Exclusion clauses are among the most important clauses within commercial contracts. When a dispute arises, the parties may first turn to the exclusion clauses to assess their respective exposure or any protections from liability.

Exclusion clauses are contractual terms which can either exclude or restrict a party’s exposure to a legal obligation or liability. For instance, exclusion clauses could protect a contracting party from:

Why are exclusion clauses useful?

Exclusion clauses are useful because they provide a mechanism for parties to manage and allocate risk. They provide predictability and clarity regarding liability and risk management.

By incorporating exclusion clauses into a contract, parties can allocate risk in a manner which is suitable to them. This could involve an equitable sharing of risk or an allocation of risk that reflects the contractual realties of the parties and their respective ability to manage contractual risks.

Controls on Exclusion Clauses:

To be considered enforceable, exclusion clauses must meet certain legal requirements. These requirements are intended to promote fairness and are based on both common law principles and statutory regulations. They are as follows:

  1. Incorporation: An exclusion clause can be successfully incorporated into a contract through signature, notice or a consistent course of dealing.

  1. Construction: There are two main principles the courts will consider:

  1. Unfair Contract Terms Act 1977: UCTA applies a reasonableness test to exclusion clauses, particularly in consumer contracts and those involving liability for negligence. This legislation seeks to ensure that exclusion clauses are fair and reasonable in the context of the contract.

Implications for Businesses: Drafting and Allocation of Risk Strategies

While exclusion clauses are a powerful tool that allow parties to limit their exposure to risk when engaging in contractual undertakings, it is advisable that lawyers are engaged at the drafting stage to ensure that the term a party seeks to rely upon does not become void if disputed in court.

Key considerations include:

Further Considerations for Effective Risk Management


Exclusion clauses are critical for effective risk management in contracts. Their enforceability and effectiveness depend on clear and precise drafting, legal expertise, and thorough negotiation. By employing the strategies discussed in this article, businesses can better navigate contractual relationships, allocate risks appropriately, and safeguard their interests in a dynamic and evolving marketplace.

What’s next…

Our next blog post in this series will examine the issues to consider and pitfalls which can arise when terminating contracts.

If you would like to discuss this blog, please contact Paul Jonson on 07737 571147 or by email to paul.jonson@pannonecorporate.com.

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English law upholds the principle of contractual autonomy, granting parties the freedom to negotiate and establish terms tailored to their specific needs and objectives. Contractual certainty is business critical in order to clearly delineate duties and obligations and to provide recourse for an innocent party in the event of a breach.

For contracting parties, it is important to note that contractual autonomy is not absolute and operates within legal frameworks aimed at ensuring fairness and equity in contractual relationships. This article explores the limitations designed to prevent abuse and safeguard parties from unfair or oppressive clauses.

Understanding Penalty Clauses

A contractual term that specifies predetermined consequences for a breach of contract is known as a “liquidated damages” clause. The purpose of this type of clause is not to punish the breaching party but rather to estimate, in a reasonable and realistic manner, the likely losses that would result from the breach. Importantly, the pre-estimate must be made at the time the contract was made (Clydebank Engineering v. Castaneda). This should not be confused with a penalty clause, which imposes excessive financial penalties to deter breaches and can be unenforceable if challenged in court.

The complexity of distinguishing between these two types of clauses often leads to legal challenges, with courts examining the true nature of the clause and the context of its inclusion in the contract. Factors that can be considered include the rationale behind the clause, the bargaining power of the parties, and whether the sum stipulated is excessively high or unconscionable.

Understanding whether or not a clause may amount to a penalty clause could have costly consequences. If a clause is deemed to amount to a penalty clause, it could be struck out as unenforceable.

Evolution of the Test for Penalty Clauses

The legal framework surrounding penalty clauses in UK law has significantly evolved, especially following key judicial decisions that have reshaped their assessment and enforceability.

Historical Perspective:

Historically, the assessment of penalty clauses revolved around the concept of exorbitance in relation to common law damages. In Dunlop Pneumatic Tyre Co Ltd v. New Garage & Motor Co Ltd [1915], the court held that a clause would be considered a penalty if it was not a genuine pre-estimate of costs or sought to impose a detriment on a party out of proportion to the innocent party’s legitimate interest in enforcing the contract.

Shifts in the legal test:

In recent years, the UK courts have moved away from the strict prohibition of penalty clauses. The Supreme Court judgment in Cavendish Square Holding BV v. Talal El Makdessi and ParkingEye Limited v. Beavis [2015] noted that the Dunlop test had taken on the status of a “quasi-statutory code”, which was never the intention.

Lords Neuberger, Sumption and Carnwath took a more nuanced stance, emphasising that the rule on penalty clauses does not permit the courts in every instance to review the fairness of a contractual term when parties can be said to have equal bargaining power. Instead, the focus will be on whether the term in question is a primary or a secondary obligation.

Key principles when assessing penalty clauses:

The following can act as a checklist when considering whether or not a clause is likely to fall foul of the law of penalties: