Real life adds bit of colour to black letter of the law

Davies on Contract. Ninth edition - Contract Law. Sixth edition - Contract Law in Perspective. Fourth edition - The Law of Contract. Fifth edition
May 27, 2005

Something of a minor revolution appears to be taking place in the contract law textbook market. Traditionally dominated by heavy “black-letter” law texts, there has been a recent move towards more accessible texts and, to a lesser extent, texts that focus more on the economic, social and practical effects of contract law. That only one of the four texts reviewed here is of the traditional black-letter variety is evidence of this. Clearly aimed at undergraduates, each of the four texts offers something slightly different but, given the large number of texts in this area, do they offer anything new?

Described as an “ideal introduction to contract law”, Robert Upex and Geoffrey Bennett’s text Davies on Contract is clearly meant to be an aid for those students who find difficulty with traditional texts. The text does an admirable job of taking complex concepts and explaining them in a simple, accessible manner.

But in an effort to accommodate simplicity, it is apparent that compromises have been made. The analysis of unfair terms (a topic that is attracting increased importance following the Law Commission’s interest) is covered in a superficial manner.

Introductory texts such as this have always found a place in the market because of the relatively complex nature of the subject and the fact that it is usually taught in the first year of an undergraduate course. But, recently, a breed of contract law textbook has arisen that aims to combine the accessibility of introductory texts with a level of depth comparable to black-letter texts.

Contract Law by Ewan McKendrick is one such text. The Palgrave Macmillan Law Masters series have always styled themselves as introductory texts, yet McKendrick’s book is surprisingly comprehensive. It is as clear and concise as Davies on Contract , but it goes further by making frequent references to academic literature in the hope of encouraging the reader to pursue further avenues of study. At the end of every chapter is a brief summary of the main issues covered and a series of exercises to aid the student’s understanding. While these summaries are brief, they contain definitive statements on which students can base their understanding before tackling some of the more contentious issues. Combined with a casebook - the best in the reviewer’s opinion being McKendrick’s own Contract Law: Text, Cases and Materials (2005) - McKendrick’s text offers students an unparalleled combination of accessibility and comprehensiveness.

However, it is likely to face strong competition from Mindy Chen-Wishart’s Contract Law (2005), whose commitment to clarity goes further by making frequent use of diagrams and “pause for reflection” boxes. It also offers OUP’s much-advertised companion website with regular updates and weblinks.

With the existence of clear and comprehensive texts such as McKendrick’s Contract Law , justifying Davies on Contract becomes difficult. Both are clearly written and easy to understand, yet McKendrick’s text feels much more complete than Upex and Bennett’s. The price difference is also negligible. “Pure” introductory texts such as Davies on Contract may find it increasingly difficult to compete in the future in the face of such competition.

The above texts, while distinguishing themselves due to their claims of clarity, are still ultimately concerned with the same subject matter of black-letter texts. Linda Mulcahy and John Tillotson’s Contract Law in Perspective claims to offer something different. The authors’ aim is to complement black-letter analysis and give the student a wider understanding of contract law by focusing on its social, economic and political context.

Refreshingly, the text begins with an examination of the historical, theoretical and practical aspects of contract law. Chapter two is especially worthy of mention. It provides a hypothetical case study that features a wide range of legal issues rather than short questions concerned with one particular doctrine or issue. This case study is analysed not only in relation to the law but also in relation to wider issues that real-life contractual relationships engender. That a practising lawyer was involved with drafting parts of the text is evident.

The text then moves on to more traditional topics, namely contract formation, terms, vitiating factors, breach, remedies and, unusually for a contract text, alternative dispute resolution. It analyses these issues in a basic manner but in a non-traditional way by combining legal analysis with practical, economic and social considerations. One chapter is devoted solely to standard form contracts. Each chapter ends with concluding remarks, a list of references and further reading, and a series of questions to consider.

By no means a comprehensive text, and unlikely to be regarded by course leaders as essential reading, Contract Law in Perspective is nonetheless an extremely welcome addition to the ever-increasing contract law textbook range. In combination with more traditional texts, it will give the reader a more complete understanding of how contract law operates than would be obtained through sole recourse to black-letter law texts.

Laurence Koffman and Elizabeth Macdonald’s The Law of Contract is the most traditional of the texts here, but it is probably the most complete. While offering nothing new, it builds strongly on highly regarded previous editions.

A theme of this review has been clarity and accessibility,
and black-letter texts have been criticised in the past for being overly technical and containing superfluous information. No such criticisms can be levelled at this book, which is one of the most lucid and clear black-letter law texts available. The volume of detail is kept to an appropriate level. The publisher describes it as an “introductory guide”, yet in terms of combining exposition with analysis, it is one of the most complete texts available. Doubtless, it will find itself on reading lists throughout the country.

Lee Roach lectures in law at Cardiff University.

Davies on Contract. Ninth edition

Author - Robert Upex, Geoffrey Bennett and Jason Chuah
Publisher - Sweet and Maxwell
Pages - 309
Price - £14.95
ISBN - 0 421 83060 3

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