November 01, 2011

The postal rule – Acceptance sent through the post

When does an acceptance sent through the post become effective? The answer to this question determines where and when the contract is formed, and allows to answer to three important questions : Did the offeree miss the deadline proposed by the offeror to accept the offer? Is a revocation made by the offeror between the time the letter of acceptance was sent and the time it arrives possible? Is the offeree which send an acceptation and revocked it just after by mail bind when both arrived at the same time?

There are 4 possibilities of answers :

  • when the offeree decide to accept (externalisation theory Äußerungstheorie)

  • when the offeree posts its acceptance (expedition or emission theory, dispatch theory, “postal rule”, übermittlungstheorie).

  • when he recieves the acceptance (reception theory, Empfangstheorie) - with presumption he will knew it.

  • when the offeror knows the acceptation (information theory, Vernehmungstheorie)

The most extrem possibilities (the 1st and the last) are innapplicable for proof reasons.

English law opted for the emission's theory under its “postal rule” (1), and then limits its application. For instance it's only applicable when it was reasonable to use post as a method of acceptance (2), the letter of acceptance was properly posted (3) and it didn't produced a “manifest inconvenience and absurdity” (4)

French civil code doesn't generally regulate this matter (5). French Cours de cassation decided for a long time that it was a question of facts, and should be decide “following the circumstances of the case” by the judges (6). Sometimes it decided to apply the expedition theory, sometimes the reception theory. But it definitely decided to support the emission theory in 1981 if the seller didn't stipulate anything (7). However it could change in a few years, a current law project recommending to delete it and to replace it by the reception theory (8). This theory has the inconvenience to protect more the seller than the buyer, seller who already often imposes his terms and conditions, for instance in consumer relationship.

Can we accept that a second acceptance from an other place after ours, which arrived before ours because of a strike in our post center is valid and that we consequently loose the contract? Is the contract law a game in which the more lucky win?

Anyway, today the reception theory (Empfangstheorie) is not out-of-the-way : German law opted for it in §130 BGB (9), just like the CISG (10) and Unidroit principle chose the reception theory (11).

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  1. Adams v Lindsell (1818) 1 B & Ald 681, confirmed in Dunlop v Higgins (1848) 1 HLC 381.

  2. Henthorn v Fraser [1892] 2 Ch 27. For instance, it doesn't apply if the offeree knows that there is going to be some delay to his acceptance due to an event such as a postal strike.

  3. Getreide-Import GmbH v Contimar SA Compania Industrial, Comercial y Maritima [1953] 1 WLR 207 (misaddressed acceptance).

  4. Holwell securities Ltd v Hugues [1974] 1 WLR 155 (CA), per Lawton L.J

  5. But art 932 code civil choose the “reception” system concerning donation contracts and art 1985 choose emission system concerning power of attorney (mandat).

  6. Cass. req. 6 août 1867

  7. Cass. com. 7 janv. 1981, Bull. civ. IV, no 14, RTD civ. 1981. 849, obs. F. Chabas

  8. Avant-Projet Catala, Art 1107.

  9. Art 130 BGB : Effectiveness of a declaration of intent to absent parties; (1)A declaration of intent that is to be made to another becomes effective, if made in his absence, at the point of time when this declaration reaches him. It does not become effective if a revocation reaches the other previously or at the same time.

    See statement in http://dejure.org/gesetze/BGB/130.html

  10. United Nations Convention on Contracts for the International Sale of Goods, art 18 : “A statement made by or other conduct of the offeree indicating assent to an offer is an acceptance”.

  11. Unidroit principles of international commercial contracts 2010 – art 2.1.6-2° : “An acceptance of an offer becomes effective when the indication of assent reaches the offeror”.

Sources :

Patrick CHAUVEL, localisation du consentement dans le temps et dans l'espace, répertoire de droit civil DALLOZ (online), CONSENTEMENT, section 5, notes 238-255.

E. Mckendrick, Contract law, Text, cases and materials, 9rd ed. Oxford press.

Einsele, MüKo-BGB, §130.


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  1. Explication : the revocability of the offer

    This difference can be explained by the difference concerning the revocability of the offer in the 3 systems. Whereas German law considers the offer as irrevocable (1), French and English law accept this possibility of revocability in the name of freedom …

    Aurelie's blog - 09 Nov 2011, 13:09

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