Does Force Majeure apply to the leasing of commercial property?
Some commercial tenants have queried whether the current situation is a force majeure which may allow it to terminate the lease. Clauses which allow a party to terminate a lease for a force majeure event or, to put it another way, an “act of God”, are however extremely rare in modern commercial leases. Even if there is such a provision in your lease, it would need to be drafted to apply to an outbreak of disease.
The Business and Planning Act 2020 entered the statute books on 22 July 2020. Section 18 of the Act includes provisions for the extension of the date by which a reserved matters application must be submitted where the original date falls between 23 March 2020 and 31 December 2020. Where the original time limit for the submission of reserved matters is on or after 19 August 2020, the relevant conditions will be automatically read as requiring the reserved matters application to be submitted by 1 May 2021.
Where the original time limit for the submission of reserved matters is before 19 August 2020, an application will need to be made to the LPA for an Additional Environmental Approval (“AEA”), which the LPA must determine within 28 days otherwise the approval is deemed to be provided. The purpose of the AEA is to consider whether the environmental assessments carried out at the time of the original outline determination remain valid and up to date, and where that is not the case, the AEA will be refused. In such circumstances a new planning application will be required where an application is now out of time to comply with the original date for submission of reserved matters.
Transparency is considered to be central to the philosophy of the COP. The guidance provides details on issues concerning transparency of proceedings and involvement/attendance of P. Whilst there will be some difficulties with ensuring that remote hearings are accessible to the public as an ‘open court’, provisions have been made for the continued presence of the press where the facilities can accommodate this.
During the COVID-19 global pandemic, trials and hearings have been mostly conducted over Skype for Business and various other online platforms. Looking forward to the future, what we have experienced during the lock-down may continue and we believe will make litigation a more streamlined, user friendly experience for litigants.
One example of a regime which has been introduced is hybrid trials for lower value claims. Hybrid trials allow for parties and their witnesses to be linked into the court room by video link, whilst the judge and advocates are present in court. This makes it easier and frees up more time for witnesses, which would otherwise be spent in travel and waiting time, especially for those with other commitments.
With hybrid trials, clients still get a full legal experience and the judge will still apply normal legal principles during the trial. The procedure for the case is the same, both leading up to the trial or hearing and during the case itself; except without the need to physically attend court. It may also mean that there will be less of a backlog arising from the current crisis with cases continuing to be heard, allowing for matters to be listed earlier and a quicker outcome for the parties involved.
The shift to the use of online platforms may prove more practical for all those involved in legal matters. Interim hearings can be heard remotely resulting in a time and cost saving for litigants. Even for the final hearing only the legal representatives need to attend court – again resulting in time and cost savings for all concerned.
The Cabinet Office has published a helpful Procurement Policy Note (“PPN”) on relief available to suppliers due to Covid-19 (available here). This can include making advance payments to suppliers, if necessary. The PPN sets out actions that public sector bodies should take (until at least 30 June 2020) to ensure continuity of service and to ensure that its suppliers can resume normal contract activity once able to.
The actions public sector bodies should be taking include:
- Informing its suppliers (that they believe are at risk) that they will continue to be paid as normal until the end of June 2020 (even if service delivery is currently interrupted). Risk might include supply chains collapsing and/or significant financial implications for a supplier
- If a contract involves a payment by results mechanism, basing payments on previous months (e.g. the average monthly payment over the previous 3 months), and
- Ensuring that invoices submitted by suppliers are paid immediately to maintain cash flow in the supply chain and help to protect jobs.
If you are a supplier to a public sector body, you must act transparently and on an open-book basis, making cost data available to your public sector clients. You must also continue to pay your employees and subcontractors / suppliers. Suppliers to the public sector must not expect to make profits on any undelivered elements of a contract. The PPN makes clear that, should suppliers be found to be taking undue advantage, or failing to act transparently, a public sector body can take action to recover payments made to that supplier.
The PPN requires public sector bodies to urgently review their contract portfolios and take steps to support suppliers who they believe are “at risk”. However, no definition of “at risk” is given in the document. We would suggest that if you are a supplier and you have yet to hear from a public sector client, you should seek to get in touch with them as soon as possible, particularly if you have concerns about your supply chain, staff retention and/or are experiencing financial difficulties currently. Given the requirement for transparency, you may be required to provide evidence, so it may be helpful to have any relevant documentation ready to send, if necessary, as this may help ensure a decision is made by the public sector client more promptly, particularly as the public sector body may have a number of contracts to consider.
If the debts owed to you pre-date Covid-19 and your debtor seemed unable to pay well before the Covid-19 pandemic took place, it is entirely possible that you will be able to present a petition on the grounds that the debtor would have been unable to pay its debts even if the Covid-19 had no effect on its financial position. We do not yet have any reliable precedent as to how the Courts are likely to deal with such cases. Whether you are likely to succeed will depend on the exact circumstances of the debt and your debtor. There has been one case decided in August 2020 where the Court concluded that Covid-19 did not have a financial effect upon the debtor and that the circumstances which gave rise to the petition had arisen long before Covid and would have occurred in any event. A winding up order was made in that case. What we do know about the court’s approach is that the purpose of the Act is to allow viable companies to trade through the current times and the Court is likely to set the bar high.
Please contact us if there a debt you would like to discuss. Even if presenting a winding up petition is not available for now, there may still be other forms of legal proceedings that you can use to collect money owed to you, like county court proceedings.