Under the common law, specific performance was not a remedy, with the rights of a litigant being limited to the collection of damages. However, the courts of equity developed the remedy of specific performance as damages often could not adequately compensate someone for the inability to own a particular piece of real property, land being regarded as unique. Specific performance is often guaranteed through the remedy of a right of possession, giving the plaintiff the right to take possession of the property in dispute. However, in the case of personal performance contracts, it may also be ensured through the threat of proceedings for contempt of court.
Orders of specific performance are granted when damages are not an adequate remedy, and in some specific cases such as land sale. Such orders are discretionary, as with all equitable remedies, so the availability of this remedy will depend on whether it is appropriate in the circumstances of the case.
There are certain circumstances where an order of specific performance would not be granted. Such circumstances include:
Additionally, in England and Wales, under s. 50 of the Supreme Court Act 1981, the High Court has a discretion to award a claimant damages in lieu of specific performance (or an injunction). Such damages will normally be assessed on the same basis as damages for breach of contract, namely to place the claimant in the position he would have been had the contract been carried out.
However, the limits of specific performance in other contexts are narrow. Moreover, performance that is based on the personal judgment or abilities of the party on which the demand is made is rarely ordered by the court. The reason behind it is that the forced party will often perform below the party's regular standard when it is in the party's ability to do so. Monetary damages are usually given instead.
Traditionally, equity would only grant specific performance with respect to contracts involving chattels where the goods were unique in character, such as art, heirlooms, and the like. The rationale behind this was that with goods being fungible, the aggrieved party had an adequate remedy in damages for the other party's non-performance.
In the United States, Article 2 of the Uniform Commercial Code displaces the traditional rule in an attempt to adjust the law of sales of goods to the realities of the modern commercial marketplace. If the goods are identified to the contract for sale and in the possession of the seller, a court may order that the goods be delivered over to the buyer upon payment of the price. This is termed replevin. In addition, the Code allows a court to order specific performance where "the goods are unique or in other proper circumstances", leaving the question of what circumstances are proper to be developed by case law.
In the civil law (the law of continental Europe and much of the non English speaking world) specific performance is considered to be the basic right. Money damages are a kind of "substitute specific performance." Indeed, it has been proposed that substitute specific performance better explains the common law rules of contract as well, see (Steven Smith, Contract Law, Clarenden Law ).
In English law, in principle reparation must be done in specie unless another remedy is ‘more appropriate’.