In the recent decision in the case of Re Compound Photonics Group Ltd; Faulkner v Vollin Holdings Ltd, the Court of Appeal has clarified the meaning of the contractual duty of good faith. In doing so, the Court of Appeal has cast doubt on previous case law on the same point.
This case relates to the removal of two directors whom the minority shareholders had appointed. The company's articles of association provided that the board could not vote to remove the directors. However, the shareholders' agreement did not obligate the majority shareholders to not vote to remove the directors. Subsequently, one of the directors was forced to resign by the majority shareholders, and the second director was removed by the majority shareholders passing an ordinary resolution under the Companies Act 2006.
In the first instance, the High Court held that the minority shareholders had been unfairly prejudiced by the forced removal of the two directors. At the core of this decision was the High Court Judge's view that the majority shareholders had breached an express duty of good faith in the shareholders' agreement by not respecting the agreement to entrench the position of the two directors. As a result, the decision by the High Court was that the minority shareholder's shares in the company should be bought by the majority shareholders at a value to be determined.
The Court of Appeal overturned the High Court's decision. In doing so, the Court of Appeal examined existing case law on the meaning of the good faith obligation. One of the cases the Court of Appeal looked at was the recent case of Unwin v Bond, which summarised the meaning of good faith as the duty to:
However, the Court of Appeal in the Compound Photonics case cast doubt on whether such a formulaic approach was appropriate.
It was the Court of Appeal's view that the meaning of good faith needs to be determined by reference to the individual facts of each case. In the Compound Photonics case, the Court of Appeal held that:
Unfortunately, the Court of Appeal's decision in the Compound Photonics case does mean there remains a high level of doubt as to what the duty of good faith actually means. This is clear from the fact that the Court of Appeal held that the duty of good faith would have to be determined by reference to the individual facts of each case. If a contract includes a duty to act in good faith, there will always be a degree of uncertainty as to how the Courts would interpret that duty.
In addition, if directors are appointed by one set of shareholders, it will be necessary for other shareholders to agree in a shareholders' agreement or another document not to vote to remove those directors. Otherwise, the directors could still be removed from office under the provisions of the Companies Act 2006.