Cut it out: the beauty of a severance clause.

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It is said that the law is the fabric of society, without it we would have nothing but unruly human beasts roaming the earth’s surface. However in business, sometimes the law actually gets in the way. Yes you read that right. English law believes in freedom of contract, however there is always a risk that a contractual clause may be invalid or illegal – e.g. it offends against public policy or competition law – often this is the case with non-compete clauses and restrictive covenants (clauses that tell a party what they cannot do). This is why clever lawyers make use of “severance clauses” when drafting contracts.

A severance clause (or severability clause) tries to mitigate the damage that may be caused by the interference of the law in a contract. How does it do this? It ensures that a contract will continue to be enforceable even if one of its terms is found to be illegal, invalid or unenforceable. Severance clauses assist in helping a contract to SURVIVE. Pretty cool right? For example, if a contract for the sale and purchase of various vegetables is suddenly subject to a new law stating that no one can sell or purchase carrots (ridiculous but it’s an example), why should the contract die just because the sale and purchase of carrots is illegal? A severance clause would carve out or sever the ILLEGAL part of the contract and require the parties to continue to perform the remaining LEGAL part of the contract i.e. the selling and purchasing of courgettes (zucchinis), potatoes, aubergines (eggplants), peas and so forth. In other words, business shouldn’t stop if it doesn’t have to stop. This is why a severance clause is simply beautiful.

Let’s look at an example of a basic severance clause:

If a Clause of this Agreement is determined by any court or other competent authority to be unlawful and/or unenforceable, the other Clauses of this Agreement will continue in effect.

The above clause severs the illegal part of the contract. BETTER versions of a severance clause will try to sever as little of the illegal clause as possible. Here is an example:

If any unlawful and/or unenforceable Clause would be lawful or enforceable if part of it were deleted, that part will be deemed to be deleted, and the rest of the Clause will continue in effect (unless that would contradict the clear intention of the parties, in which case the entirety of the relevant Clause will be deemed to be deleted).

Even BETTER severance clauses will give the parties the option to modify or correct the would be severed clause, in order to make it legal. Here is an example:

If any provision or part-provision of this agreement is or becomes invalid, illegal or unenforceable, it shall be deemed modified to the minimum extent necessary to make it valid, legal and enforceable. If such modification is not possible, the relevant provision or part-provision shall be deemed deleted. Any modification to or deletion of a provision or part-provision under this clause shall not affect the validity and enforceability of the rest of this agreement.

If  any provision or part-provision of this agreement is invalid, illegal or unenforceable, the parties shall negotiate in good faith to amend such provision so that, as amended, it is legal, valid and enforceable, and, to the greatest extent possible, achieves the intended commercial result of the original provision.

Severance clauses are usually included in any contract as a boilerplate (standard) clause – however don’t take that for granted. Go check your contracts and flag this magical clause with your lawyer. Get your lawyer to advise you – could your severance clause be better? Do not rely/use the examples in this post, they are EXAMPLES. Your lawyer will draft a robust severance clause tailored to YOU.

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HOW to…sell your business.

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This is a follow up to my post “The bigger picture – selling your business”. In that post I gave you tips on how to polish your business into an attractive product to be purchased by a rich buyer. In this post I’m going to briefly explain HOW you can sell your business. There are two main ways. Either an asset sale or a share sale. There are pros and cons to each but ultimately your lawyer should be able to advise you on the best method, having considered the nature of your business.

In a share sale, the buyer will purchase everything to do with a company including all assets and liabilities, known and unknown. In an asset sale, the buyer will purchase the assets which make up the business of a company. In the former, pretty much everything stays the same save that the company has a new owner, in the latter, the company will still exist but it will usually be an empty shell harbouring only those assets and liabilities that the buyer did not want to buy.

Below, are some key considerations that will be influential in determining HOW you should sell your business.

  1. Liability

In a share sale, due to the fact that the buyer purchases the shareholding in the target company, it inherits all of the assets and liabilities in the target company. This means that the seller gets to walk away from any problems with the company and the buyer as the new owner, takes them on. If a buyer wants to purchase the shares in a company but it is riddled with liabilities such as ongoing litigation, tax investigations etc, it will negotiate a discount in the price of the shares that it is purchasing to reflect the risk of these liabilities or it will negotiate indemnities from the seller. A seller indemnity is basically a promise from the seller to the buyer that if things go wrong with said liability, the seller will pay to the buyer a sum of money as compensation.

In an asset sale, the buyer can effectively cherry pick which assets it will purchase and which liabilities it will assume. For example, the buyer can refuse to assume tax liabilities but it may take on certain ongoing disputes which are inherent in taking on, for example, service contracts.

  1. Employees

Usually, in an asset sale, employees do not need to be taken on by the buyer, though commonly the seller will require the buyer to offer new contracts to all or most employees on terms that are substantially similar or identical to their existing contracts (including a recognition of prior service) so that the seller avoids wrongful dismissal claims from the employees.

In a share sale, the target company’s employees remain employed by the company because nothing really changes. It’s just a sale and purchase of shares!

  1. Reduced Complexity

As you’ve probably cottoned on, share sales are much simpler than asset sales. The only documentation you need is in respect of the shares that are being purchasing. In an asset sale, each asset will effectively require its own contract. For example, there will be separate transfer documentation for equipment, vehicles, intellectual property, licenses, permits and real property.

An asset sale may also trigger the need to obtain third party consents to the transfer of the assets due to change of control provisions in contracts. For example a permit contract may say that the seller “must obtain written consent before it can transfer/assign the right to the permit”. In selling the permit as part of the assets, the seller must ask permission before it can go ahead. For obvious reasons, third party consents can be a pain to obtain; it just takes one unreasonable so and so to hold things up! It is always best to, if you can, give third parties a heads up and assure them of any changes in advance. This will make negotiation a lot easier.

So, the important thing to understand about a share sale vs an asset sale is that one method involves taking EVERYTHING whilst the other allows you to CHERRY PICK what you want. The form of sale that is best for your company really depends on the nature of your business and what it is that you want to sell. There is a heading that I have not covered but which is the most important consideration of all and that is TAX. TAX can determine how much you receive on a sale of your business and it differs in a share sale or an asset sale. This is where experts must be enlisted. I once worked on a deal where, three days before completion the whole structure changed because of TAX. I couldn’t believe it…so many sleepless nights!

As with all my posts, I cannot emphasise enough how important it is to get your lawyers involved but even more so when you are selling your business – after all you want to get the best price right?

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Beware the Double D’s – Directors’ Duties!


If you are a director of a UK company that is a big deal. To whom much is given much is EXPECTED and the Companies Act 2006 did not forget about this! Shareholders of a company delegate the day-to-day management of the company to the directors so EFFECTIVELY the directors ARE the company. This is why the law has prescribed certain expectations for directors.

BASIC POWERS

Firstly, let’s ensure that you understand the basic power and authority of directors.

Directors work as a board (basically a team). The BOARD OF DIRECTORS may (if the articles of association permit, as they generally will) delegate powers to a committee of board members (sub team) or to an individual director (so this individual director can make particular decisions without referring to the board).

An EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR is an employee (of the company) with specific powers delegated to them either by a resolution (decision) of the board or under their service contracts.

A NON-EXECUTIVE director is, as the name implies, a director to whom no executive powers have been granted by the board. HOWEVER they can VOTE at board meetings and still have the same duties as executive directors. A non-executive director is usually an expert of some sort who acts as a check on the executive directors by using their particular expertise to vote at board meetings.

A MANAGING DIRECTOR (sometimes called a chief executive) is granted more extensive executive powers by the company’s articles of association or by board resolution. As the name suggests,  a managing director manages the other directors.

IF you are a director, you should know and understand the extent of your powers within your company or else you could fall foul of an array of liability. The golden rule is to never act beyond your powers. Take any issues to the board if you are unsure.

STATUTORY DUTIES

As stated in my previous post, the Companies Act 2006 is really your wikipedia for UK Company Law and it is a great start for understanding your role as a director. A director’s general duties are owed to the company and NOT to the individual shareholders. It is the company that will have the right of action against a director if he or she misuses their position.

The Companies Act 2006 codifies certain key duties, as follows:

  1. Duty to act within powers (section 171);
  2. Duty to promote the success of the company (section 172);
  3. Duty to exercise independent judgment (section 173);
  4. Duty to exercise reasonable care, skill and diligence (section 174);
  5. Duty to avoid conflicts of interest (section 175);
  6. Duty not to accept benefits from third parties (section 176); and
  7. Duty to declare interest in proposed transaction or arrangement (sections 177 to 185).

All of the above are designed to prevent directors abusing the position they hold within a company. Some of them may seem pretty obvious but you’d be surprised! Parliament didn’t pass the Company Directors’ Disqualification Act 1986 for nothing! In my experience, directors generally tend to fail to understand the restraints of 6 and 7 (go read these sections).

CODE OF CONDUCT

Alongside the statutory duties there is also what is known as the ‘code of conduct’ for directors. These include but are not limited to:

  • The likely consequence of any decision in the long term – so you have to demonstrate that you have thought about the future impact of your decisions for the company;
  • The interests of the company’s employees;
  • The need to act fairly as between members of the company; and
  • The impact of the company’s operations on the community and the environment.

Basically, directors have a lot to consider when they act. WHY should you CARE? Well sadly, directors are personally liable if they fail to comply with their duties. PERSONALLY (urgh) AND a director can even face criminal charges. That said, if you are a director, you can protect yourself by always taking difficult decisions to the board – you know, a problem shared is a problem halved…BUT if you ALONE are the board, it is important to document WHY you make a particular decision, to demonstrate that you have considered the code of conduct and the statutory duties.

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Introducing the Companies Act 2006


If you are a UK company, the Companies Act 2006 is the main piece of legislation that GOVERNS YOU in the UK.

With approximately 1,300 sections, the Companies Act 2006 was passed in order to modernise and simplify company law, codify directors’ duties, grant improved rights to shareholders and simplify the administrative burden carried by UK companies. It is basically your “go to” for all things company law! Although some lawyers criticise it for being too detailed and trying to cover every eventuality, I actually kind of like it! You can navigate it relatively easily and well, it’s all there! SO if you have a UK company and are at a loss with UK Company Law, the Companies Act 2006 is a good resource to turn to. You can access it right HERE for FREE.

So what can you look forward to educating yourself about in the Companies Act 2006? Well, amongst many (many, many, many – it is the longest piece of legislation in the UK) other things, it sets out the following:

1. a company’s formation (modernised to facilitate incorporation over the Internet…so er…what are you waiting for?);

2. a company’s duties including those that can be fulfilled electronically (YES, so much easier);

3. a company’s communications with its shareholders (this can be done electronically via a website – again, way EASIER);

4. directors’ duties (codified for the first time) including an obligation to promote the success of the company (yup you are OBLIGED to do this by  English LAW), to consider the community and the environment (this is CORPORATE RESPONSIBILITY), the interests of employees, and to be fair to shareholders (this is arguably why Google restructured its business);

5. the rights of indirect shareholders, including the right to sue the company’s director(s) if fraud or negligence is suspected;

6. company naming rules and company governance e.g. limited companies are no longer required to have a company secretary, and can be run by one director;

7. company ‘model’ Articles of Association, provided by Companies House (this is your company’s CONSTITUTION);

8. share capital rules (simplified for private companies); and

9. formalities for execution of documents.

This epic piece of legislation may be very detailed and a bit daunting at first BUT I think it is incredibly useful – it is basically Wikipedia for UK Company Law. If you have a query about your company and its operations, skim through the index of the Companies Act 2006 and see what you can find out THEN follow up with your lawyer IF you have to!

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