Tycoons, boats and bankruptcy

Déjà vu on reading that corporate financiers Duff & Phelps are appointed administrators of BHS, a well-known business sold not so long ago for £1 by a knighted tycoon with strong Bank of Scotland ties. To an implausible and obscure buyer. Allegations quickly follow of asset stripping, governance failings, mismanagement and profiteering. The vultures arrive including Mike Ashley of Sports Direct. Sound familiar? Last time it was Sir David Murray, Craig White and Glasgow Rangers FC. This week it’s Sir Phillip Green, Dominic Chappell and department store BHS. Media attention focused on £586m paid out since 2002 to Sir Phillip, his family and other shareholders as the business was hollowed out and the employee pension fund went from modest surplus to a whopping £571m deficit. Employees, customers, suppliers and creditors are left high and dry just as Sir Phillip takes delivery of his new $100 million yacht.

— Sir Phillip Green on selling BHS

From a legal standpoint, the BHS story has something for everyone. Whether you’re corporate, insolvency, pensions, property, banking, media, employment or litigation, this affair, like the Rangers saga, has it all. This insolvency ranks with the banking scandals and other failures in corporate governance and management revealed when the economic tide went out after the 2008 crash. Within hours of the administrators being appointed, Sir Phillip’s once lauded Midas touch became the “unacceptable face of capitalism”. His comment to the Sunday Times on selling BHS to Chappell’s Retail Acquisitions couldn’t have been more frank: “I think my birthday present was a disposal as opposed to a purchase”. Meantime, as Times business editor Patrick Hoskings pointed out on Wednesday, the BHS pension trustees seem to have been asleep at the wheel. What is it with tycoons, super-yachts and pension holes? More déjà vu - if you’re old enough to remember Robert Maxwell.  

Talking of football and previous eras, the longest running inquest in UK legal history came to a close with a verdict of unlawful killing of the 96 Liverpool football fans who died at an FA Cup semi-final at Hillsborough stadium, Sheffied on 15 April 1989. The inquest exposed disturbing “establishment” attitudes and cover-ups towards football fans primarily from working class communities. These events occurred just five years after the bitter miners’ strike and the infamous Battle of Orgreave when police and miners fought a pitched battle and the government spoke darkly of the “enemy within”. Whilst it has taken 27 years for the legal system to redeem itself, it’s worth recalling too that the report of Lord Justice Taylor in 1990 was the catalyst for transforming football stadiums to the more civilised, safe environments they are today. This was a process that had started much earlier in Scotland with Lord Wheatley’s report and the modernisation of Ibrox Stadium in Glasgow in the wake of the 1971 Ibrox Disaster when 66 people were crushed to death shortly after the final whistle of the Rangers v Celtic match on 2 January 1971.

Writers to the Signet were the witnesses to history being made in Court 1 in Parliament Hall with the swearing in of Lady Dorrian as the first woman to hold the rank of Lord Justice Clerk, Scotland’s second most senior judge. The Lord President quipped that it is said that Lord Dorrian comes from Edinburgh but her origins are, in fact, from Leith. Lady Dorrain herself said she was proud to be the first woman LJC but not, she thought, the first from Leith.

Peter Moffat, former barrister and now playwright and screenwriter, has so far created three legal dramas for British TV: North Square, Criminal Justice and Silk, which as the FT noted “provoked both mirth and irritation in the business”. His latest, Undercover, currently showing on BBC 1 in the primetime Sunday night slot, seems likely to do the same. A drama about the first black female DPP might seem like an exciting opportunity to explore many of the issues affecting the legal profession today. However, the first episode alone seemed like a textbook example of suspending disbelief by its ankles till it pleaded for mercy, with the central character Maya (Sophie Okonedo) flitting between the DPP interview, a client on death row in America, and her dashing husband Nick (Adrain Lester) who is – SPOILER ALERT- actually undercover and spying on her because of her dangerous left-wing tendencies. Maybe some will enjoy it, but only those who like their fiction much, much stranger than truth.

Shock, horror. Tech giant Apple reported this week the first decline in quarterly sales for 13 years and $40 billion was wiped off its stock market valuation within hours. A brief guide to everything that’s annoying about Apple in the Guardian lists the common complaints.

— “Writer”

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