In this new year, Sonia Arrouas, President of the Commercial Court in Évry and the General Conference of Consular Judges in France, still demonstrates the same determination in her missions to support business leaders. Its jurisdiction has been living with Covid for almost 2 years now; the solemn consultation for the start of the school year 2022 also took place in a very small committee. The challenges ahead are not lacking, but the president does not believe in the “wall of bankruptcy” announced by the most pessimistic.
Legal news: Was 2021 as unique as the previous one?
Sonia Arrouas: This year, 2021 has been as exceptional as 2020. Until January, we had far fewer insolvency and litigation cases. We now know that these procedures will be resumed, although it will not take the form of a tsunami, but rather a continuous and gradual increase.
AD: What happened most in 2021?
HER: During my solemn back-to-school audience, I remembered the fact that even if I had become President of the General Conference of Consular Judges this year, through the voice of the 3,200 judges in France, I would not have forgotten my court. I am loyal to them and I remain present in Évry. This year there was an opportunity to change one of the vice presidents of the court dealing with litigation, who will now help me with the education aspect. I appoint seven judges specializing in prevention, to receive business leaders when they want to travel.
AD: Has the discovery of companies in difficulty changed during this crisis?
HER: The weak signals that normally make it possible to detect that a company is in difficulty have actually changed since the Urssaf and the Treasury’s thresholds for privileges have been raised. Now we need to look at other criteria to assess the situation. These criteria can take the form of, for example, a company that has many lawsuits or injunctions to pay, a company that does not present its accounts, or even a company that has lost half of its capital. Before, other criteria took precedence, but we were forced to extend them.
In addition, in 2021 we had 114 informal prevention talks, while in 2020 we had 505.
AD: How can this sharp decline be explained?
HER: Currently, business leaders are in relative comfort as they have benefited from state aid and are a bit under anesthesia. And we, the commercial courts, want them to come and see us in prevention before it’s too late and we can do nothing for them. This is something that I keep repeating on TV, in the media: “Come and see the commercial courts so we can refer you to the best solution”. If it is too late anyway, the only solution for these crisis-stricken entrepreneurs will be forced liquidation.
AD: How many cases were processed at Évry in total?
HER: We processed 10,023 cases, only slightly fewer than last year. This year we have 22 judges in collective cases and sanctions. Overall, we had only 211 appeals and very few rejections.
AD: Will this awakening of business leaders happen gradually?
HER: At the moment, there is still state aid, and in my opinion, nothing big will happen before the election. It is after these that the situations could worsen. Again, I insist that business leaders come as soon as possible. I do not want to have an astronomical amount of redress here or elsewhere, as I am now chairing the General Conference of Consular Judges in France and therefore, through the Presidents, the future of the other Commercial Courts. For all business leaders who show up on time, it will be good for the French economy.
It is also a matter of qualifying certain figures that we are aware of. In Essonne, 106,420 companies were registered in the trade and business register in 2021, and 3,436 deregistrations were notified. If there were 11,532 official company creations, it must be said that these creations are not only new companies but also companies that are doing poorly and therefore recreating companies in order to make their transfer. If it was just new businesses, I would like to, but that is not the case. And besides, we see it in the number of radiations. This is a real concern and I hope we will be able to find solutions by 2022.
AD: Is exercise more important than ever?
HER: Yes, I have placed great emphasis on the training of judges, both at the National School of Law (ENM) and internally, and I have particularly insisted on the training of the 22 judges in collective cases. It is a question of continuing education, as the laws are evolving very fast in the insolvency proceedings law: This year alone, there was the crisis resolution proceedings (in June), the law Pact, the implementation of the European Directive … This is changing very rapidly. So if judges are not aware of the latest laws, they will not be able to make good judgments, and that is exactly what I want to avoid.
Both at national level and at regional level for Évry, I am aware of the training of all judges. I have 27 years of experience in court and continue to train myself, I am not above the law.
Furthermore, it seems to me very important that judges are able to answer agents and court administrators with full knowledge of the facts, and not that the latter impose their choices.
AD: You have made your position known regarding the diversity of judges … Again!
HER: It is a sea snake that appears from time to time, often on the occasion of election deadlines. We are always against échevinage. We do not want it and we say it loud and clear.
AD: Will this call into question the skills of consular judges?
HER: We have exceptional judges who give a lot of their time. Adding professional judges to them would mean underestimating them when they have extensive financial experience; they have often been entrepreneurs for 40 years (many are retired). This would call into question the quality of the consular judges in France.
AD: What about the Prevention Section of the Évry Court?
HER: Prevention has been equipped with new systems, especially through crisis management treatment. We were able to make ad hoc mandates with a ceiling of 1,500 euros for companies with less than 5 employees and a ceiling of less than 3,000 euros for companies with 5 to 10 employees. They are very competitively priced, which is good for helping companies.
In addition, we continue to advocate the use of amicable procedures, as these are much more successful than collective procedures. It is much easier to tackle a problem amicably than in collective cases; this is a security.
AD: What about the creation of psychological assistance to entrepreneurs in acute illness (Apesa) last year?
HER: This year we accompanied 12 cases; business leaders who have been identified by our services as no one is asking for Apesa. We are therefore the ones who identify business leaders in need. Among them we had the case of a gentleman who hung himself. It was his wife who worked with him who contacted us. Another gentleman also hung himself in his truck. He had come to see us and at that time was happy with the interview, which had gone well. But the day after our exchange, the company that delivered the fuel to him called him to tell him that it stopped the supply because he had stopped the payments … It was a phone call too much.
Around these cases it is necessary to set up psychological cells. Especially since these deaths endanger an entire family, even 100 or 200 people.
So in fact, Apesa is a cell that really has a purpose.
AD: And you ? Are you still upset?
HER: Of course! Last time a lady came with her 5-year-old granddaughter. Her husband accompanied her, he was present, but it is as if he was not there, he was like a drug addict. Sometimes it’s very, very complicated … But we’re here for it too. For the human side.
Since, let’s remember, what does the consular judge bring? He comes with the experience and the fact of having run companies. Thus, he knows well the economic side, but also the human side. And we need that in a commercial court. We do our best to respond to every single case.
AD: Is the prevention component becoming more and more entrenched in the customs of business leaders?
HER: This part is not yet fully accepted in the customs. We need to communicate as much as possible on this point. But and this is a first victory, the entrepreneur is much less afraid to go to commercial court, while before it was an occupation. Now we want entrepreneurs to come before they get in trouble.
In addition, the general conference has made a booklet, primarily for business leaders. We did it with cartoons to dampen the awareness of the crisis-stricken business leader who needs to respond. Popularization work must be carried out; we turn to business leaders, not lawyers.
AD: What about your presidency?
HER: It is an honor for me to represent the consular judges; this embodies a fine culmination of my consular career. It rhymes with a very different life, because I work at the national level, whereas as president of the law I worked at the local level.
I realized that the General Conference did a lot for the judges, that it constantly defended them. On a daily basis, I work with the chancellery, with Bercy. We were especially working on dealing with the way out of the crisis … It’s a huge but fantastic workload. And what’s more, it’s at least 15 years since a woman has been president.