The Foundations of Bankruptcy Law

AuthorRoderick J. Wood
Blackstone claimed that the term bankruptcy was derived from the
Italian and sign if‌ied that a trader’s bench had been broken.1 Coke be-
lieved that it came from the French and denoted a merchant who, along
with his tr ading bench, had disappeared without a trace.2 Whatever
its origins, it is undeniable that bankruptcy law has a very long his-
tory. Roman law contained procedures that were sim ilar in function
and operation to bankruptcy proceedings.3 These were incorporated
into the law merchant — a body of law t hat drew upon the customs
and practices of merchants.4 Although much of the law merchant was
absorbed into English commercial l aw, its inf‌luence on insolvency law
was more limited. Anglo-Ca nadian bankr uptcy is overwhelmingly
statutory in character. Its origi ns, growth, and development can be
traced through a series of bankruptcy statutes beg inning in the six-
teenth century.
1 Blackstone’s Commentar ies on the Laws of England, vol 2 (Oxford: Clarendon
Press, 1765–69) at 472.
2 Edward Coke, The Fourth Part of the Ins titutes of the Laws of England (London:
W Clarke, 1817) at 266.
3 I Fletcher, The Law of Insolvency (London: Sweet & Ma xwell, 1990) at 5–6.
4 See LE Levi nthal, “The Early History of Eng lish Bankruptcy” (1919) 67 Univer-
sity of Pennsylvania Law Re view 1.
1) The Development of English Bankruptcy Law
The f‌irst English bankr uptcy statute was enacted in 1542 during the
reign of Henry VIII. It was directed against debtors who attempted to
escape their obligations by either leaving the country or by stay ing
within their homes, which effectively prevented the service of legal
process.5 The Act permitted a creditor to lodge a complaint before a
bankruptcy comm issioner, who would summon the debtor. If the debtor
did not appear, the debtor could be found to be outside the king’s pro-
tection. The commissioner could then break down the debtor’s door
and seize and sell the debtor’s assets. This early statute displayed t wo
central features of bankruptcy law that have persisted to the present
day. First, it created a summary and collective procedure that operated
for the benef‌it of all the creditors, and not simply for the creditor who
initiated the process. S econd, it adopted a pro rata shari ng principle in
respect of the distr ibution of the debtor’s assets among the creditors.
A more detailed bankr uptcy statute was enacted in 1571 during the
reign of Elizabeth I.6 This st atute created additional acts of bankruptcy
that were required to be proven by the creditors be fore the debtor could
be adjudged bankrupt. The present Canad ian bankruptcy st atute still
requires proof of an act of bankr uptcy in respect of involuntary bank-
ruptcy proceedings, although some of the other common law countr ies
have dispensed w ith the concept and instead require proof th at the
debtor is insolvent. The Act was also notable for its restriction of ban k-
ruptcy to debtors who were merchants or traders.7 This l imitat ion on
the scope of the Act remained in place for almost three hundred years,
until it was done away with in 1861.
The bankruptcy statutes provided creditors with enhanced powers
of enforcement against merchant debtors. However, it came to be rec-
ognized th at bankruptcy law could produce extraordinar y hardship for
debtors whose ships were lost at sea or whose losses were otherw ise
caused by no fault of their own. Daniel Defoe, a merchant, journal-
ist, and pamphleteer who is most well known for his novel Robinson
Cru soe, went bankrupt in 1691. His Essay upon Projects, written in 1697,
5 34 & 35 Hen VIII, c 4.
6 13 Eliz I, c 7. The Frau dulent Conveyances Act, 13 Eliz I, c 5 was enacted i n the
same year. This st atute, which permits cred itors to set aside fraudulent convey-
ances of propert y, re mains in force as a received imp erial statute in many of t he
Canadian common law jurisdictions.
7 A sizeable por tion of bankruptcy law dur ing this period wa s devoted to deter-
mining whic h activities qualif‌ie d a person as a trader and which d id not. See
I Duffy, “English Ba nkrupts, 1571–1861” (1980) 24 American Journal of Legal
History 283.

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