Covid-19 has already presented many frustrations for New Zealanders as we head into lockdown this week. The nationwide Civil Emergency is going to impact a large variety of contracts, with one or more parties unable to fulfil their obligations due to the outbreak of the virus or the associated government intervention. If a party is unable to carry out its contractual obligations, and their contract doesn’t specifically provide for the current situation, they may have recourse to the common law doctrine of frustration to bring a contract to an end.
Frustration occurs where an unforeseen event makes the fulfillment of a contract impossible or radically alters a party’s purpose for entering into it. In these circumstances, the contract ends and the parties are discharged from their respective obligations.
Frustration operates discretely from force majeure clauses, which generally will have a lower threshold to be triggered. Frustration may provide a remedy where a contract does not contain a force majeure clause, or if a force majeure clause is not triggered by a pandemic.
The doctrine of frustration was first recognised in a very old English case of Taylor v Caldwell. In that case, the parties entered into a contract to lease out a music hall for a series of concerts. However, the hall burnt down before the first concert took place. The plaintiff sued the hall owner for failing to fulfill its obligation under the contract to provide the hall. The court held that the contract was frustrated, as performance had become impossible. The parties were discharged from their obligations to perform the contract.
The threshold to satisfy the test of legal frustration is high and the doctrine will not apply where compliance with the contract has simply become more difficult or expensive.
We now have statutory remedies that clarify when a contract is deemed to be frustrated. These provide that:
Due to Covid-19, frustration may apply where contracts relate to:
While frustration may be an available remedy, we advise caution and recommend obtaining legal advice before taking action. A wrongful claim of frustration can be a breach of contract in itself and can lead to an award of damages to the other party or an order that all or part of the contract has to be performed.
We’re here to help you address any concerns you may have and our firm has made arrangements to work remotely during this time. Please feel free to contact Jenna Riddle at firstname.lastname@example.org or 027 742 1032 or Sam Wells at email@example.com or 021 062 6219.
We are also available to assist with any broader concerns regarding managing employment, disputes and debts during this time. Please feel free to get in touch if we can help.
 Sections 60-79 Contract and Commercial Law Act 2017
 Krell v Henry  2 KB 740.
 Planet Kids Ltd v Auckland Council  1 NZLR 485