Crazy days! Force majeure & frustration!

Photo by Adam Azim on Unsplash

I never thought that the subject of impossibility and frustration in relation to contract would become such a popular topic of everyday conversation; but it has.

The phrase “force majeure” has also been making more of an appearance than is commonly the case.

Why?

The continuing fallout from Coronavirus or COVID-19 has led to all sorts of sporting and cultural events being cancelled or postponed. We are also about to enter the holiday season with the Spring Break and Easter Weekend just over the horizon. Many people will have booked getaways to foreign climes and events have now completely overtaken such plans.

Critically, thousands of people will have paid something up front for football season tickets and holidays and they will be anxious to know where they stand legally.

Hearts owner Ann Budge says she would consider legal action should her club be relegated from the Scottish Premiership with eight games left:

Coronavirus: Hearts would seek legal advice if relegated

So where do they stand legally?

There are two ways of dealing with an unexpected situation which affects contractual performance: being reactive or being farsighted.

At the moment, the scale of COVID-19 has completely taken Governments, societies, business, cultural, sporting organisations and individuals completely by surprise. So, in a sense, we are being forced to react to changing circumstances and rely upon established legal contractual principles which govern the termination of agreements i.e. frustration, impossibility and illegality. More about these matters shortly.

As lawyers, could we have pre-empted or foreseen that events (I’m speaking in the general sense here) might render contractual performance highly unlikely or well nigh impossible? Well, yes the concept of Force Majeure clauses is recognised in contract law – although the linguists amongst us may recognise that it’s not a native species of English or Scots law.

words ‘force majeure’ are not words which we generally find in an English contract. They are taken from the Code Napoleon and they were inserted by this Romanian gentleman or by his advisers, who were no doubt familiar with their use on the Continent.”

In the English case of Matsoukis v Priestman [1915] 1 KB 681 Bailhace J in English High Court noted that the:

Bailhace J was of the view that force majeure clauses could cover events such as industrial action, but certainly not bad weather or football or funerals.

Yet in the later English High Court decision Lebeaupin v Richard Crispin [1920] 2 KB 714, force majeure was given a much broader meaning to include events such as war, bad weather, industrial action and, interestingly, epidemics. That said McCardie J was at pains to point out:

A force majeure clause should be construed in each case with a close attention to the words which precede or follow it, and with a due regard to the nature and general terms of the contract. The eect of the clause may vary with each instrument.

Essentially, such clauses are inserted into contracts to deal with the consequences of events outwith the control of the parties which may render performance of the contract impossible.

Ross Campbell of Brodies Solicitors who has pointed out that the rules of last year’s Rugby World Cup tournament in Japan contained a force majeure clause addressing the cancellation of matches due to extreme weather. The clause was not utilised and, therefore, not challenged, but it’s an interesting example of how parties to an agreement might attempt to address situations which can have serious consequences for contractual performance.

A link to Ross Campbell’s article can be found below:

https://brodies.com/blog/dispute-resolution/the-power-of-force-majeure-clauses/

The very phrase force majeure conjures up images of an unstoppable force that sweeps away the accepted rules or conventions – almost akin to the idea of damnum fatale or an act of God.

So whether, will the courts permit the application of a force majeure clause will turn on the wording of the clause.

Could anyone have predicted the situation that we are now in with COVID-19 and drafted an appropriate clause to address these unprecedented times? It’s extremely doubtful. I’m not pretending to be Nostradamus (or for our Scottish readers, the Brahan Seer or Thomas the Rhymer) when I predict that many lawyers and their clients will actively be looking at the usefulness of force majeure clauses.

Triggering a force majeure clause

For those parties wishing to rely upon force majeure clauses, drafting the term may be crucially important. It might be highly advisable to have a list of events or circumstances which trigger operation of the clause; and then have a catch-all provision or belt and braces term to cover things you might not have explicitly specified (as per McCardie J’s remarks in Lebeaupin v Richard Crispin [1920]. Be aware, however, that extremely wide catch-all provisions may be disallowed because they are not within the normal meaning of the term (see Tandrin Aviation Holdings Ltd v Aero Toy Store LLC [2010] EWHC 40 (Comm)).

Frustration, impossibility and illegality

Let’s now turn to situations where individuals have to react to unexpected events without having the benefit of a force majeure clause in the agreement.

Since the formation of a contract, circumstances affecting the agreement may have changed dramatically (i.e. the pandemic). The contract may now be impossible to perform or the contract may have been rendered illegal by changes in the law.

Physical destruction of the subject-matter of the contract can also frustrate contracts.

Perhaps one of the best known examples of frustration can be seen in the case below:

Taylor v Caldwell (1863) the Surrey Gardens and Music Hall was hired by the pursuers from the defenders for the purpose of holding four grand concerts and fêtes. Before the first concert on 17 June 1862 could took place, the hall was completely destroyed by fire. Neither party was responsible for this incident. The pursuers, however, brought an action for damages against the defenders for wasted advertising costs.

Held: By the English High Court that it was clearly impossible for the contract to be performed because it relied on the continuing existence of the venue. The pursuers claim for damages was dismissed on the grounds that the purpose of the contract had been frustrated.

In another case, Vitol SA v Esso Australia 1988 The Times 1 February 1988, a contract for the sale of petroleum was discharged on the grounds of frustration when both the ship and its cargo of petroleum were completely destroyed in a missile attack in the Persian Gulf during the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988). The sellers had attempted to sue the buyers for the price of the goods, but this claim was dismissed.

The ‘coronationcases

Two famous cases which are particularly instructive are the ‘Coronation Cases’ because they concern the consequences of changing circumstances. Both cases arose due to the illness of King Edward VII. The new King was unable to participate or attend a variety of events to celebrate his accession to the British throne following the death of his mother, Queen Victoria.

The English Court of Appeal took different approaches in each of the cases:

Krell v Henry [1903] 2 KB 740 the pursuer was the owner of a flat in the central London district of Pall Mall. The pursuer’s flat was on the route of the proposed coronation procession of the new King, Edward VII, which was scheduled to take place on 26 and 27 June 1902. The pursuer had advertised his flat for rent during the daytime on 26 and 27 June for the purpose of viewing the procession. The defender, who was anxious to view the procession, responded to the advertisement and entered into an agreement to hire the flat on the days specified. An announcement was made on 24 June stating that the procession was to be cancelled owing to the King’s illness. The defender refused to pay the balance of the rent for the flat by reason that events had frustrated performance of the contract. The pursuer brought an action against the defender for payment of the balance of the rent.

Held: by the English Court of Appeal that the cancellation of the event frustrated the contract and discharged the parties from their obligations under it. The clinching argument in the defender’s favour was that both parties clearly entered into the contract with the same intention.

The reason behind the hire of the flat was, therefore, a material term of the contract. Had the defender failed to communicate his motivation for hiring the flat, then the contract would have remained capable of enforcement by the pursuer.

Lord Justice Vaughn-Williams was of the opinion that frustration of contract was not limited to either the destruction or non-existence of the subject matter of the contract. It was also important to identify the substance or the purpose of the agreement. In other words, did the parties share the same intentions?

The illness of King Edward resulted in a second legal action. This time, however, the English Court of Appeal took a completely different approach to the issue of frustration of contract.

Herne Bay Steamboat Co v Hutton [1903] 2 KB 683 the pursuers had entered into a contract to hire a steamship to the defender for two days. The Royal Navy was assembling at Spithead to take part in a naval review to celebrate King Edward’s coronation.

The King was to review the fleet personally. The defender wished to transport paying guests from Herne Bay to Spithead to see the naval review. Due to the King’s illness, an official announcement was made cancelling the review. It would still have been perfectly possible for the defender to take his passengers on a cruise to see the assembled fleet. The defender, however, refused to use the vessel claiming that the contract had been frustrated. The pursuers brought an action against the defender for the balance of the fee of £250 (a considerable sum in those times) owed by the defender who was refusing to pay for the hire of the boat.

Held: the contract was not discharged by reason of frustration. The main purpose of the contract could still be achieved i.e. to take paying guests for a cruise around the fleet.

Why the difference in approach?

In Krell v Henry [1903], Lord Justice Vaughn-Williams was of the opinion that frustration of contract was not limited to either the destruction or non-existence of the subject matter of the contract.

The difference in Herne Bay Steamboat Co v Hutton [1903] was that the contract was the main purpose of the contract could still be achieved i.e. to take paying guests for a cruise around the fleet – despite the fact that King Edward VII would not be personally reviewing the fleet due to his unexpected illness.

This difference in approach taken by the Court of Appeal in both cases is sometimes difficult to understand. In Krell v Henry, both parties had clearly intended that the purpose of the contract was to view the coronation procession (which was postponed). Reinforcing this fact, was the fact that the defender was only entitled to use the flat during the daytime.

In Herne Bay Steamboat Co v Hutton, the purpose of the defender in hiring the steamship was to see the naval review, but this was not the purpose of the owners who were not the slightest bit interested why the vessel had been hired.

Lord Justice Vaughn-Williams compared the situation in Herne Bay Steamboat Co to someone who hires a carriage to go and see the Epsom Derby, but the outbreak of some unforeseen epidemic means that the races are cancelled. This makes no difference to the owner of the carriage who will still expect to be paid for the hire of his vehicle.

It will, however, be important to identify the substance or the purpose of the agreement. The cancellation of an event can frustrate the performance of a contract where that event is an absolutely material term of the agreement.

The limits of frustration …

Frustration can only be used to have the contract discharged in situations where neither party is to blame. When one party is to blame for the failure to perform his obligations under the agreement, this represents a breach of contract and the innocent party can raise the appropriate action.

Tsakiroglou v Noblee Thorl GmbH [1961] 2 ALL ER 179 the sellers had agreed to transport Sudanese ground nuts from Port Sudan in the Red Sea to Hamburg in Germany. The ship was to take the fastest route to Europe through the Suez Canal. This proved to be impossible because the Canal was closed as a result of military hostilities following the Anglo-French-Israeli invasion of Egypt causing the Suez Crisis in late 1956. The sellers would have to ship the goods around the alternative route of the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa. This meant that the distance the ship had to travel from Port Sudan to Hamburg was greatly increased and this would also mean a dramatic increase in the costs of carriage in respect of the goods.

Held: by the House of Lords that a party will still have a duty to perform a contract even if this means that performance is more difficult or expensive than was originally intended by the parties. The closure of the Suez Canal did not mean that the sellers’ duties were discharged by reason of frustration of contract.

Contracts for personal services

Such a contract is discharged by the death of the person who was to perform it. The incapacity of a person who is to perform a contract may discharge it. However, temporary incapacity is not enough unless it affects the performance of the contract in a really serious way. If an employee is killed or permanently incapacitated, it will be very difficult to argue that the employment contract should be allowed to continue. Employees who have had a lengthy prison sentence imposed on them by a criminal court may find it very difficult to argue against the employer’s proposition that the contract of employment has been terminated by reason of frustration.

Some words of warning: the courts may be unwilling to use frustration as a means of terminating an employment contract if other ways of achieving this result are available. This could occur in situations where it is possible for the employer to dismiss the employee entirely fairly by reason of a lack of capability (e.g. on grounds of ill health) as per the Employment Relations Act 1996.

Notable cases on frustration in connection with employment contracts include the following:

  • Davis Contractors Ltd v Fareham UDC [1956] AC 696
  • Marshall v Harland & Wolff [1972] IRLR90
  • G F Sharp & Co Ltd v McMillan [1998] IRLR 632

The purpose of the contract becomes impossible to perform

As we have seen, a situation involving the physical destruction of the subject-matter of the contract will discharge the parties from performance of their duties by reason of frustration. However, frustration can also occur in situations where physical destruction of the subject-matter of the contract may not be the issue.

Jackson v Union Marine Insurance Co (1874) LR 10 CP 125 the pursuer owned a ship which had been chartered to go with all possible speed from Liverpool to Newport for the purpose of loading a cargo bound for San Francisco. The pursuer had insurance with the defenders to protect himself in the event that the charter might be prevented from being carried out. The vessel was stranded whilst on its way to Newport. It was not refloated for over a month and could not be properly repaired for some time. The charterers hired another ship and the pursuer turned to the insurers. They suggested that the pursuer should sue the charterer for breach.

Held: the fact that the ship was stranded effectively frustrated the agreement’s commercial purpose and, therefore, the charterers were free to go elsewhere. The pursuer had no remedy against the charterers and was in turn entitled to seek compensation under the insurance policy.

Illegality

We are seeing the introduction of emergency powers legislation across the World in response to COVID-19 and this will undoubtedly have a huge impact on a range of contractual obligations. Many European Union countries have reintroduced border controls and curbs on free movement of persons which would normally be a clear breach of European Treaties (e.g. the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union; the Treaty on European Union; and the Schengen Agreement), but these are not normal times. These drastic measures can all be justified on grounds of public security and public health – legitimate derogations or grounds for withdrawal from key EU legal principles. Travel and tourism will obviously be disproportionately affected by these restrictions.

Contracts can become illegal because Parliament introduces legislation to this effect. After the murder of schoolchildren and a teacher at Dunblane Primary School in 1996 by Thomas Hamilton, the British government made it illegal to own particular models of firearms. Therefore, anyone who entered a contract to purchase firearms shortly before the legislation was introduced could not force the supplier to perform the contract. If the buyer insisted on performance of the contract by the seller, the seller would be complying with his contractual duty, but he would also be breaking the law as the contract would be illegal.

Events can also make further or future performance of contracts illegal e.g. the outbreak of war. Two House of Lords’ decisions are excellent authority for this proposition –

Stevenson & Sons Ltd v AG für Cartonnagen Industrie (1918) AC 239 an English company, Stevenson, was in partnership with a German company acting as a sole agent to sell the German company’s goods. By continuing to carry on business with an enemy during wartime (the First World War had broken out), Stevenson would be committing a criminal act and there was no alternative but to have the partnership dissolved (see also Cantiere San Rocco SA v Clyde Shipbuilding & Engineering Co Ltd (1923) SC (HL) 105 where, again, the First World War had a similar effect on a contract between a Scottish company and an Austrian buyer of a ship).

Conclusion

The Coronavirus or COVID-19 is not merely a health issue – it has also become something of a legal minefield for society. This is where knowledge of the circumstances of termination of contractual obligations and performance is vital. The doctrine of frustration, impossibility and supervening illegality are highly relevant to this debate.

Doubtless, the use of force majeure clauses will become more common – especially, if as predicted, we are going to be experiencing further waves of disruption due to this pandemic.

Related Blog Articles:

https://seancrossansscotslaw.com/2019/02/10/frustration-of-contract/

https://seancrossansscotslaw.com/2019/03/25/locking-horns-frustration-of-contract-part-2/

https://seancrossansscotslaw.com/2019/11/23/pay-up-or-frustration-of-contract-part-3/

https://seancrossansscotslaw.com/2019/08/28/stormy-weather-im-at-the-end-of-my-tether/

https://seancrossansscotslaw.com/2020/02/25/welcome-to-austria/

Copyright Seán J Crossan, 18 March 2020

The sands of time (or prescription)

Photo by Immo Wegmann on Unsplash

Prescription: terror of the legal profession

When I discuss prescription with students for the first time, I usually can’t resist making the (admittedly) lame observation that it has nothing to do with going to see your General Practitioner for a medical appointment. Though, these last few days, I have been talking a lot about the Coronavirus or COVID-19 and the legal implications of this outbreak for sickness absence from work and eligibility for sick pay.

No, prescription has nothing to do with medicine and is a concept that all lawyers should be familiar with – indeed live in terror of perhaps?

I well remember one developer of legal software informing me that his case management system for personal injury claims had a feature which regularly provided a countdown towards the last possible date when a prospective claim must be submitted to the appropriate court with jurisdiction to hear the matter (so no excuses then?).

Lawyers who fall foul of prescription may well be opening a can of worms for themselves because the clients will almost certainly attempt to sue them for professional negligence.

If the principle of prescription is being deployed by the opposing side in a legal action, you (and your client’s case) may be in serious trouble.

In what way?

Essentially, you have not submitted the claim or complied with court procedures (e.g. deadlines for submission of documents/evidence) within the required time allowance.

In terms of the Prescription and Limitation (Scotland) Act 1973, most delictual (tort) claims must be brought within five years of damage to property. In terms of contractual actions, a pursuer or a claimant who is contemplating legal proceedings in Scotland will usually have 5 years from the effective date of the breach to submit a claim (the quinquennium).

On the other hand, personal injury claims must usually be lodged within three years of the date of the incident which caused injury (the triennium).

In England, the prescription period for contractual claims is 6 years and for most other claims the period is 3 years.

Time limits for submission of claims will be strictly adhered to – unless the Scottish courts deem it just and equitable to extend them.

Sometimes, certain claims – principally Employment Tribunal claims – must be submitted by the claimant in a very short space of time. Normally, for most employment claims (including discrimination claims), the claimant must submit an ET1 application to the Employment Tribunal within 3 months minus 1 day of the act that she is complaining about. If the dismissal from employment took place on 5 March, a claim for unfair dismissal must be submitted by 4 June – at the very latest – otherwise it will be time barred. Admittedly, for equal pay claims, longer time limits apply i.e. 6 months minus 1 day from the discriminatory act complained about.

Prescription is an extremely powerful weapon that can be used by an opposing lawyer to knock out another person’s claim. If prescription is relevant, then the merits of the case will simply not be discussed. The claim is time-barred and that is usually that (see the UK Supreme Court’s decisions in David T Morrison & Co Limited v ICL Plastics [2014] UKSC 48 and Gordon v Campbell Riddell Breeze Paterson LLP (Scotland) [2017] UKSC 75).

Out of time!

In two fairly recent cases before the Outer House of the Court of Session, the issue of prescription was successfully argued by the defenders’ legal teams.

In the first case – Brian Alexander Gracie v Edinburgh City Council [2019] CSOH 6 – an incident which had allegedly taken place in 1965 was time barred (unsurprisingly) on the grounds of prescription. More bizarrely, Mr Gracie, the pursuer himself admitted that he had little recollection of the incident and there was scant evidence to support his assertions in any event. Gracie was alleging that, while at school in the 1960s, the teaching staff had failed in their duty of care to him by permitting him to run out from the playground on to the road where he was hit by a car. Needless to say, his claim for a staggering £650,000 in damages was swiftly dispatched by the council’s lawyers.

A link to the decision of the Outer House in the above case can be found below:

https://www.scotcourts.gov.uk/docs/default-source/cos-general-docs/pdf-docs-for-opinions/2019csoh29.pdf?sfvrsn=0

In the second case – Midlothian Council v David Anderson Keith and others [2019] CSOH 29 – the council had built a housing development on land at Gorebridge which later turned out to be be dangerous because of gas leaks seeping from old coal mines at the site. The site was later demolished and rebuilt because of the risk to human health.

It had instructed a survey prior to the build and the engineering firm which carried this out had assessed the risk from gas to be very low. Due to this assessment, gas defences (e.g. a gas membrane) were not included in the build. In 2013, levels of gas harmful to humans were detected at a site property.

The council wished to sue the firm for allegedly providing negligent advice under their contract. The claim was dismissed by reason of prescription i.e. the contractual obligations between the two parties had become extinct. It’s worth noting that the engineers never accepted liability – the clinching argument of prescription made debate about liability completely irrelevant.

The disagreement between the two sides centred around the point at which the five year prescription period began. The engineering firm argued that it began when the development was completed (June 2009); the council responded by arguing that the critical date was when the high levels of gas were detected at the site (7 September 2013).

Lord Doherty clearly relied upon the UK Supreme Court decision in Gordon v Campbell Riddell Breeze Paterson LLP (Scotland) [2017] UKSC 75. The key date from which the 5 year prescription period should run was the date of completion of the housing development. His Lordship was firmly of the view that the key event was the date when the council placed reliance on the engineering firm’s assessment that it was safe to build on the site. This reliance could be pinpointed to a period between December 2007 and June 2009 i.e. when the development was commenced and completed. The action against the engineers (who never admitted liability) was commenced on 4 September 2018 – nearly 9 years after the development had been completed. The council’s claim was, therefore, dismissed.

A link to the decision of the Outer House in the above case can be found below:

https://www.scotcourts.gov.uk/docs/default-source/cos-general-docs/pdf-docs-for-opinions/2019csoh6.pdf?sfvrsn=0

Overriding prescription?

There is, however, a provision in Section 19A of the Prescription and Limitation (Scotland) Act 1973 which does permit a judge to override the normal rules about prescription. Claims which would normally be time barred may be permitted to proceed to a hearing under Section 19A if the judge believes that it is equitable to do so.

Such an approach was taken in the case of A v Glasgow City Council [2018] CSOH 116 which arose out of the events of the Glasgow Lorry Incident in December 2014. Relatives of the victims of this tragedy were permitted to proceed with their legal actions despite the relevant time limits having passed because it would not have been in the interests of justice to time bar the claims on a technicality.

A link to Lord Doherty’s Opinion in A v Glasgow City Council [2018] CSOH 116 can be found below:

https://www.scotcourts.gov.uk/docs/default-source/cos-general-docs/pdf-docs-for-opinions/2018csoh116.pdf?sfvrsn=0

Removal of the 3 year limitation period – historical child abuse claims

Sometimes Parliament will permit claims to proceed to court – even if they would normally be time barred or fall foul of prescription. This will be achieved by passing legislation and one recent example is the Limitation (Childhood Abuse)(Scotland) Bill.

Clearly, Parliament’s purpose in waiving the normal rules of prescription which are normally strictly adhered to by the Scottish courts is that it is just and equitable to do so. Put simply, the legislation is about righting an historic injustice.

On 14 March 2016, the Scottish Government published a draft Limitation (Childhood Abuse)(Scotland) Bill which was in response to the Consultation on the Removal of the 3 Year Limitation Period from Civil Actions for Damages for Personal Injury for In Care Survivors of Historical Child Abuse.

The draft Bill proposed to remove the triennium or 3 year time limit for cases of historical child abuse that allegedly took place after 26 September 1964.

This Bill was eventually passed by the Scottish Parliament becoming the Limitation (Childhood Abuse)(Scotland) Act 2017. It represents an exception to the normal rules regulating the limitation period for the submission to Scottish civil courts in relation to personal injury claims of this nature.

Conclusion

Time and tide wait for no one; delay is fatal; or tempus fugit (i.e.time flies) can all be applied to legal actions. If you don’t use it (i.e. your right to take court action), you lose it. This is quite sensible: it means that there is a natural cut off for legal actions and, consequently, the courts will not be swamped (well any more than they already are).

Another sensible viewpoint is that litigation should take place fairly quickly so that the evidence of litigants is fresh in the memory (the case of Brian Alexander Gracie v Edinburgh City Council [2019] CSOH 6 is an excellent illustration of this (see above).

Parties bringing claims to Scottish civil courts must be aware of the following:

  • The Triennium or 3 year period in which a claim for personal injury must be submitted; and/or
  • The Quinquennium or 5 year period in which contractual claims or delictual claims for property damage must be submitted.

Admittedly, Section 19A of the Prescription and the Limitation (Scotland) Act 1973 does allow Scottish judges to override the principle of prescription if it is just and equitable to do so.

Speaking of just and equitable grounds, the Scottish Parliament passed the Limitation (Childhood Abuse)(Scotland) Act 2017. This legislation represents an exception to the normal rules regulating the limitation period for the submission to Scottish civil courts of personal injury claims which involve historic child sex abuse allegations.

As a general rule of thumb, however, prescription remains the terror of the legal profession: get the client’s claim submitted on time or face a professional negligence claim.

Copyright Seán J Crossan, 6 March 2020

Termination of contract

Photo by Craig Whitehead on Unsplash

It has just been announced that the well known UK construction company Balfour Beatty has just had a contract terminated by one of its clients.

The client in question is MI6 or the UK Special Intelligence Service, the equivalent of the CIA and the employer of Britain’s best known (but fictional) spy – James Bond. The Service is based at Vauxhall Cross on the River Thames.

Termination of contract can be a pretty dry area, but mix it in with the world of secret intelligence services and you have a story that will be of interest to a potentially large audience.

Who cares?

The company’s shareholders will almost certainly care about this and a large part of the public will be keenly interested to know the facts behind this development.

What went wrong?

Balfour Beatty had been contracted to refurbish the HQ of MI6. In order to carry out the job, the company had in its possession floor plans of the building. Somehow these plans went missing – although they were later recovered – but too late the damage had been done.

Mindful of the mind boggling ramifications of this huge security breach, the UK Foreign Office, which has overall responsibility for the work of MI6, promptly removed Balfour Beatty from further involvement in the middle of the refurbishment project.

A link to the story as reported in The Financial Times can be found below:

https://www.ft.com/content/81d4ac8c-28d9-11ea-9a4f-963f0ec7e134

I would assume that the Foreign Office is on pretty safe legal ground when it made the decision to terminate Balfour Beatty’s contract. The loss of highly confidential documents by the company could represent nothing less than a material breach of contract. This arises in situations where one of the parties acts in such a way that it completely undermines the contract. The breach, in other words, is so serious because it goes to the very roots of the contract.

The victim of the breach can then potentially use the remedy of rescission i.e. terminate the agreement. The remedy of damages is also available to the victim.

Rescission is actually a much more common remedy than you otherwise might think. In terms of both the Sale of Goods Act 1979 and the Consumer Rights Act 2015, a buyer may choose to terminate a contract of sale in situations where the trader supplies goods that fail to comply with, for example, the implied duty of satisfactory quality.

In employment contracts, an employer is entitled to dismiss an employee in circumstances where the individual commits an act of gross misconduct (theft, violence, gross negligence or failure to follow lawful orders). The Employment Rights Act 1996 recognises that there will be situations where the employer is entitled to terminate the contract of employment and there will be nothing unfair or wrongful about the dismissal (presuming, of course, that proper disciplinary procedures have been followed).

In the well known Scottish employment law decision of Macari v Celtic Football & Athletic Club [1999] IRLR 787 SC, a football manager had his contract terminated quite legally by his employer owing to the fact that he had repeatedly failed to follow lawful and reasonable orders. This failure by the employee to honour the terms of his contract was nothing less than a material breach of the agreement.

Conversely, an employee may choose to regard the employment contract as terminated in situations where the employer has breached the implied duty of trust and good faith. This could occur where the employee was subjected to bullying and harassment by colleagues and the employer (being aware of this) does nothing meaningful or concrete to deal with this. In the face of the employer’s indifference (or collusion), the employee could regard him/herself as constructively dismissed.

Particularly serious for the employer could be situations where the bullying or harassment are motivated by hostility towards an individual’s protected characteristic in terms of the Equality Act 2010 e.g. age, disability, gender reassignment, race, religion or belief, sex, sexual orientation.

Back to Balfour Beatty: it looks as the company has no one to blame for this mess, but themselves. MI6 or the Foreign Office obviously felt that the loss of sensitive (Top Secret?) documents was such a serious development that there was no choice to terminate the contract with immediate effect.

Copyright – Seán J Crossan, 29 December 2019

Pay up! (or Frustration of Contract Part 3)

Photo by Alex on Unsplash

In a number of previous blogs (Stormy Weather, I’m at the end of my tether! Locking Horns; and Frustration of Contract?), I discussed the issue of termination of contract when unforeseen factors outwith the control of the parties intervene.

It might be the destruction of the subject matter of the contract; death of one of the parties in an agreement involving the provision of personal services; or even particularly bad weather or unforeseen events.

Potentially, these factors may frustrate the contract in the sense that it can no longer be carried out or performed in the manner which the parties originally intended. In such cases of genuine frustration, the contract or agreement is terminated and the parties are discharged from their obligations.

There have been some famous cases over the years with frustration of contract at their heart:

  • Taylor v Caldwell [1863] EWHC QB J1; 122 ER 309;3 B. & S. 826
  • Krell v Henry [1903] 2 KB 740
  • Herne Bay Steam Boat v Hutton [1903] 2 KB 683
  • Vitol S.A. v Esso Australia Ltd. (The Wise) [1989] 1 Lloyd’s Rep. 451

A contract is not frustrated if it becomes more expensive or difficult to perform or if the alleged frustrating event could have been foreseen (and presumably dealt with) (see Davis Contractors Ltd v Fareham Urban District Council [1956] AC 696 and Tsakiroglou & Co Ltd v Noblee Thorl GmbH [1962] AC 93).

The Emiliano Sala Affair

This leads me back to a story which I have been following with interest over the last few months: the tragic death of the Argentinian footballer, Emiliano Sala in a plane crash over the English Channel in January 2019.

It will be recalled that Sala’s former Football Club, the French side FC Nantes had just agreed to him transferring to the English Premier League side, Cardiff City FC. The transfer fee was £15 million, but shortly after the accident, Cardiff City claimed that the transfer had not gone through and it had no obligation to pay the first part of this figure. In other words, Sala was never an employee of Cardiff City according to this argument because the paperwork had not been finalised.

In normal circumstances, where a contract involves the provision of personal services (and a contract of employment certainly fits into this category), the death of a new or prospective employee would tend to terminate the agreement. Death is pretty much the ultimate frustrating factor – especially in cases involving unforeseen deaths.

The world of top flight football, however, would seem to be different and does not seem to be bound by the considerations that govern us mere mortals.

FIFA, the governing body, has now spoken and determined that Cardiff City will have to pay the first part of the transfer fee (£5 million in case you’re asking) to FC Nantes. Failure to do so may result in FIFA sanctions being imposed on Cardiff (a signing ban).

Please find a link below to the FIFA press release:

https://www.fifa.com/about-fifa/who-we-are/news/fifa-players-status-committee-renders-decision-on-transfer-of-late-emiliano-sala

It would seem that FIFA rules transcend events such as death which ordinarily would throw a spanner in the works in the context of an ordinary employment contract situation.

Cardiff City can appeal against the decision of FIFA by going to the Court of Arbitration for Sport and, in October 2019, the Club indicated that it would so:

https://www.theguardian.com/football/2019/oct/02/cardiff-appeal-cas-court-of-arbitration-sport-emiliano-sala-transfer-fee-fifa

Ultimately, whatever way this tragic story ends, I can’t help but wonder whether FC Nantes or Cardiff FC had the foresight to insure Sala’s life in the event of untimely and unforeseen death. Sadly, the fact that a young man with a promising future died in a horrible accident seems to have got lost along the way while Nantes and Cardiff polish up their legal arguments.

Links to the story can be found below:

Emiliano Sala: Fifa rules Cardiff must pay first instalment of £5.3m to Nantes

Cardiff City have been told to pay the first instalment of £5.3m to Nantes for striker Emiliano Sala, who died in a plane crash.

https://news.sky.com/story/cardiff-city-face-signing-ban-if-they-dont-pay-emiliano-sala-transfer-fee-11854081

Related Blog Articles:

https://seancrossansscotslaw.com/2019/02/10/frustration-of-contract/

https://seancrossansscotslaw.com/2019/03/25/locking-horns-frustration-of-contract-part-2/

https://seancrossansscotslaw.com/2019/08/28/stormy-weather-im-at-the-end-of-my-tether/

https://seancrossansscotslaw.com/2020/02/25/welcome-to-austria/

Copyright Seán J Crossan, 23 November 2019

Stormy weather, I’m at the end of my tether!

Photo by J W on Unsplash

We know summer is finally here when people are enthused about the prospect of attending the ever growing list of open air music festivals across the UK and Ireland.

Everyone involved in these events always hopes that the sun will come out, but the reality is that you have to prepare for the likelihood of bad weather. Most of the time, revellers will be able to put up with poorer conditions and it is unlikely that the event will be cancelled.

On occasion, the predicted weather can be very poor, not to say downright dangerous and festival organisers are left with the agonising decision of having to make the call to cancel the event.

This happened at the beginning of August when the Houghton Music Festival in East Anglia was cancelled due to severe weather warnings. Now clearly, by making this decision, the Festival organisers were implementing their duty of care to the artists, the workers and the music lovers.

A link to the story on the Sky News website can be found below:

https://news.sky.com/story/houghton-festival-in-east-anglia-cancelled-due-to-severe-weather-warnings-11780064

I was more interested in the contractual implications of cancelling the event. More specifically: does the cancellation of an event result in frustration of contract? In other words, will the frustrating event lead to termination of the contract?

The Festival organisers were very quick to say that the fans were entitled to seek a refund of the ticket price (no doubt minus the booking fee). Admittedly, I was less interested in this aspect of the story. In particular, I was mulling over the impact of cancelling the Festival on local businesses – particularly the local hotel/accommodation/B&B industry.

In 2016, research published by UK Music (Wish You Were Here) demonstrated a number of things:

  • the number of people attending UK music festivals had risen from 27.7 million to 30.9 million between 2015 and 2016;
  • the number of people travelling between different parts of the UK had increased; and
  • the number of foreign tourists willing to attend UK music festivals had risen by 20% in 2016.

(Source: The Guardian available at https://www.theguardian.com/music/2017/jul/10/uk-music-industry-gets-boost-from-12-rise-in-audiences-at-live-events)

So, what if you’re in the business of running a hotel, B&B or renting out a property on Airbnb and the bad news is announced that the local music festival has been cancelled, where do you stand legally?

Is the contract that you entered into with prospective guests capable of enforcement or has it been cancelled due to frustration?

It really depends on the circumstances …

What if the accommodation provider is aware of the fact that the guests have specifically booked rooms or a property in order to attend the festival? Some hotels go even further and might put together event all inclusive packages for guests – so called ‘special offers’ which might include things like all meals provided, spa treatments and even transport to and from the festival site.

This is quite different from a situation where the guest books rooms or hires a holiday property and does not disclose to the accommodation provider the purpose of his or her visit to the local area.

In the famous case of Krell v Henry [1903] 2 KB 740, Lord Justice Vaughn-Williams was of the opinion that frustration of contract was not limited to either the destruction or non-existence of the subject matter of the contract. It will be important to identify the substance or the purpose of the agreement. The cancellation of an event can frustrate the performance of a contract where that event is an absolutely material term of the agreement.

In Krell, the pursuer was the owner of a flat in the central London district of Pall Mall. The pursuer’s flat was on the route of the proposed coronation procession of the new King, Edward VII, which was scheduled to take place on 26 and 27 June 1902. The pursuer had advertised his flat for rent during the daytime on 26 and 27 June for the purpose of viewing the procession. The defender, who was anxious to view the procession, responded to the advertisement and entered into an agreement to hire the flat on the days specified. An announcement was made on 24 June stating that the procession was to be cancelled owing to the King’s illness. The defender refused to pay the balance of the rent for the flat by reason that events had frustrated performance of the contract. The pursuer brought an action against the defender for payment of the balance of the rent.

The English Court of Appeal stated that the cancellation of the event frustrated the contract and discharged the parties from their obligations under it. The clinching argument in the defender’s favour was that both parties clearly entered into the contract with the same intention. The reason behind the hire of the flat was, therefore, a material term of the contract.

Had the defender failed to communicate his motivation for hiring the flat, then the contract would have remained capable of enforcement by the pursuer. Lord Justice Vaughn-Williams was of the opinion that frustration of contract was not limited to either the destruction or non-existence of the subject matter of the contract. It was also important to identify the substance or the purpose of the agreement. In other words, did the parties share the same intentions?

The illness of King Edward resulted in a second legal action. This time, however, the English Court of Appeal took a completely different approach to the issue of frustration of contract.

The decision in Krell v Henry can be contrasted with the decision below:

Herne Bay Steamboat Co v Hutton [1903] 2 KB 683 the pursuers had entered into a contract to hire a steamship to the defender for two days. The Royal Navy was assembling at Spithead to take part in a naval review to celebrate King Edward’s coronation. The King was to review the fleet personally. The defender wished to transport paying guests from Herne Bay to Spithead to see the naval review. Due to the King’s illness, an official announcement was made cancelling the review. It would still have been perfectly possible for the defender to take his passengers on a cruise to see the assembled fleet. The defender, however, refused to use the vessel claiming that the contract had been frustrated. The pursuers brought an action against the defender for the balance of the fee of £250 owed by the defender who was refusing to pay for the hire of the boat.

The contract was not discharged by reason of frustration. The main purpose of the contract could still be achieved i.e. to take paying guests for a cruise around the fleet.

Conclusion

The difference in approach taken by the Court of Appeal in both cases is sometimes difficult to understand. In Krell v Henry, both parties had clearly intended that the purpose of the contract was to view the procession. Reinforcing this fact, was the fact that the defender was only entitled to use the flat during the daytime. In Herne Bay Steamboat Co v Hutton, the purpose of the defender in hiring the steamship was to see the naval review, but this was not the purpose of the owners who were not the slightest bit interested why the vessel had been hired. Lord Justice Vaughn-Williams compared the situation to someone who hires a carriage to go and see the Epsom Derby, but the outbreak of some unforeseen epidemic means that the races are cancelled. This makes no difference to the owner of the carriage who will still expect to be paid for the hire of his vehicle.

Related Blog Articles:

https://seancrossansscotslaw.com/2019/02/10/frustration-of-contract/

https://seancrossansscotslaw.com/2019/03/25/locking-horns-frustration-of-contract-part-2/

https://seancrossansscotslaw.com/2019/11/23/pay-up-or-frustration-of-contract-part-3/

https://seancrossansscotslaw.com/2020/02/25/welcome-to-austria/

https://seancrossansscotslaw.com/2020/03/18/crazy-days-force-majeure-frustration/

Copyright Seán J Crossan, 28 August 2019 

Social media and dismissal

Photo by Alex Haney on Unsplash

Regular readers of this Blog will know that I have written several articles over the last few months about the legal consequences of social media (mis)use and the effects on relationships in the work place. Comments or images posted on social media by employees can have serious reputational consequences for their employers.

The Israel Folau case

In a blog published on 11 April 2019 (Social Media Misuse), I discussed the story about Israel Folau, the Australian rugby player who had posted homophobic comments on social media. Folau has now been dismissed by Australia for these remarks.

Please see a link to the story on the Sky News website:

Israel Folau: Australian rugby star sacked over anti-gay social media post
http://news.sky.com/story/israel-folau-australian-rugby-star-sacked-over-anti-gay-social-media-post-11721930

The employer must, of course, be able to prove reasonably that the employee’s misuse of social media will cause it to suffer reputational damage.

In Taylor Somerfield Stores Ltd ETS/107487/07 an employee was dismissed after posting a video on Youtube which involved a mock fight using Somerfield carrier bags in the work place. The video was uploaded to Youtube for a mere 3 days and only 8 people had viewed it – 3 of whom were managers conducting the disciplinary investigation. The Employment Tribunal was firmly of the view that the dismissal was unfair because the employer was not able to prove that it had suffered serious reputational damage.

As I have emphasised in previous blogs, employees will be very naive if they think that it is a competent defence to say that the social media posts occurred outside working hours. Employers are still very much entitled to treat such behaviour as an example of a breach of work place discipline. In serious cases of social media misuse, employers will be entitled to consider dismissal of employees on the grounds of misconduct (as per Section 98(4) of the Employment Rights Act 1996).

Admittedly, this area represents something of a tightrope for employers to walk: they will have to operate a clear and comprehensive social media policy and employees must be made aware of any restrictions or expectations.

In the unreported Employment Tribunal decision of Grant and Ross Mitie Property Services Ltd (2009), the employer had a policy which restricted employee internet access. Unfortunately, for the employer, the phrase which permitted employee’s personal use of the internet to times that were “outside core working hours”, was deemed by the Tribunal to be ‘vague’ and lacking in certainty. This meant that the employees who had been dismissed because the employer was of the view that they had breached its policy on internet use had been unfairly dismissed.

There is also the matter of the rights that employees reasonably have to privacy and freedom of expression (as per their Article 8 and 10 rights respectively to be found in the European Convention, the Human Rights Act 1998 and the Scotland Act 1998) (see Bărbulescu v Romania Application no. 61496/08 5 September 2017; and Smith v Trafford Housing Trust [2012] EWHC 3221 (Ch)).

I have also pointed out in previous blogs, the importance for employers in carrying out disciplinary proceedings which comply with current ACAS Guidance. Using the (current) ACAS Guidance is a critical risk management exercise for employers:

https://beta.acas.org.uk/investigations-for-discipline-and-grievance-step-by-step

Employers who act recklessly or swiftly and ignore proper procedures may well have cause to regret their actions down the road. As Sir Robert Megarry VC, the eminent English judge, remarked decades ago in John Rees [1970] 1 Ch 345:

When something is obvious, they may say, why force everyone to go through the tiresome waste of time involved in framing charges and giving an opportunity to be heard?As everybody who has anything to do with the law well knows, the path of the law is strewn with examples of open and shut cases which, somehow, were not; …

The above remarks are as valid in 2019 as they were in Sir Robert Megarry’s day.

Atherton v Bensons Vending Ltd ET/2411749/2018

This is a recent decision of the Manchester Employment Tribunal which raises some very interesting issues about employee use of social media specifically and the conduct of disciplinary proceedings more generally.

Darren Atherton (aged 55) worked for Bensons Vending Ltd, a small company. As a result of his employer making changes to its discretionary Christmas bonus scheme, Atherton made some very negative comments about the company’s Managing Director, Ken Haselden via a colleague’s Facebook page:

Comment 1

We’ve all just bought Ken a new dog with our Christmas bonus!!!”

Comment 2

“He spends a few grand on a new dog then we get told ‘no bonus this year’ but we can have a bottle!!! 

Comment 3

“Well, he can stick his bottle where the sun doesn’t shine because I refuse to be insulted in this way!!!

Atherton’s colleague, Simon Minshull had initially objected to the changes to the bonus scheme by posting comments on his Facebook page:

Comment 1

Just when you thought staff morale couldn’t get any worse, hey f***ing presto #insult #disgusted.”

Comment 2

The only difference between McDonalds and where I work is McDonalds has only one clown running the show.” (This second comment was accompanied by a picture of Ronald McDonald).

The changes to the bonus scheme were part of a cost cutting and efficiency savings exercise by the company and, from any reading of the above comments, Atherton and Minshull clearly disagreed with this new approach by their employer.

Negative remarks about the Managing Director were also made by Atherton and another colleague in the workplace. Several colleagues informed Haselden about these remarks stating that they had been very aggressive and vitriolic in nature.

Atherton’s colleague, Simon Minshull, was subsequently questioned about the posts on his Facebook account by Haselden. Minshull stated that he did not agree with them – they were Atherton’s opinions – and he apologised for any offence caused to Haselden. He was later suspended for the Facebook posts, but critically this suspension was lifted in the light of his swift apology to Haselden (and the fact that it was established that he had not made these comments). Minshull was permitted to return to work upon the conclusion of the disciplinary proceedings against him.

Atherton was called to a meeting with Mr Haselden in December 2017 to address the allegations which had been made against him and to investigate the social media posts. This was not a disciplinary meeting, but more in the way of an investigatory meeting. The actual disciplinary meeting took place in January 2018.

Dismissal without notice pay

The outcome of the disciplinary meeting was that Atherton should be dismissed without notice pay for gross misconduct in terms of Section 98(4) of the Employment Rights Act 1996. This was despite the fact that Atherton had a clean disciplinary record (until now) and had enjoyed a good relationship with his employer. Atherton’s comments on Facebook were “extremely derogatory” and Mr Haselden stated that he would find it “extremely difficult” to continue working with him. Atherton appealed against his dismissal, but the decision was upheld.

The fairness of the disciplinary proceedings

As part of his claim against the employer, Atherton challenged the fairness of the disciplinary proceedings taken against him. In particular, he objected to the fact that Haselden conducted the disciplinary meeting against him. Atherton’s contention was that he would not receive a fair hearing because Haselden was personally involved in the matter and, therefore, could not be relied upon to act objectively. This type of issue frequently arises where smaller employers are concerned. In an ideal world, a manager (such as Haselden) who has been involved personally in an issue involving alleged breaches of work place discipline should not be a participant in the disciplinary panel. This is, of course, easier in practice to ensure in larger organisations where there is a pool of experienced managers who will have had no personal involvement in the matter (or in other words: a particular axe to grind).

The appeals process

In situations involving smaller employers, this is where the appeals process takes on a critical significance. Appeals can often be used to cure actual or perceived defects in the conduct of the original disciplinary meeting. Although Haselden (with two others – an operations manager and a company engineer) had conducted the disciplinary meetings, he had not involved himself in the actual appeals hearing. This part of the company’s disciplinary procedure had been conducted by a Ms Pedley, a trained auditor and, as stated, above, Atherton’s dismissal was upheld.

At this point, Atherton also raised the difference in treatment between himself and Simon Minshull (who had kept his job after disciplinary proceedings against him had been concluded). Pedley refused to comment on individual cases on the grounds of confidentiality. She stated in her letter to Atherton upholding the dismissal that:

Length of service and clean disciplinary record are taken into consideration during all grievance procedures. However, given the
nature of the comment and the reluctance to remedy the grievance the
relationship between yourself and senior management has broken down
irretrievably”.

The Employment Tribunal’s decision

The Tribunal held that Atherton had been fairly dismissed in terms of Section 98(4) of the Employment Rights Act 1996.

He had made extremely derogatory comments via Facebook about Haselden. They were “personal” and they suggested “some impropriety” on Mr Haselden’s part (though more in the nature of “penny-pinching impropriety” suggesting Scrooge like behaviour rather than any financial misdeeds). Any member of the public who knew the company and reading Atherton’s comments on Simon Minshull’s Facebook site, would have a very negative view of Haselden. It was accepted by the Tribunal that Haselden would, therefore, potentially suffer reputational damage. It was also accepted that in a small company, it would be very difficult for Atherton and Haselden to work with one another again (the employment relationship had irretrievably broken down).

The Tribunal also addressed Atherton’s claim that the disciplinary procedure had been biased or lacking in objectivity because of Haselden’s involvement in the decision to dismiss him from employment. This indeed could have been a problem for the employer and may have prejudiced proceedings against Atherton. That said, however, the saving grace for the employer was the fact that Ms Pedley had been kept in reserve for an appeal hearing.

The Employment Tribunal Judge made the following observations about Pedley’s involvement in the appeal stage:

Ms Pedley is by profession an auditor and had clearly gone through the matters in great detail. Notes (page 95 and onwards) show how she dealt with the matter. … Because of that safeguard of the deployment of Ms Pedley, who I am satisfied went about her task objectively and exhaustively and independently, although regrettably for the claimant she came to the same conclusion, I am not satisfied that the determination by Mr Haselden at the dismissal stage rendered the dismissal unfair. The appeal was thorough, it was a re-hearing. Ms Pedley considered all the points that were being raised and came, I am satisfied, to an independent conclusion.”

As for the difference in outcomes between Atherton and Simon Minshull, a key justification for this was that Minshull had “apologised shortly after being challenged regarding his Facebook comments even though he had been suspended.” This was something that Atherton had failed to do – apologising only at the disciplinary meeting in January 2018. Furthermore, it was significant that the nature of Atherton’s comments were specifically directed against Haselden, whereas Minshull’s comments (although also negative) were much more generalised.

The failure to pay notice pay

This was an aspect of the employer’s decision that the Employment Tribunal disagreed with. Atherton, therefore, had a right to receive his entitlement to notice pay. In this sense, he had been wrongly dismissed by his employer. The Employment Tribunal judge stated very clearly that in order for an employee to lose his entitlement to notice pay there the employer must be able to demonstrate that the gross misconduct complained of crosses over a “very high hurdle”. In the judge’s opinion, the employer had not been able to overcome this hurdle and, therefore, Atherton was entitled to claim notice pay.

A link to the Employment Tribunal’s judgement in Atherton Bensons Vending Ltd can be found below:

https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/media/5c4712dfe5274a6e6b6716e1/Mr_D_Atherton_v_Bensons_Vending_Limited_-_2411749_2018_-_Reasons.pdf

Conclusion

What have we learned about the decision of the Employment Tribunal in Atherton Bensons Vending Ltd?

Quite a lot actually:

  1. Employees will have to be extremely careful when posting material or comments on social media platforms – irrespective of whether this is about the employers or not.
  2. The case is yet another good example that misconduct committed inside or outside the work place or working hours can have reputational consequences for the employer. It can also lead to relationships in the work place breaking down irretrievably (especially in smaller organisations).
  3. Employers do not have a free hand to police employee use of social media. There must be clear guidelines laid down by the employer as to what constitutes acceptable and appropriate behaviour. At the same, employees have reasonable expectations that their rights to privacy and expression (as per the European Convention on Human Rights) will be upheld.
  4. The conduct of disciplinary proceedings by the employer is a critical issue. We have noted that potential conflicts of interest can occur in smaller employers or organisations where a manager can be investigator, dismissing officer and appeals officer. How does the employer address these issues and ensure objectivity in the disciplinary process?
  5. As with Atherton and Minshull, the employer was entitled to treat them differently: Atherton was dismissed while Minshull retained his job. There was nothing inconsistent or inherently unfair about this when the personal circumstances and behaviour of the two employees was examined.
  6. Finally, even in situations where gross misconduct has been proved by the employer, and the dismissal is deemed to be fair (in terms of Section 98(4): Employment Rights Act 1996), it will not necessarily mean that the employee loses his or her right to notice pay. The employer will have to overcome an extremely high hurdle in order to be entitled to invoke such a disciplinary sanction. As we have seen in Atherton, the Tribunal was not convinced that the employer had been able to prove that this was an appropriate punishment: the dismissal was fair; the failure to pay notice was not.

Copyright Seán J Crossan, 20 May 2019

TUPE or Redundancy?

Photo by Ian Tormo on Unsplash

Readers of this blog will know that TUPE and redundancy are two employment law issues which have featured regularly in the last month or so.

So, today, we have a story which combines both.

Jobs lost as courier SGM Distribution goes into liquidation

SGM Distribution, a courier company, based in North-East Scotland (Aberdeen and Letham to be precise) has gone into liquidation. Thankfully, 51 of the DGM employees have had their employment transferred to another employer. These fortunate individuals will, of course, have their core terms and conditions of employment protected by the Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) Regulations 2006 (as amended).

Sadly, 16 of DGM’s employees will be having their employment terminated by reason of redundancy. Redundancy is a potentially fair reason for dismissal in terms of Section 98(2)(c) of the Employment Rights Act 1996 – assuming that such an exercise has been carried out properly by the employer.

The definition of redundancy is contained in Section 139(1) of the Employment Rights Act 1996:

For the purposes of this Act an employee who is dismissed shall be taken to be dismissed by reason of redundancy if the dismissal is wholly or mainly attributable to—

(a) the fact that his employer has ceased or intends to cease—

(i) to carry on the business for the purposes of which the employee was employed by him, or

(ii) to carry on that business in the place where the employee was so employed, or

(b) the fact that the requirements of that business—

(i) for employees to carry out work of a particular kind, or

(ii) for employees to carry out work of a particular kind in the place where the employee was employed by the employer,

have ceased or diminished or are expected to cease or diminish.

Conclusion

Those former DGM employees unlucky enough to be made redundant are having their contracts terminated. On the other hand, the vast majority of the former DGM employees will maintain their continuity of employment (on their existing terms and conditions) with their new employer. They have a right not to experience any detriments to their terms and conditions of employment as a result of this transfer of an undertaking. Entirely positive changes to their contracts e.g increased pay, holiday entitlement, flexible working arrangements and enhanced family friendly working benefits would be most welcome. In terms of the TUPE Regulations, the new employer has limited scope for implementing negative changes to the employment contracts of the transferred employees. Any attempted changes must be for economic, technical or organisational reasons – not an especially profitable area for employers.

Postscript

Just when you find one story about the implications of TUPE or redundancy, another pops up. Please see a link to a relevant story from BBC Northern Ireland involving the Canadian company, Bombardier:

Bombardier to sell NI operations

The Canadian aircraft manufacturer employs about 3,600 people in Northern Ireland.

Copyright Seán J Crossan, 2 May 2019