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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

ONLINE EVENT: Contracts, managing supply chain issues and the role of directors

Hosted by NewcastleGateshead Initiative, Partners Damien Charlton and Jane Garvin discussed in this webinar contracts, managing supply chains and the role of directors, with  a particular focus on cancellation of events and businesses in the tourism and hospitality sector.

You can find a recording of the webinar from NGI here.

What if an employee cannot work from home but is genuinely afraid of travelling / going into work - what options do I have?

There is less guidance in respect of whether an employee can refuse to go into the workplace as a result of health and safety concerns about their commute. An employer’s duties to ensure the health, safety and welfare of its employees only extend to the workplace or where an employee is acting in the course of their employment. This does not include the risks of travelling to and from work by public transport.

As there are various ways in which an employee can travel to work, it will be difficult for them to legitimately refuse to come to work due to their commute.  Employers should discuss any concerns with the employee and seek to find an appropriate resolution. The government has published guidance on safer travel for passengers during the Covid-19 pandemic and employers should encourage flexibility as far as possible, such as allowing employees to travel at off-peak times and staggering workers’ hours.

What is the risk if I insist that my employees have the vaccine?

If you do not have a justifiable reason for insisting that your employees have the vaccine (see FAQ above) your employee could resign and bring a claim of constructive unfair dismissal if they have more than 2 years’ continuous employment. This would be on the basis that you have breached trust and confidence.

If the vaccine includes pig gelatine (as many do), and the employee refuses on religious or because they are vegan, you may face a claim for discrimination under the Equality Act 2010.

Can employees on Flexible Furlough work as union or non-union representatives or as pension trustees?

Employees who are union or non-union representatives may undertake duties and activities for the purpose of individual or collective representation of employees or other workers. However in doing this, they must not provide services to or generate revenue for, or on behalf of your organisation or a linked or associated organisation.

Employees who are pension scheme trustees or trustee directors of a corporate trustee may also undertake trustee duties in relation to the pension scheme. However, a professional, independent pension scheme trustee who has been furloughed by the independent trustee company cannot undertake trustee work that would provide services to or generate revenue for, or on behalf of, the independent trustee company or any organisation linked or associated with that independent trustee company during hours when they are recorded as being on furlough.

Do I have to continue to pay furloughed staff while furloughed? Can I wait until I receive the money from the government?

To qualify for a grant under the scheme you must pay your furloughed staff the wages you are claiming for. Failure to do so may result in a HMRC investigation and/or claims from furloughed staff for unlawful deductions from wages and possibly constructive dismissal claims.

Normal benefits including non-monetary benefits should continue during furlough unless the individual has agreed in writing to reduce or remove a benefit during this time.

Employers are expected to apply for one or more of the financial support schemes available to be able to continue to pay staff.