Out-Law Guide | 16 Aug 2011 | 10:55 am | 2 min. read
The issue of when a valid contract is formed can be a complex one. Courts will often say that a valid contract exists based on intentions of the parties, even when no formal paperwork has been signed. Technology has also complicated the contract-formation process. Emails are often considered to be an informal means of communication, but the courts have shown that it is possible to enter into a binding contract through the exchange of emails.
The Immingham Storage Company case
This was exactly what happened in a court case between petrol storage company the Immingham Storage Company and commodities trader Clear Plc.
In 2011 the Court of Appeal decided that the use of the phrase "our full contract... will now be raised... and sent for your signature" as part of a series of emails created a contract between the two companies. Even though this full contract was never completed or returned, the court considered that there had been an intention to create contractual relations and a binding contract existed.
The series of emails concerned the availability and cost of a petrol storage facility. Immingham sent an email quotation which provided that a formal contract would follow in due course and attached its general conditions. Its customer, Clear, confirmed that it wished to proceed and faxed back a signed copy of the quotation. The storage company accepted this offer by emailing a 'contract confirmation', stating that the full contract would follow for signature and return. Although this document was sent, the customer did not sign or return it.
Clear was unable to source appropriate fuel and never made use of the storage facility. Immingham invoiced it for storage charges and brought a claim for non-payment. Clear denied that there was any binding contract as it had not signed the formal document.
The judge who first heard the case found that a contract was formed by virtue of the email exchange. The Court of Appeal agreed, stating that signing the contract was merely a description of how the transaction, which had already been agreed, would go through and not a condition of the transaction itself. The only conditions which had to be satisfied were Clear's obtaining board approval and confirmation that a tank was available - both of these had been satisfied before Clear accepted the storage company's offer. Phrases such as 'subject to contract' had not been used and the terms on which the quotation was signed - 'subject to your board approval' - made it obvious the conditions that had to be satisfied.
The statement that a 'formal contract will then follow' was just an expression of the parties' wishes and the email referring to the formal contract did not change any of the terms of Immingham's offer. This reference had to be read in the context of the entire email, which strongly supported the impression that the contract had already been formed.
Implications for contractors
If your business is involved in procurement:
If your business is involved in claims or dispute resolution:
Although this case involved a relatively simple contract, the decision illustrates the risk that a vague reference to a formal agreement may not be enough to achieve a non-binding pre-agreement when the main terms are all agreed. The word 'formal' may even be taken to indicate that any further agreement is a mere formality, and that the substance of the contract has already been agreed.