The Doctrine of Privity is an area of English contract law covering the relationship between parties to a contract and other parties or agents (3rd parties). At a basic level, the rule is that a contract can neither give rights to, nor impose obligations on, anyone who is not a party to the original agreement, the 3rd party.
Historically, 3rd parties were able to enforce the terms of a contract, as evidenced in Provender verses Wood in 1630. A series of further cases during the 19th and early 20th century changed how this was interpreted, the most well-known cases Tweddle verses Atkinson in 1831 and Dunlop Pneumatic Tyre verses Selfridge and Co Limited in 1915.
For various reasons the Doctrine of Privity was seen as unfair as it made no exception for cases where the parties to a contract obviously intended for it to be enforced by a third party, and it was inconsistently applied and provided no solid rule. It was seen as “bad” law. The doctrine attracted criticism from numerous figures and as early as 1937 the Law Revision Committee recommended that significant alterations should be made.
With the ascent of the Contract (Right of Third Parties) Act  on 11th November 1999, the Doctrine was significantly altered, 3rd Parties can now enforce the terms of a contract where the 3rd party is specifically authorised to do so by the Contract or if the contractual terms “purport to confer a benefit” to such 3rd party.
The original Doctrine of Privity consisted of two rules
- A 3rd Party may not have obligations imposed by the terms of a contract
- A 3rd Party may not benefit from the terms of a contract
The first rule was not contested, however the second rule was universally criticised and disliked.
This second rule was not originally held to be valid, and during the 17th Century 3rd Parties were allowed to enforce terms of a contract that benefited them, such as in Provender verses Wood where the judgement stated that “the party to whom the benefit of a promise accrues, may bring his action.”
The first reversal was in 1669 in Bourne verses Mason where it was found that a 3rd Party had no rights to enforce a contract that benefited him. However this case was quickly reversed, and decisions immediately after Bourne verses Mason took the view 3rd Parties could enforce contracts that benefited them.
Judicial decisions then differed over the next 200 years as to whether or not a 3rd Party could enforce a contract that benefitted them before the issue was finally settled in 1861. This was in the case of Tweddle verses Atkinson which confirmed a 3rd Party could not enforce a contract that benefited him. This decision was affirmed by the House of Lords in 1915 in Dunlop Pneumatic Tyre verses Selfridge and Co Limited where Lord Haldane stated only a person who was party to a contract could sue on it.
This version of the doctrine is commonly known as the original or basic doctrine.
Views of the original doctrine
Supporters of the original Doctrine of Privity argued it was reasonable not to allow third parties to enforce contracts as this would harm the rights of the original parties to amend or terminate Contracts. A further argument put forward was the doctrine was deliberately retained by judges to protect consumers from exclusion clauses designed to protect third party manufacturers from liability.
The second rule that a 3rd Party could not claim benefits from a contract, was widely criticised by the judiciary, legal professionals and academics, particularly as the rule made no exceptions for cases where it was obviously intended for the third party to claim a benefit.
In Beswick verses Beswick in 1968, an uncle gave his nephew a business, on the condition his nephew would pay his uncle a certain amount per week. In the event of his uncle’s death, a similar amount would be given to his widow. Clearly in this instance it was intended that 3rd Parties benefit.
A further argument used was the large number of exceptions to the rule that various Acts of Parliament passed. This indicated parliament had issues with the Doctrine of Privity and it is clear that the large number of inconsistencies and exceptions made the Doctrine of Privity “bad” law as there were no reliable rule in how law worked in theory to how it was enforced by the courts.
As the Doctrine of Privity was extremely unpopular, several ways of circumnavigating it were developed which were at times both complex and extremely artificial. These exceptions were extremely limited in how they could be used however.
In Beswick verses Beswick as described above, when the Uncle passed away his nephew refused to pay the widow the money required, arguing that as she was not party to the original agreement she could not benefit from it.
Lord Denning in the Court of Appeal tried to use this as an opportunity to claim that the Doctrine of Privity was invalid. However this was rejected by the House of Lords although they agreed Mrs Beswick could sue, not as a 3rd Party to the contract but as Executrix of her husband’s estate. The consequence of this was she was acting as a representative of Mr Beswick, and the Doctrine of Privity would not apply.
Trusts (an arrangement where the owner of property gives it to a second party (The Trustee) to manage on behalf of a 3rd Party (The Beneficiary) have been a method of circumnavigating the Doctrine of Privity. In Les Affreteurs verses Walford in 1919 the House of Lords determined that that the trustee’s ability to sue the owner of the property is to be exercised on behalf of the beneficiary, a 3rd Party. This is known as a “trust of the promise.” While an artificial measure, it bypassed the Doctrine of Privity. The trust exception has been heavily undermined by the decision in 1944 in the Court of Appeal (Re Schebsman) which required a court to find evidence of an intent to create a trust of the promise rather than simply using the requirement as an intention as a fiction to allow the courts to enact the trust exception.
As parliament is not bound by the common law several acts of parliament unwittingly created valid exceptions to the Doctrine of Privity.
The Road Traffic Act  obliges motorists to take out third party liability insurance which allows victims of car accidents to can claim monies from the insurer of the driver at fault, even though they are not part of the original contract. Under the Married Woman’s Property Act  a husband can take out insurance in his own name, but make it enforceable by his wife and children despite the Doctrine of Privity.
Claiming on behalf of another
In 1975 in Jackson verses Horizon Holidays Limited a second exception was created where a party could sue on behalf of another, if the other party would have benefited from the contract.
In this case, Mr Jackson booked a holiday in his own name with Horizon Holidays Limited which did not match the particulars as laid down in the contract. Mr Jackson sued with the company accepting liability but claimed no damages were due to the family as under the Doctrine of Privity they could not sue. The Court of Appeal found that the loss of enjoyment suffered by the family was also a loss to Mr Jackson as he had paid for a family holiday but not received it. As such damages were awarded.
A Collateral Contract exists side by side with the Main Contract where this contract is a consideration into another subordinate contract. As normally this involves parties who are not parties to the Main Contract it was able to circumnavigate the Doctrine of Privity, which co-exists side by side with the main contract. Because this normally involves parties who are not part of the main contract, it has been used as a way around the doctrine of privity. The courts allowed an injured party to sue under this Collateral Contract despite it being artificial. The Contracts (Right of Third Parties) Act  has now limited this significantly.
In the 1951 case of Shanklin Pier Limited verses Detel Products Limited, Shanklin were having their pier refurbished and contracted with a painting contractor where they were required to use Detel products. This was as Detel had provided assurances their paint would last for 7 years. However after 3 months the paint was already flaking. While Shanklin had no contractual relationship with Detel the Court of Appeal found like there was a collateral contract they could use to sue.
The use of Collateral Contracts as a loophole are however limited as the courts must first find evidence to imply some kind of Collateral Contract, as well as consideration. Attempts by the courts to do this have added to the perception of this as an artificial device, such as in Charnock verses Liverpool Corporation in 1968 where the Collateral Contracts used were described as “invented” consideration, and “fictitious”.
In certain commercial contracts, such as goods sold to consumers by a dealer, there is automatically a collateral contract between the consumer and the manufacturer of the goods.
There are several ways around the original doctrine which were not loopholes created by case law but situations which by their very nature must involve three parties. We will now look at the 3 most common examples.
A Negotiable Instrument is a type of contract that allows the transfer of money, such as a Credit Card which involves three parties.
- The person who holds the credit card
- The entity who the card is given to, to pay for a transaction
- The entity who issues the holder of the credit card and promises to make payment to the entity who the holder of the credit card transacted with
Assignment is covered by both Contract Law and Property Law that governs the transfer of rights from one party to another, including the right to enforce a debt. In this situation the party who is assigned the debt can sue the debtor despite any contractual agreement between them. This being permitted by the Law of Property Act .
Agency is a relationship between a Principal who authorises an Agent to make a contract on his behalf with a 3rd Party.
In agency, the agent can make a contract with a 3rd Party that is binding on the principal, even though he was not privy to the original contract. The Consumer Credit Act  is an example as this allows a dealer for a financial company to set up credit agreements as a representative of that company, for example.
It could be argued this is not a genuine exception to the Doctrine of Privity as once the contract is made the “agent” plays no further part and it is effectively an agreement between the two parties.
Although certain elements of the Doctrine of Privity are believed to clash Agency. An example would be where the principal could sue the 3rd Party even when the agent has not disclosed to the third party that he is acting as an agent to the principal. In this situation, the third party can be sued by somebody that he had no idea was involved in the contract.
Privity and consideration
A general consensus is that privity is distinct from consideration although there is a strong relationship between the two. This causes problems with the idea that the Doctrine of Privity should be abolished, as the idea that third parties can claim benefits from promises that they gave nothing for clashes with the doctrine of consideration, which prevents parties who did not contribute something to the agreement from benefiting from it.
Consideration is a rule that there must be a “benefit or detriment” involved in any contract, and that this must initially come from the promisee. It is argued this rule and the Doctrine of Privity are two ways of saying the same thing, that someone not party to the contract is the same as saying that they gave no consideration in the initial agreement.
In Tweddle verses Atkinson the decision made was reached because the claimant had not provided consideration. In Dunlop Pneumatic Tyre verses Selfridge and Co Limited a similar conclusion was reached, although it should be noted that Lord Haldane noted that independent of consideration, it was a rule in English law that “only a person who is party to a contract can sue on it”.
As with most elements of law where rules and precedents have evolved over centuries the arguments are often complex and must be based on the facts presented, such as how well the contract documents have been drafted. At the same time this post over a centuries old legal rule shows that even attempts to reform the law can make it more complex by unintended consequences, such as Collateral Warranties being defined as “Construction Contracts” in accordance with the Housing Grants, Construction and Regeneration Act .
However the Contracts (Right of Third Parties) Act 1999, which we will examine in the next post, has gone some way to clear up this anomaly.