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Contract Law (1)

It is a surprising fact that most contracts are concluded without reference to lawyers. It is surprising because of the extent of the law of contract and the effect of getting something wrong in the conclusion of the contract.

Contract law is an essential element of the world of commerce. Buying and selling things is what contract law is about. So, too, is the provision of services.

Most contracts are for small items and small sums; our transactions as we buy our groceries are typical. We do not expect to have to enter written contracts for these items, and we don’t. Nevertheless, these sales are subject to ascertainable conditions and terms, nowadays often emanating from the European Parliament.

If the Government decides to build substantial roadways across the landscape it will, of necessity, enter a contract, or contracts, to achieve that objective; the alternative would be to establish a national workforce in the employment of the State to directly build the roadways. We don’t do that.

Signing a contract for a new roadway (or a new building) is a significant matter. The contract will have to provide for a great number of things, not least the specification for the type or quality of road or building.

A lawyer should not be far removed from this occasion. After all, who drafted the contract? It should have been a lawyer. What if the written terms contain an ambiguity? There is a standard method, or rule, for dealing with that; the contract is interpreted against the person who drafted it.

There is another practical approach; use a standard form of contract. The benefits of such a form are enormous. Any ambiguities will have been eliminated, and the experience of predecessors will have been built into the contract with clauses providing for all the issues and matters that need to be addressed or provided for.

However, these large contracts will often have special conditions to be inserted into them; the facts will require it. It is a general rule that special conditions override general conditions where there is a conflict between them. In that case there is an unavoidable need for a lawyer.

In the construction industry many contracts commence as a consequence of the conclusion of the main contract. The contractor will, of necessity, have to source the skills required to do some of the work, possibly most of it, from specialist sub-contractors. Because of the time consumed in finding the sub-contractors, there may be exchanges of letters of intent or such like. Astonishingly, the result may be that there is no contract between the contractor and the sub-contractor. If the sub-contractor does work in such circumstances, it will still be entitled to be paid. The claim will be in quasi-contract on a “quantum meruit” basis. The work will be valued at market rates and a profit element will then be added. That is what the sub-contractor will be entitled to.

For the contractor, this may be a severe blow. Claims of delay, if any, (there will be such) and consequential, loss will not be enforceable by the contractor.