The Battle of the Forms: Part 2

  • Tips
  • 15 Practical Steps

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In Part 1 “Terms Agreed – but whose terms?” http://wp.me/p4DFLr-8x we examined the perennial problem of the steps necessary to include your companies’ standard contractual terms and conditions (T&Cs) in to a contract.

This was the issue recently covered by the Technology and Construction Court in the case of Transformers & Rectifiers Ltd v Needs Ltd. In that case, neither party to the contract had done sufficient to ensure that their T&Cs were drawn to the attention of the counter party. The court applied the law deciding that in a sale of goods contract where neither the seller’s nor the buyer’s terms and conditions have been incorporated, the relationship is governed by the implied terms of the Sale of Goods Act 1979. Accordingly, the seller of the goods will not be able to exclude or limit its liability for defective goods, which a seller can normally restrict by contract subject to the reasonableness test in the Unfair Contract Terms Act 1977.

In the preliminary discussions between parties, a “battle of the forms” can arise when two businesses are negotiating the terms of a contract and each party wants to contract on the basis of its own terms. A typical example is where, e.g., a Buyer offers to buy goods from the Supplier on its (the Buyer’s) standard terms and the Supplier purports to accept the offer on the basis of its own standard terms. In this scenario, the battle is often won by the party who fired the “last shot”, i.e., the last party to put forward T&Cs that were not explicitly rejected by the recipient.

A business should ensure that its terms are incorporated into its contracts. To achieve this, terms and conditions should be provided with and/or referred to in pre contractual documentation, such as quotations and orders. A business that relies upon printing their terms on delivery notes or invoices (post contractual documentation) runs the risk that it will not be able to rely upon those terms if there’s a dispute.

Below are a series of practical steps that could be considered to gain the advantage, the key theme being that parties must be clear about the terms on which they are doing business. Although these steps won’t guarantee your company’s standard T&Cs prevail, they may give you an advantage. There is no single overriding rule that trumps all in battle of the forms cases, but the following should help:

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Negotiating Tips:

“Prevail clauses”

Consider including a “prevail clause” in your T&Cs, stating e.g. that your standard T&Cs are incorporated in to the contract to the exclusion of any other parties’ T&Cs, and that your standard terms prevail. This won’t necessarily succeed alone, e.g. where the other side makes a counter-offer, your standard T&Cs including the prevail clause will be by-passed and won’t form part of the contract. This is because your T&Cs will have effectively been rejected by your counterparty and replaced by their counter-offer.

“Prevail clauses” are still used, including as a means to pressurize the other side in to taking the line of least resistance, and accepting the standard terms as a fait accompli. However, a belt and braces approach is safer. Where the other side aims to rely on such a clause it is perfectly reasonable to reply by reiterating that your T&Cs apply.

  • Written records should be kept of all contract negotiations. Ideally, minutes of meetings should be signed by all present.
  • Emphasize that no contract can be agreed until any disputed terms are ratified. Stipulate which terms are outstanding.
  • A contract can be concluded verbally. Ensure that any meetings or telephone calls are confirmed as being conducted on the basis of your company’s T&Cs, or “subject to contract”; to prevent any agreement before a written contract is signed.

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Practical Steps

  1. Always send the other side a clear and legible copy of your T&Cs together with your order/acknowledgment / supply forms and state clearly on the face of your order/acknowledgment that you rely on those T&Cs.
  2. When writing to the other side to agree an order, include a copy of your T&Cs with the letter or email. Stipulate that you are offering to contract on those terms.
  3. Don’t take for granted that your T&Cs apply. Although you may have been doing business with the other side for several years, don’t assume that a court will accept it’s on notice of your standard T&Cs. Whenever you enter into a contract, ensure that your T&Cs are included.
  4. If you send a purchase order/invoice electronically, make sure you don’t omit the back page setting out your standard T&Cs. Ideally, attach a copy of your T&Cs as a separate document.
  5. Actively bring the counterparty’s attention to your standard T&Cs.
  6. Alert the other party on the front page of your pro forma documents such as purchase order/invoices, email or letter footers, to your standard T&Cs and where they are found, e.g. on your website, and / or as attached.
  7. Clarify in writing that your T&Cs are the only terms upon which you are prepared to do business.
  8. Avoid a battle of the forms. If the other side responds with their T&Cs, clarify by return firstly that you don’t accept their terms and secondly, your T&Cs represent the only contractual provisions on which you will proceed.Respond to / reject counter-offers.
  9. If the counterparty replies to your offer ambiguously or doesn’t accept your offer, the court may later treat their communication as a counter-offer, which if it is treated as the last shot, could prevail.
  10. Contracts can be concluded by performance. Avoid premature acceptance of the other side’s T&Cs by conduct. E.g., terms of a contract can be finalized by one side unintentionally accepting the terms of a draft agreement before formal approval or signature. This could be by supplying or paying for the goods or services, accepting delivery of goods, or acting otherwise in line with the terms of the counterparty’s draft contract.
  11. Be aware that if one side proceeds without a clear written agreement and performs the contract, they risk a deemed acceptance of the other party’s terms.
  12. Fire the last shot in the “battle”! The other side’s T&Cs could prevail if they were the last shot, or where they were sent to you and, they weren’t rejected, answered with a counter offer, or where the contract was performed without more.
  13. A tactic that worked in B.R.S v Arthur V. Crutchley Ltd was where the supplier delivered whisky to the buyer’s warehouse. The delivery note set out the supplier’s T&Cs. However, the buyer’s warehouseman stamped it  “Received under [the buyer’s] conditions”.      The Court’s decision was that the warehouseman’s rubber stamp constituted the last shot of the battle. The buyer’s T&Cs prevailed. The stamp represented a counter-offer which the supplier was taken to have accepted by its performance in handing over the goods.
  14. The safest policy is to identify and resolve any dispute about T&Cs directly in negotiations with the other side. However, there may be the temptation not to jeopardies a prospective deal or future custom by risking controverersy. This involves what may be a greater risk down the line of the T&Cs being unclear, with an argument as to whose apply, or whether neither applies.
  15. Specifically negotiating the terms avoids the uncertainty of putting this off. If the seller’s T&Cs are accepted, then agreed variations can be set out in a side letter. On the up-side, when agreement is reached in this way, everyone knows where they stand legally. The down-side is that negotiating the contractual terms may be costly and time consuming. 

A well drafted set of terms and conditions will take into account the manner in which a business operates, and what it hopes to achieve. Your legal adviser should take the time to understand your business to ensure that your contracts achieve what you want them to.  

Advice at the beginning can avoid pitfalls down the line, which could be expensive and involve court proceedings.

 Cases:

Transformers and Rectifiers Ltd v Needs Ltd [2015] EWHC 269 (TCC).

British Road Services Limited v Arthur Crutchley & Co Limited ([1968] 1 All ER 811).

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