For Better or Worse – COVID-19 and Weddings
The coronavirus (COVID-19) epidemic has had a significant impact on our daily lives. As of 20 March 2020, the UK’s fight against the virus became reliant on responsible social distancing and strict guidance from government. However, as of 23 March 2020, we are all now in a state of ‘lockdown’.
This has presented many difficulties for those intending to tie the knot this year, with venues and suppliers closing down, some couples have been left totally stranded without a line of contact to discuss whether/how one of the most important days in their
lives is going to go ahead.
This article explores the impact of COVID-19 on weddings and the contractual issues that follow.
Should you postpone your wedding?
An increasing number of couples, so far mostly those with weddings between March and June 2020, have opted to postpone their wedding ceremonies and receptions to a later date. With ever increasing concerns about the lack of RSVPs on top of the health and safety of guests, this seems the most sensible course of action for couples with weddings booked until the end of June 2020, rather than having the current social restrictions looming over their big day.
For those couples with weddings booked later on in the Summer, between July and September 2020, no-one knows how or when the current restrictions will be lifted for definite, but there is certainly a risk that restrictions on large social gatherings and/or freedom of vulnerable members of society may remain in force. If that is the case, this could cause disruption to weddings which may result in a number of couples, again, wanting to postpone their weddings to a later date.
In an ever-changing climate, it’s important not to make decisions too early.
A large number of couples will have obtained wedding insurance before the COVID-19 outbreak, but a similarly large number of them also not have. Sadly, at the moment it appears that this does not make an awful lot of difference, as terms within most wedding insurance policies state that, in the event that your wedding cannot go ahead due to a “Government Act”, the insurer is not liable to pay out.
Every contract should be looked at independently; there is no one size fits all approach and most terms will be different for each supplier. However, English law does not generally allow commercial parties to get out of a bad bargain. Both parties affected by COVID-19 may be required to perform their side of the contractual bargain and may be in breach of the agreement if they do not. In the event of a breach of contract, it is possible to bring a claim for damages against the other party. You may also be able to terminate the agreement in some circumstances.
The following may provide an exit route out of the contract:
Force Majeure Clauses
In order for suppliers to discharge a contract on the basis of ‘force majeure’, they must have an express term detailing this within their contract. A force majeure clause will usually provide that, where a certain event takes place which is beyond the control of both of the parties, each party will be entitled to either discharge the contract and be excused from performance, and/or to postpone the time for performance.
If there is no express term to this effect within the contract, it cannot be implied and a supplier will not be able to rely on this concept. Equally, the precise wording of the term and what constitutes a force majeure or an ‘Act of God’ will often be expressly qualified and if the clause is used, but later turns out not to cover the situation you are dealing with, there may be a substantial damages award payable to the other party. The wording of the contract will need to be looked at on a case-by-case basis.
A party seeking to rely on force majeure will usually be required to prove that the impact of the event has prohibited (or severely hindered) their ability to perform the contract. The parties will therefore need to carefully consider whether performance has been prevented by COVID-19, or just simply made more expensive, which in itself may not be enough to discharge the contract.
Frustration of Contract
If there is no force majeure clause in the contract, a party may be able to discharge the contract as a result of frustration.
A contract may be frustrated by COVID-19 where it becomes impossible to perform (e.g. the venue is closed and cannot host the wedding), or where, as a consequence of the virus, a party’s contractual obligations become radically different to what was envisaged at the outset. If a contract is frustrated, the contract can immediately be terminated, and both parties released from performance.
So, Postpone or Cancel?
There is a very important distinction between postponing and cancelling, and it is worth bearing in mind that the UK events industry has effectively just had to write off billions of pounds which would otherwise have helped significantly to keep the economy afloat. Wedding venues and suppliers alike will therefore have queries on when they can get back to business as usual at the forefront of their minds.
This is likely to mean that as soon as you say you want to ‘cancel’ your wedding, the need for venues and suppliers to survive the COVID-19 pandemic trough in trading may make them reluctant to refund any money to couples if they are prepared to postpone the event instead. Therefore stick very rigidly to the agreed cancellation terms of the contract, regardless of the current crisis.
On that basis, if couples reach a point where it becomes clear that their wedding cannot go ahead, they should try and postpone the wedding with their venue and suppliers. The general feeling seems to be that venues and suppliers are willing to show empathy and understanding in the current climate, by agreeing to postpone weddings to an alternative available date at no extra charge, or perhaps a small charge if you have changed to a Saturday instead of a date mid-week, for example.
Many suppliers have also agreed to work beyond the terms of their contract with couples in this regard, which is positive for all parties involved.
Having said that, there will always be instances where a supplier acts unreasonably in this regard and may be seeking to profit from the unfortunate circumstances of couples getting married during the COVID-19 pandemic. Just as supermarkets should not be hiking their prices up for desirable goods at this time, wedding venues and suppliers should not be deliberately profiteering from the crisis by telling couples that they must either pay extortionate extra fees to change their date, or lose the money they have paid entirely. If couples have been affected in this way, they may wish to raise a formal complaint to their supplier, with a view to having those extra fees waived.
How can Ellis Jones help you?
Where money has been paid under a contract prior to either the invoking of force majeure, or frustration of the contract, careful consideration will need to be given as to whether any payments made prior to the frustrating event can be recovered. Similarly, if a supplier has acted unreasonably by attempting to profiteer from the COVID-19 crisis, there may well be goods grounds to complain and have those penalties removed.
If you are a wedding venue, supplier, or confused couple whose wedding plans have been disrupted due to COVID-19 and are unable to complete your side of the contract due to events outside of your control, or if you have made a payment under a contract and the other party has failed to complete their side, contact our Dispute Resolution team by emailing Henrietta.Dunkley@ellisjones.co.uk to discuss your case and how we may be able to assist.