Courage Ltd v Crehan [2001]

European Law

Courage Ltd v Crehan
‘In the Brewery in Munich, 1892’ by Philip de Laszlo

Under English law the courts refuse to endorse a claim for damages when the claimant was a party to a contract borne from illegal principles, while this is echoed in equity under the maxim ‘he who comes to equity must come with clean hands’, and so reminds those considering such arrangements that they do so without the aid of the judiciary.

However in this matter the claimant was a party to a publican agreement drawn up through the merger of a large brewery and owners of a number of public houses across the United Kingdom, while as part of this agreement the claimant brewery contracted to supply beer to existing tenants (publicans) under a non-negotiable tariff purportedly designed to protect the interests and profits of those purchasing, and yet after the tenant had somehow amassed a debt of around £15,000 the brewery sought recovery through the courts.

Having previously discovered that the brewery was supplying the same beers for lower prices to non-contracted third parties, it was then counter-claimed that the agreement demonstrated a breach of art.85 EC (formerly art.81 EC) therefore damages were owed and no payment for previously provided beer was due.

After the case reached the Court of Appeal it was decided that due to the conflict between national and Community law a preliminary ruling to the European Court of Justice under art.234 EC needed to confirm: 

1. Whether art.85 EC allowed a party to a prohibited agreement to claim damages?

2. Whether a party can claim when relying upon their own adherence to the agreement?

3. Whether a national law preventing recovery under prohibited agreements remained consistent with Community law?

4. Where deemed incompatible which situations allowed national law to apply?

Having evaluated the aims of national law and the claim’s validity it was agreed that while those contracting in the distortion of fair competition are themselves contributors to their own demise, there are certain scenarios demonstrating an inequality of bargaining power and thus grounds for reconsideration. 

Here the Court noted how in this instance the tenant was subjected to the terms of the agreement with little to no room for bargain, and so while it was agreed that the terms of art.85 EC precluded claims of that nature, it did so on the proviso that the claimant was proportionately liable for any market distortion, while it was also clear that where no such arrangement existed, the effects of art.85 EC (which provided for direct effect and application between individuals) were sufficient enough to allow for a claim despite  any objections raised under English law, while reminding the parties that:

“[C]ommunity law precludes a rule of national law which prevents a party subject to a clause in a contract which infringes Article 81 EC from recovering damages for the loss suffered by it on the sole ground that it is a party to that contract.”

L’Estrange v Graucob (1934)

English Contract Law

L'Estrange
‘Expert Salesman’ by Norman Rockwell

‘Reading the small print’ is a phrase familiar to discerning consumers, and in so this instance the value of careful reading served to remind that contracts of all shapes and sizes require careful attention, especially when the text is not readily visible.

In 1933 two travelling salesmen paid a visit to a small community café in Wales in order to sell them an automatic cigarette vending machine, and so having spent a number of hours discussing the user benefits and attached payment terms, the respondent duly agreed to sign the partially completed ‘sales agreement’ in expectation of a new and fully working product.

Upon payment of the deposit the appellants returned a signed ‘order confirmation’ and accompanying eighteen-month guarantee, at which point the contract was well underway and instalments were regularly paid, however after a period of less than a few days the machine began malfunctioning and several engineer visits were arranged before at the point of exhaustion, the respondent requested the item be returned in forfeit of her deposit.

In spite of this the appellants refused to terminate the transaction, whereupon the respondent commenced litigation for return of the monies paid on grounds that the product had been unfit for purpose and thus contrary to the contract and guarantee, while the appellants counter-claimed their remaining costs owed for the purchase of the machine before the respondent amended her claim to include repayment for failure to provide full consideration, breach of implied condition that the vending machine was functioning at point of sale, and/or damages for breach of implied warranty that the product was fit for purpose.

The argument cited by the appellants relied upon an absence of failed consideration and non-existence of implied conditions as per s.11(c) of the Sale of Goods Act 1893  which read that:

“Where a contract of sale is not severable, and the buyer has accepted the goods, or part thereof, or where the contract is for specific goods, the property in which as passed to the buyer, the breach of any condition to be fulfilled by the seller can only be treated as a breach of warranty, and not as a ground for rejecting the goods and treating the contract as repudiated, unless there be a term of the contract, express or implied, to that effect.”

Thus no implied warranty existed on grounds that the signed sales agreement excluded both condition and warranty within the small print shown at the bottom, which read that:

“[T]his agreement contains all the terms and conditions under which I agree to purchase the machine specified above, and any express or implied condition, statement, or warranty, statutory or otherwise not stated herein is hereby excluded…”

Whereupon the respondent contended that she had been induced to sign the agreement through misrepresentation on grounds of never having her attention drawn to the exclusion notice beforehand.

In the first instance the Carnarvonshire County Court awarded a sum of 70l for the respondent in light of a perceived breach of the warranty despite her signature and no evidence of misrepresentation, and further allowed the appellants the sum of 71l for the monies unpaid.

Having appealed in the Court of the Kings Bench the appellants argued again that no misrepresentation had occurred, and that at any point the respondent was free to note and enquire as to the limitations of the contract, but had waived that right when signing to the terms expressed.

Here the Court relied upon the principles used in Parker v South Eastern Railway Co, in which the Court of Appeal had held that:

“In an ordinary case, where an action is brought on a written agreement which is signed by the defendant, the agreement is proved by proving his signature, and, in the absence of fraud, it is wholly immaterial that he has not read the agreement and does not know its contents.”

Which translated that despite recognition of the respondent’s misfortune the law could not enforce a claim for misrepresentation based upon the oversight of a party willing to contract, thus the court set aside the respondent’s award and upheld that of the appellants, while reminding both parties that:

“When a document containing contractual terms is signed, then, in the absence of fraud, or, I will add, misrepresentation, the party signing it is bound, and it is wholly immaterial whether he has read the document or not.”

Strong v Bird (1874)

English Equity & Trusts

Strong v Bird
‘Debtor Night’ by Seminary Road

While English common law requires the perfecting of a gift through written documentation, the circumstances of that prerequisite can be somewhat altered when the moment calls. On this occasion, a testatrix was ultimately able to complete an oral debt release through the appointment of her debtor as an executor.

In 1866 the deceased was cohabiting with her son in-law when due to her sizeable wealth, she entered into an agreement whereby a significant amount of rent was paid on a quarterly basis, after which the defendant borrowed £1100, on the proviso that she deducted £100 per quarter until the balance owed was clear.

After only two payments, the deceased relinquished the debt, and explained that no further deductions were necessary. This evidence was supported both by his wife and from handwritten notes left on the cheque counterfoils used before her demise.

Upon her passing, the beneficiary to her will contested that the £900 unpaid, was now owed under law, as the cessation of the loan had not been committed to any form of written notice aside from the cheque stubs, which were deemed insubstantial as proof.

Relying upon the essence of equity, the court examined the context in which her wishes had been executed, and knowing the oral and notary testimony were insufficient to stand as perfect, her appointment of the defendant as executor to her will, was evidence enough, and that while:

“The law requires nothing more than this, that in a case where the thing which is the subject of donation is transferable or releasable at law, the legal transfer or release shall take place. The gift is not perfect until what has been generally called a change of the property at law has taken place.”

Thus the court held that the deceased, having made no express acknowledgement of a debt within her will, was proof enough that the gift was perfect, and that its absence created in the defendant, an absolute right to title of the £900, therefore no challenge could be made, equitably or otherwise. The court further noted that her further payments of full rent for a period of four years after the money had been loaned, showed again that she considered the sum paid in full, and so sought no recovery in death, as she might in life.

Hasham v Zenab (1960)

English Equity & Trusts

Hasham v Zenab
‘Palace Gate, Udaiper’ by Colin Campbell Cooper

Specific performance and cessation of contract on grounds of mistake, are both viable arguments for either continuation of contractual obligations, or the cessation of a transaction for reasons non-detrimental to both contractees. However, both approaches rely upon the honesty and accountability of at least one party should the courts take a view to upholding either of them.

In this instance, a Gujarati widower entered into an agreement to convey a determinate plot of land for an agreed sum, yet immediately after signing the disposition, she tore up the document and refused to continue with the transaction on grounds that she had been misled as to (i) the size of the plot, and (ii) the identity of the individual to whom the purchaser was planning to sell it to.

During initial litigation in the Supreme Court of Kenya, her argument for the fraudulent misrepresentation was based upon her limited grasp of the English language, and so she had elected a representative to be present with her at the time of signing. However, it was also argued that no mention had been given of the size of the plot, which in the first instance was alleged to be half an acre, and not the two acres contained within the conveyance, a fact discovered only after the signing.

When cross-examined, the respondent was proven to have falsified the statement, and thus her witness was accused of perjury, whereas contrastingly, the appellant contested that during preliminary talks, the proposed plot was described as two acres, and not the half-acre suggested.

The contract itself was signed in the presence of a third party, however the respondent also relied upon the contention that at no point during an earlier meeting did anybody translate the contents of the contract, despite the appellant claiming that not only did he explain it, but that the respondent’s cousin had also clarified its contents to her.

It was likewise argued by the appellant that the respondent tore up the contract, not because of the plot variation, but upon the knowledge that the land was to be resold to an individual she disliked, however this was also proven to be untrue after lengthy cross-examination and questioning of oral evidence.

Upon summation, the trial judge awarded in favour of the appellant, despite reservations around the integrity of both parties, and so when presented to the Court of Appeal of East Africa, the Court took issue with the reliability of the appellant’s statements and proceeded to reexamine the facts, before reaching the same conclusion as the lower court.

Take finally to the House of Lords, it was noted that vol. 2 of ‘Williams on Vendor and Purchaser’ clearly illustrated that:

“[A]s a rule, either party to a contract to sell land is entitled to sue in equity for specific performance of the agreement. This right is, in general, founded on a breach of the contract, but not in the same manner as the right to sue at law. The court has no jurisdiction to award damages at law except in case of a breach of the contract; while the equitable jurisdiction to order an agreement to be specifically performed is not limited to the cases in which at law damages could be recoverable.”

Which translated that when contracting parties hold a good account of themselves throughout their dealings, equity would provide sufficient weight as to instigate specific performance; yet on this occasion, neither party had been anywhere near as truthful as a court would rightfully expect, and so on this principle it was impossible to uphold the appeal, nor enforce the equitable rights of the appellant, or those forwarded by the respondent, thus the appeal was dismissed while the House held that:

“In equity all that is required is to show circumstances which will justify the intervention by a court of equity.”

Healey v Brown (2002)

Succession Law

Healey v Brown
‘The Pact’ by François Bard

As can often result from mutual wills, the overlapping fields of contract law and equity become central to the resolution of this property dispute, after a claimant intervenes in the immoral acquisition of sole title to the matrimonial home of a son’s parents.

The drafting of mutual individual wills reflected that upon death, the surviving spouse became under law, the sole beneficiary of that person’s equitable and legal interest in the property occupied at the time of death. Where neither party were survivable, the individual wills stated that the wife’s niece was to become the beneficiary of the equally held share of the leasehold, and that the father’s son would inherit the remainder of the estate.

Following the death of the wife, the husband took the liberty of transferring his now sole title to that of a shared (or joint) title to the property with his son; an act that in and of itself, contravened the earlier agreement within their final (and irrevocable by declaration) wills. This transgression had remained unaddressed until the death of the father, preceding a naturally vehement claim by the niece that the transfer of title constituted fraud, and that under those circumstances, the son now held both parents’ share of the property upon trust for her, and that despite any contractual arrangements made between the father and son, the binding nature of the mutual wills superseded any administrative effects constructed under the laws of property.

Despite drawing argument against mutual testation under the property doctrine of survivorship, it remained evident that the father was acting within a fiduciary capacity when surviving his wife’s death, and so by avoiding the duties prescribed him, he breached that obligation in favour of his son’s expectation to benefit.

Again, as with the rules of equity and proscription of contract law, there appeared to be a lack of clarity surrounding the written intentions of the testator and testatrix, while the basis for this opposition relied upon s.2 of the Law Reform (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1989, where the disposition of land requires a single co-signed document containing the terms of the arrangement (or at the very least an exchange of those documents) as proof of intention; yet as the mutual wills were never signed by their respective partners, any desire to enforce their bequests became invalid under the Act itself. This essentially meant that:

“No disposition of land can be challenged unless done so with a written and signed document contrary to the one drafted by the person charged.”

Sadly, the nature of the wills were such that neither party co-signed the others wills prior to their deaths, which thereby prevented a contract of sorts to exist, so on this occasion the judges decided that instead of the property now becoming the sole title to the claimant, as was the design of the mutually drafted wills, the home was now held in equal shares for both parties to enjoy, albeit through the framework of a constructive trust.