Centro (ASIC v Healey) case note: directors’ duties for financial statements

In Australian Securities and Investments Commission v Healey [2011] FCA 717 Judge Middleton of the Federal Court upheld ASIC’s claim that the directors and Chief Financial Officer of the Centro companies contravened sections 180(1), 344(1) and 601FD(3) of the Corporations Act in approving the consolidated financial statements of listed entities Centro Properties Limited (‘CPL’), Centro Property Trust (‘CPT’) and Centro Retail Trust (‘CRT’) for the financial year ending on 30 June 2007 at a board meeting attended by the defendant directors on 6 September 2007.

The 2007 annual reports of Centro Properties Group (‘CNP’) and Centro Retail Group (‘CER’) failed to disclose significant matters. In the case of CNP, the report failed to disclose $1.5 billion of short-term liabilities by classifying them as non-current liabilities, and failed to disclose guarantees of short-term liabilities of an associated company of about US$1.75 billion that had been given after the balance date. In the case of CER, the 2007 annual reports failed to disclose some $500 million of short-term liabilities that had been classified as non-current.

In the judge’s view, the directors did not take all reasonable steps to secure compliance with section 295A of the Act, and by approving the financial statements breached sections 180(1) and s 344(1).

The value of Centro securities has substantially reduced.

The 7 defendant directors comprised the first defendant Healey, the CEO and the 5 non-executive directors.

The Court has not yet decided whether any defendant should be relieved from liability for such contraventions and the imposition of penalties (if any).ASIC is seeking orders that each of the defendants pay pecuniary penalties and be disqualified from managing corporations.

UPDATE: Penalty decision

The judge made the following comments:

“The directors are intelligent, experienced and conscientious people. There has been no suggestion that each director did not honestly carry out his responsibilities as a director. However, I have found, in the specific circumstances the subject of this proceeding, that the directors failed to take all reasonable steps required of them, and acted in the performance of their duties as directors without exercising the degree of care and diligence the law requires of them. …

In the light of the significance of the matters that they knew, they could not have, nor should they have, certified the truth and fairness of the financial statements, and published the annual reports in the absence of the disclosure of those significant matters. If they had understood and applied their minds to the financial statements and recognised the importance of their task, each director would have questioned each of the matters not disclosed. Each director, in reviewing financial statements, needed to enquire further into the matters revealed by those statements.

The central question in the proceeding has been whether directors of substantial publicly listed entities are required to apply their own minds to, and carry out a careful review of, the proposed financial statements and the proposed directors’ report, to determine that the information they contain is consistent with the director’s knowledge of the company’s affairs, and that they do not omit material matters known to them or material matters that should be known to them.

A director is an essential component of corporate governance. Each director is placed at the apex of the structure of direction and management of a company. The higher the office that is held by a person, the greater the responsibility that falls upon him or her. The role of a director is significant as their actions may have a profound effect on the community, and not just shareholders, employees and creditors.

This proceeding involves taking responsibility for documents effectively signed-off by, approved, or adopted by the directors. What is required is that such documents, before they are adopted by the directors, be read, understood and focussed upon by each director with the knowledge each director has or should have by virtue of his or her position as a director. I do not consider this requirement overburdens a director, or as argued before me, would cause the boardrooms of Australia to empty overnight. Directors are generally well remunerated and hold positions of prestige, and the office of director will continue to attract competent, diligence and intelligent people.

The case law indicates that there is a core, irreducible requirement of directors to be involved in the management of the company and to take all reasonable steps to be in a position to guide and monitor. There is a responsibility to read, understand and focus upon the contents of those reports which the law imposes a responsibility upon each director to approve or adopt.

All directors must carefully read and understand financial statements before they form the opinions which are to be expressed in the declaration required by s 295(4). Such a reading and understanding would require the director to consider whether the financial statements were consistent with his or her own knowledge of the company’s financial position. This accumulated knowledge arises from a number of responsibilities a director has in carrying out the role and function of a director. These include the following: a director should acquire at least a rudimentary understanding of the business of the corporation and become familiar with the fundamentals of the business in which the corporation is engaged; a director should keep informed about the activities of the corporation; whilst not required to have a detailed awareness of day-to-day activities, a director should monitor the corporate affairs and policies; a director should maintain familiarity with the financial status of the corporation by a regular review and understanding of financial statements; a director, whilst not an auditor, should still have a questioning mind.

A board should be established which enjoys the varied wisdom, experience and expertise of persons drawn from different commercial backgrounds. Even so, a director, whatever his or her background, has a duty greater than that of simply representing a particular field of experience or expertise. A director is not relieved of the duty to pay attention to the company’s affairs which might reasonably be expected to attract inquiry, even outside the area of the director’s expertise.

Nothing I decide in this case should indicate that directors are required to have infinite knowledge or ability. Directors are entitled to delegate to others the preparation of books and accounts and the carrying on of the day-to-day affairs of the company. What each director is expected to do is to take a diligent and intelligent interest in the information available to him or her, to understand that information, and apply an enquiring mind to the responsibilities placed upon him or her. Such a responsibility arises in this proceeding in adopting and approving the financial statements. Because of their nature and importance, the directors must understand and focus upon the content of financial statements, and if necessary, make further enquiries if matters revealed in these financial statements call for such enquiries.

No less is required by the objective duty of skill, competence and diligence in the understanding of the financial statements that are to be disclosed to the public as adopted and approved by the directors.

No one suggests that a director should not personally read and consider the financial statements before that director approves or adopts such financial statements. A reading of the financial statements by the directors is not merely undertaken for the purposes of correcting typographical or grammatical errors or even immaterial errors of arithmetic. The reading of financial statements by a director is for a higher and more important purpose: to ensure, as far as possible and reasonable, that the information included therein is accurate. The scrutiny by the directors of the financial statements involves understanding their content. The director should then bring the information known or available to him or her in the normal discharge of the director’s responsibilities to the task of focussing upon the financial statements. These are the minimal steps a person in the position of any director would and should take before participating in the approval or adoption of the financial statements and their own directors’ reports.

The omissions in the financial statements the subject of this proceeding were matters that could have been seen as apparent without difficulty upon a focussing by each director, and upon a careful and diligent consideration of the financial statements. As I have said, the directors were intelligent and experienced men in the corporate world. Despite the efforts of the legal representatives for the directors in contending otherwise, the basic concepts and financial literacy required by the directors to be in a position to properly question the apparent errors in the financial statements were not complicated. “

ASIC advisories dealing with company financial reports.

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