A game of snakes and ladders: restraints of trade and ladder clauses

Ladder clauses have become an essential part of restraint of trade clauses in Australia. However, significant policy concerns with the use of these clauses bring into question their continued acceptance, particularly in contracts for employment. Recent decisions concerning restraints of trade and ladder clauses suggest that the courts’ patience with clauses of this kind may be waning.

Restraint of trade clauses are a staple inclusion in many employment contracts, and for good reason. Employers have a legitimate interest in protecting their confidential information, maintaining customer relationships and preserving a stable and trained workforce. In fact, one academic suggests that restraint of trade clauses are so essential to the preservation of an employer’s interests that any ‘lawyer who fails to advise on and draft an enforceable clause may well be considered negligent.’ However, for a clause that has such a ubiquitous presence in employment contracts, it is remarkable that their enforceability is so uncertain in any given circumstance. This is particularly true in jurisdictions, such as the ACT and Victoria, where the common law restraint of trade doctrine has remained largely unaltered by statute.

There are a number of reasons for this uncertainty, not the least of which is that a covenant in restraint of trade is considered to be ‘contrary to public policy’ and therefore presumed to be void unless the party seeking to rely on its protection can demonstrate that it is ‘reasonable’ in the circumstances to protect the party’s legitimate interests. Specifically, the clause must be ‘framed and so guarded as to afford adequate protection to the party in whose favour it is imposed, while at the same time it is in no way injurious to the public’. This, in turn, touches upon the second key reason for the uncertainty surrounding the enforcement of restraint of trade clauses: the unenviable drafting exercise faced by a lawyer attempting to balance these competing imperatives. Failing to properly achieve this balance either means the employer’s legitimate interests are not adequately protected or the clause is rendered void on the grounds of unreasonableness.

The task of drafting restraint of trade clauses is in no small way comparable to a high-stakes game of snakes and ladders. The lawyer tries to climb up the board to reach a point where all of the employer’s interests are adequately protected, but if the clause is drafted too ambitiously, the lawyer risks stepping on a snake and sliding back down into unenforceability. Unsurprisingly, resourceful lawyers have sought to craft a way around the pesky problem of balancing the need to adequately protect their employer client’s interests, whilst seeking to minimise the risk of leaving the client without the protection of a restraint of trade – ladder clauses.

Ladder Clauses

Many practitioners will be familiar with ladder clauses, also known as cascading clauses. I will therefore keep my description of their operation brief.

Ladder clauses are a tool used to bypass the common law rule that courts cannot restate an unenforceable contractual clause in terms that would permit its continued operation. This is achieved by harnessing the operation of the doctrine of severance. In short, ladder clauses are drafted in such a way so that the offending portion of the term can easily be severed from the contract, thereby preventing that portion of the term impugning the operation of the entire clause. Whether or not any particular restraint of trade term can successfully be severed from the contract in the event it is found to be unenforceable depends on the application of the “blue pencil test” (discussed further below).

Broadly speaking, restraint of trade ladder clauses operate in two different ways.

The first kind of ladder clause operates by creating a cascading series of reducing obligations. Each particular obligation is only triggered when the more onerous restraint preceding it is held by the court to be unreasonable. In other words, the obligations in the clauses cascade down with ever diminishing burdens on the restrained party until the court finds that one of the clauses is reasonable and, therefore, enforceable. For reasons that I discuss below, ladder clauses of this kind run a relatively high risk of being held to be void on the grounds of uncertainty.

The second kind of ladder clause, although on one conception they are not truly ladder clauses at all, purports to create multiple individual restraints operating simultaneously, with each restraint providing for a varying degree of burden on the restrained party. For example, one clause may create one obligation on the restrained employee to not work for a competitor for a period of three months, while another clause operates simultaneously to create a separate obligation to not work for a competitor for a period of six months.

Clauses of the second kind have a number of advantages over the first kind. Firstly, multiple clauses of this second kind operating separately are able to cast a net of obligations on the restrained party which is far wider than any individual term could achieve without a significant risk it would be found to be unreasonable. Secondly, separate clauses of this kind are more amenable to the “blue pencil test” for severance, allowing for unreasonably broad restraints to be removed from the contract with less risk of the whole clause being held to be invalid. Thirdly, courts have been more reluctant to find these sorts of clauses to be void for uncertainty. This is because, properly drafted, clauses of this kind create multiple yet fundamentally distinct restraints that are, when viewed individually, ‘tolerably clear’ in each separate instance. However, some recent decisions suggest that this second kind of restraint clause may increasingly become the subject of more critical judicial scrutiny.

Ladder clauses are somewhat analogous to their counterparts in the game snakes and ladders. They permit a lawyer to climb quickly to the top of the board, ensuring that their client’s interests are entirely covered by the restraint of trade obligations while skipping untouched over the pitfalls of unreasonableness and unenforceability. Just like ladders in the board game, ladder clauses have becomes a legitimate and integral part of restraints of trade. However, unlike the game, the use of ladder clauses in restraint of trade provisions in employment contracts gives rise to policy questions about whether their operation is entirely fair on the restrained party.

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First published in Ethos. Written by John Wilson, Managing Legal Director, and Robert Allen.