Of Default Gas and Freedom of Contract

It’s a good day for freedom of contract as Christopher Clarke LJ handed down his judgment for Scottish Power UK Plc v BP Exploration Operating Company Ltd & Ors [2016] EWCA Civ 1043 in favour of the respondents.

The appellants, Scottish Power – the buyers of natural gas under four, almost identical long term gas sales agreements – argued they should be allowed to recover damages for a contractual breach (the underdelivery of gas) under the general law. This was in spite of a compensation mechanism within their agreements which limited the remedy for such a breach to the delivery of the entitled quantity of gas at a discounted rate (“Default Gas”), and which expressly excluded the buyer’s right to seek compensation for such a breach through any other means.

During the initial case, in considering the commercial purpose of the compensation clause in the contracts, Leggatt J thought it improbable that the parties intended a situation where the buyer would automatically receive a quantity of Default Gas as compensation for the undelivered gas and yet still be permitted to seek another remedy for the failure to deliver the very same quantity of gas that already been compensated for. Christopher Clarke LJ was in agreement and further argued, quite sensibly, that the wording of the compensation regime was clear enough that the court was obliged to give effect to it, even though it deprived Scottish Power of a right it would have otherwise had under the law.

This case (along with the recent Transocean v Providence) is rather refreshing given how one of the very cornerstones of English contract law – freedom of contract (a rather sensible and practical doctrine which provides a good deal of certainty and thus is beloved by businesses everywhere) – has been placed under some scrutiny recently.

One hopes for more cases like Scottish Power v BP on the horizon but we’ll have to wait and see.

 

The LOGIC of freedom of contract

A ringing vindication of freedom of contract, and of grown-up contract interpretation, from the English Court of Appeal today in Transocean v Providence.

Transocean provided a drilling rig to Providence to explore for oil off the shores of the Emerald Isle. The contract was a bespoke version of the LOGIC offshore construction, etc contract.  Problems arose when operations had to stop for 4 weeks owing to problems with Transocean’s rig, which were found to be due to Transocean’s breach of contract. Providence sued for “spread costs” (accountant-speak for capital equipment left idle) during that time. Transocean countered with a reference to Clause 20, part of a complex and comprehensive knock-for-knock arrangement:

“20. CONSEQUENTIAL LOSS. For the purposes of this Clause 20 the expression “Consequential Loss” shall mean:

(i) any indirect or consequential loss or damages under English law, and/or

(ii) to the extent not covered by (i) above, loss or deferment of production, loss of product, loss of use (including, without limitation, loss of use or the cost of use of property, equipment, materials and services including without limitation, those provided by contractors or subcontractors of every tier or by third parties), loss of business and business interruption, loss of revenue (which for the avoidance of doubt shall not include payments due to CONTRACTOR by way of remuneration under this CONTRACT), loss of profit or anticipated profit, loss and/or deferral of drilling rights and/or loss, restriction or forfeiture of licence, concession or field interests whether or not such losses were foreseeable at the time of entering into the CONTRACT and, in respect of paragraph (ii) only, whether the same are direct or indirect. The expression “Consequential Loss” shall not include CONTRACTOR’S losses arising in connection with (1) failure by COMPANY to provide the letter of credit as required by Clause 3.13 of Section III or resulting termination of this CONTRACT or (2) any termination of this CONTRACT by reason of COMPANY’S repudiatory breach.

Subject to and without affecting the provisions of this CONTRACT regarding (a) the payment rights and obligations of the parties or (b) the risk of loss, or (c) release and indemnity rights and obligations of the parties but notwithstanding any other provision of the CONTRACT to the contrary the COMPANY shall save, indemnify, defend and hold harmless the CONTRACTOR GROUP from the COMPANY GROUP’S own consequential loss and the CONTRACTOR shall save, indemnify, defend and hold harmless the COMPANY GROUP from the CONTRACTOR GROUP’S own consequential loss.”

This seemed comprehensive enough, but Providence still thought it worth arguing the toss. They argued that the clause only covered claims for replacement costs; that it should be aggressively construed contra proferentem; that it was apt to reduce Transocean’s obligations to nil; and that as such the courts should simply disregard it (!).

The judge at first instance accepted some of these arguments and rejected Transocean’s defence. Moore-Bick LJ, who gave the only judgment in the CA, was having none of it. Read in any sensible way the clause covered the loss; contra proferentem was inappropriate in a case of this sort between sophisticated grown-up contractors; and the freedom of parties in situations like this to make unreasonable agreements needed to be preserved.

This is, if one may say so, the sort of entirely well-reasoned and sound decision which gives us continuing confidence in English law and jurisdiction as the best system to adopt if  businessmen want to know where they stand.

See Transocean Drilling v Providence Resources [2016] EWCA Civ 372, available on BAILII.