When circumstances change, the inevitable question is how to get out of difficult-to-perform or impossible obligations. The fundamental change of circumstances doctrine (clausula rebus sic stantibus) is the answer.
This doctrine can be found in private international law as well as in certain national regulations. As for Czech legal regulations, the General Civil Code of 1811 considered changes of circumstances in the case of agreements on a future contract (Section 936). Established court practice also deduced the application of the rebus sic stantibus principle to other contracts. A change of circumstances was also stipulated in the Civil Code of 1964 and the Commercial Code, but only for certain types of contracts.
The New Civil Code, which came into force at the beginning of this year, has a more general attitude to changes of circumstances. In the provisions of Section 1764 et seq. it introduced a mechanism that in principle applies to all types of contracts. In the provisions of Section 2000 it introduced a more general regulation for contracts concluded for a definite period of time if such contracts were concluded for life or for a period of more than ten years.
The basic idea behind the doctrine is that contracts should be performed even if circumstances change. However, where a change causes the parties’ rights and obligations to be grossly disproportionate, then the relevant party may request that an obligation be changed or cancelled. This thus means that only significant changes can cause an obligation to be modified. Moreover, if performance is entirely impossible given the new circumstances, then the obligation ceases to exist directly by law.
For a change of circumstances to be legally significant, the conditions of Section 1765 must be fulfilled. These are as follows: (i) the rights and obligation of the parties must become grossly disproportionate, (ii) the affected party must not have been able to reasonably presume or influence the change, (iii) the fact leading to the change must occur after the contract was concluded or the relevant party became familiar with the change after the contract had already been concluded.
In practice, under the provisions of Sections 1765 paragraph 2 a contracting party can assume the risk of a change of circumstances. One can then encounter statements in the given contract where it is stipulated that Sections 1765 and 1766 do not apply or that, for example, the buyer assumes the risk of a change of circumstances, without any further declarations. There is thus the possibility of some ambiguity. In the first case, the whole provisions of Section 1765 are in principle excluded, i.e. both the first and second paragraphs. But in the second paragraph the legislators made it possible to assume the risk. The second case should be specified further so that the scope of the assumption is better determined.
Moreover, when the risk of a fundamental change of circumstances is assumed, the scope should be stated, i.e. the circumstances or changes should be listed, for example “The supplier hereby assumes the risk that input prices may increase by up to 85% from the initial calculation.”
In conclusion, we should add that the new legislation also introduced special cases where a change of circumstances may apply, e.g. in the case of agreements on a future contract, apartment leases or donations. But more on this topic next time.