The extraordinary outbreak of the Covid–19 pandemic has had staggering effects on the economy, health and commerce of about 110 nations across the globe. Even after almost a year, the situation is far from normal. In addition to the massive pressure on the health and medical segments, several other unprecedented factors played crucial part in the whole system, economy, commerce, or business. Given the present situation of disruption of supply chain, disruption of assured manpower, uncertainty of future planning, inadequacy of security as well as the forced restraints in free commercial activities, numerous commercial contracts have either been interrupted, delayed or cancelled. The present situation has thrown light on several important questions with respect to the jurisprudence of the force majeure clause in various commercial contracts or frustration of contracts.
Force Majeure Typically in Law
The term force majeure which seems to have been borrowed from the Code Napoleon had received interpretation in several decisions of the English Courts in earlier years. In Matsoukis v. Priestman and Co.[i] . Justice Bailhache opined that force majeure would include strikes and break-down of machinery but not bad weather, or football matches, or a funeral. In Lebeeaupin v. Crispin[ii] Justice McCardie had observed: “A force majeure clause should be construed in each case with a close attention to the words which precede or follow it, and with due regard to the nature and general terms of the contract. The effect of the clause may vary with each instrument.”
In the Indian context, the Supreme Court has considered, interpreted and decided the events of force majeure in various judicial precedents, inter-alia from Satyabrata Ghosh vs Mugneeram Bangur[iii] to Energy watchdog vs CERC[iv] The Court has maintained a strict yet flexible approach towards the concept of force majeure and frustration of contracts. In the case of Alopi Prashad and Sons vs. UOI[v] the Supreme court had observed that commercial hardship shall not be a just and reasonable ground to support frustration of contract and excuse performance.
As we find in the commercial world, contracting parties have generally been incorporating the force majeure clause in their contracts since ages, to absolve themselves of any liability arising out of events beyond their reasonable control. However, in this discussion we would focus the force majeure arising out of Covid-19 pandemic.
COVID 19 and Application of Force Majeure
There was a difference of opinions and questions were raised over the fact that some contracts though having a force majeure clause, do not stress on the word ‘pandemic’, ‘epidemic’, ‘disease’ etc. , while majority of the contracting parties rely on the general phrase ‘any other unforeseeable event, not under the control of either of the parties.’
Alike the private sector, the Government contracts and the Public Sector transactions also started suffering on account of the pandemic and declaration of lockdown throughout the country. To address the situation fairly, the Ministry of Home Affairs came out with Notification No. F. 18/4/2020 PPD dated 19-02-2020 with respect to Manual for Procurement of Goods, 2017 declaring that the interruptions in supply chain due to Covid 19 from China or any other country shall be covered under the ambit of force majeure, and that force majeure shall be invoked whenever considered appropriate following the due process of law.
While the power of the Ministry to bring certain events within the ambit of force majeure under clause 9.7.7 of the Manual for Procurement of Goods, 2017 by a simple notification, may be a different issue, but as it appears, by this notification the Corona Pandemic was brought within the meaning of force majeure as defined in the Manual for Procurement of Goods, 2017 and tacitly, this event certainly becomes applicable in respect of all government and/or public sector contracts irrespective of application of the Manual for Procurement of Goods, 2017. It may be noted that this Memorandum of 19th February 2020 was issued prior to Covid-19 affecting operations in India, recognizing the difficulty faced by the contracting parties regarding import of materials from other countries which were impacted by the pandemic.
Similarly, on account of various representations and submissions made by various Renewable Energy (RE) Developers and RE Associations, and considering the prevailing situation, the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy vide Office Memorandum No. 283/18/2020-GRID SOLAR dated March 20, 2020 declared Covid-19 as a force majeure event. The Ministry vide the said order granted time extensions in scheduled commissioning date of RE projects, in light of disruption of supply chain due to the pandemic.
The Ministry of Roads Transport and Highways also in its Circular dated 18.05.2020 inter-alia classified the pandemic as a force majeure event. In addition, the Ministry of Home Affairs by its Order no. 40-3/2020(D) dated 24 March 2020 expressed that the country was threatened with the spread of Covid 19 virus and therefore has considered to take effective measures to prevent its spread across the country and therefore in exercise of powers under section 10(2)(I) of the Disasters Management Act 2005 issued various guidelines for immediate implementation. Subsequently, by Office Memorandum dated 13 May 2020 the Ministry of Finance, Department of Expenditure referred to its earlier memorandum dated 19 February 2020 and also referred to the Manual of Procurement and recognized inter-alia that in view of the prevailing restrictions, it may not be possible for the parties to the contract to fulfill contractual obligations. Therefore, after fulfilling due procedure and wherever applicable, parties to the contract could invoke force majeure clause for all construction / works contracts, goods and services contracts, and PPP contracts with Government Agencies up to a certain period and subject to certain conditions. Therefore, officially the Government of India recognized Covid-19 Pandemic as an event of force majeure applicable in relation to contracts with Government Agencies, in effect resulting inclusion of Public Sector Undertakings also.
While the specific acceptance of force majeure in relation to Government sector contracts may not have any binding effect on the contracts outside the scope of the explicit instances or in relation to purely private contracts between two private parties, they probably offered an explanatory value to bring Covid 19 and the forced restraints imposed on account of lockdowns, within the ambit of force majeure.
In the Indian judicial scenario the court would rely on the terms of force majeure clause in the contracts or on principles of frustration under section 56 of the Contract Act. This means, unless there is compelling evidence for non-performance of contract the courts do not favor parties resorting to frustration or termination of contract. On account of the enormous devastative effects the Pandemic created on the commercial and economic environment in the country, different Courts had to come forward and grant relief to different contracting parties who were severely affected by the Pandemic.
The Delhi High Court considered the matter in June 2020 in the case of MEP Infrastructure Developers Ltd vs. South Delhi Municipal Corporation and Ors[vi]. The court essentially relied on the Ministry of Roads Transport and Highways (MORTH) circular and observed that:
“27(i) The respondent Corporation itself referred to Circular dated 19.02.2020 which notified that the COVID-19 pandemic was a force majeure occurrence. In effect, the force majeure clause under the agreement immediately becomes applicable and the notice for the same would not be necessary. That being the position, a strict timeline under the agreement would be put in abeyance as the ground realities had substantially altered and performance of the contract would not be feasible till restoration of the pre-force majeure conditions.”
The court also expounded on the continuous nature of the force majeure event and held that the subsequent lockdown relaxations given by the central government and the state government shall not amount to abatement of the force majeure event, at least in respect to major contracts such as road construction projects. The court also identified the distinct effects of the lockdown, independent of the effects of the pandemic and its implications on various contracts which many be affected by the force majeure conditions.
In the case of Standard Retail vs G.S Global Corp Pvt. Ltd[vii] steel importers had approached the Bombay High Court seeking restraint on encashment of letters of credit provided to Korean exporters in view of the COVID-19 pandemic and the lockdown declared by the Central/State Government citing that the contracts between the parties were unenforceable on account of frustration, impossibility, and impracticability. The Bombay High court by its order dated 8 April 2020 rejected the plea inter-alia on the grounds:
- The Letters of Credit are an independent transaction with the Bank and the Bank is not concerned with underlying disputes between the buyers and the sellers.
- The Force Majeure clause in the present contracts is applicable only to one respondent and cannot come to the aid of the Petitioners.
- The contract terms are on Cost and Freight basis (CFR) and the respondent had complied with its obligations and performed its part of the contracts and the goods had already been shipped from South Korea. The fact that the Petitioners would not be able to perform its obligations so far as its own purchasers are concerned and/or it would suffer damages, is not a factor which can be considered and held against the Respondent.
The court also observed that:
“The Notifications/Advisories relied upon by the respondent suggested that the distribution of steel has been declared as an essential service. There are no restrictions on its movement and all ports and port related activities including the movement of vehicles and manpower, operations of Container Freight Station and warehouses and offices of Custom Houses Agents have also been declared as essential services. The Notification of the Director General of Shipping, Mumbai, states that there would be no container detention charges on import and export shipments during the lockdown period.
In any event, the lockdown would be for a limited period and the lockdown cannot come to the rescue of the Petitioners so as to resile from its contractual obligations with the Respondent No. 1 of making payments”.
Therefore, even if the event is a force majeure, contracts may not be avoided if the event does not affect performance of the entire contract or affect every aspects of any contract. The event has to be specific to the failure.
In the Halliburton case[viii] , decided on May 29, 2020, the Delhi High court was of an unequivocal opinion that:
“62. The question as to whether COVID-19 would justify non-performance or breach of a contract has to be examined on the facts and circumstances of each case. Every breach or non-performance cannot be justified or excused merely on the invocation of COVID-19 as a Force Majeure condition. The Court would have to assess the conduct of the parties prior to the outbreak, the deadlines that were imposed in the contract, the steps that were to be taken, the various compliances that were required to be made and only then assess as to whether, genuinely, a party was prevented or is able to justify its non- performance due to the epidemic/pandemic”.
Further, while discussing the scope of the force majeure clause in contracts it was observed by the court that:
“Para 63. It is the settled position in law that a Force Majeure clause is to be interpreted narrowly and not broadly. Parties ought to be compelled to adhere to contractual terms and conditions and excusing non-performance would be only in exceptional situations. As observed in Energy Watchdog it is not in the domain of Courts to absolve parties from performing their part of the contract. It is also not the duty of Courts to provide a shelter for justifying non- performance. There has to be a ‘real reason’ and a ‘real justification’ which the Court would consider in order to invoke a Force Majeure clause”.
The Madras High Court in the case of Tuticorin Stevedores’ Association vs The Government of India[ix], dated 14 September 2020, observed that the question as to whether on account of the pandemic outbreak of Covid-19, the parties can invoke the principle of force majeure need not detain us. The calamitous impact and disruption caused by Covid-19 on the economic front has been recognized by the Government itself.
In Confederation for Concessionaire Welfare & Ors. vs Airports Authority of India & Anr[x] the Hon’ble Delhi High Court observed on 17 February 2021 inter-alia that the court has perused the clauses relating to Force Majeure. There can be no doubt that the pandemic is a force majeure event. Since the Petitioners wish to terminate/exit from their respective agreements, while directing completion of pleadings and while the issues are under examination by this Court, there is a need to reduce the risk to both parties as simply postponing the exit by the Petitioners would also make it impossible for the AAI to re-allot the spaces to willing concessionaires and the outstanding against the Petitioners would continue to mount. Accordingly, as an interim measure the Hon’ble Court directed certain processes to be followed.
In another case of Ramanand vs. Dr. Girish Soni RC.[xi], an application came under consideration of the Delhi High Court which raised various issues relating to suspension of payment of rent by tenants owing to the COVID-19 lockdown crisis and the legal questions surrounding the same. By order dated 21-5-2020 the Delhi High court while determining whether lease agreements are covered under the ambit of section 32 and section 56 of the Act and even though it was held that suspension of rent on the grounds of force majeure is not permissible under the circumstances, the court allowed relaxation in the schedule of payment of the outstanding rent owing to the lockdown.
The Hon’ble Supreme Court in the case of Parvasi Legal Cell and Ors. Vs Union of India and Ors., observed that the pandemic was an ‘unusual’ situation, that had impacted the economy globally. This case revolved around the liability of the airlines to compensate passengers who faced cancellation of flights due to government-imposed lockdowns and restrictions on inter-state and international travels. The court relied on the office memorandum issued by the Ministry of Civil Aviation dated 16th April 2020 to dispose of the petition.
In the case of Transcon Iconia Pvt. Ltd v ICICI Bank[xii], the Bombay High Court while determining whether moratorium period would be excluded for NPA classification observed inter alia as under:
‘38… the period of the moratorium during which there is a lockdown will not be reckoned by ICICI Bank for the purposes of computation of the 90-day NPA declaration period. As currently advised, therefore, the period of 1st March 2020 until 31st May 2020 during which there is a lockdown will stand excluded from the 90-day NPA declaration computation until — and this is the condition — the lockdown is lifted’.
Yet, in another judgment passed in R. Narayan v. State of Tamil Nadu & Ors.[xiii] the Madras High Court directed the Municipal Corporation to waive the license fee for running a shop at a bus stand, and observed that:
“…this Court would be justified in treating the “lock down” as a force majeure event which will relieve the licensee from performing his obligation to the corresponding extent.” The Court also observed that … “The respondents (The Government of Tamil Nadu & Ors.) themselves have chosen to treat the lock down restrictions as a force majeure event. But they have relieved the licensees from the obligation to pay the fees only for two months. The reason for granting waiver for the months of April and May would equally hold good for the entire “total lockdown” period.”
Therefore, as it appears, most of the High Courts relied on the government orders that classified pandemic as force majeure, although the relief granted in each case has been subjected to restraint based on the accompanying facts and circumstances. The common observation however remained that the Covid-19 pandemic is a force majeure event.
Hence, it can be summarized that, commercial hardship shall not be a just and reasonable ground to support frustration of contract and excuse performance. The Courts have no general inclination to absolve a party from the performance of its part of the contract merely because its performance has become onerous on account of an unforeseen turn of events. Parties are at an obligation to complete their part of the contract against all odds, within a reasonable and practical limit. However, where the contract itself either impliedly or expressly contains a term according to which performance would stand discharged under certain circumstances, the dissolution of the contract would take place under the terms of the contract itself and such cases would be dealt with under Section 32 of the Act. If, however, frustration is to take place de hors the contract, it will be governed by Section 56.
The following preliminary conditions are emerging to be sine quo non to invoke covid-19 as a valid defense for non-performance:
- The contract is rendered impossible to perform: To establish pandemic as a force majeure occurrence de hors the contract the parties must demonstrate how the pandemic has disturbed the fundamental basis on which the obligations and agreements of the parties rested [Naihati Jute Mills Ltd. Vs Khayaliram Jagannath[xiv]]. This principle was also adequately elaborated upon by the Bombay High Court in Standard Retail vs G.S Global Corp Pvt. Ltd. A mere invocation of the force majeure clause in light of the pandemic does not absolve the parties from discharging their contractual obligations. A prima facie case has to be built justifying the reason for inability and seeking such an exemption.
- Prior conduct of the parties: While pleading the defense of force majeure, it is highly pertinent for the concerned party to ensure that, prior to the outbreak of the pandemic, the party was discharging its functions in a bona fide manner within the stipulated conditions of the contract. Additionally, as enumerated in the Halliburton case by the Delhi High Court, the concerned party should have demonstrated a bona fide attempt at undertaking all reasonable measures to execute its obligations in light of the situation and was genuinely prevented to act upon the same due to the collateral effects of the pandemic.
- Collection of documents capable of corroborating the claim of force majeure: It is crucial for the party invoking the force majeure clause to corroborate their claims with valid documents applicable to the specific instance, given the unusual and unprecedented situation. In the present scenario, these documents can include the abovementioned government circulars and guidelines, local medical reports, news reports, announcements etc. It needs to be kept in mind that generic documents howsoever crucial they may be, might not be enough in any specific case. While citing such documents, the affected party also has a duty to carry out a due diligence to ensure such exemptions and relaxations are strictly applicable to their case as observed in Standard Retail vs G.S Global Corp Pvt. Ltd.
No Straitjacket Formula
As can be summarized, different Courts in India have upheld the defense of frustration of contract and the defense of force majeure sparingly in every case. Even though the Covid 19 pandemic and its consequent lockdown can be generally covered under the ambit of force majeure, but there can’t be any straitjacket formula and its invocation strictly and solely shall depend upon the facts of each case, previous conduct of the parties and the prevailing circumstances in the specific scenario. If there are alternate modes of performing contractual obligations, the liable party shall not have the luxury to hide behind the comfort of doctrine of frustration or the doctrine of force majeure and absolve themselves of their duties. Accordingly, it would need a very careful examination of the whole situation before any ground is taken for avoidance of obligations under a concluded contract.
[i] (1915) 1 K.B. 681
[ii] (1920) 2 K.B. 714
[iii] [1954 SCR 310]
[iv] [(2017)14 SCC 18].
[v] [1960 (2) SCR 793]
[vi] W.P.(C) 2241/2020
[vii] Commercial Arbitration Petition (l) no. 404 of 2020
[viii] Halliburton Offshore Services Inc. v. Vedanta Ltd. O.M.P (I) (COMM.) No. 88/2020 & I.As. 3696-3697/2020
[ix] WP(MD)No.6818 of 2020 and WMP(MD)No.6217 of 2020
[x] W.P.(C) 2204/2021 & CM APPL.6421-22/202
[xii] 2020 SCC OnLine Bom 626
[xiii] Case No.19596 of 2020 and W.M.P.(MD)Nos.16318 & 16320 of 2020
[xiv] AIR 1968 SC 552
The Courts have no general inclination to absolve a party from the performance of its part of the contract merely because its performance has become onerous on account of an unforeseen turn of events. Parties are at an obligation to complete their part of the contract against all odds, within a reasonable and practical limit.