Category Archives: Contract drafting

Let’s get rid of the ratchet men

two wayLast week, IP Draughts co-presented a two-day course on clinical trial agreements. With practice-based courses, the discussion becomes interesting, at least for the presenter, when the people attending provide their own insights on the topics being discussed. This happened in abundance last week, and IP Draughts is grateful to all who contributed.

A theme that emerged in this course was whether a company’s template agreements should focus solely on providing maximum protection for the company, or instead should try to provide a balanced set of reasonable obligations on both parties.

What prompted the discussion was IP Draughts taking the class through the terms of a US biotech company’s template clinical trials agreement. The terms were excessively one-sided, giving the company maximum flexibility to tell the investigator what to do or not do.  They seemed to ignore the fact that the investigator has certain responsibilities under EU regulations to be responsible for its own actions and to seek consent from regulatory bodies (eg ethics committees), rather than just dance to the sponsoring company’s tune. It was interesting to compare these terms with the terms that are generally used in the UK, as issued by the Department of Health and negotiated between interested parties. The latter terms are much more pro-investigator, but they also try to address issues of concern to both parties including their regulatory obligations.

The wider issue is whether a company should have standard contract terms that seek to provide maximum protection to the company and largely ignore the interests of the other party. This type of approach is common in some market sectors. In M&A and some financial transactions, it seems that a buyer/investor will often wish to include in the agreement as many provisions as possible to protect its interests and minimise its risks. Or at least, they won’t tell their lawyers to minimise the use of legalistic contract terms, which may amount to the same thing.

This seems to have led to the proliferation of practices that, in other market sectors, can seem ludicrously aggressive and one-sided, eg demanding indemnities in respect of all breaches of warranty, having a party “represent and warrant” (supposedly to give additional remedies in tort as well as contract), and so on. It seems that lawyers in those sectors rarely stand up to their clients and tell them to stop being extreme and to stick to some simple, balanced terms. That just isn’t “done”. A forratchetmer colleague of IP Draughts, a corporate lawyer, called the lawyers who indulged in this type of competitive negotiation “ratchet men”, because they would squeeze out a concession, bank it, then move on to demand another, moving only in one direction like a ratchet mechanism.

In IP Draughts’ world, lawyers are usually “on tap” rather than “on top”. In other words, they are there as a resource but do not usually dictate the structure and agenda of negotiations. In this world, there is pressure to keep contract terms as simple as possible, and not to take extreme positions, because it is not efficient and does not lead to harmonious negotiations. A factor that possibly influences the negotiations is that these contract relationships tend to be long-term and require cooperation between the parties, rather than being a one-off in the way that an M&A deal tends to be.

IP Draughts suspects that some in-house lawyers, influenced perhaps by their training in large law firms, consider it to be their job simply to draft terms that protect their organisation, and that including terms to protect the other party is not part of their brief.

IP Draughts would like to encourage all lawyers to draft balanced documents, and all clients to give clear instructions that this is what they expect. By all means weight them to some extent in favour of your client or your employer, but not at the expense of seeing the other party’s point of view or addressing their legitimate concerns.

 

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Contract drafting: art or science?

volunteerContracts are voluntary. Two or more persons come together and agree to be legally bound to one another to do things, such as make payments, perform work or deliver goods.

Subject to a few basic requirements, the law provides remedies to ensure, or at least incentivise, parties to meet their contractual obligations. Those requirements are of different kinds. There are the technical ones for a contract to exist – offer and acceptance, consideration, requirements for writing, etc. There are the public policy ones – eg obligations to do illegal things are not enforceable. There are a few others “at the margins”, eg occasionally contracts may be void for mistake, while insurance contracts are subject to greater obligations of disclosure than most contracts. There are rules on how to bring a breach-of-contract case and as to the remedies that can be obtained, but they need not detain us here.

where's the beefUsually, these requirements and rules are in the background. They provide a context for parties who enter into a contract, but they are not usually at the forefront of the parties’ minds. Instead, they care about the substance of their obligations to one another – the content of the contract.

English law cares little about that content. It is a private matter for the parties to agree. The law implies certain obligations into the contract, usually only the bare minimum to make the deal work and usually only to deal with points that the parties haven’t thought about and agreed explicitly.

The court’s main roles in a contract dispute are to work out what the parties have agreed (including any implied terms), and then work out whether they have done what they agreed to do. Often, these roles require the court to do two things: (1) identify and interpret the terms of the contract, and (2) decide what the relevant facts are, eg as to their conduct in relation to the contract.

The latter task is often messy and takes most of the time of the court – hearing witnesses, reviewing records etc. At the time of entering into the contract, this messiness is all in the future. Negotiations sometimes seem to assume a strict adherence to the procedures set out in the contract; in practice this rarely happens.

whisperThe task of construing the contract relies more on the analysis of words than the hearing of evidence of who said what to whom etc. Usually. In an ideal world. In reality, the evidence sometimes intrudes and influences the judge in his analysis. Sometimes this is considered necessary to do “justice” in the case. Anyway, judges are not computer programs and are not always consistent in their interpretation of the words used. Whisper it quietly, but some of them are not very good at linguistic analysis.

Yet, it is not a free-for-all. There are some rules on how the contract should be construed. Parties are assumed to have agreed the terms set out in a signed written contract. What those terms mean depends on the words used and how they are interpreted. Words can mean different things to different people. English law is usually interested in what those terms mean to an outsider who has the background facts. In other words, not the subjective views of the parties.

So, when it comes to interpreting contracts, there are some pressures in favour of strict linguistic analysis, and some towards a more human approach that relies partly on how the parties are perceived to have behaved. This makes it difficult to predict how a court will interpret and apply a contractual obligation. It also depends partly on the court. In the past, IP Draughts has challenged a barrister who advised that a County Court would not hold a party to do something within a strict time limit set out in the contract, as a condition of exercising certain contractual rights. Surely the contract was clear and should be enforced by the court, IP Draughts queried. Perhaps you might get that approach from some Chancery judges in the High Court, sniffed the barrister. But not in the County Court. Not on this fact pattern.

There are limits to how far good contract drafting will take you, if your objective is to win in court. But there are other reasons for drafting contracts well. Having clear contract terms may help the parties to avoid a dispute over their meaning, so that they don’t need go to court.

Thus, excellence in contract drafting and excellence as a contract lawyer are overlapping circles in the Venn diagram of commercial life, but they are not identical or even sub-sets of one another. Sometimes, as a lawyer, doing one’s best for a client may involve drafting a contract in a way that could be viewed as sub-optimal from a pure contract drafting perspective. This should never be used as an excuse for shoddy drafting.

So, is contract drafting an art or a science? Viewed as a discipline where clarity, consistency and lack of ambiguity are among the main requirements, it may be more science than art, more like a computer program than a literary essay.  For jobbing lawyers who have to deal with messy realities of life, the scientific approach has its place, but other factors may also need to be considered. These factors may include:

  • being asked to start with a template agreement whose terms have involved over time, and where the client may be both unclear on why some of the terms are present and reluctant to drop provisions that may provide theoretical protection
  • pressure from parties and their lawyers in negotiations, where sometimes it is necessary to keep one’s powder dry for the most important revisions
  • lack of time or budget to improve the drafting to the extent one would like
  • prioritising a favourable interpretation in court over clarity in drafting, if (as sometimes happens) the two conflict, eg by using jargon that one knows the court will understand, even if the parties find it difficult

As conflicting priorities and other human factors intrude into the drafting process, a more ad hoc approach to drafting is likely to be taken. This approach could be viewed as closer to an art form than a scientific process. Whatever approach is taken, the drafting should reflect a set of drafting principles that place a high priority on clarity and accuracy.

 

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A fresh look at indemnities

have a goFollowing last week’s post about indemnities, IP Draughts has had a go at drafting an indemnity clause from first principles, without ‘cutting and pasting’ any traditional indemnity language. His attempt can be found here.

Some points to note:

  1. The core parts of the indemnity are in clauses 1.1 and 1.2. These clauses simply use the term “indemnify” and avoid wording such as “hold harmless and defend”. Instead, the scope of the indemnity is explained in later clauses.
  2. The indemnities are designed to place responsibility on a licensee of intellectual property to indemnify the licensor, except where the liability arises from the licensor’s breach of contractual warranties (in which case the licensor indemnifies the licensee). For example, the indemnity under clause 1.1 would operate if the licensee sells a defective licensed product, his customer is injured and the customer brings a claim against the licensor.
  3. The defined term “Commercialising Entities” broadens the reach of the indemnity beyond that of many indemnities, and IP Draughts is in two minds about this aspect. It might be argued that, as the indemnity covers claims made against the licensee by third parties, it is unnecessary to spell out who those third parties might be, eg by referring to ebaythe indemnity covering use of a licensed product by people far down the supply chain, eg the child of someone who buys a licensed product on eBay from the licensee’s customer. However, an alternative view is that if the indemnity is intended to cover all liabilities that may arise from the use of the product, it is best to be explicit about this aspect. IP Draughts would be interested to hear readers’ views.
  4. The most ‘novel’ aspect of this indemnity clause is probably clause 1.4, which seeks to address questions of interpretation that have probably been the subject of reported cases, as can be seen from the case references in Contractual Indemnities by Wayne Courtney, an excellent book that was reviewed in last week’s blog posting.
  5. Clauses 1.5 and 1.6 address points that are sometimes covered in detailed indemnity clauses. IP Draughts is grateful to his friend and former colleague, Matthew Warren of Bristows, for sending him a very detailed indemnity clause after reading last week’s blog posting, which provided a convenient shortcut to drafting these terms. IP Draughts has filleted most of the ideas from Matthew’s clause but used simpler, and probably less watertight, language. Some points have been omitted, eg an obligation of confidentiality on the indemnifier with respect information learnt from the beneficiary. This point might be covered in a separate confidentiality clause of the agreement. Similarly, if it is intended to give officers and employees personal rights to enforce the indemnity, a separate ‘third party rights’ clause should make this point clear.

Clearly, there is a great deal of detail in the attached wording, even with the simplified wording that IP Draughts has used, and in several cases there are choices to be made by the drafter, eg whether to include an obligation to mitigate losses under clause 1.5(c). There are, no doubt, other points of interpretation and litigation practice that could be addressed.

What do you think of the clause?

 

 

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Indemnifying the damnified

contractual indemnitiesContractual Indemnities (by Wayne Courtney, Hart Publishing 2014) is an excellent book. It draws upon the PhD thesis of its author, who is a former practising lawyer and is now a Senior Lecturer and Associate Dean of the Law Faculty at the University of Sydney.

Regular readers of this blog will be familiar with the frustration that IP Draughts feels about the typical drafting of indemnities – a frustration that is shared by others whom IP Draughts respects, including contract drafting guru Ken Adams. See some of his commentaries on indemnities here.

Indemnities are often drafted with complex wording and long sentences, so that it is difficult to glean their precise meaning. The reasons for this complexity are various and include:

  1. Broad in scope. Indemnities are typically drafted so as to be broad in scope, and the lawyer sees their task as one of trying to be comprehensive and avoiding loopholes. In some market sectors, eg M&A, there are no prizes for simplifying indemnity wording, only potential claims against the lawyer’s professional indemnity policy if the lawyer’s original drafting fails to achieve the financial result desired by the client.
  2. Difficult issues. It is difficult, even for lawyers, to think through all the legal and practical implications of an indemnification obligation. In the heat of urgent negotiations, it is tempting to use wording that one has seen before, and that seems to cover all the bases.
  3. dryTheoretical. Indemnities are concerned with risk allocation, rather than operational issues such as price and performance obligations. The subject matter can seem very dry and theoretical and, frankly, boring. This combination of theoretical and legal subject-matter tends to make commercial clients run a mile, and leave the drafting and negotiation to their lawyers. As a result, there is less pressure to make the drafting straightforward and understandable.
  4. Case law. There is an extensive body of case law on the interpretation of indemnities. Unfortunately, the case law has not made the drafter’s job any easier; rather it has served to illustrate the many issues of interpretation that are thrown up by indemnity language and the different ways that judges can “jump” when presented with a set of facts about a commercial relationship.

In passing, IP Draughts considers that one of the problems with judges interpreting indemnities is that they often lack experience of drafting and negotiating them. In the UK and, one suspects, many other countries, judges are drawn from the ranks of courtroom advocates, who tend to be a different group from those who draft and negotiate commercial contracts. Increasingly, IP Draughts wonders whether the courts – even highly-respected commercial courts such as those in England and Wales – are the best place to decide matters of interpretation.

Be that as it may, Wayne Courtney has done a very good job of distilling centuries of English and Commonwealth case law on indemnities into a narrative that sets out the main principles of interpretation. His experiences as a practising lawyer and as an academic have undoubtedly contributed to making this a useful work.

aqua vitaeIP Draughts has only two significant criticisms of the text. First, that he would have liked even more distillation of the messy, impure fluid of authorities. He feels it should be possible to keep reducing the liquid down over time, into an aqua vitae of principles that are simple to apply when drafting indemnities. Perhaps this will be Wayne’s life’s work and, by the time of the third edition of this estimable book, the main text will be 150-200 pages, rather than the 302 pages it currently takes to cover the subject.

For example, there is a discussion (at section 7-7) of whether the indemnifier has an obligation to defend an action that is brought against the indemnified party, and is within the scope of the indemnity. It seems to IP Draughts that this question is intimately linked to the questions of whether the indemnity is preventive, and whether it covers claims as well as ultimately liability. These questions are discussed in other chapters. It seems to IP Draughts that these various points, which are each discussed in a useful and authoritative way but in isolation from one another, could be combined and distilled into a master-scheme of analysis.

IP Draughts’ second criticism is that Wayne doesn’t offer any indemnity language to address the main points that he has discussed in the text.

Highlighting a few of those points:

  1. damnifyIndemnities can be interpreted as “preventive” (requiring the indemnifier to ensure that the indemnified person does not suffer a loss) or “compensatory” (requiring the indemnifier to make good any loss that the indemnified person has suffered – referred to in the text as “damnification” – a wonderful word). Often, the courts will adopt a preventive interpretation. This does not seem to depend on using words such as “hold harmless” although, having read the book, IP Draughts suspects that the lawyers’ practice of using this phrase may have its roots in a desire to make the indemnity preventive in scope. There are better ways, in IP Draughts’ view, of making this point clear, than using a formulaic and unclear phrase such as “hold harmless”. (Incidentally, Wayne discusses and dismisses the idea that a preventive interpretation was to be found in the courts of equity, while a compensatory interpretation was to be found in the courts of law, prior to the merger of those courts under the Judicature Acts of 1875.)
  2. It is not always clear, from the wording of the indemnity, whether it applies to all or just some of the following: (a) third party claims against the indemnified party, (b) losses suffered by the indemnified party as a result of the indemnifier’s breach of contract, and (c) claims that might otherwise by brought by the indemnifer against the indemnified party, eg for breach of contract – this type of indemnity is effectively an exclusion clause.
  3. Whether the wrongdoing of the indemnified party cancels or qualifies the indemnity, eg if they are negligent.
  4. Whether claims that have not yet resulted in a liabilty are in some way covered by the indemnity.
  5. Whether costs are recoverable.
  6. Whether an indemnity that covers the same ground as a liability for breach of contract (eg where the contract includes an indemnity against breach of a warranty) can be broader in scope than the underlying breach of contract claim, or is subject to the same limitations and qualifications (eg as to causation, remoteness and mitigation). Wayne discusses the different viewpoints on this subject, eg that an indemnity provides an “agreed damages” mechanism that overrides the usual contract law rules (similar in effect to liquidated damages), but concludes that there are relatively few clear cases that support this analysis of the effect of indemnities, and that each clause must be construed individually. IP Draughts is reassured to hear this conclusion. He has encountered this “agreed damages” approach in the world of M&A and has long wondered where it came from.  More generally, IP Draughts has encountered commonly-held assumptions about the legal effect of contract terms in the world of M&A that are not always obvious to those whose contract experience has been in another market sector, and he wonders whether an element of “group think” has developed in that closed world.

IP Draughts may attempt some drafting of indemnities from first principles and with these points in mind, in a later blog posting. Most of these points are familiar, but some of them, eg the distinction between preventive and compensatory indemnities, have been brought into sharper relief by the book’s analysis.

 

 

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