To all those reading this I am David Gibbs; I am a Lecturer in Law at the University of East Anglia.

I created this blog as a general out-let of ideas for my research, as well as keeping those interested up-to-date on my research and general interests.

I completed my PhD thesis at the University of East Anglia in 2014. The thesis was recommended for the award of PhD with no corrections. My external examiner was Prof. Simon Deakin (Cambridge) and internal examiner was Prof. Morten Hviid.
My PhD research centred on directors' duties and company law. The thesis was titled 'Non-Executive Self-Interest: Fiduciary Duties and Corporate Governance'. It was a doctrinal and empirical study on whether self-interest was suitably controlled amongst non-executive directors.

My supervisors were Prof. Mathias Siems, Prof. Duncan Sheehan, Dr. Sara Connolly and Dr. Rob Heywood

All opinions of any existing or future blogpost are my own. They do not necessarily represent the views of any of my associated institutions.
ORCID 0000-0002-6596-8536

Saturday, 4 June 2016

Can Companies Vote in the EU Referendum?

With the impending EU referendum, there is a natural drive to get those who can vote to register. Who can and cannot vote is not always straight forward, but the question here is whether companies can vote?

The answer is, of course, no. Thank-you very much for reading this post...

but this leads to another question, should companies be able to vote? So, on some quick research in to politics and the law on voting, a helpful comment from a colleague, pre existing knowledge of company law I will tackle this question.

To me, this question took on more pertinence after the decision in Prest v Petrodel Resources Ltd [2013] UKSC 34. It arguably has significance well beyond simply acknowledging the obscurity of piercing the veil. To summarise the decision, the court effectively held that the court will never pierce the corporate veil and hold those behind it responsible for the company's liabilities and obligations. Privity applies to companies as much as it does to you or me. Where the company is used as a vehicle to avoid personal liability and obligations, there is always an equitable tool on hand to hold the company liable in its own right. So in Prest, the husband's transfer of assets to the company were held on a bare trust in divorce proceedings for the wife. It did not have to hold the company liable for the divorce to recover the property, which would have been absurd.

What we see an emergence of here is that final step to full recognition of the company as a separate legal entity. Responsible completely by itself, with no lingering possibility of controllers being liable personally for the company's debts. Its limitations are merely practical, not legal. I often remember being taught in my undergraduate days that a company cannot drive a lorry, used as an example to demonstrate the limits to its legal liability. Whilst it is true that it cannot drive a lorry, this is not a legal limit, it is a practical one. It could still be liable, where that lorry crashes, for negligence, if they failed to train the driver properly, for example.

Therefore, something I often say to anyone who asks about company liabilities, rights, or obligations, if you find yourself treating the company differently than you would a natural person then you have done something wrong. For example, saying shareholders own the company is treating a company differently from a natural person, as you cannot own a person. A shareholder merely owns the share. Whilst the law may seek to regulate the company's relationships in a way that is responsive to nuances, that is no different from other relationships involving natural persons.

Therefore, now the company has been fully recognised as a separate legal person, completely responsible for its own rights, liabilities and obligations, should it not be able to vote on those issues that can affect those rights, liabilities and obligations?

Now, I am not pretending that there are not some obvious and strong arguments that they should not vote. Nor am I advocating that they should, simply exploring if they should. I am also hoping I am not completely ignorant of some reason why the shouldn't or can't vote in a way that makes this post seem more ridiculous than it might already appear. So let's review some of the arguments and authorities.

The starting point is that there is nothing that says a company cannot vote because the law sets out that citizens can vote and provides a, seemingly exhaustive, list of those who cannot, which does not include companies.

The Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union, Art 22 provides that a citizen is entitled to vote. Equally, who can vote has to be compliant with any Human Rights provisions. But who can vote has always been a national decision, so a 'citizen' is defined nationally under the British Nationality Act 1981. While a company might not, yet, be classed as a citizen, the legislation includes the ability to apply for citizenship. To apply there needs to be a 'real' connection and capacity. The latter would not be an issue, but the 'real' connection might be difficult, but if its registered office and place of incorporation is in the UK then this, or either, might be enough to establish a real connection.

The next step would be whether they are entitled to vote if they are a citizen. The Representation of the People Act 2000 bases this on citizenship, in line with Art 22, with no restrictions on companies.

Ignoring the existing law, one may consider whether the law should enable it to do so, if it currently does not permit it.

The policy argument is the one stated, if they are a separate legal person with its own capacity it should be able to have a democratic voice on how its position may be effected by political decisions.

Now there are obviously practical difficulties in voting as a company. In a referendum though it is a one off vote, not linked to any particular constituency. The directors, as the guiding mind of the company. The vote would need in the best interests of the company, compliant with Companies Act 2006, s.172.

Granting a person with legal capacity the right to vote would not be anything new, as there is precedent for it. Women over the age of 30 were granted the right to vote in 1918 and over 21 in 1928. Whilst companies were recognised as having separate legal status in 1897 in Salomon v Salomon (1897) AC 22, it was not until a few years ago that it was fully recognised that a company's controllers will not be liable for the company's obligations. Therefore, an argument advanced that 'why would companies be given the vote when women did not have it', cannot be sustained without question. A woman had clearly become a separate legal person with full legal capacity from their husband or the like, and should be given the vote. This was not as clear for companies. It is now after the decision in Prest.

One point is that allowing a company to vote would destroy the equality among citizens, regardless of wealth and education but they are equal for the purposes of the democratic principle. Yet, companies are of different size and wealth. They may be less or more powerful than an individual or another company. The principal 'one person, one vote' never said that person had to be natural.

Another is that certain companies may operate contrary to public policy. One argument presented is that a tobacco company's view cannot prevail as it should be restrained for health reasons. But on such logic you could ban any smoker from voting. That itself is contrary to the democratic process. Take a more concrete example and prison inmates' rights to vote. Their incarceration might be a result of a law they disagree with. Their right to vote for a politician that might support their release by overturning such a law should not be banned from voting. Therefore, a company should be entitled to vote to support their position, even if it runs contrary to the current public policy of the existing Parliament.

One practical problem is subsidiaries. How many votes should a group of companies get? If companies were to get votes, specialised rules would have to be set out to prevent abuse, with the democratic process eroded by faceless, shell companies dictating the direction of the legislature.

A historical point might offer some further pause for granting the vote to companies. It is the legislature who needs to control who votes. Otherwise it cannot be taken to be seen as supreme. Thus, when companies were granted that status, it was previously as a result of Royal Charter. Parliament, however, was the donor of the right to vote. Giving companies the right to vote would enable to Crown to reassert some power over voting, questioning Parliamentary supremacy. However, companies are now traditionally formed through registration with a public body, in the UK that is Companies House. Therefore, such companies registered would not undermine parliamentary supremacy. However, other type of companies, such as those formed under a Royal Charter should be denied such a right if companies were to be given one.

A final problem might be a result of a company's practical limitations. It cannot age per se and therefore could never reach the age of maturity to vote. Yet this could be overcome by adjudging its age by number of years since its incorporation.

Overall, the company, now with full legal capacity, has a case for the right to vote. If it were to be given a vote, it should be one vote, with certain restrictions. But it is arguably undemocratic to not allow one with full legal capacity to vote.

Any observations, always welcome to hear them.

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