Contract: Frustration


Scope of the Doctrine

Establishing Frustration

To establish frustration, the party seeking to rely on the doctrine must show that:

  1. Performance has become impossible;
  2. The impossibility is not the fault of that party; and
  3. The impossibility was not foreseeable.

Performance must be completely impossible, not merely more difficult, disadvantageous or expensive: Davis Contractors v Fareham UDC [1956] AC 696. The kinds of cases where performance is considered impossible include:

illegal, crime

Where the contract was initially legal to perform but subsequently becomes illegal to perform, it will be frustrated: Fibrosa Spolka Akcyjna v Fairbairn Lawson Combe Barbour [1942] UKHL 4.

Destruction of Subject
destruction, fireball

If a specific piece of property is needed to perform the contract, and that property is destroyed (or too damaged to be used), then the contract will be frustrated: Taylor v Caldwell (1863) 3 B & S 826.

Sale of Goods
sale, fruit, vendor

If a sale of goods contract involves specific goods, it will be frustrated if they perish (Sale of Goods Act 1979, s 7). If they are unascertained, or risk has passed to the buyer, the contract remains valid: the seller will need to find substitute goods.

Death or Illness
death, gravestone

If the contract demands performance by a specific person, and that person dies or becomes too ill to perform, the contract is frustrated: Whincup v Hughes (1871) LR 6 CP 78. If performance can be done by anyone, then the contract will not be frustrated.

unavailable, locked out

If a specific piece of property is needed to perform the contract and that property is rendered unavailable, the contract is frustrated: The Wenjiang (no 1) [1982] 1 Lloyd’s Rep 128. An example is if the property is requisitioned by the government during the time in which performance is necessary. Another example is theft of some or all of the subject matter in contracts for the sale of specific goods: Barrow Lane and Ballard Ltd v Phillip Phillips and Company Ltd [1929] 1 KB 574.

Commercial Purpose
tiara, royal, crown

In rare cases, it may be objectively apparent that the contract is for a particular commercial or other purpose. In these cases, if the purpose becomes impossible the contract may be frustrated even if, strictly speaking, the contractual obligations can be performed: Krell v Henry [1903] 2 KB 740.


If the party seeking to establish frustration caused the frustrating event, they cannot rely on the doctrine: The Eugenia [1964] 2 QB 226; The Super Servant Two [1990] 1 Lloyd’s Rep 1.


If the defendant ought to have foreseen the subsequent event which rendered performance impossible, frustration does not apply. This is a matter of degree – the more foreseeable the event, the less likely the contract is frustrated: The Sea Angel [2007] ‎EWCA Civ 547.

If there is a contract term specifically dealing with that event, the parties are normally taken to have foreseen the event. For this reason, the doctrine will not apply.

The foreseeability limitation does not apply where the frustrating event is the outbreak of war causing the contract to involve trading with the enemy: Ertel Bieber v Rio Tinto [1918] AC 260.

Effect of the Doctrine

Nature and Timing of the Doctrine

Frustration automatically terminates the contract the moment the frustrating event occurs (without the parties needing to do anything), but it does not render the contract void ab initio: Hirji Mulji v Cheong Yue Steamship Co Ltd [1926] AC 497. It merely discharges the contract going forwards. Breaches that occurred before the frustrating event or obligations which previously became due remain actionable: Chandler v Webster [1904] 1 KB 493.

Sums Paid and Benefits Acquired Prior to Frustration

The Law Reform (Frustrated Contracts) Act 1943 provides that any sums paid prior to the frustrating event are recoverable: s 1(2). However, the court may reduce the amount repaid (or make a separate award) to reflect any expenses incurred during performance. An expenses award may also be made where there was a live, unfulfilled obligation to pay a sum prior to the frustrating event.

If a valuable benefit was given prior to frustration, a sum not exceeding its benefit is recoverable: s 1(3). Again, if the court thinks it just, it may reduce the amount to reflect expenses, sums payable to third-parties and the effect of the frustrating event on that benefit.

Any benefits accruing as a result of an insurance pay-out resulting from the frustrating event are disregarded: s 1(5).


Contract Termination Quiz

Test yourself on the principles which determine when a contract is terminated.

1 / 11

Are sums and benefits paid prior to an event which frustrates the contract recoverable?

2 / 11

A party to the contract purports to terminate the contract because of the defendant's breach. They give an invalid reason for terminating, but unbeknownst to them, the defendant has committed some other breach which entitles the innocent party to terminate. Is the innocent party in repudiatory breach because of their actions?

3 / 11

If the innocent party terminates the contract in response to a breach, this renders the contract void. True or false?


4 / 11

When will the breach of an innominate term entitle the innocent party to terminate the contract?

5 / 11

The parties agree to a contract which makes provision for what will happen if a particular event happens. That event happens, and makes the contract impossible to perform. Does the defence of frustration apply?


6 / 11

The parties agree to a contract which stipulates that the defendant will not be paid until he performs his obligations in their entirety. Can this defendant be paid even though there is a breach of contract?

7 / 11

When is an existing contract discharged? (Three answers)

8 / 11

What are the three requirements of frustration?

9 / 11

The defence of frustration renders a contract voidable. True or false?


10 / 11

If a party to a contract makes objectively clear that they intend to breach the contract, when does the innocent party gain the right to a remedy?

11 / 11

The defence of frustration renders a contract void. True or false?


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