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The 7 Key Legal Issues in Buying a Business

The 7 Key Legal Issues in Buying a Business

The 7 Key Legal Issues in Buying a Business

The 7 Key Legal Issues in Buying a Business

1. Not Rushing In

You might be incredibly excited about buying a business, and we have come across people who have decided they want to work from home, have a look on Facebook marketplace and agree to spend money they don’t have, all in one day. No consultation with a lawyer or accountant, no real understanding of what is involved in the business. It did not last and it cost them money. 

We’ve also come across people who buy a business with unrealistic expectations of the work involved and an expectation that if the bank is prepared to lend them the money, they would be able to make a success of it. 

A business purchase is a big commitment. It is not just the cost involved, but running the business afterwards. The next three case studies to show why it is important not to rush into a purchase.

Case Study 1 

A young lady came to us with an offer from her employer to purchase the hairdressing business she was working in ‘cheap’, and to take over the lease for the business. She was keen to sign the agreement, as the seller (her boss) wanted to get out of the business before the end of financial year and it was already June. 

A quick review of the deal suggested that our client would be taking on a business that was only still operating because of her work, a lease that had three years remaining and was not cheap, and the need for some refurbishment of the salon. The landlord was offering a $5,000 incentive for fitout, but the likely cost was probably going to be higher. 

Fortunately, we were able to get our client to slow down and get accounting advice on the business, and to identify to our client that the seller would benefit to the tune of $30,000 per annum by being out of the lease. We encouraged our client to get an estimate of fitout renovations, which came in at a little under $70,000. 

Our client decided there was no benefit in the deal to her and other opportunities were out there. 

Case Study 2

A client came to us after having already taken over a beauty spa business. She thought she had a good deal because the replacement cost of the relatively new equipment in the business was significantly higher than the requested purchase price, and the vendor was providing finance. 

By already being in the business and having paid a deposit of $5,000 to the seller, our client was committed, and there was nothing in writing. The client came to us desperate to get a sale agreement documented because the seller had said they would do it and hadn’t. Our client was already paying the rent, COVID restrictions came into effect and the seller was suddenly very cooperative in getting the paperwork complete. The landlord was fortunately agreeable to transferring the lease, but our client did not want us to advise on the lease, which was very basic. 

Two years down the track it became apparent that the appropriate council certifications had not been obtained for the plumbing work on the premises and the premises were non-compliant. The lease and assignment of lease were silent on responsibilities and our client ended up footing the bill. 

Difficulties with the lease could have been resolved before the purchase was completed if the client had not already been in the premises and operating the business before getting advice. 

Case Study 3

Our client was looking to buy his first business at around $200,000 and had found a business through a broker that he was keen to buy. He arranged the finance, did his own due diligence and asked us to become involved at contract stage. The broker had prepared the contract on behalf of the seller. 

When we received the business purchase contract, it was unclear from the contract what exactly our client was buying. On talking to the broker, they had moved from selling residential property into business broking and were inexperienced in the area. They were also quite frustrated that our client hadn’t simply signed the agreement and sent it back. 

Without the business sale contract clearly setting out what was being sold, we couldn’t assure our client about what they would receive. In addition, the landlord wanted the buyer to enter into a new lease at a rent $10,000 per annum more than the seller had disclosed to our client. 

Fortunately, our client did not rush to sign and when answers to our questions were not forthcoming, and his circumstances changed, he decided not to go ahead. In that instance he had invested in getting legal and accounting advice and told us he had a very valuable learning experience.

2. Knowing What you Are Buying

So, what are you buying? If the contract isn’t clear, then you might be handing over money and not getting what you expected. You need to know what is important to the day-to-day operations of the business and how much of that is being transferred to you. You don’t want to purchase a cafe and upon settlement, find out that the seller cleaned out all the cupboards and fridges the day before and you have to restock before you can trade. 

Case Study 4

Our client was looking to buy his first business at around $200,000 and had found what he thought was a printing business and that everything was done onsite. He had no experience in printing and was planning to hire someone to run the business. He arranged the finance, and asked us to become involved at contract stage. 

When we received the business purchase contract, it was unclear from the contract what exactly our client was buying. There was no mention of printing equipment, paper, card, inks or other stock. We also suggested our client carefully go through the accounts with their accountant to ensure there were sufficient profits in the business to be able to hire someone to run it. The seller was an owner/operator. 

Without the business sale contract clearly setting out what was being sold, we couldn’t assure our client about what they would receive, what equipment was in the business, or even if the seller owned the equipment being used and had the right and ability to sell it. 

Without ensuring the contract was clear, it is possible that our client could have only received business branding, a client list and the liability for a lease – expenses without immediate income.  He would then have also had to immediately spend additional money purchasing the necessary equipment to operate the business. 

Fortunately, our client did not rush to sign and when answers to our questions were not clear, and he was offered a role interstate, he decided not to go ahead. That client is looking to purchase a business for income without him having to be involved in the day to day. He hasn’t done that before and said that it had been a very worthwhile investment in getting legal and accounting advice before signing anything. He now feels better prepared to assess potential deals in the future. 

3. Profit is in the Purchase

When you are buying a business, it is very important to get appropriate accounting and financial advice. It is possible to buy a business that needs to be turned around, but only if you can do so at the right price. 

The profit is in the purchase. 

What opportunities do you have to increase revenue immediately or very soon after you buy the business? It is not uncommon that people who are ready to sell are at that point because they have lost real interest in the business and there is lots of room for improvement. If you can see the opportunities, and know how to leverage them, then you might be looking at a good deal. 

A lawyer who had bought a law practice on the Gold Coast once applied to work with Onyx Legal. They claimed they had been misled about the value of the business, paid too much and there was no opportunity to make money because the Gold Coast was a low socioeconomic area! Naturally, they didn’t get the job. You attitude to the business you are buying can influence your ability to make a success of it. 

When you go into business, success or failure is up to you. Know what the business is worth once the owner walks away (are customers attached to the owner and likely to follow them?) and understand what you are willing to pay to secure that opportunity. 

It is not unusual for cafes and restaurants to be sold for nominal amounts (like $1) because the owner is losing money and is better off getting out. Someone who understand the area, likely clientele, available workforce and marketing can potentially come in and make a success of it. There are stories of a Gold Coast restaurateur selling and buying back a restaurant a couple of times because he knew how to make it a success, but the purchasers didn’t. 

One of the early Australian online tipping platforms was bought from the founders by a larger company, and then bought back by the founders 18 months later at a much lower cost because that company didn’t know how to make a success of it.

4. Assets vs Entities

When you buy a business, you are either buying shares in a company, in which case you are buying the history, or you are buying assets – which is everything necessary to operate a business. Assets can be tangible (like a desk) or intangible (like a website). 

When you buy shares, everything in the company comes with it, so you must understand what loans or other liabilities are sitting in the company, and how they will be dealt with at settlement. Things like tax debts, overdue superannuation, bad credit ratings, court proceedings, embarrassing media stories and so on are all associated with the entity, and that is what you are buying. 

When you are buying assets, you need to understand what is transferrable and what is not. Not all supply contracts are transferable without the prior approval of the customer. So if the profits in the business are in one or two large contracts and it is not clear if they are transferable, you may be losing money as soon as the purchase is completed. 

These sorts of things need to be checked. 

5. Transferring Intellectual Property

Intellectual property – copyright, trade marks, patents etc, need to be transferred in writing, by the owners. It is important to check who owns what when buying a business. In particular, copyright belongs to the creator unless transferred in writing. Software, graphic design, website copy etc all belong to the creator. If the creator is an employee it is ok, the copyright vests in the company, but if they started as a contractor before becoming an employee, there can be uncertainty about what they company owns and is able to sell. 

Case Study 5

Our client was buying a health business and searches showed that the domain name and the website (separate things) used to advertise the business were not actually owned by the seller. A lot of patients found the business through the website. It was essential to have the sale of business contract adjusted to ensure that transfer of the domain name and website occurred as part of the sale. 

Case Study 6

A client was interested in buying a business which used a particular bespoke software for all of its main operations. The due diligence process disclosed that the software developer had been contracting to the business for years and there was nothing in writing about the ownership of that software, or its ongoing use by the company. The seller was unable to produce anything in writing to show that it owned the software, even though it believed it did. 

The buyer of the business walked away. 

6. Competition by the Seller

Online businesses are a big area where competition is a concern after settlement. Most business sale contracts contain some form of restraint on the seller about what they can do in an area that will compete with the business you are buying after the date of the sale. 

A restraint provision in an employment agreement is more likely to be enforceable when it is structured to protect the interests of the buyer, and not likely to be enforceable if it puts the seller in a position where they cannot earn a living. 

Tougher restraint provisions are likely to be enforceable for commercial agreements than they are in employment situations, because the courts will also expect the parties to have made a commercial decision about what is acceptable to them, or not. This is an issue for sellers who do not carefully consider what they plan to do after completion, and how they may be limited by a restraint. 

Different things that restraint provisions can cover are:

  • Area: Does the business operate locally, nationally, in a region like Oceania, or worldwide? Does the seller plan to expand the area of service, or combine it into an existing business that covers a larger area? Is it fair? 
  • Industry: A bug-bear we have is when a buyer attempts to include ‘a similar business’ without defining what that is, or to include the businesses operated by a group of companies related to the buyer, whether or not those businesses are in the same industry or something completely different. Restraints should focus on the business being sold, not something broader.
  • People: It makes sense to restrain a seller from working with existing or potential customers already known in the business being sold, however, we have assisted sellers in being permitted to retain a client list for the purpose of communicating a new business, where that business does not compete with or adversely affect the buyer. 
  • Key contacts: It can be also worthwhile include a restraint against poaching staff, suppliers or distributors for a period of time after completion. 
  • Time: Periods of restraint can vary significantly, anywhere from months to years. Times and areas of restraint vary depending on the type of business and the reach of that business. It is also common to have cascading provisions, which leave it to a court to decide what is fair if a restraint is breached. We encourage our clients to consider the period of time it would take a knowledgeable competitor to set up a similar business, and to be reasonable in setting the time for restraint. Where a large infrastructure investment is likely to be threated by competition from the seller, then a longer restraint period is likely to be considered fair and reasonable. 

7. The Limits of Each Adviser

It’s tempting to think that your advisers will have all the answers when you are buying a business and be able to tell you what to do if you end up in a situation where you feel a little lost. This can happen for people who have never bought a business before. 

As legal advisers, we can review the contracts and check that the contracts properly describe what you think you are buying and what your obligations, and the obligations of the seller will be, after purchase. We can highlight potential rights and flag decisions you must make – but we cannot make those decisions for you. 

The truth is, it is your responsibility.

Your accountant, lender or financial adviser are all in the same boat. They can highlight information for you, but they cannot make the decision whether or not to buy, and they cannot determine how much importance you place on any piece of information. 

Case Study 7

Many years ago when working in a national firm, a client who had borrowed significantly (millions) to fund a purchase was part way through the due diligence process and wondering whether or not the purchase was going to be worthwhile. It got to a point where the client was saying “we’ve spent too much (around $300k) now not to go ahead.” 

There was an element of wilful blindness on the part of the purchaser in that transaction. They had put their reputation, and their house, on the line to fund a purchase that was looking more and more questionable the more they learnt about the business. Going through with the purchase was more about their ego and being ‘clever’ at getting the deal done. 

About 6 months after settlement, the business failed and was placed into liquidation and the director was forced into bankruptcy.   

It is your money. It could be your reputation, your family and your future that you are staking on this purchase. As much as professional advisers can provide you with advice, advisers cannot tell you what to do and all the important decisions are up to you. This makes it important to be up front with your advisers, whether legal, financial, accounting or otherwise, and ensure they understand your priorities and concerns. 

A binding contract requires offer, acceptance and consideration. Consideration can be the doing of some thing or the payment of money. 

At every point before consideration has passed, you are likely to have the opportunity to exit from a transaction, no matter how much has been spent getting to that point. Sometimes, a small loss can be better than taking a risk that doesn’t feel right.  

When you are buying a business, you will also have a period of time to complete due diligence and should use that time to ensure that your assumptions about the business are correct, and if not, whether you still want to go ahead, negotiate further, or walk away. 

As we said at the start – don’t rush in.

    How can Onyx Legal help you?

    If you are interested in buying a business, whether this is your first time or your tenth, and you know you need help in the process, make an appointment now to talk it through with one of our team.

    What Happens When Business Founders Want to Split Up?

    What Happens When Business Founders Want to Split Up?

    What Happens When Business Founders Want to Split Up?

    Business Break-ups Can Be Messy!

    Unless the founders had something clear in writing beforehand, there is no end to the variety of things that can happen when founders want to go separate ways.

    If there is nothing in writing and the split is not amicable, all sorts of time consuming, distracting and stressful things can happen. 

    Here are some of the worst-case scenarios we have seen in practice, all where there was nothing in writing to start:

    1. A Founder Dies Unexpectedly  

    Whilst tragic at a personal level, it can also be very difficult for a business where one of the founders passes unexpectedly. Sometimes the family is aware of their business involvement, and sometimes they are not. In this case the family wanted the company to buy out the deceased founder’s interest in the business immediately and had some unrealistic expectations of what that interest was worth. 

    Animosity was growing between the parties due poor communications. We were able to present a strategy which allowed for the progressive buy out of the deceased founder over a two year period, without interference by the family in the business, and at an amount set by a ‘desk top’ valuation completed by the company’s accountant. The family of the deceased founder were offered the opportunity to get an independent valuation, but at their cost, and the $11,000 price tag put them off.

    2. One Founder Is Stealing Money From The Business, And Another Finds Out

    Unfortunately, this is not an uncommon scenario. 

    We’ve seen this occur in a variety of businesses from software to building and construction, and it is rarely pretty, and usually a long and slow process of separation if nothing was agreed in writing when the business was founded. 

    Too many people think “we don’t need a shareholder agreement, we will be fine” when they are all excited about getting started, and then when things go wrong, they have no protection.  

    In one example with a tech company, there were four sets of lawyers involved and the end result was a comprehensive deed of release covering the transfer of shares, forgiveness of debts, payment of money, and indemnities from the exiting partner. There were no admissions of liability in the deed. The deed took more than 15 months to negotiate and some shareholders meetings to approve decisions. 

    As long as the negotiations remain between the parties and their lawyers, law enforcement need not be involved. There is nothing that legally requires you to incriminate yourself or anyone else in the business. When fraud or theft is discovered and reported, it is usually through a third party.

    3. A Founder Walks Away Without Notice, Making Demands

    Things happen in people’s lives (like death, illness, an amazing job offer etc), and they can suddenly want out. This can be very hard on the people who want to continue with the business and a shock if not contemplated before one partner leaves. Business break ups are often referred to as like going through a divorce by the people affected. 

    Sometimes people want out, and they want their money, whether or not there is any owed to them at the time. Many people exiting a business think in terms of the future value of the business, rather than where it is as they exit, and vastly overestimate both what it is worth and the capacity of the other parties, or the business to pay for the exit. 

    If shares are to be transferred to existing business partners, then those individuals need to have the money to purchase the shares at the agreed value. In a start up phase, this is likely to be $1 a share and not onerous, but if the business has been running for a while and has some value, the remaining shareholders might not have thousands of dollars required to purchase those shares.

    If the shareholder is exiting and the company is making a distribution or buying back the shares (not a simple process) then there needs to be sufficient funds in the company to pay out the exiting party. 

    As long as you have clarity around ownership of assets, intellectual property and a realistic value of the business, then its just a process to be undertaken when someone leaves suddenly. If there is nothing in place, then it is a process of negotiation and often heartache before a resolution can be agreed. 

    4. A Shareholder Stops Contributing

     In situations where you have people with different skills coming together to build a business, not everyone necessarily has the same energy to keep the business on track. We’ve come across several businesses where a lot of effort was required of one party in the initial set up (for example someone building an App or a Website) and then their contribution become maintenance only. Another person in the business might be responsible for promotion, and there work is constant, requires review and reinvention, and never lets up. 

    An example we have is a digital business where the person responsible for service delivery got fed up with the lack of interest of the developer who originally built the website for the business. Their ongoing contribution was minimal and yet their deductions from the business stayed the same and the service deliver person felt like they were working to support two families, without any recognition.  

    Differing levels of effort over time could have been written into a shareholder agreement and appropriately dealt with, with the service delivery person gaining a greater interest in the distributions over time. Unfortunately, they had nothing documented. Fortunately, the exiting party, being the person who initially built the site, was prepared to accept an independent valuation of the business and to be paid out over six months rather than an immediate exit. 

    In another tech company, the exiting person was someone who thought that they were indispensable to the business, but kept upsetting customers to the extent they left. Again, and independent valuation was agreed and they accepted payment over time, but the process of getting to that point took 4 months and was disruptive to the business.  

    5. A Founding Partner No Longer Gets On with Anyone Else In The Business

    This was a strange scenario and there was no shareholder agreement. One of the founders had moved into the position of CEO of the business but was no longer on speaking terms with anyone in the business, whether other founders or staff. There were six founders, four of whom no longer had any involvement in the day-to-day operations of the business, but all were looking for a financial exit. 

    The company did have prospects, but a sale was not going to be possible whilst the CEO still had voting power to stop it.  There was not enough cash in the business to buy out the CEO without adversely affecting cashflow. 

    Through a succession of negotiations including an independent business advisor, we were able to get the CEO’s agreement to retire and stop being involved in the day-to-day operations, as well as converting his shares to a preference share which would be paid first in the event of any declaration of dividends or sale. The preference share had no voting rights. Tax consequences for the business and the individual were also examined before the transaction went through. 

    Business operations were a lot smoother without the former CEO’s involvement and a sale was achieved within 12 months, with all founders getting paid. 

    It is always easier to think through future scenarios and what is fair when everyone is excited about the business and getting started, and still friends. It is significantly harder, and more costly, to attempt to resolve an acrimonious split a couple of years down the track. 

    We provide clients with questionnaires to help identify potential needs in the business, and how people might exit to get you thinking about what might become important when you get started, whether setting up a joint venture or a shareholder or unitholder situation. There a lots of options available.

    How can Onyx Legal help you?

    If you are or plan to go into business with someone else and you’d like to secure the future of your business, make an appointment with us to talk through your options. 

    The Right Business Structure to Protect Your Assets

    The Right Business Structure to Protect Your Assets

    The Right Business Structure to Protect Your Assets

    Once you have made the decision to operate your own business, choosing the correct structure is the next step. Keep in mind that your business structure can change if your business grows in a direction that would suit a different structure. It makes sense to seek legal and financial advice before getting started, so you can tailor your business structure to your unique circumstances.

    In Australia, your main options for establishing a business are:

    1. Sole trader
    2. Partnership
    3. Joint venture
    4. Company
    5. Trust

    Getting a business name is not setting up a business, it is just registering a business name. We’ll discuss that a little more at the end, for clarity.

    In deciding which option would best suit you and your business ideas, think about the following:

    • Your existing assets, income, tax and other ownership structures
    • The simplicity of the new structure and your initial set up costs
    • The type of business you would like to operate and the size of the business
    • The likelihood and speed of business growth and the requirements for investment
    • The tax impact upon the business and on you
    • The type of management and control levels required to operate successfully
    • The number of people involved in the management or ownership of the business
    • The degree of flexibility required to adapt as the business evolves and expands or moves in a new direction to first planned
    • The potential risk of the new structure failing and what impact that could have on you
    • The costs and ease of ending the business if it doesn’t turn out

    Let’s have a look at potential business structures in light of the above factors.

    1. Sole Trader

    A sole trader is a very simple business structure and there are minimal set up costs involved for you as the business owner. You will need to register for an Australian Business Number (ABN) in your own name.

    If trading under your own name eg. “Harper Lee Consulting” then you don’t need to register a business name. But if you want to trade under another name “Awesome Consulting” then you will need to register a business name. You are still the business, it just has a name that is not your name.

    You will bear the responsibility over all of the business functions and will be completely personally liable for all of the debts that the business incurs.

    If protection of your personal assets is important to you then this type of business structure might not be the most suitable for your needs. If you own a home or an investment property in your own name and someone sues the business, they are suing you and your property is on the line.

    A sole trader business can have quite limited growth potential as it is heavily reliant on the owner and often can consume vast amounts of an owner’s time and resources. Even as a sole trader, you can employ other people, but the business is still intimately associated with you.

    A sole trader business will pay tax at the personal tax rate applicable to the business owner.

    It is relatively easy to end a sole trader business and cease trading, provided any debts of the business are paid in full.

    A good example of a sole trader business could be a business consultant, a freelance writer, an at home hairdresser or a tradesman such as a painter.

    2. Partnership

    A partnership is similar to a sole trader, except it involves more than one owner. It trades under a registered business name and a partnership can comprise of owners with similar skills (eg. business brokers) or owners with complimentary skill-sets (eg. a graphic designer and a website developer).

    Like sole trader businesses, partnerships are easy to establish. You simply register an ABN naming each of the partners in the application. It is also wise to have a partnership agreement prepared to protect the interests of everyone involved, while everyone is still friends and the business is working well. Partnership break ups without a written agreement are a bit like a divorce and can be messy and expensive.

    Traditionally, law firms and accounting firms were structured as partnerships.

    We’ve seen law firms dissolve without ever having had a partnership agreement and all the profits left in the business were spent on attempting to resolve disputes between the partners when it came to an end.

    Partnerships are better for whole of business long term ventures between people. They are not really suited to short-term, part-time enterprises.  The number of partners can vary and can be comprised of individuals, or companies, or trusts.

    Each owner pays tax at their own individual rates, depending on their share of the partnership profits. Partners don’t have to hold equal shares and can be split depending on the contributions of the partners. A partnership will require the agreement of all parties if the ownership structure or members are to change, and it is possible that a new ABN will be required if partners change.

    When a partnership is working smoothly, it can be a great vehicle to operate a successful business. When a partnership is affected by personal differences between the owners, it can impact quite considerably on the successful business operation. Each partner is 100% liable for all the business debts and their own personal assets can be at risk if the partnership cannot repay its debts or taxes. This is the case even if the partner had nothing to do with incurring the debt in the first place.

    We’ve seen partners in business lose their home because one of the other partners committed fraud through the partnership and went to jail, without being able to pay back the missing money. The people owed money were entitled to chase the other partners in the business to get paid, even though they knew nothing about the fraud.

    3. Joint Venture

    A joint venture is usually set up by a written joint venture agreement between the parties for a particular purpose or project. It is a good structure for operating a specific project instead of continuing indefinitely. It can vary how many entities are involved and can be comprised of individuals, or companies, or trusts.

    It is best to seek legal advice before signing a joint venture agreement to ensure you understand your contribution to the venture, what happens when things change during the project and to ensure you are adequately protected if the joint venture is not successful.

    A joint venture helps to grow your business through collaboration with other entities that have complementary skills or financial resources. The structure can vary depending on what you want to achieve, the governance type and obligations as well as the division of profits and losses to the parties. The agreement should also contain the process for disagreement or dispute resolution, if the parties’ relationships break down.

    Each of the joint venture members are responsible for the profits, losses and costs involved in undertaking the joint venture project. The joint venture is a distinctly separate entity from the members other businesses and assets.

    An example of a joint venture might be the combination of ride-share giant, Uber, with vehicle manufacturer, Volvo, for the purpose of producing driverless motor vehicles.

    4. Company

    A company is a separate legal entity to the business owners. It is a legal vehicle that can incur debts in its own name, can sue and be sued by other parties. It does not cease if an owner passes away but exists until it is wound up. The business owners are the shareholders and can often hold the position of director and secretary as well, particularly in a small business arrangement.

    A director is responsible for the management and governance of the company and need not be a shareholder. A company secretary is responsible for ensuring that the reporting obligations of the company are met.

    If you are considering setting up a company, you will need a company name, you will have to set up a governing structure with a constitution suitable to your business. The company must be registered with the Australian Securities and Investments Commission (ASIC) and will incur a yearly fee.

    There are many complex parts to a company and essential for you to speak to your accountant or lawyer, or both, prior to setting up a company structure. It can have considerable set up costs compared to other entities and there are many legal obligations of the office-bearers. However, there are considerable benefits too.

    It is an excellent vehicle to conduct business and ensure your personal assets, such as your home, are protected against legal action.

    We had a client who, after audit, was required to repay some tax rebates received as R&D credits, together with penalties. The shareholders thought they had to sell their home to pay the company’s debt. They did not. The company remained responsible for its own debts and the shareholders got to keep their house.

    Unless you give a personal guarantee for a business loan, then your private assets are protected. Since the company is a separate legal entity, it has a separate liability from the business owners. It can incur debts that are limited to the value of the company. If an aggrieved party sues the company for the outstanding debts, it is limited to the company itself and cannot sue the owners, unless they have given a personal guarantee, or fall within a category of liability where directors can be found personally liable – such as failing to pay superannuation.

    There are other benefits with respect to taxation as well. The company pays tax at a company rate and can pay “fully franked” dividends to its shareholders, which can be very attractive to the business owners, depending on their individual circumstances.

    Since November 2021 directors of companies (along with some other entities) now must be issued a Director Identification Number (DIN) which is issued by ASIC.

    There are two types of companies – a privately owned company and a publicly owned company. So what is the difference between a private company and a public company in Australia?

    4.1. Private Company

    A private company is distinct from a public company because it is privately owned. It will often have “Pty Ltd” after its business name, and this means ‘proprietary limited’. This indicates it is privately owned, with limited liability.

    A Pty Ltd or proprietary limited It is the most common structure for small businesses. It is incorporated, issues shares, will have a maximum of fifty shareholders, and each of the shareholders are not personally liable for the debts of the business. They will only be liable for any unpaid financial value of their shares. What this means if that if you purchase 10 x $1 shares but only pay the company $5 at that time of purchase, there will still be 50c owed against each of your 10 shares, and that must be paid if called by the company.

    A private company is for protection of your personal assets. There are a large variety of share structuring options available, so it is definitely an option to discuss in greater depth with your accountant or lawyer.

    4.2. Public Company

    A public company is a company that can be listed on the stock exchange and is funded by investors, or a company to be limited by guarantee and operated as a charity or not-for-profit.

    Not for profit means the members or shareholders are not entitled to a distribution of the profits of the business and the profits must be reinvested back into the business. In a for profit company, members or shareholders are entitled to receive a distribution of the profits if dividends are paid. Business is not sustainable if it does not generate a profit.

    A public company often has “Ltd” or “limited” after its name to indicate that it has limited liability.

    For profit public companies have a complex structure and are required to issue public documents when paying dividends or raising capital. Qantas is a public company. Any company you can purchase shares for on the Australian Stock Exchange is a public company.

    A public company remains an option if you grow your business to the point where you would like to take it public and raise considerable share capital through a public offering.

    A not-for-profit public company is an appropriate structure for a large charity.

    5. Trusts

    A trust can be an excellent asset protection structure, but you will need tailored legal and financial advice to correctly suit your personal circumstances. A trust is a vehicle that enables a trustee to act in the best interests and hold property or income for a particular purpose, for the benefit of the beneficiaries or trust members. The trustee can be an individual or a company.

    Whilst there are many types of trusts available, there are two main types of trust used in small business. They are:

    1. Unit Trust
    2. Discretionary or Family Trust

    The trust is set up with a formal trust deed that provides guidance on the way that the trust operates and the powers of the trustee.

    There are other parties named in the trust deed – such as the settlor who won’t have any future involvement in the trust, but who is essential in its establishment.

    Superannuation trusts are often established with limited investment categories, for example, an inability to invest in cryptocurrency.

    The trustee is responsible for administering the trust. Provided that the trustee behaves appropriately, the trustee is usually entitled to be indemnified out of the trust fund for any liabilities incurred in association with the administration of the trust. If the trust is an individual trustee, their own personal assets can be at risk if the trustee is sued and a good reason to appoint a company as a trustee.

    A trust may also be entitled to a 50% capital gains tax exemption, but a company is not. You should seek accounting advice when reviewing your tax obligations.

    A discretionary trust is the most common structure in small business.

    A unit trust is one of the most common structures for small property development. 

    Unit trusts have certainty in proportionate interests, whereas a discretionary trust is variable depending upon the decisions of the trustee. Where a greater degree of certainty in financial dealings of trust property is required, the unit trust is more effective. Each unitholder of the trust holds a specified number of units and the trustee has no discretion to give unitholders distributions that are inconsistent with the rights of other unitholders. You can transfer a unit to another unitholder, just like shares in a company.

    We normally recommend that people involved in a unit trust structure enter into a unitholder agreement, similar to a shareholder agreement, to better protect their interests.

    How can Onyx Legal help you?

    Book an appointment to talk with one of our team about your business structure and whether it is still the most appropriate structure for what you are doing and what you’d like to achieve.

    Your Guide to Terms & Conditions

    Your Guide to Terms & Conditions

    Your Guide to Terms & Conditions

    The last few years have seen lots of businesses pivot to make greater use of online tools and increase the opportunity for online sales.

    As a business owner you should be considering the exposure of your online business and in particular, when you last updated your terms and conditions, your privacy policy and your disclaimer – or even if you have them to protect your business.

    The post COVID-19 era has resulted in more important updates, changes and governmental compliance responsibilities than prior to the pandemic, and increased the complexity of navigating the online business world.

    Your terms and conditions set out essential protections for your business including identifying which laws govern your website and business, reducing your chance of a dispute arising, giving you the freedom to remove unwanted people, and placing responsibilities on the user that are important to the way you do business.

    Having terms and conditions can significantly reduce any future problems from arising, if you have taken the time to obtain appropriate legal coverage.

    Services Online

    If you sell a service and have any type of intellectual property, such as an education course or unique planning tool, you will want to ensure one of your terms and conditions include protection. As other businesses move online, they may copy some of your own website and design, so a copyright clause can at least alert visitors to your website that you intend to protect your intellectual property and caution them against copying it.

    As a practical tipdo not copy someone else’s website content. It is copyright infringement. If you are checking out what your competitors are doing and want to create something similar, at least choose a competitor on the other side of the world who might have a totally different client base. Don’t copy your local competitor just down the road and expect them not to get upset!

    Be innovative. Even if you sell hard products, you can use your online environment to create membership communities, offer education, host competitions etc.

    Goods Online

    If you manage a type of retail or goods-based business, necessary terms and conditions would include your refund and return policy. Ideally this would set out in very clear terms what the customer should expect in the event that they sought a refund or wanted to return their items.

    Your customer must be aware of your terms and conditions before purchase for them to be binding. It saves a lot of hassles and time down the track if your terms of trade are clear and easy to access. It is worthwhile noting here that some terms and conditions cannot override Australian consumer guarantees. Any attempt to limit the Australian Consumer Laws (ACL), is invalid. Consumer guarantees now apply to products and services with a value up to $100,000, regardless of who the purchaser is. 

    We can help you navigate your obligations under Australian Consumer Law.

    Interesting Recent Cases

    Consider the 2019 case of Australian Competition Consumer Commission (ACCC) v Jetstar.

    Jetstar tried to present their air fares in a way that excluded any right to a refund for the cheaper air fares. The ACCC commenced proceedings against Jetstar for false and misleading representations, as well as breaching the automatic consumer guarantees that cannot be excluded, restricted or modified, no matter how cheap the air fare was for the consumer.

    The Federal Court ordered Jetstar to pay a financial penalty of $1.95 million for the breaches as well as an undertaking to commit to amend its policies and practices to ensure they are consistent with the ACL. This undertaking was court-enforceable if they did not comply.

    Another recent case that illustrates the importance of having express terms and conditions is the case of Hardingham v RP Data. Hardingham was a real estate photographer who had an exclusive licence with his business ‘Real Estate Marketing Australia Pty Ltd’ (REMA) for the copyright of his works. He had an ongoing informal oral agreement between him and the various real estate agencies for the use of his photographs and floor plan images for the agencies marketing campaigns. He did not have any express terms and conditions in place between him and the various agencies.

    These agencies would then upload his work to Realestate.com.au for the marketing campaigns. In order to proceed with the upload of the photographs, the agency (often a subscriber) would need to agree to the terms and conditions on the website as set out by Realesate.com.au. The terms and conditions on the Realestate.com.au website contained a sub-license to “other persons” in a detailed form.

    Realestate.com.au then sub-licensed to RP Data who then published the photographs on its websites and superimposed a logo on the images. RP Data is a subscriber-only database of real estate sales and rental history. After an appeal to the Full Court of the Federal Court of Australia, the court held by 2:1 majority, that the sub-licence to RP Data who then used and manipulated the photographs and images was an infringement of copyright.

    The court held that the original owner of the copyright did not agree to the sub-licence when it verbally agreed to the various real estate agencies uploading the images to Realestate.com.au.

    We have assisted professional real estate photographers to prepare appropriate terms and conditions for the use of their images to ensure they are paid for use.

    This case is a good example where the copyright owner might have avoided going through the expensive and lengthy court process, and the subsequent need to appeal, to receive a judgement in his favour, if he had express terms and conditions that explicitly set out the use of the photographs and images.

    Since he had only oral agreements between him and the real estate agencies, the court had to determine if the implied terms were so obvious and were necessary to give business efficacy to the contract. Thankfully the Full Court found that there was such an implied term in this instance.

    COVID-19 Impact on Terms and Conditions

    Consider another recent case that relied on terms and conditions under a contract that was affected by COVID-19 shutdowns is the case of Dyco Hotels Pty Ltd v Laundry Hotels (Quarry) Pty Ltd. This case concerned the sale of the Quarryman Hotel in Pyrmont, New South Wales (NSW). The contract was signed on 31 January 2020, with the date of settlement set for 27 March 2020.

    The contract price was for $11,250,000 and included the associated hotel licence, the gaming machine entitlements and the hotel business itself. The deposit paid by the buyers was $562,500.

    In the sale contract, there was an Additional Clause 50.1 which imposed various obligations upon the vendor, including the obligation to continue to operate the business “in the usual and ordinary course as regards to its nature, scope and manner”.

    On the 23 March 2020, 4 days before settlement, public health orders issued shutting down the majority of hospitality services. This made it unlawful for the hotel to continue to operate, except for takeaway food and drinks, in accordance with the public health directions.

    The buyers argued that the business sale was frustrated by the public health orders since the hotel was no longer able to operate in the “usual and ordinary course as regards to its nature, scope and manner”. They asked for return of the $562,500 deposit and claimed the value of the assets decreased by $1 million due to the public health orders.

    The vendor disagreed.

    The vendor’s position was that the hotel continued to trade as a going concern within the confines of the health orders and in accordance with the legal restrictions that had been imposed upon it. If the vendor had operated contrary to the public health orders, it would have placed the future operation of the business in jeopardy, including the hotel licence to operate. This would have damaged the goodwill of the hotel. The vendor also argued that they were entitled to terminate the contract, retain the deposit and seek damages for the loss of the bargain.

    The NSW Supreme Court found in the vendor’s favour and held that the contract was not frustrated by COVID-19 public health orders. The vendor was entitled to keep the $562,500 deposit and recover damages as well for the loss of bargain. The court assessed the damages to be $900,000 and deducted the deposit of $562,500 from that amount.

    Although the terms and conditions in this case were not online but contained in sale documents, it does demonstrate that carefully considered terms and conditions can make a big difference to the outcome of a dispute. 

    The purchasers might have been better protected if there were any contractual warranties given by the vendor about the future financial performance of the hotel. Since there were no warranties given, the purchasers accepted the risks.  The purchasers were experienced in the Sydney hotel operations business and understood the various potential risks of legislative changes, despite not being familiar with the impact of a pandemic.

    This is a good illustration of the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on terms and conditions and contemplation of the risks associated with business operations. Following the lessons in this case, a vendor would be wise to include business conduct obligations under the contract that can be altered or changed to comply with public health emergencies. A buyer would be wise to include options to terminate the contract in the event where the value of the business has dramatically dropped due to unexpected circumstances.

    Another COVID-19 impact on the operation of businesses can be seen in the recent case of Flight Centre Travel Group Limited Trading as Aunt Betty v Goel. Terms and conditions were online and agreed to by click wrap agreement – where the buyer has to check a box stating they agree to terms and conditions before being able to complete the purchase.

    In the first hearing, Goel had been awarded a refund on the basis that the purchased flights hadn’t been received.

    On the 5 November 2019, the customer (Goel) had made a booking online, for the return flights from Sydney to Delhi scheduled for flights during April 2020. The $2,336.30 flights were with Malaysia Airlines which cancelled the flights during March 2020, when COVID-19 public health orders restricted international travel.

    The terms and conditions stated that Flight Centre was only agent and not responsible for delivery. If that were the case, Malaysian Airlines would have been liable to provide the refund, not Flight Centre.

    The case we are referring to was an appeal by Flight Centre where it argued that the business Aunt Betty operated as an agent, and not the supplier of the service and therefore was not liable for actions by the airline in cancelling the flight. It would have set a damaging precedent for Flight Centre to be liable to refund all booking costs where it had not received the bulk of those funds, which had been passed on to the suppliers (like Malaysian Airlines) pending delivery.

    The tribunal, on appeal, held that Goel would have been aware at the time of booking that he had booked the flights with an agent and not the actual airline carrier itself. It is interesting to note that the court decided that the booking could not have been made without the positive acknowledgement of the terms and conditions on the website. The court also decided that there was no breach of the consumer laws by the agent, and it was not liable to provide the refund.

    Conclusion

    In order to operate your business successfully, you need to be mindful of the ever-changing landscape that both COVID-19 public health emergencies create, and the increasing demands shaped by conducting more business in the online space.

    The pass of change suggests you have your terms and conditions of trade reviewed and updated more frequently, with consideration of all aspects of a transaction.

    If you are contemplating signing any contracts for business sales or purchases, it would also be advisable to ensure you are covered in the event that COVID-19 emergency public health order impacts adversely on the contract price and business valuation or operational requirements.

    The new year is also a good time to evaluate your privacy policies and disclaimers, as well.

    How can Onyx Legal help you?

    We love reading and writing terms and conditions. Someone has to do it. It’s fun for us. If your terms and conditions are like a different language for you and you’d rather not think about them, let us help. Book a time to chat with one of our team about how we can help update your online terms sooner rather than later.

    Online Learning: Protecting Your Business Online

    Online Learning: Protecting Your Business Online

    Online Learning: Protecting Your Business Online

    consumer protection

    Did you know that all businesses must comply with consumer protection laws?
     
    Do you understand how consumer rights affect your business?

    PRIVACY FOR SMALL BUSINESSES

    All business owners must understand their obligations under Australian Privacy Laws.
     
    To ensure your business stays on the right side of the law, watch our video to see our Principal Lawyer, Jeanette Jifkins, explain Privacy Law in Australia in more detail.

    TERMS AND CONDITIONS

    Terms and conditions help protect you and your consumer. So what do you need to include on your website?

    Watch our video to see our Principal Lawyer, Jeanette Jifkins, explain.

    website ownership basics

    Who owns your website and what does that mean?
     
    Did you know there is a difference between your domain name and what people see on your website?
     
    Watch our video to see our Principal Lawyer, Jeanette Jifkins, discuss website ownership.

    understanding copyright law

    Watch the full video on Understanding Copyright Law below.

    managing testimonials, comments, and reviews

    Let’s talk testimonials and no, you can’t make them up.
     
    How do you manage them? Are you allowed to use testimonials for advertising? Can you edit them?
     
    Watch our video to see our Principal Lawyer, Jeanette Jifkins, answer all these questions.

    anti-spam

    Spam is an electronic commercial message that can include email, phone and even online chat platforms.
     
    When done incorrectly it can be easy to create marketing that your audience may categorise as spam.
     
    If you want to avoid this we recommend watching our below video to see our Principal Lawyer, Jeanette Jifkins, explain anti-spam in more detail.

    How can Onyx Legal help you?

    We’re interested in strategies that support you and your business to grow and get stronger. If you receive a nasty letter of demand and want help in figuring out how to respond, contact us to help you map the way forward.

    Disclaimers: What They Do and Don’t Protect You From

    Disclaimers: What They Do and Don’t Protect You From

    Disclaimers: What They Do and Don’t Protect You From

    Disclaimers: What they do and don’t protect you from 

    As a business owner, it is likely that you run a website, blog or social media to help people find you, advertise and promote your products or services. It is the most effective way of attracting potential customers or clients in this digital age.

    When someone visits your website, you are offering them information of some sort. Are you always 100% certain that all the information on there are accurate and up to date?

    Even if your answer is yes, do you know how your customers or competitors are using or interpreting that information? The best you can do is hope they are using it the way you intended, but really it is out of your control.

    This is why having a disclaimer is always a good idea. It can better protect you and your business.

    What is a disclaimer?

    Almost all websites have disclaimers. You must have seen one before. Sometimes disclaimers are hidden in terms of use, and sometimes they have their own individual link in the footer, and sometimes they appear in every footer, whether that is on a website or email.

    A disclaimer is a notice that you display to protect you from potential legal issues; it is a statement that you are not responsible for something. To give you an example, here is Wikipedia’s no guarantee disclaimer:

    Wikipedia cannot guarantee the validity of the information found here. The content of any given article may recently have been changed, vandalized or altered by someone whose opinion does not correspond with the state of knowledge in the relevant fields.”

     

    So, why is it important to have a disclaimer?

    Well, consider the case where someone claims that they have relied on your information and suffered loss as a result. Let’s look at an example.

    A marketer promotes pre-sales of a real estate development through a website. (A common cause of claims in court.)

    The website has some images that are ‘artist’s impressions’ of what the development will look like when it’s finished and might contain other information like a copy of a survey diagram. It might also contain a list of finishes to be included in the final development.

    Survey diagrams are really things you should check with a surveyor, engineer or other professional, rather than take from a marketing brochure, but that might also depend on who is providing the brochure and what expertise they say they have.

    The website should clearly caution the buyer that the artist’s impressions might not be true to the end result and that a buyer should make their own enquiries to verify information before they decide to buy; like checking the inclusions in the contract with the builder. If there are no clear statements, it is possible that a buyer could claim they were misled by the information on the website and would not have bought otherwise. Then if the property turns out being something they don’t want or doesn’t have the value they expected it to have, they sue the marketer to try and recover their losses.

    You do not want to put yourself in a situation like this, where your business reputation could be damaged, and you could be found liable to pay legal costs to defend yourself and possibly someone else’s losses.

    Some other common examples we see are:

    • people who have a lived experience with a physical condition or disease, but no formal medical training
    • people who have successfully built a business without any formal qualifications
    • people who have successfully overcome an adversity and again, don’t have any formal qualifications

    Out of a genuine desire to help others and share the benefit of their experience, a person like this might establish a business around coaching or educating others on how they achieved what they did.

    The thing is, not everything works for everybody consistently, and there is a risk if you put yourself in this kind of position that you will encounter a person your services don’t work for, and they say the relied completely on what you said. In that situation, a disclaimer might just help you avoid costly court proceedings.

    And for something completely different…

    Now consider a completely different situation where your website makes it possible for other people to post comments, reviews or advertisements. Forum sites and advice sites like Quora are like this.  All the information posted by third parties could mislead your customers, clients, or visitors of your website, and you could be the one exposed to liabilities because of their actions.

    By having a clear and comprehensive disclaimer for your websites, and building behaviour and processes consistent with the terms of your disclaimer, you put yourself in the best possible position to:

    • protect your rights;
    • limit your liability; and
    • disclaim third party liability.

     

    Do you need a disclaimer?

    Yes, and no.

    Being in business involves a certain level of risk and some types of business are riskier than others, and some types of business people are happy with more risk than others.

    We need to look at your business, your background, your products and your customers to form an opinion on how important it is for you to use disclaimers.

    Generally speaking, we will suggest you do use a disclaimer on your website.

    This is because any member of the public that has internet access can see the content on your website, and you are responsible for all the content you put on there. Even if you are not making money from these websites (for example, you might be posting a blog simply for informational purposes), you must still take reasonable steps to ensure that visitors of your website will not be misled by any information you share.

    However, if your business is fairly straight-forward and well understood, like a barber or hairdresser for example, you probably don’t need a disclaimer. Everyone knows what barbers and hairdressers do. The worst that can happen is probably a bad haircut, or a bad colour, or a clumsy shave. The risk to the business is the cost of the service, and maybe the cost of fixing the problem, or the customer having someone else fix the problem. The problem probably won’t cost the business more than $300. So, will a disclaimer make any difference? Probably not.

    On the other hand, coaching can be a really interesting area where you as a coach should be careful about what you say you can do for someone, particularly when results are going to be dependent on how much effort and application your client invests in doing what you have advised them to do.  If you are offering a high-end coaching package with a purchase price over $10,000, we would recommend a disclaimer.

    If you run a website or email list that provides information which is likely to be relied on by visitors  to your website, or subscribers on your email list, you are strongly encouraged to have a disclaimer in place. Particularly if you provide specialised information, in areas such as health, managing money or an industry that is regulated.

    If your website provides specific steps in a process or a guide for people to follow, you could also increase your legal risk.

    An example might be if you are an online fitness trainer and you post videos that step your clients through a workout. If someone who watches and follows your video injures themself, then you run the risk that they sue you for their injury. But if you have a disclaimer in place which covers your legal obligations and placing some responsibility for your clients behaviour back on to them, you give yourself a much higher chance of avoiding liability.

     

    What kind of disclaimer do you need?

    You may run different types of websites, and the type of disclaimers you need will vary.

    • Websites

    What disclaimer you need depends on whether you use your website to sell products or services, or merely to publish information. If you use your website to sell a product, someone could get hurt when using your product. Whereas if you post information on your website, someone could misconstrue that information and suffer loss as a result.

    You might need a ‘no responsibility’ disclaimer which states that you are not responsible for any damages people suffer as a result of using your products or services. Or you might need a ‘views expressed’ disclaimer to inform readers that the information is only your view or opinion and is not intended to be relied upon without advice specific to their circumstances. 

    • Blog

    If you intend on giving information on your blog which you are not qualified to give, you need to have a disclaimer to explain the limits of your qualifications and to recommend that people seek professional advice relevant to their circumstances.

    If you are not a health professional but provide information about a health conditions, you need to make it very clear that readers should not rely on your information without seeking their own independent medical advice. The same applies for other types of expert advice including financial or legal advice.

    If you are merely passing on information, you should indicate that it is work of another and that you are not endorsing it by making it available on your website. 

    • Emails

    You may need a disclaimer in your emails, depending on the type of business you run and how you use your email. 

    For instance, if you email contains advice that you are not qualified to give, you should include a disclaimer to the effect that you are not an expert in that field, that you are only offering a suggestion and that readers who act on the information do so at their own risk.

    A confidentiality disclaimer can also be beneficial if you are sending confidential information. The disclaimer should state that the recipient must not use, reproduce, copy or disclose this information other than for the purposes for which it was supplied. 

    • Social media (eg. Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram)

    Again, this will depend on your business and how you use social media.

    One of the biggest risks with social media is that third parties can comment, post, or advertise on your page. A disclaimer to limit your liability for any actions or errors of third parties will be of assistance if you are also monitoring your social media pages and removing posts or qualifying posts and comments that could be misleading.

     

    How do you write a disclaimer for your website?

    It is not possible to have a disclaimer that could work for all types of businesses or websites. Each disclaimer is different depending on what you do and how you do it. Like we said earlier, we need to look at your business, your background, your products and your customers to form an opinion on how important it is for you to use disclaimers.

    To help you decide what you should include in your disclaimer:

    Step 1 – Think about what rights you want to protect

    Step 2 – Think about what liabilities you might be exposed to

    You need to identify the possible risks and scenarios that could expose you to legal liability.

    Consider:

    • Warning your readers that your content is merely an opinion and not a fact
    • Alerting your readers to the potential mistakes and inaccuracies in the information
    • Informing your readers that you are not offering professional advice and your content is only informational, and that they should consult a professional before making any decisions
    • Disclaiming liability for any errors in the information that third parties post on your websites (together with a process for reviewing the accuracy of information shared, or making it clear that older posts might not be accurate.

     

    When are you not protected by a disclaimer?

    If your disclaimer contains terms that attempt to exclude a legal liability that cannot be excluded, your disclaimer will not shield you from liability. If it is contrary to law, it might be void, but if it is legally compliant, it might still limit your potential liability.

    Most people get in trouble when they say or do things that are inconsistent with their disclaimer.

    Always keep in mind that your disclaimer must be consistent with your behaviour and business processes and any representations that you make, whether on your website or through your conduct. If anything on your website or your conduct creates a different impression for your customer or client, your disclaimer will not protect you.

    Your disclaimer also needs to be placed somewhere where it can easily be seen either by customers using your website or receiving your emails or communications in any other way. If your disclaimer is too hard to find or too small that is can be easily missed, it will not protect you.

    Conventional website design will usually have a link to your disclaimer in the footer of your website.

     

     

    do you still need insurance when you have a disclaimer?

    Yes.

    Even if you have a disclaimer in place, you should still hold adequate liability insurance to protect business activities. Having a disclaimer does not mean you are guaranteed to be protected from all liabilities. If a claim is brought against you, it is up to the courts to determine the effect of your disclaimer and to what extent your liability is limited. The more vague or confusing your disclaimer is, the more unlikely that it will protect you.

     

     

    Want more information?

     A well-drafted, quality disclaimer can help you to effectively manage your customer or clients’ expectations and set the boundaries for your responsibility and liability.

    Contact Onyx Legal so that we can work with you to identify the most appropriate form of disclaimer for your business and your customer base.