Best endeavours, reasonable endeavours, all reasonable endeavours – how are these terms used in a legal sense and what do they mean?

Contractual obligations are normally absolute and failure to satisfy an obligation will be a breach of contract. Endeavours clauses are therefore used when a party is only prepared to “try” to fulfil an obligation, rather than commit to it absolutely. For example, in the case Jet2.com v Blackpool Airport the clauses under scrutiny created an obligation for Blackpool Airport to use its “best endeavours to promote Jet2.com’s low cost services” and “all reasonable endeavours to provide a cost base that will facilitate Jet2.com’s low cost pricing”. We refer to this case in more detail below.

Best, reasonable or all reasonable endeavours

It is clear from cases such as Rhodia International Holdings Ltd v Huntsman International LLC [2007] EWHC 292 that there is a spectrum of endeavours clauses, with “best endeavours” being more stringent than “reasonable endeavours”. Despite the fact they are widely used, there is some uncertainty as to what efforts each different endeavours clause requires in practice.

Best endeavours

The term best endeavours has received the greatest amount of consideration by the courts and the starting point is that the phrase “means what the words say; they do not mean second-best endeavours” (Sheffield District Railway Co v Great Central Railway Co [1911] 27 TLR 451).

This has been further refined by the Court of Appeal to require the obligor “to take all those steps in their power which are capable of producing the desired results … being steps which a prudent, determined and reasonable obligee, acting in his own interests and desiring to achieve that result, would take” (IBM United Kingdom Ltd v Rockware Glass Ltd [1980] FSR 335). In other words, the obligor must put himself in the shoes of the reasonable obligee.

Reasonable endeavours

Reasonable endeavours are less burdensome. One formulation involves the obligor balancing “the weight of their contractual obligation” to the other party against “all relevant commercial considerations” such as the obligor’s relations with third parties, its reputation, and the cost of that course of action (UBH (Mechanical Services) Ltd v Standard Life Assurance Company, The Times, 13 November 1986).

This has been restated as a question of “what would a reasonable and prudent person acting properly in their own commercial interest and applying their minds to their contractual obligation have done to try” to achieve the objective (Minerva (Wandsworth) Ltd v Greenland Ram (London) Ltd [2017] EWHC 1457).

This suggests an objective approach based on the reasonable obligor (not obligee as is the case for best endeavours). However, it appears the assessment should still reflect the circumstances and position of the obligor. Crucially, the obligor is not normally required to sacrifice its own commercial interests and may be entitled to consider the impact on their own profitability (P&O Property Holdings Ltd v Norwich Union Life Insurance Society [1993] EGCS 69). This is one of the major differences between a reasonable and best endeavours obligation.

All reasonable endeavours

The third commonly used endeavours clause is “all reasonable endeavours”. It is commonly adopted as a compromise between best and reasonable endeavours. However, it is difficult to decipher its meaning and an analysis of existing case law raises three interlinked questions:

  • Does it mean the same as best endeavours?
  • Is the obligor obliged to sacrifice its commercial interests?
  • Is the assessment based on the obligor’s particular circumstances?

The answer seems to be that it depends on the context.

On the first question, the traditional orthodoxy is that all reasonable endeavours sits somewhere between best endeavours and reasonable endeavours. Courts have stated, obiter, that it is “probably a middle position somewhere between the two, implying something more than reasonable endeavours but less than best endeavours” (UBH v Standard Life). This reflects the natural and ordinary reading of the words.

By contrast, in Rhodia, the judge stated, obiter, that an “obligation to use reasonable endeavours to achieve the aim probably only requires a party to take one reasonable course, not all of them, whereas an obligation to use best endeavours probably requires a party to take all the reasonable courses he can. In that context, it may well be that an obligation to use all reasonable endeavours equates with using best endeavours”. This passage is sometimes used to argue that all reasonable endeavours equates to best endeavours in all respects.

However, this comment may just relate to the number of courses of action a party needs to take and not to the other distinctions between these obligations, such as the extent to which a party might have to compromise its commercial position. Support for this approach comes from CPC Group Ltd v Qatari Diar Real Estate Investment Company [2010] EWHC 1535, which starts to touch on the second question. In that case, Vos J stated: “It seems to me, therefore, that an obligation to use all reasonable endeavours does not always require the obligor to sacrifice its commercial interests”.

The question of whether a party can have regard to his own financial interests is likely to depend on the nature and terms of the contract in question. In Astor Management AG v Atalaya Mining Plc [2017] EWHC 425, Atalaya had to use “all reasonable endeavours” to obtain senior debt facilities, an event which would trigger the payment of substantial deferred consideration to Astor. Atalaya could not raise funds in a different way simply to avoid paying the deferred consideration as that would defeat the purpose of the contract. However, the financial considerations were not irrelevant and Atalaya did not have to raise funds through senior debt facilities if it would make their activities commercially unviable.

Certainty case study

A final factor to consider is whether the endeavours clause is enforceable at all. It is clear that if the underlying objective is unenforceable due to a lack of certainty, an obligation to endeavour to achieve that result will also fail. Similarly, the combination of a less stringent endeavours clause (such as reasonable endeavours) with a poorly defined objective may lead to a very weak obligation.

Jet2.com v Blackpool Airport is a useful example of these principles. Blackpool Airport was under an obligation to use both of the following endeavours obligations:

  • Best endeavours to “promote Jet2.com’s low cost services”.
  • All reasonable endeavours to “provide a cost base that will facilitate Jet2.com’s low cost pricing”.

The Court of Appeal found that the former obligation was enforceable there being “a difference between a clause whose content is so uncertain that it is incapable of creating a binding obligation and a clause which gives rise to a binding obligation, the precise limits of which are difficult to define in advance, but which can nonetheless be given practical content”. However, the Court of Appeal suggested the latter obligation might not be enforceable. Whilst Jet2.com argued the all reasonable endeavours obligation required Blackpool Airport to help Jet2.com to keep its prices down, Moore-Bick LJ stated the words were “too opaque to enable me to give them that meaning with any confidence”.

Practical steps

There is a degree of uncertainty as to what an endeavours clause may actually require in any given case, and these uncertainties are best dealt with expressly in the contract.

A more useful approach is to set out the steps the obligor should take to achieve that particular obligation. The approach will vary from case to case, but parties should have regard to factors such as:

  • Whether the obligor must bear any costs or incur any expenditure and, if so, how much.
  • The period for which the obligor should pursue that objective.
  • Whether the obligor must take legal action or appeal to achieve the objective.
  • Whether the obligor must inform the obligee of its progress in meeting the objective.
  • Whether the obligor must step aside if it is unsuccessful and allow, or even assist, the obligee to solve the problem itself.
  • The extent to which a party is entitled to protect its own interests, is required to act in the interests of the other party, or base its actions on its own particular circumstances. These issues are, in part, determined by the type of endeavours clause used but it may be useful to set them out expressly.
  • Specific steps that the obligor is or is not expected to carry out.

Finally, probably the most decisive factor is whether the obligor does in fact take steps to comply with the endeavours clause. In the majority of cases the debate is not over the nuances in the differing level of obligation imposed by such clauses, but whether any real endeavours were used at all. The prudent obligor will also record evidence of its efforts and inform the obligee should any difficulties arise.

Endeavouring to try our best

Endeavours clauses are a complex and continually debated area in contract law. It is very context dependent and requires those with or willing to impose obligations to think ahead. If you have any questions about endeavours clauses or about contract law more generally please contact Neil Williamson.