COVID-19 has sent shockwaves throughout the business world. For some businesses the impact has been severe and they will find it difficult or impossible to perform contracts entered into before the onset of the pandemic.
In this blog we provide an overview of how businesses may be able to rely on force majeure or the doctrine of “frustration” so as to avoid liability for failing to perform their obligations as a result of COVID-19.
If you are working under a contract governed by English law the starting position is that you must perform that contract. So, even if you are affected by COVID-19 you must still perform that contract and if you fail to do so you will be liable. There are two key exceptions to this rule: the operation of any force majeure clause in your contract and the common law concept of frustration.
COVID-19 Force Majeure
Unlike in other jurisdictions, English common law or statute does not recognise force majeure. So if your contract does not contain a force majeure clause you cannot use force majeure as a means to avoid liability for non-performance.
If your contract does contain a force majeure clause then you will need to check it to see how it deals specifically with each party’s rights and obligations. Key factors to consider are set out below.
Is COVID-19 covered?
Assuming COVID-19 is not specifically covered as a force majeure event, check if it is the type of event that would fall under general force majeure wording (e.g. pandemic or similar wording), or whether there has been a government decision or administrative action preventing performance that meets the political interference language which is commonly included in definitions of force majeure.
Should the party that wishes to claim force majeure have guarded against COVID-19?
Check if the contract excludes events that could have reasonably been provided against, avoided or overcome. In the COVID-19 context, the current pandemic is not likely to be foreseeable. On the other hand, parties who elected to enter contracts with reasonable knowledge of the virus’s potential consequences, such as in January of 2020 when the virus began to attract attention in China, may have a more difficult foreseeability argument.
Is COVID-19 the true reason for not being able to perform the contract?
The party that is seeking to rely on force majeure must usually establish that the force majeure event has prevented or hindered it from performance of the contract. This is mostly a factual question but, again, will also turn on the exact wording of the clause. For example, some force majeure provisions require performance to have been rendered impossible, so the burden on, for example, a contractor to show that it could not have sourced staff, equipment or materials from elsewhere will be high. Generally, force majeure clauses are not so generous as to offer relief where services or goods will simply be more expensive to perform or obtain.
The party that is claiming force majeure relief is usually under a duty to show that it has taken reasonable steps to mitigate or avoid the effects of the force majeure event. Check whether being able to rely on force majeure is conditional upon you mitigating the effects of COVID-19.
Parties will wish to ascertain whether prompt notification is a contractual condition precedent to relief. In that situation, a failure to notify in the prescribed manner will result in a party being unable to rely on the provision. In other cases, a failure to notify will not prevent a party from relying on a force majeure provision and the only consequence will be a potential damages claim (if the other party has suffered a loss). The courts have not always taken a consistent approach to the interpretation of notice provisions, and clearly the safest course of action is to ensure strict compliance with any notice provisions in the prescribed manner and as soon as possible
What are the consequences of establishing COVID-19 force majeure?
In most contracts, establishing force majeure will lead to relief from performance, thereby avoiding the risk of a default termination, and an extension of time to target dates. Commonly, parties bear their own costs arising from any force majeure delay but there are exceptions where compensation may be payable after a certain duration or certain costs are payable from one party to another. Extended periods of force majeure can lead to a right for one or more parties to terminate the contract. If the parties do not wish this to happen, it is important to engage in discussions sooner rather than close to the deadline. It may be preferable for these to be held on a without prejudice basis.
In the absence of a force majeure clause, a party to a contract may be able to rely on “frustration”. Frustration is a common law right that allows a party to be discharged from its contractual obligations if a change of circumstances makes it physically or commercially impossible to perform the contract or would render performance radically different from that agreed to when the parties entered into the contract. This test may be satisfied if the commercial purpose of the contract is no longer achievable. Delay caused by COVID-19 could in principle be a frustrating event, depending on the nature of the contract in question and the length of the delay.
The focus will be on the parties’ specific contractual obligations and whether they have ‘radically changed’ as a result of the spread of COVID-19 to the extent that requiring a party to comply with its strict contractual obligations would mean requiring it to do something fundamentally different from that which it originally promised to do. In other words, it will be important to identify the consequences of the pandemic on the parties’ ability to perform the specific contract in question. It is unlikely to be sufficient that circumstances have changed in society generally or that performance of the contract has become more onerous or expensive or even uneconomic.
Consequences of frustration
Frustration discharges a contract meaning that all current and prospective rights and obligations are cancelled. All sums paid by a contracting party before the frustrating event will be repayable, subject to the court’s discretion (broadly) to give credit for expenses incurred or benefits provided by the other contracting party.