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Law Notes History of English Law Notes

Action Of Assumpsit In Contract And Tort Notes

Updated Action Of Assumpsit In Contract And Tort Notes

History of English Law Notes

History of English Law

Approximately 129 pages

History of English Law notes fully updated for recent exams at Cambridge, UK. The notes cover all the major History of English Law cases and so are perfect for anyone studying law in the UK or a great supplement for those doing legal history studies abroad, whether that be in Ireland, Canada, Hong Kong or Malaysia (University of London). These notes are formed from a reading of the cases and numerous textbooks and are vigorous and concise. Every major topic is dealt with in three ways:

A) Sho...

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The Rise of the Action of Assumpsit

In the 16th c. the action of trespass on the case became established as the primary, ordinary remedy for the imposition of liability on informal contracts. In the case of contractual liability the tortuous dimension came to lie principally on the surface of the action.

In the 14th c. the action for trespass on the case principally provided remedies for cases of mis-performance of informal contract. These actions were excluded from the action of covenant as a result of the deed requirement, yet they were reincorporated into trespass.

Development: From the beginning there was a degree of pressure for the expansion of the remedy to cover cases of contractual non-performance, especially in cases where no other remedy was available; i.e. non-performance of contracts for services and cases where the vendor of land failed to convey it. Palmer has shown that the plea rolls demonstrate attempts to bring such cases within the action of trespass as early as 1303. By the end of the 14th c. precedents can be found of actions on the case for contractual non-performance in the Registers of Writs (Kiralfy). Easy to find attempts to bring such actions in the 15th c.

Opposition: Judicial opinion was uniformly against these attempts until the end of the 15th c.

Why was there such reluctance?

  • Difficulty was seen with the use of a trespassory remedy where D had done nothing. Courts were always reluctant to impose liability for mere omissions (Watkins Case).

  • There was a serious concern that trespass and covenant (tort and contract) should be kept separate. Martin J said in Watkins Case 1425, where an action on the case was brought for failure to build a mill: ‘If this action should be maintained upon the present facts, then a man would have an action for trespass for every broken covenant in the world’.


  • First successful attempt to circumvent these objections occurred in the early 15th c.

  • Somerton v Colles;

Facts: Plaintiff alleged he had retained D to be his counsel in the purchasing of a manor. In breach D had represented a rival and obtained the land for him instead.

Decision: Court held in favour of the plaintiff.


  1. P could point to a positive act of wrong-doing on the part of D. He had done something positively inconsistent with their agreement but representing a rival.

  2. P suffered some genuine loss as a result of D’s behaviour. It was not simply that D had failed to labour on his behalf, but he made it impossible for anyone else to do so.

  3. Analogy was drawn with liability on a warranty, where it was clear that an action on the case would lie.

Ibbetson’s reasoning:

  1. This situation is very close to that envisaged by the Statute of Labourers. If D had been retained for a period as a labourer then an action would have lain against him on the Statute if he had not performed what he had been retained to do.

  2. D’s status as a lawyer might have been relevant for the courts claimed some disciplinary jurisdiction and might have been willing to countenance an action where they would have been more reluctant in a case involving a different type of D.

  • Doige’s Case;

Facts: Plaintiff brought an action of trespass on the case alleging D had orally undertaken to sell him a plot of land in London for 110. P had paid the price but D had conveyed the land to a third party.

Decision: Found in favour of the plaintiff and awarded 20 expectation damages.

Reasoning: This was an agreement to buy and sell land, and it was clear that the seller would have an action against the buyer for the price. So how could it be that the buyer should have no action against the seller for the land? It would be ‘merveillous Ley’ if a contract bound one party but left the other wholly free. Court claimed the trespass on the case was the appropriate remedy because D had not simply failed to perform her agreement; she had positively broken it by conveying the land to a third party and thereby disabling herself from performance.

These two decisions provided a ‘door through which some cases of contractual non-performance could pass into the action of trespass on the case’. In the half-century after the latter cases actions for the failure to convey land, coupled with allegations of disablement, became a routine, if not frequent part of the business of the royal courts (Baker and Milsom).

The boundary between tort and contract was breached. In 1499, speaking in Gray’s Inn, Fyneux CJ said that there was no reason why trespass on the case could not be brought for nonfeasance if (or because) damage flowed from it. No longer was it necessary to sue in Chancery: the Common law was capable of providing a satisfactory remedy.

By the beginning of the 17th c there was a clear division between tort and contract.

Contract and Tort: The Action of Assumpsit

Tension: From its inception the emergent action on the case for breach of contract was held in tension between its trespassory and contractual aspects. Not resolved until the beginning of the 17th c. ‘The developed form of action was never to lose the scars of its passage through the thicket of tort’.

  • On the one hand, its pleadings were firm in their focus on the wrong-doing of D (Pykeryng v Thurgoode (1532)).

  • On the other hand, from the early 16th c. the action was known as the action of assumpsit, focusing on the central allegation of the action that D ‘assumed and faithfully promised’ to P to do something. This naming of the action gave more weight to the original cause of the obligation – the promise or contract – than to its breach. Moreover, it was settled by the 1520s that the proper general issue for D to plead was not ‘not guilty’, which was otherwise ubiquitous in trespassory claims, but ‘non assumpsit’ (Haymond v Lenthorp).

  • On the other hand the contractual underpinnings of the action were moulding its substantive nature. For example, the plaintiff’s lost expectation measure was the ‘proper’ measure of damages, as established in Doige’s...

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