Assigning debts and other contractual claims - not as easy as first thought

Assigning debts and other contractual claims - not as easy as first thought

Assigning debts and other contractual claims - not as easy as first thought

Harking back to law school, we had a thirst for new black letter law. Section 136 of the Law of the Property Act 1925 kindly obliged. This lays down the conditions which need to be satisfied for an effective legal assignment of a chose in action (such as a debt). We won’t bore you with the detail, but suffice to say that what’s important is that a legal assignment must be in writing and signed by the assignor, must be absolute (i.e. no conditions attached) and crucially that written notice of the assignment must be given to the debtor.

When assigning debts, it’s worth remembering that you can’t legally assign part of a debt – any attempt to do so will take effect as an equitable assignment. The main practical difference between a legal and an equitable assignment is that the assignor will need to be joined in any legal proceedings in relation to the assigned debt (e.g. an attempt to recover that part of the debt).

Recent cases which tell another story

Why bother telling you the above?  Aside from our delight in remembering the joys of debating the merits of legal and equitable assignments (ehem), it’s worth revisiting our textbooks in the context of three recent cases. Although at first blush the statutory conditions for a legal assignment seem quite straightforward, attempts to assign contractual claims such as debts continue to throw up legal disputes:

  • In Sumitomo Mitsui Banking Corp Europe Ltd v Euler Hermes Europe SA (NV) [2019] EWHC 2250 (Comm), the High Court held that a performance bond issued under a construction contract was not effectively assigned despite the surety acknowledging a notice of assignment of the bond. Sadly, the notice of assignment failed to meet the requirements under the bond instrument that the assignee confirm its acceptance of a provision in the bond that required the employer to repay the surety in the event of an overpayment. This case highlights the importance of ensuring any purported assignment meets any conditions stipulated in the underlying documents.
  • In Promontoria (Henrico) Ltd v Melton [2019] EWHC 2243 (Ch) (26 June 2019), the High Court held that an assignment of a facility agreement and legal charges was valid, even though the debt assigned had to be identified by considering external evidence. The deed of assignment in question listed the assets subject to assignment, but was illegible to the extent that the debtor’s name could not be deciphered. The court got comfortable that there had been an effective assignment, given the following factors: (i) the lender had notified the borrower of its intention to assign the loan to the assignee; (ii) following the assignment, the lender had made no demand for repayment; (iii) a manager of the assignee had given a statement that the loan had been assigned and the borrower had accepted in evidence that he was aware of the assignment. Fortunately for the assignee, a second notice of assignment - which was invalid because it contained an incorrect date of assignment - did not invalidate the earlier assignment, which was found to be effective. The court took a practical and commercial view of the circumstances, although we recommend ensuring that your assignment documents clearly reflect what the parties intend!
  • Finally, in Nicoll v Promontoria (Ram 2) Ltd [2019] EWHC 2410 (Ch), the High Court held that a notice of assignment of a debt given to a debtor was valid, even though the effective date of assignment stated in the notice could not be verified by the debtor. The case concerned a debt assigned by the Co-op Bank to Promontoria and a joint notice given by assignor and assignee to the debtor that the debt had been assigned “on and with effect from 29 July 2016”. A subsequent statutory demand served by Promontoria on the debtor for the outstanding sums was disputed on the basis that the notice of assignment was invalid because it contained an incorrect date of assignment. Whilst accepting that the documentation was incapable of verifying with certainty the date of assignment, the Court held that the joint notice clearly showed that both parties had agreed that an assignment had taken place and was valid. This decision suggests that mistakes as to the date of assignment in a notice of assignment may not necessarily be fatal, if it is otherwise clear that the debt has been assigned.

Summary

The conclusion from the above? Maybe it’s not quite as easy as first thought to get an assignment right. Make sure you follow all of the conditions for a legal assignment according to the underlying contract and ensure your assignment documentation is clear.

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View profile for Matthew PadianMatthew Padian, View profile for Fergus BrownFergus Brown

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