(Delayed) Preparations for the Consolidated Rules

The latest news is.. there is no news, but the rumours are that the new drafts won’t be ready in time to allow for implementation in October.

Yes, as you have probably already heard, the drafting process has become further drawn out and, as a consequence, we may not see the draft rules until well into April/May. Theoretically, this should mean that the implementation date will move from 1 October this year to 1 March 2017, but I am worried that the Insolvency Service are now so cowed by the cuts they have suffered that if the minister insists, then they will go ahead, regardless. It’s about the only reason that I am grateful for the referendum – in all that infighting, they might just forget us, for a while.

But, while that means that we won’t be able to start detailed preparations just yet, there remain a few important areas to look at in advance – get these things sorted and the task of taking in the new rules themselves should be a lot easier.

  1. Use of websites and portals to deliver creditor reports – it really does save on expense and there are a number of helpful and inexpensive sources of help available.
  2. Provisions for holding meetings remotely –while there are plenty of conference call systems out there, remember that you will need to find a secure method of identifying and recording creditors’ questions, comments and votes, especially in any case that might attract a challenge.
  3. Paperless systems – the latest offerings from companies like Virtual Cabinet and Invu are much better than they were a few years ago, and I believe that most firms will see positive cost savings from using them. But there are other products out there and it is worth shopping around. I have four tips –
  • Do divide the electronic records as you have done with paper files.
  • Make sure the system tracks and sorts your email traffic in real time. Some systems actually will prevent the email being sent unless it has been properly indexed to a file.
  • Make sure your server and broadband provisions are adequate. If you have more than one office and the broadband service is poor in some of them, you may be better advised to use small, local servers in those offices, to hold specific case records.
  • Get an IT consultant to work with you on choosing and implementing the system.

That’s all for now. Hopefully, we will get some further news, soon.

Strategies for casework (and fees)

One of the consequences of the imminent changes to the fees regime is to turn strategic planning from a nice idea into a practical necessity. First of all, the effective fee caps will mean that poor work execution will be even more costly than it was. Secondly, the RPBs will quickly penalise firms that aren’t able to demonstrate that their fee estimates are based upon a rational plan for the work.

Unfortunately, I don’t think many firms’ planning and review systems are fit to meet these new requirements successfully. The ones most at risk are those who have no standard planning documents at all, but even amongst those that have, most are still using “single issue” media – paper notes or word templates for both the planning and subsequent reviews, rather than flexible data systems like Excel where all information can be easily carried forward and updated as you go, in a single package.

For those of you who haven’t the time or inclination to work up your own such system I am, as always here to help; for those with the time, here are a few pointers –

  1. The initial strategy document should be in a standard form that includes all the usual case metrics – name, type, trade, introducer, principle contact – but also a summary of anticipated recoveries, investigation areas and close-review areas, such as trading, potential onerous property, tax investigations, etc.
  2. The initial strategy should also include a projected “budget” for the case. If designed in Excel, it can be linked to or be the basis of the estimated outcome statement that should be the backbone of any fees estimate, giving a projection of dividend prospects, if there are any.
  3. Crucially, you should be trying to complete the initial strategy in advance of appointment, at least to first draft stage. It can therefore provide a ready reminder to all staff involved in the case as to pre-appointment requirements (e.g. get the pre-appointment fees in, notify charge-holders, secure the books and records, complete pre-appointment due diligence, etc.) as well as what you expect to do post -appointment,  And you can also indicate the timings of critical elements of the work to be done, such as a review of accounts.
  4. The form should, as far as possible, be something that can be easily referred to in subsequent reviews, meaning that there is an available audit trail for all critical decisions in the case. This is where an excel based system will score heavily over paper or Word documents – figures from projections, initial and review comments can all be set up so as to feed into later documents.
  5. Put the strategy document wherever it can be easily accessed from the file – at the front of a paper file or in its own designated folder in a “paperless” system.

There are extra benefits to good strategic planning. These mainly revolve around that tricky business of delegating work to more junior members of staff. The test of a well-designed system will be the extent that it encourages your staff to take ownership of the case.  Try to get the administrator, rather than you or the manager, to fill in the strategy document perhaps in, or after a meeting with you. Once completed, either you or the manager can review, amend or add to it and then print off a copy for signature. From that moment forward, everyone in the team will be aware of all the things that need to be done and when. They will be that much more aware of the time available to spend on preliminary investigations, creditor claims and so on and they can directly populate their diary with key dates for specific tasks, well in advance of execution.  This shoud mean that more of the work is being done at lower charge-out rates, where the leverage to actual salaries should be greater, yielding better profits with (hopefully) less aggravation.

As you may gather, I am a real fan of this kind of system and have done work on two or three over the years and have developed a generic package that can be adapted to any practice.  To take things further or just have a chat about what’s possible, call or drop me an email.

Going paperless

I first saw a paperless system as an ICAEW reviewer back in 2006, and I hated it! It was slow, cumbersome, difficult to read, didn’t index properly and as for integrating with standard documents, forget it!

Happily, things have improved a lot; us reviewers probably still take longer with them than with paper, but they are as quick as paper for the real-time user and with a laptop, just as convenient. They have become a definite cost saving option, but with the new rules from 2016, and HMRC and the Redundancy Service requiring electronic filing, I believe they are no longer an option, but will increasingly be a necessity. Firms which don’t move away from paper will risk more and more pressure on costs and also on regulation. The RPBs will be under pressure to report back on the success of the new rules on streamlining the insolvency world – woe betide you if you are seen to be lagging behind.

This first blog gives a broad review of the different stages of paperless operation that you can aim for, a useful order in which to approach and some key elements to plan around.  Future blogs will report on these stages in some more detail, with hopefully helpful comments from my clients and friends.

Stage 1 – internet reporting

I start here, because this is the bit which the insolvency legislation specifically provides for – it’s relatively inexpensive to set up and the cost savings are immediate.

To take full advantage, you should have a website with its own embedded “portal”. Alternatively,  or you can use a general portal that offers a secure publishing service on a separate site. Take a look at Creditor Portal, Creditor Gateway and Turnkey all do one; as I understand it, Creditor Gateway seem to offer the widest range of options, but do talk to them all).  These facilities will deliver good savings even now, but from 2016, once you have notified creditors of the internet address to look for reports, you won’t have to write to them again, except on dividends.

While the less immediately expensive route seems to be to use an independent portal, there are great advantages to embedding the portal in a special page on your own website.  You can then put all your creditor guides, fees policies, terms and conditions on the same page. This not only saves hassle; it avoids those embarrassing  moments when an RPB reviewer points out that your administrators either forgot to attach the SIP 9 creditor advice or used an outdated version.

And there is an additional benefit in terms of credibility. People regard the existence of a well-designed and managed internet site as a measure of your professionalism. Creditors who visit the site and see a well presented expression of your professional values may tend to reach less quickly for the Insolvency Service complaints number and, if suitably impressed, may even remember you when they or a friend is in trouble.

Stage 2 –Integrated cash book, diary and document templates

Step up, my old “friend” IPS and the old “new” kid on the block, Insolv, or as it is now known, Vision Blu. While there are still a few firms that use Excel perfectly well for cashiering and other functions, these integrate systems are delivering more and more. Each has its pro’s and cons; at present, I tend to recommend the Vision Blu system, if only because it comes with complete document templates.  However, at time of press, I am not aware of how they plan to tackle the new Rules, so make sure you ask.

Of course, you can go to my old friends Bill and Gareth at Compliance on Call, to get their templates. There are a couple of other providers out there as well, but Compliance on Call can still rightfully boast to offer the “gold standard”, and I think it is up to the others to show whether they can compete[1].

Stage 3 – “Fully” paperless

Actually, there is quite a lot of variation on the paperless theme. Some firms have gone so far along this road that they actually penalise employees for any paper retained on desks (Yes – really. It’s the modern equivalent of the swear tin). Others I have seen use their paperless system to store all documents, but maintain a paper permanent file for a quick, handy reference.  Some have succeeded in finding a way to index email traffic and integrate it into their general storage; others keep the two systems separate (though I do think that carries a risk).

The main issue is one of planning and testing. Give yourself plenty of time to research the market and then try the system out in parallel with your paper system to begin with. Some hard negotiation might get you a deal whereby, if it doesn’t work to your satisfaction, you get at least part of your money back.

Both IPS and Vision Blu offer paperless systems that are supposedly fully integrated with their document and case management packages, but I have heard some odd stories, so do make sure the contract commits them to make it work. And do check that their system really does do what you want. But you may find that a system from an independent provider suits you better – it shouldn’t be a problem but if you go with another provider make sure that the contract specifies that the integration is their responsibility, not yours.

Actually, I have to say that this is an area where I think it pays to hire an IT consultant who specialises in data management. They can help to make sure that everything works well together form document creation, to scanning and indexing, to placing documents on the portal, etc.

Stage 4 – Electronic case control

I am amazed at how many people still use paper file reviews – printing out a 6 month review form, then completing and signing it in paper, sometimes then scanning it into their “paperless system” and then doing it all again from fresh, 6 months later.

Though not necessarily easy, one can develop a pretty sophisticated real time case management system in Excel, that facilitates cost estimates, tracks accruing time costs, facilitates investigation work, provides a ready reckoner for bonds and dividends and produces regular 6 monthly reports, too.  I know this because I developed such a package a couple of years back – it’s been road-tested by one client, with no (major) complaints so far. Yours, for a price, etc.

Stage 5 (or 2) – Electronic meeting platforms.

Theoretically, one can go over to remote meetings now, and there can certainly be cost savings, but I have heard quite varied reports on how easy it is to comply with all the rules, so I wouldn’t rush to do them just yet. However, they will become a required part of our work from 2016 forwards, so you should make room in your diary to do the research, soon. That said, I hope to issue  a specific article on them soon.

Stage 6 – The fully e-office(s)

Just a brief mention of this. I have two friends with pretty successful small firms somewhere in the South of England – though one of them is occasionally running everything from the South of France (right now, in fact). Their use of a new internet based service is enabling them to achieve really impressive savings in everything from office rental to stationery and staff costs. I’ll be doing a feature on the service in my next newsletter, so stay in touch.

[1] And no, no money changed hands in relation to that testimonial.