The covid-19 which was first announced in Wuhan in China, which has spread across the world over the past few months has affected perhaps every sphere of human existence currently. It has had diverse effects on the politics of nations, health, law and human and business relations in general. Contractual relations between and amongst parties haven’t been left out. The abilities of parties to perform under contracts entered into have come under strain especially where pursuant to several pieces of executive instruments, certain parts of the country had been placed under a lock down, movement into and out of the country has been curtailed and movements even in some parts of the country had also been curtailed.
The contractual question that arises in these times becomes: What happens to the contractual obligations under the contract? What remedies can lie to a defaulting party under the contract. In this article, the common law doctrine of frustration and the force majeure clause in contracts will be discussed.
ABSOLUTE LIABILITY IN A CONTRACT AND FRUSTRATION OF A CONTRACT
Arguably and as has been known within the Ghanaian military parlance, the first rule with any military personnel is “Obey the rule, before you complain”. This rule explicates the understanding that the rule or “agreement” laid down must be adhered to first before the aggrieved party can later make a complaint on why s/he ought not have complied with the rule in the first place.
In contractual relations too, the cardinal rule is that the contractual parties must respect and adhere to the dictates of that contract. At common law, parties under a contractual relation were obligated albeit mandatorily to perform their duties under the contract by the doctrine of absolute liability.[ii] Under this doctrine, when a party contracts validly and voluntarily enters into a contractual relation with another part(ies), the obligations under that contract must be performed at all cost notwithstanding the fact that the performance of the obligations might have been rendered impossible to perform.
The reason for this absolute doctrine to perform was premised on the fact that the contractual parties must always negotiate expressly for contingencies where the parties must also expressly state what shall ensue in the event of the named contingency.[iii] This requirement even on the face of it appears arbitrary. Contractual parties are always not in control of events around them, especially those involving third higher parties. Further, life is subject to events beyond the control of man. Clearly the strict contours of this doctrine led to absurd judicial decisions.
The absolute doctrine to honour contracts was re-considered in 1863 where the court in the case of Taylor v Caldwell [iv] considered the hardship such an absolute obligation cast on contractual parties. The court reasoned that in any contract, there should be an automatic mutual discharge of the contract where the performance of the contract became impossible to perform of which the impossibility was neither through the fault of either of the parties but was by a supervening event and that supervening event has rendered obligations under the contract as being radically different from those contemplated by the parties at the inception of the contract.[v] The consequence of this, as espoused in the case of Taylor v. Caldwell is to terminate the contract on grounds of the impossibility to perform the contract. The contract does not however become void entirely. The parties are only discharged from the futuristic obligations they would have incurred under the contract. This means that obligations which become due before the emergence of the impossible situation remain valid of which the defaulting party may be liable for a breach of a contract for its non-performance.[vi]
The case of Taylor v. Caldwell bothered on a contract by the parties for the hiring of a particular music hall for four days. A week before the concert could ensue, the hall was raged down by fire and the plaintiff instituted an action against the hall owners for failing to provide them with a hall for their concert. Within their contract there was no express provision making room for such a contingency. The court then espoused the implied condition theory which was to the effect that notwithstanding the fact that the parties had no express term in the contract to cater for such an event as had risen (the burning down of the music hall), the court will imply a term into the contract. The term implied will be to the effect that if the parties at the time of the contract has anticipated the event (herein the burning of the hall) they would have provided in their contract that upon its happening, the obligations in the contract will be discharged. As time went on, the implied term theory forming the basis for the doctrine of frustration was criticised heavily and was construed as being fictitious. The courts have now held that it will apply frustration to contracts on grounds that it is a just and reasonable approach to new situations arising which are beyond the parties.[vii]
ESTABLISHING THE DOCTRINE OF FRUSTRATION
It is argued, albeit established in law that the decision in Taylor v. Caldwell espoused the newer and friendlier doctrine of the Frustration of Contracts paving way for a fresh regime in contract law. A party can successfully plead frustration therefore by establishing all four main factors namely the presence of a supervening event, the impossibility of the party to the contract to perform its contractual obligations, the un-foreseeability of the event and the lack of fault on the part of the complaining party. To expatiate-
The frustration of a contract will ensue where there has been a supervening event. Any supervening event the party alludes to must have occurred after the parties entered into the contract. Here, also, the nature, scope and the obligations to be performed under the contract must be considered by the court or the parties to ascertain whether the obligation being prevented from being performed by the supervening even is one which is fundamental under the contract such that its non-performance renders the contract redundant or whether the obligation is just a trivial one. Where the obligation in question is one which is merely ancillary to the contract, the presence of a supervening event shall not be enough to frustrate the performance of the contract. In law, a supervening event is said to be any event that changes the circumstances of performance of the contract so significantly that the parties are unable able to perform the contract. Invariably, an event such as a war or a state of emergency, depending on the exact nature of the emergency and the nature of the contract may be deemed a supervening event.
Secondly, the contract must have been rendered impossible to perform. The impossibility to perform the contract ensues where the contract at the time of the supervening event has become radically or fundamentally different from what the parties contracted at the inception of the contract.[viii] Also, the mere fact of a contract being rendered unprofitable, or expenses under the contract rising at a super-normal rate or losing its commercial viability is no reason to deem that contract as becoming impossible to perform. Where there is even an unexpected change in the economic situation in the country, unless it can be shown that the situation has rendered the contract radically different from what the parties anticipated at the beginning that may not be enough to frustrate the contract. The threshold of establishing this factor is quite high.
Next the foreseen or foreseeable risks involved in the contract must be considered. It must be established by the party complaining of the impossibility to perform that contract that the event being complained of wasn’t one which was within the reasonable contemplation of the parties at the time of the contract. The event must be totally unforeseen by the contractual parties.
The last factor to be established is that on fault and self-induced frustration. The supervening act complained of should have not been induced by a party to the contract. Frustration can only arise when the event in question is one which is beyond and out of the control of the parties. In the circumstance where the act complained of was caused by a party to the contract, an attempt to invoke the frustration doctrine, will not hold.
As noted, the doctrine of frustration is a common law doctrine which is not expressly stated in the contract but may be invoked to discharge the contract where the necessary factors are proven to be present. Force Majeure on the other hand doesn’t take much root from the common law. It is expressly provided for as a clause in the contract of which specifies some laid down events which will operate to discharge the contract. Parties to the contract have the liberty to agree on specified events which will be treated as a force majeure event. As a necessary indication or circumstance of the force majeure clause in the contract, the force majeure event must be one which ensues as a reason of circumstances beyond their control. The circumstances must in addition be unforeseeable, unavoidable and must make the performance of that obligation impossible. The parties may invoke the force majeure provision to suspend the contract initially, for a short while however where the event persists or perhaps become a permanent event then either party may terminate the agreement.
Where parties include a force majeure clause in their contract, it is to the force majeure clause that the court will construe in ascertaining whether based on its wording and the relevant facts and events, the contract can be deemed to have been brought to an end. Thus, parties can either decide to rely on the common law doctrine of frustration which need not be written in the contract to bring their contract to an end or they can expressly stipulate in their contract the nature and calibre of events which will bring their contract to an end by way of a force majeure clause.
In this era where many contracts include force majeure provisions, the question on whether the covid 19 will amount to a force majeure or not will depend on the interpretation of the provision of force majeure in that particular contract.
DRAFTING OF FORCE MAJEURE CLAUSES IN CONTRACTS.
In any contract, when parties attempt at including a force majeure clause (which is highly recommended) some main considerations must engage their interest.
The first is the definition to ascribe to the events which must be construed as force majeure events. Typically in contracts, parties define the force majeure events in either an exhaustive or a non-exhaustive way. Many contractual parties choose to define their events exhaustively in their bid to prevent either party from having many options to escape contractual obligations. Also, many of the definitions of force majeure events in contracts have excluded specific instances epidemics, pandemics and even acts of governments as forming part of the scope of the force majeure events. They probably only state an act of God as an event without defining it or defining it in a limited manner. After this covid-19 pandemic, the interests of contractual parties must be steered towards defining the force majeure event extensively and including in their definition of a force majeure acts of governments, travel bans, forced quarantines, epidemics, pandemics (whether due to natural causes or man-made). Further, the definition must be left in a non-exhaustive manner to cater for unforeseen occurrences which may ensue not contemplated by the parties.
Further, it must be indicated that the events in force majeure clause defined must be beyond the reasonable control of the parties and the events must be such that the parties did not have an ability to resist or avoid its occurrence.
Also, the force majeure complained of must have rendered the performance of the contractual obligation impossible and not merely uneasy to perform and the event mustn’t have been caused by a party to the contract whether intentionally or negligently.
A notice requirement must also be placed in the contract where a party who faces a force majeure event must give, within a time frame to be stipulated in the contract, reasonable notice to the other party of the force majeure event, when it began, the effect it may have on the obligations of that party, proposed mitigated steps being taken to reduce the impact of the event on the whole contractual arrangement and the estimated length of the force majeure event. The notice requirement of the steps undertaken to mitigate the force majeure event then means that the parties must also include in their contract a duty on either parties to mitigate/ use efforts in abating the impact of the force majeure event on the contract.
Again, having in view the sudden nature of the Covid-19 pandemic and the abrupt halt it has brought to many sectors of the country if not all, it is reasonable then now to include suspensions and automatic extensions of the contract in addition to termination clauses based on the force majeure events. With suspensions and automatic extensions, the parties must agree that the period within which the contractual obligations are suspended due to the force majeure event must be deemed to have extended the contract for that same amount of time. In effect, if the force majeure event suspends performance for six months depending on the nature of the contract, the parties must extend the contractual relation for an extra six months to cover the period of suspension. This however should not prejudice the right of the parties to terminate the contract based on the force majeure event if the nature of the contract cannot permit an extension or even a temporal suspension.
Parties to a contract which have been affected by the Covid-19 pandemic which do not have force majeure clauses can rely on the common law doctrine of frustration to relieve themselves of the contractual obligations. Those with force majeure clauses which do not have definitions to cover such pandemics may consider revising their contracts to anticipate such pandemics and friendlier dispute resolution mechanisms must be explored by parties to help in resolving breaches of contracts as a result of such unfortunate pandemics amicably.
For future contracts to be entered into, the parties must be guided by what and how contracts have been treated by the covid-19 pandemic and must provide for an extensive force majeure provision as possible to cater for such. It is conceded that depending on the interests of parties in the contract, one party will advocate for a narrower form of force majeure so as to prevent the other party from easily escaping liability under the contract whereas the other party will advocate for the broader approach as proposed. The ultimate resolve lies in the negotiation by the parties and the compromise to be reached.
[ii] Paradine v Jane (1647) 82 ER 897.
[iv] Taylor v Caldwell (1863) 122 ER 309
[vii] Davis Contractors v. Fareham U.D.C  A.C. 696;  3 W.L.R. 37.