May and Butcher Ltd v. The King [1934] 2 KB 17n, House of Lords

May and Butcher Ltd, the suppliants1 (also referred to in the judgments as the appellants), alleged that they had concluded an agreement with the Controller of the Disposals Board under which they agreed to buy the whole of the tentage which might become available in the United Kingdom for disposal up to 31 March 1923. On 29 June 1921, the Controller wrote to the suppliants stating that:

‘in consideration of your agreeing to deposit with the [Disposals & Liquidation] Commission the sum of 1000l. as security for the carrying out of this extended contract, the Commission hereby confirm the sale to you of the whole of the old tentage which may become available . . . up to and including December 31, 1921, upon the following terms:

(1) The Commission agrees to sell and [the suppliants] agree to purchase the total stock of old tentage . . .

(2) The price or prices to be paid, and the date or dates on which payment is to be made by the purchasers to the Commission for such old tentage shall be agreed upon from time to time between the Commission and the purchasers as the quantities of the said old tentage become available for disposal, and are offered to the purchasers by the Commission.

(3) Delivery . . . shall be taken by the purchasers in such period or periods as may be agreed upon between the Commission and the purchasers when such quantities of old tentage are offered to the purchasers by the Commission. . . .

(4) It is understood that all disputes with reference to or arising out of this agreement will be submitted to arbitration in accordance with the provisions of the Arbitration Act, 1889.’

In a second letter, dated 7 January 1922, the Disposals Controller confi rmed the sale to the suppliants of the tentage that might become available for disposal up to 31 March 1923. This letter, which varied in certain respects the earlier terms, stated that ‘the prices to be agreed upon between the Commission and the purchasers in accordance with the terms of clause 3 of the said earlier contract shall include delivery free on rail . . . nearest to the depots at which the said tentage may be lying. . . . ’

In August 1922, after the suppliants had made proposals to purchase tentage that were not acceptable to the Controller, the Disposals Board wrote to the suppliants and stated that they considered themselves no longer bound by the agreement. The suppliants then fi led their petition of right in which they claimed (i) an injunction restraining the Commission from disposing of the remainder of the tentage to anyone other than the suppliants, and (ii) an account of the tentage that had become available and compensation for the damage done to them. Their petition was dismissed by the House of Lords.

Lord Buckmaster

The points that arise for determination are these: Whether or not the terms of the contract were sufficiently defined to constitute a legal binding contract between the parties. The Crown says that the price was never agreed. The suppliants say first, that if it was not agreed, it would be a reasonable price. Secondly, they say that even if the price was not agreed, the arbitration clause in the contract was intended to cover this very question of price, and that consequently the reasonableness of the price was referred to arbitration under the contract . . .

My Lords, those being the contentions, it is obvious that the whole matter depends upon the construction of the actual words of the bargain itself.

[he set out various terms of the correspondence that had passed between the parties and continued]

What resulted was this: it was impossible to agree the prices, and unless the appellants are in a position to establish either that this failure to agree resulted out of a definite agreement to buy at a reasonable price, or that the price had become subject to arbitration, it is plain on the first two points which have been mentioned that this appeal must fail.

In my opinion there never was a concluded contract between the parties. It has long been a well recognized principle of contract law that an agreement between two parties to enter into an agreement in which some critical part of the contract matter is left undetermined is no contract at all. It is of course perfectly possible for two people to contract that they will sign a document which contains all the relevant terms, but it is not open to them to agree that they will in the future agree upon a matter which is vital to the arrangement between them and has not yet been determined. It has been argued that as the fixing of the price has broken down, a reasonable price must be assumed. That depends in part upon the terms of the Sale of Goods Act, which no doubt reproduces, and is known to have reproduced, the old law upon the matter. That provides in s. 8 that ‘the price in a contract of sale may be fixed by the contract, or may be left to be fixed in manner thereby agreed, or may be determined by the course of dealing between the parties. Where the price is not determined in accordance with the foregoing provisions the buyer must pay a reasonable price’; while, if the agreement is to sell goods on the terms that the price is to be fixed by the valuation of a third party, and such third party cannot or does not make such valuation, s. 9 says that the agreement is avoided. I find myself quite unable to understand the distinction between an agreement to permit the price to be fixed by a third party and an agreement to permit the price to be fixed in the future by the two parties to the contract themselves. In principle it appears to me that they are one and the same thing . . .

The next question is about the arbitration clause, and there I entirely agree with the majority of the Court of Appeal and also with Rowlatt J. The clause refers ‘disputes with reference to or arising out of this agreement’ to arbitration, but until the price has been fixed, the agreement is not there. The arbitration clause relates to the settlement of whatever may happen when the agreement has been completed and the parties are regularly bound. There is nothing in the arbitration clause to enable a contract to be made which in fact the original bargain has left quite open.

Viscount Dunedin

I am of the same opinion. This case arises upon a question of sale, but in my view the principles which we are applying are not confined to sale, but are the general principles of the law of contract. To be a good contract there must be a concluded bargain, and a concluded contract is one which settles everything that is necessary to be settled and leaves nothing to be settled by agreement between the parties. Of course it may leave something which still has to be determined, but then that determination must be a determination which does not depend upon the agreement between the parties. In the system of law in which I was brought up, that was expressed by one of those brocards of which perhaps we have been too fond, but which often express very neatly what is wanted: ‘Certum est quod certum reddi potest’.3 Therefore, you may very well agree that a certain part of the contract of sale, such as price, may be settled by some one else. As a matter of the general law of contract all the essentials have to be settled. What are the essentials may vary according to the particular contract under consideration. We are here dealing with sale, and undoubtedly price is one of the essentials of sale, and if it is left still to be agreed between the parties, then there is no contract. It may be left to the determination of a certain person, and if it was so left and that person either would not or could not act, there would be no contract because the price was to be settled in a certain way and it has become impossible to settle it in that way, and therefore there is no settlement.

No doubt as to goods, the Sale of Goods Act, 1893, says that if the price is not mentioned and settled in the contract it is to be a reasonable price. The simple answer in this case is that the Sale of Goods Act provides for silence on the point and here there is no silence, because there is a provision that the two parties are to agree. As long as you have something certain it does not matter. For instance, with regard to price it is a perfectly good contract to say that the price is to be settled by the buyer. I have not had time, or perhaps I have not been industrious enough, to look through all the books in England to see if there is such a case; but there was such a case in Scotland in 1760, where it was decided that a sale of a landed estate was perfectly good, the price being left to be settled by the buyer himself. I have only expressed in other words what has already been said by my noble friend on the Woolsack. Here there was clearly no contract. There would have been a perfectly good settlement of price if the contract had said that it was to be settled by arbitration by a certain man, or it might have been quite good if it was said that it was to be settled by arbitration under the Arbitration Act so as to bring in a material plan by which a certain person could be put in action. The question then arises, has anything of that sort been done? I think clearly not. The general arbitration clause is one in very common form as to disputes arising out of the arrangements. In no proper meaning of the word can this be described as a dispute arising between the parties; it is a failure to agree, which is a very different thing from a dispute.

Lord Warrington of Clyffe delivered a concurring judgment.

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