Legal and equitable assignments
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Financiers and lessors often take an assignment over debts or certain rights under contracts as part of their security package. Depending on how this is done, an assignment can either be characterised as a legal or equitable assignment under English law. Stephenson Harwood’s Dipesh Bharania explains
A key difference between a legal and equitable assignment is the ability of the assignee, be it a financier or lessor, to bring proceedings in its own name against the debtor for payment of the debt owed, or to enforce rights in the contract.
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A legal assignee has this right, but there is a question over whether an equitable assignee has this right or not.
In the case of General Nutrition Investment Company v Holland and Barrett International Ltd and another  EWHC 746 Ch, the High Court held that the beneficiary of an equitable assignment did not have the right to bring proceedings in its own name, and had to do so jointly with the assignor which had assigned rights in the underlying contract.
This raises questions about the equitable assignment, as it appears to contradict other judgments which permit an equitable assignee to take proceedings in its own name. The predecessor company of General Nutrition Investment Company (GNIC) entered into a trade mark licence agreement in March 2003 with Holland and Barrett (H&B) allowing H&B to use certain trademarks in the UK.
After complex internal restructuring, the original contracting party had been dissolved and GNIC was the successor company, which as assignee had been assigned both the rights under the original trademark licence agreement, and the rights to the trademarks themselves. GNIC alleged that H&B was in breach of the licence agreement and served a number of notices of termination on H&B purporting to terminate the agreement.
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The court had to decide whether any of these notices of termination were effective, and whether GNIC had the right to serve such notices, and bring and maintain proceedings against H&B in its own name.
The formalities for a legal assignment are set out in Section 136 of the Law of Property Act 1925, including that the assignment must be:
In writing and executed by the assignor “Absolute” and unconditional, Not be expressed to be “by way of charge”, and Notified in writing to the person against whom the assignor could enforce the assigned rights – usually the other contracting party.
It can often suit the assignor, the assignee and the third party to allow the assignor to deal with the third party, for notice not to be given (certainly initially) and the assignee to remain a silent party. This method is frequently used in financing documents, with notice only being given at a later date (rather than at the time of assignment) when there is a possibility of enforcement on the horizon.
An equitable assignment tends to be created when an assignment does not meet one or more of the requirements for a legal assignment. The main differences between a legal and an equitable assignment are priority (and the established principle that the assignee who serves notice first takes priority over any other assignee (where notice is not given)) and an equitable assignee needing to join the assignor as a party in any legal proceedings it brings against the third-party debtor.
However, two recent cases have lessened the distinction in practice between the two. In the Bexhill case the Court of Appeal recognised that an equitable assignee could take action in its own name without joining in the assignor. In the Ardila case, where notice had been given to the contracting party, the High Court looked at the terms of the notice and decided that what had seemed to be a legal assignment was in fact an equitable assignment because the wording of the notice seemed to retain rights for the assignor. The court used this reasoning to declare it an equitable assignment, despite the notice having been given as required.
Returning to the case in point, after the internal reorganisation and subsequent assignment of the trade mark licence agreement to GNIC, no notices of such assignment were served on H&B by the assignor prior to the purported termination of the agreement or the issue of proceedings. GNIC maintained that as it took the place of its predecessor as the “Licensor”, it became the body entitled to exercise rights of termination under the agreement. H&B’s contention was that, as an equitable assignee, GNIC did not have the right to terminate the agreement or bring proceedings in its own name.
It is widely accepted that, until a notice of assignment is given, and (i) the third party can validly discharge its obligations under the contract to the assignor, and (ii) the third party may raise against the assignee any defence or set-off which he could have raised against the assignor (provided that the matter on which the defence is based arose before notice was received) and the contracting party and assignor can amend the terms of the contract without the assignee’s consent.
The High Court considered that previous case law on this issue was binding as it had not been overruled or materially distinguished in any subsequent cases heard, and held that notice to the contracting third party is necessary to perfect the right of the assignee. Additional weight was given to the fact that a substantive contractual right (in this case, the right to terminate the licence agreement) had been assigned rather than just the assignment of a debt. Consequently, the contractual relationship between the parties was seeking to be amended and therefore the third party was entitled to see that such change was being effected by a party which had the right to do so and whom it knew to have such rights. The Court maintained that H&B cannot be expected to accept a notice of termination from an entity which turns out to be an assignee when it had never been given notice of that assignment.
While the High Court accepted that this decision may be appealed, this has raised a question about equitable assignments and the rights of the equitable assignee under English law. In the meantime, in practice, parties will have to scrutinise what type of right they are seeking, whether in security or as a full legal assignment and opt for the method which provides the clearest outcome possible as the law stands when they take the assignment. Anyone taking an assignment of the benefit of a contract should clearly ensure that notice is served on the other contracting party if it wants to be sure it can act in its own name under that contract against the other contracting party if need be.
Otherwise, there is a risk that an equitable assignee will be unable to enforce substantive contractual rights without having to join in the assignor in proceedings. That said, it may still be commercially preferable to have an equitable assignment for particular financing and leasing structures where it is not thought difficult to join the assignor at a later date if need be. In this case it was not possible, as the assignor had been dissolved. Advice should be sought about the type of assignment to be taken in each transaction pending further clarification from the courts.
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