The doctrine of frustration, commercial leases and the Canterbury earthquakes
Degree GrantorUniversity of Canterbury
Degree NameDoctor of Philosophy
The Canterbury earthquakes in 2010 and 2011 had a significant impact on landlords and tenants of commercial buildings in the city of Christchurch. The devastation wrought on the city was so severe that in an unprecedented response to this disaster a cordon was erected around the central business district for nearly two and half years while demolition, repairs and rebuilding took place. Despite the destruction, not all buildings were damaged. Many could have been occupied and used immediately if they had not been within the cordoned area. Others had only minor damage but repairs to them could not be commenced, let alone completed, owing to restrictions on access caused by the cordon. Tenants were faced with a major problem in that they could not access their buildings and it was likely to be a long time before they would be allowed access again. The other problem was uncertainty about the legal position as neither the standard form leases in use, nor any statute, provided for issues arising from an inaccessible building. The parties were therefore uncertain about their legal rights and obligations in this situation. Landlords and tenants were unsure whether tenants were required to pay rent for a building that could not be accessed or whether they could terminate their leases on the basis that the building was inaccessible. This thesis looks at whether the common law doctrine of frustration could apply to leases in these circumstances, where the lease had made no provision. It analyses the history of the doctrine and how it applies to a lease, the standard form leases in use at the time of the earthquakes and the unexpected and extraordinary nature of the earthquakes. It then reports on the findings of the qualitative empirical research undertaken to look at the experiences of landlords and tenants after the earthquakes. It is argued that the circumstances of landlords and tenants met the test for the doctrine of frustration. Therefore, the doctrine could have applied to leases to enable the parties to terminate them. It concludes with a suggestion for reform in the form of a new Act to govern the special relationship between commercial landlords and tenants, similar to legislation already in place covering other types of relationships like those in residential tenancies and employment. Such legislation could provide dispute resolution services to enable landlords and tenants to have access to justice to determine their legal rights at all times, and in particular, in times of crisis.