Williams v Roffey Bros & Nicholls (Contractors) Ltd [1991]

English Contract Law

Williams v Roffey Bros &  Nicholls (Contractors) Ltd [1991]
‘Carpenter Shop’ by Carl Larsson

The amendment of an existing contract underpins the argument between contracting parties when a main building contractor secures a residential refurbishment project and accepts the tender of a carpentry subcontractor’s tender despite the low value of his submission.

Having agreed to both first and second fix twenty-seven flats within a specified time for £20,000, the respondent carried out the work on the understanding that payments were made on an arbitrary basis, and so after six months he had first-fixed all twenty-seven flats but second-fixed only nine, while having been paid £16,200 for the work performed.

Aware that his tender was now unprofitable, the respondent renegotiated to keep his business afloat and avoid the financial penalty clause applied to the appellants should the project overrun, whereupon both parties agreed to continue working together on the condition that a further £10,300 would be paid in incremental payments of £575 for each flat completed, however when the respondent left the project only £1,500 had been paid and only seventeen of the twenty-seven flats were substantially completed.

Initially seeking around £33,000 in damages the respondent reduced his claim to around £11,000, citing that the appellants had breached the terms of their oral agreement; whereas the appellants argued that the agreement to pay the additional £10,300 was unenforceable due to non-completion, and that no consideration had been given by the  respondent during revision of the original contract. 

Argued in the Kingston-Upon Thames County Court the judge found that while the flats had not been completed there had been sufficient consideration as to allow calculable damages of around £11,800, and awarded accordingly, while presented to the Court of Appeal the issues around payment for incomplete performance of a contract and the argument for lack of consideration were given closer examination before the Court  noted how p.126, para.183 of Chitty on Contracts stated that:

“The requirement that consideration must move from the promisee is most generally satisfied where some detriment is suffered by him e.g. where he parts with money or goods, or renders services, in exchange for the promise. But the requirement may equally well be satisfied where the promisee confers a benefit on the promisor without in fact suffering any detriment.”

Thus the Court dismissed the appeal on grounds that the respondent’s agreement to continue working toward completion of the flats provided a degree of benefit to the appellants, because failure to do so rendered them subject to the penalty clause, while the Court finally reminded the parties that:

(i) if A has entered into a contract with B to do work for, or to supply goods or services to, B in return for payment by B; and (ii) at some stage before A has completely performed his obligations under the contract B has reason to doubt whether A will, or will be able to, complete his side of the bargain; and (iii) B thereupon promises A an additional payment in return for A’s promise to perform his contractual obligations on time; and (iv) as a result of giving his promise, B obtains in practice a benefit, or obviates a disbenefit; and (v) B’s promise is not given as a result of economic duress or fraud on the part of A; then (vi) the benefit to B is capable of being consideration for B’s promise, so that the promise will be legally binding.”

Davis Contractors Ltd v Fareham Urban District Council [1956]

English Contract Law

Davis Contractors Ltd v Fareham Urban District Council [1956]
‘Construction Site’ by Jan Altink

The principle of ‘frustration’ and the nature of commercial contracts are both given equal consideration when a local authority fails to acknowledge or pay costs exceeding the original agreement despite pleas for reasonability by the claimants.

Shortly after World War II the appellants tendered for the construction of a large number of houses over a fixed period, and so due to the economic fragility of the country, their submission included a letter outlining allowances for rising material costs and labour shortages, while after further negotiations the respondents allowed them to perform their contractual obligations until the agreed eight-month period expired. 

Upon discovery that only a fraction of the total number of houses had been completed the appellants cited frustration through inclement weather, delays in material deliveries and a shortage of labour, whereupon the local authority expressed no disagreement with their statement and the work continued for another fourteen months, however upon completion the total cost of the work was £115,233 versus the agreed £94,424, which left the appellants facing a loss of around £20,000.

When asked to pay the additional sum on grounds of quantum meruit (payment for services rendered and therefore deserved) the respondents refused to pay and offered only the amount contracted for, before the appellants claimed recovery on grounds that:

1. The letter submitted with the tender was part of the contract.

2. The contract was entered into on the proviso that both materials and labour were available.

3. Because those two elements were absent the contract had ceased to exist thus any subsequent performance was subject to a quantum meruit. 

Under arbitration the doctrine of frustration was given considered significance in favour of the appellants on the strength of the letter, while in court the judge also agreed the letter formed part of the contract and so awarded accordingly. 

Under challenge the Court of Appeal disagreed and referred the matter back for greater clarification of frustration, and so with the arbitrator remaining resolute on the letter the Court held that the letter was a mere facet of negotiations therefore frustration had not occurred, after which it was put before the House of Lords in order that the appellants could advance their contention that where frustration failed quantum meruit ought to succeed.

To clarify, the nature of frustration relies more upon unforeseen circumstances affecting both parties to a contract as opposed to one at a loss through unexpected events, while in this instance the appellants were aware that labour and material shortages were likely, and neither party had agreed that the original contract had ceased to exist and that another had begun.

With this in mind the House dismissed the appeal on grounds that unless agreed to, the terms of the original contract had remained unaltered despite the increased duration of the project and escalating costs incurred by the appellants, all of which amounted to little more than a seemingly well-drafted plan gone awry, while the House clarified for the parties that:

“[F]rustration occurs whenever the law recognizes that without default of either party a contractual obligation has become incapable of being performed because the circumstances in which performance is called for would render it a thing radically different from that which was undertaken by the contract. Non haec in foedera veni. It was not this that I promised to do.”

Chartbrook Ltd v Persimmon Homes Ltd [2009]

English Contract Law

Chartbrook Ltd v Persimmon Homes Ltd [2009]
‘The Purchase Contract’ by Quentin Metsys

Rectification of contract and the exclusionary rule of pre-contract negotiations when deciphering both parties intentions are uneasy bedfellows within English law, and yet  these two principles proved effective when the complex and confused drafting of a multimillion pound construction project created heated litigation.

When the land dealer respondents and property developer appellants undertook a mixed development scheme, schedule 6 of the contract bred uncertainty and conflict through opposing interpretations that at first glance favoured of the respondents to the tune of almost £3.6m, and so relying upon the argument of construction to claim their fees the respondents took the matter to court where in the first instance the judge found in their favour and awarded the amount before a failed appeal left the appellants pursuing a remedy in the House of Lords. 

Here the House discussed the nature of contracts and the intentions of those involved before referring to Prenn v Simmonds in which it had held that:

It is only the final document which records a consensus.”

Before noting that in order to achieve a clear outcome the parties must seek rectification of the contract as defined in Swainland Builders Ltd v Freehold Properties Ltd in which the Court of Appeal had also held that:

“The party seeking rectification must show that: (1) the parties had a common continuing intention, whether or not amounting to an agreement, in respect of a particular matter in the instrument to be rectified; (2) there was an outward expression of accord; (3) the intention continued at the time of the execution of the instrument sought to be rectified; (4) by mistake, the instrument did not reflect that common intention”

However on this occasion the respondents were adamant that the calculation formulae was correct despite obvious contention by the appellants, and so the House upheld the appeal on grounds that an objective application of the formulae through the eyes of a reasonable man showed that while the respondents were content to pursue the terms of sch.6 under a clear misapprehension, sufficient reasoning and supporting evidence reflected the views of both the House and laymen besides, while also reminding the parties that:

“When the language used in an instrument gives rise to difficulties of construction, the process of interpretation does not require one to formulate some alternative form of words which approximates as closely as possible to that of the parties. It is to decide what a reasonable person would have understood the parties to have meant by using a language which they did.”

Notes on the 2018 Carillion collapse

Insight | August 2019

Carillion
‘Le Chantier’ by Maximilien Luce

This is a twenty page report detailing the financial collapse of Carillion plc in 2018, and while this independent research explains much of the background leading up to their downfall, it also includes judicial insight into the rights of those left out of pocket when the hammer finally fell (click here to read it).

Trespass

Insight | August 2017

Trespass
‘No Trespassing’ by Arthur Wardle

For clarification, there are two types of trespass, namely trespass to the person and trespass to land. As with anything requiring individual expansion, we will begin by looking at trespass to the person.

Trespass to the person
Trespass to the person includes three torts, ranging from (i) battery (ii) assault and (iii) false imprisonment, as first truly defined by Goff LJ in Collins v Warlock when he said:

“An assault is an act which causes another person to apprehend the infliction of immediate, unlawful, force on his person; a battery is the actual infliction of unlawful force on another person. Both assault and battery are forms of trespass to the person. Another form of trespass to the person is false imprisonment, which is the unlawful imposition of constraint upon another’s freedom of movement from a particular place.”

(i) Battery
While claiming accidental causes, the defendant in Williams v Humphrey was found liable for battery after pushing the victim into a swimming pool, whereupon the claimant broke his ankle. Given that the intention to push the victim was present, no argument to the contrary could reasonably stand and so damages were awarded.

(ii) Assault
In R v Ireland, a number of women subjected to continuous psychological damage through repeated abusive phone calls, were given the right to claim for assault, even though they never met the defendant in person. When reaching summary judgment, it was remarked by Hope LJ that:

“If the words or gestures are accompanied in their turn by gestures or by words which threaten immediate and unlawful violence, that will be sufficient for an assault. The words or gestures must be seen in their whole context.”

(iii) False Imprisonment
While reminiscent of physical imposition, this tortious facet involves the restriction of liberty and movement of an individual. As many might expect, there are cases where over extension of a prison sentence will suffice, however mere isolation or deprivation of escape will also apply. It is important to note that while the victim may only fear these actions yet not necessarily fall subject to their physical consequences, psychological harm, where proven, will suffice under a claim. Unlike the tort of negligence, trespass to the person relies upon intention, actual harm and obvious effect, and so victims are compensated not for unintentional damage, but that caused with deliberation.

Trespass to land
Similarly, trespass to land addresses deliberate actions by those subject to it, while primary focus is placed upon the protection and preservation of land or property. Harm is treated as one stemming from interference with a right to privacy and occupation, and so while possession of the land is imperative to a successful claim, there are, as with trespass to the person, four distinct categories of interference, namely (i) crossing a boundary, (i) remaining on land, (iii) exceeding permissions associated with land and (iv) placing objects upon land without express consent of the owner.

(i) Crossing boundaries
Undoubtedly the more common complaint is one of boundary violation, and while often focussed upon overgrown foliage or other such matters, there are also incidents where property intrudes into the airspace of land, such as in Anchor Brewhouse Developments Ltd v Berkley House (Dockland Developments) Ltd where a contractor’s crane overswung into a neighbouring property, thus prompting a supported claim for trespass through ‘airspace’.

(ii) Remaining on land
In Jones v Persons Unknown, the freeholders of unregistered land were forced to serve eviction notices after a group of ‘fracking’ protestors set up residence and refused to leave. While claiming to be protecting the land on which they had become entrenched, the defendants were ultimately evicted under the award of a possession order on grounds of trespass. When outlying the justification for the order, the judge remarked:

“[T]here is simply no evidence that they gave any relevant consent to the occupation of their land which would preclude the claimants from seeking to recover it back…he was in unlawful possession of the claimants’ land, and thus amenable to a claim in trespass and the costs associated with such a claim. It would be to allow him, and others in a similar position, effectively to get away with acts of trespass if they were not required to pay the costs of consequent legal proceedings.”

(iii) Exceeding permissions (trespass ab initio)
When a party enters owned land under agreement, but then proceeds to potentially outstay that welcome through unlawful or abusive actions, the owner is entitled to claim trespass from the point at which the visitor caused offence. In a case called The Six Carpenters, a number of carpenters entered an inn before ordering and paying for wine and bread; however things took a turn for the worse when after ordering more wine they refused to pay for it; thus instigating a unsuccessful claim for trespass damages by the landlord when the court held:

“[F]or not paying for the wine, the defendants shall not be trespassers, for the denying to pay for it is no trespass, and therefore they cannot be trespassers ab initio…”

(iv) Placing objects
In Arthur v Anker, the deliberate placement of an oil tanker and flower pots along a boundary wall caused tensions between neighbours, until a claim for trespass led to an injunction to remove the objects, despite several months between their placement and the litigation. In surmising the judgment, Aldous J emphasised that:

“[T]here is no evidence that such inaction in respect of the oil tank, or any inaction in respect of the flower pots, caused Mr. Stones to believe that he could maintain the tank on the wall situated as it is…He placed the tank upon the wall himself and in my view it could not be seriously suggested that there was detriment in not objecting immediately and now requiring him to remove it.”