Fact and Decision in William v Roffey Bros

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Welcome again ladies and gentlemen, today we will  be examining the facts and decision in Williams v Roffey Bros [1990] 1 All E.R. 512 , and state whether in opinion if it modified the rule in Stilk v. Myrick (be 1809)1 Camp. 317


Rules are not set in stone and the insusceptibility of any rule to many exceptions is a function of the prevailing circumstances in a given State. The areas of law of contract that appear to be hallow grounds where the forces of litigation have cast in rocks now radiate resplendent lights of exceptions to mitigate the harshness of the law. The rule of consideration with regards to performance of an existing contractual obligation stipulates that the performance or reiteration of the promise to perform an existing contractual obligation does not suffice as a sufficient consideration for a new promise as couched specifically in the landmark case of Stilk v Myrick. However, in light of recent developments, precisely in Williams v Roffey Bros, modifications have been made to the above rule. Though the decision in Williams v Roffey Bros refines and limits the application of the principle in Stilk v Myrick but leaves it unscathed.

A valuable consideration in the eyes of the law as aptly captured in Currie v Misa “may consist either in some right, interest, profit or benefit accruing to the one party, or some forbearance, detriment, loss or responsibility, given, suffered or undertaken by the other”. Consideration must be sufficient. In Harris v Watson where a group of sailors took advantage of the peril in the voyage to make extortionate demands Lord Kenyon based his decision on economic duress and public policy without beckoning at sufficiency of consideration.

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When in 1809 the seminal case of Stilk v Myrick came before the King’s Bench, Lord Ellen Borough took a fundamental different approach. In that case, a pair of sailors deserted a ship travelling from London to Baltic. The captain of the ship, having unsuccessfully recruited another crew member at Sweden, promised to divide the wages of the deserters among the remaining crew members. When he failed, this action was brought against him. Lord Ellen borough held that the promise of extra wages was void for want of consideration and states inter alia that the circumstance encountered by the sailors was not beyond the orbit of the existing contract. The clear principle to emerge from the judgment is that a promise to perform a duty one was already contractually bound to perform cannot amount to consideration for a promise of something more from the party to whom the existing obligation is owed.

The decision in Stilk’s might have been different if the plaintiff could have shown that he did something over and above his preexisting contractual obligations. In the case of Hartley v Ponsonby (1857), where the facts were similar to those in Stilk’s, the plaintiff was successful in his claim. The court however found that the nature of the voyage had changed. The ship had become so “shorthanded” that it had become hazardous to proceed. Both the principle in Stilk’s and the exception propounded in Hartley’s have been affirmed in North Ocean Shipping co ltd. v Hyundai Construction co ltd (1979). More recently, however, the principle and the qualification to it have been subjected to further discuss and analysis in Williams v Roffey Bros (1990).12

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