High Court Resolves Dispute Over Seized Equipment in Bankruptcy Case Under Insolvency Act 1986

Citation: [2018] EWHC 2943 (Ch)
Judgment on


In the High Court case of Birdi v Price & Anor [2018] EWHC 2943 (Ch), the court was tasked with resolving a dispute pertaining to the seizure and sale of equipment by a trustee in bankruptcy. The central legal question revolved around whether certain equipment was exempt from inclusion in the bankruptcy estate under section 283(2)(a) of the Insolvency Act 1986 and, if so, whether the claimant could recover damages for conversion or have the proceeds of sale returned to him.

Key Facts

The claimant, a specialist motor technician, had his equipment seized and sold by his bankruptcy trustee, the first defendant. The claimant argued that the equipment was necessary for his personal use in his employment and therefore should not have been part of the bankruptcy estate as per the Insolvency Act. The first defendant, supported by his successor (the second defendant), maintained that the equipment was rightly seized and sold as part of the estate. The claimant initiated proceedings, challenging the actions of his trustee.

Several legal principles were pivotal to the court’s deliberations:

  1. Section 283(2)(a) of the Insolvency Act 1986: The court had to determine whether the equipment in question fell within this section, which excludes from a bankruptcy estate tools and equipment necessary for the bankrupt’s personal use in employment, business, or vocation.

  2. Ownership and Right to Possession: These principles were critical in establishing whether the claimant had a right to conversion damages. The court considered the existence of any lease or license agreements and the actual control and use of the equipment.

  3. Section 304(3) of the Insolvency Act 1986: The provision offers a trustee in bankruptcy a defense against claims for loss or damage resulting from the seizure or disposal of property not included in the estate, provided the trustee had a belief, with reasonable grounds, that they were entitled to seize or dispose of the property.

  4. Section 299(5) of the Insolvency Act 1986: This section stipulates the release of the trustee from all liability concerning acts or omissions in the estate’s administration upon their discharge, with a caveat allowing for claims under section 304.

  5. Principle in Ex parte James: This principle allows the court to order a trustee to return money or property not rightfully part of the bankruptcy estate. However, its application depends on whether the funds or property are held in a manner suggesting they should equity belong to someone else.


The court found that while part of the equipment (certain diagnostics equipment and tools) was indeed necessary for the claimant’s personal use and thus should not have been seized, other larger items of equipment used in the business were correctly included in the bankruptcy estate. However, the court concluded that the first defendant was protected by section 304(3), ensuring no liability for the seizure and sale of the items. Furthermore, the second defendant’s retention of proceeds from the sale was not considered dishonest or inappropriate, and thus, the court dismissed the claim under the principle in Ex parte James.


The decision in Birdi v Price & Anor illustrates the court’s meticulous examination of the necessity and personal use criteria under section 283(2)(a) of the Insolvency Act 1986, the reasonable grounds defense under section 304(3), and the effect of a trustee’s release under section 299(5). Ultimately, the court took a comprehensive view, looking at the trustee’s genuine belief, any existing duty of care, and propriety according to equity principles, leading to the claim’s dismissal against both defendants. This case underscores the nuanced nature of trustee liability and the protection afforded under insolvency legislation, reflecting a careful balancing of competing interests: the bankrupt’s right to essential tools for livelihood and the creditors’ interests in the bankrupt’s estate.