Facts on the Ground and Reconciliation of Divergent Consumer Insolvency Philosophies

Jacob Ziegel


Traditionally, civil law jurisdictions in Scandinavia and the continent of Europe have not been willing to acknowledge the appropriateness of extending bankruptcy relief to consumer debtors and discharging any part of their debts. The opposition was based on the importance of upholding the sanctity of contractual obligations: pacta sunt servanda. This attitude stood in contrast to the fresh start philosophy of US bankruptcy law, which embraced a more forgiving attitude, focusing on the reintegration of the insolvent debtor into society, substantially free of debt, after he has filed for bankruptcy and surrendered his non-exempt property for distribution among his creditors. The relaxation of credit controls and the rapid increase in the number of insolvent debtors in the late 1980s and early 1990s has forced many continental jurisdictions to reconsider their traditional opposition. They have since adopted debt adjustment plans providing various forms of debt relief to overcommitted debtors but only a substantial number of years after the initial proceedings. The American reaction has gone in the opposite direction.

With the adoption of the Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Act of 2005, the United States has reversed its century old liberal fresh start tradition. The 2005 Act imposes a formidable means test as well as other preconditions to determine whether a debtor has sufficient discretionary income to pay off twenty percent of his or her unsecured debts under a Chapter 13 plan. If the answer is yes, the debtor is denied the right to file a bankruptcy petition under Chapter 7 of the Bankruptcy Code. This paper asks whether these developments on opposite sides of the Atlantic suggest that facts on the ground are more important than dogma and deeply entrenched beliefs. The author’s answer is that while there is certainly a trend towards convergence between continental European and US approaches to consumer insolvency, it is much too soon to speak of a common culture and a common approach. He notes, however, that Commonwealth jurisdictions (notably Australia, England and Canada) have long adopted a means test to determine a debtor’s eligibility for discharge from debt and suggests that continental scholars would have done better to study the Commonwealth experience as embodying a suitable compromise than to flirt with the US fresh start philosophy, only to reject it as too alien to the continental moral sense.

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