19 May 2024, 03:02
By Lindsay Ellis May 10, 2019

Reviewing Brexit’s effect on commercial contracts

Uncertainty surrounds the timing of Brexit, but when it does happen, there will undoubtedly be an impact on UK businesses and the contracts that govern their commercial activities, writes legal adviser Lindsay Ellis, who urges businesses to consider how Brexit might affect their existing contracts as well as those likely to come into force after the UK exits the EU …

Brexit could negatively impact the supply chain of some businesses, and they should consider the performance of obligations – and cost of performance – by subcontractors and suppliers. This is particularly important for those who will be responsible for any increased costs (such as tariffs) or delays due to border issues.

Other key areas to consider include term (and the ability to exit early), territory, currency, tariffs, customs clearance (the consequence of any delays), resources, licensing/consents and tax. Failure to review and plan for these could result in increased costs and/or damage to a business’ performance.  

Force majeure

A contract typically contains force majeure clauses. Depending on the drafting, these can relieve a party from liability for a breach resulting from ‘circumstances beyond its reasonable control’. However, if Brexit was likely when the contract was agreed, it could be argued the parties should have planned for its effects.

Without a specific reference to Brexit, a force majeure clause is unlikely to help of itself – but, depending how the clause was drafted, it might address delays in the delivery of goods due to cross-border issues.

Compliance with law clauses

Many contracts state that parties must comply with applicable law. In any event, it will be a matter of interpretation whether such a clause could oblige a party to absorb the costs associated with Brexit-related changes in law.

Long-term contracts typically address what will happen if the law changes, often specifying that charges can only be increased in limited circumstances.

Change control

Many contracts will contain a clause outlining a procedure if either party wishes to change it, which typically involves discussions, with only necessary legal or technical changes being able to be compelled. Generally, there is no right to terminate if a change is not agreed.

Termination

The contract may include scope for termination, by either party. This may be in connection with circumstances arising from Brexit-related events or a failure to agree a change.

If a contract’s termination clause gives a party a right to terminate on relatively short notice, the prospect of termination can always be raised as a means of encouraging negotiation.

Common law and frustration

Frustration arises where an event, like a change in the law, occurs after the date of the contract, radically transforming the obligations of either party or making it physically or commercially impossible to fulfil the contract. 

However, a contract is not frustrated due to inconvenience, hardship, financial loss or when the event should have been foreseen by the parties. As such, it is generally accepted that frustration will not help with Brexit, although it might apply if certain changes in law were to be made subsequently, which would make it impossible to fulfil a contract.

Interpretation and implied terms

The courts are unlikely to interpret a contract or imply a term to assist a party adversely affected by Brexit, and will not relieve a party from the consequences of their poor business practices, if that involves departing from the natural meaning of the contract.

Similarly, the fairness of a proposed implied term or the fact that the parties would agree to it is insufficient grounds for implying it.

Both interpretation and implication of terms have regard to the background knowledge reasonably available to the parties at the time they entered the contract. If they fail to include Brexit provisions, it might be considered they have accepted any additional costs and risks should lie where they fall.

Brexit clause

Inserting a Brexit clause into contracts will trigger some change in the parties’ rights and obligations when a defined event occurs – this ‘if/then’ clause attempts to govern the outcome of a change.

Brexit could affect almost every aspect of doing business and the best a Brexit clause may offer is a binding requirement for the parties to try and renegotiate the contract.

For other contracts, it may be possible to specify the consequences of certain events, but with Brexit, there is the risk that events occur that have not been first considered. 

Making the necessary changes

It is clear from recent events that the only current certainty with Brexit is more uncertainty. Whatever comes next, Brexit will bring change, and now is the perfect time to formulate solutions that ensure the future prosperity of your business. 

Remember, existing obligations within contracts could be negatively impacted, and without taking the necessary steps, you are potentially inviting risk. So, seek advice from experienced contract lawyers, and begin planning for life after Brexit – sooner rather than later. 

Lindsay Ellis is a partner at Wright Hassall, a firm of solicitors based in Warwickshire which provides legal services and advice. Lindsay advises on a range of matters including outsourcings, procurements and commercial contracts, and has experience handling complex arrangements in sectors including, technology, transport and logistics, public, automotive, engineering and retail.

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