Our “FSR GPS” (Guidelines, Principles and Strategies) series is designed to assist financial institutions navigate often complex, and sometimes opaque or ambiguous, legal provisions, with a view to assisting institutions formulate practical and strategic legal and business solutions.
This edition aims to provide practical guidance to in-house lawyers and businesses on how to navigate the obligation to take all necessary steps to act efficiently, honestly and fairly in section 912A of the Corporations Act. This area of financial services law continues to evolve, and remains riddled with ambiguities and complexities. Against this backdrop, we offer some guiding principles and a “checklist” that can be applied in practice.
The Guiding Principles
(a) The obligation is an obligation to take all necessary steps; it is not solely focused on outcomes
There is a component of process in the efficiently, honestly and fairly obligation, reflected in the “all necessary steps” language. However, unlike other obligations under financial services law, the steps component is not qualified by a reasonableness standard.
The steps obligation is onerous insofar as it equates the steps required with the net outcome of the overall duty, i.e. to carry out the relevant financial services efficiently, honestly and fairly.
A scenario is possible where all necessary steps have been taken but no breach arises, even though the efficiently, honestly and fairly limbs were not otherwise satisfied (i.e. from a net outcomes perspective), precisely because all necessary steps have been taken. However, in our view, this would not be a commonplace scenario.
(b) The obligation to act efficiently, honestly and fairly is compendious
This is the latest pronouncement of the Federal Court (reflected in the judgment of Beach J in ASIC v AGM Markets – see our discussion on this decision here).
Whether there is still flexibility in how the efficiently, honestly and fairly test is applied is another matter. Allsop CJ chose to primarily focus on the fairness element in ASIC v Westpac, because of the seriousness of the conduct in question. We provide some specific commentary on the concept of fairness from a practical perspective here.
Apart from this:
- the efficiency criterion is likely to be read down in our view; and
- the overall flavor of the obligation has traditionally been seen as honesty and ethical conduct. This traditional case law interpolation is unlikely to change.
Overarchingly, the efficiency test seems to require the relevant services to be conducted efficiently in a honest and fair way, honestly in an efficient and fair way and fairly in a honest and efficient way. This was the original conceptualisation by Young J in Story v National Companies and Securities Commission.
(c) It is not a catch-all provision capturing all other breaches of specific financial services laws
This is true based on case law dicta. It is similarly true that it is not a filler obligation, which only applies where there is no specific financial services law provision.
It is quite possible that, say, conduct engendering a breach of misleading and deceptive conduct provisions under the Corporation Act or ASIC Act could also be a breach of the efficiently, honestly and fairly obligation – but this is not an automatic or foregone conclusion.
(d) The honesty limb is breached where facts and circumstances suggest that there has been conduct that is morally wrong in a commercial sense or unethically sound. It is not necessary to demonstrate dishonesty to show a failure to act honestly
It follows that the honesty limb adopts a lower standard than the revised definition of dishonesty adopted in section 1041G of the Corporations Act.
(e) The concept of fairness should be judged having regard to the interests of all parties (and should not be used as a proxy for a best interests obligation). A licensee giving undue weight to its own interests over customers may indicate a breach
The duty does not prevent a licensee from pursuing its own interests. The test is more akin to whether the licensee has inappropriately, improperly or inequitably dealt with the interests of the client.
(f) The concept of “efficiently” indicates a reasonable standard of performance that one would expect
This is a useful breakdown of the efficiently component. Although, because of the compendious nature of the obligation, merely acting inefficiently will not activate a breach. Rather, there must be some unethical or unfair outcome associated with the inefficiency or arguably, some moral turpitude.
(g) The incident being considered should not be viewed in isolation. Rather to the extent possible, one needs to consider the licensee’s behaviour more generally
A related issue is whether there is some materiality threshold inherent in the efficiently, honestly and fairly obligation – given that the obligation refers to the financial services covered by the AFS licence broadly. There is little guidance as to whether any conduct at all, no matter how small or trivial, would constitute a breach.
It is suggested that some element of materiality is required in order to adjudge that the relevant financial service has been performed in a manner that is not efficient, honest and fair. This is a different gauge than the significance criteria involved in the breach reporting condition.
It remains unclear as to the extent materiality would allow breaches of one financial service (or one aspect thereof) to be overlooked because of an otherwise compliant business. However, there is some case law to this effect.
What does “all necessary steps” involve?
Undoubtedly, the efficiently, honestly and fairly obligation calls for a compliance framework. This includes training, testing and monitoring in respect of the compliance framework. The key issue is the extent of that compliance framework.
This will, by necessity, differ between different financial services and different scenarios. For example, it is possible the terms of issuing a financial product could breach the efficiently, honestly and fairly obligation. This is conceivable in the area of add-on insurance. In this case, reasonable steps may involve the evaluation of the terms of issuance of the insurance and the deliberations of the bodies who formulated and approved the terms of issue. In our opinion, seeking information concerning governance and compliance checkpoints and protections is a very valid line of inquiry.
But can this aspect be encapsulated in an overarching line of inquiry/criteria? Because the term “necessary” is wider than “reasonable”, we suggest this line of inquiry proceed from the other analytical end – causation.
In other words, the threshold question to ask is what checks and controls could have prevented the breach of the efficiently, honestly and fairly obligation.
For example, in the case of add-on insurance, the answer could be criteria that the decision-making body had in place, which would have identified the issue of the product on unfair terms.
Is the context of providing financial services relevant?
A question often arises as to the relevance of the context in which the financial services are provided. For example, where the licensee has a fiduciary duty to the client, does this affect the standards of fairness and acting honestly?
In our view, this question should be answered in the affirmative.
Aspects such an inequality of bargaining power as between the parties are also likely to affect the content of the duty. A limitation on pursuing one’s own interests, such as is manifest in a fiduciary obligation, can similarly affect the standard of the efficiently, honestly and fairly obligation.
Another relevant factor would be the complexity of the particular financial services or products being provided.
Further, the context of the provision of the relevant financial services is also likely to inform what will constitute “all necessary steps”.
What is the actual scope of the financial services covered by the AFS licence?
We have been vocal on this point, stating that the relevant financial services are those activities referred to in the Corporations Act, such as dealing and the provision of financial product advice, along with the aspects/activities that are integral to the core activity.
For example, in the context of financial advice, the charging of fees and remediation of defective advice would, in our opinion, all be captured within the relevant financial service. Similarly, in the context of dealing, the preparation and issue of product disclosure documents would constitute an integral component of the financial service of dealing. See further commentary on this point here.
Does the fact that the provision is now a civil penalty provision alter the way the obligation should be interpreted as a matter of statutory interpretation?
In our view, there is no relevant principle of statutory interpretation which would either render the efficiently, honestly and fairly obligation more or less onerous. Certainly, a penal provision may engender a narrow interpretation. But we consider that a civil penalty provision is distinguishable.
What other factors should be considered?
Clearly, the moving pendulum of community expectations will play a role. There are forces at work in this context, which are both visible and undeniable.
The following are but a few examples:
- use of disclosure documents that are dense, turgid, or which the issuer knows or should know that the client will not comprehend;
- use of disclaimers or hidden away acknowledgements, which the issuer should similarly know will not be, or will be unlikely to be understood;
- issue of products which do not deliver value, e.g. certain add-on insurance; and
- issue of products which the issuer should know are unsuitable or not fit for purpose, or otherwise oppressive or harsh.
What are the top 5 principles that could assist in identifying conduct that could infringe the efficiently, honestly and fairly obligation?
- Is the conduct occurring in the provision of a financial service?
- Does the conduct have a disproportionately harsh, unfair effect on customers?
- Is the conduct of a trivial or small nature, or is it beyond this?
- Does the conduct have an “aggravation” element, which would be more likely to be interpreted by a court as a breach of the fairness criterion; such as where either a harsh outcome or a bad motivation/purpose (e.g. bad faith) can be seen to characterise/taint the incident?
- Were there ways to prevent the conduct, such as compliance controls or management intervention, and ultimately board deliberations/intervention (directly or through its delegate) which could have been put in place?
  FCA 208.
  FCAFC 187.
 (1988) 13 NSWLR 661.
 Australian Securities and Investments Commission v Saxby Bridge Financial Planning Pty Ltd (2003) 133 FCR 290.