Penalty or pre-estimate of loss: an inadequate dichotomy.

In Cavendish Square Holding BV  v Talal El Makdessi and Parking Eye Limited v Beavis ([2015] UKSC 67]) the UK Supreme Court addressed fundamental issues concerning the law of penalties in two cases. One concerned provisions in a very substantial share sale; these provided for the sellers first to lose their entitlement to very substantial installments of the sale price and, second, to transfer their remaining shares to the buyers at a reduced price which left goodwill out of account. These provisions would take effect if the sellers defaulted by soliciting customers for a competing business or working for a competitor. The sellers defaulted and these provisions were invoked by the buyers. The sellers contended that these provisions were penalties and unenforceable. The other concerned a provision whereby motorists agreed that they would pay GBP 85 if they overstayed a two hour free parking limit. A motorist overstayed (by 56 minutes) and Parking Eye Limited (which operated the car park on behalf of its owner) demanded the GBP 85. The motorist contended that it was a penalty. The Supreme Court was unanimously of the view that none of the provisions just outlined amounted to a penalty.

Penalties are clauses that operate in the event of a breach of a primary obligation by a contracting party. They may provide for the payment of money, the transfer of property or the loss of the right to receive money (such as purchase price installments) from the other contracting party. Where any such provision: (a) serves a legitimate commercial interest; and (b) is not  unconscionable or extravagant then it is enforceable. Otherwise, it is a penalty and unenforceable. The idea that the sum payable or forfeited must always be a genuine pre-estimate of loss occasioned by individual breaches of contract is too narrow an approach to the question as to whether or not there is a penalty. One has to look more broadly at whether the provision in question protects some legitimate interest or purpose of the innocent party.

The common law concerning penalties and the equitable jurisdiction to grant relief from forfeiture have common origins and serve similar purposes. They are, nonetheless, distinct from each other and might each be applicable in a particular case. Thus, the court might determine that a particular provision is not a penalty and then go on to consider whether it should grant relief. There is a ‘safe haven’ for the forfeiture of deposits that are restricted to the amount that is customary in a given jurisdiction. If a provision is a penalty, it is completely unenforceable, the courts cannot allow the provision to be partially enforced.

In Cavendish Square, a large proportion of the very substantial purchase price was attributable to goodwill. The clauses restricting the sellers from soliciting clients or engaging in a competing business were designed to protect the goodwill. This was the legitimate commercial purpose of the provisions. Where the sellers broke these clauses, it was not extravagant or unconscionable for them to lose the right to receive payments of the purchase price that were intended to reflect the ongoing value of this goodwill. On balance, the Supreme Court was of the view that the sellers’ obligation to transfer their remaining shares in the company to the sellers at a reduced price could be justified on the same grounds.

As for the car parking case, the legitimate interest was to secure an adequate turnover of traffic on a car park that served a shopping outlet and to prevent the availability of free parking from being abused by people who were not shoppers at the retail outlet. The provision for overstaying also funded the operating costs of the car park and made the offer of free parking possible. The amount of the charge for overstaying was in line with industry guidelines for car park operators and was clearly publicised so that motorists would be aware of it before they entered the car park.

Michael Lower

 

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One Response to “Penalty or pre-estimate of loss: an inadequate dichotomy.”

  1. Teaching Diary – 20th January 2016 | Notes Says:

    […] morning was dominated by the need to finish off reading the Cavendish case and writing this blog post. The blog posts are written first for my own benefit; they provide a usable record of my own […]

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