Stein v Blake [1995] UKHL 11 is a decision of the House of Lords in relation to the effect of automatic insolvency set off in bankruptcy, and the power of a bankruptcy trustee to assign rights in action after the operation of such set-off under English law.

Stein v Blake UKHL 11 - Stein v Blake House of Lords judgment on Insolvency set off / bankruptcy set off.  Set off in corporate insolvency proceedings

Lord Hoffmann gave a long and careful exposition of the law relating to both procedural and insolvency set off as it had developed from the time of Queen Anne. He noted that whilst procedural set-off required the claims to be a definite amount at the time the claims merged into a cause of action by way of issuing legal proceedings, insolvency set-off was not so limited. It was possible to set-off claims which were unliquidated, future or subject to contingencies under the insolvency set-off regime.

He further held that the operation of the set-off was automatic, and did not require any action on the part of the parties, following National Westminster Bank Ltd v Halesowen Presswork & Assemblies Ltd [1972] AC 785 on this point. The operation of the insolvency set-off rules was to extinguish the balance of any debt automatically.[3]

He endorsed the view expressed by Neill J in Farley v Housing & Commercial Developments Ltd [1984] BCLC 442 that after the operation of the set-off the claim for any balance did survive, and further, that as this was an asset of the bankrupt’s estate, it was an asset which could be assigned by the trustee.

Lord Hoffmann also clarified that the effective date of the set-off was the date upon which the bankruptcy commenced. Accordingly, where the debt of the bankrupt is a contingent debt, then the debt must be valued at that date for the set-off to be given effect.[4] In this respect the House of Lords followed the earlier Australian High Court decision in Gye v McIntyre (1991) 171 CLR 609.

In relation to the proper construction of the terms of the deed of assignment, Lord Hoffman held that this did indeed assign the net balance of the claim to Mr Stein.[5]

He noted that counsel for Mr Blake had made an appeal to policy that it was unfair that defendants should suffer potential claims by litigants who were bankrupt and supported by legal aid (against whom they could not recover their costs), but he expressed the view that this was a matter for Parliament, and not something which should affect the determination of the issue in the appeal

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