The dissenting voice
A board of directors will not always find themselves in agreement and it is often the case that through frank and thorough dialogue, the directors can agree upon what action to take. However, it is not unusual for one or more directors to remain opposed to a decision that the rest of the directors support.
If a director finds himself opposed to the majority view, particularly where at least some members of the board are family members, emotions are likely to be running high and it can be difficult for those concerned to separate emotion from the business decisions that need to be taken. It is important that all parties take appropriate action to safeguard the interests of the business and avoid the matter blowing up out of proportion or unnecessarily diverting significant amounts of the directors’ time and energy from the job of running the business.
This article explores in practical terms the legal rights and responsibilities of a dissenting director.
Collective Responsibility and Directors Duties
Directors are collectively responsible for the management of the company in question. The following sections of the Model Articles are generally seen as confirming the concept of collective responsibility:
“Subject to the articles, the directors are responsible for the management of the company’s business, for which purpose they may exercise all the powers of the company (Model Article 3)
Subject to the articles, the directors may delegate any of the powers which are conferred on them under the articles… (Model Article 5)”
The UK Corporate Governance Code also refers to the principle of collective responsibility:
“Every company should be headed by an effective board which is collectively responsible for the long-term success of the company (Main Principle A:1).”
Unlike partners in a trading practice, directors do not enjoy individual rights to act on behalf of the company in any matter which has not been authorised or delegated to them by the Board. This makes the position of a dissenting director a challenging one, as he is, in the main bound to accept the will of the majority. However, there are practical steps that he can take and these are explored below.
Directors should be familiar with the particular duties owed by a director to a company, which have largely been codified in the Companies Act 2006 (sections 170 to 181) and about which much commentary already exists. It is beyond the scope of this article to look at these in detail but it goes without saying that directors must have these duties in mind at all times.
Before a decision is made
A director who is in the minority must ensure that he clearly makes his case to the board at the meeting at which the board is discussing the matter in question. The director will need to bring all of his skills of persuasion to the job of convincing the other board members of his point of view. In particular, and if he suspects that he is likely to be in the minority, a director may wish to circulate a summary of his position in advance of the meeting.
Once the decision has been made
If the majority of the board make a decision which a director disagrees with, then the dissenting director will need to consider whether he can accept the position or whether he feels that he should take some further action. Further action will clearly be needed if the decision is unlawful or will have serious adverse consequences for the company.
Most of the time, a director will simply accept the decision of his fellow board members. He may feel sorry that he has been unable to persuade his fellow directors around to his point of view, but he should bear in mind that in accepting the position of the majority, he is likely to be doing what is in the best interests of the company and that the best interests of the company should take precedence over his own personal position.
If the director decides that it is his duty to take further action then he should consider some or all of the following steps.
- Ensure that the dissent is properly minuted.
This should provide the dissenting director with some measure of protection if the decision is later challenged or found to be wanting.
- Circulate a full note setting out his views.
This is relevant where the director feels that he has not had a fair hearing and so that the matter has not been properly considered.
- Insist that the company’s legal advisors are consulted.
Where he considers that the action the board is proposing to take is unlawful, or will expose the business to a legal claim which has not been considered, the director should insist that appropriate advice is sought from the company’s legal advisors.
- Call a general meeting of the company.
This option will be open to a director or shareholders holding (in aggregate) 10% or more of the voting rights.
This is a serious step as it takes the director in question into open conflict with the remainder of the board and draws the attention of the shareholders.
The shareholders cannot overturn decisions made by the board but they may have the following powers:
- a majority of the shareholders can remove a director (or directors) following the procedure set out in the Companies Act 2006;
- the model articles of association (which are typically adopted in whole or part by companies) provide that shareholders carrying 75% or more of the voting rights can pass a special resolution directing the directors to take, or refrain from taking specified action.
If there is wide support at shareholder level for the dissenting director’s position, the remainder of the board will need to give their position careful thought. Clearly a board that is in fundamental disagreement with its shareholders is unlikely to remain in office for very long.
If a director is not able to call a shareholders’ meeting, or the outcome of the shareholders’ meeting is not as he had hoped his only option may be to resign from his position as a director.
In deciding whether to resign, a director should consider what is in the best interests of the company as well as any personal risk. He may decide that he can positively influence matters from his position on the board and therefore, it would be in the best interests of the company for him to remain on the board.
Communications with the Shareholders and other stakeholders
Whatever the outcome, it is important that the board speaks with one voice. Directors’ duties taken in the round mean that it is not appropriate for individual dissenting directors to engage directly with shareholders about such matters outside of the proper channels. A dissenting director needs to carefully consider his position and whether or not he is exposing himself to a legal claim.
If at any stage the dissenting director has concerns about the company’s solvency that he feels are not being addressed in any meaningful way, he should take immediate action. In this situation, the director in question should seek legal advice immediately. Where a company is approaching insolvency, the duty to promote the interests of the creditors becomes paramount.
The dissenting voice in Practice
Although there are a range of options available to a director who disagrees with the board, this is a complex area of law with potentially serious consequences for the business as well as the individuals concerned. The options are summarised in this article, but it can be particularly challenging to navigate through these in practice. It is therefore, important that legal advice is sought should you find yourself in this difficult position.
For more information please contact Emma Rudge, Senior Associate - Private Wealth and Family Business on firstname.lastname@example.org