04 November 2015

Penalty clauses are unenforceable - aren't they?


It was never a penalty!


The law has been clear: a clause in a contract imposing a penalty for breach of contract was unenforceable. What was completely unclear was  (1) what amounted to penalty and (2) whether the rule applied beyond the payment of money following a breach of contract. For many years the accepted formulation was that if contract term provided for a payment which was "more than a genuine pre-estimate of loss" it would be an unenforceable penalty; otherwise it was a legitimate "liquidated damages" clause and not a penalty. In more recent years more complex cases have tested the rule, involving more than a straightforward payment for non-performance. the trend seemed to suggest that any clause whose effect was intended to be deterrence rather than compensation was potentially vulnerable to attack as a penalty.

In a judgment today (4 November 2015) these developments of the law on invalid penalty clauses has been rolled back by the Supreme Court. It gave a combined judgment on two cases that could hardly be more different. Cavendish Square Holding v El Makdessi concerned "bad leaver" type clauses  under which Mr El Makdessi, who had sold shares in a company, stood to lose the remaining instalments of the price and to be forced to sell his remaining shares cheap — the last limb alone would cost him $44m — because he had breached non-compete covenants. ParkingEye v Beavis was about an £85 penalty charge for overstaying in a retail car park.

In both cases the Supreme Court said the clauses were not penalties and were valid. The test for a penalty is now "whether the sum or remedy stipulated as a consequence of a breach of contract is exorbitant or unconscionable when regard is had to the innocent party’s interest in the performance of the contract", which will allow far more aggressive terms than some of the cases suggested. Deterrents are allowed, so long as they are not exorbitant or unconscionable, and there is no longer any necessary relationship with the damages that might be awarded by the courts for the breach. Contract writers are likely to become bolder in specifying remedies for breach.

Most “bad leaver” clauses are now probably safe, though still subject to possible equitable relief from forfeiture if the party in breach can provide recompense by other means. 

The £85 parking overstay charge was also held not to be an unreasonable term under the Unfair Terms in Consumer Contracts Regulations 1999 (now Part 2 of the Consumer Rights Act 2015).

The Supreme Court did close one loophole: in deciding whether the clause is a remedy for a breach of contract, the courts will look at the substance of the obligations and not just at how they are expressed. Writing the contract so that there is no breach, but just a conditional obligation, will not get round the rule on penalties if the substance is that one is the primary obligation and the payment is a secondary compensation: so if instead of saying "you must supply the goods; if you do not supply the goods you will pay me £1m" you say "you can either supply the goods or pay me £1m", the court can still decide that the supply of the goods is the primary obligation and the payment is a penalty for breach of it.

The case is a victory for traditional freedom of contract and for certainty, at the expense of the introduction of concepts of fairness, proportionality and the protection of the weaker party into contract law.


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