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Provisions, Contingent Liabilities and Contingent Assets Essay

The Standard

This standard distinguishes between provisions and contingent liabilities. A provision is included in the statement of financial position at the best estimate of the expenditure required to settle the obligation at the end of the reporting period.

A contingent liability is not recognised in the statement of financial position. However, unless the possibility of an outflow of economic resources is remote, a contingent liability is disclosed in the notes.


A provision is a liability of uncertain timing or amount. A liability may be a legal obligation or a constructive obligation. A constructive obligation arises from the entity’s actions, through which it has indicated to others that it will accept certain responsibilities, and as a result has created an expectation that it will discharge those responsibilities. Examples of provisions may include warranty obligations; legal or constructive obligations to clean up contaminated land or restore facilities; and a retailer’s policy to refund customers.

A provision is measured at the amount that the entity would rationally pay to settle the obligation at the end of the reporting period or to transfer it to a third party at that time. Risks and uncertainties are taken into account in the measurement of a provision. A provision is discounted to its present value.

FRS 37 elaborates on the application of the recognition and measurement requirements for three specific cases:

• Future operating losses – A provision cannot be recognised because there is no obligation at the end of the reporting period.

• An onerous contract gives rise to a provision.

• A provision for restructuring costs is recognised only when the entity has a constructive obligation – the main features of the detailed restructuring plan have been announced to those affected by it.

Contingent Liabilities

Contingent liabilities are possible obligations whose existence will be confirmed by uncertain future events that are not wholly within the control of the entity. Contingent liabilities also include obligations that are not recognised because their amount cannot be measured reliably or settlement is not probable. An example of a contingent liability is litigation against the entity when the occurrence of any wrongdoing by the entity is uncertain.

Contingent Assets

Contingent assets are possible assets the existence of which will be confirmed by the occurrence or non-occurrence of uncertain future events that are not wholly within control of the entity. Contingent assets are not recognised in the statement of financial position. Contingent assets are disclosed when it is more likely than not that an inflow of benefits will occur. However, when the inflow of benefits is virtually certain an asset is recognised in the statement of financial position, because that asset is no longer considered to be contingent.

Business Implications

FRS 37 restricts the circumstances in which a provision can be recognised. It does not allow a provision to be created for the possibility of something occurring in future. There must be a present obligation (a liability) at the end of the reporting period.

Although provisions are not recognised for future operating losses, the expectation of future operating losses triggers an impairment test of the operation’s asset. The impairment test may result in the recognition of an impairment loss. Furthermore, the present obligation under an onerous contract is recognised and measured as a provision.

The measurement of a provision requires judgment about the amount, timing and risks of the cash flows required to settle the obligation. Caution is needed in making judgment under conditions of uncertainty. However, uncertainty does not justify the creation of excessive provisions.

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