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What does “Force Majeure” mean?

Crucially the phrase “force majeure” has no specific meaning in English law. As a result, there is scope for complex legal argument, including as to whether the effects of the coronavirus outbreak can amount to force majeure in the first place. If the coronavirus crisis deepens, force majeure provisions could become relevant in the following ways:

  • suppliers to your business might seek to invoke force majeure
  • you may need to invoke force majeure under your own contracts

Each of these will need careful analysis of the relevant contract against the applicable factual background. Unfortunately, the position is unlikely to be clear cut.

Related FAQs

Can employees on fixed-term contracts be furloughed?

Yes. Their contracts can be renewed or extended during the furlough period without breaking the terms of the scheme.

If the employee’s contract has not already expired, the contract can be extended or renewed. The employee may be furloughed provided that they were employed on or before 30 October 2020. You must also have made a RTI submission to HMRC between 20 March 2020 and 30 October 2020.

If the employee’s contract expired on or after 23 September 2020, the employee can be re-employed and furloughed. Please note that the employee must have been employed by you on 23 September 2020 and you must have made a RTI submission to HMRC between 20 March 2020 and 30 October 2020.

 

Does the introduction of CLBILS assist private equity-backed businesses?

Under CBILS, for the purposes of calculating the applicant’s annual turnover, approved lenders have been aggregating turnover across the whole of the private equity investor’s portfolio meaning they failed to qualify for the scheme as they were deemed to exceed the £45 million threshold.

For private equity-backed businesses, the removal of the upper limit on annual turnover criteria for CLBILS seemingly avoids the issue of turnover aggregation across investment portfolios seen with the CBILS, potentially enabling more private equity sponsor portfolio companies to be able to access the CLBILS funding.

How do I bring an employee with a visa off furlough?

Employees with visas should be treated consistently with the wider workforce. When their furlough leave ends, they should return to work and their pay should be reinstated. If you agree a pay cut or reduction in working hours, you need to ensure that sponsored workers are still earning above the minimum salary for their role and working in excess of the minimum number of hours (see above).

The flexible furlough scheme is now in place and can be used for employees who have previously been furloughed for a consecutive period of at least three weeks. The flexible furlough scheme remains in place until 31 October 2020.

I’m the director of a company. What should I think about before accepting any of the funding that has recently become available?

Directors of a company that is in, or potentially facing, financial difficulty have a duty to act in the best interests of creditors as a whole. Failure to comply with that duty can have consequences for directors (including personal liability and disqualification if directors get it wrong).

The duty to act in the best interests of creditors as a whole begins when the company is (or in some cases is potentially or at risk of becoming) insolvent i.e. its assets are worth less than its liabilities and/or the business is unable to pay its liabilities as and when they fall due. However, just because a company is insolvent doesn’t always necessarily mean than an insolvency process is inevitable. Sometimes, the insolvency might just be caused by a temporary cashflow problem or perhaps wider problems in the business that can be overcome by making changes to the business itself.

In addition to that, the potential liability of directors ramps up even further when the company reaches the stage that the directors have concluded (or ought to have concluded) that there was no reasonable prospect of the business avoiding liquidation or administration. If the business reaches that stage, in addition to having to act in the best interests of creditors as a whole, directors can find themselves personally liable unless, from the time the directors ought to have reached that conclusion, they took every step that they ought to have done to minimise the loss to creditors. This is known as wrongful trading.

On the 25th June 2020, the government introduced new legislation – the Corporate Insolvency and Governance Act 2020 – which includes measures to temporarily relax the rules around wrongful trading with the proposed changes to take effect retrospectively from the 1st March 2020. Essentially, the changes say that any court looking at a potential wrongful trading claim against a director is to assume that the director is not responsible for worsening the company’s financial position between 1st March 2020 and the 30th September 2020. Whilst the wrongful trading rules have relaxed, directors still need to proceed with caution if the business is potentially insolvent as the new Act does alter other potential pitfalls for directors, like the risk of breaching their duties or allowing the company to enter into transactions that can potentially be challenged.

The support being offered by the government is potentially a lifeline for businesses under pressure through no fault of their own, but notwithstanding the recent changes to the wrongful trading rules it is still likely to be important for the board to carefully consider whether it is appropriate to make use of the loans, grants and tax forbearance that are on offer.

Exactly what the board should consider will vary from business to business and getting it right can sometimes involve balancing several different (and at times conflicting) priorities, challenges and concerns.

Can employees who are self-isolating or on sick leave be placed on Flexible Furlough?

Employers had the ability to furlough extremely vulnerable employees who needed to shield.

If your employee is on sick leave or self-isolating as a result of Coronavirus, including as a result of track and trace, they’ll be able to get Statutory Sick Pay, subject to other eligibility conditions applying.

There is no special exemption for them, so they would need to meet the usual requirements to be placed on Flexible Furlough after 1 July 2020. i.e. They had to have been placed on furlough for at least 3 weeks before 1 July. Otherwise, they could not be furloughed.