Directing public companies : company law and the stakeholder society
This thesis examines the legal duties of directors of UK public companies in the light of the 'stakeholder' approach to the firm. It considers the theory that directors are not simply agents of shareholders, but have a duty to take into consideration and, where appropriate, to balance the interests of several constituencies. Examples of suggested stakeholders include employees, customers, suppliers and creditors, as well as the local community and the natural environment. If this broad view of public company responsibility is warranted, the role of the law in securing a 'stakeholder' style of management needs to be examined, and this study attempts that task. To this end, empirical research was conducted via interviews with public company directors and secretaries from a range of public companies of different sizes operating in many business sectors to investigate: • the extent to which at present they view their role as requiring assessment and inclusion of the interests of stakeholders • the manner in which such assessment and inclusion is actually carried out • the impact which a statutory formulation of duties to incorporate stakeholder interests would or might have on decisionmaking in practice • the effect of board structure on corporate decisionmaking. The effect of 'stakeholder orientation' of company directors on the economic performance and social impact of UK public companies was considered. The DTI's Company Law Review Steering Group has referred to the distinction between 'Enlightened Shareholder Value' and the 'Pluralist' approach. This thesis further reviews those arguments and seeks to set them in their commercial context. It is highly probable that there will be a new UK Companies Act following the next General Election. This thesis suggests a new statutory statement of directors' duties and considers the impact which such statutory wording might have. If directors' legal duties were to be reformulated, that change would needs to buttressed by a mechanism to protect stakeholder expectations, in court as a last resort. This thesis argues that the most promising form for such stakeholder remedies is that of the current 'unfair prejudice' action. If the UK is to avoid being left behind internationally in its system of corporate regulation, it needs to take its European Union obligations and the laws of other Member States into account. It is argued that the UK can find much to learn from the continental European traditions. The conclusion of the thesis focuses on the Company Law Review and its potential economic impact. It is argued that UK company law should address the rights of all stakeholders if it is to be ‘modern’ and ‘competitive’.