This case summary explores Baird Textile Holdings Ltd v Marks & Spencer [2001] EWCA Civ 274, pivotal for law students studying contract law, particularly in the areas of implied contracts and promissory estoppel. It highlights the complexities and challenges of proving an ongoing contractual relationship without a formal agreement.

  • In the case of Baird Textile Holdings Ltd v Marks & Spencer [2001] E.W.C.A. Civ 274, it was held that promissory estoppel was not a cause of action. It can only be applied where there is an existing contractual relationship between the parties or an intention to maintain such. It can, however, assist in a cause of action.

Facts of the Case

  • C had supplied garments to D for 30 years when D, with no warning, ended all supply arrangements between them on 19th October 1999.
  • D would periodically make orders, but there was no written agreement governing the long-term relationship of the parties.
  • C brought action against D on 2 grounds. First, that there was an ongoing contract with an implied term of giving reasonable notice in order to terminate that contract. D was therefore in breach of contract.
  • Alternatively, D was estopped from terminating the contract without reasonable notice. C argued that a reasonable period was 3 years. Both arguments were dismissed.
  • C appealed and D cross-appealed for a summary judgment. D argued that there was no ongoing relationship, and the contract terminated upon completion.


  • Could a court find an implied contractual obligation requiring reasonable notice?
  • Could a court find that D was estopped from terminating without reasonable notice?

Held by the Court of Appeal (Civil Division)

  • Finding for D, that C’s implied ongoing contract was too uncertain to be enforced. There was no objective way of determining what the parties had agreed to regarding quality and prices. This indicated that there was no intention for an ongoing legal relationship.
  • Even if there was estoppel in this case, it would not help C. C needed to establish D was bound to keep purchasing from them, and promissory estoppel cannot establish positive obligations on a party.

Mance L.J.

  • For a contract to exist, there must be both an agreement on essentials with sufficient certainty to be enforceable and an intention to create legal relations. Both requirements are normally judged objectively, but the former can exist without the latter. An express agreement that satisfies the former will lead to the latter being presumed.
  • Objectively, the sensible analysis of this case is that the parties had an extremely good long-term commercial relationship, but not one which they sought to express in terms of long-term contractual obligations.
  • The lack of any agreement on essentials, such as the quality and prices of C’s products, is particularly detrimental. It indicates that there was never an intention to create a legally binding commitment long-term. They instead employed individual, seasonal agreements with great flexibility that allowed the other to contract with third parties.
  • C has argued that D should be estopped for failing to honour mutual understandings or assurances D gave to C. However, this only amounts to a purely gratuitous promise on D’s part. It is a general principle that these will not be enforced, and as such do not give rise to an estoppel.
  • It is an established feature of estoppel that there must be an objective intention to make, affect or confirm a binding legal relationship. As this has been disproved in this case, estoppel cannot take effect.
  • “There is also in this court binding authority that the scope of proprietary estoppel (leaving aside cases of mistaken belief as to the existence of current rights) does not extend beyond cases where A to the knowledge of B acts to his detriment in expectation, encouraged by B, of acquiring a right over B’s land or (probably) other property, such expectation arising from what B has said or done (established in Western Fish Products v Penwith D.C. [1981])…The present case is not a case of encouragement of C to act to its detriment in respect of its own land or other property. It is also not a case of mistaken belief as to existing rights” [97].

Significance of the Case on the Development of the Law

The decision in Baird Textile Holdings Ltd v Marks & Spencer plays a critical role in understanding the dynamics of implied contracts and promissory estoppel within commercial relationships:

  1. Clarification on Implied Contracts and Reasonable Notice: This case underscores the difficulty in establishing an implied ongoing contract in commercial dealings, particularly when there is no explicit agreement on key contract terms like price and quality. It aligns with cases such as Hillas & Co Ltd v Arcos Ltd [1932], which also dealt with the enforceability of contracts lacking precise terms, and British Steel Corp v Cleveland Bridge and Engineering Co Ltd [1984], where implied terms were scrutinized.
  2. Role of Promissory Estoppel in Commercial Relationships: The case illustrates the limited role of promissory estoppel in creating enforceable obligations, particularly in the absence of a clear, existing contractual framework. This finding is consistent with the principles established in Central London Property Trust Ltd v High Trees House Ltd [1947], which set foundational guidelines for the application of promissory estoppel, and Combe v Combe [1951], where the court reiterated that promissory estoppel cannot create new contractual obligations.
  3. Impact on Commercial Practice and Litigation: The judgment has profound implications for how businesses manage their long-term relationships and the assumptions they may have regarding the stability of these relationships. It serves as a cautionary tale about the importance of formalizing agreements and clarifies legal expectations, as seen in Malik v Bank of Credit and Commerce International SA [1997], which also addressed the repercussions of unclear contractual relationships in a commercial context.

Exam Questions and Answers

Below, you will find answers to questions that are most commonly asked based on this case.

How can businesses effectively secure implied contractual terms in long-term commercial relationships?

To secure implied contractual terms effectively, businesses should maintain clear, consistent documentation of their dealings and expectations. In cases like Pharmaceutical Society of Great Britain v Boots Cash Chemists (Southern) Ltd [1953], courts considered the regular practices and communications between parties as evidence of implied terms. Regularly reviewing and documenting terms, even if not formally renegotiated, can help establish a basis for implying terms based on conduct and reliance.

What are the criteria for determining ‘reasonable notice’ for terminating longstanding business relationships?

‘Reasonable notice’ for termination depends on the relationship duration, industry norms, and previous dealings. In Hillas & Co Ltd v Arcos Ltd [1932], reasonable notice was influenced by the specifics of the industry and past contract renewals. Businesses should clarify notice periods in contracts and understand that courts will consider the fairness and reciprocity of notice given, based on the business context and relationship history.

How does this decision affect the negotiation strategies of large retailers with their suppliers?

The decision in Baird v M&S prompts large retailers to formalize agreements and clarify terms to avoid disputes over implied contracts. The case of Southern Foundries (1926) Ltd v Shirlaw [1940] highlights the importance of explicit contractual terms in business negotiations, encouraging clear communication and contractual clarity to mitigate the risks of relying on implied terms and prevent potential litigation.