The legal capacity


Legal capacity is defined as the power provided under law to a natural person or juridical person to enter into binding contracts, and to sue and be sued in its own name.

In order to be bound by a contract, a person must have the legal ability to form a contract in the first place. This legal ability is called capacity to contract. Both parties in a contract must have the necessary mental capacity to understand what they are doing. Under common law anyone has the right to enter into a contract, except for minors, people with mental disability and also people who are under the influence of drugs or alcohol. For a person to avoid a contract on the ground of their incapacity, they must also show that they lacked capacity to enter into a contract and that the other party knew or ought to have known their incapacity.

A person who is unable, due to age or mental impairment, to understand what she is doing when she signs a contract may lack capacity to contract. For example, a person under legal guardianship due to a mental defect completely lacks the capacity to contract. Any contract signed by that person is void. In other situations, a person may not completely lack the capacity to contract. The contract would then be voidable at the option of the party claiming incapacity, if he or she is able to prove the incapacity.


The term infant differ from the term minor. In most cases, legal contracts are voidable if one of the contracting party is a minor. The law states that an infant is not bound by the contracts he or she enters into except for the purchase of necessaries and for useful contracts of service, that is they would have to pay for the necessary goods and services that they consume. However, it is stated in the British Columbia Infants Act (RSBC 1996 c.223) that all contracts cannot be implemented against an infant, regardless of whether it includes necessities and beneficial contracts of service. If there is a contract between an adult and an infant, adults are bound but infants can break away from the contract at their option, which means that the contract is voidable. The infants may endorse a contract once they have reached a maturity age. In the case of executed contract, the infant cannot avoid debt if they have obtained advantages under the contract, except if what they obtained has no value. Any one of the party can apply to the court upon the termination of contract.


A minor generally cannot form an enforceable contract. A contract entered into by a minor may be canceled by the minor or by his or her guardian. After reaching the age of majority (18 in most states), a person still has a reasonable period of time to cancel a contract entered into as a minor. If, however, he or she does not cancel the contract within a reasonable period of time, the contract will be considered ratified, making it binding and enforceable. If you intend to enter into a contract with a person who is under the age of 18 years it is essential that you give that person the opportunity to consult with a suitable adult about their rights and responsibilities before concluding the deal. This will make it less likely for a dispute to arise about their capacity.A young person is generally bound to a contract for necessaries – which includes food, medicine and clothing. Contracts for necessaries can also include contracts for education or employment. However, some other contracts will not be binding on a young person, including contracts for goods or services which are not necessaries and credit contracts. Based on the case study, John has the age capacity to enter into a contract as he is an adult. He was walking alone around SOGO Shopping Complex to do some window shopping. His age has got to be above 18 years old. This is because he is working, and this is illustrated in the sentence “as I was very busy with my work, I only managed to go to the shop a week later”.

Case example: Nash v. Inman [1908] 2 KB 1

The defendant, a minor, purchased a number of waistcoats from the plaintiff. The issue was whether they were necessaries. The court held that the waistcoats were not necessaries as the minor had an adequate supply at the time of sale. It was held that two conditions had to be met before goods or services would be regarded as ‘necessaries’. First, the goods or services had to be suitable to the condition in life of the minor (e.g. a minor accustomed to living a life of luxury will have a different ‘condition in life’ from a minor living in impoverished circumstances). Whether this was the case would depend on the type of lifestyle the minor in question was accustomed to leading. Second, the goods or services had to be suitable to the minor’s actual requirements at the time of supply. If the minor had an adequate supply of the relevant goods from another source, this requirement would not be satisfied.


In 1954 the High Court dealt with the issue of a person’s soundness of mind when involved in contractual dealings. The court held that ‘it requires, in relation to each particular matter or piece of business transacted, that each party shall have such soundness of mind as to be capable of understanding the general nature of what he is doing by his participation’ (Gibbons v. Wright (1954) 91 CLR 423).It follows that if a person is so drunk, mentally ill or senile that they have no idea that they are involving themselves in a contract, they will lack the necessary contractual capacity. If however, their mind is affected by their problem, but they are nevertheless aware that they are involving themselves in a contract, the capacity to contract will probably exist unless the other party deliberately takes advantage of their weakness. (This is linked to the way in which the common law and equity deal with unconscionable conduct – where a person takes advantage of a person with a disability). Contracts with intellectually impaired persons is void. Similarly, contracts with involuntary mental patients is void. Some types of mental disability may be sufficient to allow a person to repudiate a contract in certain circumstances. Generally, the law is concerned with the lack of capacity arising from mental disability. For example, people who have schizophrenia may have delusions, but if they can manage their own daily and business affairs and look after their personal finances, they may have the capacity to enter into contracts. The mentally disabled persons that the law protects are those who are unable to manage their own affairs or are unable to appreciate the nature and consequences of their actions. Provincial legislation provides that a person can be declared to be unable to manage his or her affairs. If there has been such a judicial finding, contracts made after the judicial finding are void on the grounds that there is a lack of capacity to consent to the provisions of a contract. Contracts made prior to the finding may be voidable. However, if a person lacks capacity because he or she is unable to handle his or her affairs, but there has been no judicial finding, the contracts made are voidable at the option of the person who is mentally disabled. If the contracts are not repudiated, they are presumed to be enforceable.

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Case example: York Glass Co. Ltd v. Jubb [1925] All ER Rep 285

Jubb contracted to purchase the plaintiff’s company business. On the date of
contracting, he was technically insane and shortly thereafter was placed in a lunatic asylum.
The receiver of his estate, who was appointed under a lunacy statute, repudiated the
contract. The plaintiff company sued for damages, alleging the repudiation was wrongful. The court held that a contract entered by someone of unsound mind is valid
unless the impaired person can show that the other party was aware, at the time of
contracting, that the impaired person was so insane that he was incapable of
understanding what he was doing. In this case, there was no evidence to show that the
plaintiff company knew or suspected that Jubb had been insane at the point of contracting.
The contract was valid and Jubb’s estate had to pay damages for not performing the contract.


If a person signs a contract while drunk or under the influence of drugs, can that contract be enforced? Courts are usually not very sympathetic to people who claim they were intoxicated when they signed a contract. Generally a court will only allow the contract to be avoided if the other party to the contract knew about the intoxication and took advantage of the intoxicated person, or if the person was somehow involuntarily intoxicated (e.g. someone spiked the punch). The law will intervene in some circumstances where someone who is intoxicated enters into an agreement. Intoxication alone is not sufficient, but it can be a defence to enforcement by the sober party, and the intoxicated party may void the contract on the basis of his or her own intoxication in the following circumstances, that is firstly, the intoxicated party, because of the intoxication, did not know what he or she was doing. Secondly, the sober party was aware of the intoxicated state of the other party. Thirdly, upon becoming sober, the intoxicated party moved promptly to repudiate the contract. The basis for this approach is not that one party is drunk but that the other party might defraud the drunkard. Thus, even where the sober party is not aware of the intoxicated state of the other party, if there is evidence of intoxication so that it may be presumed, the unfairness or one-sidedness of a contract might result in its being voided. This view moves the law toward a position that an unconscionable agreement permits the court to presume that the sober party had knowledge of the intoxication of the other party once there is evidence of intoxication.

Based on the case study, when John bargained for the 6 seater dining set, he was not under the influence of alcohol or drugs. He was well aware of the bargain and he realised that he has entered into an agreement with Comfortable Furniture Sdn Bhd.

Case example: Matthews v. Baxter (1873) LR 8 Exch 132

Baxter, while drunk, agreed at an auction to purchase a property. Once sobriety returned he decided that he wished to affirm the contract that had been made by him while drunk. Sometime later he had a change of mind and he sought to rescind the contract, arguing that he lacked capacity to enter the contract by reason of intoxication. The court held that because Baxter had confirmed the contract it was no longer open to him to avoid the contract on the grounds of intoxication. This was despite the fact that he had made out the necessary element of this defence.

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Bankruptcy is a legally declared inability or impairment of ability of an individual or organization to pay its creditors. These individuals would not be able to pay their debts and lose their status as creditworthy. Most states differ on the means whereby their outstanding liabilities can be treated as discharged and on the precise extent of the limits that are placed on their capacities during this time. However, they are returned to full capacity after discharge. In the United States, some states have spendthrift laws where an irresponsible spender is claimed to lack the capacity to enter into contracts. Based on the case study, Comfortable Furniture Sdn Bhd has the business capacity to operate its business. This is because the company is not facing bankruptcy. Therefore, the company has the capacity to enter into a contract or agreement with John.



Not everyone is legally entitled to enter into contracts. Some persons, by their status, are presumed not to have the ability to enter into contracts or have limited rights to contract. Prevention of fraud provides for formality requirements and the protection of persons who lack full capacity to enter into contracts. If there is no capacity, the incapacity party would become vulnerable and weak. If one party lacks the intellectual capacity to protect himself or herself, then the other party may act dishonestly during the bargaining process or takes advantage of a position of trust, or if the other party has expert knowledge of the subject matter of the contract that the weaker party cannot have and takes unfair advantage of that knowledge. Besides that, without capacity, the contract would be void. A contract is void when it involves minors. This type of contract will have no effect as it is not recognised by the court and parliament. Therefore, if there is no capacity, the contract would not be enforceable. The purpose here is to protect the weaker party from the stronger and more able party. This class of persons who lack or have limited capacity to contract include minor and persons under mental disability. The general rule is that minors may not enter into contracts. The reason for this rule is that minors are presumed to be naive, inexperienced, and easily taken advantage of. So, some protection is required to avoid them from being cheated. The law also interferes in circumstances where someone who is intoxicated enters into an agreement. The basis for this approach is not that one party is drunk but that the other party might defraud the drunkard. The contract may not be legal if there is no capacity. If there is no capacity, people with mental disability, minors, and also those who are under the influence of alcohol or drugs would be allowed to enter into contracts. The people who have mental disability and under the influence of drugs or alcohol do not have the mental capacity to enter into contracts. They are unable to think well and they are not able to make a wise decision. So, if there is no capacity, the contract will lose its validity.

Case example: Mercantile Union Guarantee Corporation v Ball (1937)

An infant haulage contractor who took a lorry on hire-purchase was held not liable for arrears of installments.

Case example: Cowern v Nield (1912)

It was held that a minor who was a hay and straw merchant was not liable to repay the price of the goods which he failed to deliver.

Case example: Doyle v White City Stadium (1935)

An infant boxer was held bound by a clause in his contract which provided for forfeiture of his prize money (as happened) he was disqualified. The contract as a whole was similar to apprenticeship.

Case example: Valentini v Canali (1889)

A minor leased a house and agreed to buy some furniture, paying part of the price. After several months the minor left, and avoided the contract as he was entitled to do. He could not recover the payments which he made for the furniture, however, because he had received some benefit from the contract.

Case example: Leslie Ltd v Sheill

A minor who lied about his age to obtain a loan could only be forced to return the cash he borrowed.Sheill failed to repay two cash loans he had obtained by falsely claiming to be an adult. The contract was not enforceable (not for necessaries) so the lender asked for restitution of the money on other grounds, including that Sheill had committed the tort of deceit (fraudulent misrepresentation). The English Court of the King’s Bench held that Sheill could not be sued for deceit because that would make a minor indirectly liable for an unenforceable contract. The court could only order restitution if the lender could prove Sheill still possessed the actual notes and coins he had borrowed.

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Case example: Roberts v Gray (1919)

Roberts agreed to take Gray, a minor, on a billiard tour to instruct him in the profession of billiard player. Gray repudiated the contract. The court held that Roberts could recover damages despite the fact that the contract was executory.

Case example: Scarborough v Sturzaker

A bicycle was a necessary because the minor had only one and used it to travel to work. Sturzaker, a minor, cycled 19 kilometres to work each day. He traded in his old bicycle to Scarborough and made a part payment on a new one. Sturzaker repudiated the contract and refused topay the outstanding amount. The Tasmanian Court held that the bike was a necessary. Therefore, the contract was enforceable and Sturzaker had to pay the money owing.

Case example: Hart v O’Connor

The Privy Council said in Hart v. O’Connor(1985) that an insane person who appears sane can rely on the independent and separate ground of unconscionability which relieves abnormal mental weaknesses even short of incapacity. Undue influence may also apply.

Case example: Peters v Fleming (1840)

Held an expensive gold watch chain was a necessary for a rich young man. Point of law being that it depends on the status of the minor as to whether a luxurious item is deemed a necessary.

Case example: Chaplin v Leslie Frewin (1966)

Contract was made to write the autobiography of Charlie Chaplin held as binding as it allowed a minor to start to earn a living as an author.However if on the whole a contract is unreasonable, oppressive and not beneficial then it will not be binding.

Case example: De Francesco v Barnum (1890)

A girl of fourteen was apprenticed to D for seven years in order to learn to dance. D was not obliged to maintain her, nor did he have to pay her unless he found engagements for her. Even when engagements were found, the rate of pay was very low. She could not obtain engagements for herself, nor was she allowed to marry, during the seven years. It was held that the contract was not binding upon the girl, as it was unreasonable, oppressive and not beneficial to her. Point of law is as above.

Case example: Gore v Gibson

Advanced the view that a contract for necessaries supplied to a drunk could not be maintained if upon sobriety the contract was repudiated.

Case example: Hawkins v Bone

The action for breach of contract was brought by the vendor of land which was knocked down to the defendant at an action. The defendant purchaser pleaded in defence of his drunkenness but did not allege that the vendor or auctioneer knew of this condition. Pollock C.B., in directing the jury said the plaintiff was entitled to the verdict: “unless the defendant was in the state he describes himself to have been, that is wholly incapable of any reflective or deliberate act, so that, in fact, he was utterly unconscious of the nature of the acts he did, for example, having signed the contract and paid his money”.

Case example: McLaughlin v Daily Telegraph Ltd

Holds that a power of attorney executed by a person while insane is void even in respect of actions that take place when the grantor has recovered his sanity; the actions that take place under the guise of the power of attorney are of no effect. Likewise, it is of no consequence that third parties act on the foot of the deed. If, however, the power of attorney enables the lunatic and his dependants to benefit from obtaining a supply of necessaries, an account may be ordered in relation thereto even though the power of attorney itself is void. For the deed to be void, however, it must be shown that the signature is a “mere mechanical act” and the mind of the signor must not accompany the act.

Case example: Cf. Imperial Loan Co. v. Stone [1892]

the rule had in modern times been relaxed, and unsoundness of mind would now be a good defence to an action upon a contract, if it could be shown that the defendant was not of the capacity to contract ‘and the plaintiff knew it.

Case example: Seaver v. Phelps

which was trover for a promissory note, pledged by the plaintiff while insane, to the defendant, the Court were, on behalf of the latter, requested to charge, that although the plaintiff might have been insane at the time of making the contract, yet that if the defendant were not apprised of that fact, or had no reason, from the conduct of the plaintiff or from any other source 380 was held entitled to a decree of foreclosure. It seems equally clear that he is not liable when the other to suspect it, and did not overreach or impose upon him, or practice any fraud or unfairness, the contract could not be annulled.

Case example: Beals v. See.

it was held that the administrator of a lunatic could not, in the absence of fraud or knowledge of his state of mind, or such conduct on the part of the lunatic from which his disease might fairly be inferred or suspected, recover back the price of merchandise sold to him, even though it was unsuited to the object for which it was purchased, and above market price.

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