High Court writs fly as Serious Fraud Office continues its investigation into collapse of regional contractor.
A High Court battle has broken out between listed contractor Artisan and businessman John Aviss over the sale of the now-collapsed regional contractor Bickerton Construction.

The legal tussle comes a year after Building revealed that Bickerton, which went into liquidation in January 2002, was the subject of a police fraud inquiry.

Bickerton, based in Hertfordshire, was bought by Aviss from Artisan in July 2001, six months before it collapsed, leaving debts of £4.5m.

The two parties filed writs in the High Court last year. Artisan is suing Aviss (and holding company Infiniteland) for £1.2m over an alleged breach of the Bickerton sale agreement.

Aviss is suing Artisan, claiming the Bickerton accounts were false and misleading at the time of the sale.

Aviss has claimed damages for misrepresentation and £2.3m in money owed as a result of the alleged overvaluation of Bickerton and two other firms bought in the same transaction.

John Aviss and Artisan have refused to comment.

Aviss' central claim, in a 30-page court writ served last month, is that Artisan overvalued Bickerton before the sale.

The writ says the accounts stated that the paid-up capital of Bickerton was £1m when in fact it was £1.

The Bickerton accounts did not give a true and fair view of the assets

Part of the 30-page Aviss writ

It argues: "The audited accounts of Bickerton for the year ending March 2001 did not give a true and fair view of the assets and liabilities of Bickerton as at 31 March 2001."

The writ claims that Artisan overvalued Bickerton's contracts by just over £600,000.

It says: "The accounts should have included a provision of £923,415 but instead only made provision for £300,000. Accordingly, Bickerton's net assets were overstated by £623,415."

The writ also states that Bickerton management accounts included "£412,684 for deferred Corporation Tax", which was contingent upon Bickerton making a profit. It claims this should have not have been included in the accounts. The writ states: "Assets were accordingly overstated by £412,684."

Further details of the writ lodged by Artisan against Aviss were not available at the time of going to press.

Bickerton, founded in 1932, was one of Hertfordshire's best-known family builders; in 1997 it was shortlisted in the Building regional contractor of the year award. The £21m-turnover firm specialised in refurbishment in the leisure and education sectors.

John Aviss set up Infiniteland in June 2001 as a holding company to acquire Bickerton Construction, Driver Construction, and Gryphon Estates from Artisan for £2.8m. Driver and Gryphon are still trading.

Bickerton: The fall of a family builder

The fortunes of Bickerton started to turn in 2001, soon after its sale from Artisan to entrepreneur John Aviss in July of that year. Complications with the deal emerged, including the discovery that money had been taken out of the company by Artisan in management charges prior to the sale. The firm was forced to make 30 job cuts in October 2001, including managing director Ray McCauley and construction director Alan Vaux. Vaux and McCauley then won an unfair dismissal case, in which it was found that they were bullied into leaving. They received £43,000. The firm’s fortunes quickly tumbled and Bickerton went into liquidation in January 2002. In the month after the collapse, it emerged that the Serious Fraud Office was investigating a sister firm of Bickerton, the Mea Corporation, an M&E group that included CJ Bartley and Rotrax. Creditors raised concerns over the firm’s failure at a meeting in January 2002. One angry creditor said the events leading to Bickerton’s collapse “did not add up”. The week after the meeting, it emerged the fraud office had widened its net to include Bickerton.