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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)?

Related FAQs

What guidance has the Government given in relation to contracts in relation to Covid-19?

On 7 May the Government published guidance on how contracting parties can act responsibly in order to assist the effort to deal with Covid-19. The guidance seeks to persuade contracting parties to act reasonably and recognise the impact of Covid-19 on contractual counterparties. This will continue to be relevant as business begins to emerge from lockdown.

What was included in the Government’s self-employment income support scheme?
  • A taxable grant worth 80% of the average monthly profit over the last three years (one or two years will be reviewed for those who do not have three years of tax returns)
  • The grant will be capped at £2,500 per month
  • The scheme was initially available for three months and has been extended as necessary
  • Individuals claiming a grant can continue to do business (unlike employees who must not work when furloughed)
How can the State aid rules be applied in light of the coronavirus outbreak?

The coronavirus outbreak has seen State support being given to businesses on an unprecedented scale.

This issue is likely to be increasingly relevant as Governments seek to protect and stimulate their economies as they emerge from lockdown.

How have the rules been relaxed in the context of the crisis and what facets of the existing law can be used for the State to provide support to undertakings?

Are the courts continuing to operate during Lockdown 3.0?

With another lock-down in force in England, it has been confirmed that the courts will remain open. This is different to the first lockdown in March 2020, in which the majority of courts were closed and most face to face hearings did not take place. Hopefully, this new lock-down measure will ensure that cases are still being heard at a steady rate, and there should not be a backlog for your case to be dealt with.

Lord Chancellor Robert Buckland QC MP emphasised the importance of maintaining safety during the new measures: “Our courts & tribunals continue to be an essential public service, served by essential workers and meeting Covid-secure standards endorsed by public health officials. With the use of remote hearings wherever appropriate, this vital work can and should continue.”

A large sum of £110m has been spent in recent months to make courts safe and to ensure that trials should go ahead where necessary. As a result of the expenditure, hearings can now still take place both in person, whilst adhering to the rules, as well as remotely. Your case may be heard in court if it is deemed as being “necessary in the interest of justice”.

Precautionary measures, such as social distancing, will still be in place, with Judges and magistrates ensuring that this happens.

Lord Chief Justice, Lord Burnett of Maldon commented: “The next few weeks will present difficulties in all jurisdictions. But as before judges, magistrates, staff, the legal profession and others involved in the system will meet them and ensure that the administration of justice continues to function in the public interest.”

What options do I have if my employee, who can work from home, is struggling to do so because they have young children at home who need "teaching" and supervision?

This is likely to be a common situation and employers and employees are going to have to take a pragmatic approach. You could enter into a temporary flexible working arrangement perhaps agreeing to vary working hours/days or reducing targets or agree to use some annual leave.

Employees could ask to take a period of unpaid leave, asserting their right to time off to care for a dependant but the lack of pay is likely to be unappealing.

Alternatively employees who are unable to work because they have caring responsibilities as a result of COVID-19, which includes childcare responsibilities, can be furloughed.