While Brexit may be frustrating for many people, whether it can frustrate a lease has recently been reviewed by the High Court. The European Medicines Agency (EMA) is the European Union (EU) agency responsible for the scientific evaluation, supervision and safety monitoring of medicines in the EU. In 2014 it took out a 25 year lease in Canary Wharf to use as its headquarters. Following the decision to leave the EU, the EMA wrote to its landlord to say that “if and when Brexit occurs, we will be treating that event as a frustration of the Lease.”
The EMA’s stated reason for wanting to end their lease was because it would be ‘inconceivable for’ an EU agency to be based in a non-EU member state, hence the need to relocate. Clearly the EMA did not want to have to pay rent for its new offices as well as a London office that it felt it could no longer use.
If the EMA could prove that Brexit was a frustrating event, the lease would terminate and in doing so release the EMA from the obligation to pay rent for the remaining 20 years. The landlord disagreed that Brexit was a (legally) frustrating event and sought a declaration from the courts to protect its significant rental income.
So what is frustration?
The legal concept of frustration is where the law recognises that sometimes things happen, with no fault attributed to either party, that stop an agreement from being performed or that would render the agreement radically different. For example, when World War II broke out a contract to deliver goods manufactured in Leeds to Poland became frustrated because, after the contract had been formed, it became illegal to sell goods into Poland. Likewise when the coronation of King Edward VII was delayed because he was ill, the purchase of tickets to watch the coronation on that day was frustrated because there was no coronation. Frustration immediately brings a contract to an end without creating liability for either party.
The EMA’s arguments
The EMA argued that either after Brexit it would be illegal for them to perform its obligations under the lease, or that there was a common purpose to provide the EMA with a European headquarters.
The Court found that English law did not prevent the EMA from performing its obligations under the lease. It also said that it thought that if European law made it illegal for the EMA to use the property or perform its lease obligations that was an issue for EU law and was “not a matter for the English law of frustration”.
In this particular instance, the Court went on to say that because the EMA is an EU agency, then even if it was wrong and it should take issues of EU illegality into account, these problems would be self-inflicted by the EU by not passing regulations to deal with the effects of Brexit. Since frustration can’t be used where the supervening event is caused by one of the parties that would have to be taken into consideration by the Court.
The Court disagreed that there was a common purpose for the lease. The EMA wanted to use the space on the most flexible terms it could get, and for the lowest rent, while the landlord wanted exactly the opposite: maximum rent for the longest term. On the basis that there was no common purpose, this couldn’t work as a basis for frustration.
The Judge said that “… the fact is that hindsight has shown that EMA has paid too high a price for the Premises it acquired, in that it failed to build into the lease the flexibility as to term that events have shown would have been in its commercial interests.” However, frustration cannot be used solely to get out of a bad bargain.
While this is welcome news for landlords concerned about tenants seeking to use Brexit to exit property contracts or leases, the EMA has recently been granted leave to appeal the decision. Property lawyers and landlords will be keeping watch to see what the Court of Appeal has to say if the EMA pursues an appeal.
- Canary Wharf (BP4) T1 Ltd & Ors v European Medicines Agency  EWHC 335 (Ch) (20 February 2019)
Michael Goldfitch is a Commercial Property Lawyer with law firm Wright Hassall