What is Force Majeure? And why is it now being mentioned in the context of Brexit?

18th May 2021

A historian of ideas – probably Isaiah Berlin – once averred that most philosophical systems were ultimately simple affairs.

What made them complicated, it was said, were the elaborate defences and anticipations of objections so as to make the arguments advanced harder to attack or dismiss.

I have no idea if this is true, as I have no head for philosophy, but I have often thought the same can be said for contracts.

Most agreements are also relatively simple – and most of us, every day, enter into oral contracts which are nothing more than ‘I give you [x] in return for [y]’.

Written out, such contracts would not need to be longer than one sentence – a single clause.

What makes a legal agreement complicated – and what can make a written contract go on for hundreds of pages of clauses and schedules – are the provisions dealing with what will happen if one party does not do [x] or the other party does not do [y].

This is because most written contracts are not there for when things go well: they are there for when things go badly.

The more provisions that are in a contract, the more allocations of risk and protections for the parties if there are problems.

For high-value or significant agreements, teams of lawyers will painstakingly (and often expensively) go through every possible and foreseeable eventuality, and will then allocate risk accordingly as between the parties.

There will also be detailed provisions setting out the processes for resolving and remedying problems.

In most circumstances, those provisions will not ever be used.

(As a general though not universal rule, the more effort that goes into putting a contract together, the less scope for genuine disputes later.)

But sometimes a thing can happen to disrupt an agreement that has not been addressed in the agreement.

This disruptive event can have three qualities: (1) it will be outside the control of the parties (else all you would have is a potential breach); (2) it will be outside of the allocations of risk in the agreement (else the agreement already deals with what will then happen); and (3) it will affect the performance of obligations under the agreement (else it would not matter).

In legal language, such a disruptive event is said to ‘frustrate’ the agreement.

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In English contract law, such frustrations often lead to unfair and uncertain results – and every law student will know of the so-called ‘coronation cases’.

Lawyers elsewhere, however, approached this sort of predicament differently and developed the doctrine of ‘force majeure’.

A force majeure event is a thing that (1) is outside the control of the parties; (2) is outside of the allocations of risk in the agreement; and (3) affects the performance of obligations under the agreement.

If the doctrine applies there is then some certainty of what will then happen in the event of a force majeure event – sometimes the consequences can be agreed between the parties, or the consequences may be provided for under the general law.

Force majeure, however, is a residual thing – if the parties have foreseen the particular risk and allocated that risk then the terms of the agreement should take priority.

This means (generally) the more detailed the agreement, the more limited the scope for force majeure.

The analysis set out by me above is from the perspective of an English commercial lawyer but the doctrine also exists in what is called ‘public international law’ – that is the law that regulates relations between countries (and also international organisations):

You will see the public international law document quoted provides that a thing cannot be a force majeure event if (a) it is because of the conduct of the state seeking to rely on it and (b) the risk of it happening has not been allocated.

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What all this means is that it is often difficult in practice to rely on force majeure when there is in place a detailed and specially negotiated agreement.

This is because the parties will have foreseen and addressed most practical problems.

And even if there is a force majeure event, that also does not mean it is a ‘get out of an agreement free’ card – as all that may result is a temporary relief from fulfilling an obligation until the force majeure event is over.

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The reason why force majeure is in the news is because David Frost, the United Kingdom minister responsible for Brexit negotiations, appears to think that force majeure can be relied on to relieve the United Kingdom from its obligations under the Brexit withdrawal agreement and its Northern Ireland protocol.

The news report says:

‘Force majeure is a legal concept through which a party can demand to be relieved of its contractual obligations because of circumstances beyond its control or which were unforeseen.

‘The suggestion is contained in a 20-page letter the UK has sent to the European Commission.’

To which the response should be: good luck with that.

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In practice, any reliance on the doctrine of force majeure by the United Kingdom will come down to two particulars: (1) what is the (supposed) particular force majeure event, and (2) what is the particular obligation that is (supposedly) affected by that event.

Until this is known, one cannot be completely dismissive.

But.

It is difficult to believe that there is any event that (1) affects the performance of a particular obligation under the Northern Ireland Protocol which (2) is not within the control of one of the parties and (3) is not addressed in the protocol.

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And in response to the thread on Twitter on which this blogpost was based, this scepticism was endorsed by Jonathan Jones, who was the United Kingdom’s chief legal official during the Brexit negotiations:

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That the United Kingdom government had not thought through or cared about the detail of the withdrawal agreement was not unforeseeable.

It was, to use another technical legal term, bleedingly obvious.

It is difficult to conceive of anything that could be a force majeure event that is not already subject to the provisions and processes of the Northern Ireland Protocol.

On the face of it, therefore, the resorting to ‘force majeure’ by the United Kingdom looks desperate – a makeweight argument deployed for want of anything more compelling.

There is, however, the delicious legal irony in the circumstances of the United Kingdom seeking to rely on a French legal doctrine used to cure the inadequacies of English law-making.

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The County Court Judgment against Boris Johnson – an explainer

12th May 2021

[This post now has an Addendum]

Today’s Private Eye revealed that there is a county court judgment (CCJ) against Boris Johnson.

What can be worked out from this information?

First, it appears that it is a judgment against Johnson as a private individual, as the legal claim was not made against him as prime minister – we know this as this claim process cannot be used against central government entities.

Also note that it does not matter that Johnson’s full name is not used, and that the address is ‘Number 10’ when in fact he lives at Number 11, if those were the details provided by Johnson to the claimant.

Second, the legal claim was made online – we know this because of the court name and because of the ‘MC’ used in the case reference number.

Third, it appears to be a debt claim – as the claim appears to have been for a specified amount.

[UPDATE – this third observation seems not correct – see Addendum below.]

Fourth, it appears that the CCJ is a so-called ‘default judgment’ – this is a judgment that are entered against defendants if they either do not acknowledge the claim or do not defend the claim in time.

That it is a default judgment is suggested by the claim not having been allocated to an actual county court.

On the assumption that the CCJ is for a default judgment, then there are two likely explanations.

The first explanation is that the claim was not properly or validly served – that Johnson had no idea that there was a claim against him.

The second explanation is that the claim was properly and validly served but that, for some reason, the claim was not dealt with properly.

A default judgment is not directly about the merits of a claim – it is a procedural device which has the effect of making defendants take a claim seriously.

If a claim comes in and is, say, ignored then a default judgment will be entered.

Given the sheer amount of correspondence that is received in Downing Street, it is perhaps understandable that occasionally items are missed.

That said, for an October 2020 CCJ to be revealed in May 2021 indicates that:

(a) any final demand or letter before claim was missed/ignored;  

(b) the claim form was either not served or was missed/ignored; and

(c) a copy of the CCJ was missed/ignored.

What a default judgment does not necessarily indicate is that there were insufficient funds – for a CCJ can still be headed off even when a claim form is served as long as the defendant reacts promptly.

Therefore what the CCJ speaks to is not Johnson’s impecunity (at least not directly) but to Johnson’s disorganisation.

Somehow, someway it appears that Johnson (or his office) missed or did not respond to a final demand/letter before claim, a claim form and (most strikingly) the actual judgment and court order.

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So what can Johnson do now?

He can seek to apply to the court to have the CCJ set aside.

But here he may face problems.

He can have the judgment set aside as of right if he did not actually receive the claim form.

But if the claim form was validly served then (in general terms), he can only have the judgment set aside at the discretion of a judge.

For a judge to exercise this discretion in Johnson’s favour he has (again in general terms) to show two things.

First, he would need to show that there was a defence to the claim – that he did not actually owe the money.

Second, he would also need to show that he had acted promptly – and here the calendar is against him.

Waiting until May to apply to have an October judgment set aside will not be an easy thing to explain to a judge – and one can imagine many judges being unimpressed by the delay, regardless of the merits.

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Downing Street has now provided a statement.

From this statement it can be inferred that the claim was indeed validly served – else that would be the basis for the application and not the basis given.

Instead, the statement uses standard wording which goes to the exercise of a judge’s discretion.

(One suspects that the wording of the Number 10 statement was provided by a lawyer.)

Perhaps the claim was a prank – though it can be a quite serious and potentially criminal matter to issue a false legal claim.

There seems to be off-the-record briefing to political reporters saying that the claim was not ‘genuine’ – but even if this is the case, there was still a claim form and a CCJ missed by Downing Street and/or Johnson.

The fact that the claim may not have been well-made does not take away from the evident disorganisation which meant that a claim was served on and a CCJ received by Johnson and nothing appears to have been done about it.

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It cannot be assumed that a court will set a CCJ aside even if the claim is not ‘genuine’, if there has been too much delay.

Courts are increasingly unwilling to give any relief from sanctions in civil cases – and a default judgment is a sanction for non-compliance. 

And there is, of course, a recent example of a civil court being unimpressed with a (former) government minister who did not comply with the civil procedure rules: Andrew Mitchell v News Group Newspapers Ltd.

In that case, Mitchell’s legal team did not get around to serving a costs budget in time – a delay which cost Mitchell about £500,000 – some thousand times more than this CCJ.

A court may be similarly unwilling to give Johnson a relief from this sanction.

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MORAL

Always, always deal with legal correspondence quickly – for if this can happen to the prime minister, it can happen to you.

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ADDENDUM – 13th May 2021

A report in the Daily Mail now provides detail on the claim – the piece is written by an experienced legal/courts reporter.

It appears that the claim is not for a debt – even though it is for a specific amount.

If the claim was brought on the basis and in the way described, it is likely that the court will set aside the judgment and strike out the claim.

The only problem would be delay – and although anyone who has appeared before county court judges can imagine a judge refusing such an application – delay will probably not be fatal to Johnson’s application in the reported circumstances.

 

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A government department or minister has been found to have acted unlawfully or illegally – but what does this mean? And what does it not mean?

21st February 2021

The news item is dramatic.

The high court in London has decided that a government department – or a specific secretary of state – has acted illegally or unlawfully.

The department or minister has, as the saying goes, broken the law!

There will then be a flurry of tweets, retweets and likes – and then demands for resignations, or prosecutions, or whatnot – followed by complaints that the news media (usually the BBC) have not adopted a similarly breathless approach.

And then there will be a sense of anti-climax or disappointment as the news fades and nothing significant seems to happen.

Nobody resigns, nobody is sacked, nobody is prosecuted, nobody has any personal legal liability.

Why is this?

Surely breaking the law has consequences?

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Well.

Part of the problem is that the words ‘illegal’ and ‘unlawful’ are wide in their meaning.

(For convenience, the terms ‘illegal’ and ‘unlawful’ will be used as synonyms n this post – though some lawyers will have very strong opinions as their distinction in certain contexts.)

Their core meaning of being ‘illegal’ and ‘unlawful’, of course, is that there has not been compliance with a law – or that a thing has been done without a lawful basis.

That core meaning, by itself, does not tell you what laws have been broken, how they were broken, and what the consequences (if any) are for that breach.

And in the case of there not being a lawful basis for a thing, it may even mean no specific law has been broken as such.

There are many ways in which a thing may be ‘illegal’ or ‘unlawful’.

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Yet for many the phrase ‘broken the law’ will mean a person has done something criminally wrong.

That such a person has breached a prohibition for which the criminal law provides a sanction for that breach.

But that is only one way the law can be breached.

This is because criminal law is only a sub-set of the law.

And so the illegality that gives rise to criminal liability is just a sub-set of illegality.

There are other ways a thing can be ‘illegal’ or ‘unlawful’ without any criminal offence being committed.

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Another way a thing can be ‘illegal’ or ‘unlawful’ is when a person does not comply with the conditions of a contract, or with the terms of a licence, or commits a wrong such as trespass or negligence.

Such an action or inaction will be to ‘break the law‘ – but these will not usually result in any criminal sanction.

Such wrongs are usually enforced, if at all, by a wronged party suing in a court.

This is what the law regards as ‘civil’ law as opposed to ‘criminal’ law.

Some people can commit dozens – if not hundreds – of such breaches – and nothing happens, because nobody is able or willing to sue for the wrong.

People act unlawfully and illegally every day.

People just like you.

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Another way a thing can be ‘illegal’ or ‘unlawful’ is when a public body does not comply with the provisions of the law or its relevant legal duties.

Here the relevant law is called ‘public law’ – a general term for the special laws that regulate what public bodies can and cannot do.

As a general rule, a public body can only do what the law provides for that body to do, and when doing so that body also has to comply with certain duties.

And if that public body does not do so, then it will be acting ‘illegally’ or ‘unlawfully’.

This means the public body, as a matter of law, has not done what it should have done.

The common way for such bodies to be held legally to account for the lawfulness of what they do is called ‘judicial review’ – though the question of legality can also sometimes be raised other legal proceedings.

Judicial review is, in England and Wales, usually before the high court.

When the question of legality is raised, the high court will ascertain the relevant laws and legal duties of the public body, and the court will then determine whether the public body has acted in accordance with those laws and duties or not.

If not, the court can decide whether the public body (or minister in charge of a government department in their official capacity) has acted illegally/unlawfully.

And that…

…is it.

At least that is it, in respect of the substance of the case.

If necessary, the court can then make a ‘quashing order’ that will render the act – a decision, or measure, or policy – as unlawful.

The quashing order will then, by legal magic, remove any legal meaning from what was done (or not done).

In practice, this usually means the public body (or minister) can make the quashed decision (or measure or policy) again, but this time lawfully.

A court may sometimes think a quashing order is not necessary, and may make what is called a ‘declaration’ instead – where the high court declares what the relevant legal position is (or is not).

And sometimes a court can even view that neither a quashing order nor a declaration as having any practical use, and regard the breach as moot or academic.

So a finding by the high court of illegality by a public body may mean there is a remedy, on not, depending on the circumstances.

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The role of the court in judicial review is to, literally, review a thing judicially – to see if a thing done or not done by a public body was lawful or not. 

And if so, to see if anything practically needs to be done as a consequence.

Nothing more.

No automatic orders to pay damages, still less impositions of criminal convictions.

And sometimes not even a quashing order or other order, or a declaration, as not even that remedy is required to put right the wrong.

This is because the job of public law is not to deal with civil or criminal wrongs directly but to ensure lawful actions by those with public power – and to issue what corrective orders are necessary to ensure that public bodies keep within their powers and fulfil their duties.

Telling the swimmers to stay in their lanes, and blowing a whistle if required.

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There is a public interest in this discrete question of legality of public bodies being examined by courts.

Of course, there will always be a clamour for greater sanctions for those individually responsible for such unlawful conduct.

And both the civil law and criminal law do provide the means for civil claims and criminal prosecutions to also be brought in certain circumstances.

Judicial review is not the only legal redress.

Such claims and prosecutions can, however, be complex and time-consuming, involving extensive witness and other evidence, and the need for witness evidence to be examined and cross-examined.

It is harder to impose individual culpability than to review generally whether a public body has acted lawfully or not – especially if intention has to be proved or causation of damage to be shown.

This is not to say there should be no role for civil and criminal liability when things go wrong in the public sphere – but to aver instead that the allocations and inflictions of such liabilities on individuals raise wider legal issues than the narrow question of whether a public body acted within or without its legal powers and duties.

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So when the news is that the high court has found that a public body (including a secretary of state) has acted unlawfully or illegally then this means the court has reviewed what has happened and found it legally wanting.

A ‘cross’ rather than a ‘tick’ against the public body’s action or inaction.

The swimmer is in the wrong lane.

And, if required, an order or declaration so as to correct what has gone wrong.

That this does not carry any personal legal consequences for the ministers or officials involved will disappoint some of those following the news.

But to insist that there also has to be personal legal consequences for the ministers or officials whenever there are unlawful or illegal actions by a public body would be to make judicial review ineffective as a useful tool.

And there would be no public interest in that.

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Why the first paragraph of the lawsuit brought by Dominion Voting Systems against Rudolph Giuliani is a splendid piece of legal drafting

26th January 2021

You would need a heart of stone not to laugh like a drain at the lawsuit brought by Dominion Voting Systems against Rudolph Giuilani.

The pleading is worth reading for its own sake, and the first paragraph – which, as this post will show, rewards re-reading – is a cracker.

But once one eventually stops laughing, what should one make of it?

Of course, the defendant Rudolph Giuilani is now regarded by many as a figure of political fun, a villain in the Trump pantomime.

But principle is – or should be – blind to the person to whom it applies.

So here is a thought experiment.

Imagine – for the sake of argument and exposition – that there was a corporation that provided voting machines and, unlike the plaintiff in this case, there was a serious and consequential issue as to the efficacy of the equipment.

And imagine that the political or media figure bringing loud attention to this issue was not the defendant in this situation but instead a credible and likeable politician or journalist.

Would you still clap and cheer if that noble figure was faced with a 107-page legal claim for $651,735,000 or some other absurdly precise amount?

Or would you re-tweet furiously about threats by corporates to whistleblowing and freedom of expression?

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So how can the court tell the good cases from the bad?

How can the court strike the right balance?

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This thread from American lawyer Mike Dunford sets out the legal challenges for Dominion Voting Systems:

And as would be the position with a similar case in England and Wales, you will see that the legal issue quickly becomes one of showing malice – and there it is called ‘actual malice’:

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At this point the non-lawyer will ask, understandably: what is malice?

And a lawyer will respond, frustratingly: it all depends.

But here it is interesting to now go back to the first paragraph of the the legal pleading of Dominion Voting System (and this is why it is worth re-reading):

“During a court hearing contesting the results of the 2020 election in Pennsylvania, Rudy Giuliani admitted that the Trump Campaign “doesn’t plead fraud” and that “this is not a fraud case.” Although he was unwilling to make false election fraud claims about Dominion and its voting machines in a court of law because he knew those allegations are false, he and his allies manufactured and disseminated the “Big Lie,” which foreseeably went viral and deceived millions of people into believing that Dominion had stolen their votes and fixed the election. Giuliani reportedly demanded $20,000 per day for that Big Lie. But he also cashed in by hosting a podcast where he exploited election falsehoods to market gold coins, supplements, cigars, and protection from “cyberthieves.” Even after the United States Capitol had been stormed by rioters who had been deceived by Giuliani and his allies, Giuliani shirked responsibility for the consequences of his words and repeated the Big Lie again.”

This is not just racy narrative – if you look carefully you will see that it is a clever attempt to show malice.

Giuliani said a thing he knew he could not say in court; he knew it would go viral; he had a financial incentive; and he was irresponsible in respect of its consequences.

Every sentence – every clause – of that well-crafted first paragraph is serving a purpose in showing that there was ‘actual malice’.

It is a lovely piece of legal drafting – enough to make one want to clap and cheer, regardless of the identity of the defendant.

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Corporations – especially those providing public services or supplying equipment for use in public services – should not have it easy when it comes to making legal threats.

Even when they are threatening pantomime villains.

Public figures, especially those in the worlds of politics and media, should have some protection when they are complaining of such corporations.

Even when those figures are pantomime villains.

The purpose of the law in these situations is to strike a balance – to provide for what both sides would need to show in court.

Here the corporation – rightly – cannot just sue because of damaging false statements, it may also need to show that there was malice.

And the lesson of the first paragraph of the pleading and of the rest of the complaint is that in certain circumstances this can be shown, at least arguably.

What comes of this case cannot be guessed at this time – and most civil claims tend to settle.

But Giuliani has a genuine legal fight on his hands here.

And you would need a heart of stone not to laugh like a drain.

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