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Interlocutory discourse between those that apply for, or request obtainment of services, and the party empowered to grant them, can on the surface, appear to suggest a verbal or somewhat provisional agreement to contract with one another. Unfortunately, it would seem that under common law this would be false assumption, as there is still yet more to require a binding agreement. When the applicant for a university degree course becomes victim to an administrative error, it is left for the courts to clarify the mechanics of these arrangements, in a light that might well preturb.
After choosing to study for a recognised qualification in a competitive field, the appellant used a central admissions system to act on his behalf when approaching a number of suitable universities. After facing a volume of rejections, he received an unconditional offer from a provider of notable standing. There were of course certain conditions attached to the offer, and one of those was the preclusion from seeking admission through the clearing system, as well as accepting any other offers from universities at a later date. The appellant duly acquiesced to these conditions, and returned his acceptance form both in good time, and using the methods prescribed by the university.
During the period between his acceptance and subsequent discovery that his application had been denied due to over subscription, the appellant had left his position of employment, turned down a second interview for another post, surrendered his tenancy with his landlord and made plans to relocate, so as to support his education. In fact, it was due to a phone call to the university that he learned of the error, at which point he was informed that he could try to apply for an alternative course through clearing (which by this time had run its course).
When seeking legal remedy under three heads of (i) specific performance (ii) mandatory injunction and (iii) breach of contract, the court found that although the offer had been sent and the acceptance received within the guidelines, there was no guarantee of contract until the enrolment process and payment of fees had occurred. As this fact then prevented the existence of a contract, any claim for specific performance was quashed, along with that of a breach or mandatory injunction.
Upon appeal, the details of the arrangement were given a thorough examination, and some interesting facts emerged. While it was central admission policy to issue application guidelines to the public, there were similar guidelines issued to the receiving universities that contained within them, important information that upon consideration warranted inclusion to the former documentation, as they outlined the responsibilities of the providers where such errors were found. In addition to this, the failure of the admissions team to properly address the appellant’s application, had denied him any opportunity to enter clearing, an act which was held as consideration prior to contract.
Unfortunately, despite the good intention and sufferance of the applicant (under the assumption that a legal contract had been constructed), the Court ruled that as with the first judgment, there had been no evidence to suggest that a contract existed, because there had been no formal enrolment and agreed payment of fees; a caveat which had been further construed from the terms contained within the central admissions guide.
“[G]iving up the chance of obtaining another place through PCAS clearing in this way was a sufficient detriment to constitute consideration moving from the plaintiff for the purposes of these technical rules of the law of contract.”
“[T]he respondents having made their own offer through PCAS, and in accordance with the PCAS scheme, did impliedly request the plaintiff, by inviting his acceptance of their offer, to take a step which to their knowledge necessarily involved his removal from the scheme and with it any opportunity to enter clearing in accordance with its rules.”
“[I]t would no doubt come as a surprise to many thousands of applicants who give firm acceptances in response to unconditional offers, were they told that the institution is not bound to provide them with a place, and is free to withdraw the offer at any time before they present themselves for enrolment at the beginning of the academic year.”
“Whether or not such an agreement is legally enforceable depends primarily upon the terms of the particular agreement and secondly upon the ‘matrix’ which is provided by the scheme itself.”