March 2019
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AMEV-UDC Finance Ltd v Austin; 1986

References: [1986] 162 CLR 1770
Coram: Mason and Wilson JJ
(High Court of Australia) The court discussed the doctrine against penalties in contracts: ‘But equity and the common law have long maintained a supervisory jurisdiction, not to rewrite contracts imprudently made, but to relieve against provisions which are so unconscionable or oppressive that their nature is penal rather than compensatory. The test to be applied in drawing that distinction is one of degree and will depend on a number of circumstances, including (1) the degree of disproportion between the stipulated sum and the loss likely to be suffered by the plaintiff, a factor relevant to the oppressiveness of the term to the defendant, and (2) the nature of the relationship between the contracting parties, a factor relevant to the unconscionability of the plaintiff’s conduct in seeking to enforce the term. The courts should not, however, be too ready to find the requisite degree of disproportion lest they impinge on the parties’ freedom to settle for themselves the rights and liabilities following a breach of contract. The doctrine of penalties answers, in situations of the present kind, an important aspect of the criticism often levelled against unqualified freedom of contract, namely the possible inequality of bargaining power. In this way the courts strike a balance between the competing interests of freedom of contract and protection of weak contracting parties: see generally Atiya, The rise and Fall of Freedom of Contract (1979), especially Chapter 22.’
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