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Commercial and Contracts – Contracts

At Ward Hadaway we want to play our part by helping UK businesses, organisations and people successfully navigate the current disrupted environment and get us all back to business. To do that we have developed a series of FAQs where we try to provide clear answers to commonly asked questions.

Contractual issues

What are the contractual issues that businesses need to think about as they get back to business following lockdown?

It is clear that we are emerging from a completely unprecedented period of disruption for many businesses, and this may have had a huge impact on their contractual arrangements both with suppliers and customers.

As the lockdown eases, and we get back to business, it’s important that businesses take stock of what has happened, and ensure they review and address the legal and contractual consequences of what has been happening since the start of the global pandemic.

What sort of issues are likely to have arisen?

The Coronavirus pandemic will have impacted businesses in many different ways, but some of the most likely impacts that could have a legal implication are as follows:

  • Services were not performed in accordance with contract during the period of disruption. This could be a reduction in volume of services performed, a suspension of services, or performance in a way that does not comply with contractual KPIs
  • Late delivery or non-delivery of goods because of factory closures, or disruption in the supply chain
  • Changes being agreed between parties to contracts to deal with the consequences of the Covid-19 outbreak
What should businesses do now?

Many will have worked collaboratively with their suppliers and customers to deal with the immediate public health crisis. This will have meant offering flexibility as to contractual arrangements, whether in delivery dates, volumes of goods or services supplied, or even in the specification of what has been delivered.

If this is the case, it is important that businesses now do their legal housekeeping and make sure they have a proper record of what has been agreed. Unfortunately, our experience shows that many legal disputes arise out of amendments to contracts, typically where the parties to the contract each have a different view about what exactly they agreed to change.

We would therefore advise businesses to review any amendments that they might have agreed either verbally, by email, or otherwise, and consider whether they need to be captured in a more formal way which will make clear exactly what has been agreed to be varied, and (where appropriate) how long that variation will remain in force.

It’s also important to remember that some contracts contain provisions that set out specific requirements about how amendments are to be made. For example, they might require that amendments are made in writing (rather than verbally). These “No Oral Modification” clauses are commonly found in commercial contracts, and the courts have recently shown that they are willing to enforce them.

Failing to deal with amendments in accordance with contractual requirements could therefore have a serious impact on businesses as they recover from the disruption caused by the lockdown. If they end up in dispute with a customer or supplier, a business could find that the contract has not actually been amended in the way that they think – potentially leading to legal costs and liabilities at the worst possible time.

How might the transition to a "new normal" impact on contracts?

The workplace will not revert to its pre-Covid-19 state overnight, with social distancing in the work place likely to remain in place for quite some time to come.

This could mean that businesses will need to think carefully about how their capacity will be impacted, and how this will affect their ability to perform contractual obligations.

For example, if a business has an outsourcing contract under which it has to perform a business process, or produce a particular output, will it be able to comply with contractual performance standards whilst social distancing is still in place? In the context of a manufacturing business, what will be the impact on production schedules and delivery dates? There might also be an impact on operating costs, for example if processes are changed and additional shifts are introduced – can these additional costs be sustained?

Businesses need to plan a safe system of work for their employees to ensure they comply with Health and Safety legislation, but they also need to consider how this will impact on their ability to perform pre-existing contractual obligations. Ultimately, contractual arrangements with customers might need to remain on a revised footing for a number of months.

Getting to a point where agreement is reached on allocation of additional costs and/or changes to key elements of a contract such as scope of work, performance standards and delivery date will require co-operation between contracting parties. Again, it is important that any variations that are agreed are recorded properly and follow the required contractual procedures.

Terminating contracts

What are the changes to the law?

On 25th June 2020, the Corporate Insolvency and Governance Act, among other things, introduced new restrictions on suppliers of goods and services to terminate the contract in the event that the customer enters an insolvency process.  This has very important consequences for many businesses as it could expose them to greater financial risks.

How does this protect businesses entering into an insolvency process?

The Act is intended to facilitate the rescue of businesses that are in financial difficulty by preventing suppliers from invoking certain termination clauses under a supply contract, and therefore maintaining supply of goods and services to the business whilst plans to save the business can be considered.

Supply contracts often contain a clause enabling them to terminate the contract, or take other steps such as requiring payment in advance,  in the event that the customer enters an insolvency procedure.

This new Act removes any such contractual right by dis-applying any clause that allows the supplier to terminate the contract, or take any other step, due to the customer entering an insolvency process.

Suppliers are also prevented from demanding payment for pre-insolvency debts owed by the customer as a condition of continued supply.

Additionally, where the supplier had a contractual right to terminate the contract due to an event occurring before the customer went into the insolvency process (whether or not linked to payment issues), the supplier loses this right for the duration of the insolvency process.

Are any suppliers exempt from this?

Small suppliers (defined by reference to certain financial indicators) are temporarily exempt from these new restrictions until 30th March 2021 in order to account for the difficulties to small suppliers during the Covid-19 pandemic.

There are also certain industries that are exempt from these restrictions (for example financial services).  The Secretary of State may also create further exemptions framed by reference to kinds of company, supplier, contract, goods or services or in any other way.

What can suppliers of goods and services do to minimize risk?

If suppliers still wish to terminate the contract, they must contact the directors or the officeholder dealing with the insolvency process and obtain their approval to terminate the contract – which, of course, might not be given.

If the continued obligation under the contract to supply goods/services to the customer would place the supplier in financial hardship the supplier can apply to court for permission to terminate the contract.  This will involve time and legal expense.

What will be the impact of the proposals on suppliers?

The change in the law has the potential to place much greater financial risks on suppliers, making it more difficult to exit a contract with a customer of doubtful solvency.  This will place increased emphasis on appropriate financial due diligence and credit checking before entering into supply contracts.

In addition to the obvious issues around financial risk, suppliers will also need to think carefully about how their contracts are drafted.  For example, any form of right that is drafted so as to be triggered on customer insolvency will clearly be problematic.  These could include:

  • Retention of Title provisions, which are commonly drafted so that the right to enter premises and retake possession of the goods is triggered on insolvency;
  • Provisions for brand protection, which seek to control how goods are dealt with on termination of the contract.

This is potentially a very significant development for many businesses.  We would strongly recommend specialist advice be obtained so that:

  • businesses understand the potential increased risks faced; and
  • where possible, contracts are updated so that appropriate protections are maintained.
What if you want to terminate the contract completely?

If changed circumstances mean that a business wants to exit from a contractual arrangement, then before trying to terminate it, a careful review should be carried out to see whether a right to terminate actually exists. For example:

  • Not every contract for the sale of goods contains the right for the buyer to terminate in circumstances where the supplier hasn’t done anything wrong. If a business has entered into a contract on the supplier’s standard terms, it is unlikely to contain any such provision
  • A contract for the provision of services is unlikely, if drafted by the customer, to contain a provision that allows the supplier to walk away from the arrangement at short notice, or perhaps at all

If a party tries to terminate a contract when it doesn’t have the right to do so, the other party will likely claim breach of contract and could sue for damages. In the case of a long term or high-value contract, this could amount to a very significant liability.

Even if the right to terminate the contract does exist, there might be particular rules about the following:

  • How much notice has to be given
  • How such notice has to be served (for example, it might have to be in writing to a particular address)
  • When the notice can be served (perhaps on an anniversary of the start of the contract)
  • How much a party has to pay if it cancels (for example, for raw materials, for work done to date, or even the whole contract price)

All of these factors must be taken into account, and any contractual processes for termination are followed.

Consumer Contracts

My business involves providing goods or services to consumers. Can I delay or cancel the contract because of the Coronavirus outbreak? If so, what happens to deposits paid?

Since the onset of the coronavirus outbreak, we have been contacted by several businesses that deal with consumers, who have been concerned about the provisions of their standard terms which allow for cancellation or postponement. They have also been unsure about their obligations in relation to deposits paid by customers.

Contracts with consumers give rise to different legal considerations to those between businesses. The contractual relationship between a business and a consumer is regulated by the Consumer Rights Act 2015 (“the CRA”). The CRA protects consumers, as the party with the least bargaining power in the transaction, from terms which are ‘unfair’. So even provisions that are expressly included in standard terms and conditions may be deemed to be unenforceable if they are weighted too heavily in favour of the business.

What has been the response from the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA)?

The CMA is the government body that is responsible for protecting consumers from unfair trading practices. It has announced programme of work to investigate reports of businesses failing to respect cancellation rights during the Coronavirus pandemic.

Based on the complaints received by them from consumers, the CMA has identified three sectors of particular concern:

  • Weddings and private events
  • Holiday accommodation
  • Nurseries and childcare providers

The CMA has expressed concern about the number of complaints that it has received about businesses seeking to retain deposits for cancelled events, undue restrictions being placed on use of vouchers provided for cancelled bookings, and payments being demanded to hold open nursery places.

The CMA has said it will prioritise investigation of these sectors, and then move on to other sectors.

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.

Are there any exceptions to the obligation to return deposits?

The CMA sees only limited circumstances in which a full refund would not be given. The CMA accepts that where public health measures prevent a business from providing a service or the consumer from receiving it, the business may be able to deduct a contribution to the costs it has already incurred in relation to the specific contract in question.

This view reflects a relatively complex area of law under which parties are released from obligations under a contract if performance of that contract becomes impossible or illegal. This is called “frustration” of the contract. Under a law passed during World War II, a party to a contract that is frustrated who has incurred expenses is permitted, if the court thinks fit, to retain an amount up to the value of those expenses out of any money they have been paid by the other party.

The CMA’s view, however, is that this will not happen often, and that deductions from deposits will be limited.

Can I offer credits or re-booking as an alternative to a refund?

The financial implications of having to repay all deposits and advance payments could be very serious for some businesses. As an alternative to a refund, many are offering customers the opportunity to re-book at a later date, or a voucher that can be redeemed against a subsequent booking.

The CMA’s view on this practice is that consumers can in many situations be offered alternatives of this type, but they should not be “misled or pressured” into accepting this. Their view is that a refund should be an option that is just as clearly and easily available. The CMA also points out that any restrictions that apply to credits, vouchers, re-booking or re-scheduling, such as the period in which credits must be used or services re-booked, must also be fair and made clear to consumers.

The full CMA guidance re “The Coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic, consumer contracts, cancellation and refunds” can be found here.

Responsible behaviour in contracts

What guidance has the Government given in relation to contracts in relation to Covid-19?

On 7 May the Government published guidance on how contracting parties can act responsibly in order to assist the effort to deal with Covid-19. The guidance seeks to persuade contracting parties to act reasonably and recognise the impact of Covid-19 on contractual counterparties. This will continue to be relevant as business begins to emerge from lockdown.

Is it legally enforceable?

The guidance is non-statutory and is not binding on business. However, businesses should be aware that there might be reputational consequences if they do not follow the guidance; we have already seen in the context of taking advantage of furlough funding that not being in breach of the law is no protection against negative publicity. Further to the extent a contract expressly requires parties to act reasonably, it could be expected that this guidance is one of the factors a court would consider in determining what is reasonable.

What does the guidance suggest?

The guidance asks parties to act responsibly and fairly in performing and enforcing contracts. They are encouraged to act in a spirit of cooperation to achieve practical, just and equitable outcomes. In essence, rather than sticking strictly to the contract as agreed, they are encouraged to give each other leeway to deliver performance differently than they are required to do under the contract.

Are there specific examples given?

The guidance gives numerous examples of the types of performance adjustment which parties should consider. For example this includes:

  • Varying deadlines (e.g. for performance or payment)
  • Varying compensation (e.g. to recognise increased costs)
  • Varying the nature of performance (e.g. allowing substitute goods, allowing pert delivery of services)

The guidance also encourages a reasonable approach to enforcement, which might encourage delaying issuing formal proceedings, increased use of mediation or providing more information to the other party than would be volunteered under normal circumstances.

What should I do if I think this is relevant to my contracts?

It would be prudent to take legal advice early in relation to any issue you foresee in performing a contract. This will allow you to:

  • Ensure that initial contact with your counterparty is framed in the correct way
  • Ensure that any variations are fully documented so that both parties are fully protected
Can I get contracts signed electronically if signatories are working remotely?

With the outbreak of coronavirus leading to a requirement for more employees to be working remotely, especially following Government advice that all non-essential travel including to and from work should be avoided, there has been an increased requirement for businesses to be more flexible in their approach to signing contracts.

The traditional approach has been for contracts to be printed and signed with a “wet ink” signature. However, this is not a strict legal requirement in the majority of circumstances and contracts can be formed without this degree of formality. English law recognises that contracts can be formed by electronic means – including the exchange of emails or the typing of a name into a document to signify agreement to it.

Whilst this approach offers a lot of flexibility, more sophisticated electronic signature tools are recommended for important documents, to enable the identity of the signatory to be validated and reduce the possibility of fraud.

If businesses are considering changing their contracting processes because of coronavirus, or because of a general shift towards paperless working, it is important to ensure that proper approval processes remain in place, and to consider whether a software tool should be used to complement them. Systems such as DocuSign are widely used.

There also remain some situations where legal advice is recommended before relying on an electronic signature:

  • Where the other party is abroad – as local laws that are different from English law might apply
  • If executing a deed – the law requires certain types of document to be executed as a deed (for example, transfers of land and powers of attorney), and the issues around electronic signature and witnessing are more complicated here

Please note that this briefing is designed to be informative, not advisory and represents our understanding of English law and practice as at the date indicated. We would always recommend that you should seek specific guidance on any particular legal issue.

This page may contain links that direct you to third party websites. We have no control over and are not responsible for the content, use by you or availability of those third party websites, for any products or services you buy through those sites or for the treatment of any personal information you provide to the third party.

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