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What is my legal position if emergency legislation to tackle the outbreak makes performance of a contract illegal or impossible?

As the coronavirus outbreak continues to develop, we have seen many countries begin to implement emergency procedures and legislation in an attempt to control the spread of the disease.

These have included bans on gatherings and public events, closures of shops, bars, restaurants and public spaces, and full lockdowns which restrict all but key workers to their homes except in certain limited circumstances.

This has a direct impact on businesses and their ability to operate. So what happens if a contract becomes impossible to perform because of emergency legislation?

For example:

  • If you are a hospitality business, you have agreed to host an event, and gatherings are prohibited
  • If you are a manufacturer or service provider, and your staff are required to remain at home, making performance of the contract impossible

Related FAQs

Employer furlough schemes

Furlough means temporary leave of absence. There is nothing to stop an employer seeking to agree a temporary leave of absence – with or without pay – with its workforce.

This could not be forced on an employee without significant risk. Without agreement, this would need fair selection and consultation – more on that later.

We are conscious that asking a particular group of people, who have a protected characteristic under the Equality Act 2010, to restrict their duties, could expose the Trust to allegations of discrimination. What steps can we take to avoid someone/a group of people feel that they have been treated differently because of their protected characteristic?

A claim for indirect discrimination is the most likely risk here. The first point to make is that the decision to review duties is being made based on the growing amount of medical evidence that the BAME community is being disproportionately adversely affected by the COVID 19 pandemic compared to other ethnic groups. The key is to ensure that blanket policy decisions are not taken, nor should assumptions be made about the risk to each individual concerned. Decisions should only be made on an individual basis with an open dialogue with the individual concerned. You as their employer, need to ensure that the individual feels listened to and heard; that this is not just a tick box exercise.

Consider having a working group which has an overview of the policy decisions being made. That working group should contain representatives from across the staff groups including staff side, but importantly, representatives from different ethnic backgrounds to ensure the important voices are heard. Accountability should be built into that group. This group should also be a safe environment for staff to raise concerns about their health and safety and safe systems at work.

Freedom to Speak up – a reminder

Has there ever been a more important time for all staff to feel that they are able to raise concerns about their working environment?

It is a pertinent time to remind all staff that they should be able to raise concerns without the fear of repercussions. It is a good time to be reviewing and re-issuing your Freedom to Speak up/Whistleblowing policy to all. Likewise it is a good time to remind all staff that they should not treat others unfairly or detrimentally for raising health and safety concerns.

Both subjecting someone to a detriment because they have blown the whistle or raised health and safety concerns (and dismissing someone for the same) is unlawful.

What guidance has the CMA issued about how it expects businesses to behave in response to the global pandemic?

On 30th April 2020, the CMA issued a guidance note setting out its views about how the law operates in relation to refunds.

Where a contract is not performed as agreed, the CMA considers that in most cases, consumer protection law will generally allow consumers to obtain a refund.

This includes the following situations:

  • Where a business has cancelled a contract without providing any of the promised goods or services
  • Where no service is provided by a business, for example because this is prevented by Government public health measures
  • A consumer cancels, or is prevented from receiving any services, because Government public health measures mean they are not allowed to use the services.

In the CMA’s view, this will usually apply even where the consumer has paid what the business says is a non-refundable deposit or advance payment.

This positon reflects the CMA’s previous guidance which they had issued in relation to the requirement of fairness in consumer contracts under the Consumer Rights Act 2015, which was that a clause in a contract that gives a blanket entitlement to a trader to cancel a contract and retain deposits paid is likely to be unfair, and therefore unenforceable – it would be unfair to a consumer to lose their deposit if the contract is terminated without any fault on their part, and if they had received no benefit for the payments made.

The CMA’s latest guidance therefore confirms their view that the Covid-19 outbreak does not change the basic rights of the consumer, and that they should not have to pay for goods or services that they do not receive.

How does Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme operate?
  • Certain workers will become “furloughed workers”.
  • Furloughed workers cannot carry out any work for their employer while designated as furloughed, or a linked or associated organisation but they can do voluntary work as long as they are not providing services for or generating revenue for the employer or a linked or associated organisation.
  • A furloughed worker can be furloughed part time and work the rest of the time.
  • The furlough period begins when the employee stops work, not when agreement is reached.
  • If furloughed employees are expected to do online training while furloughed they must receive the National Living Wage/National Minimum Wage for the time spent training.
  • Workers must be told of and agree to this change in writing. This written agreement must be kept for five years as part of the scheme. The guidance has confirmed that collective agreement reached between an employer and a trade union on furloughing staff is acceptable for the purposes of making a claim under the scheme.
  • However it should also be noted that this is a change in status and pay (if pay is not being topped up) and therefore subject to the usual employment law rules on changing terms and conditions.
  • Changes to the contract must be made by agreement with the worker and the government guidance is clear that to be eligible for the subsidy employers must document their communication with the employee on being furloughed.
  • You must confirm in writing that an employee has been furloughed, but that the employee does not need to provide a written response. Please note that this is for the purposes of making a claim under the scheme. Any reduction in pay must be agreed in writing under normal employment law principles and failure to do so may result in Employment Tribunal claims. You should not rely on a term in the employment contract to effect this change. We can advise you on how to document this properly.
  • Employers must also keep a record of the agreement for at least 5 years.
  • If employers have collective bargaining arrangements in place, they must agree this change with the union in the usual way.
  • Collective consultation obligations may be triggered if there are 20 or more employees that are proposed to be dismissed and re-engaged in order to effect the change to terms to be furloughed. You should take advice if you think this may apply.