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Retrospective Sanction on Breach of Contract Was Unenforceable as it Amounted To a ‘Penalty’

Businesses negotiating termination clauses in contracts should avoid imposing financial sanctions on breach of contract which are to apply retrospectively, or risk the clause being found to be a penalty and therefore unenforceable, following a recent ruling.

A landlord and tenant entered into a lease which provided for payment of a headline rent. They also signed a ‘side letter’ (an ancillary document to the main lease) agreeing that the tenant would pay a lower rent for the first five years of the lease and, for the second five years, would pay the lower of either the open market rent or £125,000 per year.

However, it also contained a termination clause stating that if the tenant breached either the lease or the terms of the side letter, the landlord could terminate the lease and recover:

  • the full rent for the remaining term of the lease, and
  • the difference between the reduced and headline rent for the period before it was terminated

The tenant breached the lease but claimed the relevant clauses in the lease and side letter amounted to a ‘penalty’.

A clause that amounts to a penalty is invalid and unenforceable. The legal test of whether a clause is a penalty is that it must impose financial consequences for the breach of a primary obligation, which cause a detriment to the party committing the breach that is disproportionate to the other party’s interest in the performance of that primary obligation.

The High Court ruled that the tenant’s primary obligation was to pay the reduced rent, defaulting to an obligation to pay a higher rent if it breached the agreement.

It said that the effect of the termination clause was that rent would be payable on breach retrospectively as well as prospectively, ie. the tenant also had to make up the difference between the headline rent in the lease and the lower rent paid in past years under the terms of the side letter.

This was a disproportionate detriment for the breach of the primary obligation, when weighed against the landlord’s interest in the performance of the primary obligation. The termination clause was a penalty and, therefore, invalid and unenforceable.

Operative date

  • Now

Recommendation

  • Businesses negotiating termination clauses in contracts should avoid imposing financial sanctions on breach of the contract that apply retrospectively, or risk the clause being found to be a penalty and therefore unenforceable

Case ref: Vivienne Westwood Limited v Conduit Street Development Limited [2017] EWHC 350

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Jonathan Waters
is the founder of Helix Law. Before qualifying as a Solicitor he worked in industry and in investment banking for over a decade. He was also the Partner in charge of Commercial Litigation, Employment Law and Property Litigation at Stephen Rimmer LLP. Jonathan has wide experience of helping and advising businesses to avoid or to deal with commercial disputes and in particular construction disputes.

This article is written to raise awareness of the issues it discusses and it may not be updated after it is first written, even if the law changes. It is not intended to be legal advice and cannot be relied on as such. Helix Law is not responsible or liable for any action taken or not taken as a result of  this article. If you think the matters set out affect you and you wish to apply them to your particular circumstances then we are happy to give you free initial telephone advice. 

Contact Helix Law on 01273 761 990 or email: [email protected]