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27 August 2019
In the recent case of Times Travel (UK) Limited v Pakistan International Airlines Corporation, the Court of Appeal considered whether a threat not to enter a contract could amount to economic duress, holding that it would not unless the threat was made in bad faith.
This decision clarifies the scope of economic duress and this article considers these issues in the context of franchising. Franchise renewals often contain terms which can seem unfair, such as:
A franchisee will feel that they have no option other than to acquiesce and enter into the renewal agreement in order to secure their business for the renewal term.
Duress arises when a party is induced to enter into a contract by threats or illegitimate pressure. Where a contract has been entered into as a result of duress, it is voidable. Economic duress refers specifically to economic pressure, such as a threat to terminate a contract.
Times Travel (TT) is a travel agency that predominately sells plane tickets between the United Kingdom and Pakistan to the Pakistani community in and around Birmingham. TT was appointed as an agent for Pakistan International Airlines Corporation (PIAC) in 2009, with PIAC authorising them to sell their tickets. At the time, PIAC was the only airline operating direct flights between the United Kingdom and Pakistan.
In September 2012 PIAC gave notice to TT terminating the contract and reducing TT's fortnightly ticket allocation from 300 to 60. PIAC subsequently offered TT a new contract, conditional on TT waiving any existing claims to unpaid commission. However, the fortnightly ticket allocation was also to be restored, which was crucial to TT's business. TT consequently accepted the terms of the new contract.
In 2014 TT brought a claim against PIAC to recover the unpaid commission under the 2009 contract, claiming that the waiver in 2012 had been consented to as a result of economic duress.
TT was successful at first instance; the court found that the above amounted to economic duress and held that TT could avoid the 2012 contract, awarding it some of the unpaid commission. PIAC appealed the decision.
The Court of Appeal relied on a number of authorities including CTN Cash and Carry Limited v Gallagher Ltd, in which it was noted that lawful act duress would be difficult to establish in a commercial context, particularly if the defendant is acting in good faith. The court confirmed that the doctrine of lawful act duress would not extend to lawful pressure if the defendant believes that they are acting in good faith, regardless of whether this belief is reasonably held.
Illegitimate pressure must be proved in order for there to be a successful claim in economic duress, which is often easier to prove if the defendant is threatening an unlawful act. In this case, PIAC threatened not to enter the contract unless TT accepted the new terms of the 2012 contract, which was lawful. Crucially, no evidence of bad faith on the part of PIAC was found by the court and PIAC had genuinely believed that they could legitimately use waivers in this way.
PIAC had used their position as a monopoly supplier of plane tickets from the United Kingdom to Pakistan to apply economic pressure. The court followed the common law position which has historically rejected that use of a monopoly position is grounds for a contract to be set aside. The court therefore held that it would be inappropriate for it to extend economic duress to this situation.
This is a useful decision on the parameters of economic duress, which are rarely examined in the appellate court. The case confirms the high threshold for proving economic duress and is likely to be received positively by franchisors.
Renewal clauses in most well-drafted franchise agreements will contain the following conditions and all for good reasons:
All of these conditions are justifiable and, if used appropriately, benefit the network as a whole.
However, these conditions are open to abuse and there is the risk of a claim of economic duress. For example:
Franchisees should be aware that in light of this decision it will not be easy to claim economic duress in relation to renewal conditions which it agreed to when it entered into the franchise agreement. This underscores the importance of taking legal advice prior to entering into franchise agreements and renewals.
While the decision provides useful and comforting guidance for franchisors, it also serves as a reminder to review contractual terms and processes and ensure that they are both robust and fair, as there is a fine line between protecting the integrity of the network and abusing a position of power.
For further information on this topic please contact Gordon Drakes at Fieldfisher LLP by telephone (+44 20 7861 4000) or email (firstname.lastname@example.org). The Fieldfisher LLP website can be accessed at www.fieldfisher.com.
Rachel Bowley assisted in the preparation of this article.
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