No strikeout for Bangladeshi ship scrapping claim: but don’t hold your breath

As we mentioned on this blog last August, these days you have to be careful who you sell an old ship to. In Begum v Maran [2021] EWCA Civ 326 MUK, the English managers of a Liberian ship fit only for scrap, helped arrange her sale to a buyer who paid fairly handsomely. That buyer proceeded (entirely foreseeably) to have her scrapped by a thoroughly dodgy outfit called Zuma in a dangerous and environmentally irresponsible way on a Bangladeshi beach. A worker engaged in stripping the hulk fell to his death. Prospects of recovery from Zuma being low, if for no other reason because of a local one-year statute of limitations during the running of which nothing had been done, his widow sued MUK as of right in England because of its domicile here, alleging negligence. Jay J decided that it was arguable that MUK had owed the man a duty of care, and that the local limitations law might be circumvented, and refused a strikeout. MUK appealed.

The Court of Appeal yesterday allowed the case to go ahead, though only very grudgingly and on a more limited basis than Jay J. The Court was particularly sceptical on the limitation point. Under Rome II, applicable to the claim as it predated Brexit (and still applicable to post-Brexit claims in its domesticated form), the law governing the claim – including on the subject of limitation – was Bangladeshi. This immediately defeated the claimant unless she could escape it. The judge had regarded as possibly plausible a contention that Art.7 of Rome II allowed her to invoke English law because her husband’s death had resulted from environmental damage caused by an event here – namely, MTM’s arrangements for sale of the ship. But this was dismissed on appeal as unarguable: rightly so, since this simply wasn’t an environmental case in the first place. But the court did see it as arguable – just – that the limitation period was so short that an English court might disapply it on public policy grounds under Art.26 of Rome II, and ordered a preliminary issue on the point.

On the substantive points, the widow argued either that MUK had owed her husband a duty of care on the principle of Donoghue v Stevenson [1932] AC 562, or that MUK’s sale of the vessel when it should have known that it was likely to be dangerously demolished had created an immediate danger to her husband’s life and thus engendered a duty in respect of the bad practices of his employers Zuma.

Giving the lead judgment, Coulson J was very sceptical on the first point. This wasn’t, he said, a case of a disposal of a dangerous thing, but rather the furnishing of an opportunity for a third party to be negligent in respect of a thing not inherently perilous. Whether this could give rise to a duty his Lordship thought very doubtful indeed – but still not quite implausible enough to justify an immediate strikeout. Our view is that the doubts were fully justified. We normally expect employers to look after their employees; to put a duty on third parties to police the behaviour of contractors they engaged in that respect is to say the least drastic. Should I really have to scrutinise or supervise the employment practices of the builder I employ to extend my house in case one of his workers is hurt? It seems doubtful.

On the second point, the difficulty (a considerable one) was the general rule that people were not generally made responsible for the wrongs of others, however foreseeable. But, said Coulson J, there were possible exceptions where the danger in question had been created by a defendant. And while it seemed unlikely that this would apply here, the law was not absolutely clear and the prospect of persuading a sceptical judge to recognise a duty of care wasn’t dismal enough to deny the widow the chance to argue the toss. Her prospects might be slim, but she was entitled to chance her arm.

This case will possibly be hailed in the liberal media as an advance in the campaign to make big business in Britain take responsibility for the activities of its dodgier partners abroad. But commercial lawyers know better than to engage in chicken-counting. Remember, the claimant here only avoided a strikeout by the skin of her teeth. Her chances of recovering much over and above a nuisance value or reputation-saving settlement remain, it seems fair to say, pretty slim.

Oh, and one more thing. The ability to sue a UK-domiciled company here as of right disappeared with Brussels I Recast in a puff of celebratory Brexit firework smoke at 2300 hours on 31 December last. It follows that, barring swift adherence by the UK to the Lugano convention (increasingly unlikely by all the indications), any future claimant basing their complaint on events in a far-off land with no ostensible connection to England will now also face the prospect of a forum non conveniens application. This may well have an appreciable chance of success. There is, after all, no immediately apparent reason why the English courts should act as the policemen of work practices worldwide, hoewever much sympathy we may feel for a claimant personally.

In short, the boardrooms of corporate Britain, and even more those of their liability insurers, may well see some sighs of relief, if not discreet socially-distant celebrations, in the next few days.

Got a claim against a subsidiary but would like to go against the parent? We have some bad news.

You have an important ongoing contract with X, a subsidiary of a major foreign conglomerate Y. Then Y re-organises its business in a way that doesn’t involve you. X tells you it is regretfully going to break its contract. Obviously you can sue X; but can you sue Y as well? The result of this morning’s deision of the Court of Appeal in Kawasaki Kisen Kaisha Ltd v James Kemball Ltd [2021] EWCA Civ 33 is that in practice, in the vast majority of cases the answer is No.

Shipping lawyers will know the background. KKK a couple of years ago completed a reorganisation of its business; the container side was merged down into ONE, a joint venture with a couple of ex-competitors. Before the reorganisation, ancillary trucking etc in Europe had been organised by a sub-subsidiary of KKK called K-Euro, which had signed up the claimant JKL to do the haulage. This arrangement was now redundant, and K-Euro told JKL it would not be performing further.

JKL seems to have had a clear breach claim against K-Euro, but was not satisfied with it. History and legal confidentiality do not relate why, but there may have been doubts about K-Euro’s long-term solvency and/or a troublesome limitation of liability clause in the JKL – K-Euro contract. Be that as it may, JKL sued KKK for inducing a breach of contract, and sought to serve out in Japan. Teare J allowed this (see [2019] EWHC 3422 (Comm)); but the Court of Appeal disagreed, on the basis that on the evidence the claim had no realistic prospect of success..

The difficulty was twofold. First, despite the existence of a relationship of corporate control, and indeed substantial overlapping directorships, as between KKK and K-Euro, there was no element of persuasion or inducement by the former of the latter. KKK had not induced or persuaded K-Euro to break any contract. Instead, it had been a matter not so much of persuasion as practical compulsion: KKK had reorganised its business wholesale, with the inevitable (and admittedly entirely foreseen) result that K-Euro was forced to break the old arrangement. That, said the Court of Appeal, was something different. Furthermore, inducement of breach of contract required the defendant in some sense to have aimed his actions against the claimant. But here KKK had in no sense aimed its act at JKL, as might have been the case had it told K-Euro directly to appoint another haulier in its stead: instead, the loss to JKL had been, as it were, mere collateral damage.

This seems right. True, the suggested distinction between persuasion and compulsion needs to be taken with some care: if I threaten never to deal with X again unless X breaks his contract with you, I remain liable under Lumley v Gye (1853) 2 E & B 216, and pointing out that I bullied X rather than gently cajoling him will do me no good at all. Perhaps it is better expressed as the difference between the defendant who at least in some way desires the breach of contract, if only as a means to an end, and is liable, and the defendant who knows the result will be a breach but is otherwise indifferent, who is not. But the precise drawing of the line can be left to another day.

What we are left with is what we said at the beginning. If you contract with a subsidiary company, your chances of visiting the consequences of a breach of contract by the latter on its parent concern are low. As, at least in the view of this blog, they should be. If you contract with one entity, then generally it is to that entity that you should look if something goes wrong: to give you a cause of action against some other part of the corporate pyramid, you should need to show something fairly egregious – like a deliberate subornation of breach. Nothing short of that will, or should, do.

Rescinding A Charterparty or Not! That is the Question SK Shipping Europe plc v. Capital VLCC 3 Corp and another (C Challenger) [2020] EWHC 3448 (Comm)

The charterers entered into a charterparty contract with the owners of the C Challenger in February 2017 for a period of two years. The charterparty contained a term warranting fuel consumption and speed. Following problems with a turbocharger, the charterers alleged inter alia that the owners had misrepresented the vessel’s performance capabilities. The charterers raised the issue concerning potential misrepresentation on the part of the owner of the capabilities of the chartered vessel during a meeting in London on 21 March 2017. It was not until 19 October 2017 that the charterers purported to rescind for misrepresentation or to terminate for repudiatory breach. During the period of March- September 2017, the charterers continued to use the vessel (by fixing occasionally sub-fixtures); deduct periodically from hire and reserve their rights. The following day, the owners purported to terminate on the basis that the charterers’ message was itself a renunciation.

Was there a misrepresentation on the part of the owners?

Under common law, for the charterers to be able to rescind the contract (i.e. set the charterparty aside) it is essential that they demonstrate that the owners made an inaccurate representation with regard to the capabilities of the chartered vessel in terms of speed and consumption. The main argument put forward by the charterers was that the details of the vessel’s consumption circulated to the market by the owners constituted a representation of fact (and this representation was substantially inaccurate). Foxton, J, rather appropriately, held that an owner by offering a continuing speed and consumption warranty in a charterparty could not be assumed to make an implicit representation as to the vessel’s current or recent performance. This certainly makes sense given that the warranty in question did not require the owners to act or refrain from acting in a certain way. The so-called “speed and consumption” warranty in the contract simply related to a particular state of affairs and was only concerned with the allocation of responsibility for certain costs in relation thereto.   

However, this was not the end of the matter! The charters also argued that in a letter sent by the owners, historical speed and consumption data provided which was not reasonably consistent with the average performance of the vessel over its last three voyages and therefore untrue. Foxton, J, found that the owners did not have reason to believe that the statement based on the three recent voyages was true and accordingly this amounted material misrepresentation. However, he also found that this would not have given the charterers the right to rescind the contract as there was no inducement. This was the case because if the same warranty had been offered, but no representation made as to the vessel’s performance, the charterparty would have been concluded on the same terms.

The effect of ‘reserving rights’

It is rather common for most parties in shipping practice to add a ‘reservation of rights’ statement to the end of messages in pre-action correspondence. Usually, such a statement has the effect of preventing subsequent conduct of an innocent party constituting an election. The trial judge found that the charterers were aware at the latest in July 2017 that the fuel consumption of the chartered vessel was misdescribed by the owners. Whilst the charterers sent messages to the owners that they wished to reserve their rights emerging from the misconduct of the owners, they went ahead to fix a voyage with a sub-charterer expecting the owners to execute this voyage. Foxton, J, on that basis, held that such actions of the charterers were incompatible with an attempt to reserve rights to set it aside the charterparty ab initio for misrepresentation of which they had complained. Put differently, the judgment illustrates that in a case where the innocent party demands substantial contractual performance from the other, this is unlikely to be prevented from being treated as an “affirmation” simply because the innocent party earlier attempted to reserve its rights.

Was the owner in repudiatory breach?

The judge accepted that the owner was in breach of the charterparty i) by refusing to accept the legitimacy of the Charterer’s refusal to pay hire or make deductions from hire and ii) by sending messages demanding payment of hire, wrongly asserting that the Charterer was in breach. The terms breached were deemed to be innominate terms. However, it was held that the breaches complained of, taken cumulatively, had not deprived the charterers of substantially the whole benefit which they were intended to obtain under the charterparty for the payment of hire, or “go to the root” of the charterparty. As a result, the charterers had not been entitled to terminate the charterparty and their communication to that effect was itself a renunciation, entitling the owners to damages representing the loss it suffered by reason.              

The facts of the case provided a great opportunity to the trial judge to construe and apply several key principles of contract law (note that in the judgment there is also an obiter discussion on the application of s. 2(2) of the Misrepresentation Act 1967). Perhaps the most significant contribution of the case to the development of the contract law is the trial judge’s observation on the effect of reserving rights in this context. As noted, the previous authorities have not provided any extensive consideration to this matter. It is now emphasised clearly that a reservation of rights will often have the effect of preventing subsequent conduct from constituting an election to keep the contract alive, but this is not an inevitable rule. One might say in this context “actions might speak louder than words”. So in any case whether a statement reserving the rights of an innocent party has the desired impact will depend on the actions of the innocent party!

Upstream gas sales: of capacities and counterfactuals

Lack of unambiguous drafting in a gas sales contract landed three hydrocarbon giants in the Court of Appeal today; it also raised a nice point about damages and counterfactuals.

In British Gas v Shell UK [2020] EWCA Civ 2349, Shell and Esso agreed to supply, and BG to buy on a take-or-pay basis, a minimum daily quantity of gas (appearing in the forest of acronyms typical of hydrocarbon contracts as a TRDQ, or Total Reservoir Daily Quantity). The sellers controlled a couple of reservoirs which, together with others, were connected to the well-known Bacton terminal in Norfolk. As might be expected, gas from all the connected reservoirs was commingled before it came on shore, and the owners of the various reservoirs, including the sellers, had a practice of “borrowing” gas from one another to meet variations in demand. In order to protect BG’s interests, the sellers in addition undertook under Clause 6.4 of the contract to “provide and maintain a capacity (herein referred to as the ‘Delivery Capacity’) to deliver Natural Gas from the Reservoirs” amounting to 130% of the relevant daily quantity. If the capacity was reduced, then the sellers had a right to reduce the TRDQ proportionately.

As capacity in the North Sea ran down, the sellers’ capacity to supply from their own reservoirs dipped below the magic figure of 130%, though if you took into account their capacity to borrow gas the capacity remained adequate. BG saw an opportunity to sue the sellers. It argued that (1) “capacity” meant capacity from the sellers’ own reservoirs, excluding borrowed gas; and (2) had the sellers reduced the TRDQ to 100/130 of the reduced capacity, it would have bought in all excess requirements more cheaply elsewhere.

The Court of Appeal held for BG on (1): capacity on an ordinary interpretation meant capacity from the sellers’ own resources, not third parties’, so that the sellers were in breach. On damages, however, it held that BG had suffered no loss. The sellers had had a right, but no duty, to reduce the TRDQ in line with the total capacity; they had not done so; and the fact that they might have avoided being in breach of the 130% stipulation had they done so was beside the point.

The decision in (1) seems right as a matter of interpretation, and also sensible: apart from anything else, capacity clauses exist to assure certainty of supply, and would be somewhat devalued if they took into account possible arrangements that the seller might enter into with third parties.

The damages point is an awkward one, as is always the case with the fiendish counterfactual question “what would have happened if the defendant hadn’t been in breach?” It turns, it is suggested, on a proper interpretation of the sellers’ contractual obligation. Was it (i) to maintain a capacity to supply amounting to at least 130/100 of the TRDQ, or (ii) to set a TRDQ amounting at most to 100/130 of its capacity to supply (not quite the same thing)? Given the provision that there was a right but no duty to reduce the TRDQ in line with capacity, the latter answer seems correct. If so it follows, at least in the view of this blog, that BG’s claim against the sellers for substantial damages was rightly rejected as a claim for failing to do what they had not been bound to do in the first place.

Just one more thing. Before you file this case away as a useful piece of ammunition on the damages point, remember that in every case of this sort, the answer – and often many millions of dollars – is likely to turn on a careful reading of the underlying contract. A decision on one particular piece of wording may well not be a reliable guide to another.

Farm-Out Agreements and JOAs: a Joined-Up Approach to Construction

OVERVIEW

Apache North Sea Ltd v Euroil Exploration Ltd [2020] EWCA Civ 1397

In what circumstances will one contract be construed by reference to another? In the energy sector, the issue will often be an important one, given the prevalence of suites of contracts dealing with different aspects or layers of involvement or activity. The general rule is that “A document executed contemporaneously with, or shortly after, the primary document to be construed may be relied upon as an aid to construction, if it forms part of the same transaction as the primary document”: see Lewison, Interpretation of Contracts, 6th Edn, section 3.03. But this relates to different contracts which are “in truth one transaction” or “as it is called in modern jargon, a ‘composite transaction’” (Lewison). But what if the transactions are different ones, involving the same but also additional parties, but are related transactions?

Apache v Euroil: Summary and Take-Away Points

The Court of Appeal’s decision in Apache North Sea Ltd v Euroil Exploration Ltd [2020] EWCA Civ 1397 addressed this question in the context of a Farm-Out Agreement (the FOA) between Apache as and Euroil for the sale and purchase of minority interests in respect of a UK Continental Shelf production licence relating to the Val d’Isere block and for Apache’s participation in the associated Val d’Isere Joint Operating Agreement (the JOA) as Operator.

The Court of Appeal (as the Commercial Court before it) held that, on the terms of the specific contracts in issue, it was wrong in principle to treat the FOA and the JOA “as entirely separate contracts with Apache wearing different hats in each” and that would “not reflect the true nature of the parties’ dealings at the time” [39]. The contracts were to be construed together, and “in their proper context as a cohesive whole” [42]. 

While the Court stressed that it was dealing with the contracts before it and emphasised that it was not setting a “general precedent” for all FOAs and JOAs [70], the decision is significant in demonstrating a realistic approach to construing contracts which are meant to work together. As the Court stated, “Farm-out agreements do not typically exist in a vacuum. Where there is more than one owner, the parties will regulate their relationship in relation to that asset under a joint operating agreement. Farm-out agreements need to take account of and interact appropriately with those joint operating agreements to avoid inconsistencies and minimise the prospect of dispute.” [2]

The arguments in Apache v Euroil in the Court of Appeal

The issue arose out of the incurring of drilling costs by Apache in relation to an exploration “Earn-In Well”, using a drilling rig on a long-term lease. The rate for the drilling rig as incurred by Apache was one which was significantly above market rates at the time of drilling. 

Apache sought payment of the drilling costs in full from Euroil in full under the FOA. In the very detailed terms of the FOA drafted, as was common ground and as the Court accepted, by “sophisticated parties represented by experienced lawyers” provision was made for the “Val d’Isere Earn-In Costs” which Euroil agreed to bear: “twenty six point twenty five percent (26.25%) of the total costs (other than the Back Costs) in relation to the Val D’Isere Earn-In Well, whensoever incurred, and in respect of all works undertaken pursuant to the Well Programme in connection with the Val D’Isere Earn-In Well”. 

Euroil contended that the recovery was necessarily capped at market rates and relied upon the combination of the payment provisions in the FOA (requiring it to pay all Earn-In Costs “upon receipt of an invoice from [Apache] … in accordance with the relevant JOA within the applicable time periods as set out in the relevant JOA”), read together with provisions in the JOA to which both Apache (as Operator) and Euroil (and another) were parties. Euroil relied upon the usual ‘no gain no loss to the Operator” provision in the JOA and the detailed accounting procedure in the JOA which was used to be used for billing under the FOA, which had no billing procedure of its own. As part of that billing procedure, the cost of equipment leased by the Operator “not exceed rates currently prevailing for like…equipment”.

Apache responded that:

i.    the FOA and the JOA were entirely different contracts with different mechanisms and purposes and separate parties;
ii.    The FOA was a bilateral sale contract with a price agreed which the purchaser is liable to pay. The JOA on the other hand was a multilateral joint venture contract with a joint venturers’ account. 
iii.    Apache wore different hats at different times, depending on which contract is being considered.
iv.    To hold otherwise, would be impermissibly to incorporate a joint venture accounting convention in a multilateral joint operating agreement into a bilateral farm-out sale and purchase agreement so as to reduce the price there agreed;
v.    That would be “a significant development for the oil and gas industry, given that joint operating agreements are attached routinely to farm-out agreements by way of appendix”. 

The decision in the Court of Appeal

The Court of Appeal rejected Apache’s arguments and held that the recovery of the drilling costs was capped at market rates given the provisions of the JOA. This was essentially for three reasons identified in the judgment of Carr L.J.

First, the artificiality of trying to construe the FOA as if it stood alone and without reference to the JOA. As the Court stated, this was “an ex post facto theoretical argument that does not reflect the true nature of the parties’ dealings at the time” [39] in circumstances where, by the time that the FOA was executed, the terms of the JOA, including the Accounting Procedure, had been negotiated and by the terms of the FOA they were to be deemed to be in full force and effect before and after completion of the FOA. The two contracts were “part of a package” and fell to be read together. As the Court said at the outset, FOAs do not exist in a vacuum and necessarily need to take account of and interact appropriately with those joint operating agreements to avoid inconsistencies and minimise the prospect of dispute.

Secondly, and building on that, not only was the JOA part of the “Agreement” which made up the FOA (because the JOA was attached by way of schedule to the FOA), but the FOA also contained what the Court described as a “plethora of references throughout the FOA to compliance with the provisions of the JOA” which showed that they were intended to interact with each other. 

Thirdly, the argument that the FOA was an entirely separate and self-contained agreement could not sit with the parties’ express agreement for issuing AFEs, invoicing and payment under the FOA “in accordance with the relevant JOA”. The critical factor was that all billing under the FOA was to be done using the JOA accounting procedure and therefore invoicing Euroil for the Earn-In costs was subject, without qualification, to the JOA accounting procedure and the principles set out in it, in particular the ‘fair and equitable’ principle, reflected in market rates, and the ‘no gain no loss’ principle. 

Discussion

In one sense, it is difficult to see how the Court could have reached any other conclusion given the express inter-linking of the JOA into the FOA and the use of the JOA provisions for the accounting procedure. Looking at the language of the FOA in isolation, the Court found that Apache’s argument had at least an “initial attraction”. But the decisive factor was the fact that the proper construction of Euroil’s payment obligation fell to be determined on the basis of the text of both the FOA and the JOA, and sense made of each taken together. 

The realistic approach of construing multiple contracts used in the energy sector is a continuing one. There are different routes by which the approach can be deployed, for example by treating the other contract or contracts as part of the factual matrix in which the subject contract was made and against which it must be construed, even if not part of the same transaction and even if not directly inter-related (as they were in Apache v Euroil). 

The earlier decision of Teesside Gas Transportation v Cats North Sea Ltd [2020] EWCA Civ 503 illustrates this in perhaps an extreme form. In that case, the terms of a cost sharing formula in a Capacity Reservation and Transportation Agreement dated 1990 and relevant to the usage of the pipeline were construed in the light of the concepts found in the later Transportation & Processing Agreements with third party shippers (“TPAs”) were concluded by the CATS Parties and with which it was to be assumed the CRTA was to work in the future. A “separate contracts” / “subsequent contract” argument was rejected by the Court on the basis that “the concepts used in those later contracts (such as “Daily Reserved Capacity Rate”) were within the contemplation of the parties in 1990 even if the names given to them and the detailed terms of the TPAs were not” (per Males LJ at [84]).

Coda: “Precedence Clauses”: any use?

As so often, reliance was placed on a conflicts or inconsistencies precedence clause in the FOA (“If there is any conflict between the provisions [the FOA and the JOA], the provisions of this Agreement shall prevail”). Apache argued that this established that the FOA ‘trumped’ the JOA. Again, as equally so often, the Court emphasised that such clause was only of any utility in the case of true conflict, which would usually not arise once the terms had been construed together and for which, in Carr L.J’s words, it had to be shown that “one clause in one document emasculates another clause in another document”. [36]

Intransigent defendants: Prestige 4.0

Most parties who lose English court cases or arbitrations give in (relatively) gracefully. In the long and ongoing Prestige saga, however (already well documented in this blog: see here, here, here, and here), the French and Spanish governments have chosen to fight tooth and nail, something that is always apt to give rise to interesting legal points. Last Friday’s episode before Butcher J (SS Mutual v Spain [2020] EWHC 1920 (Comm)) was no exception, though in the event nothing particularly novel in the way of law emerged.

To recap, nearly twenty years ago the laden tanker Prestige sank off northern Spain, grievously polluting the French and Spanish coasts. Steamship Mutual, the vessel’s P&I Club, accepted that it might be potentially liable to direct suit up to the CLC limit, but pointed out that its cover was governed by English law, contained a “pay to be paid” clause and required arbitration in London. Nothing daunted, the French and Spanish governments came in as parties civiles when the owners and master were prosecuted in Spain, and claimed their full losses. The Club meanwhile protected its position by obtaining declaratory arbitration awards in England against both governments that all claims against it had to be arbitrated here; for good measure it then successfully transmuted these awards into High Court judgments under s.66 of the 1996 Arbitration Act (see The Prestige (No 2) [2013] EWHC 3188 (Comm). These decisions the French and Spanish governments blithely ignored, however; instead they took proceedings in Spain to execute the judgments they had obtained there.

In the present litigation, the Club’s claim (slightly simplified) was against both governments for damages for continuing the Spanish proceedings, based either on breach of the arbitration agreement, or in the alternative on failure to act in accordance with the s.66 judgments. The object, unsurprisingly, was to establish an equal and opposite liability to meet any claim asserted by the governments under their judgments in the Spanish proceedings.

The Club sought service out on the French and Spanish governments: the latter resisted, arguing that they were entitled to state immunity, and that in any case the court had no jurisdiction.

On the state immunity point, the Club succeeded in defeating the governments’ arguments. The proceedings for breach of the arbitration agreement were covered by the exception in s.9 of the State Immunity Act 1978 as actions “related to” an arbitration agreement binding on the governments. Importantly, Butcher J regarded it as unimportant that the proceedings did not relate to the substantive matter agreed to be arbitrated, and that the governments might be bound not by direct agreement but only in equity on the basis that they were third parties asserting rights arising from a contract containing an arbitration clause.

The proceedings on the judgments, by contrast, were not “related to” the arbitration agreement under s.9: understandably so, since they were based on failure to give effect to a judgment, the connection to arbitration being merely a background issue. But no matter: they were covered by another exception, that in s.3(1)(a), on the basis that the breach alleged – suing in the teeth of an English judgment that they had no right to do so – was undoubtedly a “commercial transaction” as defined by that section.

The judge declined to decide on a further argument now moot: namely, whether suing abroad in breach of an English arbitration agreement was a breach of a contractual obligation to be performed in England within the exception contained in s.3(1)(b) of the 1978 Act. But the betting, in the view of this blog, must be that that exception would have been inapplicable: there is a big and entirely logical difference between a duty not to do something other than in England, and an obligation actually to do (or omit to do) something in England, which is what s.3(1)(b) requires.

State immunity disposed of, did the court have jurisdiction over these two governments? Here the holding was yes, but only partly. The claim based on the s.66 judgments was, it was held, subject not only to the Brussels I Recast Regulation but to its very restrictive insurance provisions dealing with claims against injured parties (even, note, where the claims were being brought, as some were in the case of Spain, under rights of subrogation). Since the governments of France and Spain were ex hypothesi not domiciled in England, but in their respective realms, there could be no jurisdiction against them.

On the other hand, the claims based on the obligations stemming from the arbitration award were, it was held, within the arbitration exception to Brussels I, and thus outside it and subject to the national rules in CPR, PD6B. The only serious question, given that the arbitration gateway under PD6B 3.1(10) or the “contract governed by English law” gateway under PD6B 3.1(6)(c) pretty clearly applied, was whether there was a serious issue to be tried as to liability in damages. Here Butcher J had no doubt that there was, even if the governments were not directly party to the agreements and the awards had been technically merely declaratory of the Club’s rights. It followed that service out should be allowed in respect of the award claims.

Further than this his Lordship did not go, for the very good reason that he had no need to. But in our view the better position is that indeed there would in principle be liability under the award claims. If, as is now clear, an injunction is available on equitable grounds to prevent suit in the teeth of an arbitration clause by a third party despite the lack of any direct agreement by the latter, there seems no reason why there should not also be an ability to an award of damages, if only under Lord Cairns’s Act (now the Senior Courts Act 1981, s.50). Further, there seems no reason why there should not be a an implied obligation not to ignore even a declaratory award by suing in circumstances where it has declared suit barred.

For final answers to these questions we shall have to await another decision. Such a decision might even indeed come in the present proceedings, if the intransigence of the French and Spanish governments continues.

One other point to note. The UK may be finally extricating itself from the toils of the EU at the end of this year. But that won’t mark the end of this saga. Nor indeed will it mark the end of the Brussels regime on jurisdiction, since the smart money is on Brussels I being replaced with the Lugano Convention, which is in fairly similar terms. You can’t throw away your EU law notes quite yet.

VAT, missing traders, and illegality

Any trader’s recurring nightmare is to find that somebody it has bought goods or services from in the UK or the EU has been guilty of VAT hanky-panky. The classic instance is missing trader fraud; the fraudster charges VAT, does not account for it, and vanishes. The difficulty facing the person who paid the VAT is that HMRC, suspicious gentlemen that they are, are apt to disallow the payment unless the trader making it really had no reason to smell a rat. But a little relief came today from Joanne Wicks QC, sitting in the Chancery Division, in the decision in Colt Technology Services v SG Global Group SRL [2020] EWHC 1417 (Ch). The case also gave some useful confirmation on where a debt is payable, which makes it worth a brief note.

Colt Technology, acting through its Italian arm, bought voice trading services (i.e. super-reliable and super-secure real-time voice communication facilities) from Italian company SGG, based in Rome. All went well until Colt’s auditors warned them that there seemed something fishy about SGG, which looked increasingly like a participant in a missing trader ring. Colt, no doubt concerned at its ability to sustain the relevant VAT deductions when faced with a mercenary and sceptical Revenue, suspended payments to SGG totalling, in round figures, $5 million. SGG brought proceedings in Milan for payment, which were still ongoing. But in January 2018 it took the gloves off and served a statutory demand on Colt in England.

Colt defended, and sought to enjoin presentation of a winding-up petition, on the basis that liability was disputed on substantial grounds. These grounds were based on the rules in Ralli Bros v Cia Naviera Sota y Aznar [1920] 2 KB 287 (no enforcement in England of an obligation required to be performed in a jurisdiction where performance was illegal) and Foster v Driscoll [1929] 1 KB 470 (the colourful Prohibition case making it clear that there could be no enforcement here of a contract contemplating acts in a jurisdiction where they were illegal).

They succeeded on the first ground. Arguably payment was illegal under Italian law; furthermore, since SGG were Rome-based, the presumptive rule applied that Colt as debtor had to seek out its creditor and pay it where it was. Importantly, and correctly, the judge also discounted the fact that post-contract SGG had sent invoices asking for payment in California. What mattered was the contract. True, had Colt acted on these the debts would have been discharged; but this did not affect Colt’s underlying duty to pay in Italy and there alone.

Having held for Colt on the Ralli ground, the judge expressed no view on the Foster argument, namely that the contract involved a crime in Italy (duping the Italian fisc). She did, however, observe – again correctly — that on the authorities it did not seem to be engaged, since at the time of the contract Colt had had no idea of any possible plans by anyone to commit illegality.

Colt no doubt heaved a large corporate sigh of relief. But the case shows that traders remain exposed. There is something to be said for some drafting thought here. At least in the case of debtors with decent bargaining power, there comes to mind some kind of protective clause temporarily protecting a party from liability to pay when advised (say) by a lawyer or accountant that there is a possibility of missing trader fraud, unless and until the matter is settled by a suitable court or other tribunal. Over to you, City firms.

Covid-19 and Business Interruption Policies- Courts Are Expected to Be Called into Action Soon

More than 300 small and medium sized businesses have formed an action group (Hiscox Action Group) with a view to bringing a class action against Hiscox’s decision to refuse payment under its commercial business interruption policies. It now looks like the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) will also be involved in the ongoing debate by seeking clarity from the courts about whether the wording of some business interruption insurance policies should provide cover as a result of the pandemic. Although this particular class action might involve Hiscox, there is no doubt that other insurers, such as AXA, Allianz, RSA, QBE and Zurich, might face potential multi-million pound lawsuits from businesses such as hotels, pubs, restaurants and leisure groups that allege legitimate business interruption claims have been rejected by their insurers.

covid19-business-interruptions

The legal issue at stake here is a matter of construing the scope of such policies. Several assureds claim that their policies specifically provide cover for the “inability to use the insured premises due to restrictions imposed by a public authority following an occurrence of any human infectious or human contagious disease.” However, Hiscox and other insurers are arguing that cover is only available under such policies if “there is an incident within a mile radius of the insured building” and therefore unless the businesses are closed by authorities due to outbreak of the disease at the premises, the relevant business interruption policy will not respond.

On several occasions, courts have adopted purposive interpretation techniques when construing terms in commercial contracts. Lord Clarke, famously, in Rainy Sky S.A. and others v. Kookmin Bank [2011] UKSC 50 stipulated [at 14]: “The ultimate aim of interpreting a provision in a contract, especially a commercial contract, is to determine what the parties meant by the language used, which involves ascertaining what a reasonable person would have understood the parties to have meant”.

On that basis, taking into account the wording in question, it will be hard to say that a reasonable person would not have understood the parties to have meant that cover would not be available if the commercial activities of a business are restricted due to restrictions imposed by authorities following an occurrence of any human infectious or human contagious disease. That said, more recently the Supreme Court seemed to be trending back towards the literal approach moving away from the contextual approach. See, for example, Arnold v. Britton [2015] UKSC 36 where Lord Neuberger [at 17] stated that “the reliance placed in some cases on commercial common sense and surrounding circumstances … should not be invoked to undervalue the importance of the language of the provision which is to be construed.”

The Supreme Court in Wood v. Capita Insurance Services Ltd [2017] UKSC 24 attempted to reconcile these authorities by confirming the validity of both literal and contextual approaches to contract construction. Lord Hodge [at 13] explained the appropriate approach in the following fashion:

“The extent to which [textualism or contextualism] will assist the court in its task will vary according to the circumstances of the particular agreement or agreements. Some agreements may be successfully interpreted principally by textual analysis, for example because of their sophistication and complexity and because they have been negotiated and prepared with the assistance of skilled professionals. The correct interpretation of other contracts may be achieved by a greater emphasis on the factual matrix, for example because of their informality, brevity or the absence of skilled professional assistance. But negotiators of complex formal contracts may often not achieve a logical and coherent text because of, for example, the conflicting aims of the parties, failures of communication, differing drafting practices, or deadlines which require the parties to compromise in order to reach agreement. There may often therefore be provisions in a detailed professionally drawn contract which lack clarity and the lawyer or judge in interpreting such provisions may be particularly helped by considering the factual matrix and the purpose of similar provisions in contracts of the same type. …”

This approach indicates that a more contextual approach can be adopted in construing some commercial contracts. The key question will be whether standard business interruption policies sold to small and medium sized businesses can be viewed as sophisticated contracts negotiated and prepared with the assistance of skilled professionals? That is highly doubtful! So, there might be room for the courts to adopt a more contextual approach when it comes to construing such contracts bearing in mind the factual matrix. Defining the factual matrix in this context will not be an easy task but the approach taken by courts when construing the scope of professional indemnity policies in actions brought by those who suffered from mesothelioma or their families (Employers’ Liability Policy Trigger Litigation Durham v. BAI [2012] UKSC 14) might give clues as to the likely direction of travel in this context as well.

On the other hand, one appreciates the genuine concerns of insurers- providing indemnity for losses they did not intend to cover- will have implications on their businesses and also their re-insurance arrangements. They can plausibly argue that higher rate of premium would have been charged if they were expected to cover the financial losses emerging from a global pandemic.

One feels that a lengthy and tough legal battle lies ahead!

Demand guarantees: interpretations and paradoxes.

Cases about letters of credit and performance bonds often raise points of intellectual interest in commercial law. Waksman J’s decision in Técnicas Reunidas Saudia Ltd v Korea Development Bank [2020] EWHC 968 (TCC), decided 12 weeks ago but only up on BAILII this week, is a case in point. It raised nice issues of contractual interpretation, and also discussed the old chestnut of what to do about non-documentary conditions. And in both cases it got the answer right: a good thing, given that quite big money (something like £8 million) turned on it.

TRS were a big construction company involved in a mega-project in Saudi Arabia. One of its subcontractors was S. The bank, a Korean corporation, issued TRS with what was effectively an advance payment guarantee, operable on first written demand by TRS, to cover TRS’s cash-flow advances to S. The guarantee, which was subject to URDG758, went on to say: “It is a condition for any claim and payment under this guarantee to be made that the funds paid as advance payments subject to the terms of the subcontract must have been received by the sub-contractor on its account number 042-117994-03 held with HSBC.”

S ceased work in circumstances at best murky. TRS called on the guarantee and provided evidence of advances made to the named account number at SABB, a Saudi associate of HSBC which traded on the connection and indeed used the HSBC logo. Meanwhile a court in Korea was asked to issue an injunction preventing the bank from paying. Caught between a rock and a hard place (it being clear that the English court would ignore any Korean court order, Korea being the place neither of the governing law nor of payment), the bank thrashed around for a reason not to pay. It eventually refused on the basis that, payment to an account at SABB was not payment to HSBC and hence the condition was unsatisfied. Waksman J was unimpressed and gave summary judgment for TRS. This he did for two reasons.

First, he said that the generic reference to “HSBC” had to be interpreted to mean HSBC or its associated banks. Not only was this what a reasonable man present at the time of contracting would have understood; it also avoided the awkwardness that would follow from any other answer, which was that the guarantee would have been waste paper from the beginning because it was subject to a condition that could not be complied with. He also added a reference to a further point, often forgotten by busy lawyers, known as the principle of misnomer. If a document referred to an entity by an incorrect name and the reference was not ambivalent between two separate entities, extrinsic evidence was admissible to show which entity was meant. This was the case here.

More interestingly, his Lordship also took the point that the condition in the guarantee was non-documentary, and said that TRS could invoke Art.7 of the URDG, equivalent to Art.14.h of the UCP600, which provides that “[i]f a credit contains a condition without stipulating the document to indicate compliance with the condition, banks will deem such condition as not stated and will disregard it”. The non-documentary condition, he held, simply fell to be excised; from which it followed that even if TRS had failed to comply with it this was irrelevant.

This has always been a matter of controversy, raising the same sort of paradoxical issue as Odysseus’s order to his crew to tie him to the mast as they sailed past the Sirens and to ignore any subsequent commands he might give (they duly disobeyed a subsequent order to untie him, thus assuring his safe arrival in Ithaca). On one argument, parties inserting a non-documentary condition are to that extent contracting out of Art.7 and so the condition still takes effect; but although accepted in Singapore (see Kumagai-Zenecon v Arab Bank [1997] 3 S.L.R. 770), this solution does have the disadvantage of leaving the provision like Cinderella: all dressed up, but with nowhere to go. In the present case Waksman J emphatically rejected it. Even if the UCP and URDG technically became binding on traders by contractual incorporation and were in no way legislative, they were a special kind of instrument not necessarily subject to the ordinary rules of contractual interpretation. And, whatever the logical problems, a court should interpret them so as to give effect as far as possible to all their provisions.

This may not be the last word, especially on Art.7 and its UCP equivalent. It is nevertheless a very sensible word. We at IISTL hope future courts will take it up, amplify and confirm it.

COVID-19: When is a pandemic force majeure? And what should new force majeure provisions address?

Simon Rainey QC and Andrew Leung

The COVID-19 outbreak was declared a pandemic by the World Health Organisation on 11 March 2020. Some six weeks before this, on 23 January 2020, China implemented a regime of lockdown measures in Wuhan and other cities in Hubei in an attempt to quarantine the foci of the outbreak. China is edging back to normalcy, while bracing for a second surge of cases. Elsewhere, the clampdown on global economic activity by national governments is widening and intensifying with the spread of the pathogen.

Inevitably, many parties are finding it increasingly difficult if not impossible to perform contracts pre-dating these extraordinary and turbulent times. A question increasingly being asked is whether the outbreak or its consequences amount to a force majeure event. Naturally, there is no one-size-fits-all analysis. All will turn on the specific terms of the force majeure clause, the effects of the relevant event on contractual performance, and whether there are alternative means of performance. In this article Simon Rainey QC and Andrew Leung highlight some of the relevant themes as declarations of force majeure due to COVID-19 proliferate. 

Once again, China seems to be ahead of the curve: LNG importer CNOOC has declared force majeure on LNG contracts (see The impact of Covid-19 on the energy & natural resources sector – Chris Smith QC), and the China Council for the Promotion of International Trade has started to issue force majeure certificates. The legal or evidential weight such certificates might bear under English law is a moot question. Certainly, they will not simply supplant the multi-stage enquiry undertaken by English Courts as to force majeure, though whether they might inhibit enforcement in China is another matter.  

Force majeure clauses: the basics

A force majeure clause is a contractual term which regulates the consequences of supervening events beyond the parties’ control on the obligations of one or both of the parties to the contract. Such clauses typically require a causal link between such events and performance, and provide for the consequences of the event on the parties’ obligations. The event may result in the cancellation of the contract, excuse non-performance (whether in whole or in part), or entitle a party to an extension of time and/or to suspend performance. 

In addition to fulfilling any procedural requirements such as the giving of notice, it is for the party relying upon a force majeure clause to prove the facts bringing it within the clause. The party must prove the following, and this checklist must be applied to any COVID-19 force majeure argument:

  1. The occurrence of an event identified in the clause;
  2. It has been prevented or hindered (as the case may be) from performing the contract by reason of that event;
  3. Its non-performance was due to circumstances beyond its control; and
  4. There were no reasonable steps that could have been taken to mitigate the event or its consequences.

We consider particular problem areas in the light of recent cases and the special challenges which the worldwide sweep of COVID-19 poses. Where does this leave parties entering into new contracts in drafting force majeure provisions?

(1) What is the relevant force majeure event?

“Force majeure” is not a term of art. Whether the viral outbreak falls within a force majeure clause will turn on the proper construction of the wording of the clause.

Contractual provisions commonly enumerate force majeure events, which may include a “pandemic” or “epidemic”, potentially by reference to WHO classification or, more generically, “disease”. It is unlikely that the pandemic in and of itself will have had immediate ramifications on contractual performance. It is the knock-on effects which will be in issue, which gives rise to questions of causation (discussed further below). It is therefore the ripple effect of the disruption caused by the virus which will in almost all cases provide the relevant putative ‘event’. For example, the virus decimates the population of a port and the port is closed by government order, preventing delivery of the contract goods: the ‘event’ is in reality the port closure or government lockdown. Or where the government makes no closure order but recommends port users are to be confined to essential imports only. There is no ban or embargo, just a voluntary self-policing scheme: what is the ‘event’? Is there one at all?

Many force majeure clauses do not expressly include a “pandemic” or similar in the list of named events. They may instead refer to an “Act of God” – a term that has been subject to surprisingly scant attention in the force majeure context – or, more concretely, “quarantine”, “embargo” or “government action”.  With daily changes in the legal and regulatory landscape as governments enact outbreak management measures, events of this nature will be invoked under force majeure clauses with increasing frequency.

(2) “Beyond a party’s reasonable control”

Most force majeure clauses contain sweep up language such as “any other cause beyond [the party’s] reasonable control”. The COVID-19 outbreak itself is clearly capable of constituting such a cause. But again, is the secondary or tertiary effect produced by it such a cause, and which is the actual trigger for inability to perform?

In Aviation Holdings Ltd v Aero Toy Store LLC [2010] 2 Lloyd’s Rep 668, which concerned a contract for the sale of a Bombardier executive jet aircraft, Hamblen J stated that a seller unable to deliver the aircraft on time due to a pandemic causing a dearth of delivery pilots would be able to bring itself within the wording of a force majeure clause which provided “any other cause beyond the seller’s reasonable control”.

This type of wording applies to causes beyond the reasonable control of the party or, where relevant, any other party to whom contractual performance of that party’s obligation has been delegated: The Crudesky [2014] 1 Lloyd’s Rep 1 (in which the first-named author appeared). That case involved a string of contracts for the sale and purchase of Nigerian oil, ending with the charterers of the MV “CRUDESKY”. The parties in the string who had delegated their obligation to load the vessel to Total, the terminal operator, were unable to rely on force majeure to avoid liability for a six week delay caused when the vessel was detained due to Total’s failure to obtain official loading clearance. Total was their delegate for the purposes of loading. Its decision not to use official channels to obtain loading clearance was within its reasonable control and, by extension, that of its principals.

It will be relevant to ask in transactions with supply chains interrupted by the pandemic whether the cause of non-performance was beyond the reasonable control of any party to whom performance was delegated. For instance, it may be doubtful whether a factory closure by a vendor acting voluntarily and independently of government diktat would qualify as a force majeure event vis-à-vis a seller who arranged to source goods from that vendor.

(3) Causation: the effect on performance

Once a party has established the occurrence of a force majeure event, the next criterion is establishing that the event had and/or is having the contractually stipulated effect on performance.

Where the clause states that a party is relieved from performance or liability if it is “prevented” from performing its obligations or is “unable” to do so, it is necessary to show physical or legal impossibility, and not merely that performance has become more difficult or unprofitable: Tandrin Aviation Holdings Ltd v Aero Toy Store LLC (supra.). The economic toll of the pandemic will therefore not suffice. Nor will a delay of several months due to a pause in production in the context of a multiple year contract. However, as Tandrin Aviation suggests, a lack of personnel without whom contractual performance cannot occur, e.g. crew to operate an oil rig under a hire contract for an oil rig, could qualify.

Further, a seller will not be entitled to rely on a “prevent” clause where alternative sources of supply remain available. In PJ van der Zijden Wildhandel NV v Tucker & Cross Ltd [1975] 2 Lloyd’s Rep 240, the sellers of frozen Chinese rabbits were not entitled to cancel the contract which provided “should the sellers fail to deliver…or effect shipment in time by reason of war, floor, fire or storm…or any other causes beyond their control”. They had been let down by their Chinese suppliers, but this did not prevent them from performing by other means. By contrast, if it is not possible to perform by any alternative means after the original or intended means for performance becomes impossible, that is a classic force majeure case.

A distinction can be drawn with the less stringent requirement that the force majeure event should “hinder” or “delay” performance. In Tennants (Lancashire) Ltd v CS Wilson & Co Ltd [1917] A.C. 495, a clause in a contract for the sale of magnesium chloride gave the sellers the right to suspend performance due to contingencies beyond their control “preventing or hindering the manufacture or delivery of the article”. The sellers’ principal source of supply in Germany was cut off on the outbreak of the First World War. Though an English source remained available, the sellers were entitled to rely on the clause. A multi-national export prohibition due to the pandemic therefore need not eliminate all possible sources to potentially hinder the performance of a contract for the sale of goods.

(4) But for causation?

A further question which may arise is: what if, though the pandemic indisputably prevents performance, the party claiming the benefit of the clause would not have performed even absent the pandemic? Take an example of a counterparty already in deep financial difficulty who, before Corona, was suspected of being unable to perform the long-term contract or the next obligation when it fell due. Corona intervenes and prevents any performance of the contract, relieving the pressure on the counterparty, who then declares force majeure.

This was the position in Classic Maritime v Limbungan Makmur Sdn Bhd [2019] EWCA Civ 1102 (in which both authors appeared) (see “But you weren’t going to perform anyway!”: A new hurdle when invoking Force Majeure – Classic Maritime Inc v Limbungan Makmur SDN BHD – Simon Rainey QC and Andrew Leung). The contract was a long term contract of affreightment (“COA”) for the carriage of Brazilian iron ore. The relevant contractual force majeure clause excluded liability for loss or damage “resulting from” a series of specified events, including one applicable on the facts, which “directly affect the performance of either party”. The Samarco tailings dam-burst destroyed all means of the party sourcing Brazilian iron ore and prevented any possible performance of the COA. The non-performing party was in financial difficulties and had missed several shipments just before the dam-burst event as a result. It was held to be unable to rely on this clause despite performance having been rendered wholly impossible because, but for the dam burst, on the facts it would not have performed anyway.

This contrasts with the clause considered in Bremer Handelgesellschaft v Vanden Avenne-Izegem PVBA [1978] 2 Lloyd’s Rep 109, which, once triggered, cancelled the affected portion of the contract. Being a “contractual frustration clause”, the House of Lords held that there was no such requirement of “but for” causation as it automatically brought the contract to an end forthwith.

The antithesis between these cases suggests the nature of the remedy conferred by the force majeure clause (i.e. suspension or cancellation) may influence whether or not it is necessary to prove ‘but for’ causation.

(5) Avoidance / mitigation: working round the problem

The existence of reasonable steps the non-performing party could have taken to avoid or mitigate the effects of a force majeure event will preclude reliance on the clause. To take the example given above of the port closed as a result of COVID-19 affecting the population which prevents the normal route of delivering goods to the buyer. If it were possible to deliver at a neighbouring country whose ports were still open, and then carry the goods by rail or road to the delivery place, then reliance on force majeure would not be possible.

The burden on the party claiming force majeure is in this respect a heavy one. For example, in Classic v Limbungan it was held that the non-performing party had no means of avoiding or mitigating the dam-burst and its effect on supplies of Brazilian iron ore, but only after an exhaustive analysis (at summary judgment: [2017] EWHC 867 (QB)) of all possible sources of supply, including going into the market, buying afloat and shipping back to the Brazilian ports to reship and thereby perform the COA by this alternative route and, subsequently, a full debate in expert evidence (at trial) as to market quantities available: see e.g. [2018] EWHC 3489 (Comm). Faced with COVID-19 problems preventing the immediately obvious means or manner of performance, a party may be faced with a much more expensive and inconvenient means of performing. If that is open to it, then it may later be unable to justify its invocation of force majeure. In practical terms, it makes sense to explore and document how there were no other alternative routes. In Classic, the non-performing party had in part laid a proper paper-trail by seeking alternative supplies from the other supplier (Vale) once the supplier it was using (Samarco) closed its operations after the dam-burst and was able to show that Vale refused to make supplies available, preferring to service the needs of its established customers in time of dearth of supply.

Some contracts go further, such as that in Seadrill Ghana Operations Ltd v Tullow Ghana Ltd [2018] 2 Lloyd’s Rep. 628 which contained an unusual express term requiring both parties to “use their reasonable endeavours to mitigate, avoid, circumvent, or overcome the circumstances of force majeure”.

In the present COVID-19 context, the unprecedented nature of the measures being introduced by governments internationally is likely to narrow the scope for avoidance or mitigation. But it will not foreclose it altogether and expense and inconvenience are not enough, hence the importance of the focus on the precise wording: ‘prevent’ or ‘hinder’ etc.

(6) Looking ahead… future-proofing new contracts

Even in these troubled times, trade and commerce continue. New contracts face particular challenges in that they are concluded against the backdrop of the pressing current problems but also forecasts of continuing or extended lockdowns into the future and with the spectre of secondary outbreaks and recurrence of the virus next winter.

This calls for a careful review of the force majeure provisions contemplated for the new contract. Simple reliance on the last pre-Corona contract ‘with logical amendments’ or standard terms and boilerplate is unlikely to be sufficient or wise, unless the clause in question is a sophisticated one which covers some or all of the points raised above.

Plainly clauses which refer to “unforeseeable events” will be of scant assistance. To take the example of the NNPC Terms considered in The Crudesky, these provided general wording which qualified the various listed events: “Neither the Seller nor the Buyer shall be held liable for failure or delay in the performance of its obligations under this Contract, if such performance is delayed or hindered by the occurrence of an unforeseeable act or event which is beyond the reasonable control of either party (“Force Majeure”) which shall include, but not [be] limited to…” (emphasis added). COVID-19, its recurrence, and its mutations are now all unfortunately very foreseeable. Similarly clauses which are modelled on the civil law definition of force majeure (imprévisible, irrésistible et extérieur: unforeseeable, unpreventable and external) will leave the parties fully exposed. Thus the ICC Force Majeure Clause 2003, together with the requirements of causation of prevention of performance, the results of which could not reasonably be avoided or mitigated, requires the party invoking force majeure to establish also “that it could not reasonably have been expected to have taken the occurrence of the impediment into account at the time of the conclusion of the contract”.

Obvious points to consider will include:

  1. Moving away from prevention to hindrance or lesser thresholds for interruption or impedance of contractual performance;
  2. Specific sub-clauses dealing with epidemic and the results of epidemic;
  3. Addressing the threshold for “beyond reasonable control” in the light of the Court of Appeal’s judgment in The Crudesky;
  4. Building on, in addition to the traditional force majeure regime, more sophisticated provisions which can address the economic effect and increased costs of performance and alternative means of performance, such as “material adverse change” (MAC) or “material adverse effect” (MAE) clauses which allow termination of the contract, or suspension or adjustment of contract obligations, where external events impact upon the value of performance (although even these commonly do not extend to pure market or price movements).