of the biggest problems is that the whole company could be un-saleable as a potential buyer cannot be certain all shareholders will sell.
Minority shareholder claims
There will usually be a variety of ideas to explore for a minority shareholder. Our job is to work out the minority shareholder rights and then to present them in a persuasive way. The core rights to explore are:
- The possibility of an unfair prejudice claim;
- Bringing a claim against the director(s); or
- Winding up or voluntary liquidation.
As explained below, many of the remedies are difficult if not impossible for a minority shareholder to win on. That is why agreeing terms before investment is so important.
The best avenue will often depend upon the facts and provisions in existing corporate documentation such as the articles, any shareholders agreement and the director’s service agreements, if any. We have acted for many companies where there is no corporate documentation in place, or it is outdated. But, solutions can still often be found.
Claim against a director(s)
Claims brought by shareholders against the directors, known as derivative claims, are notoriously complex. The claim against the director is intended to address the classic problem for a shareholder where the board of directors refuse to act.
There is no minimum holding requirement to bring a derivative claim, although the court will take this into account when deciding whether or not the claim should proceed, i.e. whether the majority would seek to exercise the action to enforce a minority shareholders rights.
Of the three court applications, this is the most drastic. A winding up order demolishes any goodwill trading name. As such, the courts have prepared strict guidance on its use.
Under the Companies Act, 75% of shareholders must vote in favour of a winding up. This means that a minority shareholder cannot stop the process. To get around this risk, many minority shareholders include winding up or voluntary liquidation as a matter requiring their approval.
When will the court wind a company up?
If the minority shareholder either has a veto right or can join with other shareholders to achieve a 75% resolution the courts will hear an application for winding up. The courts have provided various examples of when it is just and equitable for a company to be wound up, including but not limited to the following:
- Deadlock which was not contemplated by the shareholders – this is often the case in a company with two equal shareholders as ordinary resolutions cannot be passed – a fundamental for any company’s survival. In cases of deadlock, the shareholders are often the two directors of the company and also employees; this is where our employment expertise compliment our corporate knowledge and dispute resolution tactics. Again, bespoke corporate documentation can cover for deadlock situations. “Off the shelf” documents should be avoided as they only serve to rack up litigation costs.
- Justifiable loss of confidence in management arising from serious company mismanagement on behalf of the directors – for example fraud or excessive director remuneration.
- Exclusion from management or failure to provide information in the context of a quasi-partnership or where an agreement renders such conduct inequitable.
Qualified since 1989, knowledgeable and approachable, John advises SMEs and their investors in a range of sectors. He has an established reputation in the technology, art and media industries.