The ADLS Lease and Epidemics
Since the Christchurch earthquakes the Auckland District Law Society form of lease (ADLS Lease) has contained “No Access in Emergency” clauses (Emergency Clauses).
Obviously, with New Zealand now in a lockdown situation, the Emergency Clauses have come under scrutiny.
The issues to consider are:
- Does it apply while NZ is in at COVID-19 Alert Level 4 (and possibly Alert Level 3)
- What happens to the rent and outgoings?
- Will this be covered by the indemnity insurance cover for loss of rents and outgoings?
The Emergency Clauses
The Emergency Clauses apply where the premises become partially or completely unusable for the purpose of the tenant’s business.
Where this occurs, the clauses provide two responses:
- A rent abatement when the premises are unavailable for a short period of time; or
- A right of cancellation by either party when the premises will be unavailable for the period set out in the First Schedule to the ADLS Lease (No Access Period). The ADLS Lease provides a default period of 9 months and I would think most leases are set to this level.
Rent Abatement Clause
Clause 27.5 (the Rent Abatement Clause) deals with the first situation and is particularly relevant right now. I will only cover the impact of this clause.
The Rent Abatement Clause is triggered when there is an “emergency” and the tenant is “unable to gain access to the premises to fully conduct the Tenant’s business”. That inability must be linked to “reasons of safety… or the need to prevent reduce or overcome any…harm or loss”. The clause provides several examples of measures to reduce harm or loss, including “restrictions on occupation of the premises by any competent authority”.
If the Rent Abatement Clause is activated, then “a fair proportion of the rent and outgoings shall cease to be payable” for the period during which the tenant is unable to “gain access to the premises to fully conduct the Tenant’s business”.
An “emergency” is defined in the lease as being a situation that “is a result of any event, whether natural or otherwise, including…plague, epidemic” that “causes or may cause loss of life. illness or in any way seriously endangers the safety of the public”.
Government Response to Covid-19
The Government has three sets of powers for responding to health crises like the Covid-19 Pandemic.
- Under the Health Act 1956, the Medical Officer of Health (MOH) for each region can impose a wide range of prohibitions, including prohibiting the use of buildings, placing people in isolation or quarantine, prohibiting travel either into or inside New Zealand or requiring building owners and occupiers to take certain steps to render them safe.
These powers can be exercised either under a state of emergency or an epidemic notice, or if the Health Minister authorises the powers to be used.
Failure to comply with these directions is a criminal offence and carries a maximum penalty of six months’ imprisonment or a $4,000 fine.
- Under the Epidemic Preparedness Act 2006, when there has been a qualifying outbreak of disease, the Prime Minister may issue an Epidemic Notice.
An Epidemic Notice lasts for up to three months and grants the Governor-General (acting on the advice of Cabinet) wide ranging powers to alter and suspend legislation, where this is reasonably necessary to allow the legislation to continue operating under the circumstances of the epidemic. It also brings into effect a number of planned variations already written into specific legislation.
An Epidemic Preparedness (COVID-19) Notice has been issued and came into force last Wednesday - https://gazette.govt.nz/notice/id/2020-go1368. This has been issued to cover the full three months.
- A state of emergency has now also been declared which supplements the existing powers, particularly by allowing rationing and requisitioning where needed.
Covid-19 Alert System
Using the powers granted under the Health Act, Cabinet has created a four-stage response system to deal with the current outbreak of Covid-19. NZ is currently at Alert Level 4.
At Alert Level 4, almost all businesses are required to cease using their premises. Essential services are permitted to remain open, but others will not be able to continue working out of their offices and stores.
Do the Emergency Clauses Apply?
COVID-19 has triggered the Emergency Clauses. The following elements are all met:
- COVID-19 carries a risk of serious illness and endangers public health.
- As a result of NZ moving to Alert Level 4 and the issue of an Epidemic Notice, tenants in non-essential businesses are clearly unable to gain access to their premises to fully conduct their businesses.
- The inability to gain access is linked to the need to prevent, reduce or overcome harm or loss.
- COVID-19 has put us in an “emergency” situation, as it is an epidemic that has caused illness and, sadly, will cause further loss of life in NZ.
- The restrictions on occupation have been imposed by the Government.
Accordingly, a tenant that operates a non-essential business may seek a rent reduction under the Rent Abatement Clause.
Rent Abatement in Practice
Once the Emergency Clauses are triggered, the question of their effect becomes important.
The Rent Abatement Clause provides for a “fair proportion” of the rent and outgoings to cease until the tenant can operate from the premises. It does not specify how a fair proportion is to be calculated.
To assess a fair proportion, you should consider the purpose of the clause. It is related to the occupancy of the premises for business purposes. The rent should be reduced with reference to the extent that the tenant is unable to conduct its business from the premises.
Having said that, surely it must be a fair proportion to both parties, not just to the tenant. It seems to me that the legal position is unlikely (although I guess possible) to ever be that the abatement should be 100%*.
*It is arguable, for instance, that if a retail tenant is completely unable to conduct business from the premises, then the abatement should be 100%. I personally do not consider that this would be the correct position to take.
A DISCLAIMER: THE FOLLOWING PARAGRAPH IS MY PERSONAL OPINION ON THE “FAIR PROPORTION” ISSUE AND IS NOT LEGAL ADVICE AS SUCH. THIS MAY HELP YOU TO FORMULATE YOUR OWN COMMERCIAL APPROACH TO THIS UNPRECENDENTED MATTER.
This will naturally require consideration of the different purposes for which a building is used. If I were to apply a range of 1 (no ability to conduct business from the premises) to 5 (complete ability to conduct business from the premises), I might make the following assessments:
|Level||Business/Building Function||Proportion of rent and outgoings to cease|
|2||Offices (tenant still able to operate remotely)||25-60%|
|3||Industrial/logistics (manufacturing/logistics and storage components)||15-50%|
In most cases of course, a fair proportion will be what the tenant and the landlord are able to agree between themselves. The key is to have this discussion early, agree terms and move on.
As a last resort, the parties could leave the matter to an arbitrator to decide. There is substantial risk to both parties in leaving the matter to a third party to determine, and there is no guarantee that an arbitrator will take a commercially pragmatic approach.
This article has only dealt with the ADLS Lease (2012 editions). If the lease is an older ADLS form, bespoke or the Property Council Lease (where the abatement only applies in situations where the premises are inaccessible and the Landlord is otherwise covered under the loss of rents insurance policy) then my view is that the tenant is still contractually obligated to pay the rent.
Such leases could be impacted by the law of frustration (where the situation is such as to fundamentally undermine the lease contract) and other common law arguments.
As far as I am aware, all loss of rents insurance policies contain wording to the effect that they do not cover loss in connection with a Notifiable Infectious Disease under the Health Act 1956 or a notifiable disease under the Biosecurity Act 1993.
COVID-19 falls within the exclusion so unfortunately there will be no relief forthcoming from insurers.
Ultimately, and notwithstanding the contractual rights and obligations of the parties, my view is that it is in the landlord’s interest to share at least some of the tenant’s pain.
The goal should be to allow the tenant to remain solvent and to be in a position where it can continue business as soon as it can do so.
If both parties take a pragmatic commercial position to determining an appropriate level of abatement, this should be achieved.