Although the Carpenter International decision was handed down several years ago, its ramifications on the sale of livestock are still not widely understood in the industry.
Even when they are understood, vendors and agents are not necessarily taking appropriate steps to protect their interests, including by registering their security interests on the Personal Property Securities Register (PPSR).
Facts and law
Carpenter International was a livestock exporter which purchased livestock from vendors through del credere vendor agents. The vendors retained title in the livestock until they were paid.
A del credere agent is a unique type of agent. They guarantee payment by the purchaser to the vendor. If the purchaser does not pay, the agent pays the vendor, takes over the vendor's retention of title in the livestock, and pursues the purchaser for payment. The rationale is that if the purchaser does not then pay the agent, the agent can enforce the retention of title and re‑possess the livestock.
Under the Personal Property Securities Act 2009 (Cth) (PPSA), a vendor's ownership of livestock under a retention of title arrangement is a "security interest". If the vendor does not register its security interest (ie ownership) of the livestock on the PPSR at all, or within certain strict timeframes, it will lose its ownership of the livestock if the purchaser enters into voluntary administration or liquidation. The livestock will effectively become the property of the purchaser.
Yes, that does seem to defy common sense! And yes, that does effectively mean that ownership/title to the livestock is irrelevant. They are two of the big changes that were brought about by the commencement of the PPSA in 2012.
Carpenter International went into voluntary administration. At the time it had about 10,000 head of cattle in its possession that it had not paid for. The cattle were worth approximately $15 million.
The agents paid their vendors, as they were required to do under the terms of their del credere agency. The agents then stood in the shoes of the vendors – they took over their vendors' retention of title in the livestock and sought payment of the amounts owing from Carpenter International.
The problem was the agents had either not registered their retention of title security interests on the PPSR, or had registered too late. The agents argued that they weren't required to register their retention of title security interests until the sale contracts were unconditional. The court disagreed and held that the relevant strict timeframes within which the agents had to register their security interests started running as soon as the sale contracts were entered into.
This left the agents in an unfortunate position. On the one hand they had paid their vendors. On the other hand, they were now seeking payment from an insolvent purchaser and had no retention of title in the livestock that had been sold.
The agents’ options were fairly limited – make a claim as an unsecured creditor (and hope to receive at least some payment when Carpenter International was wound up) or make a claim on their del credere insurance (if held).
A potential difficulty with the latter option is that because the agents had not registered on the PPSR (or had registered too late) they might not have been covered by their insurance. This is because insurance policies usually impose an obligation on the insured to do all things reasonably necessary to avoid or reduce loss – a registration on the PPSR for $6.80 could have avoided or reduced the loss.
What are the lessons going forward?
We recommend that both vendors and del credere agents register security interests against purchasers on the PPSR.
But, and this is often overlooked, the starting point is ensuring there is actually a security interest to register! By that we mean ensuring the sale contract actually contains a retention of title clause. If there is no retention of title clause (which is the case with some sale contracts, particularly those prepared by purchasers), then there is probably no security interest to register! The vendor (and agent) will simply be unsecured creditors of the purchaser (without any retention of title to rely on) until they are paid.
It is clear from the Carpenter International decision that agents need to register their security interests from the outset and not wait until they have paid the vendor or the purchaser goes broke. We also think vendors should register in case both the purchaser and the agent go broke before the vendor is paid, or in case the purchaser goes broke before the agent pays the vendor.
In the case of the latter situation, if the vendor has not registered its security interest before the purchaser goes becomes insolvent, it will lose its retention of title over the livestock. That being the case, it will not have any retention of title to transfer to the agent when the agent pays the vendor.
While the registration process is not particularly time consuming or difficult to navigate, there are a number of fields to be completed. If any of these fields are completed incorrectly, the registration can be invalid. Even basic errors such as registering against an ABN instead of an ACN (even where they both refer to the same entity) can make a registration invalid.
We recommend that vendors of livestock and their agents seek advice about how they can protect their interests through registering security interests on the PPSR. For a confidential, obligation free discussion, please contact Michael Morris on 07 3220 1144 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Please note: the above article is a summary of, and in some instances an oversimplification of, the PPSA and the Carpenter International decision (which is some 91 pages in length). Both the PPSA and the Carpenter International decision are highly technical and their application to your circumstances requires specified consideration.
The decision of the Supreme Court of Victoria in Re Carpenter International Pty Limited  VSC 118 can be found here.
The information in this blog is intended only to provide a general overview and has not been prepared with a view to any particular situation or set of circumstances. It is not intended to be comprehensive nor does it constitute legal advice. While we attempt to ensure the information is current and accurate we do not guarantee its currency and accuracy. You should seek legal or other professional advice before acting or relying on any of the information in this blog as it may not be appropriate for your individual circumstances.