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Valparaiso Univ. Law School

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Saturday, October 18, 2008

Contracts Limerick of the Week: Balfour v. Balfour

Kings_benchMr. and Mrs. Balfour lived together in Ceylon for 15 years. While Mr. Balfour was on leave from his position in Ceylon and the two were living in England, Mrs. Balfour developed rheumatic arthritis. Her doctors suggested that the cool, damp climate of England was just the thing for her condition, and so she stayed behind when hubby returned to Ceylon. She was to remain in England for three months in the hope that her condition might improve. In the meantime, Mr. Balfour promised to send her 30 pounds a month. But once in Ceylon, Mr. Balfour proposed to sweeten the offer by extending their separation in perpetuity. He also neglected to pay her the 30 pounds a month. They were later divorced, but Mrs. Balfour sued to collect on what she took to be a contractual obligation to pay her the promised amount. The trial court found in Mrs. Balfour's favor, reasoning that Mrs. Balfour's agreement to define his obligation to support her at 30 pounds/month was sufficient consideration for his promise.

In Balfour v. Balfour, the Court of Appeal reversed. There were three concurring opinions in the case. Lord Warrington found no contract because he found no bargain. Lord Duke was discomfited by the prospect of endless litigation between spouses seeking to enforce promises that are part of ordinary domestic relationships. Lord Atkins stressed that the parties had no intention to enter into legal relations and that marital promises such as this one thus are not the types of promises that the law ought to enforce. In short, whether or not a promise is legally binding depends on the state of mind of the parties at the time the promise is made.

The poet takes some liberties and assumes that Mr. Balfour did not leave his wife solely based on an antipathy to the arthritic.

Balfour v. Balfour

Balfour gave in to his id,
And stopped paying his wife thirty quid.
His word has no force,
For, before their divorce,
The pair did not think that it did.

[Jeremy Telman]

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