How to avoid (or not) to pay goodwill compensation (clientele) in agency contracts

Also available in Español.
Time to read: 8 min

The Spanish Law of the Agency Contract and the European Directive provide for the agent -except in certain cases-, goodwill compensation (clientele) when the relationship is terminated, based on the remuneration received by the Agent during the life of the contract. It is, then, a burden that in general every Principal will have pending when the contract ends.

The temptation is to try to get rid of that payment and for this clients consult us frequently about strategies or tactics. I will try to summarize some of them indicating the chances of success (or not) that may have, both in the negotiation / drafting phase of the contract, and in the resolution phase.

  1. Change the name of the contract

The first idea is to make a contract “similar” to the agency or call it in a different way (services, intermediation, representation contracts…). However, the change of name does not have any incidence since the contracts “are what they are” and not what the parties call them. So if there is a continued mediation in exchange for remuneration, there is a good chance that a judge will consider it an agency contract, whatever we call it, and with all its consequences.

  1. Limitation of compensation in the contract

Another temptation in the drafting phase of the contract is to agree compensation less than the maximum legally envisaged, provide for payment in advance for the duration of the contract, or directly eliminate it.

None of these solutions would be valid if they try to reduce the possibility of the Agent to receive the legal maximum, or for reasons not foreseen in the Law or the Directive. The law is imperative.

  1. Linking different agency contracts

Given that the compensation is calculated according to the remunerations of the last five years and the clientele created, the temptation is to link several shorter contracts to consider only the clients of the last period.

This will not necessarily be a good idea if most of the customers were created last year for instance, but it may also be useless because the Spanish law and the Directive provide that the fixed-term contract that continues to be executed becomes indefinite. The judge may consider all linked contracts as one.

For this strategy to have the possibility of being useful, it would be necessary to liquidate each substituted contract, declare that “nothing has to be claimed by the parties” and that the successive contracts are sufficiently separated and have different entities, drafting, extension, etc. If the procedure is well thought out, it could be a way to get rid of a greater indemnity by clientele: a well-written pact whereby the agent declares the compensation received, and the following contract does not mimic the content and immediately to the previous one.

  1. Submitting the agreement to a foreign law

In international contracts the temptation is to submit the contract to a right that is not Spanish, particularly when the Principal has that citizenship.

The idea can be good or bad according to the chosen law and as long as it has some relation with the business. As is known, in the EU the Directive establishes minimum conditions that national laws must respect. But nothing prevents these laws from providing more advantageous conditions for agents. This means that, for example, choosing French law would be, in general, a bad idea for the Principal because compensation in that country is usually higher.

In some cases, the choice of a law outside the European Union that does not provide compensation for clientele when the agent is European has been rejected because that the minimum right recognized in the Directive has not been respected.

  1. Submit the contract to non-national rules and judges

Another less frequent possibility is to submit the contract to rules not from a country, but to general commercial norms (Lex Mercatoria) and to agree on a lower compensation.

This is very uncommon and may not be very useful depending on who is to interpret the contract and where the agent resides. If, for example, the agent resides in Spain and who is going to interpret the contract is a Spanish judge, he will most likely interpret the contract according to his/her own rules without being bound by what the contract envisages. This clause would have been useless.

  1. Submit the contract to arbitration

The question will be different if the contract is subject to arbitration. In this case, arbitrators are not necessarily subject to interpreting a contract according to their own national regulations if the contract is subject to different one. In this case, it would be possible that they felt freer to consider the contract exclusively, especially when the agent was not of their nationality, did not know what the law of the agent’s country and was not bound by the guarantees provided for his protection.

  1. Mediation in the agency contract

Mediation is an alternative dispute resolution system that can also be used in agency contracts. In mediation, the parties resolve the dispute by themselves with the help of a mediator.

In this case, given that the mediator is not deciding, it is possible for the parties to freely reach an agreement whereby the agent agrees to a minor indemnification if, for example, other advantages are conferred upon him, if he comes to the conviction of having less right, difficulty of proof, if he prefers to save other costs, time, energy for your new business, etc.

Mediators ensure the balance of the parties, but nothing prevents them to agree a compensation lower than the legal maximum (after the conclusion of the contract it is possible to negotiate a lower than the legal maximum). To foresee the possibility of mediation in the agency contract is, therefore, a good idea: this will permit the parties to better address and negotiate this compensation. In addition, providing for mediation does not limit the rights of any of the parties to withdraw and continue through the courts demanding the legal maximum.

  1. Imputing to the agent a previous breach

When the contract ends, this is undoubtedly the cause that is most often attempted: when the contract is to be resolved, the Principal tries to argue that the Agent has previously failed to comply and that this is why the contract is being resolved.

The law and the Directive exempt the payment of goodwill compensation when the agent has breach his obligations. But in that case, the Principal must be able to prove it when the agent discusses it. And it will not always be easy. The Principal must provide clear evidence and for this it will be convenient to collect information and documentation on the breach sufficiently and in advance and of sufficient importance (minor breaches are not usually accepted). Therefore, if the Principal wishes to follow this path it is advisable to prepare the arguments and evidences time before the agreement ends. It is strongly recommend contacting an expert advisor as soon as possible: he will help you to minimize the risks.

Ignacio Alonso
  • Arbitration
  • Corporate
  • Distribution
  • Franchising