November 01, 2011

The social impact of contract law

I had to take a bus last Thursday and I was 50p short. Luckily a kind gentleman was generous enough to give me the money I needed. I could not help but think (sadly enough) that English contract law as it stands actually promotes this kind of positive behavior.

English law requires consideration for a contract. This means there is no contract when one party gives something to another party without the latter incurring any obligation. This in turn means that acts of pure generosity to do not bear the stigma of legal obligation: to give something does not mean you have entered in a contract with someone else; purely and simply it means you are giving. In other legal systems, at least as far as I have understood, a contract would be formed between the giver and the receiver. Of course in the example used above it would be ludicrous for me to claim my legal rights. But the simple fact that it is possible is, for me, troubling.

This is all based on the premise that people know what the law is. The fact of the matter is, the layman is ignorant of these fine legal details, so much so that acts of generosity are not limited to England & Wales.

Another point which I thought played a social role was the determination of an offer in a supermarket. I find that the English position – an offer being made by the buyer when he presents the goods at the till and accepted by the shop after scanning the goods – is perhaps awkward from a property point of view: the buyer is offering to goods he does not own; it seems antithetic with a ‘gut feeling’ so to speak. On the other hand I feel it is a sound policy: it means a cashier can refuse to sell alcohol to a person who evidently does not need more, or a pharmacist can refuse to sell painkillers to a person who is an obvious drug abuser.

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