The Australian government just agreed on a mandatory Code of Conduct for commercial tenancies. Here are further details on what the Code means for small to medium-sized leasing businesses.
Commencement and Expiry
This Code comes into effect in all states and territories from a date following 3 April 2020 (being the date that National Cabinet agreed to a set of principles to guide the Code to govern commercial tenancies as affected by the COVID-19 pandemic) to be defined by each jurisdiction, for the period during which the Commonwealth JobKeeper programme remains operational.
Who does the Code apply to?
The Code of Conduct applies to commercial tenants including retail, office and industrial leases. It applies to all tenancies that are suffering financial stress or hardship as a result of the Coronavirus pandemic as defined by their eligibility for the Commonwealth Government’s JobKeeper programme with an annual turnover of up to $50M.
SME tenants who are eligible for the federal government’s JobKeeper payment are automatically considered to be in financial distress under this Code.
Employers will be eligible for the subsidy if:
- their business has a turnover of less than $1 billion and their turnover has fallen by more than 30 per cent (of at least a month); or
- their business has a turnover of $1 billion or more and their turnover has fallen by more than 50 per cent (of at least a month); and
- the business is not subject to the Major Bank Levy.
In respect to franchises, this will be applied to the franchisee level.
Note: The Code of Conduct has stated that this code should nevertheless apply in spirit to all leasing arrangements for affected businesses, having fair regard to the size and financial structure of those businesses.
Overarching principles of the code, amongst other things include:
- Landlords and tenants will negotiate in good faith
- Landlords and tenants will act in an open, honest and transparent manner, and will each provide sufficient and accurate information within the context of negotiations to achieve outcomes consistent with this Code
- Any agreed arrangements will take into account the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the tenant, with specific regard to its revenue, expenses, and profitability. Such arrangements will be proportionate and appropriate based on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic plus a reasonable recovery period
Leasing Principles under the Code of Conduct
- Landlords must not terminate leases due to non-payment of rent during the COVID-19 pandemic period (or reasonable subsequent recovery period)
- Tenants must remain committed to the terms of their lease, subject to any amendments to their rental agreement negotiated under this Code. Material failure to abide by substantive terms of their lease will forfeit any protections provided to the tenant under this Code
- Landlords must offer tenants proportionate reductions in rent payable in the form of waivers and deferrals (as outlined under “definitions,” below) of up to 100% of the amount ordinarily payable, on a case-by-case basis, based on the reduction in the tenant’s trade during the COVID-19 pandemic period and a subsequent reasonable recovery period
- Rental waivers must constitute no less than 50% of the total reduction in rent payable under principle #3 above over the COVID-19 pandemic period and should constitute a greater proportion of the total reduction in rent payable in cases where failure to do so would compromise the tenant’s capacity to fulfil their ongoing obligations under the lease agreement. Regard must also be had to the Landlord’s financial ability to provide such additional waivers. Tenants may waive the requirement for a 50% minimum waiver by agreement
- Payment of rental deferrals by the tenant must be amortised over the balance of the lease term and for a period of no less than 24 months, whichever is the greater, unless otherwise agreed by the parties.
- Any reduction in statutory charges (e.g. land tax, council rates) or insurance will be passed on to the tenant in the appropriate proportion applicable under the terms of the lease
- A landlord should seek to share any benefit it receives due to deferral of loan payments, provided by a financial institution as part of the AustralianBankers Association’s COVID-19 response, or any other case-by-case deferral of loan repayments offered to other Landlords, with the tenant in a proportionate manner.
- Landlords should where appropriate seek to waive recovery of any otherexpense (or outgoing payable) by a tenant, under lease terms, during the period the tenant is not able to trade. Landlords reserve the right to reduce services as required in such circumstances.
- If negotiated arrangements under this Code necessitate repayment, thisshould occur over an extended period in order to avoid placing an undue financial burden on the tenant. No repayment should commence until the earlier of the COVID-19 pandemic ending (as defined by the Australian Government) or the existing lease expiring, and taking into account a reasonable subsequent recovery period.
- No fees, interest or other charges should be applied with respect to rentwaived in principles #3 and #4 above and no fees, charges nor punitive interest may be charged on deferrals in principles #3, #4 and #5 above.
- Landlords must not draw on a tenant’s security for the non-payment of rent (be this a cash bond, bank guarantee or personal guarantee) during the periodof the COVID-19 pandemic and/or a reasonable subsequent recovery period.
- The tenant should be provided with an opportunity to extend its lease foran equivalent period of the rent waiver and/or deferral period outlined in item #2 above. This is intended to provide the tenant additional time to trade, on existing lease terms, during the recovery period after the COVID-19 pandemic concludes.
- Landlords agree to a freeze on rent increases (except for retail leases based on turnover rent) for the duration of the COVID-19 pandemic and a reasonable subsequent recovery period, notwithstanding any arrangements between the landlord and the tenant.
- Landlords may not apply any prohibition on levy any penalties if tenants reduce opening hours or cease to trade due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Where landlords and tenants cannot reach agreement on leasing arrangements (as a direct result of the COVID-19 pandemic), the matter should be referred and subjected (by either party) to applicable state or territory retail/commercial leasing dispute resolution processes for binding mediation, including Small Business Commissioners/Champions/Ombudsmen where applicable.
Landlords and tenants must not use mediation processes to prolong or frustrate the facilitation of amicable resolution outcomes.
For more information, please see the National Cabinet Mandatory Code of Conduct – SME Commercial Leasing Principles during COVID-19 .