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Parties Have the Power—but Not the Right—to Breach

15 January, 2016 - 09:33

In view of the importance given to the intention of the parties in forming and interpreting contracts, it may seem surprising that the remedy for every breach is not a judicial order that the obligor carry out his or her undertakings. But it is not. Of course, some duties cannot be performed after a breach, because time and circumstances will have altered their purpose and rendered many worthless. Still, there are numerous occasions on which it would be theoretically possible for courts to order the parties to carry out their contracts, yet the courts will not do it. In 1897, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. declared in a famous line that “the duty to keep a contract at common law means a prediction that you must pay damages if you do not keep it.” By that, he meant simply that the common law looks more toward compensating the promisee for his or her loss than toward compelling the promisor to perform. Indeed, the law of remedies often provides the parties with an incentive to break the contract. In short, the promisor has a choice: perform or pay.

The logic of this position is clear in many typical cases. The computer manufacturer orders specially designed circuit boards, then discovers before the circuits are made that a competitor has built a better machine and destroyed his market. The manufacturer cancels the order. It would make little economic sense for the circuit board maker to fabricate the boards if they could not be used elsewhere. A damage remedy to compensate the maker for out-of-pocket loss or lost profits is sensible; a judicial decree forcing the computer manufacturer to pay for and take delivery of the boards would be wasteful.

In general and if possible, the fundamental purpose of contract remedies is to put the nonbreaching party in the position it would have been in had there been no breach.


Remedies are intended to make the nonbreaching party whole. The two categories of remedies for breach of contract are legal and equitable. In the legal category are damages; in the equitable category are specific performance, injunctions, and restitution. The law does not force a party to perform; he or she always has the power (though not the right) to breach, and may do so if it is economically more advantageous to breach and suffer the consequence than to perform. Remedies, though, are not (usually) intended to punish the breaching party.


  1. Remedies are not supposed to punish the breaching party, generally. In what circumstances might punishment be a remedy, and what is that called?
  2. What is the difference between legal and equitable remedies?
  3. Why shouldn’t people be forced to perform as they contracted, instead of giving them the power to breach and then be required to pay damages?