Discharge of Contract

When studying the intricacies of contract law, the concept of 'discharge of contract' holds significant importance. Grasping this concept paves the way to a better understanding of how contractual obligations come to an end, which is essential for legal professionals. The main focus of this article will be to provide an overview of discharge of contract, as well as exploring various methods and real-life examples. You will be guided through an in-depth understanding of the discharge of contract definition, performance and agreements, and the significance of operation of law. In addition, you will gain insights into different ways to discharge a contract, such as by breach or frustration, and explore their implications through practical examples. This article aims to provide you with essential knowledge and a solid foundation in the realm of contract law, specifically focusing on the discharge of contracts.

Discharge of Contract Discharge of Contract

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Table of contents

    Discharge of Contract: An Overview

    A contract is a legally-binding agreement between two or more parties, in which they agree to perform certain obligations in exchange for benefits. Once all parties have fulfilled their obligations, the contract is considered discharged. In this article, you will learn about the various ways a contract can be discharged, and the different factors that can lead to a contract's discharge.

    Understanding the Discharge of Contract Definition

    Discharge of a contract refers to the termination of the contractual relationship between parties once the contract's obligations have been fulfilled, or due to specific circumstances which render the contract unenforceable or void. The release of the contracting parties from their obligations under the contract is known as the discharge.

    There are several ways in which a contract can be discharged:

    • Discharge by performance and agreement
    • Discharge by operation of law
    • Discharge by frustration
    • Discharge by breach

    Discharge by Performance and Agreement

    Discharge by performance occurs when both parties have fully completed their contractual obligations. This is the most straightforward and common method of discharging a contract. In some cases, parties may also agree to alter, suspend, or terminate their obligations under a contract. This type of discharge is known as discharge by agreement.

    For example, Sarah hires Mike to paint her house for £1,000. Once Mike has completed the job and Sarah has paid the agreed-upon amount, the contract is considered discharged by performance.

    There are several different types of discharge by agreement, including:

    • Novation – This involves the substitution of a new contract for the existing one, e.g., substituting a new debtor or creditor, or changing the nature of the contractual obligations.
    • Rescission – This nullifies the original contract as though it never existed. This process can be carried out by mutual consent, or by one party if the other party has breached the terms of the contract.
    • Variation – The parties agree to modify the original contract, for example, by agreeing to different terms or conditions.
    • Accord and satisfaction – This occurs when the parties agree to a new form of compensation for the outstanding obligations, effectively discharging the original contract.

    Discharge by Operation of Law

    In certain cases, a contract can be discharged by operation of law, which means that the contract is discharged due to certain legal requirements or provisions, rather than by the actions of the parties themselves. A few common examples of discharge by operation of law include:

    • Mergers – When two companies merge, their existing contracts can be discharged by operation of law.
    • Frustration – A contract can be discharged due to a change in circumstances that renders performance impossible or illegal.
    • Bankruptcy – The discharge of a debtor's obligations by the operation of bankruptcy law often results in the discharge of the contract as well.
    • Statute of limitations – A contract may be discharged due to the expiration of a legal time limit for enforcing the contractual obligations.

    In some cases, a contract can also be discharged by operation of law through the doctrine of estoppel. This can occur when one party, by their words or actions, leads the other party to believe that they will not enforce the contract's terms. If the second party relies on this belief to their detriment, the first party may be estopped, or legally prevented, from enforcing the contract, leading to its discharge.

    Four Ways of Discharging a Contract

    As mentioned earlier, there are four primary ways of discharging a contract: discharge by performance and agreement, discharge by operation of law, discharge by frustration, and discharge by breach. In the following sections, we will delve into detail about discharge by breach and discharge by frustration, examining the different types of breaches and the various circumstances that can lead to frustration.

    Discharge by Breach of Contract

    A breach of contract occurs when one party fails to perform their obligations as per the terms of the contract, thereby discharging the other party's obligations under the contract. There are two main types of breach: anticipatory breach and actual breach.

    Anticipatory Breach

    Anticipatory breach, also known as repudiatory breach, occurs when one party indicates, either through their words or actions, that they will not be performing their contractual obligations before the time for performance has arrived. This can take various forms, such as:

    • Express repudiation – One party explicitly states that they do not intend to perform their obligations under the contract
    • Implied repudiation – One party takes actions that clearly demonstrate their intention not to perform, even without an explicit statement

    For example, Steve contracts with Alice to purchase 100 litres of olive oil for delivery on a specific date. However, a week before the delivery date, Steve informs Alice that he will not be taking delivery of the oil because he found a cheaper supplier. This can be considered an anticipatory breach based on express repudiation.

    Upon an anticipatory breach, the non-breaching party has two options:

    1. Accept the breach and treat the contract as discharged, allowing them to sue for damages immediately; or
    2. Continue to insist on performance and wait until the time for performance has passed before claiming damages and treating the contract as discharged

    Actual Breach

    An actual breach occurs when a party fails to perform their contractual obligations at the time specified in the contract. This could involve:

    • Failing to complete the agreed-upon work
    • Providing a substandard service or product
    • Not delivering goods on time, or at all
    • Failing to make payment as agreed

    For instance, Jane contracts with a builder, Tom, to build an extension to her house within three months. After five months, the extension is still unfinished, and Tom is nowhere to be found. Jane can claim an actual breach of contract due to Tom's failure to complete the work within the agreed-upon timeframe.

    Upon an actual breach, the non-breaching party can treat the contract as discharged and claim damages for the breach.

    Discharge of a Contract by Frustration

    Frustration is a legal doctrine that discharges a contract when an unforeseen event occurs, making it impossible or fundamentally altering the nature of the contractual obligations. In this section, we will explore the circumstances that can lead to frustration and the legal consequences that may arise as a result.

    Circumstances leading to Frustration

    Various circumstances may render a contract impossible or fundamentally changed, leading to frustration. Some examples include:

    • Physical impossibility – When something integral to the performance of the contract is destroyed or ceases to exist, e.g., a building rented for an event is destroyed by a fire.
    • Legal impossibility – When a change in the law renders performance illegal or prohibited, e.g., new environmental regulations prevent a contracted construction project from going ahead.
    • Non-occurrence of a specified event – When a contract is predicated on the occurrence of a particular event that does not happen, e.g., a contract to exhibit artwork at a gallery that never opens.
    • Personal incapacity – When the performance of the contract depends on a specific individual, and they become incapacitated or unable to perform their obligations, e.g., an actor is injured and unable to perform in a play.

    Frustration cannot be claimed if the event was foreseeable, the party claiming frustration was at fault in causing the event, or if the contract contains a clause allocating the risk to one of the parties.

    Legal Consequences of Frustration

    When a contract is discharged by frustration, the legal consequences can include:

    • All parties are discharged from their future obligations under the contract
    • Any sums paid or benefits conferred before the frustrating event may be recoverable, as per the Law Reform (Frustrated Contracts) Act 1943 in the UK
    • Unrecoverable expenses incurred before the frustrating event typically remain with the party who incurred them
    • In some cases, courts may allocate the ensuing losses between the parties, depending on the circumstances and the contract's terms

    When a contract is discharged by frustration, it is vital for the involved parties to seek legal advice to clarify their rights and obligations in light of these legal consequences.

    Discharge of Contract Examples

    In this section, we will dive into real-life examples of contract discharge, focusing on cases where the discharge of a contract occurs due to breach or frustration. These examples illustrate how the concepts covered in previous sections are applied in practice and provide a deeper understanding of the discharge of a contract in real-life scenarios.

    Real-Life Cases of Discharge by Breach

    In each case, we will examine the circumstances surrounding the breach, the legal consequences, and the remedies awarded to the aggrieved party.

    Case 1: Kempton Steamship Co Ltd v Byrne & Co Ltd

    In this case, Byrne, a ship owner, agreed to let their ship Delight to Kempton Steamship Co Ltd. Despite having ample time, Byrne failed to provide the necessary documents for the voyage, which led to a delay in the ship's departure. Consequently, Kempton Steamship Co Ltd claimed a breach of contract.

    In this case, Byrne's failure to provide documents timely led to an actual breach of the contract. Kempton Steamship Co Ltd was entitled to damages for the breach, based on the financial loss they suffered due to the delay of the voyage.

    Case 2: Hochster v De La Tour

    In this case, De La Tour agreed to hire Hochster as a tour guide for an upcoming excursion. However, a month before the trip, De La Tour notified Hochster that he no longer required his services. Hochster claimed an anticipatory breach of contract.

    Since De La Tour communicated that he would not be employing Hochster's services before the contract's performance date, an anticipatory breach occurred. Hochster was entitled to damages for this breach, and he could also seek an alternative employment opportunity without waiting for the contractual date to pass.

    Instances of Discharge by Frustration

    Here, we will look at instances where a contract was discharged due to frustration, examining the circumstances that led to the frustrating event and the legal consequences for the involved parties.

    Case 1: Taylor v Caldwell

    In this case, Taylor agreed to rent a music hall owned by Caldwell for holding a series of concerts. Before the concerts could take place, the music hall was destroyed by fire. Taylor claimed compensation for the loss of expected revenue from the concerts.

    The fire that destroyed the music hall made the contract's performance impossible, leading to frustration. Consequently, both parties were discharged from their contractual obligations, and Taylor was not entitled to claim damages for the loss of revenue, as it was due to a frustrating event rather than a breach by Caldwell.

    Case 2: Krell v Henry

    Krell rented out his flat to Henry, intending for the latter to use it to watch a military parade during the coronation procession of King Edward VII. However, the coronation ceremony was postponed due to the King's illness. As a result, the parade did not take place, and Henry refused to pay the rent for the flat.

    The postponement of the coronation procession and the cancellation of the parade led to frustration, as the contract's performance was predicated on the occurrence of these specific events. Consequently, Krell was not entitled to receive rent from Henry, and both parties were discharged from their contractual obligations.

    These cases demonstrate the various circumstances in which a contract can be discharged due to breach or frustration. It is essential to understand these examples to grasp the practical implications of the principles discussed in previous sections, and to appreciate the multi-faceted nature of contract discharge in real-life situations.

    Discharge of Contract - Key takeaways

    • Discharge of Contract: Termination of the contractual relationship between parties once the contract's obligations have been fulfilled or due to specific circumstances that render it unenforceable or void.

    • Four ways of discharging a contract: Performance and agreement, operation of law, frustration, and breach.

    • Discharge by breach: Occurs when one party fails to perform their obligations, thereby discharging the other party's obligations. Main two types: anticipatory breach (repudiatory breach) and actual breach.

    • Discharge of a contract by frustration: Legal doctrine that discharges a contract when an unforeseen event occurs, making it impossible or fundamentally altering the nature of the contractual obligations.

    • Discharge of contract examples: Real-life cases that demonstrate various circumstances in which a contract can be discharged due to breach or frustration.

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    Frequently Asked Questions about Discharge of Contract
    What is discharge of contract?
    Discharge of contract refers to the termination of a contractual agreement between parties, either through the fulfilment of contractual obligations or other circumstances that render the contract impossible or unnecessary to continue. This can occur through mutual agreement, performance, frustration, or breach of the contract. Upon discharge, both parties are released from their obligations, and the contract is considered legally closed.
    Are discharge and termination the same?
    Discharge and termination in the context of contracts are closely related but not exactly the same. Discharge refers to the fulfilment or ending of a contract due to the completion of its terms, expiry, or other factors. Termination, on the other hand, is when one or both parties choose to end the contract before its original completion, often due to a breach or mutual agreement. Both discharge and termination result in the release of contractual obligations but have different causes and potential legal consequences.
    What are the three ways in which a contract may be discharged?
    A contract may be discharged through three primary ways, including 1) performance, wherein both parties fulfil their respective obligations stipulated in the contract, 2) agreement, where all parties reach a consensus to terminate or alter the original contract, and 3) frustration, which occurs when unforeseen events or circumstances render the contract impossible to perform, or transform the obligations into something radically different from what was agreed upon.
    What does "discharge" mean in legal terms?
    In legal terms, discharge refers to the termination or fulfilment of a contract, releasing the parties from their respective obligations and duties. It occurs when the parties have fully performed the agreed-upon terms or when certain events or circumstances render the contract impossible, void, or no longer necessary. Discharge concludes the contractual relationship between the parties, preventing any future legal claims associated with the contract.
    What is an example of a discharge by breach of contract?
    An example of a discharge by breach of contract is when a builder agrees to construct an extension for a homeowner by a specific date, but fails to complete the work on time and without any justifiable reason. As a result, the homeowner may treat the contract as discharged due to the builder's breach and seek damages for the inconvenience and additional costs incurred.

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