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Contract law in light of the Draft Common Frame of Reference (DCFR)

Professor Hector MacQueen

Team members
Charles Garland, Project Manager
Lauren Smith, Legal Assistant

This is a large project, on which we are producing papers on different topics.  It was included in our Eighth Programme of Law Reform as a long-term project, and has been carried forward to our Ninth Programme of Law Reform (2015-2017).  Our primary focus is on the domestic law, which we are tackling topic by topic.  In addition, as explained more fully below, we are taking into consideration a number of recent European initiatives. 


So far we have published three discussion papers and a report:

We are currently preparing a report on third party rights, which is discussed below.  We aim to publish it in the spring of 2015.  We are also working on a pair of discussion papers, the first on penalty clauses (see below) and the second on remedies for breach of contract.

Interpretation of Contract

In our discussion paper we give a detailed exposition of the current Scots law on interpretation, suggesting that while the law has developed to some extent in the direction of recommendations made in an earlier report by the SLC (Report on Interpretation in Private Law (Scot Law Com No 160, 1997), it is still uncertain and unsettled in important respects.  As interpretation is of crucial importance for legal practitioners, particularly in the commercial field, and plays a significant role in the Scottish economy, we suggest that the current law would benefit from review and reform.  The consultation period closed in May 2011.  We have not yet published a report.

Formation of Contract

Our discussion paper includes an examination of the postal acceptance rule, the "battle of the forms", and the law and practice relating to "execution in counterpart".  The last of these issues, which relates to the way in which contracts agreed between parties may be signed other than at a traditional "all parties" signing session, is an area of law which - we are told - is currently unsatisfactory, especially in comparison with English law and practice.    

We decided to prepare, in the first instance, a Report and draft bill limited to execution in counterpart; we will report on other matters relating to formation at a later stage.  We consulted widely on the proposed legislation, and a draft bill was discussed at a seminar at the University of Edinburgh on 29 November 2012.  We subsequently published a further draft which is designed to be read in conjunction with an article by Paul Hally of Shepherd & Wedderburn in the Journal of the Law Society of Scotland.  We are very grateful for all comments.  (Separately, the Land Registration etc. (Scotland) Act 2012also makes important provisions in this area.  In implementation of its provisions on electronic documents, Registers of Scotland have consulted on draft Regulations to prescribe, amongst other things, the type of electronic signature which can be used; our response to that consultation is here.  Commencement Regulations (SSI 2014/41 (c4)) came into force on 22 March 2014, and subsequent Regulations (SSI 2014/83), which prescribe the type of electronic signature for documents which require to be in writing, came into force on 11 May 2014.)

Legal Writings (Counterparts and Delivery) (Scotland) Bill

Following the publication of our Report on Execution in Counterpart, the Scottish Government introduced the Legal Writings (Counterparts and Delivery) (Scotland) Bill to Parliament in May 2014.  It is the first Bill to be considered under the new procedure for Scottlsh Law Commission Bills.  The Chairman and the lead Commissioner, Professor MacQueen, gave evidence to the Delegated Powers and Law Reform Committee on 17 June, and the final evidence session, at which Fergus Ewing MSP spoke on behalf of the Scottish Government, took place on 28 October.  The general principles of the Bill were approved at the Stage 1 Debate on 25 November.  Stage 2 took place on 20 January 2015 and Stage 3 on 24 February, when the Bill was passed unanimously.  More information about the Bill can be found on the Scottish Parliament's website here.

Third Party Rights

Our Discussion Paper was published in March 2014.  The paper outlines the current law of third party rights in Scots law and considers why reform may be necessary.  We address the nature of third party rights and discuss the appropriate terminology for use in any proposed reform.  We then deal with (i) the requirements of the identification of the third party and the intention of the contracting parties, (ii) the crucial issue of irrevocability, and (iii) the relationship between the proposed general rule on third party rights and specific third party rights recognised elsewhere in the law.  The final chapter offers an overview of what a system incorporating the proposed reforms would look like.  (Regretably, the page numbers listed in the right hand column in the contents pages are incorrect, but the paragraph references are reliable.)  The consultation period ended on 20 June 2014.  We are now working on a Report and draft Bill, which we aim to publish in the spring of 2015.

Penalty Clauses

The Scottish Government consulted on a draft Penalty Clauses (Scotland) Bill in July 2010.  It is very closely based on the draft legislation appended to the Scottish Law Commission’s Report on Penalty Clauses (Scot Law Com No 171; 1999).  The Commission was included as a consultee and submitted a response to the Scottish Government.  In the light of all of the responses to the consultation the Government has decided that further work is needed.  The work which we did in response to the consultation persuades us that there is still merit in pressing for reform.  We therefore intend to bring forward a Discussion Paper during 2015 to seek views.

Previous reviews of the law of contract by the SLC

The Commission has previously carried out a number of reviews of contract law.  Most recently, a number of (unimplemented) Reports were published in the 1990s:


A stimulus for our review of the law of contract is the publication in 2009 of the Draft Common Frame of Reference (DCFR).  The DCFR sets out a contemporary statement of contract law in clear English and is based on comparative research from across the European Union.  It offers a new and valuable opportunity to review some of the topics on which we have already worked and to examine the law in other related areas (as we describe below).  There is more information on the DCFR in chapter 1 of each of our recent discussion papers.

Much work has continued on European contract law since the DCFR's publication in 2009.  Notable developments include the following:

1.  In July 2010 the European Commission published a Green Paper on policy options for progress towards a European contract law for consumers and business.  This led to a call for evidence put out by the UK Ministry of Justice.  The Scottish Government joined the call for evidence; the Scottish Law Commission’s response was sent on 19 November 2010.  We also responded directly to the European Commission's Green Paper consultation on 27 January 2011.  After this response was sent, we learned of the Ministry of Justice's response which takes a somewhat different approach (and barely recognises the existence of Scots law).

2.  In May 2011 the European Commission published a Feasibility Study proposing draft rules for a European contract law, on which background information is available at the European Commission's website.  Comments were invited (with a deadline of 1 July 2011) to a number of specific questions.  Our response is here.  A final set of draft rules were published by the European Commission in September 2011.

3. In October 2011 the European Commission published its proposals for a Regulation to which is annexed a Common European Sales Law (or CESL).  In anticipation of this, the UK Government instructed the Law Commission and us in May 2011 to provide joint advice.  The instruction letters from MoJ and DBIS set out the terms of reference.  Our joint advice (with summary) was published on 10 November 2011.  (A list of links to the key documents and background materials referred to in the advice can be found here.)  With the support of the Scottish Government the UK Government issued a consultation document on this topic; the UK response is available via the same link along with an Impact Assessment.  More recently, in September 2013 the Legal Affairs Committee (JURI) of the European Parliament passed a number of amendments to the proposed CESL, the broad thrust of which was to make the instrument apply only to cross-border distance and online sales contracts and supplies of digital content rather than to such sales and supplies in general; on 26 February 2014 the European Parliament adopted a legislative resolution on the CESL.  Unfortunately, the project was withdrawn in early 2015 (see information at but there may yet be a future proposal drawing on the CESL. 

For more information on the contract law project, please contact

Latest news


Contract formation for the electronic age

Are the rules of Scots contract law adequate? Could they be improved? Our newDiscussion Paper on Formation of Contract (DP 154) seeks to address these questions...  Read more...


Advice on European sales law

Following a reference from the Ministry of Justice and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, we have published joint advice with the Law Commission on the European Commission's proposed Regulation on a Common European Sales Law  Read more...


Lord Hope on the role of the judge in developing contract law

A talk which Lord Hope of Craighead gave last autumn to a contract law conference in Jersey, entitled The Role of the Judge in developing Contract Law, has recently been published  Read more...


After the event: subsequent conduct and interpretation

See further DP No 147 Chapter 4, paragraph 4.17, Chapter 5, paragraph 5.21 and Question 8, paragraph 7.18

Lord Hodge's opinion in Quantum Claims Compensation Specialists Ltd v Wren Insurance Services [2011] CSOH 61 provides valuable Scottish guidance on the position of subsequent conduct  Read more...


Possible Supreme Court challenge to entire agreement clauses? 

See further DP No 147 Chapter 3, paragraph 3.17, especially footnote 21 

We note a recent decision of the Court of Appeal in England and Wales, Axa Sun Life Services plc v Campbell Martin Ltd & Others [2011] EWCA Civ 133, 18 February 2011, which concerns the construction of a contract  Read more…


Lord Hodge's survey of interpretation principles, mixed with a little rectification… 

See further DP No 147 Chapter 5, especially paragraphs 5.13-5.16 

Lord Hodge was called upon to interpret the provisions of a commercial agreement in Macintyre House Limited v Maritsan Developments Limited [2011] CSOH 45, 4 March 2011  Read more…

  News archive

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