A contract in English law is a bargain. For a contract to be formed, the following five key criteria must be met. There must be:
- A valid offer;
- A valid acceptance of that offer;
- Consideration provided by both parties; (both parties must bring something to the bargain);
- An intention to create legal relations on the part of both parties; and
- Certainty of terms.
This article concentrates on what is possibly the most overlooked key criteria; intention to create legal relations.
What is ‘intention to create legal relations’?
In its simplest form, intention to create legal relations means that the parties must intend to enter into a legally binding arrangement in which the rights and obligations of the agreement are enforceable. As simple as this seems, the question as to whether the parties to a negotiation did intent to create legal relations is highly fact sensitive. It is relatively certain that representatives of a business, meeting in a formal commercial scenario to negotiate a contract do intend to create legal relations. However, what about two people discussing a joint venture over a drink in a pub? This was the exact question that the court was presented with in the recent case of Blue v Ashley  EWHC 1928.
Blue v Ashley
This case concerned an action brought against the well known entrepreneur, Michael Ashley. Mr Ashley was pursued by a business consultant by the name of Mr Jeffrey Blue. Mr Blue alleged that he had been employed by Mr Ashley’s company, Sports Direct Group, to provide business consultancy services.
The evidence of Mr Blue was that, at a meeting in a pub with Mr Ashley and three other representatives of Sports Direct, Mr Ashley (after drinking at least 8 pints of beer) had promised to pay a £15 million bonus to Mr Blue if he could ensure that Sports Direct’s share price moved above £8 per share. It was common ground between the parties that the meeting in the pub had been an informal social setting. Mr Blue alleged that Mr Ashley had nonetheless made him an offer, intending to be bound by legal relations and that Mr Blue had accepted that offer.
Subsequently, the share price of Sports Direct did indeed rise above £8 per share. When Mr Ashley refused to pay Mr Blue the £15 million, Mr Blue issued proceedings in the High Court to recover the sum.
Giving judgment in the High Court, Mr Justice Leggatt dismissed Mr Blue’s claim. This was on the grounds that the parties had not intended that Mr Ashley would be legally bound by his rather extravagant promise to Mr Blue. The Judge made a number of observations; the main being that an evening of drinking in the pub was an unlikely setting for formal contract negotiations. Further, it was not actually within Mr Blue’s power to achieve the aim of increasing the share price above £8. Finally, it would have been out of Mr Ashley’s character in any event to make such a promise.
Consequently, the Judge concluded that considering the predominantly social nature of the meeting, when he applied the necessary objective test then the only reasonable conclusion was that Mr Ashley’s statements had amounted to no more than mere “banter”. As such Mr Blue could not rely upon Mr Ashley’s statements as a binding contract.
Intention to create legal relations is often overlooked, but this case highlights how this principle can sometimes be critical to the enforceability of a contract.
While individuals and small businesses in particular may be attracted to the idea of an informal agreement (based maybe upon a handshake or a gentleman’s agreement), such an informal accord could be dangerous. It is particularly so if the agreement was formed in an environment that wouldn’t lend itself to normal business negotiations. It is vitally important for parties who wish to form a binding legal contract that they properly write out the terms so that there can be no disagreements as to the intention of the parties.
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