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General Perspectives on Illegality

15 January, 2016 - 09:33


  1. Understand why courts refuse to enforce illegal agreements.
  2. Recognize the rationale behind exceptions to the rule.

We have discussed the requirements of mutual assent, real assent, and consideration. We now turn to the fourth of the five requirements for a valid contract: the legality of the underlying bargain. The basic rule is that courts will not enforce an illegal bargain. (The term illegal bargain is better than illegal contract because a contract is by definition a legal agreement, but the latter terminology prevails in common usage.) Why should this be? Why should the courts refuse to honor contracts made privately by people who presumably know what they are doing—for example, a wager on the World Series or a championship fight? Two reasons are usually given. One is that refusal to enforce helps discourage unlawful behavior; the other is that honoring such contracts would demean the judiciary. Are these reasons valid? Yes and no, in the opinion of one contracts scholar:

[D]enying relief to parties who have engaged in an illegal transaction…helps to effectuate the public policy involved by discouraging the conduct that is disapproved. Mere denial of contractual and quasi-contractual remedy [however] rarely has a substantial effect in discouraging illegal conduct. A man who is hired to perform a murder is not in the least deterred by the fact that the courts are not open to him to collect his fee. Such a man has other methods of enforcement, and they are in fact more effective than legal process. The same is true in varying degrees where less heinous forms of illegal conduct are involved. Even in the matter of usury it was found that mere denial of enforcement was of little value in the effort to eliminate the loan shark. And restraints of trade were not curbed to an appreciable extent until contracts in restraint of trade were made criminal.

In most instances, then, the protection of the good name of the judicial institution must provide the principal reason for the denial of a remedy to one who has trafficked in the forbidden. This is, moreover, a very good reason. The first duty of an institution is to preserve itself, and if the courts to any appreciable extent busied themselves with “justice among thieves,” the community…would be shocked and the courts would be brought into disrepute. 1

Strictly enforced, the rule prohibiting courts from ordering the parties to honor illegal contracts is harsh. It means that a promisee who has already performed under the contract can neither obtain performance of the act for which he bargained nor recover the money he paid or the value of the performance he made. The court will simply leave the parties where it finds them, meaning that one of the parties will have received an uncompensated benefit.

Not surprisingly, the severity of the rule against enforcement has led courts to seek ways to moderate its impact, chiefly by modifying it according to the principle of restitution. In general, restitution requires that one who has conferred a benefit or suffered a loss should not unfairly be denied compensation.

Pursuing this notion, the courts have created several exceptions to the general rule. Thus a party who is excusably ignorant that his promise violates public policy and a party who is not equally in the wrong may recover. Likewise, when a party “would otherwise suffer a forfeiture that is disproportionate in relation to the contravention of public policy involved,” restitution will be allowed. 2 Other exceptions exist when the party seeking restitution withdraws from the transaction contemplated in the contract before the illegal purpose has been carried out and when “allowing the claim would put an end to a continuing situation that is contrary to the public interest.” 3 An example of the latter situation occurs when two bettors place money in the hands of a stakeholder. If the wager is unlawful, the loser of the bet has the right to recover his money from the stakeholder before it is paid out to the winner.

Though by and large courts enforce contracts without considering the worth or merits of the bargain they incorporate, freedom of contract can conflict with other public policies. Tensions arise between the desire to let people pursue their own ends and the belief that certain kinds of conduct should not be encouraged. Thus a patient may agree to be treated by an herbalist, but state laws prohibit medical care except by licensed physicians. Law and public policies against usury, gambling, obstructing justice, bribery, corrupt influence, perjury, restraint of trade, impairment of domestic relations, and fraud all significantly affect the authority and willingness of courts to enforce contracts.

In this chapter, we will consider two types of illegality: (1) that which results from a bargain that violates a statute and (2) that which the courts deem contrary to public policy, even though not expressly set forth in statutes.


Courts refuse to enforce illegal bargains notwithstanding the basic concept of freedom to contract because they do not wish to reward illegal behavior or sully themselves with adjudication of that which is forbidden to undertake. However, fairness sometimes compels courts to make exceptions.


  1. Why is illegal contract a contradiction in terms?
  2. Why do courts refuse to enforce contracts (or bargains) made by competent adults if the contracts harm no third party but are illegal?