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International Alliance for Advanced Judicial Studies (IAAJS)

Contract

 

A contract is a legally binding agreement which recognises and governs the rights and duties of the parties to the agreement. A contract is legally enforceable because it meets the requirements and approval of the law. An agreement typically involves the exchange of goods, services, money, or promises of any of those. In the event of breach of contract, the law awards the injured party access to legal remedies such as damages and cancellation.

In order for a contract to be formed, the parties must reach mutual assent (also called a meeting of the minds). This is typically reached through offer and an acceptance which does not vary the offer's terms, which is known as the "mirror image rule". An offer is a definite statement of the offeror's willingness to be bound should certain conditions be met. If a purported acceptance does vary the terms of an offer, it is not an acceptance but a counteroffer and, therefore, simultaneously a rejection of the original offer. The Uniform Commercial Code disposes of the mirror image rule in 2-207, although the UCC only governs transactions in goods in the USA. As a court cannot read minds, the intent of the parties is interpreted objectively from the perspective of a reasonable person, as determined in the early English case of Smith v Hughes. It is important to note that where an offer specifies a particular mode of acceptance, only an acceptance communicated via that method will be valid.

In colonial times, the concept of consideration was exported to many common law countries, but it is unknown in Scotland and in civil law jurisdictions. Roman law-based systems neither require nor recognise consideration, and some 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." In the United States, the emphasis has shifted to the process of bargaining as exemplified by Hamer v. Sidway (1891).

Sometimes the capacity of either natural or artificial persons to either enforce contracts, or have contracts enforced against them is restricted. For instance, very small children may not be held to bargains they have made, on the assumption that they lack the maturity to understand what they are doing; errant employees or directors may be prevented from contracting for their company, because they have acted ultra vires (beyond their power). Another example might be people who are mentally incapacitated, either by disability or drunkenness.

If a contract is in a written form, and somebody signs it, then the signer is typically bound by its terms regardless of whether they have actually read it provided the document is contractual in nature. However, affirmative defenses such as duress or unconscionability may enable the signer to avoid the obligation. Further, reasonable notice of a contract's terms must be given to the other party prior to their entry into the contract.

If the terms of the contract are uncertain or incomplete, the parties cannot have reached an agreement in the eyes of the law. An agreement to agree does not constitute a contract, and an inability to agree on key issues, which may include such things as price or safety, may cause the entire contract to fail. However, a court will attempt to give effect to commercial contracts where possible, by construing a reasonable construction of the contract. In New South Wales, even if there is uncertainty or incompleteness in a contract, the contract may still be binding on the parties if there is a sufficiently certain and complete clause requiring the parties to undergo arbitration, negotiation or mediation.

Statements of fact in a contract or in obtaining the contract are considered to be either warranties or representations. Traditionally, warranties are factual promises which are enforced through a contract legal action, regardless of materiality, intent, or reliance. Representations are traditionally precontractual statements which allow for a tort-based action (such as the tort of deceit) if the misrepresentation is negligent or fraudulent; historically a tort was the only action available, but by 1778, breach of warranty became a separate legal contractual action. In U.S. law, the distinction between the two is somewhat unclear; warranties are viewed as primarily contract-based legal action while negligent or fraudulent misrepresentations are tort-based, but there is a confusing mix of case law in the United States. In modern English law, sellers often avoid using the term 'represents' in order to avoid claims under the Misrepresentation Act 1967, while in America 'warrants and represents' is relatively common. Some modern commentators suggest avoiding the words and substituting 'state' or 'agree', and some model forms do not use the words; however, others disagree.

Misrepresentation means a false statement of fact made by one party to another party and has the effect of inducing that party into the contract. For example, under certain circumstances, false statements or promises made by a seller of goods regarding the quality or nature of the product that the seller has may constitute misrepresentation. A finding of misrepresentation allows for a remedy of rescission and sometimes damages depending on the type of misrepresentation.

Arbitration judgments may generally be enforced in the same manner as ordinary court judgments, and are recognized and enforceable internationally under the New York Convention, which has 156 parties. However, in New York Convention states, arbitral decisions are generally immune unless there is a showing that the arbitrator's decision was irrational or tainted by fraud.

 
 

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