UK: Force Majeure Under Common Law And The Civil Codes– The FIDIC Form And NEC Contract Compared

Last Updated: 29 November 2006
Article by Jeremy Glover

One of the potential difficulties with international projects is that the contracts entered into are governed by laws which may be unfamiliar to one or other of the contracting parties. For example, there is a difference in the way that force majeure is treated in common and civil law jurisdictions. Whilst most civil codes make provisions for force majeure events, at common law, force majeure is not a term of art and its meaning is far from clear. No force majeure provision will be implied in the absence of specific contractual provisions, and the extent to which the parties deal with unforeseen events will be defined in the contract between them. Thus without a specific clause, there will not necessarily be relief for force majeure events.

The aim of the force majeure clause is to exempt a party from performance on the occurrence of a force majeure event. Commercially the clause is there to address risks which cannot necessarily be economically insured and which are outside the control of the parties to the contract. There are, of course, many definitions of that force majeure event. For example, in the case of Atlantic Paper Stock Ltd v St Anne-Nackawic Pulp and Paper Co, [1976] 1 SCR 580, Dickson J in the Supreme Court of Canada said that:

An act of God or force majeure clause … generally operates to discharge a contracting party when a supervening, sometimes supernatural, event, beyond the control of either party, makes performance impossible. The common thread is that of the unexpected, something beyond reasonable human foresight and skill.

The FIDIC Form

The definition of force majeure provided in the new FIDIC form at clause 19 is widely drawn. Clause 19.1 defines a force majeure event as one:

  1. which is beyond a Party’s control,
  2. which such Party could not reasonably have provided against before entering into the Contract,
  3. which, having arisen, such Party could not reasonably have avoided or overcome, and
  4. which is not substantially attributable to the other Party.

Force Majeure may include, but is not limited to, exceptional events or circumstances of the kind listed below, so long as conditions (a) to (d) above are satisfied:

  1. munitions of war, explosive materials, ionising radiation or contamination by radioactivity, except as may be attributable to the Contractor’s use of such munitions, explosives, radiation or radioactivity, and
  2. natural catastrophes such as earthquake, hurricane, typhoon or volcanic activity.
  1. war, hostilities (whether war be declared or not), invasion, act of foreign enemies,
  1. rebellion, terrorism, revolution, insurrection, military or usurped power, or civil war,
  2. riot, commotion, disorder, strike or lockout by persons other than the Contractor’s Personnel and other employees of the Contractor and Sub-Contractors,
  3. munitions of war, explosive materials, ionising radiation or contamination by radioactivity, except as may be attributable to the Contractor’s use of such munitions, explosives, radiation or radioactivity, and
  4. natural catastrophes such as earthquake, hurricane, typhoon or volcanic activity.

The broad definition of force majeure to be found here, and it should be remembered that the examples listed above are examples and not an exhaustive list, reflects the basic premise of a force majeure clause, namely that it serves to exempt a party from performance on occurrence of a false majeure event.

One problem with the FIDIC form is that there is a risk of potential overlap and/or contradiction between sub-clause 19.1 and the definition of force majeure, which one can find in the civil codes of most, if not all, civil law jurisdictions. For example, the definition of force majeure under the Quebec Civil Code is much narrower in scope. Article 1470 simply provides that:

A superior force [in the French version, force majeure] is an unforeseeable and irresistible event, including external causes with the same characteristics.

This has led one commentator to express caution that "incorporating a clause such as Clause 19 into a contract not only duplicates what is usually provided for in the civil code of a civil law jurisdiction, but also enlarges the scope of the meaning and application of force majeure. This could result in the Parties getting into a muddle and a contradictory situation."1 In any event, the Particular Conditions note that the Employer should verify, before inviting tenders, that the wording of Clause 19 is compatible with the law governing the Contract.

In fact, there was no specific force majeure clause in the Old Red Book FIDIC 4th Edition. However, the Contractor was afforded some protection by Clause 65, which dealt with special risks including the outbreak of war, and Clause 66, which dealt with payment when the Contractor was released from performance of its contractual obligations. The scheme of the FIDIC form is that the party affected, which is usually the Contractor but could here be the Employer, is entitled to such an extension of time as is due and (with exceptions) additional cost where a "force majeure" occurs.

For Clause 19 to apply, the force majeure event must prevent a Party from performing any of its obligations under the Contract. The now classic example of this is the refusal of the English and American courts to grant relief as a consequence of the Suez crisis during the 1950’s. Those who had entered into contracts to ship goods were not prevented from carrying out their contractual obligations as they could go via the Cape of Good Hope even though the closure of the Suez Canal made the performance of that contract far more onerous.

Clause 19.7 of the FIDIC form is also of interest. Here, the parties will be released from performance (and the Contractor entitled to specific payment) if (i) any irresistible event (not limited to force majeure) makes it impossible or unlawful for the parties to fulfil their contractual obligations, or (ii) the governing law so provides. It acts as a fall-back provision for extreme events (i.e., events rendering contractual performance illegal or impossible) which do not fit within the strict definition of force majeure laid out under sub-clause 19.1. It also grants the party seeking exoneration the right to rely on any alternative relief-mechanism contained in the law governing the contract.

If English law applies, following the landmark case of Davis Contractors v Fareham UDC, 2 All ER 145, the affected party will be able to rely on the common law concept of frustration, which "occurs whenever the law recognises that without the default of either party a contractual obligation has become incapable of being performed because the circumstances in which performance is called for would render it a thing radically different from that which was undertaken by the contract". Here, the contract was to build 78 houses for a fixed price in 8 months. Because of labour shortages and bad weather, it took the contractor 22 months to build the houses. It was held by the House of Lords that the contract had not been frustrated. To claim frustration, therefore, it will not be enough for a contractor to establish that new circumstances have rendered its contractual performance more onerous or even dangerously uneconomic.

For frustration, what is required is a radical turn of events completely changing the nature of the contractual obligations. It is a difficult test to fulfil, but not as difficult as that of sub-clause 19.4 (force majeure) or the first limb of sub-clause 19.7 which both refer to the concept of impossibility (or illegality). To take the example put forward by A.Puelinckx of a wine connoisseur signing a contract for the construction under his house of a very sophisticated wine cellar.2 If the house is burned down before execution of the contract, leaving the basement part in perfect condition, this will certainly be considered frustration under English law. However, no claim could be put forward under a strict interpretation of sub-clauses 19.4 or 19.7 as the house could in theory be rebuilt and the contractual obligation to build the cellar performed. French law would apply the same reasoning as sub-clauses 19.4 or 19.7 and because performance is still possible, would hold the above-described events as a mere imprévision, which will not afford any financial relief to the affected party.

What is common to both the notion of frustration and that of force majeure as interpreted under English law though, is that no relief will be granted in case of economic unbalance. A recent illustration concerning the interpretation of a force majeure clause under English law can be found in the case of Thames Valley Power Limited v Total Gas & Power Limited, (2006) 1 Lloyd's Rep 441. Here there was a 15-year exclusive gas supply contract between Thames Valley Power Limited (buyer) and Total Gas & Power Limited (supplier) for the operation of a combined heat and powerplant at Heathrow Airport. Clause 15 of the supply contract provided in part as follows:

if either party is by reason of force majeure rendered unable wholly or in part to carry out any of its obligations under this agreement then upon notice in writing […] the party affected shall be released from its obligations and suspended from the exercise of its rights hereunder to the extent that they are affected by the circumstances of force majeure and for the period that those circumstances exist.

The supplier sought to rely on Clause 15 to stop supplying gas at the contract price as the market price for gas had increased significantly and rendered it "uneconomic" for the supplier to supply gas. Christopher Clarke J, however, found that:

The force majeure event has to have caused Total to be unable to carry out its obligations under the [agreement]. […] Total is unable to carry out that obligation if some event has occurred as a result of which it cannot do that. The fact that it is much more expensive, even greatly more expensive for it to do so, does not mean that it cannot do so.

Clause 19 would certainly be interpreted in much the same way by English courts. In large projects where the performance of the parties’ contractual obligations is spread over several years, the parties might thus consider whether or not to add a hardship clause to the contract which will stipulate when and how the parties will rearrange the contractual terms in the event the contract loses its economic balance.

The NEC 3rd Edition

At first look, the new NEC form, whose third edition was published in July 2005, does not include a force majeure event. However, reference to the guidance notes shows that clause 60.1(19) qualifies as a force majeure event. This clause refers to events which:

  • Stops the Contractor from completing the works or
  • Stops the Contractor completing the works by the dates shown on the Accepted Programme, and which
  • Neither Party could prevent,
  • An experienced Contractor would have judged that the contract dates have such a small chance of occurring that it would have been unreasonable for him to have allowed for it and
  • Is not one of the other compensation events stated in this contract.

Thus it looks very much like a force majeure clause and that is exactly what it is. Indeed, the reference to the Guidance Notes confirms this explicitly-referring to "force majeure".

The drafting of this compensation/force majeure event is plainly very broad. Indeed, maybe it is too broad. Therefore, it may well be that this is exactly the type of clause that many employers will seek to delete or revise. And under common law jurisdictions, this will mean that no protection will be provided to the Contractor for typical force majeure events.

Footnotes

1 Professor Nael Bunni - FIDIC's New Suite of Contracts - Clauses 17 to 19 – available on the FIDIC website – www.fidic.org

2 ‘Frustration, Hardship, Force Majeure, Imprévision, Wegfall der Geschäftsgrundlage, Unmöglichkeit, Changed Circumstances: A Comparative Study in English, French, German and Japanese Law’ Journal of International Arbitration, Vol. 3 No. 2 (1986), pp. 47-66.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Jeremy Glover is the co-author, with Simon Hughes of Keating Chambers of a new commentary on the FIDIC Conditions of Contract for Construction. This article was based on an extract from that book, entitled Understanding the new FIDIC Red Book: A clause by clause commentary, which was published by Sweet & Maxwell at the beginning of December 2006.

For further information please contact the author or visit www.fenwickelliott.co.uk.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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