For many of us the recent lockdown brought a sense of déjà vu. Once again, a number of us were back juggling Zoom calls while supervising school work from the confines of our own homes. The landlords and tenants amongst us were again grappling with the issue of how the lockdown affects lease obligations.
Businesses which were not deemed 'essential' were prohibited from accessing their premises during Alert Level 4, and for some of you this meant your business could not earn any income during that period or revenue was severely reduced.
Is rent relief available?
The first place to look for rent relief options is in your lease itself. The most common form of commercial lease is the Auckland District Law Society (ADLS) lease. If you've entered into an ADLS lease in or after 2012 it is likely to contain clause 27.5 which deals with situations where tenants are unable to gain access due to an 'emergency'.
Although this clause was originally introduced as a result of the Christchurch earthquakes and tenants being unable to enter undamaged premises which were in the locked down 'red zone', the term 'emergency' includes epidemics such as Covid. Clause 27.5 states that if a tenant is unable to gain access to their premises in an emergency 'to fully conduct the tenant's business' due to a restriction on occupation by a competent authority then a 'fair proportion of the rent and outgoings shall cease to be payable' during the period they are unable to access their premises.
What is a 'fair proportion'?
Eighteen months after the first Covid lockdown, there is still no guidance from the courts as to what a 'fair proportion' is as disputes between landlords and tenants have either been resolved through agreement or by arbitration. While fairness is ultimately in the eye of the beholder, the following factors should be considered:
• Fairness to both parties: Both the landlord's and tenant's situations should be taken into account in determining the extent to which a reduction is 'fair'. While the income of most tenants will be impacted by a lockdown, many landlords will also have mortgages and other outgoings and rely on the rent to meet those obligations.
• Nature of a tenant's business: Businesses will be affected differently by the lockdown. At one end of the scale there are 'essential businesses' such as supermarkets which may continue to fully operate from their premises.
At the other end of the scale, cafés and restaurants will not be able to operate at all. Also in the mix are professional services businesses such as law and accounting firms where staff may be able to continue to work from home but have access to the server situated on the premises. Many businesses will have important items stored at their premises so will continue to gain some benefit from the premises during their lockdown. The proportion of the rent reduction is likely to be affected by the benefit the business gains from the premises.
Rent relief period?
Clause 27.5 applies to situations where a tenant is not allowed to access their premises due to an emergency 'to fully conduct the tenant's business'. If a tenant can access the premises, but still can't fully operate, they may claim an abatement of a 'fair proportion' of the rent and outgoings for as long as they cannot access the premises to fully conduct their business due to the emergency.
The clause is not intended to deal with situations where a tenant's turnover has been affected by a market downturn which is not related to access to premises.
Resolving rental issues
We recommend that landlords and tenants attempt to negotiate an acceptable outcome for both parties in good faith. If an agreement cannot be reached it is likely that the lease will require the dispute to be resolved by mediation, and then arbitration if mediation is not successful.
It is in the interests of both parties that tenants survive this difficult period and that they maintain a good relationship.
Lease does not provide for rent relief?
An early November 2021 amendment to the Property Law Act 2007 effectively inserts a new clause similar to clause 27.5 into those commercial leases which do not currently have a rent relief clause. The deemed clause took effect (retrospectively) from 28 September 2021 and only applies in relation to epidemics. The new law does not define 'fair proportion', so there will still be a need for negotiation, then possibly arbitration.
The legal doctrine of 'frustration' also provides a potential legal argument in favour of tenants.
It is important that any agreement on rent relief is properly documented. We will be happy to assist you with this, and help you with any negotiations with either your landlord or tenant during these Covid times.
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