KPMG granted injunction in effort to remove Debenhams stock

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The joint provisional liquidators of the Irish arm of fashion retailer Debenhams have been granted a High Court injunction preventing unlawful actions and interference with efforts to remove stock from its former high street stores.

The injunction applies to any persons with knowledge of the order which is to be affixed to the entrances of the stores and shopping centre entrances in which they are located.

Ms Justice Leonie Reynolds granted the injunction to Kieran Wallaceand Andrew O'Leary of KPMG, who were appointed joint provisional liquidator to Debenhams Retail Ireland Ltd (DRIL) last April.

Three named protesters - Stephen Troy, Fairfield Close, Belvedere Manor, Co Waterford; Denis O'Brien, Sunrise Crescent, Browns Road, Co Waterford; and Carole Bridgeman, Meadowpark Lawn, Ballyvolane, Co Cork - gave undertakings to comply with the terms of the injunction.

Ms Bridgemen, a trade union rep who worked at Debenhams in Mahon Point, Cork, for 15 years, was in court where she denied the protests by workers at the various stores were unlawful. Mr Troy and Mr O'Brien gave their undertakings via email to the liquidators.

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Ms Bridgeman said liquidator Mr Wallace, in a grounding affidavit, had attempted to smear the Debenhams' workers by saying the dispute had taken an altogether more sinister turn with most of the workers on the pickets wearing masks.

She said there was nothing sinister about pickets and most of the workers were mothers or grandmothers. Masks were worn as part of Covid-19 advice.

"Our industrial action and our campaign for a just settlement following our disgraceful treatment by Debenhams have at all times been peaceful and dignified", she said in an affidavit.

However, she accepted under questioning from the judge she had been involved in an unlawful occupation of Patrick Street, Cork, Debenhams in September which ended peacefully. She also accepted she was one of a number of people who would only allow a truck to leave Mahon Point empty last Saturday but said this was because the truck owner had contacted picketers so that he could remove the truck through agreement.

Ms Bridgeman said the objective of the dispute, voted for by 97 per cent of staff, is to secure two weeks statutory redundancy plus two weeks pay for each year worked under an agreement made with Mandate the trade union and Debenhams in 2016.

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She said revenues at Debenhams Ireland had increased in the last five years and the UK parent, which is now dissolved, had "siphoned off" revenues from Ireland since lockdown.

Ms Bridgeman said the estimated value of stock in the stores is €25 million which would meet the workers' demands. The Revenue and local authorities are owed some €20 million which the State could agree to have used for their demands, she said.

Ms Bridgeman said there was a need for the liquidators to get back around the table to resolve the dispute which is going on now for six months. She said granting an injunction would make more challenging their campaign for justice.

'Lawful and peaceful' protests

TDs Mary Lou McDonald, Bríd Smith and Mick Barry had provided appendices to Ms Bridgeman's affidavit saying the protests were lawful and peaceful.

Lyndon MacCann SC, for the liquidators, said while everyone has the greatest of sympathy for the workers the liquidator had tried, without success, to negotiate what was a duress payment of €1 million to bring the dispute to an end.

It was not just creditors and workers who were affected by the preventing of removal of stock, but concessionaires who owned stalls in the Debehanms stores, he said. There was also a deadline of the end of the month for stock to be removed or else it could be seized by licensors of leased stores over the termination of the leases.

There may be money in other Debenhams companies and if any of the workforce has information in relation to this it should be brought to the attention of the liquidators who would be obliged to act on it, Mr McCann said.

The court heard that in a supplementary affidavit Mr Wallace denied he attempted to smear the workers but said it was third parties, not employees, who were involved in the sinister turn of events.

Mr Justice Reynolds accepted Ms Bridgeman undertaking and that of the other two defendants but said the injunction will now apply to all persons with knowledge of the order.

She also urged the liquidators to re-open a line of communication particularly as there were certain matters that may have to be brought to the attention of KPMG. This could be done through Mandate, which was not a party to the proceedings but the court heard had an observer there.

The judge also said Mandate should make it clear to its members of the nature of the injunction and the risk they run of imprisonment.

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