Political, environmental or health crises (like the Covid-19 outbreak and the attack of Ukraine by the Russian army) can cause an increase in the price of raw materials and components and generalized inflation. Both suppliers and distributors find themselves faced with problems related to the often sudden and very substantial increase in the price of their own supplies. French law lays down specific rules in that regard.
Two main situations can be distinguished: where the parties have just established a simple flow of orders and where the parties have concluded a framework agreement fixing firm prices for a fixed term.
Price increase in a business relationship
The situation is as follows: the parties have not concluded a framework agreement, each sales contract concluded (each order) is governed by the General T&Cs of the supplier; the latter has not undertaken to maintain the prices for a minimum period and applies the prices of the current tariff.
In principle, the supplier can modify its prices at any time by sending a new tariff. However, it must give written and reasonable notice in accordance with the provisions of Article L. 442-1.II of the Commercial Code, before the price increase comes into effect. Failure to respect sufficient notice, it could be accused of a sudden “partial” termination of commercial relations (and subject to damages).
A sudden termination following a price increase would be characterized when the following conditions are met:
- the commercial relationship must be established: broader concept than the simple contract, taking into account the duration but also the importance and the regularity of the exchanges between the parties;
- the price increase must be assimilated to a rupture: it is mainly the size of the price increase (+1%, 10% or 25%?) that will lead a judge to determine whether the increase constitutes a “partial” termination (in the event of a substantial modification of the relationship which is nevertheless maintained) or a total termination (if the increase is such that it involves a termination of the relationship) or if it does not constitute a termination (if the increase is minimal);
- the notice granted is insufficient by comparing the duration of the notice actually granted with that of the notice in accordance with Article L. 442-1.II, taking into account in particular the duration of the commercial relationship and the possible dependence of the victim of the termination with respect to the other party.
Article L. 442-1.II must be respected as soon as French law applies to the relation. In international business relations, to know how to deal with Article L.442-1.II and conflicts of laws and jurisdiction of competent courts, please see our previous article published on Legalmondo blog.
Price increase in a framework contract
If the parties have concluded a framework contract (such as supply, manufacturing, …) for several years and the supplier has committed to fixed prices, how, in this case, can it change these prices?
In addition to any indexation clause or renegotiation (hardship) clause which would be stipulated in the contract (and besides specific legal provisions applicable to special agreements as to their nature or economic sector), the supplier may seek to avail himself of the legal mechanism of “unforeseeability” provided for by article 1195 of the civil code.
Three prerequisites must be cumulatively met:
- an unforeseeable change in circumstances at the time of the conclusion of the contract (i.e.: the parties could not reasonably anticipate this upheaval);
- a performance of the contract that has become excessively onerous (i.e.: beyond the simple difficulty, the upheaval must cause a disproportionate imbalance);
- the absence of acceptance of these risks by the debtor of the obligation when concluding the contract.
The implementation of this mechanism must stick to the following steps:
- first, the party in difficulty must request the renegotiation of the contract from its co-contracting party;
- then, in the event of failure of the negotiation or refusal to negotiate by the other party, the parties can (i) agree together on the termination of the contract, on the date and under the conditions that they determine, or (ii) ask together the competent judge to adapt it;
- finally, in the absence of agreement between the parties on one of the two aforementioned options, within a reasonable time, the judge, seized by one of the parties, may revise the contract or terminate it, on the date and under the conditions that he will set.
The party wishing to implement this legal mechanism must also anticipate the following points:
- article 1195 of the Civil Code only applies to contracts concluded on or after October 1, 2016 (or renewed after this date). Judges do not have the power to adapt or rebalance contracts concluded before this date;
- this provision is not of public order. Therefore, the parties can exclude it or modify its conditions of application and/or implementation (the most common being the framework of the powers of the judge);
- during the renegotiation, the supplier must continue to sell at the initial price because, unlike force majeure, unforeseen circumstances do not lead to the suspension of compliance with the obligations.
- analyse carefully the framework of the commercial relationship before deciding to notify a price increase, in order to identify whether the prices are firm for a minimum period and the contractual levers for renegotiation;
- correctly anticipate the length of notice that must be given to the partner before the entry into force of the new pricing conditions, depending on the length of the relationship and the degree of dependence;
- document the causes of the price increase;
- check if and how the legal mechanism of unforeseeability has been amended or excluded by the framework contract or the General T&Cs;
- consider alternatives strategies, possibly based on stopping production/delivery justified by a force majeure event or on the significant imbalance of the contractual provisions.