Should there be a shareholders' agreement in place in addition to a company's articles of association?

The articles of association are one of the constitutional documents of a company setting out the rules governing the internal affairs of the company. These include, for example, provisions around board meetings, shareholder meetings, directors' powers and shareholder rights. It is a requirement under the Companies Act 2006 for all companies to have articles of association.

In addition to the articles, the shareholders of the company may also choose to enter into a shareholders' agreement. This is an agreement among the shareholders of the company setting out how the company should be run and the various rights and obligations of the shareholders.

These may sound like fairly similar documents, and they can often overlap. A shareholders' agreement is not a legal requirement, and companies may choose to rely solely on their articles of association. However, there are a number of benefits to having a separate shareholders' agreement:

  • Shareholder rights are protected. Although the articles of association may provide some protection, having a shareholders' agreement can provide further clarity and additional provisions on certain matters, both for minority shareholders (e.g. certain decisions requiring unanimous consent, as opposed to a majority decision) and majority shareholders (e.g. drag along provisions whereby majority shareholders can force minority shareholders to sell their shares).
  • The agreement can include provisions for dispute resolution, making resolution in the event of a shareholder fall out a more straightforward process.
  • The agreement can give shareholders more say in the management of the company. Generally, the directors have the power to manage the day to day activities of the company, however the shareholders' agreement can set out certain matters that require shareholder approval (often referred to as "reserved matters").
  • Under the Companies Act 2006, shareholders have limited information rights in respect of the company. However, a shareholders' agreement can provide for certain company information to be provided to shareholders, such as a copy of each year's business plan and specific financial information. This is useful for the shareholders to monitor their investment and track the progress of the company.
  • In order to protect the company in relation to the information rights of shareholders mentioned above, the agreement can include confidentiality provisions. This is key to ensure that any sensitive company information disclosed to shareholders is not shared with third parties. Importantly, this restriction can survive the termination of the shareholders' agreement. Other restrictions, such as a non-compete clause, may also be included in the agreement.
  • Unlike the articles of association, there is no requirement to file a shareholders' agreement at Companies House (subject to certain exceptions), so the contents of the agreement can remain confidential.

Shareholders' agreements are commonly seen in joint ventures and investment situations, which involve independent parties coming together to form a commercial arrangement. In these cases the shareholders' agreement can provide comfort to the shareholders/investors in their new venture by providing for any rights and restrictions as may be necessary. However, shareholders' agreements can also be useful for other arrangements such as simply setting up a company with more than one shareholder.

If a company determines that a shareholders' agreement is not necessary, and that the articles of association alone are sufficient, the company should ensure that the articles capture all of the necessary provisions for the management of the company and rights of the shareholders. It is easier to agree all of these things at the outset of any commercial arrangement; quite often shareholders can fall out and reaching agreement at that stage can be more difficult.

If you are thinking of putting a shareholders' agreement in place, or would like to update your articles of association, please get in touch.


Neil Burgess

Head of Corporate and Commercial & Partner

Paul Breen

Senior Associate