Q. Discuss the Doctrine of Frustration as applicable under Section 56 of Indian Contract Act, 1872.


Note: this post is a part of our important question answer series on Contract Law. You can read other questions by clicking here.




Brief Introduction of the Doctrine

Frustration means when the contract is rendered impossible of its performance by the external causes which are beyond the contemplation of the parties concerned. It includes both: impossibility of performance of contractual obligations and Impossibility of the fulfillment of the ulterior purpose for which the contract was entered into.

Therefore, when the performance of a contract becomes impossible, the very purpose which the parties had in mind gets frustrated. ... This is known as the Doctrine of Frustration. The frustration of contract can be due to any unforeseen, impossible events and events out of control of the parties.


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Section 56 of ICA and Doctrine of Frustration

The ICA does not define the term “frustration of contract”. However, the doctrine of frustration is enshrined under section 56 of the Act. This section is based on the maxim “les non cogit ad impossibilia” which means that the law will not compel a man to do what he cannot possibly perform.

It speaks about two impossibilities i.e. Initial and Subsequent Impossibility.

I.                     Initial impossibility, it basically signifies that ‘’An agreement to do something that is intrinsically impossible is void’’.

For example, an agreement to bring a person back to life who is dead, being impossible of performance, is void.

II.                   Subsequent Impossibility: as the term itself suggests, ‘something that happens later’, i.e. after the parties have entered into a contract. Sometimes, the initial terms of the contract seems fine and feasible to perform, but subsequently, because of the change in circumstances or factors, the performance becomes impossible or unlawful.

For example, A contract is concluded for the import of some goods, but suddenly the government, by issuing an order, restrict import of such goods.


The Essential Conditions for Applicability of Section 56

  • ·         Existence of a valid and subsisting contract.
  • ·         There must be some part of the contract which is yet to be performed.
  • ·         The contract after it is entered into becomes impossible of performance.
  • ·         The impossibility is not induced by the promisor or due to his own negligence.


Generally, frustration of contract can be applied in the following cases:

1.      Destruction of Subject-Matter

The doctrine of impossibility applies where the actual and specific subject matter of the contract has destroyed, or ceased to exist.

Case: Taylor V. Caldwell:

Facts: The defendants entered into the contract with the plaintiffs to let the them operate on their premises for a concert. Subsequently, before the scheduled concert, the premise was destroyed by fire without any fault of either party.

It was held that the contract was not absolute, because its performance depended on the existence of the hall. The burning of the hall depicts the impossibility of carrying forward the contract, now the contract is stands frustrated.


2.      Change in Circumstances:

A contract will frustrate where circumstances arise which make the performance of the contract impossible, or defeat the purpose for which the contract was entered into. This type of event include, but not limited to:

  • A wholly abnormal rise or fall in price,
  • A sudden depreciation of the currency,
  • An unexpected obstacle to execution, or alike circumstances etc.

Case: Krell v Henry:

The defendant agreed to rent a flat from the plaintiff for two days, on which days it had been announced that the crowning would take place, and, therefore, a parade would pass along that place. Some portion of the rent was paid before the event. Later, the parade was dropped because the King was ill, the defendant objected to pay the remaining amount.

It was held that the performance of contract can’t be carried out because of changing circumstances, hence the contract stands frustrated.


3.      Death or incapacity to perform:

When there is a contract that depends on the particular skill of the promisor, his death or incapacity terminates the contract.

Case: Robinson V. Davison:

Plaintiffs had entered into the contract with a famous pianist, that she will be performing i.e. playing the piano at a concert organized by the plaintiff on a particular day. On the morning of the said day, she apprised the defendant that she was ill, and will not be playing the piano. The concert had to be postponed and resulted in great loss for the plaintiff.

It was held by the court that she had the option to not play if she was sick to do so.


4.      Government or Legislative Intervention:

A contract will be dissolved when legislative or administrative intervention has taken place, it maybe because of formation of new law, or simply passing an executive order, or passing of a judicial pronouncement.


5.      Intervention of War:

Contracts may also become impossible of performance owing to the prevalence of war conditions and such contracts are void.


A contracts to take in cargo for B at a foreign port. A's Government afterwards declares war against the country in which the port is situated. The contract becomes void. (Section 56 illustration (d) of the Contract Act)



The remedies for the frustration of contract are given under sec 65 of ICA i.e. restoration of benefits received, if any.


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