The year 2017 was relatively quiet for franchise disputes in the English courts. Nevertheless, five cases involving franchise and distribution relationships provide some lessons for businesses. They highlight, among other things, the need for clear contractual provisions over ownership of customer data and the importance of businesses checking whether there are prior rights when seeking to register their mark.
Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond recently delivered the Autumn 2017 Budget, the first budget in the new annual tax policy-making cycle. Although there were no radical policy changes, some changes will affect the UK franchise business sector, particularly with regard to the tax treatment of royalties, corporate tax and the digital economy, environmental tax, value added tax and business rates.
A number of businesses which franchise will interact with the gig economy, particularly those which operate with a low entry threshold, such as contract cleaning and other service-based franchises. Both franchisors and franchisees in these sectors may have individuals working for them in this capacity, so they must be aware of existing issues and the regulations that will likely be introduced.
The Payment Practices and Performance Regulations 2017 require large UK businesses to report publicly twice yearly on their payment practices and performance. Large franchisors must ensure that they comply with this new regime. For franchise businesses which fall below the reporting threshold, the regulations are good news, as they are designed to improve and promote transparency and fairness in supply chain management.
The European Franchise Federation (EFF) recently adopted a new version of the European Code of Ethics for Franchising. The updated code aims to address some of the perceived imbalances and inequities in the franchise relationship and bring self-regulation into the digital age. However, although the British Franchise Association's (BFA's) interpretation of the code may include some variations from the EFF's text, much of the BFA's existing code and its practices are already in line with these updates.
Recent events have given the first real insight into the Brexit process. Franchise businesses should start preparing for the potential impact of Brexit by auditing their IP rights in the European Union and assessing their key contractual relationships with suppliers and franchisees. Preparations for the General Data Protection Regulation should continue and a watchful eye should be kept on events as they unfold.
The High Court recently considered whether two restrictive covenants relating to non-solicitation and non-competition imposed by an individual seller of a hair salon franchise in a share purchase agreement were enforceable. The judgment serves as a useful and informative discussion on a number of legal principles, such as contractual interpretation, restraint of trade and the enforceability of restrictive covenants.
Many franchise systems require franchisees to use specific types of equipment. In order to keep start-up costs to a minimum and enable franchisees to focus their resources on delivering the required products and services, franchisors might make the equipment available under a hire arrangement. However, franchisors must bear in mind that this activity may be regulated by the consumer credit regulatory regime and that the consequences of non-compliance can be severe.
In a recent landmark decision, the Supreme Court considered the long-established principles underlying the law relating to contractual penalty clauses. The judgment sets out a new, progressive test for determining whether a contractual provision will be considered penal (and therefore unenforceable), and has major implications for drafting, negotiating and enforcing English law franchise agreements.
The government recently published a consultation regarding the reform of the energy tax and reporting schemes in the United Kingdom. One key proposal is to abolish the Carbon Reduction Commitment Energy Efficiency Scheme (CRC) and the climate change levy in favour of a single consumption tax. This will be of interest to UK franchisors, whose networks may be subject to the CRC.
The High Court recently called into question the reliability of exclusion clauses in standard-form business-to-business contracts by applying the Unfair Contract Terms Act. The ruling serves as a timely reminder to franchisors that reliance on these types of exclusion and limitation cannot be taken for granted and that their enforceability will ultimately be judged against the Unfair Contract Terms Act 'reasonableness' test.
Restricted access to traditional sources of funding in recent years has seen a growth in alternative finance sources for new franchise businesses and ventures – in particular, mini-bonds and crowdfunding. These offer the franchise sector a real opportunity for growth, but it is important that both the franchisor and franchisee appreciate how these alternative financings work and the potential consequences of using them.
A recent Court of Appeal case regarding the termination of a franchise agreement highlights the importance of ensuring that franchise agreements, as well as any updates or amendments to them, are properly documented. In particular, lengthy common law franchise agreements require careful drafting and review to ensure that the insertion of a new clause does not contradict other standard provisions.
A number of recent cases have reignited the debate over whether English law recognises a general duty of good faith in commercial contracts, including franchise agreements. This update considers the line taken by the courts in these cases, starting with Yam Seng Pte Limited v International Trade Corporation and concluding with the first post-Yam Seng case for good faith in the context of franchising.
The 2013 decision of the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) to fine Mercedes-Benz and five of its dealers over £2.8 million for infringing UK competition law serves as a reminder that franchisors and their networks may infringe the competition rules. The level of the fine imposed also demonstrates that the CMA is paying closer attention to the activities of small and medium-sized enterprises.
Restrictive covenants are common in franchise agreements, seeking to protect goodwill and customer relationships by limiting the licensee's right to operate a competing business. Two recent cases in the English courts have considered the enforceability of restrictive covenants. This update considers the background of restrictive covenants in the context of franchising and discusses the implications of both judgments.
In a bid to increase consumers' awareness of their rights and provide greater protection, new regulations recently entered into force which implement certain elements of the EU Consumer Rights Directive. Franchisors need to ensure that their legal compliance programmes and those of their franchisees, including any related consumer terms and conditions, are in line with the revised requirements.
Franchisors can reap significant benefits from a successful advertising campaign – in terms of both attracting potential franchisees and gaining new customers or increased sales. However, a poorly conceived or executed campaign can not only reduce goodwill, but also prove costly to remedy. Therefore, it is important to ensure that marketing campaigns comply with relevant advertising laws and regulations.
Judgments in three recent cases have reignited the debate over whether English law recognises a general duty of good faith in commercial contracts, including franchise agreements. Franchisors and distributors should be aware of these developments and take caution before exercising contractual discretion, while bearing in mind that their longer-term relational contracts may be held to a high standard of performance, including a duty to disclose.