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Assignment and Novation

What are assignment and novation clauses?

The two main legal tools for the transfer of the rights and/or obligations under a contract to another party are: assignment, for the transfer of benefits; and novation, for the transfer of rights/benefits and obligations. Each has unique features that must be taken into account when deciding which is the preferred option.

Assignment clauses

A contracting party at common law has a general right to assign its rights without any consent or approval from the other party (unless by its very nature the right is personal). An assignment clause may be included in an agreement to exclude or limit this common law right. In order for the assignment of rights by one party to not be exercised unilaterally without the knowledge of the other party, it is common for contracts to include a provision that a party can only assign its rights under the contract with the consent of the other party.

After assignment, the assignee is entitled to the benefit of the contract and to bring proceedings (either alone or by joining the assignor) against the other contracting party to enforce its rights. The assignee does not become a party to the contract with the promisor. As the burden or obligations of the contract cannot be assigned, the assignor remains liable post assignment to perform any part of the contract that has not yet been performed.

Novation clauses

By executing a novation, a party can transfer both its rights/benefits and obligations. At common law, the obligations under a contract can only be novated with the consent of all original contracting parties, as well as the new contracting parties. This is because the novation extinguishes the old contract by creating a new contract.

A novation clause will usually provide that a party cannot novate a contract without the prior written consent of existing parties. Including a novation clause in an agreement is designed to prevent oral consent to a novation, or consent being inferred from a continuing party’s conduct. However, a court will look to the substance of what has occurred, and such a clause is not effective in all situations.

It is possible for a novation clause to prospectively authorise a novation to be made by another party unilaterally to a party chosen by the novating party. The courts will give effect to a novation made in this manner provided it is authorised by the proper construction of the original contract.

Assignment, novation and other dealings boilerplate clauses

Option 1 – Assignment, novation and other dealings – consent required

A party must not assign or novate this [deed/agreement] or otherwise deal with the benefit of it or a right under it, or purport to do so, without the prior written consent of each other party [which consent is not to be unreasonably withheld/which consent may be withheld at the absolute discretion of the party from whom consent is sought].

Option 2 – Assignment, novation and other dealings – specifies circumstances in which consent can reasonably be withheld

(a) [Insert name of Party A] may not assign or novate this [deed/agreement] or otherwise deal with the benefit of it or a right under it, or purport to do so, without the prior written consent of [insert name of Party B], which consent is not to be unreasonably withheld

(b) [Insert name of Party A] acknowledges that it will be reasonable for [insert name of Party B] to withhold its consent under this clause if:

(i)      [Insert name of Party B] is not satisfied with the ability of the proposed assignee to perform [insert name of Party A]’s obligations under this [deed/agreement];

(ii)      [Insert name of Party B] is not satisfied with the proposed assignee’s financial standing or reputation;

(iii)     the proposed assignee is a competitor of [insert name of Party B]; or

(iv)       [Insert name of Party B] is in dispute with the proposed assignee.

Commentary

Click here for information on how to use this boilerplate clause.

Non-assignment clauses

A non-assignment clause prevents a party or parties from assigning the benefit of the contract. Non-assignment clauses are generally effective to provide a remedy if they have been clearly drafted.

Contracts commonly provide for assignment with the consent of the other party. Such provisions usually provide that consent must not be unreasonably withheld and, where there is no such proviso, one may be implied. Accordingly, if it is intended that a party may withhold its consent to an assignment for any reason whatsoever (including on unreasonable grounds) clear contractual language should be used.

A purported assignment that contravenes such contractual restriction constitutes a breach of contract and may result in an ineffective assignment.

Withholding consent to an assignment

The ‘reasonableness’ of withholding consent to an assignment is assessed by an objective standard and given a broad and common sense meaning.

The relevant factors in assessing reasonableness will differ in each case and heavily depend on the particular circumstances, including the nature and object of the specific contract and the purpose of the non-assignment clause.  Relevant factors may include any defaults in obligations under the contract and the solvency and identity of the assignee.

A party’s actions in withholding consent will generally be considered unreasonable if the grounds relied upon to support the withholding are:

  • extraneous or disassociated from the subject matter of the contract;
  • materially inconsistent with any provision(s) of the contract; or
  • based on collateral or improper considerations.

It is advisable, where withholding consent to an assignment, to clearly set out the reasons for withholding consent in a letter to the other party.