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Coronavirus: Law adopted to mitigate the consequences of the COVID 19 pandemic in civil, insolvency and criminal proceedings
In the current situation, saving lives is the highest priority. At the same time, however, the securing of our economic existence must be organised. The legislator is therefore currently acting in record time. In addition to the adoption of a large number of support and financing packages, the German parliament session on 25 March 2020 also adjusted, among other things, insolvency and civil law adapted to the crisis situation. The law to mitigate the consequences of the COVID 19 pandemic in civil, insolvency and criminal procedure law comprises five articles, each of which regulates amendments to individual areas of law.
The regulations deeply affect the relationship between creditor and debtor. In the following, we will therefore briefly examine what the crisis means for creditors and how the planned legal regulations should be dealt with:
a) The Corona crisis as a force majeure
Irrespective of the current legal changes, the Federal Court of Justice (BGH) has defined “force majeure” in connection with the interpretation of the liability provision of section 651(j) of the German Civil Code, as “an external event which has no operational connection and which cannot be averted even by the utmost care which can reasonably be expected” (BGH, judgment of 12 January 2008, p. 1). 03.1987, Ref.: VII ZR 172/86 with further references). The quoted decision continues, “mentioned such extraordinary circumstances as war, civil unrest or natural disasters as examples of force majeure in the legislative procedure” (BGH, loc. cit.).
The devastating effects of the virus on everyday and economic life, both in Germany and in other affected countries, are a typical example of a force majeure event.
According to German law, a contractual partner is released from its obligation to perform if it is finally unable to do so due to a force majeure event. Whether the failure to perform the specific obligation to perform is due to the Corona crisis must be examined in each individual case. It is certain that this will be the case if an event can no longer be held due to an official order. However, it is more problematic if a contract for work and services cannot be fulfilled on time because the contractor’s employees are unable to work due to the loss of childcare services.
In international legal relations, the discontinuation of the obligation to perform in the case of force majeure is usually expressly regulated in the contract. Here, too, it must be proven that there is a causal connection between the crisis and the impossibility of performance, but then the regulations regularly provide that the failure to perform remains without consequences for the obligor. However, it must always be examined whether the impossibility of performance is solely due to the crisis circumstances and whether there is not the possibility to make up for the performance at a later date.
b) Article 5: Amendmends to the Introductory Act to the Civil Code
In addition to the unchanged handling of the issue of “force majeure”, the law makes numerous special provisions for the period of the crisis which deeply affect the debtor-creditor relationship. In detail:
General moratorium for consumers and micro-enterprises
In order to secure their livelihoods, consumers are entitled to refuse to meet their obligations arising from material long-term obligations (necessary to cover them with services of general economic interest) which were concluded before 8 March 2020, initially until 30 June 2020, if otherwise their or their dependants’ reasonable livelihoods would be threatened by the crisis.
This applies accordingly to so-called micro-enterprises (up to 9 employees and an annual turnover or balance sheet total of 2 million euros) if their performance would not be possible without endangering the economic basis of the enterprise and if it is a matter of covering with benefits for the appropriate continuation of the operation.
This regulation does not apply to employment contracts, so that employees retain their payment claim in full. Also for rental, lease and loan agreements only the special regulations explained below apply:
Restriction on termination of rental and lease agreements
Rental and lease agreements for land and premises may not be terminated with effect from 30 June 2022 for non-payment of rent in the period from 1 April to 30 June 2020 due to the crisis. The tenant must provide the landlord with credible evidence that the rent cannot be paid due to the crisis.
Regulations on the right to a loan
For consumer loan agreements concluded before 15 March 2020, a deferral of interest and principal payments due in the period from 1 April to 30 June 2020 shall apply for three months if the consumer cannot reasonably be expected to pay the instalments as a result of the crisis. Nor can termination of the loan during this period be based on deterioration in the financial situation or the value of collateral.
The consumer should be given the opportunity to reach an amicable agreement on the deferred instalments. If this does not come about, the contract period is extended by three months.
Exceptions to these rules apply only in the case of total unreasonableness for the lender. At the same time, the law contains an authorization that the group of beneficiaries can be changed by decree of the Federal Government with the consent of the Bundestag, in particular that the above-mentioned micro-enterprises can be included in the group of beneficiaries.
Further possibilities for additions by the Federal Government
In order to ensure the flexibility and speed in the implementation of changes required in the crisis, § 4 of article 5 still contains a comprehensive ordinance authorization, which enables the Federal Government to extend the deadlines mentioned.
c) Article 1: COVID 19 Insolvency Suspension Act COVInsAG
Article 1 of the law is likely to be of the greatest importance for creditors, not only amending the obligation to file insolvency applications due to the crisis, but also – not least due to the intervention of several central associations, in particular the DIHK, which had consulted PASCHEN in this connection – addressing the risk of rescission for creditors who assist their customers in the crisis.
Suspension of the obligation to file for insolvency
§ 1 of article 1 suspends the obligation to file an insolvency petition pursuant to section 15a InsO and section 42 BGB until 30 September 2020. This provision only does not apply if the insolvency maturity is not based on the COVID 19 pandemic or if there is no prospect of eliminating an inability to pay (possibly also crisis-related). The Act also provides assistance in the interpretation of these (negative) preconditions by including a presumption rule according to which it is generally presumed that they do not exist if the debtor was not already insolvent on 31 December 2019.
Consequences for the avoidance risk
According to the previous case law of the BGH, the risk of rescission increases in the event of a subsequent amendment of contractual relationships, especially if such adjustments are made in order to accommodate the business partner in the event of financial difficulties. According to BGH case law, the admission by a business partner that he is unable to make payments due in an amount relevant under insolvency law indicates an intention to disadvantage creditors and therefore entails the considerable risk of an insolvency challenge under § 133 InsO.
In response to the intervention of the umbrella organisations described above, the legislator has therefore also made arrangements, following on from the suspension of the obligation to file for insolvency, to benefit creditors who assist their contractual partners in (corona) distress.
Pursuant to § 2 of article 1, not only are payments under para. 1 no. 2, which concern the return of a new loan granted during the suspension period and collateral provided for this purpose in the period until 30 September 2023, in principle exempt from the risk of avoidance, but also other legal acts and in particular the direct payment or other compensation of claims for the provision of services or the supply of goods as well as measures to secure them, pursuant to nos. 3 and 4.
This provision even grants protection against avoidance for some so-called “incongruent” legal acts, namely
- Services in lieu of or on account of performance;
- payments by a third party on the instruction of the debtor;
- the provision of collateral other than that originally agreed, if this is not more valuable;
- the (subsequent) shortening of payment terms and
- the granting of payment facilities.
The only exception to these privileges is the case where the creditor was aware that the debtor’s restructuring and financing efforts were not suitable for eliminating an insolvency that had occurred. In order to contain uncertainties in the interpretation of these provisions, detailed explanations are provided in the explanatory memorandum. This is stated there (on page 23f.):
„Die Regelung (§ 1 Abs. 1 Nr. 2) schützt die Geber von neuen Krediten, einschließlich von Warenkrediten und anderen Formen der Leistungserbringung auf Ziel. Sie sollen nicht befürchten müssen, zur Rückgewähr zwischenzeitlicher Leistungen verpflichtet zu werden oder den Zugriff auf die bei der Vergabe der neuen Kredite gewährten Sicherheiten zu verlieren, wenn die Bemühungen um eine Rettung des Unternehmens der Kreditnehmerin oder des Kreditnehmers scheitern und deshalb doch ein Insolvenzverfahren eröffnet wird.“
And to no. 4: „Ein Bedürfnis für einen Anfechtungsschutz besteht auch in bestimmten Fällen, in denen kein neuer Kredit im Sinne der Nummer 2 vorliegt. Dies betrifft z. B. Vertragspartner von Dauerschuldverhältnissen wie Vermieter sowie Leasinggeber, aber auch Lieferanten. Wenn solche Vertragspartner befürchten müssten, erhaltene Zahlungen im Falle des Scheiterns der Sanierungsbemühungen des Krisenunternehmens mit anschließender Eröffnung des Insolvenzverfahrens aufgrund einer Anfechtung zurückzahlen zu müssen, wären sie geneigt, die Vertragsbeziehung auf dem schnellsten Wege zu beenden, was wiederum die Sanierungsbemühungen vereiteln würde (…).“
“Außerdem kann eine Anfechtung weiterhin erfolgen, wenn dem anderen Teil bekannt war, dass die Sanierungs- und Finanzierungsbemühungen der Schuldnerin oder Schuldners nicht zur Beseitigung der Insolvenzreife geeignet gewesen sind. Die Beweislast dafür liegt bei demjenigen, der sich auf die Anfechtbarkeit berufen möchte. Der andere Teil muss sich nicht davon überzeugen, dass die Schuldnerin oder der Schuldner geeignete Sanierungs- und Finanzierungsbemühungen entfaltet; nur die nachgewiesene positive Kenntnis vom Fehlen von Sanierungs- und Finanzierungsbemühungen oder von der offensichtlichen Ungeeignetheit der Sanierungs- und Finanzierungsbemühungen würde den Anfechtungs-schutz entfallen lassen. Ausdrücklich geschützt werden auch Leistungen an Erfüllungs statt oder erfüllungshalber, Forderungsabtretungen statt Barzahlungen und Zahlungen durch Dritte auf Anweisung der Schuldnerin oder des Schuldners, weil solche der Leistung des Geschuldeten wirtschaftlich gleichstehen. Auch die Auswechslung einer Sicherheit ohne Erhöhung des Sicherheitswerts wird geschützt, um die betriebswirtschaftliche sinnvolle Verwendung von Sicherungsgegenständen durch die Schuldnerin oder den Schuldner nicht zu behindern. Der Schutz wird auf die Gewährung von Zahlungserleichterungen erstreckt, weil solche die Liquidität des Unternehmens stärken und insoweit ähnlich wirken wie die Gewährung neuer Kredite. Der Schutz einer Verkürzung von Zahlungszielen verfolgt demgegenüber den Zweck, Vertragspartnern einen weitergehenden Anreiz für eine Fortsetzung der Vertragsbeziehungen zu bieten. Wenn z. B. eine Lieferantin oder ein Lieferant betriebsnotwendiger Bauteile nur dann zur Weiterbelieferung des schuldnerischen Unternehmens bereit ist, wenn die bisher in einem Rahmenvertrag vereinbarten Zahlungsfristen verkürzt werden, sollte er nicht allein deshalb zu einer vollständigen Vertragsbeendigung gedrängt werden, weil er sich durch die Vertragsanpassung Anfechtungsrisiken aussetzen würde“.
To put it plainly: virtually all righteous efforts to assist customers in need as a result of the crisis are privileged under insolvency law. This also includes all legitimate measures taken to protect themselves.
The legal provisions for cushioning the economic consequences of the corona crisis are expressly to be welcomed. Even if courts that may later have to decide on such facts are not explicitly bound by the justification of the law, the probability that the judiciary would later disregard these statements is minimal. According to the draft, creditors will indeed have to bear the burden of the provisions on continuing obligations and the moratorium for consumers and micro-enterprises. However, anyone who wants to help his contractual partner who has lost his footing due to the crisis does not need to worry about the risk of rescission.
As already stated above, the speed of the legislator in the current crisis is impressive. We will therefore keep you updated about further developments. Please do not hesitate to contact us for further questions in this context. We wish for everyone that this current crisis can be overcome as quickly as possible and the most important thing: stay healthy!