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Force Majeure: How does an ‘Act of God’ Clause Affect Your Contract

Force Majeure

On 30 January 2020, the Director General of the World Health Organisation declared the novel coronavirus COVID-19 (“Coronavirus”) outbreak around the world a “public health emergency of international concern”.

We recognise in this difficult time, many of us may be also concerned with our ongoing contractual obligations and how the unforeseeable event of Coronavirus may affect the contracts that we are parties to. In this article, we shall provide insights on what is a force majeure clause and how the Coronavirus may affect contractual obligations.

What is Force Majeure?

Force majeure is a legal concept designed to provide remedies for parties affected by an unavoidable or unforeseeable event. Common examples of force majeure events include earthquake, explosion, natural disaster, terrorism and war.

Eventhough force majeure is a civil law concept, force majeure clauses are used in Australian contracts because of its similarity to the doctrine of frustration in common law. The doctrine of frustration applies when the performance of a contract must be radically different from what was intended by the parties.

Does Force Majeure apply to the Coronavirus outbreak?

The Coronavirus is a recent new global crisis, therefore it is not likely that contracts will include express clauses referring to the event of a Coronavirus outbreak. Whilst in China, the government has issued thousands of Force Majeure Certificates for businesses relying on force majeure clauses in contracts, it is still uncertain whether the Australian government will provide similar provisions. The questions that should be addressed are:

  1. Is Coronavirus considered a force majeure? This will largely be determined by a particular clause and that specific drafting of the clause.
  2. What notice is required to be given to enact the force majeure? It is often essential that correct notice be given pursuant to the specific clause.
  3. What relief can be obtained? Often if the appropriate clause applies, the relief may be temporary for the period of time that the event occurs.
  4. Is there an obligation on either or both parties to mitigate their loss?

If there is no force majeure can the common law help?

Without new government provisions, the test required in common law is to analyse the risks the parties agreed to take and the precise wording in the contract. In addition, the party relying on the clause will need to prove to the court that the event is beyond the reasonable control of the party seeking relief.

In Australia, frustration may be applicable in the following circumstances:

  1. A change in law rendering performance illegal. In the current situation, if the law requires the quarantine of a personal service provider, the service provider will be frustrated by such unexpected event as not quarantining and performing personal services to other individuals will be considered illegal.
  2. Physical destruction of the subject matter of the contract. In the situation of Coronavirus, an example would be if goods are contaminated and required to be destroyed. In such event, if the goods are being traded, the destruction of the goods may render the contract frustrated due to unexpected events.
  3. Restraint by injunction. In the landmark case of Codelfa Construction Pty Ltd v State Rail Authority of NSW, construction work noise affected the local residents and work shifts needed to be reduced as a result of injunctions. The majority of the court considered that the contract had been frustrated. In the current situation, if the government restrains trade by injunction due to infected personnels, this may give cause to frustration in contract.

It is important to note that irrespective of the magnitude of the Coronavirus outbreak, parties to a contract are still under an obligation to provide notice if the party seeks to rely on a force majeure clause or the doctrine of frustration under common law.

Force Majeure in Property Contracts

In Queensland, there is no automatic right to pull out of a contract even in the event that a property is damaged. In addition, most Queensland property contracts indicate that “time is of the essence”, this means time limits must be strictly observed in all circumstances and there is no automatic right for a party to extend dates because of delays.

Property Purchase and Sale Contracts

In the standard Real Estate Institute of Queensland Contract for Houses and Residential Land (“the Contract”), clause 6.2 provides a Suspension of Time clause for events when a party is unable to perform a Settlement Obligation solely as a consequence of a Delay Event. Such Event is defined in clause 6.2(8)(b) to include:

  1.  A tsunami, flood, cyclone, earthquake, bushfire or other act of nature;
  2. Riot, civil commotion, war, invasion or a terrorist act;
  3. An imminent threat of an event in paragraphs (i) or (ii); or
  4. Compliance with any lawful direction or order by a Government Agency.

If you are currently negotiating a real estate contract, it is important for a special clause to be inserted in regards to Coronavirus/a pandemic.

If the contract has already been signed, it is important to note that you are only entitled to an extension if the other party agrees to an extension. In the current circumstance, if you become aware that there may be a potential delay due to the outbreak, it is important to communicate with the other party as soon as possible and negotiate a new settlement date.

Conclusion

Given that there is no clarity yet as to when the Coronavirus outbreak will be contained, it is important for parties under contractual obligations to prepare for circumstances where the relevant contractual obligations may be affected. Consult with us for advice appropriate to your situation.

If you are in current contract negotiations, you should certainly consider including a force majeure clause that will protect you from the consequences of being unable to perform contractual obligations due to Coronavirus and other similar biological disasters.

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