Law: Small shops win lease of life: Sharon Wallach reports on a battle to amend the Sunday trading law

A West End solicitor has been instrumental in securing an amendment to the Sunday Trading Bill. Geoffrey Silman, a partner in the four-partner firm Nathan, Silman, was concerned that as it stood the effect of the Bill could be to compel some small shopkeepers to open on Sundays.

The firm acts for a number of retailer clients. 'From our involvement we know that it is common for leases, particularly in shopping centres, to contain 'keep open to trade' covenants, compelling tenants to open during set business hours,' Mr Silman says.

If these hours include Sundays, the compulsion to open would be contrary to the spirit of the Bill, whose stated principle is for Sunday opening to be optional, although there may be compelling commercial reasons for doing so.

'There are situations, particularly in the recession, when it may be cheaper not to open,' Mr Silman points out. 'There have as yet been no cases of injunctions compelling tenants to open, but there have been one or two cases of damages being awarded to landlords against tenants for not opening.'

Mr Silman's first step on to new territory was to write an article on the subject which was published in Estates Gazette in December. 'Following up my interest, I attended the Commons debate that month in which various options were proposed,' he says.

He then contacted his local MP, Glenda Jackson, the Labour member for Hampstead and Highgate. This was another first: 'I had no particular knowledge of the parliamentary process,' he says. 'I met Glenda Jackson in early January and explained the point to her: a lease should be a means to an end, not a dead end. She was very helpful, and referred me to Joan Ruddock, who is the opposition spokesperson on home affairs.'

Ms Jackson happened to be a member of the standing committee formed to go through the Bill line by line. 'My point was raised and discussions touched on matters such as the retailers' service charge liability, whether they open or not, and staffing costs,' Mr Silman says.

At that stage, he was put in touch with the Home Office official charged with supervising the drafting of the Bill on the Government's behalf. 'He sent me some amendments, saying in the main that covenants to keep open for trade in leases signed before the enactment of the Bill would be unenforceable on Sundays,' he says. This amendment was put forward in the Commons debate (on Wednesday of last week), agreed and is now incorporated in the Bill, which is due to be enacted in the summer. The relevant issue of Hansard reveals the degree of Mr Silman's involvement: his name is raised several times. 'We have been helped considerably in framing the new clause by information and advice offered by Mr Silman,' says the Government's spokesman, Peter Lloyd.

'The whole thing has been enlightening for me,' Mr Silman says. 'I was very pleased to discover how approachable MPs are. Glenda Jackson and Joan Ruddock were particularly helpful.'

Does a new career as a parliamentary draughtsman beckon? 'It's hard enough to keep up with new legislation, let alone reading Bills line by line,' he says. 'It would certainly beat working as a solicitor - but then most things do.'

In the summer Nathan, Silman is to hold a seminar on Sunday trading for landlords, retailers, surveyors and other professionals. For further details ring 071-935 0898.

(Photograph omitted)

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