Got a judgment worth several hundred thousand pounds? Need to seize an airliner that is only going to be in the country for a matter of hours? Want to avoid causing an international incident?Who ya gonna call?

Birds of PreyThis was the situation that was facing a particular creditor and their lawyers - and of course it was an easy call to make. Send for Shergroup. Chris Bell, Shergroup Policy Advisor and Head of Public Affairs, tells the story of what happened in the aftermath of a frantic call from lawyers acting for a judgment creditor with a delicate problem.

The background of the situation was this. An American-based multi-national company specialising in providing aircraft spares, airliner maintenance, airworthiness certification checks and airport-based ground crew was owed a sum totalling almost three-quarters of a million pounds by a certain African airline. Having obtained judgment in their local courts, however, the creditor company had still not been paid, and the creditor and their lawyers were desperately searching for a way to get their judgment enforced.

It became clear that this was not going to be an easy task, however, once the background of the case was fully investigated - not least because the debt was owed by Air Zimbabwe. For those who don't know, Air Zimbabwe is a company fully owned by the Zimbabwean Government - and its recent record in financial and operational matters was patchy to say the least.

In early 2011 it was estimated that the company's debts totalled approximately $US140m. In February 2011 flights to Johannesburg were suspended over the threat of likely impoundments of its planes by creditors due to a series of unpaid debts. The airline's regional and domestic services were suspended for a short period in May 2011 following the grounding of part of its fleet over serious maintenance concerns. Operations resumed in late May 2011 but then in mid-June 2011 flights to London and South Africa were again temporarily suspended because of an unpaid and long overdue debt with fuel suppliers. Some flights resumed in early July 2011, but the airline halted operations again in late July 2011, this time due to a pilots strike. Operations resumed after the strike was concluded in mid-September, but overseas and domestic flights were temporarily cancelled again in early November 2011, this time owing to another unpaid debt with fuel providers. Flights to overseas routes only resumed on 11 November 2011.

Then, of course, there was the sensitivity of dealing with a company such as Air Zimbabwe and a government such as the Zimbabwean Government. Everyone will know that relations between the respective governments of the UK and Zimbabwe have not been good, to say the least, for a number of years now. Faced with this situation, the lawyers decided there was only one option - issue a writ of fi-fa against the debtor company and seize any of their assets available in England or Wales in an attempt to force payment of the debt - with the threat that the items seized would be sold to clear the debt if no payment was forthcoming.

But where would one find an asset suitable for securing and potentially clearing such a substantial debt? There was only one answer to that particular conundrum - get the writ to Shergroup as quickly as possible and get Claire and the TEAM to use their knowledge and expertise, based on years of experience in such matters, to seize one of Air Zimbabwe's aeroplanes next time one was in the area.

That may sound easy - but with Air Zimbabwe's set up and recent record, this was far from the case. And for the person whose name was going to be on the writ itself - in this case, Shergroup CEO Claire Sandbrook - there was going to be a very heavy burden of personal responsibility for ensuring that everything went smoothly.

Such is the parlous state of the company's finances and the nation's infrastructure that its entire airworthy fleet currently consists of only 7 aircraft, most of which were bought in the late 1980s - attempts to buy new planes having all been scuppered due to the company's lack of money. The airline now only serves 9 destinations (3 in Zimbabwe itself and 6 overseas, including London Gatwick) and is currently only scheduled to fly in and out of Gatwick once a week - on a Sunday.

The practicalities of seizing an airliner should not be underestimated. Just turning up at the airport and waving your writ of fi-fa around is not going to get you very far. A considerable amount of groundlaying needs to be done first. The airport authorities and the police need to be informed. Suitable insurances needed to be obtained - particularly for those officers who would be going 'airside' - something which would require close liaison between Claire and her insurers, who would clearly not provide any such insurance without being absolutely convinced that she personally had everything under total control.

Security would need to be arranged to ensure the aeroplane was kept secure whilst on the ground. Arrangements also needed to be made with the airport authorities for storing the aeroplane once it had been seized - the cost of which was something that involved lengthy calculations as storage costs are based upon a formula that includes interesting technical items such as the maximum weight the aeroplane is allowed to safely fly at and whether the aeroplanes engines are of a type that will need regular firing up to keep them in good working order.

With the debtor being Air Zimbabwe, there was of course a need to consider whether we should liaise with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to ensure that our actions would not cause a diplomatic incident. With the flight scheduled to arrive (and therefore the seizure possibly needing to take place) on a Sunday, there was also a need to get the necessary advance judicial authority to enforce the writ on a Sunday. And there was a need to anticipate the possibility that any sale would need to be made by private treaty - with the best will in the world we were unsure as to whether our local auctioneers would be able to get best price at public sale for a Boeing 767-200ER!!

And of course this all had to be carried out with a certain amount of secrecy. If Air Zimbabwe got sniff of the possibility that they had a likely seizure of one of their aircraft on their hands, then almost certainly the flight would be cancelled and the chance to execute the writ would be gone. This even went so far as to forbidding the words 'Air Zimbabwe' or 'Boeing 767' from being mentioned in the office outside of certain rooms and situations - for some unknown reason the code name 'Bette Midler' was adopted - don't ask me why, it just was.

Of course, with such an operation not everything is likely to go exactly to plan - if such tasks all went smoothly every time then any old enforcement company could do it and you could put any HCEOs name on the writ and still be guaranteed a result. Indeed, our first attempt to seize one of Air Zimbabwe's aircraft was abortive. Everything had been ready to go with a planned seizure one Sunday in early December - only for the flight to be cancelled. It transpired that the day before one of their planes had been seized in Johannesburg in very similar circumstances - as a result of which Air Zimbabwe temporarily stopped all overseas flights until that particular matter was resolved, including ours.

A second attempt later that week was similarly cancelled at the last moment after a chartered flight heading for Gatwick was forced to divert due to a lack of fuel.

But as the old saying goes, all good things do indeed come to those who wait, and it was truly a case of third time lucky. A week after the original planned seizure - and again after some rather nerve wracking delays to the incoming flight threatened to jeopardise the whole operation - an Air Zimbabwe airliner touched down at Gatwick Airport at approximately 1-40am on the Monday morning.

And Shergroup authorised officers David Asker and Chris Badger were there awaiting its arrival!!

After the passengers had disembarked and their luggage had been taken from the hold, an official from the airport authorities took the officers onto the aircraft, and after a brief exchange of pleasantries and formalities with the pilot, the officers went through the procedure of formally seizing the aircraft.

The pilot was utterly charming - one may assume that this wasn't the first time that this had happened to him, landing a plane only to find judicially appointed officers from the country of arrival awaiting his touching down and wanting to seize the plane in lieu of judgment debts owed by the airline. It was also noticeable that an official from the airline was awaiting the arrival of the flight and he went into a hasty conflab with the pilot and crew as soon as the plane arrived. The return flight to Harare had also been cancelled in advance, which perhaps indicates that the airline knew there may be some sort of trouble brewing prior to the flight arriving at Gatwick.

An initial inspection of the aircraft indicated that although it was just about airworthy, it was showing signs of considerable wear and tear. The exterior paintwork had been spruced up during a refit a couple of years ago - the aircraft was bearing Air Zimbabwe's new colour scheme and markings as a result - but as the aircraft was about 22 years old and had alot of mileage on the clock it was understandably suffering from fatigue. Certainly the presence of numerous reels of duct tape at various points around the aircraft caused eyebrows to be raised.

The interior was fairly basic and tolerably clean, but the cockpit and crew areas had seen better days - it was all painted in a utilitarian shade of brown but much of the paintwork was chipped and the flight deck looked positively ancient compared to what one would expect from a more modern airliner. The red plastic coathangers on which the crew hung their jackets during the flight gave the cockpit a homely touch, but other than that the surroundings were very plain and a wee bit grim.

Having taken legal control of the aircraft and posted the necessary legal notices in the cockpit and elsewhere on the plane, and removed the log books and other documentation without which the aircraft would not be allowed to fly and handed them to the relevant airport authorities for safe keeping, it was then moved to a suitably quiet and safe part of the airport out near the perimeter where it was to remain parked pending the outcomes of discussions between the airline, the creditors and their lawyers. The entire operation was completed in just over 4 hours and the officers were able to leave site and get some welcome shut-eye at 6am.

Matters weren't allowed to stand still, however, and a meeting was arranged at the airport for 4pm that afternoon with representatives of the airline and lawyers representing the creditor company to discuss the small matter of payment. This was not as straightforward as it may sound as there had to be regular breaks in proceedings for the airline representatives to take instructions from what was euphamistically referred to as 'our shareholder' - whether that meant Mr Mugabe himself or merely someone else high up in the Zimbabwean government or at the Zimbabwean Embassy was never exactly made clear. But at the end of a long but polite and largely constructive meeting, progress towards arrangements for payment being finalised had certainly been made.

It was now time to sit back and await developments - and hopefully payment. This process took a good deal longer than may have been hoped for - especially for the 150 or so Zimbabwean passengers awaiting the flight back to Harare. Unfortunately they faced the prospect of several days sleeping on camp beds at the airport whilst the airline arranged for the judgment debt and Shergroup's costs to be paid. It was hard not to feel sorry for them as the negotiations ebbed back and forth over what would be an acceptable method of payment and when the aircraft would actually be released back into the possession of Air Zimbabwe. In these negotiations we, of course, continued to hold the upper hand - without the necessary documentation such as the log book, the plane could not fly anywhere, and it was made abundantly clear that those documents would not be released until payment had been satisfactorily made.

And that wasn't the end of the problems for Air Zimbabwe. By the time payment could be arranged, the aeroplane's airworthiness certificate had expired - needless to say, the maintenance teams at Gatwick were unwilling to carry out the necessary checks unless payment up front was forthcoming. Similar issues arose from checks carried out on the plane by a specialist aircraft evaluation team - in particular a hydraulic failure in the landing gear was giving them great concern and would require sorting before the plane would be allowed to fly home.

The constant delays and cancellations of any possible return flight did little for the humour of those poor people stranded at Gatwick, and indeed on at least one occasion the police had to be called to help defuse the situation.

But in the end, it all came good - payment in full, not only of the judgment debt but all legal and enforcement fees as well. It was rather a nerve wracking time waiting for the payment to arrive but there was a palpable sense of relief and elation when payment dropped into our account just a few days before Christmas. What a way to celebrate the festive season, with a result such as that!!

All that was now required was to go through the final formalities of handing custody of the aircraft back to the pilot, and then arrangements could finally be made for some very tired and weary Air Zimbabwe passengers to finally begin their journey back to Harare. They hoped to be back in time for Christmas - although it didn't quite work out that way. As mentioned before, during its spell on the tarmac at Gatwick the plane's airworthiness certificate had expired and considerable maintenance and repair work was required to get it back into a fit state to undertake the flight back to Zimbabwe. This was eventually completed and the flight back finally left on Christmas Day, with the passengers at long last getting back to Harare on Boxing Day - 2 weeks after they had been due to get back home.

All in all, a textbook example of how to handle such a seizure, and a fabulous advertisement for the professionalism of those Shergroup officers and staff who were involved in dealing with this case. Despite a lot of scope for things to go horribly wrong, strong case management, exceptional powers of persuasion and the tenacity to see things through won out. Perhaps the most notable aspect of the operation was that all dealings with all the various parties were carried out in a very friendly manner with no hint of rancour or unpleasantness - a great achievement considering the amount involved and the tensions that could have bubbled over with regard to issues such as the passengers having to sleep in the terminal at Gatwick Airport.

Certainly the links we have built up with a major creditor such as this, and with the authorities at Gatwick Airport, will have done the Shergroup brand nothing but good.

And so now you know the answer - if you've got a plane that needs seizing, who ya gonna call?

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