The lawyers across the continents the past few months have been hit with a slew of coronavirus related legal matters. This is not surprising given the scale and magnitude of the diseases which is indeed spreading like wildfire.
In India especially the last four weeks have been rather disturbing as the cases as well as the deaths are mounting. Some people affected by the disease are directly impacted while many others have had to face many situations for no fault of theirs.
These situations were often created by their employers, landlords, neighborhoods, even hospitals, and law enforcers. Many people in the last few months have lost their jobs or lay off or had a salary cut despite a government directive to the contrary. There have been cases where landlords threw out the stuff of medical personnel fighting corona on the pretext that they can bring in corona!
This is the most unfortunate situation as when we need to be united against the virus we are busy using it to further our own petty ends. The coronavirus does not discriminate, but people do. The coronavirus has and will continue to impacts all societies and economies.
The biggest legal issue that has come to our notice is employment-related. In the wake of a shrinking economy and rampant loss of customers, the companies after companies are laying off their workforce, often illegally on the pretext that they have no funds to sustain them.
This is a rather bizarre situation as no one can take such an effect as this goes grossly against the labor laws and established employer-employee relations. At best they can cut perks (that too if permitted in the contract if any).
Having said that, given our system of jurisprudence anybody is free to seek legal remedies and so the court cases are inevitable. To the employees serving in various companies, I have good news, if you are fired by your boss on the pretext of the corona pandemic he is on the wrong side of the law.
The reason is simple, unlike in the west where ‘force majeure’ is categorically mentioned, it is most likely to be absent in Indian contracts. Interestingly enough even if it is there it has no legal value. The expression ‘force majeure’ or an act of God does not exist in the Indian statutes.
The Indian Contract Act which provides the framework of any contract is silent on the term `force majeure’. The court rulings have been rather varied, from case to case, depending on other facts brought to its notice.
In the absence of the ‘force majeure’ clause, Sec 56 of the Contract Act becomes relevant which is about `frustration of contract’ implying that the contract has become impossible or unlawful. This then opens a new legal tussle which can rage for years as it becomes courts prerogative to interpret the law in the matter brought before it.
Besides, even if the term ‘force majeure’ is mentioned in a contract it does not imply `pandemics’ per se, as it typically covers catastrophes like war. This is indeed good news for the employee who has been wrongly terminated or whose salary has been drastically slashed by the company in order to safeguard its own interests and pass on the burden of Corona pandemic on the hapless employees.
However, it is not that simple as if anyone who has ever fought a case in court knows the time and energy it takes to get justice. We are doing all we can to help people in this time of crisis. Our team is dealing with such cases and using knowledge and experience to determine the best we can do to provide succor to these people.
We have started this service ‘pro bono’ and is open for anyone wronged by his employer or anyone on the pretext of coronavirus. We have also started a helpline for corona patients who can dial-in for any legal advice absolutely free of cost 24X7 The Pandemic we are facing is unprecedented and we need not forget that it should be an opportunity to help others rather than profit from it at the expense of others.
Article By: Dr. Kislay Panday, Solicitor, Supreme Court of India