18 March 2020

Covid-19: suggestions for emergency law reform

Promoting fairness, spreading costs and avoiding a long tail of litigation

In my blog post of yesterday I described the existing law as it applies to business contracts during the coronavirus outbreak. I set out below some of the legal steps I think Government/Parliament should consider taking to stabilise the economy and markets and reduce unfair burden-sharing across the economy. It would normally be profoundly un-Conservative to interfere in private contracts, but in this case the circumstances were entirely unforeseen and the losses will be distributed in a way that is close to random, but with the effect falling particularly heavily on small businesses unable to pass costs back to their suppliers. Government attempts to help business with loans and other support are entirely welcome, but unless Government will contribute the entire cost to the economy, which is unlikely, it is important also to share the remaining burden across the economy as evenly and fairly as possible, and to preserve businesses and jobs so that they can resume after the crisis without a burden of debt or the threat of litigation. That needs to be done with very broad-brush temporary legal measures to complement targeted Government assistance.

English law currently makes no provision for short-term suspension of businesses or the temporary laying-off of workers. Businesses that do not perform contracts may be liable for unlimited claims for losses suffered by the other party.

My suggested steps are intended only to apply during the duration of the Covid-19 crisis. Ministers should take power to remove or suspend them when appropriate, with power to restore them if the virus returns. Inevitably they carry risks of further unfairness, fraud and abuse, but their short-term nature should mitigate that. Considerations of moral hazard (relieving those who did not prepare at the expense of those who did) hardly apply when the present situation was so unforeseeable.

All of my suggestions can be implemented by legislation alone, without of themselves requiring additional public expenditure, though for best effect they would be integrated with the financial measures already announced, or to be announced, by the Chancellor.

1.    For the duration of the crisis, businesses should be given power to “mothball” themselves, or individual sites or business activities within a company, without going to court or any other formality other than public notice. I would call this Suspension.

1.1. Suspension would have the same effect as Administration (Insolvency Act 1986 Part II) but the directors would remain in control and the process could be applied to an identifiable part of a business (such as a retail unit or a product line, with the employees, contracts and assets relating to that unit being deemed to be those of the unit in Suspension as if it were a separate company). Suspension would be permitted only if the directors consider the business to be uneconomic during the crisis and for the sole purpose of preserving the business during the crisis.

1.2. During Suspension, no debts or contracts incurred before 16 March 2020 or accruing under existing obligations could be enforced by legal action or appointment of liquidators/administrators. Employment contracts could not be terminated but employees could be laid off at a specified rate – SSP rate, half pay, 75% or full pay, depending on Government subsidies. Government would undertake to pay all or a proportion of these wages costs, and could provide loans pending later claims. This could be extended to zero-hours workers and contractors engaged direct or through service companies. Alternatively, laid-off workers would be entitled to state benefits during lay-off as if unemployed, but without obligations to seek work.

1.3. Rents and interest payments and accruals could be arbitrarily reduced by 25% or 50% during the peak crisis period, sharing burdens with landlords and lenders, depending on how Government subsidies are to be targeted. Services provided to or by the busienss (other than utilities) could be suspended notwithstanding any long-term contracts, and no payments would be due for services not provided.

1.4. At the end of Suspension, the business would have to pay its suspended debts (but not cancelled interest, rent or taxes) no later than equal monthly instalments over six months.

1.5. Public service obligations could be imposed as conditions of Suspension, such as contributing to initiatives to provide essential products or services, or making staff available for volunteering, or a general obligation of directors to do everything possible to support public initiatives to fight the virus and keep the economy going.

2.    Alternatively, or as a separate initiative, employers should be given power to lay off employees on short notice for up to three months or the duration of the crisis, continuing to pay them (at reduced rate as above) with the benefit of state subsidies. Existing redundancy processes are too slow (for large businesses consultation and selection for redundancy plus notice period would exceed the likely duration of the crisis) and result in permanent dismissal. Anyone made redundant on or after 16 March 2020 and for the duration of the crisis should be automatically entitled to reinstated within six months unless the employer goes bust or can show that the job was redundant notwithstanding the crisis. This is what Virgin Atlantic is trying to achieve, but without a change in the law, its initiative would not survive challenge in the Employment Tribunal.

3.    All commercial rents and/or trading company interest rates in force between private parties at 16 March 2020 could be reduced by 25% for three months, purely as burden-sharing, on top of any reduction due to the base rate cut. Financial markets would need to be exempted in view of international implications and there might be a size threshold, though it would be a mistake to assume that only small businesses need relief.

4.    Covid-19 should be deemed a “force majeure” event for all contracts (other countries, eg China, have done this); the law would imply a term into every contract governed by UK law that if performance of the contract is rendered impossible, impractical or uneconomic by the coronavirus crisis (including by labour shortage or unavailability of supplies) the obligation is suspended, if capable of being performed later, or cancelled if time-critical, with any advance payments or expenses being refunded (as per section 2 of the Law Reform (Frustrated Contract) Act 1943), plus consumer deposits or prepayments being refundable in full. This would not apply to financial markets or insurance contracts but could apply to bank lending. This is intended to prevent the economy being overwhelmed by a tide of litigation attempting to shift costs to other parties and breach of contract claims for damages, including for loss of profit. Legislation akin to the Protection of Trading Interests Act 1980 could be used to prevent British companies being victims of such claims abroad or under contracts governed by foreign law.

5.    Compliance with Government recommendations on public health should be deemed compliance with a legal obligation for the purposes of all contracts and the law of torts, so that no-one can be sued for doing so and compliance, by the business or third parties, provides a lawful excuse for non-performance of obligations and enables insurance and benefits claims. No-one should be penalised for acting in accordance with Government advice, or because it is advice rather than the law.

6.    Legislation should say that exposure to coronavirus in the course of normal working should not in any circumstances be deemed a breach of health and safety laws by employers or negligence by the operators of business or premises. Otherwise businesses which should be staying open, perhaps in essential sectors such a heath supplies or food distribution, will close down because of the duties they have towards their own staff and the public, and will be reluctant to re-open as the danger reduces. We need to be explicit that businesses and individuals are allowed to take some risk in order to combat the virus and keep the economy going. Employers are reacting as if the call to work from home means that all workplaces must be closed, whether or not home working is possible. We do not want courts examining decisions with the benefit of hindsight, or businesses being burdened with litigation as they try to recover.

7.    Loans made under Government crisis initiatives should be exempted from prohibitions in other contracts and from calculation of financial covenants in bank lending documents. Otherwise acceptance of such emergency loans is likely to amount to a default under existing loans and result in lenders enforcing security, appointing administrators or increasing interest rates and fees to penal levels. There is a danger of lenders seeing receipt of crisis subsidies as an opportunity to recover pre-existing debt. It would be possible to suspend all financial covenants in loan agreements for a period to prevent defaults.

8.    Ministers should take powers to disapply intellectual property rights during the crisis if they restrict business responses to the crisis, eg by inhibiting UK copying and production of ventilators or other essential supplies normally sourced from overseas.

9.    The EU should suspend all State Aid restrictions during the crisis (at least outside the Eurozone) and disapply competition law to the extent that it inhibits businesses co-operating for the efficiency of the economy and the sourcing and distribution of goods during the crisis.

In the absence of steps such as these, businesses will take their own steps to protect themselves and (as they are required by law to do) their creditors and employees by making staff permanently redundant, disposing of assets (eg by not renewing leases) and/or going into insolvency, doing permanent damage to the economy and having knock-on effects for creditors and the wider economy. An overhang of litigation could stifle the economy for years to come. 

Stay safe.

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