Section 56 of The Indian Contract Act, 1872 II

Prior to the decision in Taylor v. Caldwell, (1861-73) All ER Rep 24 the law in England was extremely rigid. A contract had to be performed, notwithstanding the fact that it had become impossible of performance, owing to some unforeseen event, after it was made, which was not the fault of either of the parties to the contract. This rigidity of the common law in which the absolute sanctity of contract was upheld was loosened somewhat by the decision in Taylor vs. Caldwell in which it was held that if some unforeseen event occurs during the performance of a contract which makes it impossible of performance, in the sense that the fundamental basis of the contract goes, it need not be further performed, as insisting upon such performance would be unjust.

The law in India has been laid down in the seminal decision of Satyabrata Ghose v. Mugneeram Bangur & Co., 1954 SCR 310.

In M/s Alopi Parshad & Sons Ltd. v. Union of India, 1960 (2) SCR 793 this Court, after setting out Section 56 of The Contract Act, held that the Act does not enable a party to a contract to ignore the express covenants thereof and to claim payment of consideration, for performance of the contract at rates different from the stipulated rates, on a vague plea of equity. Parties to an executable contract are often faced, in the course of carrying it out, with a turn of events which they did not at all anticipate, for example, a wholly abnormal rise or fall in prices which is an unexpected obstacle to execution. This does not in itself get rid of the bargain they have made. It is only when a consideration of the terms of the contract, in the light of the circumstances existing when it was made, showed that they never agreed to be bound in a fundamentally different situation which had unexpectedly emerged, that the contract ceases to bind. It was further held that the performance of a contract is never discharged merely because it may become onerous to one of the parties.

Similarly, in Naihati Jute Mills Ltd. v. Hyaliram Jagannath, 1968 (1) SCR 821 this Court went into the English law on frustration in some detail, and then cited the celebrated judgment of Satyabrata Ghose v. Mugneeram Bangur & Co. Ultimately, this Court concluded that a contract is not frustrated merely because the circumstances in which it was made are altered. The Courts have no general power to absolve a party from the performance of its part of the contract merely because its performance has become onerous on account of an unforeseen turn of events.

It has also been held that applying the doctrine of frustration must always be within narrow limits. In an instructive English judgment namely, Tsakiroglou & Co. Ltd. v. Noblee Thorl GmbH, 1961 (2) All ER 179 despite the closure of the Suez canal, and despite the fact that the customary route for shipping the goods was only through the Suez canal, it was held that the contract of sale of groundnuts in that case was not frustrated, even though it would have to be performed by an alternative mode of performance which was much more expensive, namely, that the ship would now have to go around the Cape of Good Hope, which is three times the distance from Hamburg to Port Sudan.[1] The freight for such journey was also double. Despite this, the House of Lords held that even though the contract had become more onerous to perform, it was not fundamentally altered. Where performance is otherwise possible, it is clear that a mere rise in freight price would not allow one of the parties to say that the contract was discharged by impossibility of performance.

This view of the law has been echoed in ‘Chitty on Contracts’, 31st edition. In paragraph 14-151 a rise in cost or expense has been stated not to frustrate a contract. Similarly, in ‘Treitel on Frustration and Force Majeure’, 3rd edition, the learned author has opined, at paragraph 12-034, that the cases provide many illustrations of the principle that a force majeure clause will not normally be construed to apply where the contract provides for an alternative mode of performance. It is clear that a more onerous method of performance by itself would not amount to a frustrating event. The same learned author also states that a mere rise in price rendering the contract more expensive to perform does not constitute frustration (See paragraph 15-158).

Indeed, in England, in the celebrated Sea Angel Case, 2013 (1) Lloyds Law Report 569 the modern approach to frustration is well put, and the same reads as under:

‘In my judgment, the application of the doctrine of frustration requires a multi-factorial approach. Among the factors which have to be considered are the terms of the contract itself, its matrix or context, the parties’ knowledge, expectations, assumptions and contemplations, in particular as to risk, as at the time of the contract, at any rate so far as these can be ascribed mutually and objectively, and then the nature of the supervening event, and the parties’ reasonable and objectively ascertainable calculations as to the possibilities of future performance in the new circumstances. Since the subject matter of the doctrine of frustration is contract, and contracts are about the allocation of risk, and since the allocation and assumption of risk is not simply a matter of express or implied provision but may also depend on less easily defined matters such as “the contemplation of the parties”, the application of the doctrine can often be a difficult one. In such circumstances, the test of “radically different” is important: it tells us that the doctrine is not to be lightly invoked; that mere incidence of expense or delay or onerousness is not sufficient; and that there has to be as it were a break in identity between the contract as provided for and contemplated and its performance in the new circumstances.’”

Hon’ble Justice R.F. Nariman, Energy Watchdog v. CERC, [Civil Appeal Nos. 5399-5400 of 2016].

[1] The distance from Port of Sudan to Hamburg via the Suez Canal is about 4386 miles, and via the Cape about 11,137 miles.