The store chain had announced that its restructuring plan based on the closure of 50 stores and rent reductions for up to 100 others.
Major shareholder Mike Ashley, owner of Sports Direct, had sought to challenge the CVA after the board of Debenhams rejected his offer to buy the chain for £200 million. His shareholding was wiped out when the company went private as part of the rescue and restructuring deal, which was approved by 80% of its landlords.
Although Ashley withdrew his own challenge to the CVA, he continued by backing a legal challenge from Combined Property Control Group (CPC) as landlords who owned several properties.
According to CMS Law the five grounds of the CPC challenge were:
- Future rent is not a “debt” and so the landlords are not creditors, such that the CVA cannot bind them;
- A CVA cannot operate to reduce rent payable under leases: it is automatically unfairly prejudicial;
- The right to forfeiture is a proprietary right that cannot be altered by a CVA;
- The CVA treats the landlords less favourably than other unsecured creditors without any proper justification;
- There is a material irregularity: the CVA fails to adequately disclose the existence of potential “claw back” claims in an administration.
Items 1, 2, 4 and 5 were rejected by the High Court, although item 3 was upheld, meaning that the landlord retains the right of re-entry and to forfeit a lease and therefore this right cannot be modified by a CVA.
This means that if they choose to, landlords can take back their property, although in the current perilous circumstances in the retail sector it is questionable if this would be in their interests given the difficulties they might have in finding an alternative tenant and their liability for rates even when the property is vacant.
The findings did however leave open the prospect of a challenge over the reduction in the rent value if it could be proven that it was below the current market value.
Given the growth in the use of CVAs to exit unwanted leases and reduce rent in the struggling High Street retail sector, the High Court judgement is to be welcomed, both for those retailers hoping to survive by restructuring their businesses onto a hopefully more sustainable footing by reducing their overheads, and for landlords, who now have some clarity about their position in such cases.