Certainty of Terms

AuthorJohn D. McCamus
In order for an agreement to be enforceable, the parties must have
reached agreement on all the essential terms of their agreement. As is
often said, the partie s must make the agreement, the courts w ill not
make it for them. Further, the parties “must s o express themselves that
their meaning can be determined with a reasonable degree of certain-
ty .”1 Where the parties eit her fail to reach agreement on all the essentia l
terms of the agreement or expre ss themselves in such fashion that their
intentions cannot be divined by the court, the agreement wil l fail for
lack of certainty of ter ms. In such circumstance s, the parties have not
reached a suff‌icient consensus ad idem to enable the courts to enforce
their agreement. At the same t ime, the requirement of certainty of term s
and its underlying rationale must be b alanced against the practicalities
of transactional negotiations. Parties may be unable to anticipate and
articulate agreement s with respect to future events a nd may intention-
ally leave gaps in their agreement s to provide for future and mutually
satisfactory accommodations. Parties, especial ly those not advised by
lawyers, may be un aware of the nature of all the essential terms to be
stipulated in the part icular context. Parties may as sume that reasonable
or “the usual” arrangements w ill apply to an undetermined matter. In
all such cases, t he parties may intend to enter into bindi ng contractual
1 Scammell and Nephe w Ltd v Ouston, [1941] AC 251 [Scammell and Nephew].
arrangements and believe that they have successfully done so. Rigid
application of the doctrine of certainty, therefore, could produce much
mischief, especi ally in cases where the part ies detrimentally rely on the
assumption that a valid a nd enforceable agreement has been created.
Accordingly, courts will attempt to f‌ill gaps and f‌ind mea ning in agree-
ments in circumst ances where it appears that a binding ag reement was
intended by the parties.
The law of certainty of term s, then, ref‌lects this ten sion between
a requirement that the parties reach a complete and intelligible agree-
ment and a reluctance to defeat the expectations of the parties that an
enforceable agreement has been created. A s Lambert JA observed in
Griff‌in v Martens,2 “As long as an agreement is not being constructed
by the court, to the surpr ise of the parties, or at least one of them, the
courts should try to retai n and give effect to the agreement that the
parties have created for themselves.”3 As we shall see, the leading and
modern authorities tend to place part icular emphasis on the need to
give effect, where possible, to the expect ations of the parties th at they
have entered into a valid and enforceable agreement.4
Three different aspects of t he doctrine must be considered. First, an
agreement may suffer from incompleteness in the sen se that an essen-
tial term is simply not present. The determination of whether a particu-
lar term is es sential is a matter of some subtlety. Second, where parties
are aware that they ca nnot agree with respect to a par ticular matter at
the time of contracting, they m ay stipulate in their agreement t hat they
will reach agreement on the particular matter in t he future. It must be
considered whether such “agreements to agree” constitute an enforce-
able means of f‌illing gaps in t he agreement. Third, an important ter m
of an agreement may suffer from vagueness or, as is sometimes said,
incurable uncertainty. In such circumstances, it must be determined
whether, as a result of the vagueness of a particular term, the entire
agreement fails for uncertainty.
2 (1988), 27 BCLR (2d) 152 (CA) [Griff‌in]. See also Harle v 101090 442
Saskatch ewan Ltd 2014 SKCA 6, quoting the precedi ng passages from this t ext.
3 Ibid at 153.
4 See, for example, Banq ue Brussels Lambert SA v Au stralian National Industries
Ltd (1989), 21 NSWLR 502 at 523 (SC), Rogers J (“uncertainty, a concept so
much loved by lawyer s, has fallen into disf avour as a tool for striking down
commercial bargains”).

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