boilerplate clauses

Boilerplate clauses - what are they?

Boilerplate clauses are repeated in all kinds of contracts. They are not the commercial terms that vary from one transaction to another. They regulate the operation of the contract: its duration, interpretation, transferability and enforceability.

What are boilerplate clauses?

Boilerplate clauses are often standard, and most are not typically negotiated. But they are important. Many contract disputes depend on the drafting of boilerplate clauses such as termination, force majeure, and entire agreement.

Some heavily negotiated commercial terms routinely appear in so many contracts that they may also be classed with boilerplate. Examples are indemnities and limit of liability clauses.

Example: how boilerplate clauses may affect a dispute

Here’s an example from the case FoodCo UK LLP v Henry Boot Developments Ltd [2010] EWHC 358 (Ch). An entire agreement clause saved a developer from a series of claims for misrepresentation, brought by businesses that had leased units in the development. The clause agreed that no lessee had relied on any representation beyond those recorded in the contract. The effect was that one businessman, when confronted with the clause in the contract he had signed, admitted that he had not in fact relied on the alleged misrepresentations. That defeated his claim. The clause successfully excluded claims for innocent and negligent misrepresentation. That reduced the other five claimants to asserting fraud, which they failed to prove.

Some common boilerplate clauses:

  • Counterparts – Confirms the validity of counterparts or duplicates of the contract (and may delay contract formation).
  • Entire Agreement – identifies the express contract terms. Often contains terms limiting liability for misrepresentation.
  • Limiting liability for misrepresentation – Reduces the risk of liability for misrepresentation.
  • Severance - Agrees the contract will survive deletion of an unenforceable provision. May impose a duty to renegotiate.
  • Third party rights – Can limit non-parties’ rights to enforce contract terms and to veto variation and rescission.
  • Waiver - May help to prevent accidental loss of rights but cannot ensure their survival.

Counterparts

Parties to a contract may each execute a separate copy of the contract, each of which they will consider an original. A counterparts clause states this expressly. Even without a counterparts clause, a contract is valid if made in this way, under the common law. Land transactions are commonly executed in this way without a counterparts clause.

A counterparts clause may also be used where the parties execute multiple original contracts (duplicates), to confirm that each has the status of an original. Duplicates may be required for tax, regulatory, company administration or other reasons. In these cases, a counterparts clause may help stop a party (or an outside authority) objecting that a counterpart or duplicate contract is not binding or valid.

Entire agreement

The entire agreement affects statements made in negotiations but not repeated in the contract. In the absence of an entire agreement statement, these could create a collateral warranty or side agreement, under the common law. For example, if a sales representative offers extra benefits as an inducement to sign a contract, the supplier could be contractually bound to provide those benefits, even if they were not written into the contract. An entire agreement statement prevents this by identifying the express contract terms, limiting them to the terms identified in the clause.

Limiting liability for misrepresentation

This part of the clause addresses the risk of claims if one party (usually the supplier, rarely the customer) induced another to enter the contract by a false statement. If that happens, even unintentionally, the other may claim damages for the loss caused by entering the contract, or occasionally undo (rescind) the contract. Depending on the facts, the claims arising may include misrepresentation, negligence, fraud and (if the false statement was also captured as a warranty) breach of contract.

To reduce this risk, an entire agreement clause may include a non-reliance statement and express limits on liability and remedies for misrepresentation. This kind of wording has defeated large claims for misrepresentation, as in the example described above. This limitation often appears in the entire agreement clause for historical reasons, but it could equally well go in the limitation clause, a remedies clause or a clause on representations.

Severance

This clause takes effect if a contract term is illegal or invalid. Examples of illegal or invalid term are:

  • Unfair exclusions of liability contrary to the Unfair Contract Terms Act 1977.
  • Non-compete and non-solicitation clauses that go beyond what is reasonable to protect a party's legitimate interests.
  • A duty to pay a banned person or organisation, contrary to anti-terrorism legislation.

Some severance clauses add nothing to what English law already provides. Under the common law doctrine of severance, the invalid provision is deleted and the rest of the contract survives if all these conditions are met:

  • Public policy allows it.
  • Nothing is added or rewritten. So, if an excessive restraint on competition or limit on liability is deleted, a reasonable and valid provision is not substituted.
  • The basic nature of the contract is unchanged. (But contracts routinely survive the deletion of an unfair limit on liability.)

Third party rights

The Contracts (Rights of Third Parties) Act 1999 introduced a new pitfall in contract drafting: the risk of accidentally giving a non-party (i.e. third party) the right to:

  • Enforce a contract term. Any express or implied benefit to a non-party may be directly enforceable by that non-party against the parties.
  • Prevent variation and rescission. Once a contract creates a directly enforceable third party right, the parties may need the non-party's consent before they can change that right by agreeing to vary or rescind the contract.

A clause dealing with third party rights can prevent direct enforcement by a non-party or restrict it to third party rights created expressly or remove the need for a non-party's consent to variation or rescission. Some clauses on third party rights go further, excluding non-party rights arising in other ways and preserving other rights of the parties. The need for these provisions and their effect on the contract are often unclear.

Waiver

A party can lose a right by waiting too long to exercise it or by taking action inconsistent with the right, under the common law of waiver. Expressly reserving the right during the delay or while taking the inconsistent action can prevent waiver, at least for a while.

A "no waiver" clause tries to preserve all rights from being waived, especially by delay. However, the clause may not prevail over the later words and actions of the party seeking to rely on it.

Worth checking

Boilerplate clauses can have sweeping effects in the event of a breakdown of contractual relations. Making sure the correct ones are included is therefore essential. But the idea that they can be applied equally in every contract is false. Making your lawyer away of the idiosyncrasies of your contractual dealings when considering boilerplate clauses is therefore advisable.

If you have any questions about boilerplate clauses or about contract law more generally please contact Neil Williamson.


resale price maintenance

Resale Price Maintenance – Korg Fined

On 9 July 2020, the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) published the full text of its infringement decision finding that Korg (UK) Limited had breached the Chapter I prohibition of the Competition Act 1998 and Article 101 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union by engaging in resale price maintenance in relation to the online retail prices of Korg's synthesizers and hi-tech equipment.

Background

In April 2018, the CMA launched an investigation related to alleged anti-competitive agreements and/or concerted practices in relation to the distribution of musical instruments and equipment by Korg (UK) Limited (Korg UK). On 24 March 2020, the CMA issued a statement of objections alleging that Korg UK had breached Article 101 of the TFEU and the Chapter I prohibition by restricting retailer freedom to discount the online retail prices of synthesizers and hi-tech equipment supplied by Korg UK, in other words, that Korg were guilty of resale price maintenance.

Korg UK subsequently reached a settlement agreement with the CMA and, on 29 June 2020, the CMA announced that it had issued an infringement decision, fining Korg UK £1.5 million for engaging in resale price maintenance designed to restrict retailer freedom to set prices online by requiring their musical instruments to be sold at or above a minimum price. The CMA has now published the full text of the infringement decision.

The facts

Korg UK is active in the distribution of musical instruments and music-making equipment (MI) including electronic MI in the UK and Republic of Ireland. The CMA's investigation was limited to the supply of Korg synthesizers and hi-tech equipment (including DJ equipment, electronic percussion, stage pianos, and controllers) (Relevant Products).

The CMA concluded that during the relevant period (9 June 2015 to 17 April 2018), Korg UK operated and enforced a wide-ranging pricing policy, the purpose of which was to ensure that MI Resellers would not advertise or sell the Relevant Products online below a certain minimum price specified by Korg UK from time to time, for example in Korg UK’s price lists. The CMA found that the nature of the Korg Pricing Policy was such that Korg UK rarely needed to contact MI Resellers about it (in writing or otherwise), when MI Resellers were complying with it because the Minimum Price was, in general, clearly displayed on Korg’s UK’s price lists relating to the relevant products.

This generally limited the need for verbal and written communications concerning the Korg Pricing Policy, and therefore limited the amount of written records related to the Korg Pricing Policy. Despite this, the CMA obtained evidence which, in the CMA’s view, demonstrated the existence of the Korg Pricing Policy. Relevant contemporaneous documentary evidence was corroborated by certain witness evidence describing verbal and/or written communications that took place between Korg UK and its MI Resellers during the relevant period.

Resale price maintenance – Korg evidence

The commercial aims, content and communication and scope and duration

Korg UK’s commercial aims for introducing the Korg Pricing Policy were as follows:

  • It was designed to enable Korg UK’s MI Resellers to achieve attractive margins through the maintenance of high and stable pricing, so increasing the attractiveness of the Korg brand and encouraging MI Resellers to stock and sell the Relevant Products (and the Korg brand more generally).
  • In doing so, it aimed to help Korg UK secure, maintain and/or improve its UK market position in the relevant products relative to its competitors, in particular, by maintaining the brand value of the relevant products.

Resale price maintenance – Korg’s monitoring and enforcement

The evidence showed that Korg UK sought to monitor and enforce the Korg Pricing Policy by contacting MI Resellers in advance of Korg UK issuing a new price list or immediately after issue to ensure early compliance with the Korg Pricing Policy.

Korg UK’s awareness of competition law and potential illegality, and culture of concealment

The evidence shows that Korg UK staff were very familiar with competition law and appeared to know what conduct would constitute a breach of it. Korg had introduced a compliance code in 2015 and senior employees took an active role in giving competition compliance training as part of the induction for new Korg UK staff. The CMA further concluded that “Korg UK staff operated under a culture of concealment and tried to avoid generating an evidence trail of potentially incriminating written records.”

CMA’s legal assessment of resale price maintenance

The decision sets out CMA’s legal assessment of Korg UK’s agreement and/or concerted practice with Reseller 1, one of its MI Resellers, that Reseller 1 would not advertise or sell online synthesizers or hi-tech equipment supplied to it by Korg UK below a certain Minimum Price specified by Korg UK from time to time, in accordance with the Korg Pricing Policy.

The CMA had reasonable grounds for suspecting that more than 20 MI Resellers of the relevant producers were subject to the Korg Pricing Policy, and that MI Resellers generally complied with Korg UK’s requests to adhere to the Minimum Price.

The CMA, therefore, concluded that throughout the relevant period:

  • Reseller 1 generally complied with the Korg Pricing Policy, due to a credible fear of sanctions for non-compliance.
  • Korg UK monitored Reseller 1’s pricing and requested Reseller 1 on numerous occasions to follow the Korg Pricing Policy with regard to Reseller 1’s advertising and selling online of the Relevant Products (this tended to happen when Korg UK issued a new price list or when Reseller 1 had been caught matching another MI Reseller’s lower prices, at least temporarily).
  • On numerous occasions Reseller 1 increased its pricing (albeit not always immediately) to at least the Minimum Price, on Korg UK’s request.
  • On numerous occasions Reseller 1 reported to Korg UK other MI Resellers advertising or selling the Relevant Products online at prices below the Minimum Price.

Decision to impose penalties

The CMA concludes that there is strong evidence that Korg UK must have been aware, or could not have been unaware, that its conduct had the object or would have the effect of restricting competition. In particular, there was evidence that staff were aware that resale price maintenance was illegal and that there was a culture of concealment to hide evidence. The CMA therefore found that Korg UK committed resale price maintenance intentionally.

Case study

The CMA has published a case study explaining the facts of this case. It notes that there are a number of lessons that businesses can learn from this case, including an understanding that:

  • It is illegal for a supplier to interfere with a reseller’s ability to independently set their own price.
  • The CMA has sophisticated means of gathering evidence and uncovering evidence even where the companies have tried to hide their actions by deleting communications.
  • If you are ever asked not to put something down in writing, you should be suspicious as it could relate to something illegal. If so, you should seek legal advice and seriously consider whether to report the matter to the CMA.
  • Directors and senior staff have a special responsibility to be well informed on competition law and make sure their companies are behaving legally and ethically.
  • Attending compliance training alone is not sufficient to be compliant – you must actively comply with the law.
  • As a reseller you can also be investigated for breaking the law if you are found to have co-operated with a minimum pricing policy. If a supplier tries to make you comply with a minimum pricing policy, you should refuse and point them to our guidance. The CMA would also urge you to report them. Resellers may also face enforcement action such as fines if they have gone along with the supplier’s resale price policy.

EM Law help a wide range of clients with compliance and structuring around their operations. Please contact us if you have any questions on the issues raised in this article.


Restraint of Trade

Restraint of Trade – Quantum Advisory Ltd

In Quantum Advisory Ltd v Quantum Actuarial LLP [2020] EWHC 1072 (Comm), the High Court considered whether the restraint of trade doctrine applied in a services agreement entered into in connection with a restructuring and joint venture. The court decided that it did not.

What is a restraint of trade clause?

The purpose of a restraint of trade clause is to restrict the freedom of a business or individual to pursue their trade with the effect of limiting competition.

The case Nordenfelt v Maxim Nordenfelt Guns and Ammunition Co Ltd [1894] AC 535 serves as an illustrative example.

Thorsten Nordenfelt, a manufacturer specialising in armaments, had sold his business to Hiram Stevens Maxim for £200,000. They had agreed that Nordenfelt ‘would not make guns or ammunition anywhere in the world, and would not compete with Maxim in any way for a period of 25 years'.

The House of Lords held that the restraint was reasonable in the interests of the parties. They placed emphasis on the £200,000 that Thomas Nordenfeldt had received as full value for his sale.

The restraint of trade doctrine

The restraint of trade doctrine exists to protect a party to a contract that is subject to a restraint of trade clause i.e. the party who has been restrained in their trade by the contract. Therefore, when the doctrine applies, the restraint of trade clause in question will be invalid. The doctrine states that a restraint of trade clause will be invalid unless it is:

  1. Designed to protect a legitimate business interest.
  2. No wider than reasonably necessary to protect that interest.
  3. Not contrary to the public interest.

How does the restraint of trade doctrine apply?

There is a line between contracts in restraint of trade, within the meaning of the doctrine, and ordinary contracts that merely regulate the commercial dealings of the parties. The courts will consider, first, if the contract in question is in restraint of trade and, secondly, whether in all the circumstances sufficient grounds exist for excluding the contract from the application of the doctrine. The recent case of Quantum Advisory Ltd v Quantum Actuarial LLP [2020] EWHC 1072 (Comm) allowed a judge to explore both of these questions in depth.

Quantum Advisory Ltd v Quantum Actuarial LLP [2020] EWHC 1072 (Comm)

Facts

In 2004, a company called Quantum (Old Quad) entered into a joint venture with Robert Davies (RD) and others. A new company (RDS) was set up to carry on a similar business with different clients. The single largest shareholder and the MD of Old Quad was Martin Coombes (MC). The principal shareholders in RDS were Old Quad and RD. It was intended that after an initial three-year period there would be a merger of the businesses of Old Quad and RDS into a single entity.

By 2007 however, the interests and ambitions of those involved had begun to diverge. In particular, while MC wanted to diversify, the other directors and shareholders wanted to focus on developing the existing business. For this and other reasons, a restructuring of the businesses became necessary. One problem this presented was that MC's shareholding in Old Quad was such as to make it unaffordable for the other parties to buy him out. It was also felt that, regardless of affordability, it would be very difficult to fix a price for any buy-out.

The restructuring

A way of getting round these problems was devised, by which:

  • The businesses of Old Quad and RPS would be carried on by a new entity (the LLP).
  • A company wholly-owned by MC (New Quad) would buy the entire issued share capital of Old Quad and RPS. The businesses and assets of those companies would be transferred to New Quad subject to outstanding liabilities.

The terms of the restructuring were documented by way of an agreement dated 1 November 2007 entered into between Old Quad and the LLP (Services Agreement). Among other things, the Services Agreement:

  • Contained covenants on the LLP's part (clause 2.2) to not during the course of the Services Agreement or for a period of 12 months after its expiration or termination directly or indirectly:
    • solicit or entice away (or attempt to solicit or entice away) any Client in connection with any Services;
    • obtain instructions for any Services from any of the Clients or undertake any Services for any of the Clients; or
    • undertake any Services in relation to either the Pipeline Business or any work introduced by any of the Introducers during the Extended Period, without first having referred such matters to Old Quad, other than pursuant to the provisions of the agreement.
  • Contained acknowledgments to the effect that:
    • The provisions of clause 2.2 were no more extensive than was reasonable to protect the interests of Old Quad.
    • Each of the restrictions in clause 2.2 was a separate obligation considered reasonable by the parties (each of them having taken, if required, separate legal advice) in all the circumstances as necessary to protect the legitimate interests of the other party (clause 2.6).

Business affairs prior to litigation

New Quad and the LLP conducted their affairs according to the Services Agreement without any real difficulty for a number of years. Increasingly, however, the LLP became dissatisfied with the terms of the Services Agreement. The LLP sought to contend that the restraints in the covenants in clause 2.2 amounted to an unreasonable restraint of trade. Specifically, it complained about the duration of the restraints in circumstances in which the LLP had very limited ability to extricate itself from the Services Agreement before expiration. The LLP did not otherwise complain about the duration of the Services Agreement or the nature of the covenants themselves.

That led to New Quad commencing proceedings, seeking a declaration that the Services Agreement was binding on the parties and an injunction to restrain the LLP from acting in breach.

Decision

The judge concluded that:

  • The doctrine of restraint of trade did not apply to the restraints and therefore the restraint of trade clauses were legally enforceable.
  • If the doctrine of restraint of trade had applied to the restraints, he would have found that they satisfied the requirement of reasonableness.

Did the restraint of trade doctrine apply to the restraints?

In concluding that the doctrine did not apply to the restraints, the judge was at pains to stress that the Services Agreement needed to be considered on its own terms and in its own circumstances. It was a bespoke agreement, fashioned to address the competing needs and interests of a group of professional people. In his opinion the following considerations weighed against the application of the doctrine:

  • The fact that the LLP had been brought into existence for the purpose of the restructuring that was effected via the Services Agreement. It had no prior being or business and no other rationale. While it was true to say that its trade was restrained by the Services Agreement, this argument lacked the kind of traction normally found in restraint of trade cases. In a sense, the Services Agreement was the essential condition of the LLP's ability to carry on business at all. It was not a restraint of trade but a means of providing the opportunity to trade.
  • In this light, to attempt to place the covenants in clause 2.2 of the Services Agreement within the scope of the restraint of trade doctrine showed up a degree of incoherence. The judge pointed out that:
    • To view the restraints as potentially justifiable if of shorter duration (a view which counsel for the LLP had at one point expressed) was to divorce them from the wider agreement and so mistake their nature. Their purpose, as MC had phrased it in a witness statement, "was to recognise the legacy/LLP client ownership boundaries".
    • It had originally been proposed that the term of the Services Agreement be ten years. However, the members of the LLP had expressed concern that, if the agreement ended after ten years, the LLP's sustainability would be threatened by the loss of a major part of its business and income so soon after trading had commenced. When MC proposed extending the term of the agreement to 99 years, the LLP agreed.

Would the restraints have been regarded as reasonable?

The following factors were among those that led the judge to conclude that, had the doctrine of restraint of trade applied to the restraints, he would have found that they satisfied the requirement of reasonableness:

  • The fact that the Services Agreement and the restraints were a matter of free agreement between experienced, intelligent, articulate and highly competent business people who were able to look after their own interests and who had expressly agreed that the restraints were reasonable as being necessary to protect the parties' interests.
  • The LLP had not persuaded the judge that the restraints were unreasonable on account of any consideration of public policy.

The judge dismissed the argument based on alleged:

  • Inequality of bargaining power between the parties (and indeed the alleged lack of any formalised negotiation process at all) because this was not supported by the facts. While it was true that the LLP had not received independent legal advice in connection with the Services Agreement, the judge did not regard this as indicating that the parties' free agreement ought to be viewed with particular caution when considering reasonableness. There was no obligation to seek independent legal advice, under clause 2.6 of the Services Agreement or otherwise.

Context is essential

Clearly this is a decision that turned on the facts. Since most reported restraint of trade cases in the corporate arena arise in relation to private M&A it presents a rare opportunity to see how the courts construe the restraint of trade doctrine in a different context. The decision is a reminder that not all restrictive covenants are subject to the restraint of trade doctrine and the specific business context is crucial to such a ruling.

If you have any questions about restraint of trade clauses or about contract law more generally please contact Neil Williamson.


Limiting Liability

Limiting Liability Under a Contract

Limiting liability under a contract is a common thing for suppliers or sellers to want to do but limitation of liability clauses are often drafted without much thought. A strong commercial awareness of the position of each party is essential when deciding how best to deal with liability issues.

Limiting liability – why bother?

Every commercial transaction carries a risk of liability. Performance can bring the parties into contact with each other, their staff, sub-contractors, suppliers, customers, associates, visitors and the public, in ways that could give rise to all sorts of legal liability: for breach of contract, negligence, misrepresentation, infringement of rights to physical or intellectual property, breach of statutory duty, regulatory offences, defamation and more. Liability may be incurred without fault, and through the acts of others.

In the absence of a limitation clause, there is no financial limit on the damages a counterparty can recover. There are practical limits, and legal limits under the general law of damages. Beyond these, no limits are normally implied. A party wishing to reduce its exposure therefore needs to be limiting its liability through express limitation of liability wording.

Should a customer ever propose a limitation clause?

Suppliers are normally the ones that are keen to be limiting liability; customers less so. Reasons why the customer may propose a draft limitation clause are:

  • The supplier is likely to insist on a limitation clause. By including one in its first draft the customer can set the parameters for negotiation, rather than allowing the supplier to insert its standard clause.
  • The customer can propose losses that are recoverable. For reasons why the supplier should consider accepting identified, capped losses.
  • A customer may want to limit its own liability for breach, if it has contractual duties other than payment. For example, a contract may require the customer to co-operate with the supplier to enable the supplier to perform.

Identify the risks

Limiting liability effectively requires a lawyer to review the risks in the transaction with his or her commercial colleagues or client. Even if the commercial client has already negotiated limits on liability, the lawyer should understand the thinking behind it. The lawyer can then give better advice and draft the clause against the same background of commercial purpose the courts will use to interpret it.

Common risks to consider

  • Insolvency of a party. How financially robust is the counterparty?
  • Change of control. A party's reorganisation or change of control could affect performance, at worst leaving the other party with a claim against a defunct or penniless entity.
  • Breach of this contract. How likely is a default by your client or the counterparty?
  • Third party rights. Does the contract create enforceable third party rights, exposing one party to claims by the other party's affiliates?
  • Breach of other contracts. Are there contracts with others, that might be affected by breach of the contract under negotiation?
  • Misrepresentation. Each party needs to consider how reliable is the information exchanged in the negotiation.
  • Non-contractual liability to the other party. What other liability might one party incur to the other?
  • Other liabilities. Will this transaction expose a party to non-contractual claims by end users, visitors or the public?
  • Contribution claims. In a multi-party transaction, each party should consider its position in relation to the others.
  • Vicarious liability. What acts of other people (staff, agents, sub-contractors) might a party be liable for?
  • Economic risk. What changes in prices, exchange rates, wages or other factors might affect the profitability of the contract?
  • Regulatory risk. Is there a risk that a default might put either party in breach of regulations, leading to regulatory action and penalties?
  • Tax. Is there a risk that the arrangement may be viewed in a way that creates unwelcome tax consequences for a party?

Consider other ways to minimise the risks

Here are some practical commercial actions that may help reduce some identified risks:

  • Backup. Identify alternative sources and consider backup arrangements to deal with them if the preferred contractor fails.
  • Research. Take up references, do credit checks and other research.
  • Third-party guarantees. Require a third party (such as a parent company) to guarantee payment or performance. Consider requesting a letter of credit to ensure payment.
  • Quality control. Review customer feedback and update the product, procedures or customer service to improve customer satisfaction and reduce complaints and disputes.
  • Notices and disclaimers. Use notices and disclaimers on products and in marketing material to reduce the risk of liability to non-parties (for example, for negligence or for breach of onward sale conditions).
  • Product documentation. Review product descriptions and instructions for use.
  • Marketing and advertising. Review any marketing and advertising material to ensure that it does not make any unsupported claims about the products.
  • Compliance. If you have identified a risk that performance of the contract may run into regulatory or tax problems, consider dealing directly with the regulatory and tax authorities to reduce those risks.
  • A separate entity. Use a separate legal entity, with limited liability, to enter the contract.

Limiting liability without a limitation clause

There are other possible drafting techniques to consider, in addition to inserting the usual limitation clause. Some of them are listed here. Because these terms can, in practice, reduce the risk of liability to a counterparty, they are often subject to the same common law and statutory controls as limitation clauses

  • Limit liability for misrepresentation. Limits on liability and remedies for misrepresentation often appear in a clause headed "entire agreement", rather than "limits on liability".
  • Redefine your obligations. Limit the content of duties. Keep them specific and identifiable. Make them conditional on performance by the counterparty.
  • Limit rights and duties in time. Limit a buyer's time to inspect or accept goods or services. Set an expiry date on continuing duties which may survive termination, such as duties of confidentiality and indemnities.
  • Restrict implied terms. Some duties implied into contracts by statute may be limited by express wording.
  • Use risk allocation clauses. These clauses allocate risk between the parties, regardless of fault. For example, a clause may allocate a risk to the party who is best able to insure against it.
  • Use a net contribution clause. This is the usual solution to the risk of contribution claims by other participants in a multi-party project.
  • Change the payment terms. Introduce a deposit, a retention, instalments, interest, set-off and retention of title provisions, to reduce the risk of non-payment.
  • Add a force majeure clause. This could suspend or, eventually, allow you to end your obligations if performance is prevented by a cause beyond your control.
  • Add termination rights. Add a right to terminate for cause (including change of control and threats to solvency) or for convenience.
  • Take indemnities. Ask the counterparty to indemnify you against potential regulatory liabilities, tax, or third party claims.
  • Impose preconditions to claims. Spell out circumstances in which you will not accept liability, such as attempts at do-it-yourself repairs, use of the product contrary to a clear recommendation, and defects caused by compliance with the buyer's own specification.
  • Set time limits on claims. Agree time limits for notifying claims, or to begin litigation.
  • Agree defined remedies. Defined remedies could include repair, replacement, credit against a future purchase or liquidated damages. A defined remedy may be cheaper than damages and can reduce the scope for debate if a claim arises.
  • Agree the contract provides an adequate remedy for breach. This is an indirect and uncertain way to limit recourse to uncapped remedies such as an order to perform the contract.
  • Fix contractual interest. Statutory interest at 8% or more is often payable on the price of goods and services under the Late Payment of Commercial Debts (Interest) Act 1998. A contract term can replace this with contractual interest at a lower (but still substantial) rate.
  • Provide for conclusive evidence. The parties may agree that one of them, or an independent expert, can certify matters which neither can then dispute. For example, an inspector's certificate of quality may be conclusive evidence of the quality of goods delivered. Or a lender may certify (conclusively) the amount of interest due. This can eliminate some points of dispute.
  • Call for insurance. The counterparty can be contractually required to obtain appropriate insurance.
  • Exclude third party rights. A contract cannot bind a non-party. It is therefore pointless in most cases to try limiting third party rights or claims. The exception is third party rights created by the contract.

Limiting liability with a limitation clause cap

When considering a limitation clause it is sensible to introduce a financial cap on liability, or different caps for different types of loss. The supplier will want to ensure that the cap reflects the value it will get from the transaction.

A common starting-point for negotiations is the contract price, if there is one, or an estimate of the total contract value, or a percentage of the contract value (we have seen from 25% to 150%), or the limit of the supplier's insurance.

The cap should not be so low as to risk unenforceability, at least if the UCTA reasonableness test applies. UCTA reasonableness depends on the effect of the clause as a whole, considering all the circumstances of the transaction. In some cases, a refund of sums paid was found acceptable, but this may not always be so. A cap that allows the customer to recover sums paid plus a sum to reflect its other losses is more likely to be enforceable.

The cap will be influenced by market practice: customers do review the limits on liability when comparing suppliers. The figure chosen may sometimes appear arbitrary. One way to justify an apparently arbitrary figure may be to offer alternative prices, with and without the cap. The business client's policies and commercial aims will be as important as the lawyers' advice in fixing the cap. Suppliers often agree to a limit which is not their ideal, to win the business and get onto the customer's supplier list.

Negotiation

Having a strong understanding of the commercial aspects of a contract and how best to translate this into the legal position (by gaining advice) should help when negotiating limiting liability. It is also important to consider ways of limiting liability without simply adding a limitation clause.

If you have any questions about limiting liability or about contract law more generally please contact Neil Williamson.


Excluding liability under a contract

Excluding Liability Under A Contract

Excluding liability under a contract is common practice for suppliers or sellers. Most contracts have a limitation clause which caps certain liabilities at an amount often related to the value of the contract. A party can also use a clause to accept certain liabilities or exclude them altogether.

Excluding liability, cap or accept?

A limitation clause should set out:

  • Risks each party accepts without limit. A party may accept unlimited liability for losses within its exclusive control, sometimes also giving an indemnity against those losses. It is also common for a limitation clause to state that the parties are not attempting to limit liabilities that cannot legally be limited.
  • Risks each party accepts with a cap. The parties may list liabilities that are accepted subject to a cap. They may also impose a total cap on liability.
  • Risks each party wholly excludes. For example, a supplier might list specific losses. A customer might prefer not to propose that any risks should be completely excluded.

Excluding liability for everything is not possible

Commercial colleagues or clients are likely to ask the drafter of a limitation clause “How much liability can we exclude? Can we exclude all liability?”. The answer is No, and the drafter will need to be able to explain why:

  • You cannot exclude liability for your own dishonesty, even where UCTA does not apply.
  • Unfair Contract Terms Act (UCTA). Where UCTA applies, there are more liabilities you cannot exclude, and others you can limit only where reasonable. A blanket exclusion of all liability would have little chance of passing this test.
  • Interpretation risk. A clause should not be drafted as excluding liability for a party’s breach of all its contractual duties or leave a party without any meaningful remedy for breach. A clause that purports to do this might be void, or invalidate the contract, or be interpreted restrictively.
  • A contract that seeks to exclude all liability may take longer to negotiate and have a negative impact on goodwill and the parties' relationship.

So, a draconian clause may look tough, but a more moderate position is easier to negotiate and more resistant to challenge, as a matter of interpretation as well as reasonableness.

What you might seek to exclude completely

Risks you cannot control

A party may argue that, while it will accept risks it can control, it has to exclude those it cannot, especially those in the other party's control. For example, between principal and overseas agent, only the agent has all the knowledge and ability to comply with local laws, so the agent should accept all the risk of non-compliance.

A licensor might exclude the risk that its product infringes third party patents in some or all territories, on the grounds that it does not have the resources to carry out the necessary infringement checks.

One party might be excluding liability for losses arising from a specified cause within the other's control, or specified types of claim likely to arise from the other's fault. For example, many software suppliers exclude liability for loss of data. Their argument is that the customer should never lose data if it has proper backup systems.

Each party may accept responsibility for its own fault, while perhaps seeking to exclude or limit liability incurred without fault. A party can incur liability without fault under statute (for example, the Bribery Act 2010) or under absolute obligations contained in the contract.

Risks you cannot afford, or that the other party should insure against

A supplier will often seek to exclude certain categories of loss entirely. Its arguments for doing so might include that it is uneconomic for it to carry this risk, it cannot insure for it and/or the other party should properly insure for it.

Excluding liability for indirect and consequential loss

Parties often exclude all "indirect or consequential loss". This is generally an easy win for the supplier in negotiations. However, as currently interpreted by English courts, this exclusion is often ineffective. It does not exclude most losses caused by a breach of contract, including financial losses. But does exclude losses that are, by definition, unusual and often irrecoverable by law.

Other specific risks parties sometimes exclude

It may be commercially acceptable to mirror in the contract the exclusions from the supplier's insurance cover, so that the supplier is not exposed to uninsured losses, if these exclusions are not too widely drafted.

Don't bury the exclusions and limitations

Parties who prefer not to draw attention to their exclusions and limitations must accept a higher risk of unenforceability. A drastic exclusion or limitation clause is easier to enforce if brought expressly to the counterparty's attention during negotiations than if buried in irrelevant or inaccessible parts of the contract. This principle can affect:

Excluding Liability within limits

It is common practice for supply or sale contracts to contain provisions excluding liability. At the same time it is important to note that exclusions should be drafted carefully and taking into account the points mentioned above. Being too aggressive could have negative consequences down the line and in some cases render the whole exclusion clause ineffective.

If you have any questions about excluding liability or about contract law more generally please contact Neil Williamson.


Towergate Financial Commercial Law Firm London

Towergate Financial - Interpretation of Contractual Limitation Period

In Towergate Financial (Group) Ltd & Others v Hopkinson & Others [2020] EWHC 984 (Comm)the High Court considered the correct interpretation of a contractual time limit for notifying indemnity claims under an Share Purchase Agreement (SPA).

Clear words needed for limiting rights

Contractual limitations periods for notifying warranty or indemnity claims under an SPA are a form of exclusion clause. Clear words are required under English law to exclude or limit rights or remedies which arise by operation of law, including the obligation to give effect to a contractual warranty. The Court of Appeal affirmed this principle for commercial as well as other contracts in Nobahar-Cookson v Hut Group Ltd [2016] EWCA Civ 128.

Facts

In August 2008, the claimants (Towergate Financial and others) purchased a financial services firm from the first six of the defendants on terms agreed within an SPA. By one term in particular, those defendants gave the claimants an indemnity against any losses consequent upon claims or complaints against the business arising from mis-sold financial products.

In 2014, the FCA instituted formal section 166 of the Financial Services and Markets Act 2000 reviews to investigate its concerns in relation to enhanced transfer value (ETV) schemes and unregulated collective investment schemes (UCIS) upon which the firm had advised prior to the SPA. As a result of these reviews, Towergate Financial and others were required to make redress payments to customers and estimated their potential liability in the tens of millions. In July 2015, the claimants served on the relevant defendants a notice of their intention to rely on the said indemnity, as was required by the SPA.

Litigation

The question for the court, to be determined by way of preliminary issue, was whether or not that notice complied with a condition precedent contained within the notice clause in the SPA. In particular, were the claimants bound by a requirement that notice should be served “as soon as possible” upon learning of any “matter or thing” that might give rise to liability?

The case had already been through the High Court and Court of Appeal on the question of whether or not it had been necessary for the notice to specify the details and circumstances, and an estimate in good faith of the value of the potential indemnity claim, in accordance with the notice clause. Those two courts had determined that there was no such requirement on the wording of the clause: the claimants need only give bare notification of the “matter or thing” (in this case, the section 166 reviews).

The clause

The notice clause was as follows:

6.7 The Purchaser shall not make any Claims against the Warrantors nor shall the Warrantors have any liability in respect of any matter or thing unless notice in writing of the relevant matter or thing (specifying the details and circumstances giving rise to the Claim or Claims and an estimate in good faith of the total amount of such Claim or Claims) is given to all the Warrantors as soon as possible and in any event prior to:

6.7.1 the seventh anniversary of the date of this Agreement in the case of any Claim solely in relation to the Taxation Covenant;

6.7.2 the date two years from the Completion Date in the case of any other Claim; and

6.7.3 in relation to a claim under the indemnity in clause 5.9 on or before the seventh anniversary of the date of this Agreement.

Towergate Financial argument

The claimants relied upon the proposition that a condition precedent must be clear and unambiguous if it is to be enforceable, citing Zurich v Maccaferri and Impact Funding v AIG. In this respect, they pointed to a number of problems with the clause:

  • Those parties to the SPA giving the indemnities were not the same as those giving warranties. It follows that the reference to giving notice to “all” the warrantors was illogical for an indemnity claim. Therefore, how could the words “as soon as possible”, which followed that reference, apply to indemnity claims?
  • The words “prior to” at the end of the main clause conflicted with “on or before” in the sub clause, making a “nonsense” of the meaning. This was another pointer that “as soon as possible” could not apply to indemnity claims.
  • The words “as soon as possible” were surplusage and commercially unnecessary, the real limit being seven years (in reliance on AIG Europe v Faraday).
  • The words “as soon as possible” were fundamentally unclear in this context. What was the trigger to start time running? Once it did, how long did it permit?

Towergate Financial Judgment

Mrs Justice Cockerill DBE, in a carefully reasoned and detailed judgment, took a robust approach to Towergate Financial’s objections. She accepted that the clause had its “imperfections” but had “no difficulty in concluding” that there was an enforceable condition precedent requiring notice to be given as soon as possible. She stated, at paragraph 72:

“… while the… clause is not perfect, it is – in real terms – perfectly clear. There are a few issues with it, but they are ones that any sensible reader can resolve without difficulty. It is not ambiguous.”

There was nothing difficult about the concept of the words “as soon as possible”, and the previous High Court and Court of Appeal judges had had no problem identifying the trigger point as any matter or thing that “may give rise to liability”. That was a common concept in insurance contracts and could be understood by taking a practical view. The judge thereby made the point that even if a clause is imperfect, if it has only one sensible meaning then, no matter its flaws, it is tolerably clear.

Having therefore determined that “as soon as possible” meant “as soon as possible” and imposed a condition precedent upon the claimants, the judge had no trouble finding that, as a matter of fact, notice was plainly late, coming 17 months after inception of the section 166 reviews. As a consequence, Towergate Financial’s claim under the indemnity failed.

Buyers beware

This decision emphasises the importance of the provisions that regulate when notice of claims must be given, and the considerable scope for disputes if there is any ambiguity in the drafting of those provisions. The case also highlights the potential pitfalls, particularly for a buyer, associated with notice of claims provisions that take effect as a condition precedent to liability and which operate by reference to a trigger that is subjective, or otherwise open to interpretation, such as a requirement to provide notice "as soon as possible". In the interests of certainty, and to preserve the usual commercial rationale of a limitation of this type, buyers would be well advised to avoid a limitation of liability that is drafted in such terms.

If you have any questions on limitation periods or on any of the points above for our contract lawyers or our dispute resolution lawyers please contact us.


COVID-19 force majeure

COVID-19 Force Majeure and Frustration

COVID-19 has sent shockwaves throughout the business world. For some businesses the impact has been severe and they will find it difficult or impossible to perform contracts entered into before the onset of the pandemic.

In this blog we provide an overview of how businesses may be able to rely on force majeure or the doctrine of “frustration” so as to avoid liability for failing to perform their obligations as a result of COVID-19.

Contractual Position

If you are working under a contract governed by English law the starting position is that you must perform that contract. So, even if you are affected by COVID-19 you must still perform that contract and if you fail to do so you will be liable. There are two key exceptions to this rule: the operation of any force majeure clause in your contract and the common law concept of frustration.

COVID-19 Force Majeure

Unlike in other jurisdictions, English common law or statute does not recognise force majeure. So if your contract does not contain a force majeure clause you cannot use force majeure as a means to avoid liability for non-performance.

If your contract does contain a force majeure clause then you will need to check it to see how it deals specifically with each party’s rights and obligations. Key factors to consider are set out below.

Is COVID-19 covered?

Assuming COVID-19 is not specifically covered as a force majeure event, check if it is the type of event that would fall under general force majeure wording (e.g. pandemic or similar wording), or whether there has been a government decision or administrative action preventing performance that meets the political interference language which is commonly included in definitions of force majeure.

Should the party that wishes to claim force majeure have guarded against COVID-19?

Check if the contract excludes events that could have reasonably been provided against, avoided or overcome. In the COVID-19 context, the current pandemic is not likely to be foreseeable. On the other hand, parties who elected to enter contracts with reasonable knowledge of the virus’s potential consequences, such as in January of 2020 when the virus began to attract attention in China, may have a more difficult foreseeability argument.

Is COVID-19 the true reason for not being able to perform the contract?

The party that is seeking to rely on force majeure must usually establish that the force majeure event has prevented or hindered it from performance of the contract. This is mostly a factual question but, again, will also turn on the exact wording of the clause. For example, some force majeure provisions require performance to have been rendered impossible, so the burden on, for example, a contractor to show that it could not have sourced staff, equipment or materials from elsewhere will be high. Generally, force majeure clauses are not so generous as to offer relief where services or goods will simply be more expensive to perform or obtain.

Mitigation

The party that is claiming force majeure relief is usually under a duty to show that it has taken reasonable steps to mitigate or avoid the effects of the force majeure event. Check whether being able to rely on force majeure is conditional upon you mitigating the effects of COVID-19.

Notice requirements

Parties will wish to ascertain whether prompt notification is a contractual condition precedent to relief. In that situation, a failure to notify in the prescribed manner will result in a party being unable to rely on the provision. In other cases, a failure to notify will not prevent a party from relying on a force majeure provision and the only consequence will be a potential damages claim (if the other party has suffered a loss). The courts have not always taken a consistent approach to the interpretation of notice provisions, and clearly the safest course of action is to ensure strict compliance with any notice provisions in the prescribed manner and as soon as possible

What are the consequences of establishing COVID-19 force majeure?

In most contracts, establishing force majeure will lead to relief from performance, thereby avoiding the risk of a default termination, and an extension of time to target dates. Commonly, parties bear their own costs arising from any force majeure delay but there are exceptions where compensation may be payable after a certain duration or certain costs are payable from one party to another. Extended periods of force majeure can lead to a right for one or more parties to terminate the contract. If the parties do not wish this to happen, it is important to engage in discussions sooner rather than close to the deadline. It may be preferable for these to be held on a without prejudice basis.

COVID-19 Frustration

In the absence of a force majeure clause, a party to a contract may be able to rely on “frustration”. Frustration is a common law right that allows a party to be discharged from its contractual obligations if a change of circumstances makes it physically or commercially impossible to perform the contract or would render performance radically different from that agreed to when the parties entered into the contract. This test may be satisfied if the commercial purpose of the contract is no longer achievable. Delay caused by COVID-19 could in principle be a frustrating event, depending on the nature of the contract in question and the length of the delay.

The focus will be on the parties’ specific contractual obligations and whether they have ‘radically changed’ as a result of the spread of COVID-19 to the extent that requiring a party to comply with its strict contractual obligations would mean requiring it to do something fundamentally different from that which it originally promised to do. In other words, it will be important to identify the consequences of the pandemic on the parties’ ability to perform the specific contract in question. It is unlikely to be sufficient that circumstances have changed in society generally or that performance of the contract has become more onerous or expensive or even uneconomic.

Consequences of frustration

Frustration discharges a contract meaning that all current and prospective rights and obligations are cancelled. All sums paid by a contracting party before the frustrating event will be repayable, subject to the court’s discretion (broadly) to give credit for expenses incurred or benefits provided by the other contracting party.

If you have any questions or need help with any COVID-19 force majeure or frustration issues please contact Neil Williamson or call us on 0203 637 6374.


Commercial law firm London EM Law

Terminating a Contract - Tread Carefully

Terminating a contract may be the way forward especially when the other party has blatantly failed to meet its obligations. But don’t fall into the trap of thinking that terminating a contract is straightforward. Giving the correct notice and reasons for terminating a contract is a process to be carefully navigated if the adversely affected party wants to claim all possible compensation.

Examples of improper approaches to terminating a contract can be dramatic. In the case of Phones 4u Ltd v EE Ltd [2018], EE denied themselves a £200 million claim because of a badly drafted termination notice. Given the potential consequences it is generally assumed that an aggrieved party will take legal advice before going ahead with termination.

Most importantly you must act. Even a repudiation, meaning the most serious breach of contract, does not automatically end a contract. Termination rights can also be lost by delay. By the time an aggrieved party decides to assert itself it may be too late.

Things to be most wary of when terminating a contract

Terminating a contract without the right to do so

  • By terminating a contract you are refusing to perform any duties which may arise after termination.
  • If not justified by a contractual or common law right this refusal to perform is usually itself a repudiation.
  • The other party could accept the repudiation, terminate the contract and sue for damages.

Giving the wrong grounds for termination

This is what happened in the Phones 4u In that instance EE terminated its contract with Phones 4u on the basis of its rights to terminate for the other party’s insolvency. EE did not explicitly state in its termination notice that Phones 4u were in breach of contract. Even though EE had reserved its rights in the termination notice the judge nevertheless ruled that EE’s £200 million claim against Phones 4u for breach of contract could not now be pursued.

Not following the contractual termination procedure

  • The basic rule is that a party serving a notice to exercise a right must comply strictly with the contract.
  • Failing to comply may render a termination invalid even if the requirement is meaningless or pointless.
  • In the case Zayo Group Internaitonal Ltd v Ainger and other [2017] the court ruled that a requirement to leave the termination notice at a party’s old address was still valid. Because the notice wasn’t left at the old address on time the claim failed.
  • Serving an ineffective notice of termination could amount to a repudiatory breach as it communicates an intention to stop performing and may be accompanied by such action.

You can't take it back

It is also important to note that you cannot take back a termination notice:

  • Serving a termination notice communicates a party’s decision to exercise its termination right, which is not compatible with keeping the contract alive.
  • In two employment cases, the employee who gave a clear unequivocal notice to resign was then unable to withdraw that notice after an hour in the case of Riordan v War Office [1959] and a day in Southern v Frank Charlesly & Co [1981].

Terminating a Contract - Common Law Rights

Aside from express or implied termination clauses it is also important to consider common law rights when contemplating grounds for termination. The common law gives every contracting party the right to terminate on repudiation. A repudiation comes in different forms:

  • Breach of a condition.
  • Repudiatory breach of an intermediate term (or innominate term).
  • Renunciation, defined as, a party’s outright refusal to perform all or substantially all its obligations under a contract.
  • Impossibility, if a party makes it impossible to perform the contract.

Understanding repudiatory breaches of intermediate terms is key when assessing your possible right to terminate a contract. Generally speaking, a breach of an intermediate term is repudiatory if it deprives the aggrieved party of substantially all the benefit of the contract. This deprivation must also coincide with the time that the aggrieved party chose to terminate.

Final word

Terminating a contract must be done carefully if the aggrieved party wants to retrieve as much compensation as possible. As we say above the consequences of not doing so can be severe. Please get in touch with Neil Williamson or Joanna McKenzie if you need any help.

 


EM Law Unsigned Contract Lawyers London

Unsigned Contract? - it may be binding anyway

Surely the lack of a signature would suggest that the parties had not yet reached the point where they wished to be bound? However, where evidence exists to the contrary, for example where the parties have acted in accordance with the contract, this is not always the case. While every case will depend upon the individual facts, it is important to be aware that a written contract does not always need to be signed by both parties to be legally binding. This blog takes a look at the rules around unsigned contracts and examines the Court of Appeal case of Reveille Independent LLC v Anotech International Limited to see where the law stands today.

An unsigned contract - the starting point

A contract is a legally binding promise by one party to fulfil an obligation to another party in return for “consideration” i.e. something of value. A basic binding contract, whether written or oral, must comprise four key elements. These key elements are offer, acceptance, consideration and intention to create legal relations. Acceptance is a final and unqualified assent to an offer. It is made in response to an offer and must correspond exactly with the terms of the offer to be enforceable. Usually, a lack of signature on a contract would suggest that a party did not wish to be bound and had therefore not accepted the offer. However, whether a contract is signed is only one factor for the courts to consider when deciding whether or not the parties to a contract intended to be bound. The courts will look at all the evidence relating to the intention of the parties, including their conduct.

Acceptance by conduct may make an unsigned contract binding

Although it is generally considered that acceptance must be communicated to the offeror to be effective, conduct may sometimes be considered as acceptance. For example, where a supplier does not communicate acceptance of an order, but it delivers the goods ordered and requests payment anyway, this will generally be deemed as acceptance.  Conduct will only amount to acceptance of an offer if it is clear that the party did the act in question with the intention of accepting the offer; they must implicitly accept the terms. In the case of Brogden v Metropolitan Railway, for example, the House of Lords concluded that, in a situation where the parties had acted in accordance with a draft unsigned contract for the delivery of consignments of coal, there was a contract on the basis of that draft. As stated by Steyn LJ in G Percy Trentham Ltd v Archital Luxfer, “the fact that a transaction was performed on both sides will often make it unrealistic to argue that there was no intention to enter into legal relations.” It should be noted, however, that there are some situations where a contract does have to be in writing to be legally enforceable. Common examples of this include a contract for the sale of land, a transfer of shares, or an assignment of intellectual property rights.

Reveille Independent LLC v Anotech International (UK) Limited (2016)

The case of Reveille Independent LLC v Anotech International (UK) Limited (2016) concerned a dispute over whether there was a binding contract in place between Anotech, a UK manufacturer of cookware, and Reveille, a U.S television production company. In the contract, Reveille agreed to permit the integration and promotion of Anotech’s cookware products into three episodes of its television series as well as grant a license to Anotech for certain US intellectual property rights. The parties began negotiations in January 2011 and on 16 February 2011 Reveille sent a “deal memo” to Anotech’s managing and sole director setting out the relevant terms. This deal memo stated that “it would not be binding on Reveille until executed by both Licensee and Reveille”.

Following further negotiations, on 28 February 2011 Anotech returned a signed version of the deal memo to Reveille, with handwritten amendments and additions. It was intended that this deal memo would be replaced by detailed, long form agreements however negotiations broke down and in July 2013 Reveille wrote to Anotech treating the contract as repudiated.

The judge at first instance concluded that by March 2012 Reveille was performing its obligations under the deal memo and Anotech knew this. He concluded that Anotech’s amended and signed offer, as set out in the deal memo, was accepted by conduct by Reveille thus a binding contract was in place. In May 2016, Anotech appealed this decision. The Court of Appeal stated that the High Court judge was right to focus on whether there were clear and unequivocal acts on Reveille’s part to constitute acceptance by conduct of Anotech’s counter-offer. The judge did not identify a date when the contract came into effect, but stated that the various acts on Reveille’s part, of which Anotech was well aware, led to a binding contract on the terms of the deal memo. Anotech’s conduct itself, for example its acknowledgement in emails that it had to pay Reveille, was also consistent with the existence of a binding contract. Reveille waived the provision that there would be no binding contract in the absence of its signature on the deal memo, and there was no prejudice to Anotech. Accordingly, the case was dismissed.

Case analysis

The case of Reveille Independent LLC v Anotech International (UK) Limited serves as an important reminder that an unsigned contract may still be legally binding. It also demonstrates the fact that a prescribed mode of contract acceptance can be waived by conduct. Therefore, the signature of both parties to a written contract will not always be a precondition to the existence of contractual relations, even where the contract explicitly states that it is. When deciding whether or not a contract has come into existence between commercial parties in negotiation, the court will be keen to preserve certainty and give due attention to what it considers to be the reasonable expectations of honest, sensible business people.

Final words

As you can see from the above, an unsigned contract is not as harmless as it may first seem. The Court of Appeal decision in Reveille Independent LLC v Anotech International (UK) Limited should be a timely reminder to parties who are negotiating a written contract not to assume that it is only binding when the document has been signed by both parties. If you have any questions about an unsigned contract or about contract law more generally please contact Neil Williamson.


Restraint of Trade EM Law

Restraint of Trade in Commercial Contracts

Individuals should be able to use their skills without undue restriction and businesses should be free to compete with other businesses. However, restraint of trade clauses are not uncommon within commercial contracts. This blog considers the general principles of restraint of trade and examines the different types of restraint of trade clauses that you may come across in your commercial dealings. 

What is a restraint of trade clause?

A restraint of trade clause is a contractual restriction imposed upon a business or an individual for a finite period of time. The purpose of a restraint of trade clause is to protect a business interest. In the employment context, restraint of trade clauses are usually used to prevent employees or directors leaving and immediately joining a direct competitor. However, in the commercial context, restraint of trade clauses can be much wider reaching. A restraint of trade clause in a Share Purchase Agreement may, for example, limit the activities of the seller to act in competition with the business sold after completion. Due to the general principle that individuals and organisations should be free to carry on their business however they see fit, restraint of trade clauses are generally unenforceable at common law. However, a court may decide to enforce a restraint of trade clause if it:

  • is designed to protect a legitimate business interest;
  • is no wider than is reasonably necessaryto protect that interest; and
  • is not contrary to the public interest. 

If these criteria are not met, the restraint of trade clause will be void and unenforceable. If these criteria are met, the clause will usually stand up in court. But what exactly do each of these criteria mean?

What are legitimate business interests?

The first task when drafting a restraint of trade clause is to make sure that you understand the nature and extent of the interest requiring protection. Although the categories of legitimate business interests are not closed, the most common legitimate business interests include:

  • Business relationships with clients
  • Goodwill of a company
  • Trade connections
  • Trade secrets and other confidential information

Is the restraint reasonable to protect that interest?

Once a legitimate interest has been identified, the restraint of trade must go no further than is necessary to protect that legitimate interest. The restraint must be reasonable as to the term of the restriction, the geographical area, and the scope of the activities covered. The term “reasonable” is generally taken to mean providing no more protection than is relevant and necessary to safeguard the relevant legitimate interest. With geographical area, for example, a restriction on a seller who operated solely in the UK from operating a similar business anywhere in the world would probably be unreasonable (although would depend on the type of business). With the term of the restriction, it is much harder to lay down a general rule. However, the courts do acknowledge that the longer the term of the restraint, the greater the chances are that it will be found unreasonable. Having said that, it is not unheard of for restraint of trade clauses in commercial contexts to last for 2, 4 or even 5 years. 

In Esso Petroleum Co Ltd v Harper’s Garage, Lord Hodson stated that in the case of agreements between commercial parties, the parties are usually taken to be the best judge of what is reasonable between themselves, meaning that the courts will be slow to interfere and find a restraint unreasonable. This also means that what might be reasonable in one context might be unreasonable in another. The burden of proof will be on the person enforcing the clause to show that the restraint goes no further than is necessary to protect the legitimate business interest.

Is it contrary to the public interest?

In the majority of cases, if a restraint of trade is reasonable between the parties, the courts will try to uphold it. However, on occasion, the courts will consider a restraint of trade from the perspective of “public interest” rather than that of the parties. Although it may crop up in the employment context, public interest is far less likely to be relevant in contracts between commercial parties. More relevant in the commercial context nowadays may be the interest of customers that under UK and EU competition law, competition is not unduly restricted. 

Different types of restraint of trade clauses

It is important to note that there are many different types of restraint of trade clauses. The type of clause you choose will depend upon the type of agreement you’re drafting. A sale and purchase agreement, for example, would typically contain restrictions on the sellers from soliciting existing customers or suppliers, soliciting existing employees, or competing with the business for a specified amount of time. A typical franchise agreement would contain restrictions on the franchisee applicable during the lifetime of the agreement and usually for a limited period thereafter. Typically, these would be not to solicit customers or employees, not to compete with the franchise business and not to represent themselves in any way connected with the franchisor. Non-solicitation and non-compete clauses are the most common types of restraint of trade. 

What happens if the restraint of trade is found to be unreasonable?

Where a restraint of trade clause is found to be unreasonable, it will be void and unenforceable. A court is unlikely to enforce a restraint of trade clause if the restrictions are inappropriate for the role, excessively long or entirely ambiguous. Where a restraint of trade clause is found to be unreasonable, the doctrine of severance may provide assistance. The doctrine of severance allows an unenforceable clause to be severed from the remainder of the agreement, with the remainder of the agreement remaining in force. Commercial parties will often include a severance provision in their contracts however this is not strictly necessary. The courts can apply the doctrine of severance without express authorisation in the contract. Nevertheless, it would be wise to include a severance provision in the contract to be safe.  

Final words

Businesses do not have complete freedom when drafting and inserting restraint of trade clauses into their commercial agreements. If you are considering a restraint of trade clause in one of your commercial contracts, you should make sure that it complies with the above requirements. If you have any questions about restraint of trade, or about any other commercial or contract law issue, contact Neil Williamson