On 11th March 2020, the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared COVID-19 a pandemic, which is defined as “an epidemic occurring worldwide, or over a very wide area, crossing international boundaries and usually affecting a large number of people”.
Since then, the economic threat posed by the novel coronavirus has rapidly turned from a looming threat to a reality. Governments, Central Banks and the private sector are putting in place plans to respond to effects of the virus. However uncertain the times ahead may be, companies nonetheless need to consider how the spread of the virus may affect the conduct of their underlying business and their contractual obligations.
Effect On Contracts
Some of the effects of the COVID-19 outbreak are obvious, such as travel restrictions, quarantines and shortages of medical equipment. However, their immediate impact on contractual obligations, such as the ability to pay, deploy resources on time and meet service levels as agreed, may be less obvious. Most contracts that require ongoing performance are, in principle, absolute: that is, a party affected by the COVID-19 outbreak will be required to perform its obligations and will be potentially liable to its counterparty for a failure to do so. There are, however, two key exceptions to the rule: force majeure; and the common law doctrine of frustration.
A force majeure event refers to the occurrence of an event which is outside the reasonable control of a party and which prevents that party from performing its obligations under a contract. If successfully invoked, the clause would excuse a party’s performance of its obligation under the contract, thereby avoiding a breach. It could also lead to termination if the event survives for a long period of time. However, this is a factual question and is largely dependent on the wording of the clause in the contract.
Acts Within the Scope
The first thing to check in a contract is whether or not it contains a force majeure clause, as the same will not be implied. Moreover, the applicability of a force majeure clause is largely dependent on the specific drafting. For instance, where the term “pandemic” does not form an express part of the clause, there may be a blanket-clause which covers all events “beyond the reasonable control of the parties”, which may be applicable to consequence emanating from COVID-19.
It appears probable that WHO’s classification of COVID-19 as a “pandemic” means it will be within the scope of clauses that include the words “pandemic” or even “epidemic”. However, certain other aspects of this crisis, such as the increase in government-decreed lock downs aimed at slowing the pandemic’s spread may also fall within the scope of the clause.
Impossible to Perfom
If a force majeure clause provides that the relevant triggering event must ‘prevent’ performance, the relevant party must demonstrate that performance is legally or physically impossible, but not just difficult or unprofitable – See Tennants (Lancashire) Ltd v G.S. Wilson & Co Ltd  AC 495. A change in economic or market circumstances, affecting the profitability of a contract or the ease with which the parties’ obligations can be performed is not regarded as a force majeure event – See Thames Valley Power Limited v Total Gas & Power Limited  EWHC 2208.
In addition, the force majeure event must be the only effective cause of default by a party under a contract relying on a force majeure provision as was held in Seadrill Ghana v Tullow Ghana  EWHC 1640 (Comm). Moreover, the ‘supervening event’ will excuse performance of only those obligations which are affected by the outbreak of COVID-19. Therefore, in contracts with divisible performance obligations, a supervening event like COVID-19 could cause only partial impossibility or impracticability and the party’s unaffected performance obligations will not be excused.
The party claiming relief is usually under a duty to show that it has taken reasonable steps to avoid the effects of the force majeure event, and that there are no alternate means for performing under the contract.
The Court of Appeal in Channel Island Ferries Limited v Sealink UK Limited  1 Lloyd’s Report 323 held that any clause referring to events “beyond the control of the relevant party” could only provide relief if the affected party had taken all reasonable steps to avoid its operation or mitigate its results.
It is, therefore, important for companies to document the impacts of COVID-19 on their businesses, as well as steps taken to mitigate those impacts, as these could form a viable record for a potential force majeure claim.
In addition, if a contract has a force majeure clause, it is likely that it will contain notice provisions, which notice provisions should be carefully followed so as to mitigate the losses that may be occasioned upon the other party. Some contracts, especially construction contracts, include a “time bar” clause that requires notice to be provided within a specific period from when the affected party first became aware of the force majeure event, failure of which will result in a loss of entitlement to claim.
Effect of a Force Majeure Clause
Generally, the effect of a force majeure clause includes some or all of the following:
- Suspension – for the most part, affected obligations do not go away and are simply suspended for the duration of time that the force majeure event continues, unless parties agree otherwise.
- Non – liability – once the force majeure clause is triggered, the non-performing party’s liability for non-performance or delay is removed (usually for the duration of time that the force majeure event continues).
- Right to terminate – in some cases, suspension of obligations may be unsatisfactory if it becomes commercially unfeasible for the parties to resume performance of the contract once the force majeure event ceases.
Before suspending performance in reliance upon a force majeure clause, parties should review their contractual agreements and consider:
- The scope of the applicable force majeure clause and whether a pandemic falls within the scope.
- The notice requirements and whether they have been triggered.
- Whether mitigation steps should be taken, and if so, the reasonable time for the same.
- The potential consequences of a breach under the contract.
- How the force majeure clause reads with any indemnity clauses under the contract.
In the absence of an express force majeure clause, the common law doctrine of frustration may apply. The doctrine of frustration, as established in Taylor v Caldwell (1863) 3 B&S 826, allows a contract to be automatically discharged when a frustrating event occurs so that parties are no longer bound to perform their obligations.
It was perfectly illustrated in the Kenyan case of Five Forty Aviation Limited v Erwan Lowe  eKLR where the Court stated:
“the doctrine of frustration operates to excuse further performance where it appears from the nature of the contract and the surrounding circumstances that the parties have contracted on the basis that some fundamental thing or state of things will continue to exist, or that some particular person will continue to be available, or that some future event which forms the foundation of the contract will take place, and before breach performance becomes impossible or only possible in a very different way to that contemplated without default of either party and owing to a fundamental change of circumstances beyond the control and original contemplation of the parties.”
The doctrine of frustration (or discharge, as it is sometimes referred to) is generally thought to provide a solution to the problems of loss allocation which arise when performance is prevented by supervening events. Therefore, in the event of a contract being frustrated (and therefore terminated) by the onset of COVID-19 and the resultant inability to perform contractual obligations, the operation of the doctrine automatically allocates risk and loss following from the said termination.
Test For Frustration
Over time, the courts have adapted the test in Taylor v Caldwell and developed a broader test for frustration. Generally speaking, a frustrating event is an event which:
- Occurs after the contract has been formed.
- Is so fundamental as to be regarded by the law both as striking at the root of the contract and entirely beyond what was contemplated by the parties when they entered the contract.
- Is not due to the fault of either party.
- Renders further performance impossible, illegal or makes it radically different from that contemplated by the parties at the time of the contract.
Effect of Frustration
The doctrine of frustration automatically terminates the contract in question and the parties will no longer be bound by their obligations thereunder. Moreover, the drastic consequences of contractual frustration mean that the threshold for proving frustration is much higher than that for most force majeure provisions since it must be shown that the obligations impacted by the event or circumstance are fundamental to the contract.
Where there is an express provision in the contract addressing a particular act or supervening event, such an act or event cannot be relied upon when invoking the doctrine of frustration. A clause in the contract which is intended to deal with the event which has occurred will normally preclude the application of the doctrine of frustration as frustration is concerned with unforeseen, supervening events, and not events which have been anticipated and are provided for within the contract itself.
It is likely that the doctrine of frustration will not be available if the contract contains an express force majeure provision, since the said provision will be deemed to be the agreed allocation of risk between the parties.
This alert is for informational purposes only and should not be taken to be or construed as a legal opinion.
If you have any queries or need clarifications, please do not hesitate to contact Jacob Ochieng, Partner (firstname.lastname@example.org), Milly Mbedi, Senior Associate (email@example.com) or your usual contact at our firm, for legal advice on how COVID-19 might affect your business.