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Detailed Practice Notes written by our Professional Support Lawyers, guiding you through the key issues in each topic.
Contracts - overviewForming a contract
A contract is a legally binding agreement that grants rights and creates duties. It can be oral, written or partly written and partly oral or inferred entirely from the conduct of the parties.
For a contract to be effective four key elements must be present:
intention to create legal relations
An offer is a pledge by a party to another promising to enter into a contract on set terms. It has to be specific, complete and capable of being accepted.
Offers can be preceded by an invitation to treat (eg the stated prices of goods in supermarkets) or stand alone. However, invitations to treat are not supported by the intention to create legal relations and do not result in a contract unless followed by an offer and the other key elements of contract formation (eg the supermarket goods have to be taken to the till, scanned and paid for).
An offer has to be accepted to form a contract but offers are not open for acceptance indefinitely and can be revoked in a number of ways.
Acceptance is the unequivocal agreement to the terms of the offer without any further negotiation. A contract is formed when acceptance is communicated to the offeror.
When acceptance does not match the original offer, the offeree essentially rejects the original offer and becomes an offeror itself in making a counter-offer. Acceptance of a counter-offer means that the contract is formed on its terms and not those of the original offer.
The rule that acceptance must be communicated has two exceptions:
the reception rule
the postal rule
The postal rule can be avoided. Both rules can apply to e-mails but the view of the Law Commission is that acceptance occurs when the message reaches the offeror's ISP.
A contract will fail for the lack of consideration unless it is executed as a deed. The amount of consideration is not important. What is important is that the consideration has some value, even if it is not adequate. Consideration can be executory (where the parties exchange promises) or executed (where one party asks for something in return for its promise). There are exceptions to the general rule on consideration, such as past consideration (which is not consideration), performance of an existing obligation and execution as a deed. In commercial agreements courts are more likely to find consideration.
Intention to create legal relations
Unless parties intend to enter into a contract, no legally binding agreement can be formed. The courts apply an objective test in determining whether such intention exists. In commercial contracts there is a rebuttable presumption that the parties intend to bind themselves.
Heads of terms
The purpose of a heads of terms is to summarise the principle terms of agreement between the parties and manage the process through to completion of a full agreement. The terms that relate to the full agreement will not be legally binding on the parties, but terms relating to other matters such as confidentiality and exclusivity will be legally binding if stated as such. A heads of terms may also be known as a letter of intent or memorandum of understanding. Great care should be taken when considering entering into heads of terms, to avoid unintentionally binding the parties or creating moral obligations.
A non-disclosure agreement (NDA) is usually a legally binding agreement controlling the disclosure of information passing between parties that wish to protect their information, whether it is confidential or not. NDA terms can stand alone or form part of the heads of terms. Always ensure that the NDA protects information following breach or termination and addresses the consequences of it, along with remedies and relevant restrictive covenants.
A party wishing to ensure that it is the only party in negotiations with another will require an exclusivity or lock-out agreement. The aim of such an agreement is to prevent negotiation with third parties and to enable the parties concerned to get the most from the opportunity and to complete a full agreement. An exclusivity agreement is legally binding and will contain undertakings and restrictions with consequences for breach. Be specific and ensure the adequacy of remedies for non-performance or breach.
With regard to all pre-contract negotiation instruments, where there is doubt over consideration, good practice would be to execute the agreement as a deed.
Contracts entered into by parties that do not have capacity to do so will be void. Contracts usually, therefore, contain a warranty that the parties have capacity and authority to enter into them. A party's capacity can be determined by statute, common law or its own constitutional documents.
The legal doctrine of privity of contract states that:
rights and obligations under a contract only attach to parties to that contract
only parties to a contract can enforce it or have it enforced against them
The Contracts (Rights of Third Parties) Act 1999 allows a third party to rely on contracts where a benefit was conferred on it and where the contract expressly states. Where a third party gains a right to enforce a contract, it cannot ordinarily be varied or cancelled without that third party's consent.
Contracts that do not have clear, comprehensive or unambiguous terms will fail for lack of certainty. The courts will, in some cases, infer terms but each case is judged on its own merits. Terms can be express or implied and are further classified as:
innominate (usually terms other than conditions or warranties)
The nature of a term affects the remedies for the innocent party to a breach of it. In addition, terms must be distinguished from representations that may have been made by one party to the other but do not form part of the contract and also give rise to remedies for breach.
Boilerplate is normally understood to mean those clauses in an agreement relating to its interpretation and general operation, rather than its particular subject matter. Typically, such clauses will include standard definitions, matters of construction and administration, and provisions which have the effect of excluding matters which might otherwise be implied by law.
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