Indemnity clauses can play an important role in managing the risks associated with commercial transactions. The tendency is to seek an indemnity which will protect a party to the greatest possible extent against all liabilities arising from the actions of another. Yet, too often, the indemnity is based on a boilerplate clause perhaps obtained from a precedent, so the drafting doesn’t reflect the inherent or underlying risk of a particular business relationship and the parties end up fighting over who is giving an indemnity and to what extent. But is an indemnity really necessary?

At common law, the right to damages is implied by law and does not need to be stated in the contract. It follows that once you have established that a primary obligation has been breached the law implies a secondary obligation to pay damages. A contract can, and usually does, provide for its own regime for breach of contract – here is where an indemnity comes in to play.

An indemnity is a promise made by one party (“the indemnifier”) to cover loss or damage suffered by another party (“the principal”) which may be suffered as a result of a specified event. Indemnities are frequently used to expand the range of losses that a principal could otherwise recover at common law, can alter the contractual rules of interpretation, and can deliver procedural advantages when it comes time to enforce.

So what can indemnities actually do? Indemnities can:

  1. Alter the test for causation, remoteness of damage and foreseeability: In certain circumstances and depending on the form of words used, it may not be necessary for the innocent party to demonstrate that the indemnifier caused the loss claimed, simply that the event has occurred. Similarly you can remove the tests of foreseeability and remoteness and replace them with other criterion for assessing what loss is recoverable. If this occurs, then the principal can essentially pick and choose what it will be protected from and may no longer be confined in its recovery by how far the loss extends;
  2. Modify the common law duty of the principal to mitigate its loss (thus increasing the losses to be paid for by the indemnifier);
  3. Protect the principal from damage suffered by the conduct of strangers to the contract (i.e. third party actions or claims); and
  4. Extend the statutory limitation period. In the ACT, section 11 of the Limitations Act 1985 limits the time period within which a claim may be brought for breach of contract. Normally, that period is 6 years calculated from the date of the breach. However, the limitation period in relation to an indemnity commences from the date on which the indemnifier refuses to honour the indemnity. The principal has a period of 6 years from that date within which to bring legal proceedings to enforce the indemnity.

Depending on how the indemnity is drafted, an indemnity can turn what would otherwise be a claim for compensatory damages (subject to the principal proving breach of contract, damages suffered, and an assessment of those damages) into a straight claim for debt. The principal may only need to establish that the event triggering the obligation to pay has occurred.

There can be many benefits to getting an indemnity in your favour but these all assume the indemnity is drafted properly and clearly. Courts will construe indemnities narrowly and if there are any ambiguities Courts will construe indemnities in favour of the indemnifier (because a party should know what liability they are agreeing to).

Indemnities can be useful and provide peace of mind, but not necessarily at the expense of achieving the commercial transaction or maintaining an ongoing working relationship. There are always rights to common law damages if something does go wrong.