The general rule is this: a contract need not be in writing to be enforceable. An oral agreement to pay a high-fashion model $2 million to pose for photographs is as binding as if the language of the deal were printed on vellum and signed in the presence of twenty bishops. For three centuries, however, a large exception grew up around the Statute of Frauds, first enacted in England in 1677 under the formal name “An Act for the Prevention of Frauds and Perjuries.” TheStatute of Frauds requires that some contracts be evidenced by a writing, signed by the party to be bound. The English statute’s two sections dealing with contracts read as follows:
[Sect. 4]…no action shall be brought
- whereby to charge any executor or administrator upon any special promise, to answer damages out of his own estate;
- or whereby to charge the defendant upon any special promise to answer for the debt, default or miscarriages of another person;
- or to charge any person upon any agreement made upon consideration of marriage;
- or upon any contract or sale of lands, tenements or hereditaments, or any interest in or concerning them;
- or upon any agreement that is not to be performed within the space of one year from the making thereof;
unless the agreement upon which such action shall be brought, or some memorandum or note thereof, shall be in writing, and signed by the party to be charged therewith, or some other person thereunto by him lawfully authorized.
[Sect. 17]…no contract for the sale of any goods, wares and merchandizes, for the price of ten pounds sterling or upwards, shall be allowed to be good, except the buyer shall accept part of the goods so sold, and actually receive the same, or give something in earnest to bind the bargain or in part of payment, or that some note or memorandum in writing of the said bargain be made and signed by the parties to be charged by such contract, or their agents thereunto lawfully authorized.
As may be evident from the title of the act and its language, the general purpose of the law is to provide evidence, in areas of some complexity and importance, that a contract was actually made. To a lesser degree, the law serves to caution those about to enter a contract and “to create a climate in which parties often regard their agreements as tentative until there is a signed writing.” 1 Notice, of course, that this is a statute; it is a legislative intrusion into the common law of contracts. The name of the act is somewhat unfortunate: insofar as it deals with fraud at all, it does not deal with fraud as we normally think of it. It tries to avoid the fraud that occurs when one person attempts to impose on another a contract that never was agreed to.
The Statute of Frauds has been enacted in form similar to the seventeenth-century act in every state but Maryland and New Mexico, where judicial decisions have given it legal effect, and Louisiana. With minor exceptions in Minnesota, Wisconsin, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania, the laws all embrace the same categories of contracts that are required to be in writing. Early in the twentieth century, Section 17 was replaced by a section of the Uniform Sales Act, and this in turn has now been replaced by provisions in the Uniform Commercial Code (UCC).
However ancient, the Statute of Frauds is alive and well in the United States. Today it is used as a technical defense in many contract actions, often with unfair results: it can be used by a person to wriggle out of an otherwise perfectly fine oral contract (it is said then to be used “as a sword instead of a shield”). Consequently, courts interpret the law strictly and over the years have enunciated a host of exceptions—making what appears to be simple quite complex. Indeed, after more than half a century of serious scholarly criticism, the British Parliament repealed most of the statute in 1954. As early as 1885, a British judge noted that “in the vast majority of cases [the statute’s] operation is simply to enable a man to break a promise with impunity because he did not write it down with sufficient formality.” A proponent of the repeal said on the floor of the House of Commons that “future students of law will, I hope, have their labours lightened by the passage of this measure.” In the United States, students have no such reprieve from the Statute of Frauds, to which we now turn for examination.