What evidence is required to succeed in a claim for breach of contract?

What needs to be proved?

The existence of a contract and its terms

It is a common misapprehension that there must be a formal written contract which has been signed by the parties for an agreement to be legally binding. That is not generally the case. Whilst a formal written contract will in the majority of cases be the clearest evidence as to the existence of and terms of a contract, the existence of a contract and its terms can be proved in a number of ways. 

A contract is, at its simplest, an agreement entered into by 2 or more parties. In order for that agreement to constitute a legally binding contract 4 things must be present. These are as follows:

  • An offer

One or more party must offer something to the other party. That may be an offer to sell goods or provide services or an offer to buy goods or pay for services. For example, Bill may offer to wash Ben’s car for the sum of £10.00.

  • Acceptance of the offer

The party or parties to whom the offer is made must accept the offer. Acceptance need not be express but can be implied by the conduct of a party as long as it is clear that the party to whom the offer is made is accepting the offer. For example, when Bill offers to clean Ben’s car Ben may tell Bill that he would very much like it if Bill cleaned his car. Alternatively Ben may simply hand Bill a bucket of water and a sponge. Either way it is clear that Ben has accepted Bill’s offer.

  • Consideration

Each party to the contract must have something to give to the other. Generally one party will be giving a service or goods and the other party will be giving money for the service or goods. For example, Bill is providing a service to Ben by cleaning his car and Ben is giving Bill £10.00 for the service.

  • Intention to create legal relations

The parties to the contract must intend for the contract to be legally binding. For example, when Bill and Ben enter into a contract Bill intends to go through with washing Ben’s car and Ben intends to pay Bill once he has washed it.

Breach of contract

A party pursuing a claim for breach of contract will have to persuade a judge that the other party did not carry out their obligations under the contract. For example, Bill may pursue a claim against Ben if Ben did not pay him for cleaning his car.

How can it be proved?

Written evidence

The existence of the contract and its terms

There may be a formal written contract but more often than not written contracts are created by a series of letters, faxes or emails.

Even where there is a formal written contract any letters, faxes or emails sent around the time when the contract was created often provide useful evidence to show what the parties intentions were if the formal written contract is unclear or fails to deal with a point which has arisen since the contract was formed.

Quite often a contract will be governed by a party’s standard terms and conditions. In such cases the standard terms and conditions will provide evidence of the terms of the contract. The party who is relying upon the standard terms and conditions will, however, also have to provide evidence to show that they were incorporated into the contract. In most cases they will simply have to show that the other party was aware of the existence of the standard terms and conditions. Such evidence typically consists of correspondence referring to the standard terms and conditions or reference to them on order forms.

Breach of contract

In Bill and Ben’s case it may be that Ben wrote to Bill saying that he could no longer afford to pay him for cleaning his car. In that case Ben’s letter would be evidence that Ben had not paid Bill. If Ben had in fact paid Bill and Bill had given him a receipt then that receipt would be valuable evidence to support Ben’s defence to Bill’s claim.

Oral evidence

The existence of the contract and its terms

Where there is no written evidence of the existence or terms of a contract the parties will have to rely on their own oral evidence. In Bill and Ben’s case there was no written contract and if, therefore, Bill and Ben find themselves in litigation the claim will have to be decided purely on their oral evidence.

To succeed in a civil case a party will have to persuade a judge that their version of events is more likely than the other party’s version of events.

If Bill’s neighbour witnessed the contract made between Bill and Ben the neighbour’s oral evidence may well provide valuable evidence in their case.

Breach of contract

In Bill and Ben’s case it may be that Ben argues that Bill did not clean his car properly. If that is the case both parties will rely on their own oral evidence as to whether the car was cleaned properly or not. Again each party will have to persuade a judge that their version of events is more likely than the other party’s version of events.

Expert evidence

In cases which involve specialist knowledge on a matter and where it would assist the court for an expert in a particular field to explain a technical point it is common for an expert to give evidence to the court, usually in the form of a written report. The evidence of a surveyor would may provide useful evidence in a dispute involving building works.

Other types of evidence

In some cases photographic or video evidence will be valuable evidence. For example, in a claim brought by a holiday maker who was sent to a hotel of a very different standard to that which was shown in the brochure.