A contract is an exchange of promises between two or more parties to do or refrain from doing an act which is enforceable in a court of law. Contract law is based on the Latin phrase pacta sunt servanda (pacts must be kept). Breach of contract is recognised by the law and remedies can be provided. Sometimes written contracts are required, such as when buying a house. However, most contracts can be and are made orally, like buying a law textbook, or purchasing coffee at a shop. Contract law can be classified, as is habitual in civil law systems, as part of a general law of obligations (along with tort, unjust enrichment or restitution).
In common law, there are five key requirements for the creation of a contract. These are offer and acceptance (agreement), consideration, an intention to create legal relations, capacity and Formalities. In civil law systems, the concept of consideration is not central. In addition, for some contracts formalities must be complied with under what is sometimes called a statute of frauds.
One of the most famous cases on forming a contract is Carlill v. Carbolic Smoke Ball Company decided in nineteenth-century England. A medical firm advertised that its new wonder drug, a smoke ball, would cure people's flu, and if it did not, buyers would receive £100. When sued, Carbolic argued the ad was not to be taken as a serious, legally binding offer. It was merely an invitation to treat, and a gimmick. But the court of appeal held that it would appear to a reasonable man that Carbolic had made a serious offer, primarily because of the reference to the £1000 deposited into the bank. People had given good "consideration" for it by going to the "distinct inconvenience" of using a faulty product. "Read the advertisement how you will, and twist it about as you will," said Lindley LJ, "here is a distinct promise expressed in language which is perfectly unmistakable".
Where a product in large quantities is advertised in a newspaper or on a poster, it is generally regarded as an offer; however, if the person who is to buy the advertised product is of importance, for instance because of his personality, etc., when buying a good such as land, it is regarded merely as an invitation to treat. In Carbolic Smoke Ball, the major difference was that a reward was included in the advertisement, which is a general exception to the rule and is then treated as an offer.
The case of Carlill v. Carbolic Smoke Ball Co. (above) is an example of a 'unilateral contract', obligations are only imposed upon one party upon acceptance by performance of a condition. In the U.S., the general rule is that in "case of doubt, an offer is interpreted as inviting the offeree to accept either by promising to perform what the offer requests or by rendering the performance, as the offeree chooses.
Offer and acceptance does not always need to be expressed orally or in writing. An implied contract is one in which some of the terms are not expressed in words. This can take two forms. A contract which is implied in fact is one in which the circumstances imply that parties have reached an agreement even though they have not done so expressly. For example, by going to a doctor for a checkup, a patient agrees that he will pay a fair price for the service. If one refuses to pay after being examined, the patient has breached a contract implied in fact. A contract which is implied in law is also called a quasi-contract, because it is not in fact a contract; rather, it is a means for the courts to remedy situations in which one party would be unjustly enriched were he or she not required to compensate the other. For example, a plumber accidentally installs a sprinkler system in the lawn of the wrong house. The owner of the house had learned the previous day that his neighbor was getting new sprinklers. That morning, he sees the plumber installing them in his lawn. Pleased at the mistake, he says nothing, and then refuses to pay when the plumber delivers the bill. Will the man be held liable for payment? Yes, if it could be proven that the man knew that the sprinklers were being installed mistakenly, the court would make him pay because of a quasi-contract. If that knowledge could not be proven, he would not be liable. Such a claim is also referred to as "quantum meruit".
Civil law systems take the approach that an exchange of promises, or a concurrence of wills alone, rather than an exchange in valuable rights is the correct basis. So if you promised to give me a book, and I accepted your offer without giving anything in return, I would have a legal right to the book and you could not change your mind about giving me it as a gift. However, in common law systems the concept of culpa in contrahendo, a form of 'estoppel', is increasingly used to create obligations during pre-contractual negotiations. Estoppel is an equitable doctrine that provides for the creation of legal obligations if a party has given another an assurance and the other has relied on the assurance to his detriment. A number of commentators have suggested that consideration be abandoned, and estoppel be used to replace it as a basis for contracts. However, legislation, rather than judicial development, has been touted as the only way to remove this entrenched common law doctrine. Lord Justice Denning famously stated that "The doctrine of consideration is too firmly fixed to be overthrown by a side-wind.
The case is often cited in conjunction with Merritt v. Merritt. Here the court distinguished the case from Balfour v. Balfour because Mr. and Mrs. Merritt, although married again, were estranged at the time the agreement was made. Therefore any agreement between them was made with the intention to create legal relations.
Most jurisdictions have rules of law or statutes which may render otherwise valid oral contracts unenforceable. This is especially true regarding oral contracts involving large amounts of money or real estate. For example, in the U.S., generally speaking, a contract is unenforceable if it violates the common law statute of frauds or equivalent state statutes which require certain contracts to be in writing. An example of the above is an oral contract for the sale of a motorcycle for US$5,000 in a jurisdiction which requires a contract for the sale of goods over US $500 to be in writing to be enforceable. The point of the Statute of Frauds is to prevent false allegations of the existence of contracts that were never made, by requiring formal (i.e. written) evidence of the contract. However, a common remark is that more frauds have been committed through the application of the Statute of Frauds than have ever been prevented. Contracts that do not meet the requirements of common law or statutory Statutes of Frauds are unenforceable, but are not necessarily thereby void. However, a party unjustly enriched by an unenforceable contract may be required to provide restitution for unjust enrichment. Statutes of Frauds are typically codified in state statutes covering specific types of contracts, such as contracts for the sale of real estate.
In Australia and many, if not all, jurisdictions which have adopted the common law of England, for contracts subject to legislation equivalent to the Statute of Frauds, there is no requirement for the entire contract to be in writing. Although for property transactions there must be a note or memorandum evidencing the contract, which may come into existence after the contract has been formed. The note or memorandum must be signed in some way, and a series of documents may be used in place of a single note or memorandum. It must contain all material terms of the contract, the subject matter and the parties to the contract. In England and Wales, the common law Statute of Frauds is only now in force for guarantees, which must be evidenced in writing, although the agreement may be made orally. Certain other kinds of contract must be in writing or they are void, for instance, for sale of land under s. 52, Law of Property Act 1925.
If a contract is in a written form, and somebody signs the contract, then the person is bound by its terms regardless of whether they have read it or not, provided the document is contractual in nature. Furthermore, if a party wishes to use a document as the basis of a contract, reasonable notice of its terms must be given to the other party prior to their entry into the contract. This includes such things as tickets issued at parking stations.
In a unilateral contract, only one party to the contract makes a promise. A typical example is the reward contract: A promises to pay a reward to B if B finds A's dog. B is not obliged to find A's dog, but A is obliged to pay the reward to B if B finds the dog. In this example, the finding of the dog is a condition precedent to A's obligation to pay.
An offer of a unilateral contract may often be made to many people (or 'to the world') by means of an advertisement. In that situation, acceptance will only occur on satisfaction of the condition (such as the finding of the offeror's dog). If the condition is something that only one party can perform, both the offeror and offeree are protected the offeror is protected because he will only ever be contractually obliged to one of the many offerees; and the offeree is protected, because if she does perform the condition, the offeror will be contractually obliged to pay her.
In unilateral contracts, the requirement that acceptance be communicated to the offeror is waived. The offeree accepts by performing the condition, and the offeree's performance is also treated as the price, or consideration, for the offeror's promise.
The most common type of unilateral contract is the insurance contract. The insurance company promises to pay the insured a stated amount of money if a covered event occurs for which the insured pays premiums. Note that the insured does not make any promise to pay the premiums.
Courts generally favor bilateral contracts. The general rule in the United States is: "In case of doubt, an offer is interpreted as inviting the offeree to accept either by promising to perform what the offer requests or by rendering the performance, as the offeree chooses." Restatement (Second) of Contracts § 32 (1981) (emphasis added). Here the law attempts to provide some protection from the risk of revocation in a unilateral contract to the offeree. Note that if the offer specifically requests performance rather than a promise, a unilateral contract will exist. See option contracts for more information on protection given to the offeree in a unilateral contract.
Courts may also look to external standards, which are either mentioned explicitly in the contract or implied by common practice in a certain field. In addition, the court may also imply a term; if price is excluded, the court may imply a reasonable price, with the exception of land, and second-hand goods, which are unique.
If there are uncertain or incomplete clauses in the contract, and all options in resolving its true meaning have failed, it may be possible to sever and void just those affected clauses if the contract includes a severability clause. The test of whether a clause is severable is an objective test—whether a reasonable person would see the contract standing even without the clauses.
It is an objective matter of fact whether a term goes to the root of a contract. By way of illustration, an actress' obligation to perform the opening night of a theatrical production is a condition, whereas a singers obligation to perform during the first three days of rehearsal is a warranty.
Statute may also declare a term or nature of term to be a condition or warranty; for example the Sale of Goods Act 1979 s15A provides that terms as to title, description, quality and sample (as described in the Act) are conditions save in certain defined circumstances.
Some jurisdictions, notably Australia, Israel and India, imply a term of good faith into contracts. A final way in which terms may be implied due to fact is through a previous course of dealing or common trade practice.
These are terms that have been implied into standardized relationships.
These terms will be implied into all contracts of the same nature as a matter of law.
The rules by which many contracts are governed are provided in specialized statutes that deal with particular subjects. Most countries, for example, have statutes which deal directly with sale of goods, lease transactions, and trade practices. For example, most American states have adopted Article 2 of the Uniform Commercial Code, which regulates contracts for the sale of goods. The most important legislation implying terms under United Kingdom law are the Sale of Goods Act 1979, the Consumer Protection (Distance Selling) Regulations 2000 and the Supply of Goods and Services Act 1982 which imply terms into all contracts whereby goods are sold or services provided.
Three ways of evaluating a contracted exchange as coercive or voluntary
There are two types of misrepresentation in contract law, fraud in the factum and fraud in inducement. Fraud in the factum focuses on whether the party in question knew they were creating a contract. If the party did not know that they were entering into a contract, there is no meeting of the minds, and the contract is void. Fraud in inducement focuses on misrepresentation attempting to get the party to enter into the contract. Misrepresentation of a material fact (if the party knew the truth, that party would not have entered into the contract) makes a contract voidable.
According to Gordon v. Selico it is possible to make a misrepresentation either by words or by conduct, although not everything said or done is capable of constituting a misrepresentation. Generally, statements of opinion or intention are not statements of fact in the context of misrepresentation. If one party claims specialist knowledge on the topic discussed, then it is more likely for the courts to hold a statement of opinion by that party as a statement of fact.
Undue influence is an equitable doctrine that involves one person taking advantage of a position of power over another person. The law presumes that in certain classes of special relationship, such as between parent and child, or solicitor and client, there will be a special risk of one party unduly influencing their conduct and motives for contracting. As an equitable doctrine, the court has the discretion to vitiate such a contract. When no special relationship exists, the general rule is whether there was a relationship of such trust and confidence that it should give rise to such a presumption. See Odorizzi v. Bloomfield School District.
In the U.S., one unusual type of unenforceable contract is a personal employment contract to work as a spy or secret agent. This is because the very secrecy of the contract is a condition of the contract (in order to maintain plausible deniability). If the spy subsequently sues the government on the contract over issues like salary or benefits, then the spy has breached the contract by revealing its existence. It is thus unenforceable on that ground, as well as the public policy of maintaining national security (since a disgruntled agent might try to reveal all the government's secrets during his/her lawsuit). Other types of unenforceable employment contracts include contracts agreeing to work for less than minimum wage and forfeiting the right to workman's compensation in cases where workman's compensation is due.
As for many governments, it was not possible to sue the Crown in the UK for breach of contract before 1948. However, it was appreciated that contractors might be reluctant to deal on such a basis and claims were entertained under a petition of right that needed to be endorsed by the Home Secretary and Attorney-General. S.1 Crown Proceedings Act 1947 opened the Crown to ordinary contractual claims through the courts as for any other person.
Compensatory damages (or expectation damages) are awarded to put the party in as good of a position as the party would have been in had the contract been performed as promised. There must be certainty, not estimates, of what the party could have benefited if the contract had been performed. Furthermore, once a breach has occurred, the non-breaching party has a duty to mitigate damages. Damages are not recoverable for harm that the plaintiff should have foreseen and could have avoided by reasonable effort without undue risk, expense, or humiliation. The UCC states, "Consequential damages... include any loss... which could not reasonably be prevented by cover or otherwise." UCC 2-715.
Hadley v. Baxendale establishes general and consequential damages. General damages are those damages which naturally flow from a breach of contract. Consequential damages are those damages which, although not naturally flowing from a breach, are naturally supposed by both parties at the time of contract formation. An example would be when someone rents a car to get to a business meeting, but when that person arrives to pick up the car, it is not there. General damages would be the cost of renting a different car. Consequential damages would be the lost business if that person was unable to get to the meeting, if both parties knew the reason the party was renting the car. However, there is still a duty to cover; the fact that the car was not there does not give the party a right to not attempt to rent another car.
Whenever you have a contract that requires completing something, and a person informs you that it will not be completed before they begin your project, this is referred to anticipatory breach. When it is either not possible or desirable to award damages measured in that way, a court may award money damages designed to restore the injured party to the economic position that he or she had occupied at the time the contract was entered (known as the "reliance measure"), or designed to prevent the breaching party from being unjustly enriched ("restitution").
The court may make an order of what is called "specific performance", requiring that the contract be performed. In some circumstances a court will order a party to perform his or her promise (an order of "specific performance") or issue an order, known as an "injunction," that a party refrain from doing something that would breach the contract. A specific performance is obtainable for the breach of a contract to sell land or real estate on such grounds that the property has a unique value. In the United States, specific performance is an illegal remedy for personal services contracts or employment contracts, due to the fact that such remedy is regarded as involuntary servitude, which, by way of the 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution, is only legal "as punishment for a crime whereof the criminal shall be dully convicted.
Both an order for specific performance and an injunction are discretionary remedies, originating for the most part in equity. Neither is available as of right and in most jurisdictions and most circumstances a court will not normally order specific performance. A contract for the sale of real property is a notable exception. In most jurisdictions, the sale of real property is enforceable by specific performance. Even in this case the defenses to an action in equity (such as laches, the bona fide purchaser rule, or unclean hands) may act as a bar to specific performance.
Related to orders for specific performance, an injunction may be requested when the contract prohibits a certain action. Action for injunction would prohibit the person from performing the act specified in the contract.
Many contracts provide that all disputes arising thereunder will be resolved by arbitration, rather than litigated in courts. Customer claims against securities brokers and dealers are almost always resolved by arbitration because securities dealers are required, under the terms of their membership in self-regulatory organizations such as the NASD or NYSE, require use of brokerage agreements that contain arbitration clauses. On the other hand, certain claims have been held to be non-arbitrable if they implicate a public interest that goes beyond the narrow interests of the parties to the agreement (i.e., claims that a party violated a contract by engaging in illegal anticompetitive conduct or civil rights violations). Arbitration judgments may generally be enforced in the same manner as ordinary court judgements. However, arbitral decisions are generally immune from appeal in the United States unless there is a showing that the arbitrator's decision was irrational or tainted by fraud. Virtually all states have adopted the Uniform Arbitration Act to facilitate the enforcement of arbitrated judgements. Notably, New York State, where a sizable portion of major commercial agreements are executed and performed, has not adopted the Uniform Arbitration Act.
In England and Wales, a contract may be enforced by use of a claim, or in urgent cases by applying for an interim injunction to prevent a breach. Likewise, in the United States, an aggrieved party may apply for injunctive relief to prevent a threatened breach of contract, where such breach would result in irreparable harm that could not be adequately remedied by money damages.
Another dimension of the theoretical debate in contract is its place within, and relationship to a the wider law of obligations. Obligations have traditionally been divided into contracts, which are voluntarily undertaken and owed to a specific person or persons, and obligations in tort which are based on the wrongful infliction of harm to certain protected interests, primarily imposed by the law, and typically owed to a wider class of persons.
Recently it has been accepted that there is a third category, restitutionary obligations, based on the unjust enrichment of the defendant at the plaintiff’s expense. Contractual liability, reflecting the constitutive function of contract, is generally for failing to make things better (by not rendering the expected performance), liability in tort is generally for action (as opposed to omission) making things worse, and liability in restitution is for unjustly taking or retaining the benefit of the plaintiff’s money or work.
Compare with the U.S. context, the Uniform Commercial Code defining "Contract" as "the total legal obligation which results from the parties agreement" and does not attempt to state what act is essential to create a legal duty to perform a promise. The common law describes the circumstances under which the law will recognise the existence of rights, privilege or power arising out of a promise.