As Bastiaan just wrote, tomorrow Maarten Mussche wil defend his PhD thesis on Relying on Information in Fulfilling Directors' Duties. Although it seems Bastiaan prepared his question(s) already, mabye here he will find inspiration for another one as earlier this week the Federal Court of Australia delivered a landmark decision regading relying on information in fulfilling directors' duties.
The Federal Court delivered its judgment on Monday 27th June 2011 in 'Australian Securities and Investments Commission v Healey'. It concerned the liability of directors (executive and non-executive) with regard to financial reports which failed to disclosure significant matters, including the existence of substantial short-term liabilities.
The central question in the proceeding was whether the directors were 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 contained was consistent with the director's knowledge of the company's affairs, and that they did not omit material matters known to them or material matters that should have been known to them.
The judge stated amongst others:
"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 ...
... What is required is that such documents [i.e., the financial reports], 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) [of the Corporations Act 2001]. 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.
The words of Pollock J in the case of Francis v United Jersey Bank (1981) 432 A 2d 814, quoted with approval by Clarke and Sheller JJA in Daniels v Anderson (1995) 37 NSWLR 438, make it clear that more than a mere ‘going through the paces’ is required for directors. As Pollock J noted, a director is not an ornament, but an essential component of corporate governance.
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."
To summarise, certain responsibilities company boards can not delegate nor merely rubber stamp. It’s not good enough for directors to just be present. And yes, this should indeed not cause the boardrooms 'to empty overnight'.