Shareholders’ Agreements and Company Constitutions

We have previously written about Shareholder’s Agreementsand what they are. A Shareholder’s Agreement is certainly very important as it deals what each shareholder brings to the table, and more importantly, what happens when there is a disagreement or if a shareholder wants to exit the business. Not having a Shareholder’s Agreement will likely make the exit process more difficult. However what a Shareholder’s Agreement cannot do is to determine how the company is run, who has the day to day responsibilities, who the directors are, and the conduct of board meetings. These are all matters dictated by the Company Constitution.

The Constitution has the effect of an agreement between the company, its members, its directors, and its secretary. A company adopts a Constitution on registration or after registration. If no particular Constitution has been adopted after registration, a default set of rules called the Replacable Rules. These rules are found in the Corporations Act and they deal with a number of topics including:

  • Company Officers and Employees
  • Meetings of Directors
  • Powers of Directors
  • Voting, Resolutions, and Quorums.
  • Meetings of Members
  • Transmissions of Shares on Death or Bankrupcy

A Company can replace some of the Replacable Rules with its own rules or adopt its own Constitution so long as a special resolution has been passed by its Shareholders. If a member is not satisfied with the way the company is being run, and if the company is being run in contravention of its own Constitution, they may be able to bring legal action against the offending member.

A well-run business involving more than one partner should always have both a Shareholder’s Agreement and a Company Constitution.

Director’s Duties

No matter the size of your company, if you are a director of a company, you have a number of duties and responsibilities to both the company and the public. These duties are primarily imposed by the Corporations Act 2001 (Commonwealth). In addition to their duties under the Corporations Act, directors have a number of other duties set out in various other legislation as well as the common law.

It is important to understand and comply with these duties. The failure to comply with these duties may result in directors being personally responsible for any loss caused by the breach of these duties, or even criminal prosecution by the Australian Securities and Investment Commission (ASIC).

The most significant duties of directors are:

To act in the best interest of the company

A director must act in the best interests of a company and to its shareholders as a whole, ahead of their own personal interest. This can get confusing especially in a situation where the directors and the shareholders are one and the same – a common scenario in small businesses. It is important to remember that the company is considered a separate legal entity, has its own interests, and these interests may not be the same as the director’s interests.

To act with care and diligence

A director must perform their duties with the same care and diligence that a reasonable person would have should they be in the director’s shoes.

To act in good faith

A director must perform their duties in good faith, and dishonestly or fraudulently.

To use their position as a director for the proper purposes

A director has an enviable position that allows them to control the company’s business. It is important that they do not abuse this position to act in their own interest, or the interest of someone else. In addition to this, a director would commonly come into information as a result of his or her position. A director cannot use this information to act in their own interest or the interest of someone else.

To avoid conflicts of interest

Directors also have a duty to avoid any actual or potential conflict between their interests and the interests of the company. This arises from the duty of a director to act in the best interests of the company.

To prevent the company from continuing trade if it is insolvent

A director has a duty to prevent the company from incurring additional debt if there is a reasonable suspicion that the company cannot pay its debts when it falls due. This duty is not exercised for the benefit of the shareholders, rather it is exercised for the benefit of the creditors.

Other duties and responsibilities

There are numerous other laws affecting trade practices, taxation, environmental protection, and occupational health and safety that apply to companies. A breach of those other laws may give rise to a director being held liable for the breach.

Summary

If you are a director of a company, it is important to be aware of the core responsibilities and duties that have been imposed upon you by the law. While your primary duty is towards the company, you also have duties towards the shareholders, creditors, and the public. The failure to comply with these duties may result in directors being held personally liable for breaches of these duties. If you are unclear about the duties you should comply with or you are unsure of where you stand, you should seek legal advice as soon as possible.