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The Right Business Structure to Protect Your Assets

The Right Business Structure to Protect Your Assets

The Right Business Structure to Protect Your Assets

Once you have made the decision to operate your own business, choosing the correct structure is the next step. Keep in mind that your business structure can change if your business grows in a direction that would suit a different structure. It makes sense to seek legal and financial advice before getting started, so you can tailor your business structure to your unique circumstances.

In Australia, your main options for establishing a business are:

  1. Sole trader
  2. Partnership
  3. Joint venture
  4. Company
  5. Trust

Getting a business name is not setting up a business, it is just registering a business name. We’ll discuss that a little more at the end, for clarity.

In deciding which option would best suit you and your business ideas, think about the following:

  • Your existing assets, income, tax and other ownership structures
  • The simplicity of the new structure and your initial set up costs
  • The type of business you would like to operate and the size of the business
  • The likelihood and speed of business growth and the requirements for investment
  • The tax impact upon the business and on you
  • The type of management and control levels required to operate successfully
  • The number of people involved in the management or ownership of the business
  • The degree of flexibility required to adapt as the business evolves and expands or moves in a new direction to first planned
  • The potential risk of the new structure failing and what impact that could have on you
  • The costs and ease of ending the business if it doesn’t turn out

Let’s have a look at potential business structures in light of the above factors.

1. Sole Trader

A sole trader is a very simple business structure and there are minimal set up costs involved for you as the business owner. You will need to register for an Australian Business Number (ABN) in your own name.

If trading under your own name eg. “Harper Lee Consulting” then you don’t need to register a business name. But if you want to trade under another name “Awesome Consulting” then you will need to register a business name. You are still the business, it just has a name that is not your name.

You will bear the responsibility over all of the business functions and will be completely personally liable for all of the debts that the business incurs.

If protection of your personal assets is important to you then this type of business structure might not be the most suitable for your needs. If you own a home or an investment property in your own name and someone sues the business, they are suing you and your property is on the line.

A sole trader business can have quite limited growth potential as it is heavily reliant on the owner and often can consume vast amounts of an owner’s time and resources. Even as a sole trader, you can employ other people, but the business is still intimately associated with you.

A sole trader business will pay tax at the personal tax rate applicable to the business owner.

It is relatively easy to end a sole trader business and cease trading, provided any debts of the business are paid in full.

A good example of a sole trader business could be a business consultant, a freelance writer, an at home hairdresser or a tradesman such as a painter.

2. Partnership

A partnership is similar to a sole trader, except it involves more than one owner. It trades under a registered business name and a partnership can comprise of owners with similar skills (eg. business brokers) or owners with complimentary skill-sets (eg. a graphic designer and a website developer).

Like sole trader businesses, partnerships are easy to establish. You simply register an ABN naming each of the partners in the application. It is also wise to have a partnership agreement prepared to protect the interests of everyone involved, while everyone is still friends and the business is working well. Partnership break ups without a written agreement are a bit like a divorce and can be messy and expensive.

Traditionally, law firms and accounting firms were structured as partnerships.

We’ve seen law firms dissolve without ever having had a partnership agreement and all the profits left in the business were spent on attempting to resolve disputes between the partners when it came to an end.

Partnerships are better for whole of business long term ventures between people. They are not really suited to short-term, part-time enterprises.  The number of partners can vary and can be comprised of individuals, or companies, or trusts.

Each owner pays tax at their own individual rates, depending on their share of the partnership profits. Partners don’t have to hold equal shares and can be split depending on the contributions of the partners. A partnership will require the agreement of all parties if the ownership structure or members are to change, and it is possible that a new ABN will be required if partners change.

When a partnership is working smoothly, it can be a great vehicle to operate a successful business. When a partnership is affected by personal differences between the owners, it can impact quite considerably on the successful business operation. Each partner is 100% liable for all the business debts and their own personal assets can be at risk if the partnership cannot repay its debts or taxes. This is the case even if the partner had nothing to do with incurring the debt in the first place.

We’ve seen partners in business lose their home because one of the other partners committed fraud through the partnership and went to jail, without being able to pay back the missing money. The people owed money were entitled to chase the other partners in the business to get paid, even though they knew nothing about the fraud.

3. Joint Venture

A joint venture is usually set up by a written joint venture agreement between the parties for a particular purpose or project. It is a good structure for operating a specific project instead of continuing indefinitely. It can vary how many entities are involved and can be comprised of individuals, or companies, or trusts.

It is best to seek legal advice before signing a joint venture agreement to ensure you understand your contribution to the venture, what happens when things change during the project and to ensure you are adequately protected if the joint venture is not successful.

A joint venture helps to grow your business through collaboration with other entities that have complementary skills or financial resources. The structure can vary depending on what you want to achieve, the governance type and obligations as well as the division of profits and losses to the parties. The agreement should also contain the process for disagreement or dispute resolution, if the parties’ relationships break down.

Each of the joint venture members are responsible for the profits, losses and costs involved in undertaking the joint venture project. The joint venture is a distinctly separate entity from the members other businesses and assets.

An example of a joint venture might be the combination of ride-share giant, Uber, with vehicle manufacturer, Volvo, for the purpose of producing driverless motor vehicles.

4. Company

A company is a separate legal entity to the business owners. It is a legal vehicle that can incur debts in its own name, can sue and be sued by other parties. It does not cease if an owner passes away but exists until it is wound up. The business owners are the shareholders and can often hold the position of director and secretary as well, particularly in a small business arrangement.

A director is responsible for the management and governance of the company and need not be a shareholder. A company secretary is responsible for ensuring that the reporting obligations of the company are met.

If you are considering setting up a company, you will need a company name, you will have to set up a governing structure with a constitution suitable to your business. The company must be registered with the Australian Securities and Investments Commission (ASIC) and will incur a yearly fee.

There are many complex parts to a company and essential for you to speak to your accountant or lawyer, or both, prior to setting up a company structure. It can have considerable set up costs compared to other entities and there are many legal obligations of the office-bearers. However, there are considerable benefits too.

It is an excellent vehicle to conduct business and ensure your personal assets, such as your home, are protected against legal action.

We had a client who, after audit, was required to repay some tax rebates received as R&D credits, together with penalties. The shareholders thought they had to sell their home to pay the company’s debt. They did not. The company remained responsible for its own debts and the shareholders got to keep their house.

Unless you give a personal guarantee for a business loan, then your private assets are protected. Since the company is a separate legal entity, it has a separate liability from the business owners. It can incur debts that are limited to the value of the company. If an aggrieved party sues the company for the outstanding debts, it is limited to the company itself and cannot sue the owners, unless they have given a personal guarantee, or fall within a category of liability where directors can be found personally liable – such as failing to pay superannuation.

There are other benefits with respect to taxation as well. The company pays tax at a company rate and can pay “fully franked” dividends to its shareholders, which can be very attractive to the business owners, depending on their individual circumstances.

Since November 2021 directors of companies (along with some other entities) now must be issued a Director Identification Number (DIN) which is issued by ASIC.

There are two types of companies – a privately owned company and a publicly owned company. So what is the difference between a private company and a public company in Australia?

4.1. Private Company

A private company is distinct from a public company because it is privately owned. It will often have “Pty Ltd” after its business name, and this means ‘proprietary limited’. This indicates it is privately owned, with limited liability.

A Pty Ltd or proprietary limited It is the most common structure for small businesses. It is incorporated, issues shares, will have a maximum of fifty shareholders, and each of the shareholders are not personally liable for the debts of the business. They will only be liable for any unpaid financial value of their shares. What this means if that if you purchase 10 x $1 shares but only pay the company $5 at that time of purchase, there will still be 50c owed against each of your 10 shares, and that must be paid if called by the company.

A private company is for protection of your personal assets. There are a large variety of share structuring options available, so it is definitely an option to discuss in greater depth with your accountant or lawyer.

4.2. Public Company

A public company is a company that can be listed on the stock exchange and is funded by investors, or a company to be limited by guarantee and operated as a charity or not-for-profit.

Not for profit means the members or shareholders are not entitled to a distribution of the profits of the business and the profits must be reinvested back into the business. In a for profit company, members or shareholders are entitled to receive a distribution of the profits if dividends are paid. Business is not sustainable if it does not generate a profit.

A public company often has “Ltd” or “limited” after its name to indicate that it has limited liability.

For profit public companies have a complex structure and are required to issue public documents when paying dividends or raising capital. Qantas is a public company. Any company you can purchase shares for on the Australian Stock Exchange is a public company.

A public company remains an option if you grow your business to the point where you would like to take it public and raise considerable share capital through a public offering.

A not-for-profit public company is an appropriate structure for a large charity.

5. Trusts

A trust can be an excellent asset protection structure, but you will need tailored legal and financial advice to correctly suit your personal circumstances. A trust is a vehicle that enables a trustee to act in the best interests and hold property or income for a particular purpose, for the benefit of the beneficiaries or trust members. The trustee can be an individual or a company.

Whilst there are many types of trusts available, there are two main types of trust used in small business. They are:

  1. Unit Trust
  2. Discretionary or Family Trust

The trust is set up with a formal trust deed that provides guidance on the way that the trust operates and the powers of the trustee.

There are other parties named in the trust deed – such as the settlor who won’t have any future involvement in the trust, but who is essential in its establishment.

Superannuation trusts are often established with limited investment categories, for example, an inability to invest in cryptocurrency.

The trustee is responsible for administering the trust. Provided that the trustee behaves appropriately, the trustee is usually entitled to be indemnified out of the trust fund for any liabilities incurred in association with the administration of the trust. If the trust is an individual trustee, their own personal assets can be at risk if the trustee is sued and a good reason to appoint a company as a trustee.

A trust may also be entitled to a 50% capital gains tax exemption, but a company is not. You should seek accounting advice when reviewing your tax obligations.

A discretionary trust is the most common structure in small business.

A unit trust is one of the most common structures for small property development. 

Unit trusts have certainty in proportionate interests, whereas a discretionary trust is variable depending upon the decisions of the trustee. Where a greater degree of certainty in financial dealings of trust property is required, the unit trust is more effective. Each unitholder of the trust holds a specified number of units and the trustee has no discretion to give unitholders distributions that are inconsistent with the rights of other unitholders. You can transfer a unit to another unitholder, just like shares in a company.

We normally recommend that people involved in a unit trust structure enter into a unitholder agreement, similar to a shareholder agreement, to better protect their interests.

How can Onyx Legal help you?

Book an appointment to talk with one of our team about your business structure and whether it is still the most appropriate structure for what you are doing and what you’d like to achieve.

Your Guide to Terms & Conditions

Your Guide to Terms & Conditions

Your Guide to Terms & Conditions

The last few years have seen lots of businesses pivot to make greater use of online tools and increase the opportunity for online sales.

As a business owner you should be considering the exposure of your online business and in particular, when you last updated your terms and conditions, your privacy policy and your disclaimer – or even if you have them to protect your business.

The post COVID-19 era has resulted in more important updates, changes and governmental compliance responsibilities than prior to the pandemic, and increased the complexity of navigating the online business world.

Your terms and conditions set out essential protections for your business including identifying which laws govern your website and business, reducing your chance of a dispute arising, giving you the freedom to remove unwanted people, and placing responsibilities on the user that are important to the way you do business.

Having terms and conditions can significantly reduce any future problems from arising, if you have taken the time to obtain appropriate legal coverage.

Services Online

If you sell a service and have any type of intellectual property, such as an education course or unique planning tool, you will want to ensure one of your terms and conditions include protection. As other businesses move online, they may copy some of your own website and design, so a copyright clause can at least alert visitors to your website that you intend to protect your intellectual property and caution them against copying it.

As a practical tipdo not copy someone else’s website content. It is copyright infringement. If you are checking out what your competitors are doing and want to create something similar, at least choose a competitor on the other side of the world who might have a totally different client base. Don’t copy your local competitor just down the road and expect them not to get upset!

Be innovative. Even if you sell hard products, you can use your online environment to create membership communities, offer education, host competitions etc.

Goods Online

If you manage a type of retail or goods-based business, necessary terms and conditions would include your refund and return policy. Ideally this would set out in very clear terms what the customer should expect in the event that they sought a refund or wanted to return their items.

Your customer must be aware of your terms and conditions before purchase for them to be binding. It saves a lot of hassles and time down the track if your terms of trade are clear and easy to access. It is worthwhile noting here that some terms and conditions cannot override Australian consumer guarantees. Any attempt to limit the Australian Consumer Laws (ACL), is invalid. Consumer guarantees now apply to products and services with a value up to $100,000, regardless of who the purchaser is. 

We can help you navigate your obligations under Australian Consumer Law.

Interesting Recent Cases

Consider the 2019 case of Australian Competition Consumer Commission (ACCC) v Jetstar.

Jetstar tried to present their air fares in a way that excluded any right to a refund for the cheaper air fares. The ACCC commenced proceedings against Jetstar for false and misleading representations, as well as breaching the automatic consumer guarantees that cannot be excluded, restricted or modified, no matter how cheap the air fare was for the consumer.

The Federal Court ordered Jetstar to pay a financial penalty of $1.95 million for the breaches as well as an undertaking to commit to amend its policies and practices to ensure they are consistent with the ACL. This undertaking was court-enforceable if they did not comply.

Another recent case that illustrates the importance of having express terms and conditions is the case of Hardingham v RP Data. Hardingham was a real estate photographer who had an exclusive licence with his business ‘Real Estate Marketing Australia Pty Ltd’ (REMA) for the copyright of his works. He had an ongoing informal oral agreement between him and the various real estate agencies for the use of his photographs and floor plan images for the agencies marketing campaigns. He did not have any express terms and conditions in place between him and the various agencies.

These agencies would then upload his work to Realestate.com.au for the marketing campaigns. In order to proceed with the upload of the photographs, the agency (often a subscriber) would need to agree to the terms and conditions on the website as set out by Realesate.com.au. The terms and conditions on the Realestate.com.au website contained a sub-license to “other persons” in a detailed form.

Realestate.com.au then sub-licensed to RP Data who then published the photographs on its websites and superimposed a logo on the images. RP Data is a subscriber-only database of real estate sales and rental history. After an appeal to the Full Court of the Federal Court of Australia, the court held by 2:1 majority, that the sub-licence to RP Data who then used and manipulated the photographs and images was an infringement of copyright.

The court held that the original owner of the copyright did not agree to the sub-licence when it verbally agreed to the various real estate agencies uploading the images to Realestate.com.au.

We have assisted professional real estate photographers to prepare appropriate terms and conditions for the use of their images to ensure they are paid for use.

This case is a good example where the copyright owner might have avoided going through the expensive and lengthy court process, and the subsequent need to appeal, to receive a judgement in his favour, if he had express terms and conditions that explicitly set out the use of the photographs and images.

Since he had only oral agreements between him and the real estate agencies, the court had to determine if the implied terms were so obvious and were necessary to give business efficacy to the contract. Thankfully the Full Court found that there was such an implied term in this instance.

COVID-19 Impact on Terms and Conditions

Consider another recent case that relied on terms and conditions under a contract that was affected by COVID-19 shutdowns is the case of Dyco Hotels Pty Ltd v Laundry Hotels (Quarry) Pty Ltd. This case concerned the sale of the Quarryman Hotel in Pyrmont, New South Wales (NSW). The contract was signed on 31 January 2020, with the date of settlement set for 27 March 2020.

The contract price was for $11,250,000 and included the associated hotel licence, the gaming machine entitlements and the hotel business itself. The deposit paid by the buyers was $562,500.

In the sale contract, there was an Additional Clause 50.1 which imposed various obligations upon the vendor, including the obligation to continue to operate the business “in the usual and ordinary course as regards to its nature, scope and manner”.

On the 23 March 2020, 4 days before settlement, public health orders issued shutting down the majority of hospitality services. This made it unlawful for the hotel to continue to operate, except for takeaway food and drinks, in accordance with the public health directions.

The buyers argued that the business sale was frustrated by the public health orders since the hotel was no longer able to operate in the “usual and ordinary course as regards to its nature, scope and manner”. They asked for return of the $562,500 deposit and claimed the value of the assets decreased by $1 million due to the public health orders.

The vendor disagreed.

The vendor’s position was that the hotel continued to trade as a going concern within the confines of the health orders and in accordance with the legal restrictions that had been imposed upon it. If the vendor had operated contrary to the public health orders, it would have placed the future operation of the business in jeopardy, including the hotel licence to operate. This would have damaged the goodwill of the hotel. The vendor also argued that they were entitled to terminate the contract, retain the deposit and seek damages for the loss of the bargain.

The NSW Supreme Court found in the vendor’s favour and held that the contract was not frustrated by COVID-19 public health orders. The vendor was entitled to keep the $562,500 deposit and recover damages as well for the loss of bargain. The court assessed the damages to be $900,000 and deducted the deposit of $562,500 from that amount.

Although the terms and conditions in this case were not online but contained in sale documents, it does demonstrate that carefully considered terms and conditions can make a big difference to the outcome of a dispute. 

The purchasers might have been better protected if there were any contractual warranties given by the vendor about the future financial performance of the hotel. Since there were no warranties given, the purchasers accepted the risks.  The purchasers were experienced in the Sydney hotel operations business and understood the various potential risks of legislative changes, despite not being familiar with the impact of a pandemic.

This is a good illustration of the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on terms and conditions and contemplation of the risks associated with business operations. Following the lessons in this case, a vendor would be wise to include business conduct obligations under the contract that can be altered or changed to comply with public health emergencies. A buyer would be wise to include options to terminate the contract in the event where the value of the business has dramatically dropped due to unexpected circumstances.

Another COVID-19 impact on the operation of businesses can be seen in the recent case of Flight Centre Travel Group Limited Trading as Aunt Betty v Goel. Terms and conditions were online and agreed to by click wrap agreement – where the buyer has to check a box stating they agree to terms and conditions before being able to complete the purchase.

In the first hearing, Goel had been awarded a refund on the basis that the purchased flights hadn’t been received.

On the 5 November 2019, the customer (Goel) had made a booking online, for the return flights from Sydney to Delhi scheduled for flights during April 2020. The $2,336.30 flights were with Malaysia Airlines which cancelled the flights during March 2020, when COVID-19 public health orders restricted international travel.

The terms and conditions stated that Flight Centre was only agent and not responsible for delivery. If that were the case, Malaysian Airlines would have been liable to provide the refund, not Flight Centre.

The case we are referring to was an appeal by Flight Centre where it argued that the business Aunt Betty operated as an agent, and not the supplier of the service and therefore was not liable for actions by the airline in cancelling the flight. It would have set a damaging precedent for Flight Centre to be liable to refund all booking costs where it had not received the bulk of those funds, which had been passed on to the suppliers (like Malaysian Airlines) pending delivery.

The tribunal, on appeal, held that Goel would have been aware at the time of booking that he had booked the flights with an agent and not the actual airline carrier itself. It is interesting to note that the court decided that the booking could not have been made without the positive acknowledgement of the terms and conditions on the website. The court also decided that there was no breach of the consumer laws by the agent, and it was not liable to provide the refund.

Conclusion

In order to operate your business successfully, you need to be mindful of the ever-changing landscape that both COVID-19 public health emergencies create, and the increasing demands shaped by conducting more business in the online space.

The pass of change suggests you have your terms and conditions of trade reviewed and updated more frequently, with consideration of all aspects of a transaction.

If you are contemplating signing any contracts for business sales or purchases, it would also be advisable to ensure you are covered in the event that COVID-19 emergency public health order impacts adversely on the contract price and business valuation or operational requirements.

The new year is also a good time to evaluate your privacy policies and disclaimers, as well.

How can Onyx Legal help you?

We love reading and writing terms and conditions. Someone has to do it. It’s fun for us. If your terms and conditions are like a different language for you and you’d rather not think about them, let us help. Book a time to chat with one of our team about how we can help update your online terms sooner rather than later.

Online Learning: Protecting Your Business Online

Online Learning: Protecting Your Business Online

Online Learning: Protecting Your Business Online

consumer protection

Did you know that all businesses must comply with consumer protection laws?
 
Do you understand how consumer rights affect your business?

PRIVACY FOR SMALL BUSINESSES

All business owners must understand their obligations under Australian Privacy Laws.
 
To ensure your business stays on the right side of the law, watch our video to see our Principal Lawyer, Jeanette Jifkins, explain Privacy Law in Australia in more detail.

TERMS AND CONDITIONS

Terms and conditions help protect you and your consumer. So what do you need to include on your website?

Watch our video to see our Principal Lawyer, Jeanette Jifkins, explain.

website ownership basics

Who owns your website and what does that mean?
 
Did you know there is a difference between your domain name and what people see on your website?
 
Watch our video to see our Principal Lawyer, Jeanette Jifkins, discuss website ownership.

understanding copyright law

Watch the full video on Understanding Copyright Law below.

managing testimonials, comments, and reviews

Let’s talk testimonials and no, you can’t make them up.
 
How do you manage them? Are you allowed to use testimonials for advertising? Can you edit them?
 
Watch our video to see our Principal Lawyer, Jeanette Jifkins, answer all these questions.

anti-spam

Spam is an electronic commercial message that can include email, phone and even online chat platforms.
 
When done incorrectly it can be easy to create marketing that your audience may categorise as spam.
 
If you want to avoid this we recommend watching our below video to see our Principal Lawyer, Jeanette Jifkins, explain anti-spam in more detail.

How can Onyx Legal help you?

We’re interested in strategies that support you and your business to grow and get stronger. If you receive a nasty letter of demand and want help in figuring out how to respond, contact us to help you map the way forward.

Disclaimers: What They Do and Don’t Protect You From

Disclaimers: What They Do and Don’t Protect You From

Disclaimers: What They Do and Don’t Protect You From

Disclaimers: What they do and don’t protect you from 

As a business owner, it is likely that you run a website, blog or social media to help people find you, advertise and promote your products or services. It is the most effective way of attracting potential customers or clients in this digital age.

When someone visits your website, you are offering them information of some sort. Are you always 100% certain that all the information on there are accurate and up to date?

Even if your answer is yes, do you know how your customers or competitors are using or interpreting that information? The best you can do is hope they are using it the way you intended, but really it is out of your control.

This is why having a disclaimer is always a good idea. It can better protect you and your business.

What is a disclaimer?

Almost all websites have disclaimers. You must have seen one before. Sometimes disclaimers are hidden in terms of use, and sometimes they have their own individual link in the footer, and sometimes they appear in every footer, whether that is on a website or email.

A disclaimer is a notice that you display to protect you from potential legal issues; it is a statement that you are not responsible for something. To give you an example, here is Wikipedia’s no guarantee disclaimer:

Wikipedia cannot guarantee the validity of the information found here. The content of any given article may recently have been changed, vandalized or altered by someone whose opinion does not correspond with the state of knowledge in the relevant fields.”

 

So, why is it important to have a disclaimer?

Well, consider the case where someone claims that they have relied on your information and suffered loss as a result. Let’s look at an example.

A marketer promotes pre-sales of a real estate development through a website. (A common cause of claims in court.)

The website has some images that are ‘artist’s impressions’ of what the development will look like when it’s finished and might contain other information like a copy of a survey diagram. It might also contain a list of finishes to be included in the final development.

Survey diagrams are really things you should check with a surveyor, engineer or other professional, rather than take from a marketing brochure, but that might also depend on who is providing the brochure and what expertise they say they have.

The website should clearly caution the buyer that the artist’s impressions might not be true to the end result and that a buyer should make their own enquiries to verify information before they decide to buy; like checking the inclusions in the contract with the builder. If there are no clear statements, it is possible that a buyer could claim they were misled by the information on the website and would not have bought otherwise. Then if the property turns out being something they don’t want or doesn’t have the value they expected it to have, they sue the marketer to try and recover their losses.

You do not want to put yourself in a situation like this, where your business reputation could be damaged, and you could be found liable to pay legal costs to defend yourself and possibly someone else’s losses.

Some other common examples we see are:

  • people who have a lived experience with a physical condition or disease, but no formal medical training
  • people who have successfully built a business without any formal qualifications
  • people who have successfully overcome an adversity and again, don’t have any formal qualifications

Out of a genuine desire to help others and share the benefit of their experience, a person like this might establish a business around coaching or educating others on how they achieved what they did.

The thing is, not everything works for everybody consistently, and there is a risk if you put yourself in this kind of position that you will encounter a person your services don’t work for, and they say the relied completely on what you said. In that situation, a disclaimer might just help you avoid costly court proceedings.

And for something completely different…

Now consider a completely different situation where your website makes it possible for other people to post comments, reviews or advertisements. Forum sites and advice sites like Quora are like this.  All the information posted by third parties could mislead your customers, clients, or visitors of your website, and you could be the one exposed to liabilities because of their actions.

By having a clear and comprehensive disclaimer for your websites, and building behaviour and processes consistent with the terms of your disclaimer, you put yourself in the best possible position to:

  • protect your rights;
  • limit your liability; and
  • disclaim third party liability.

 

Do you need a disclaimer?

Yes, and no.

Being in business involves a certain level of risk and some types of business are riskier than others, and some types of business people are happy with more risk than others.

We need to look at your business, your background, your products and your customers to form an opinion on how important it is for you to use disclaimers.

Generally speaking, we will suggest you do use a disclaimer on your website.

This is because any member of the public that has internet access can see the content on your website, and you are responsible for all the content you put on there. Even if you are not making money from these websites (for example, you might be posting a blog simply for informational purposes), you must still take reasonable steps to ensure that visitors of your website will not be misled by any information you share.

However, if your business is fairly straight-forward and well understood, like a barber or hairdresser for example, you probably don’t need a disclaimer. Everyone knows what barbers and hairdressers do. The worst that can happen is probably a bad haircut, or a bad colour, or a clumsy shave. The risk to the business is the cost of the service, and maybe the cost of fixing the problem, or the customer having someone else fix the problem. The problem probably won’t cost the business more than $300. So, will a disclaimer make any difference? Probably not.

On the other hand, coaching can be a really interesting area where you as a coach should be careful about what you say you can do for someone, particularly when results are going to be dependent on how much effort and application your client invests in doing what you have advised them to do.  If you are offering a high-end coaching package with a purchase price over $10,000, we would recommend a disclaimer.

If you run a website or email list that provides information which is likely to be relied on by visitors  to your website, or subscribers on your email list, you are strongly encouraged to have a disclaimer in place. Particularly if you provide specialised information, in areas such as health, managing money or an industry that is regulated.

If your website provides specific steps in a process or a guide for people to follow, you could also increase your legal risk.

An example might be if you are an online fitness trainer and you post videos that step your clients through a workout. If someone who watches and follows your video injures themself, then you run the risk that they sue you for their injury. But if you have a disclaimer in place which covers your legal obligations and placing some responsibility for your clients behaviour back on to them, you give yourself a much higher chance of avoiding liability.

 

What kind of disclaimer do you need?

You may run different types of websites, and the type of disclaimers you need will vary.

  • Websites

What disclaimer you need depends on whether you use your website to sell products or services, or merely to publish information. If you use your website to sell a product, someone could get hurt when using your product. Whereas if you post information on your website, someone could misconstrue that information and suffer loss as a result.

You might need a ‘no responsibility’ disclaimer which states that you are not responsible for any damages people suffer as a result of using your products or services. Or you might need a ‘views expressed’ disclaimer to inform readers that the information is only your view or opinion and is not intended to be relied upon without advice specific to their circumstances. 

  • Blog

If you intend on giving information on your blog which you are not qualified to give, you need to have a disclaimer to explain the limits of your qualifications and to recommend that people seek professional advice relevant to their circumstances.

If you are not a health professional but provide information about a health conditions, you need to make it very clear that readers should not rely on your information without seeking their own independent medical advice. The same applies for other types of expert advice including financial or legal advice.

If you are merely passing on information, you should indicate that it is work of another and that you are not endorsing it by making it available on your website. 

  • Emails

You may need a disclaimer in your emails, depending on the type of business you run and how you use your email. 

For instance, if you email contains advice that you are not qualified to give, you should include a disclaimer to the effect that you are not an expert in that field, that you are only offering a suggestion and that readers who act on the information do so at their own risk.

A confidentiality disclaimer can also be beneficial if you are sending confidential information. The disclaimer should state that the recipient must not use, reproduce, copy or disclose this information other than for the purposes for which it was supplied. 

  • Social media (eg. Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram)

Again, this will depend on your business and how you use social media.

One of the biggest risks with social media is that third parties can comment, post, or advertise on your page. A disclaimer to limit your liability for any actions or errors of third parties will be of assistance if you are also monitoring your social media pages and removing posts or qualifying posts and comments that could be misleading.

 

How do you write a disclaimer for your website?

It is not possible to have a disclaimer that could work for all types of businesses or websites. Each disclaimer is different depending on what you do and how you do it. Like we said earlier, we need to look at your business, your background, your products and your customers to form an opinion on how important it is for you to use disclaimers.

To help you decide what you should include in your disclaimer:

Step 1 – Think about what rights you want to protect

Step 2 – Think about what liabilities you might be exposed to

You need to identify the possible risks and scenarios that could expose you to legal liability.

Consider:

  • Warning your readers that your content is merely an opinion and not a fact
  • Alerting your readers to the potential mistakes and inaccuracies in the information
  • Informing your readers that you are not offering professional advice and your content is only informational, and that they should consult a professional before making any decisions
  • Disclaiming liability for any errors in the information that third parties post on your websites (together with a process for reviewing the accuracy of information shared, or making it clear that older posts might not be accurate.

 

When are you not protected by a disclaimer?

If your disclaimer contains terms that attempt to exclude a legal liability that cannot be excluded, your disclaimer will not shield you from liability. If it is contrary to law, it might be void, but if it is legally compliant, it might still limit your potential liability.

Most people get in trouble when they say or do things that are inconsistent with their disclaimer.

Always keep in mind that your disclaimer must be consistent with your behaviour and business processes and any representations that you make, whether on your website or through your conduct. If anything on your website or your conduct creates a different impression for your customer or client, your disclaimer will not protect you.

Your disclaimer also needs to be placed somewhere where it can easily be seen either by customers using your website or receiving your emails or communications in any other way. If your disclaimer is too hard to find or too small that is can be easily missed, it will not protect you.

Conventional website design will usually have a link to your disclaimer in the footer of your website.

 

 

do you still need insurance when you have a disclaimer?

Yes.

Even if you have a disclaimer in place, you should still hold adequate liability insurance to protect business activities. Having a disclaimer does not mean you are guaranteed to be protected from all liabilities. If a claim is brought against you, it is up to the courts to determine the effect of your disclaimer and to what extent your liability is limited. The more vague or confusing your disclaimer is, the more unlikely that it will protect you.

 

 

Want more information?

 A well-drafted, quality disclaimer can help you to effectively manage your customer or clients’ expectations and set the boundaries for your responsibility and liability.

Contact Onyx Legal so that we can work with you to identify the most appropriate form of disclaimer for your business and your customer base. 

10 Ways to Avoid a Joint Venture Fail

10 Ways to Avoid a Joint Venture Fail

10 Ways to Avoid a Joint Venture Fail

Joint Ventures are great for collaboration

Working together with another like minded entrepreneur is a clever way to accelerate business growth, which is why joint ventures remain a popular way for individuals or organisations to collaborate. But before you ‘Give it Away’ (as there’s always room for a Red Hot Chilli Peppers reference in a legal consideration blog), it’s critical to shore up your joint venture’s credentials to ensure a smooth, surprise-free partnership from beginning to end. In this Onyx Legal blog , we highlight 10 ways to avoid joint venture fails. [Ok, so we ended up with 11 – Ed.]

Joint Ventures are usually for a specific and limited project, goal or purpose and may also be limited by time.

1. Who is party to the joint venture?

Establishing a joint venture is no time to be carefree with the details.

Before entering into a joint venture, establish the legal identity of all parties. This means performing ABN and other similar regulatory checks. It might also mean checking driver’s licence details of individuals. 

A client recently came to us with a proposed joint venture, and we could not establish who would pay him the $400k that he expected to receive as his share of profits. The deal fell over when the other party also failed to establish who would pay that sum.

2. How Should You Structure a Joint Venture?

It is important to understand that joint ventures and partnerships are different structures.

A partnership is a long-term working proposition with full legal liability – a commitment to working together into the future.

A joint venture is project or purpose-focused, and facilitates separate parties to continue working on other businesses simultaneously. Joint ventures can be done by contract with each party paying their own tax, but one of the parties must hold the assets relating to that venture (paperwork, accounts, assets) unless it is established in its own identity.

3. What do you want to achieve with your joint venture? 

It’s easy to get caught up in the potential of success and innovation at the beginning of a joint venture, which is why understanding what you want to achieve from the collaboration is so valuable.

We’ve observed web designers, marketers and programmers enter joint ventures expecting to receive a share in profits at the end of the build, only to have ‘goal posts’ moved so regularly they exit the venture – leaving thousands of hours of unpaid labour in their wake.

Failing to understand – or formalise – expectations in a joint venture regularly leads to disappointment.

Put together a clear written agreement covering all the moving parts of your proposed joint venture, and allowing some flexibility for change as your venture grows. 

have a written Joint Venture agreement

Failing to understand – or formalise – expectations in a joint venture regularly leads to disappointment

4. How long should your joint venture last?

How long is a piece of string?

There’s no single answer to this question; the duration of your joint venture is based on the purpose of the project.

Will you be building something – a house or a piece of technology?

Are you going to be running a developing a piece of software or an education program together?

If you are building or developing something together the period of the joint venture might be the development period, and once you have a completed MVP (minimum viable product) you might roll it over into a company and start building a team to run it. 

Where you’re entering a revenue share deal, it might be a two year focused time frame for growing the base income of the business. 

Whilst you do not need to define a hard ‘end date’ to your joint venture in documentation, it’s useful for all parties to understand the purpose of the relationship, and a general timeline to completion of the project, and what completion looks like.

We regularly write in rolling successive terms, such as a one year agreement that rolls over for another year unless someone terminates before the end of the year. 

5. How can disagreements be dealt with or avoided? 

A joint venture agreement should be robust, providing options should parties fail to perform their role, or decide to walk away from the project.

In collaboration with your lawyer and with your project’s specific risks and opportunities in mind, carefully identify pressure points that require clarification and consider an approach to realistic exit should your working relationship end unexpectedly before the project is completed.

Good joint venture agreements remove the element of surprise from projects, leading to higher rates of completion and reduced conflict.

For a two party joint venture, it is a great idea to have some way of independently breaking deadlocked decisions. You could use a trusted third party as a referee, such as a mentor or board adviser. You could also allocated areas of decision making to each party that give one person a try breaking vote on those issues.

6. What if someone wants out if the joint venture early?

Build the possibility of a party leaving the joint venture into the structure of the joint venture to avoid future problems.

The best laid plans of mice and men often go awry, and a party may need to exit the joint venture for any number of reasons. Family life may be under pressure, there could be financial considerations, or health issues to address.

Fairness is key when devising a graceful exit from a joint venture. 

7. What if you want someone else to join in the venture part way through? 

Joint ventures can be created to allow for the possibility of other experts parties joining the project. Sales professionals are typically invited to join in after an MVP is achieved. 

It’s important that you’re working with a lawyer to structure your joint venture for all possible contingencies … which could  include growing your collaborative group.

8. Who will do what in your joint venture?

Formalising a joint venture is no time for pussyfooting around responsibilities or making assumptions about role workloads.

Success in your project relies on clear delegation of work, as all parties will have other responsibilities that could take their attention, in addition to the joint venture.

It’s important to know exactly who will be paying the bills and who will be responsible for particular milestones.

Having difficult conversations early on about the work or outcomes due for completion by exact parties of the venture will save plenty of strife when life gets busy or timelines become blown-out. 

9. What happens if someone fails to live up to their responsibilities in the joint venture?

As with any project, it’s possible that the whole thing could become scrambled eggs.

Of course you don’t anticipate that will be the outcome, but it’s prudent to plan for unlikely circumstances. Think about COVID-19, a virus which has changed the trajectory of the global economy in the space of months. It was nigh on impossible to imagine the world shutting down a year before the corona virus; but there it is.

People can fail to live up to the responsibilities in a joint venture for a variety of reasons, including circumstances beyond their control.

Build into your joint venture contingencies around ‘failure to perform’ and decide what the dissolution of the relationship should look like. Who gets what? What will trigger the dissolution? How will any debts be paid?

These are important matters to discuss with your collaborative partners and your lawyer.

10. Who retains any intellectual property created during the venture, once it ends?  

Often a complex matter to consider, the ownership of intellectual property is the cause of many disagreements.

If the joint venture does fail, there is likely to be an argument about intellectual property and who owns what. If you can work out IP ownership at the commencement of your joint venture, you’ll design a logical way of dealing with the matter if you fall out.

Maybe each party only walks away with what they contributed; maybe each party walks away with one complete copy of the created intellectual property.

Certainty around what will happen at the time of the exit gives everyone confidence and reduces the risk of legal action. 

11. How will the project be managed?

A joint venture teaches entrepreneurs a whole lot about project management and communication. There are many moving pieces you and your partners will need to consider:

  • planning
  • stakeholder relationships
  • reporting
  • regular meetings and agendas
  • cashflow 

While it is appropriate for different roles to be attributed, a single party needs to be appointed to ensure accountability across the whole of the joint venture. You will need someone with the energy and drive to ensure that things happen. 

Flexibility must be built into this role, and an allowance to break ‘deadlocks’ in decision making.

Many’s the time we have observed joint ventures fall apart when the directors of the governing entity failed to design a mechanism for change, independent of the warring parties. 

Joint ventures are a terrific way for business owners to collaborate, to stretch their skills, test ideas, and to innovate. A well-designed joint venture allows for the clear division of work and responsibility, provides safeguards for failure and disappointment, and deals with the sticky stuff of business relationships before they become complex.

At Onyx Legal we support business owners to come together with like-minded partners in joint ventures, creating structures that respond to your unique projects, packed with safeguards to keep you as confident and safe as possible.

Our key takeaway for joint ventures?

Think on it.

Clarity at the beginning of a project leads to better results in a joint venture, and the chance everyone will meet or exceed their expectations. 

How can Onyx Legal help you?

Joint ventures have a contractual foundation.
You can form a joint venture with a handshake, or you can put a little thought into your expectations and negotiate an agreement that clearly sets out each party’s rights and obligations, as well as exit opportunities. We also highly recommend incorporating sensible dispute resolution mechanisms that will support the joint venture moving forward. If you are already in a joint venture, we can review the contract and clarify any legal rights and obligations you don’t understand.

Pause Before You Threaten Legal Action for Stolen Intellectual Property

Pause Before You Threaten Legal Action for Stolen Intellectual Property

Pause Before You Threaten Legal Action for Stolen Intellectual Property

Stop and Pause: being too quick to assert your Intellectual Property rights could land you in hot water

Do you think that someone is using your work in an illegal way? Stop and pause before you threaten them with legal action, as accusing someone of infringing your intellectual property rights may leave you in the firing line.

Law exists in Australia to protect people from making dubious claims in relation to patents, designs, copyright and trademarks. This extends to sending cease-and-desist letters, sending circulars and advertisements.

The idea behind this legislation is to stop rights holders from misusing their position.

For example, it may be easy to scare off a competitors by having lawyers draft a cease-and-desist that the competitor cannot afford to investigate, even if your competitor has not technically infringed your intellectual property.

A 2016 case of CQMS Pty Limited v Bradken Resources Pty Limited shows that if you wrongly allege infringement, the person you complained about may bring a claim against you.

In that case, CQMS alleged that Bradken had infringed a number of their patents. Their lawyers sent out a letter of demand, setting out the basis for their claim. The letter of demand was “fairly standard” and of the kind often sent by patent attorneys. When Bradken did not comply with their request, CQMS then pursued the claim in court.

CQMS lost the case and was then counter-sued by Bradken, who asserted that they had been the victim of an “unjustified threat”. The fact that CQMS had lost the case was evidence of the “unjustified threat”. It did not matter that CQMS firmly believed that they had a good case against Bradken and were prepared to follow it through in court.

Likewise, the 2016 case of Stone & Wood Group Pty Ltd v Intellectual Property Development Corporation Pty Ltd should serve as a warning to be careful. What you may think infringes intellectual property rights may not in fact, do so.

In that case, craft beer brewers Stone & Wood had a beer called “Handcrafted Stone & Wood Pacific Ale” and they alleged that competitor craft brewers Elixir had infringed their intellectual property rights by calling their beer “Thunder Road Pacific” and “Pacific Ale”.

Unfortunately, when filing court proceedings Stone & Wood claimed for passing off and contraventions of Australian Consumer Law, but did not include a claim for trade mark infringement in their original claim. Stone & Wood only added a claim for trade mark infringement after Elixir counter-claimed for groundless threats of legal proceedings for trade mark infringement resulting from the letters between lawyers before the claim was filed.  

The court found for Elixir, and said that the reactive amendment to Stone & Wood’s claim adding trade mark infringement only after Elixir made a claim fro groundless threats, served to support Elixir’s case.

These examples should deter you from firing off “cease and desist” letters without a careful strategy.

As it has not always been clear what a groundless claim or unjustified threat could be, in 2017 the UK Parliament passed the Intellectual Property (Unjustified Threats) Act to clarify the meaning. If a reasonable person believes that a communication contains a threat of legal proceedings to protect a registered trade mark as the result of an act done, that will constitute a threat of infringement proceedings. 

That threat will not be actionable if an infringement has occurred. Letters asking a person to cease and desist infringing behaviour will not be actionable if they identify the owner’s rights and do not threaten legal proceedings. 

At this stage, reform is not proposed in Australia.

What if someone is infringing your IP?

In light of the pitfalls noted in this article, what should you do if you think that someone is infringing your intellectual property?

1. Stop and pause

Take a deep breath before firing off any emails or letters to the other party.

Do not presume that just because your competitor is using similar words, colours or phrases that they are automatically infringing your intellectual property.

Do not send any kind of “cease and desist” communication unless you are genuinely intending to proceed with, and substantiate, the claim in court. Be aware that in some cases, if you fail in court, that is enough to establish an “unjustified threat”.

2. Check it out

Check what intellectual property rights you do have. Do you have all your designs, patents and trademarks registered? Are your claims valid in the country that you are asserting them? Just because you have rights in one country, does not mean you have rights in another.

Engage a lawyer who works in the area of intellectual property you seek to protect, if you are unsure about what rights you have.

3. Play if safe

If you believe that someone is close to infringing your intellectual property, there are some things you can do. You are allowed to notify another party that intellectual property in a particular design, patent or trademark exists.

We recommend getting a lawyer to look over any correspondence you intend to send, as there are scales of what is considered a threat.

What if you receive a cease and desist letter?

1. Don’t panic

Being on the other end of a cease and desist letter can be frightening, especially if the other party is speaking about pursing a claim in court.

Remember, these letters are not a summons to court.

Take a deep breath and take time to properly assess what is being asked of you. Don’t rush to pull down all your advertising material or respond with a knee-jerk reaction.

Letters from lawyers in your country should be taken seriously, but there are a variety of options available.

2. Read the letter

Read their communication with care to find out exactly what the other party asking you to do.

Are they talking about trademarks? Copyright? Or other contractual matters? Are they asking you to remove certain material? Or are they just asking for information?

Do they want a response by a certain date? Do they want you to remove the whole part of something, or just make minor changes?

3. Speak to a lawyer about whether a valid claim exists

Intellectual property law can be complicated, with varying degrees of permitted use.

Using similar colours and phrases will not automatically infringe someone’s intellectual property rights.

4. Do nothing

Unfortunately, operating in the public arena opens you up to allowing anyone to contact you. Some people like to act aggressively with the intent to intimidate you or disrupt your business practices. In a case like that you might simply respond that you disagree with their position, or not respond at all. 

Be careful if you choose not to respond to a letter, particularly if it is from a lawyer within your country. If there is a chance you are infringing someone’s intellectual property rights then you could be at risk of further proceedings. 

If there is a chance the claim is valid – address it immediately and do not hide it at the bottom of you to-do-list in the hope that it will go away. In most cases, it usually does not!

5. Comply

After reading the letter and seeking advice, it may be that you decide to comply. This will probably be the easiest and most cost effective solution.

However, you should consider the consequences of doing so. Will you have to change your whole business strategy? Will it cost a lot to make the required changes?

How can Onyx Legal help you?

We can help you assess the risk of action you want to take in response to a threat of action claiming your infringement, or if you want to issue a letter notifying another party of their infringement. 

Once we have properly assessed your position, we can work with you to develop and appropriate strategy to move forward in the way that best suits your position.