Warning over small print in leases after firm is hit by £300,000 bill

April 19, 2012

Commercial property tenants have been warned to double check the small print on break clauses in their leases following a court case in Bristol which has left one firm more than £300,000 out of pocket.

The High Court ruling was made in favour of landlords who challenged their tenant’s right to invoke a break clause. The decision means that an oversight involving less than £200 left the tenant liable for rent and other costs for the next five years, a total expenditure well in excess of £300,000.

Experts at property firm Colliers International’s office in the city say the case highlights the pitfalls involved in a tenant serving a break notice and the conditions that must be met.

Colliers’ corporate solutions director Mike Woodliffe (pictured) said: “The fact that the entire case hung on an outstanding sum of less than £200 has serious implications for landlord and tenant alike and proves once again the importance of proper consideration of what might be termed the small print in all commercial leases.”

He said the case involved a firm based on an estate in Stroud which had attempted to serve a break notice on its landlord.

“The landlord contested the break clause claiming it was invalid. The judge ruled in favour of the landlord and held that the tenant could not operate the break because a small sum of rent had not been paid   despite the fact it never having been invoiced.

“The amount was interest on late payment of rent at some point during the lease term.”

It was only after the break date that the landlord claimed for interest that should have been paid and the judge ruled that the tenant should have known this sum was due.

“The result means that the tenant continues to be liable for rent and other costs for the next five years, a total expenditure well in excess of £300,000,” said Mr Woodliffe, adding that while the judgment may seem harsh it highlights the need for careful analysis of a tenant’s lease to ensure that specific terms and conditions are complied with.

“This includes payment of rent and numerous other requirements such as repair and decoration.,” he said. “Tenants may assume that because they have a break option in their lease they can just walk away at the relevant date.

“Our experience is that instances such as these need to be given careful consideration and planned for accordingly. People often assume they know what they are doing and do not take specialist advice due to the perceived high cost. This case highlights the importance of having the correct advice and how it can save significant cost in the long run.

“In the present economic climate with low demand and onerous liabilities on the owners of vacant properties, landlords will carefully scrutinise the validity of the tenants break notice  in order to avoid losing a tenant.

“Businesses are feeling pressure on all fronts and   decisions to close shops or commercial units are not taken lightly – but failure to review the break option in the lease may lead to misinformed decisions that may have cost implications or in the worst case may mean the lease is not terminated and the liability remains for the remainder of the lease.

“This case highlights the need for careful planning prior to the service of a break option and the importance of taking specialist advice to ensure compliance.”

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