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When Covid-19 ‘trips’ up your school’s travel plans

11 January 2021

Please note: the information contained in this legal update is correct as of the original date of publication.

Throughout 2020, journalists and politicians stressed the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on holiday and travel plans for individuals and households. However, the pandemic has also affected countless school trips, giving rise to legal issues such as schools’ financial exposure to cancellation fees and deposit refunds, the effect of force majeure clauses and limitless debates with insurers.

While the world is hoping that 2021 will bring more positive news in respect of the pandemic, issues relating to cancelled school trips are expected to continue, particularly in light of the newly announced lockdown.


Issues

Schools are having to perform a balancing act between parental concerns, consumer confidence, health and safety and safeguarding obligations, the practicalities of travel, and a potentially sizeable liability in cancellation fees.

Schools are facing significant financial exposure in respect of cancellation fees and deposits retained by trip providers. This is then coupled by pressures from parents to cancel trips and/or provide refunds. However, clearly, it is not viable for schools to face this financial burden alone.

Many families are already dealing with significant financial pressure and emotional stress as a result of the pandemic and as such, obtaining refunds for money paid to trip providers is of critical importance.

Furthermore, parents are looking to schools to act decisively to cancel trips amid concerns about student safety and the practicalities of travel.

Government travel guidance and restrictions have also greatly impacted school travel plans. Currently, the UK Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO) advises against all but essential travel. In England at present, the lockdown restrictions stipulate that people must not leave their homes, including to travel abroad, unless there is a legally permitted reason to do so. Schools must also be kept abreast of guidance issued by the Department for Education in respect of travel for educational purposes.

Furthermore, many other countries have closed their borders or imposed self-isolation requirements, making school trips impractical or impossible.

It is important to note that if schools ignore FCDO advice warning against all but essential travel to a travel destination, it is likely that this would invalidate their travel insurance policy.

When the pandemic first began in the spring of 2020, school trip providers were willing to take a more lenient approach to cancel or postpone trips, with many believing that the impact of the pandemic would be short-lived. However, as the pandemic has continued, trip providers have adopted a more resolute and unsympathetic approach in order to avoid financial collapse.

It has been widely reported in the media that the pandemic has had a devastating impact on the travel industry, with business closures and large-scale redundancies. As such, trip providers are making difficult and often controversial decisions to safeguard their businesses.

Furthermore, it is probable that trip provider insolvency would make it even more difficult for schools to obtain refunds of deposits, as schools would likely join a long line of unsecured creditors.

In an effort to reach a solution to the satisfaction of all parties involved, trip providers are encouraging schools to recover losses under insurance policies. While some schools have been successful in recovering losses via their insurance policies, many insurers require schools to actively pursue recovery through the trip providers first, in line with guidance issued by the Association of British Insurers. Worse still, the position taken by other insurers is that cover cannot be provided for pandemic travel-related issues.


Practical next steps

Browne Jacobson has assisted several of its education clients with navigating these problems and identifying practical solutions to issues faced as a result of school trip cancellations, as discussed further below.

Schools may seek to postpone their trips and offset retained deposits against new bookings. In our experience, it may be possible to arrange this – but only at the discretion of the trip provider, as most travel terms and conditions set out financial penalties for significant amendments to bookings. Therefore, a detailed review of the terms and conditions is required in order to ascertain if this is a viable option for the school.

Postponing trips is, of course, not always an ideal solution in any event, as often trips are planned for specific year groups at particular times in the academic year. Furthermore, schools and families may not feel comfortable in rebooking trips due to the uncertain nature of the pandemic, and potentially as a result of damage to relationships with trip providers.

There may be scope within the Package Travel and Linked Travel Arrangements Regulations 2018 to negotiate a full refund and refute liability for cancellation fees. Regulations 12 and 13 relate to unavoidable and extraordinary circumstances (such as a global pandemic) and set out the conditions in which travellers can cancel a trip without liability for cancellation fees and seek full refunds for any money paid. This is fact-specific and does not always apply.

We can offer specific advice on whether your school can seek relief under the Regulations and discuss all of the relevant provisions within the statute.

It will also be important to consider whether a trip provider is a member of the Association of British Travel Agents (ABTA) as guidance issued by ABTA may affect trip bookings. Furthermore, ABTA may be able to support schools in resolving disputes with trip providers.

It will be important to review the booking terms and conditions in detail to establish whether the school has any contractual basis to seek a refund of trip payments or to refute liability for cancellation fees.

As discussed above, the initial position taken by many insurers is that schools should exhaust efforts to obtain refunds from trip providers before looking to claim on their insurance policy. Schools may also choose to proceed on this basis in any event, given that it may not be preferable to make an insurance claim unless absolutely necessary.

Therefore, schools should contact their insurers when these issues first arise to establish the level of cover offered by their policies and to clarify the insurer’s position. Schools should also confirm if they have Risk Protection Arrangement (RPA) cover, as this may offer a greater degree of protection.

Schools who have made payments for a cancelled trip by credit card should check whether it would be possible to obtain a refund from the credit card company. This may be an option available if schools have no luck obtaining refunds from the trip provider, and this should be pursued as a secondary option after understanding the positions taken by the trip provider and insurer.


Summary

From our experience, the terms and conditions and circumstances differ quite dramatically when dealing with these issues and there is no ‘one size fits all’ approach. However, with our assistance, a number of our education clients have positively resolved issues with their trip providers and obtained refunds of cancellation fees, satisfactorily postponed their trips and/or fully recouped losses via their insurance policies.

If you would like help understanding how you can re-arrange or cancel a trip, please get in touch with Jessica Hawley or Amba Griffin-Booth, who will be happy to assist.

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The content on this page is provided for the purposes of general interest and information. It contains only brief summaries of aspects of the subject matter and does not provide comprehensive statements of the law. It does not constitute legal advice and does not provide a substitute for it.

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