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Offer and acceptance are elements required for the formation of a legally binding contract: the expression of an offer to contract on certain terms by one person (the "offeror") to another person (the "offeree"), and an indication by the offeree of its acceptance of those terms. The other elements traditionally required for a legally binding contract are (i) consideration and (ii) an intention to create legal relations.
Offer and acceptance analysis is a traditional approach in contract law. The offer and acceptance formula, developed in the 19th century, identifies a moment of formation when the parties are of one mind. This classical approach to contract formation has been weakened by developments in the law of estoppel, misleading conduct, misrepresentation and unjust enrichment.
Treitel defines an offer as "an expression of willingness to contract on certain terms, made with the intention that it shall become binding as soon as it is accepted by the person to whom it is addressed", the "offeree". An offer is a statement of the terms on which the offeror is willing to be bound. It is the present contractual intent to be bound by a contract with definite and certain terms communicated to the offeree.
The expression of an offer may take different forms, such as a letter, newspaper advertisement, fax, email and even conduct, as long as it communicates the basis on which the offeror is prepared to contract.
Whether the two parties have reached agreement on the terms or whether a valid offer has been made is an issue which is determined by the courts using criteria known as 'the objective test' which was explained in the leading English case of Smith v. Hughes. In Smith v. Hughes, the court emphasised that the important thing in determining whether there has been a valid offer is not the party's own (subjective) intentions, but how a reasonable person would view the situation.
Unless the offer included the key terms of the contract, it cannot be the basis of a binding contract. For example, as a minimum requirement for sale of goods contracts, a valid offer must include at least the following 4 terms: Delivery date, price, terms of payment that includes the date of payment and detail description of the item on offer including a fair description of the condition or type of service. Unless the minimum requirements are met, an offer of sale is not classified by the courts as a legal offer but is instead seen as an advertisement.
The contract in Carlill v Carbolic Smoke Ball Co was of a kind of contract known as a unilateral contract, one in which the offeree accepts the offer by performing an act which indicates their agreement with the bargain. In Carlill's case this involved using a flu remedy, but the act could be something as simple as raising an eyebrow or wearing a certain color t-shirt.
A unilateral contract can be contrasted with a bilateral contract, where there is an exchange of promises between two parties. In Australian Woollen Mills Pty Ltd v. The Commonwealth (1954), the High Court of Australia held that, for a unilateral contract to arise, the promise must be made "in return for" the doing of the act. The court distinguished between a unilateral contract and a conditional gift. The case is generally seen to demonstrate the connection between the requirements of offer and acceptance, consideration and intention to create legal relations.
An invitation to treat is not an offer, but an indication of a person's willingness to negotiate a contract. It's a pre-offer communication. In Harvey v. Facey, an indication by the owner of property that he or she might be interested in selling at a certain price, for example, has been regarded as an invitation to treat. Similarly in Gibson v Manchester City Council the words "may be prepared to sell" were held to be a notification of price and therefore not a distinct offer, though in another case concerning the same change of policy (Manchester City Council underwent a change of political control and stopped the sale of council houses to their tenants) Storer v. Manchester City Council, the court held that an agreement was completed by the tenant's signing and returning the agreement to purchase, as the language of the agreement had been sufficiently explicit and the signature on behalf of the council a mere formality to be completed.
The courts have tended to take a consistent approach to the identification of invitations to treat, as compared with offer and acceptance, in common transactions. The display of goods for sale, whether in a shop window or on the shelves of a self-service store, is ordinarily treated as an invitation to treat and not an offer.
The holding of a public auction will also usually be regarded as an invitation to treat. Auctions are, however, a special case generally. The rule is that the bidder is making an offer to buy and the auctioneer accepts this in whatever manner is customary, usually the fall of the hammer. A bidder may withdraw his or her bid at any time before the fall of the hammer, but any bid in any event lapses as an offer on the making of a higher bid, so that if a higher bid is made, then withdrawn before the fall of the hammer, the auctioneer cannot then purport to accept the previous highest bid. If an auction is without reserve then, whilst there is no contract of sale between the owner of the goods and the highest bidder (because the placing of goods in the auction is an invitation to treat), there is a collateral contract between the auctioneer and the highest bidder that the auction will be held without reserve (i.e., that the highest bid, however low, will be accepted). The U.S. Uniform Commercial Code provides that in an auction without reserve the goods may not be withdrawn once they have been put up.
An offeror may revoke an offer before it has been accepted, but the revocation must be communicated to the offeree (although not necessarily by the offeror, see Dickinson v. Dodds (1876) 2 Ch.D. 463). If the offer was made to the entire world, such as in Carlill's case, the revocation must take a form that is similar to the offer. However, an offer may not be revoked if it has been encapsulated in an option (see also option contract).
If the offer is one that leads to a unilateral contract, the offer generally cannot be revoked once the offeree has begun performance.
For the acceptance, the essential requirement is that the parties had each from a subjective perspective engaged in conduct manifesting their assent. Under this meeting of the minds theory of contract, a party could resist a claim of breach by proving that he had not intended to be bound by the agreement, only if it appeared subjectively that he had so intended. This is unsatisfactory, as one party has no way to know another's undisclosed intentions. One party can only act upon what the other party reveals objectively (Lucy V Zehmer, 196 Va 493 84 S.E. 2d 516) to be his intent. Hence, an actual meeting of the minds is not required. Indeed, it has been argued that the "meeting of the minds" idea is entirely a modern error: 19th century judges spoke of "consensus ad idem" which modern teachers have wrongly translated as "meeting of minds" but actually means "agreement to the [same] thing".
The requirement of an objective perspective is important in cases where a party claims that an offer was not accepted and seeks to take advantage of the performance of the other party. Here, we can apply the test of whether a reasonable bystander (a "fly on the wall") would have perceived that the party has impliedly accepted the offer by conduct.
There are several rules dealing with the communication of acceptance:
The "mirror image rule" states that if you are to accept an offer, you must accept an offer exactly, without modifications; if you change the offer in any way, this is a counter-offer that kills the original offer and the original offer cannot be accepted at a future time: Hyde v. Wrench (1840) 3 Beav 334.
However, a mere request for information about the terms of the offer is not a counter-offer and leaves the offer intact: Stevenson v. McLean (1880) 5 Q.B.D. 346. It may be possible to draft an enquiry such that it adds to the terms of the contract while keeping the original offer alive.
Under the Uniform Commercial Code (UCC) Sec. 2-207(1), A definite expression of acceptance or a written confirmation of an informal agreement may constitute a valid acceptance even if it states terms additional to or different from the offer or informal agreement. The additional or different terms are treated as proposals for addition into the contract under UCC Sec. 2-207(2). Between merchants, such terms become part of the contract unless:
Material is defined as anything that may cause undue hardship/surprise, or is a significant element of the contract.
If there is no contract under 2-207(1), then under UCC Sec. 2-207(3), conduct by the parties that recognize there is a contract may be sufficient to establish a contract. The terms for this contract include only those that the parties agree on and the rest via gap fillers.
Often when two companies deal with each other in the course of business, they will use standard form contracts. Often these standard terms conflict (e.g. both parties include a liability waiver in their form). The 'battle of the forms' refers to the resulting legal dispute arising where both parties accept that a legally binding contract exists, but disagree about whose standard terms apply.
Under English law, the question was raised in Butler Machine Tool Co Ltd v. Ex-Cell-O Corporation (England) Ltd  WLR 401, as to which of the standard form contracts prevailed in the transaction. Lord Denning MR preferred the view that the documents were to be considered as a whole, and the important factor was finding the decisive document; on the other hand, Lawton and Bridge LJJ preferred traditional offer-acceptance analysis, and considered that the last counter-offer prior to the beginning of performance voided all preceding offers. The absence of any additional counter-offer or refusal by the other party is understood as an implied acceptance. In U.S. law, this principle is referred to as the last shot rule.
As a rule of convenience, if the offer is accepted by post, the contract comes into existence at the moment that the acceptance was posted (Adams v. Lindsell (1818) 106 ER 250). This rule only applies when, impliedly or explicitly, the parties have post in contemplation as a means of acceptance. It excludes contracts involving land, letters incorrectly addressed and instantaneous modes of communication. The relevance of this early 19th century rule to modern conditions, when many quicker means of communication are available has been questioned, but the rule remains good law for the time being.
In Australian law, there is a requirement that an acceptance is made in reliance or pursuance of an offer: see R v. Clarke (1927) 40 C.L.R. 227.
An offer can be terminated on the grounds of rejection by the offeree, that is if the offeree does not accept the terms of the offer or makes a counter-offer as referred to above.
Also, upon making an offer, an offeror may include the period in which the offer will be available. If the offeree fails to accept the offer within this specific period, then the offer will be deemed as terminated.
Generally death (or incapacity) of the offeror terminates the offer. This does not apply to option contracts.
The offer cannot be accepted if the offeree knows of the death of the offeror. In cases where the offeree accepts in ignorance of the death, the contract may still be valid, although this proposition depends on the nature of the offer. If the contract involves some characteristic personal to the offeror, the offer is destroyed by the death.
An offer is rendered invalid upon the death of the offeree: see Re Irvine.
A contract will be formed (assuming the other requirements for a legally binding contract are met) when the parties give objective manifestation of an intent to form the contract.
Because offer and acceptance are necessarily intertwined, in California, offer and acceptance are analyzed together as subelements of a single element, known either as consent of the parties or mutual assent.