Satyabrata Ghose v. Mugneeram Bangur & Co. [1954 SC]

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                                                DISCHARGE OF A CONTRACT

Dispute between the parties centres round the short point as to whether a contract for sale of land to which this litigation relates, was discharged and came to an end by reason of certain supervening circumstances which affected the performance of a material part of it.

The defendant company is the owner of a large tract of land in Calcutta. The company started a scheme for development of this land for residential purposes and in furtherance of the scheme the entire area was divided into a large number of plots for the sale of which offers were invited from intending purchasers.

The company’s plan of work seemed to be, to enter into agreements with different purchasers for sale of these plots of land and accept from them only a small portion of the consideration money by way of earnest at the time of the agreement. The company undertook to construct the roads and drains necessary for making the lands suitable for building and residential purposes and as soon as they were completed the purchaser would be called upon to complete the conveyance by payment of the balance of the consideration money. Bejoy Krishna Roy was one of such purchasers who entered into a contract with the company for purchase of a plot of land covered by the scheme. His contract is dated the 5th of August 1940 and he paid Rs. 101 as earnest money.

On November 30, 1941 the plaintiff appellant was made a nominee by the purchaser for purposes of the contract. Some time before this date, there was an order passed by the Collector, 24-Parganas on 12th of November, 1941, under Rule 79 of the Defence of India Rules, on the strength of which a portion of the land covered by the scheme was requisitioned for military purposes.

Another part of the land was requisitioned by the Government on 20th of December, 1941, while a third order of requisition, which related to the balance of the land comprised in the scheme, was passed sometime later. In November 1943 the company addressed a letter to Bejoy Krishna Roy informing him of the requisitioning of the lands by the Government and stating ‘inter alia’ that a considerable portion of the land appertaining to the scheme was taken possession of by the Government and there was no knowing how long the Government would retain possession of the same. construction of the proposed roads and drains, therefore, could not be taken up during continuance of the war and possibly for many years after its termination.

In these circumstances, the company decided to treat the agreement for sale with the addressee as cancelled and give him the option of taking back the earnest money within one month from the receipt of the letter. There was an offer made in the alternative that in case the purchaser refused to treat the contract as cancelled, he could, if he liked, complete the conveyance within one month from the receipt of the letter by paying the balance of the consideration money and take the land in the condition in which it existed at that time, the company undertaking to construct roads and drains, as circumstances might permit, after the termination of the war.

The letter ended by saying that in the event of the addressee not accepting either of the two alternatives, the agreement would be deemed to be cancelled and the earnest money would stand forfeited. This letter was handed over by Bejoy Krishna to his nominee, the plaintiff. the plaintiff refused to accept either of the two alternatives offered by the company and stated categorically that the latter was bound by the terms of the agreement from which it could not, in law, resile.

On 18th of January 1946 the suit, out of which this appeal arises, was commenced by the plaintiff against the defendant company. prayers in the plaint were for a two-fold declaration, namely, (1) that the contract dated the 5th of August 1940 between the first and the second defendant, or rather his nominee, the plaintiff, was still subsisting; and (2) that the plaintiff was entitled to get a conveyance executed and registered by the defendant on payment of the consideration money mentioned in the agreement and in the manner and under the conditions specified therein.

The suit was resisted by the defendant company. The most material plea was that the contract of sale stood discharged by frustration as it became impossible by reason of the supervening events to perform a material part of it.

Section 56 occurs in Chapter IV of the Indian Contract Act which relates to performance of contracts and it purports to deal with one class of circumstances under which performance of a contract is excused or dispensed with on the ground of the contract being void.

The first paragraph of the section speaks of something which is impossible inherently or by its very nature, and no one can obviously be directed to perform such an act. The second paragraph enunciates the law relating to discharge of contract by reason of supervening impossibility or illegality of the act agreed to be done.

This much is clear that the word “impossible” has not been used here in the sense of physical or literal impossibility. The performance of an act may not be literally impossible but it may be impracticable and useless from the point of view of the object and purpose which the parties had in view; and if an untoward event or change of circumstances totally upsets the very foundation upon which the parties rested their bargain, it can very well be said that the promisor finds it impossible to do the act which he promised to do.

The essential idea upon which the doctrine of frustration is based is that of impossibility of performance of the contract, in fact impossibility and frustration are often used as interchangeable expressions. The changed circumstances, it is said, make the performance of the contract impossible and the parties are absolved from the further performance of it as they did not promise to perform an impossibility.

We hold, therefore, that the doctrine of frustration is really an aspect or part of the law of discharge of contract by reason of supervening impossibility or illegality of the act agreed to be done and hence comes within the purview of section 56 of the Indian Contract Act. It would be incorrect to say that section 56 of the Contract Act applies only to cases of physical impossibility and that where this section is not applicable, recourse can be had to the principles of English law on the subject of frustration. It must be held also, that, to the extent that the Indian Contract Act deals with a particular subject, it is exhaustive upon the same and it is not permissible to import the principles of English law ‘dehors’ these statutory provisions.

Under the law of frustration the court implies a term or exception and treats that as part of the contract. In the case of Taylor v. Caldwell (1863) Blackburn, J. first formulated the doctrine in its modern form. The court there was dealing with a case where a music hall in which one of the contracting parties had agreed to give concerts on certain specified days was accidentally burnt by fire.

It was held that such a contract must be regarded “as subject to an ‘implied         condition’ that the parties shall be excused, in case, before breach, performance        becomes ‘impossible’ from perishing of the thing without default of the contractor.”

Again, in Robinson v. Davison (1871), there was a contract between the plaintiff and the defendant’s wife (as the agent of her husband) that she should play the piano at a concert to be given by the plaintiff on a specified day. On the day in question she was unable to perform through illness. The contract did not contain any term as to what was to be done in case of her being too ill to perform.

In an action against the defendant for breach of contract, it was held that the wife’s illness and the consequent incapacity excused her and that the contract was in its nature not absolute but conditional upon her being well enough to perform. Bramwell, B. pointed out in course of his judgment that in holding that the illness of the defendant incapacitated her from performing the agreement the court was not really engrafting a new term upon an express contract. It was not that the obligation was absolute in the original agreement and a new condition was subsequently added to it; the whole question was whether the original contract was absolute or conditional and having regard to terms of the bargain, it must be held to be conditional.

The court, it is said, cannot claim to exercise a dispensing power or to modify or alter contracts. But when an unexpected event or change of circumstance occurs, the possibility of which the parties did not contemplate, the meaning of the contract is taken to be not what the parties actually intended, but what they as fair and reasonable men would presumably have intended and agreed upon, if having such possibility in view they had made express provision as to their rights and liabilities in the event of such occurrence –

Since we have a statutory provision in the Indian Contracts Act, in deciding cases in India, the only doctrine that we have to go by is that of supervening impossibility or illegality as laid down in section 56 of the Contract Act, taking the word “impossible” in the practical and not literal sense. It must be borne in mind, however, that section 56 lays down a rule of positive law and does not leave the matter to be determined according to the intention of the parties.

According to the Indian Contract Act, a promise may be express or implied vide Section 9. In cases, therefore, where the court gathers as a matter of construction that the contract itself contained impliedly or expressly a term according to which it would stand discharged on the happening of certain circumstances, the dissolution of the contract would take place under the terms of the contract itself and such cases would be outside the purview of section 56 altogether. Although in English law these cases are treated as cases of frustration, in India they would be dealt with under section 32 of the Indian Contract Act which deals with contingent contracts or similar other provisions contained in the Act.

In the large majority of cases however the doctrine of frustration is applied not on the ground that the parties themselves agreed to an implied term which operated to release them from the performance of the contract. The relief is given by the court on the ground of subsequent impossibility when it finds that the whole purpose of basis of a contract was frustrated by the intrusion or occurrence of an unexpected event or change of circumstances which was beyond what was contemplated by the parties at the time when they entered into the agreement. Here there is no question of finding out an implied term agreed to by the parties embodying a provision for discharge, because the parties did not think about the matter at all nor could possibly have any intention regarding it.

When such an event or change of circumstance occurs which is so fundamental as to be regarded by law as striking at the root of the contract as a whole, it is the court which can pronounce the contract to be frustrated and at an end. The court undoubtedly has to examine the contract and the circumstances under which it was made. The belief, knowledge and intention of the parties are evidence, but evidence only on which the court has to form its own conclusion whether the changed circumstances destroyed altogether the basis of the adventure and its underlying object.  This may be called a rule of construction by English Judges but it is certainly not a principle of giving effect to the intention of the party which underlies all rules of construction. This is really a rule of positive law and as such comes within the purview of section 56 of the Indian Contract Act.

It must be pointed out here that if the parties do contemplate the possibility of an intervening circumstance which might affect the performance of the contract, but expressly stipulate that the contract would stand despite such circumstance, there can be no case of frustration because the basis of the contract being to demand performance despite the happening of a particular event, it cannot disappear when that event happens.

We now come to the last and most important point in this case which raises the question as to whether, as a result of the requisition orders, under which the lands comprised in the development scheme of the defendant company were requisitioned by Government, the contract of sale between the defendant company and the plaintiff’s predecessor stood dissolved by frustration or in other words became impossible of performance.

It is well settled that if and when there is frustration the dissolution of the contract occurs automatically. It does not depend, as does rescission of a contract on the ground of repudiation or breach or, on the choice or election of either party. It depends on the effect of what has actually happened on the possibility of performing the contract.

It may be stated at the outset that the contract before us cannot be looked upon as an ordinary contract for sale and purchase of a piece of land; it is an integral part of a development scheme started by the defendant company and is one of the many contracts that have been entered into by a large number of persons with the company. The object of the company was undoubtedly to develop a fairly extensive area which was still undeveloped and make it usable for residential purposes by making roads and constructing drains through it.

The purchaser, on the other hand, wanted the land in regard to which he entered into the contract to be developed and made ready for building purposes before he could be called upon to complete the purchase.

The most material thing which deserves notice is that there is absolutely no time limit within which the roads and drains are to be made. As a matter of fact, the first requisition order was passed nearly 15 months after the contract was made and apparently no work was done by the defendant company in the meantime. Another important thing that requires notice in this connection is that the war was already on, when the parties entered into the contract. Requisition orders for taking temporary possession of lands for war purposes were normal events during this period.

Apart from requisition orders there were other difficulties in doing construction work at that time because of the scarcity of materials and the various restrictions which the Government had imposed in respect of them. That there were certain risks and difficulties involved in carrying on operations like these, could not but be in the contemplation of the parties at the time when they entered into the contract, and that is probably the reason why no definite time limit was mentioned in the contract within which the roads and drains are to be completed. This was left entirely to the convenience of the company and as a matter of fact the purchaser did not feel concerned about it.

The company, it must be admitted, had not commenced the development work when the requisition order was passed in November 1941. There was no question, therefore, of any work or service being interrupted for an indefinite period of time. Undoubtedly the commencement of the work was delayed but was the delay going to be so great and of such a character that it would totally upset the basis of the bargain and commercial object which the parties had in view? The requisition orders, it must be remembered, were by their very nature, of a temporary character and the requisitioning authority could, in law, occupy the position of a licensee in regard to the requisitioned property. The order might continue during the whole period of the war and even for some time after that or it could have been withdrawn before the war terminated.

If there was a definite time limit agreed to by the parties within which the construction work was to be finished, it could be said with perfect propriety that delay for an indefinite period would make the performance of the contract impossible within the specified time and this would seriously affect the object and purpose of the venture. But when there is no time limit whatsoever in the contract, nor even an understanding between the parties on that point and when during the war the parties could naturally anticipate restrictions of various kinds which would make the carrying on of these operations more tardy and difficult than in times of peace, we do not think that the order of requisition affected the fundamental basis upon which the agreement rested or struck at the roots of the adventure.

Having regard to the nature and terms of the contract, the actual existence of war conditions at the time when it was entered into, the extent of the work involved in the development scheme and last though not the least the total absence of any definite period of time agreed to by the parties within which the work was to be completed, it cannot be said that the requisition order vitally affected the contract or made its performance impossible.

In our opinion, the events which have happened here cannot be said to have made the performance of the contract impossible and the contract has not been frustrated at all. The result is that the appeal is allowed.

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