No oral modification clauses: Rock Advertising v MWB Business Exchanges Ltd (Part 2)

In Rock Advertising Ltd v MWB Business Exchanges Ltd ([2018] UKSC 24) the UK Supreme Court had to consider the effectiveness of a No Oral Modification (‘NOM’) clause (see here for Part 1 of the blog post about this case setting out the facts and the decision). This post considers the underlying principles that the judgments had to confront.

The clause in question provided:

‘This Licence sets out all the terms as agreed between MWB and Licensee. No other representations or terms shall apply or form part of this Licence. All variations to this Licence must be agreed, set out in writing and signed on behalf of both parties before they take effect.’

The UK Supreme Court had to consider whether the parties were bound by an orally agreed modification of the licence agreement between them.

There were two aspects to this question: (1) was the clause binding according so that oral modifications were of no legal effect; and (2) if the clause did not preclude oral modifications, whether a subsequent oral agreement purporting to modify the original agreement indicated an intention to dispense with the NOM clause.

When parties who have accepted a NOM clause agree to an oral modification, they have expressed two conflicting intentions. Which is to prevail? If the courts give effect to a NOM clause are they respecting or denying freedom of contract?

The essential objection to the idea that the clause always precludes effective oral modifications is that this would contravene freedom of contract: ‘Those who make a contract may unmake it. The clause which forbids a change may be changed like any other (Beatty v Guggenheim Exploration Co (1919) 225 NY 380, 387 – 388, Cardozo J.).

Nevertheless, Lord Sumption (and the majority of the Supreme Court) thought that the NOM clause was effective and that the subsequent oral modification was of no effect: ‘Party autonomy operates up to the point when the contract is made, but thereafter only to the extent that the contract allows … The real offence against party autonomy is the suggestion that they cannot bind themselves as to the form of any variation, even if that is what they have agreed.’ ([11])

Lord Sumption saw three good commercial justifications for NOM clauses:

  1. ‘it prevents attempts to undermine written agreements by informal means’;
  2. ‘it avoids disputes not just about whether a variation was intended but also about its exact terms’; and
  3. giving effect to NOM clauses: ‘makes it easier for corporations to police internal rules restricting the authority to agree [variations]’.

Lord Sumption thought that these justifications should carry weight since ‘the law of contract does not normally attempt obstruct the legitimate intentions of businessmen except for overriding reasons of public policy’ ([12]).

If the parties were to act on an oral variation in the belief that it was effective then estoppel might come into play but:

‘the scope of estoppel cannot be so broad as to destroy the whole advantage of certainty for which the parties stipulated when they agreed upon terms including the No Oral Modification clause. At the very least, (i) there would have to be some words or conduct unequivocally representing that the variation was valid notwithstanding its informality; and (ii) something more would be required for this purpose than the informal promise itself: see Actionstrength Ltd v International Glass Engineering In Gl En SpA’ ([2003] 2 AC 51′ ([16]).

Lord Briggs took a different line on the first of the two questions. He thought that it was conceptually impossible for the parties to impose a formalities requirement on themselves, ‘not to be free, by unanimous further agreement, to vary or abandon [the contract] by any method, whether writing, spoken words or conduct, permitted by the general law’ ([26]).

On the other hand, turning to the second question, Lord Briggs was of the view that ‘an agreed departure [from the NOM clause] will not lightly be inferred, where the parties merely conduct themselves in a non-compliant manner’ ([27]). So normally, as in the present case, the approach of the majority and that of Lord Briggs would lead to the same conclusion.

Where, however, there are circumstances, such as an urgent need to agree a variation without waiting for the production of a written variation, then Lord Briggs thought that an agreement to depart from the NOM clause might be inferred ([30]).

Michael Lower

 

 

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