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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

What happens if a patient is admitted to critical care during the pandemic?
  • On admission to critical care, the risks, benefits and likely outcomes of the different treatment options should be discussed with patients, families and carers so they can make informed decisions about their treatment wherever possible.
  • A member of the critical care team should be involved in these discussions whenever the patient or team needs advice about critical care to make decisions about treatment.
Can you still have people on furlough leave full-time after 1 July 2020?

Yes. You can continue to fully furlough employees until 30 September 2021 (but from between 1 August 2020 and 31 December 2020 and from 1 July 2021 you need to contribute to the cost). If on full-time furlough, employees continue not to be able to undertake any work for you. As before, they can undertake training, or volunteer or work for another employer or organisation (if contractually allowed).

Can I still take legal action to recover money that is owed to the business?

You will need to check the terms of the contract you have with the debtor to make sure you are still entitled to be paid (including checking any force majeure clause).

It is also important to remember that the current exceptional circumstances might also affect your contractual rights in other ways too – please see our commercial & contracts site for more information.

Depending on the type of debt you are owed, there might be some additional restrictions in place that you will need to consider. For example there are certain restrictions on landlords being able to forfeit leases, evict tenants or send High Court Enforcement Officers to collect outstanding rent.

Assuming there are no sector-specific restrictions in place then you should be able to start county or high court proceedings to recover the debt.

As an alternative to starting court proceedings, if the debt is undisputed a creditor can usually opt to issue winding up proceedings against a debtor instead. However, the recently introduced Corporate Insolvency and Governance Act introduces a temporary suspension on the ability of creditors to present winding up petitions to recover money unless the reason why the debtor cannot pay is not related to covid-19. For more information click here.

Often taking firm action is the right thing to do, particularly given that it is a sad reality that it is the creditor who shouts the loudest that will often get paid first. However, one important consideration is the commercial reality that many businesses (and indeed individuals) now find themselves in.

Whether taking legal action is likely to result in payment is always a question any creditor should ask themselves. Some creditors might also want to try to support their customers during these difficult times and/or have concerns about their long term reputation if they pursue the debt too aggressively. However, even if that is the case it is still possible to engage constructively and positively with those who owe you money to try to reach the best possible outcome. This could include:

  • Having clear and consistent credit control processes in place
  • Obtaining statements of means to help understand what a debtor can afford to pay
  • Agreeing realistic payment plans
  • Negotiating formal payment holidays
  • Putting in place voluntary security to secure the debt
  • Identifying those debtors who can’t pay as opposed to won’t pay and targeting resources accordingly
  • Looking at what other options might be available, including recovering under parent company guarantees
Is my business covered by insurance for notifiable diseases?

Unfortunately, losses caused by pandemics are not often covered expressly under standard policies, as the risk has been difficult for insurers to price and understand.

Even where additional cover in respect of notifiable diseases has been purchased, it typically will not include Covid-19 within the range of diseases covered by the policy. If the policy includes a list of notifiable diseases, and which does not include Covid-19, it is very unlikely that cover will be available for pandemic-relates losses.

The most common types of covers that could be afforded by insurance policies for coronavirus-related losses and liabilities are traditional business interruption insurance, contingent business interruption insurance, liability insurance, as well as cancellation and abandonment insurance.

I have to pay my ex-spouse monthly spousal maintenance pursuant to a Court Order and I can no longer afford to pay. Can I stop paying?

Maintenance Orders embodied in a Court Order are variable. If you have lost a very large part of your income, then the Courts ought to take that into consideration when looking at a Court Application to reduce or end spousal maintenance payments. The outcome of any Court Application will, however, depend on a number of factors.

Technically, you should not just stop paying or reduce the maintenance payments, as your ex-spouse could then make an Application to Court for enforcement and payment of the arrears. You could ask the Court to forego you having to pay those arrears if you had evidence to prove that you could not make the payments, however, the Court will need to take a fair approach and you should not assume this request will be agreed.

You should first try to negotiate a reduction or termination of the maintenance with your ex-spouse, either directly or through a Solicitor. If this is possible, you should obtain a Court Order reflecting that agreement. Where a sensible compromise cannot be reached, a Court Application may be necessary.