There’s been lots of media coverage of the washup of swimmer Nick D’Arcy’s bashing of fellow swimmer Simon Cowley in a bar some 4 years ago. Understandably the victim is not willing to allow the perpetrator to escape scot-free by declaring himself bankrupt to avoid paying more than $370,000 in damages and costs awarded in the NSW District Court last year.
Moreover, D’Arcy is off to the London Olympics despite Cowley’s equally understandable view that he should never have been selected and that a secret deal was done, probably due to D’Arcy’s threats of legal action against Swimming Australia and AOC if his earlier banning was renewed on the basis that his cunning bankruptcy move rendered him in breach of SA’s code of conduct. Cowley is in no doubt that D’Arcy is in breach and unfit to represent Australia:
Under Swimming Australia’s behavioural guidelines, competitors are required to be ”ethical, considerate, fair and honest”; refrain from any form of abuse, harassment or victimisation of others; and ”be a positive role model”.
Cowley said the organisation appeared to have overlooked those requirements when it recommended to the Australian Olympic Committee that D’Arcy be included in the Australian team for London.
However it appears that the AOC’s legal advice was rather different:
D’Arcy declared himself bankrupt, and AOC boss John Coates revealed legal action was sought then to see if he deserved his place on the team.
“(Chef de Mission) Nic Green told me he wanted to get legal advice to see if bankruptcy constituted misconduct, and meant bringing the team into public disrepute,” Coates said.
“It was not. …
It needs to be kept in mind that D’Arcy has already served a significant period of disqualification from the sport for his assault on Cowley. Despite the fact that he has evinced little or no contrition for his thuggery, D’Arcy has served his time for the substantive assault. It’s reasonable to suggest that the double jeopardy principle should be regarded as just as applicable in the sporting sphere as in criminal law. Accordingly, D’Arcy could only be properly re-suspended if entering voluntary bankruptcy could be treated in itself as a further instance of misconduct. It appears that the AOC’s legal advice was that it couldn’t be so regarded, and so D’Arcy had to be selected if his trial performances warranted it. They did and so he was selected.
However, I wonder whether the legal conclusion is necessarily so clear-cut. Certainly voluntary bankruptcy in itself could not be viewed as misconduct, but mightn’t it be relevant to examine all the surrounding circumstances? If a person enters voluntary bankruptcy as a result of a truly dire financial situation from which there is no hope of recovery then that is one thing, but if they make a calculated strategic decision to enter bankruptcy merely to avoid paying a judgment debt might it not be reasonable to take a different view?
Should he be permitted cynically to take advantage of his current short-term “poverty” to avoid paying Cowley?
I confess I haven’t examined the case law (if any) on the point but it’s a reasonable question on first principles. D’Arcy is a 24 year old medical student whose father is a wealthy surgeon. No doubt his current income and asset position is meagre, but equally without doubt he’ll be very well off in the fairly near future and well able to pay Cowley his justly awarded damages. Should he be permitted cynically to take advantage of his current short-term “poverty” to avoid paying Cowley? It appears that his Trustee in Bankruptcy thinks this is pefectly OK:
SWIMMER Nick D’Arcy made numerous attempts to reach an arrangement over debts totalling $800,000 before declaring himself bankrupt, his trustee said yesterday.
The trustee, Robert Whitton, said D’Arcy petitioned his own bankruptcy when it became apparent Simon Cowley intended to force it.
D’Arcy was dumped from the 2008 Beijing Olympic team after an altercation with Cowley in a Sydney nightclub.
He was given a 14-month, 12-day jail sentence fully suspended after conviction for inflicting grievous bodily harm.
Cowley, who was left with a shattered cheekbone, was awarded civil damages of $180,000 this year.
With costs and interest he is now owed about $380,0000.
D’Arcy, a 24-year-old medical student, filed for bankruptcy on November 30, listing his father and Cowley as creditors.
Mr Whitton said yesterday that there was no doubt about the veracity of the debt owed D’Arcy’s father Justin, a Sunshine Coast surgeon.
“His parents funded his defence,” Mr Whitton said.
“It (the loan) was properly documented over time.”
Mr Whitton said it was very unlikely that he would withhold D’Arcy’s passport, preventing him from contesting the 2012 London Olympics.
He said a successful Games could bring D’Arcy financial reward which could then allow payment to creditors.
D’Arcy would be required to make payments to creditors after he reached an after-tax income of $47,000.
“That wasn’t an offer, that was an insult.”
But was D’Arcy’s “offer” a serious one or just another cynical manoeuvre in a game to avoid payment orchestrated by the lawyers paid for by his surgeon dad? Cowley’s lawyer is in no doubt about the answer:
Mr Cowley’s lawyer Sam Macedone told Channel Nine on Tuesday night that bankruptcy was “just a way of walking away from this whole mess and this debt and this judgment that he owes”.
“I would have thought that he would have had the courage at least to try to speak to Simon and try and negotiate something with him, whatever it was,” he said.
Mr Macedone, who did not respond to questions from the Daily, told AAP yesterday that an offer of $25,000 had been made.
“Out of $380,000, he offered $25,000,” Mr Macedone said.
“That wasn’t an offer, that was an insult.”
Perhaps it’s time to revisit and reform the rules for voluntary bankruptcy. As academics Ian Ramsay and Cameron Sim observed in a recent paper, voluntary bankruptcy is becoming an increasing middle class phenomenon:
Between 1990 and 2008 there was a 261% increase in the number of personal insolvencies in Australia. We suggest one important aspect of this increase is that
Australian personal insolvency has become an increasingly middle class phenomenon.
If even a significant proportion of these are cynical strategies like D’Arcy’s gambit, maybe the rules need to be changed. Certainly another very recent case involving a son of a WA politician suggests this sort of thing is not an isolated aberration.
[T]he liberal approach prioritises the concept of a ‘fresh start’ for debtors.
Ramsay and Sim observe that Australia’s bankruptcy laws are at the liberal end of the international spectrum:
The function of personal insolvency laws depends upon what their ultimate goal should be. Australia has been placed in the liberal category of bankruptcy jurisdictions. These jurisdictions are seen as offering levels of debt forgiveness with both a high degree of certainty and relative haste. This is in contrast to many other jurisdictions, which have been categorised as taking either a conservative or moderate approach to debt forgiveness, under which there is an absence of debt forgiveness provisions, or the offer of debt forgiveness exists but is tempered by great uncertainty as to whether it will be granted. …
[T]he liberal approach prioritises the concept of a ‘fresh start’ for debtors. Accordant with this observation, Australian courts have viewed the intention of Australia’s bankruptcy laws as serving a fair distribution of bankrupt’s assets among creditors, as well as allowing bankrupt debtors to start afresh. Consequently, personal insolvency laws reflect attempted reconciliation of two competing goals: a fresh start for debtors and protection of the interests of creditors (together with equality of distribution for creditors).
While I have no major problem with bankrupts being released after 3 years with a “clean slate” where they’ve been bankrupted on a creditor’s petition (the currrent legal regime), perhaps we should have a different regime when dealing with (strategic) voluntary bankruptcies. I suggest that in that situation a discharged voluntary bankrupt should be required to continue contributing one-third of his/her income and assets acquired at any time within (say) 10 years after discharge. That would still allow a debtor to make a “fresh start” but prevent lawyered-up middle class debtors from taking advantage of short-term impecuniosity to avoid their creditors (who in D’Arcy’s case consisted only of his own parents and his victim Cowley).