Hasham v Zenab

English Contract Law

Hasham v Zenab
Image: ‘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, her argument for the fraudulent misrepresentation was based upon her limited grasp 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 the respondent’s cousin had also clarified its contents to her. It was likewise argued by the appellant that the respondent tore up contract, not because of the plot variation, but upon the knowledge that the land was to be resold to an individual she had a dislike of; 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, the Court took issue with the reliability of the appellant’s statements and proceeded to reexamine the facts before reaching the exact 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.

Specific Performance

Insight | May 2017

Specific Performance
Image: ‘The Contract’ by Fritz Wagner

Under the law of contract there are times when two parties can no longer honour their agreement and at which point one of them is left wanting. In some instances the award of monetary damages is enough to provide remedy, however there are also those where the loss is irreplaceable. On those occasions the court can legally impose a duty on those no longer willing (or seemingly able) to perform the task they originally contracted to undertake. While in certain cases the source of non-performance can also stem from frustration the criteria here is one of general breakdown of communication or even unresolvable conflict that while perhaps entirely warranted on the part of the negator, leaves the claimant with no other option than to sue.

Once agreed upon, an order for specific performance will comprise two elements (i) declaration of the order and (ii) provision of consequential detections to that effect. It is also important to note that where a contractual breach is only anticipated the court can still require specific performance or provide injunctive measures, as was outlined by Lord Tucker in Hasham v Zenab:

“In equity all that is required is to show circumstances which will justify the intervention by a court of equity. The purchaser has an equitable interest in the land and could get an injunction to prevent the vendor disposing of the property.”

On this occasion the potential vendor immediately tore up a signed contract for sale of land after learning that the acreage was greater in the conveyance than as she had orally agreed. The language barrier between the two parties thus prevented clear understanding of what was at stake; and so left with a collapsed purchase the buyer sought specific performance prior to the completion date, upon which the court pondered its feasibility before dismissing the claim upon grounds of falsified evidence on both sides.

A positive example of specific performance can however be found in Rosesilver v Paton where a purchaser entered into a contract to acquire residential property, after which the vendor argued that the terms of the agreement relied on reimbursement of the part-purchase payments upon winning their two pending litigation cases, therefore the intention to sell was implied at the outset. Having examined the inconsistency of the vendor’s argument the judge dismissed additional claims of fiduciary breach and undue influence on a lack of cohesive evidence before ruling that the sale must now be completed. When reaching summary judgement Mann J concluded:

“I do not consider that Mr Paton has advanced a sufficiently clear and plausible case for saying that there was any form of binding (in any sense) arrangement, contemporaneously with the contract and its variation, which would restrict or restrain the enforcement of the contract.”

There are of course a number of factors that can hinder the ability to undertake a contract of engagement and these can range from disability and illness, personal conflict, mistrust based upon recent behaviour and costly supervision to enforce the performance. Likewise a failure to seek remedy for a protracted period can also work against a claimant as the negator could claim estoppel under the doctrine of laches. Ultimately though the choice to pursue specific performance will always run with an attached risk of further complications, as the inherent trust between contracting parties will have been irreversibly eroded once litigation commences; therefore financial damages should never be ruled out unless all other options have been exhausted.