Can I apply a Force Majeure clause?
If a contract contains a force majeure clause this may become operative due to the coronavirus pandemic and related emergency legislation. Such clauses exist to ensure that if some unforeseen event prevents a party from being able to perform their obligations under a contract, either on time or at all, they will be excused from their obligations and not be held liable for non-performance.
The clause must actually be written into the contract to have effect – a force majeure clause cannot be implied into a contract. Whether it can be relied on by a party will depend on the wording of the clause itself as it may only be applicable in certain limited circumstances.
You should seek legal advice at an early stage if you think that force majeure is relevant, because a number of potentially complex issues must be addressed, many of which will turn upon the exact wording of the force majeure clause in the contract in question:
- Has a force majeure event actually arisen?
- What notification process do you have to follow to rely on the provision?
- What mitigation steps do you have to take?
- What is the effect of the force majeure event – is the contract suspended, or can it be terminated (which might not be what you want)?
It could be possible depending on your contract. If there is no force majeure clause in a contract, it may be possible that the contract may have been “frustrated” by emergency legislation. In legal terms, a contract can be frustrated where an event occurs after it is entered into which was not contemplated by any party at the outset, is not due to the fault of any party, and which makes the performance of the contract impossible.
If this is the case, the contract could be “discharged”, meaning that the parties’ obligations under the contract are no longer binding.
It is possible that a contract could be frustrated within this particular legal doctrine by a change in the law that makes performance of a contract illegal. However, if it simply becomes more difficult, or more expensive, then the legal tests for frustration might not be satisfied. There are also limits to the application of the rule if the frustrating event was already known about at the time the contracted was entered into.
Again, careful legal advice will be required at an early stage. The rules about force majeure or frustration might help businesses that find themselves unable to perform a contract because of the coronavirus outbreak.
Any new contracts that are concluded should expressly deal with the possibility that performance might become more difficult, more costly, or impossible to perform.
Some organisations are prioritising properties, known to be higher risk, such as properties with open flues, or near to the certificate expiry date.
Vulnerable staff and tenants need protection, safe working practices need to be established, and communicated. Organisations should bring forward servicing for people known to be vulnerable – but bearing in mind the guidance as to preserving the annual test date.
The NHS Test and Trace service is operated by the NHS in England to track and help prevent the spread of COVID-19. Where an individual displays symptoms of coronavirus they can be tested to determine whether or not they have the disease. Those with the disease will then be contacted by NHS contact tracers and asked who they have come into close contract with.
Close contact is defined as:
- Face to face (within 1 metre)
- Spent more than 15 minutes within 2 metres of another person
- Travelled in a car or on a plane with another person
The contact tracer will then contact those people with whom the individual has come into close contact and tell them to self-isolate for 14 days.
You must only make a report under RIDDOR (The Reporting of Injuries, Diseases and Dangerous Occurrences Regulations 2013) when:
- An unintended incident at work has led to someone’s possible or actual exposure to coronavirus. This must be reported as a dangerous occurrence
- A worker has been diagnosed as having COVID 19 and there is reasonable evidence that it was caused by exposure at work. This must be reported as a case of disease
- A worker dies as a result of occupational exposure to coronavirus.
The Commission has provided guidance as to measures which Member States can introduce without notification. These include:
- Measures which apply to all businesses within a Member State (for example the furloughing measures introduced by the UK Government)
- Measures providing support direct to consumers
- Measures which are already exempt from the notification requirement (discussed further below).
To respond to the crisis the European Commission has also issued a temporary framework to provide a basis for emergency aid to be notified for approval. The framework is initially in place until 31 December 2020. The Commission continues to keep this under review and has twice widened its scope to allow more types of aid to be notified. The type of measures covered include:
- The provision of guarantees (including guarantees for 100% of loans)
- The provision of loans at low interest rates, at zero interest rates or subordinated to senior debt
- Measures to support liquidity needs or to alleviate difficulties caused by the current crisis
- Measures to recapitalise businesses
- Measures to assist sectors hit particularly hard by the current crisis (eg transport)
- Measures targeted at COVID-19 such as research and development or production of products related to tackling the virus
The Commission has approved a UK Government “umbrella” notification to allow UK public authorities to adopt the measures permitted by the Commission framework. Therefore public authorities in the UK can use the Framework without notifying individual measures or schemes to the Commission.