Discover the case of Bell v. Lever Brothers Ltd (1932), which is fundamental in contract law and essential for law students studying the impact of mistake on contract validity.

  • In the case of Bell v Lever Brothers Ltd [1932] AC 161, the courts ruled on whether a mistake in contract subject matter counts as an operative mistake or not.
  • This contract law case concerned mistake and rescission.
  • This case brings into light equity and common law principles.

Facts of the Case Bell v Lever Brothers

  • D employed C for five years to act in leadership positions for the Niger Company until they did not need their assistance in the company.
  • C and D contracted for compensation over the early termination of previous employment contract.
  • D then discovered that C entered into secret deals justifying contract termination.
  • In the lower courts it was held the contract was void for mistake.

Issues in Bell v Lever Brothers

  • Whether there was a common mistake.
  • Whether the contract should be rescinded or not.

Held by House of Lords

  • Appeal allowed – it was held there was no operative mistake because C was no longer bound to contractual obligations with D.

Lord Atkin


  • D received what they bargained for but would not have contracted with C if they had known all the facts.
  • “In such a case, a mistake will not affect assent unless it is the mistake of both parties and is as to the existence of some quality which makes the thing without the quality essentially different from the thing as it was believed to be”.
  • “A buys a picture from B: both A and B believe it to be the work of an old master, and high price is paid. It turns out to be a modern copy. A has no remedy in the absence of representation or warranty”.
  • This case establishes the standard for mutual mistakes and questions whether new facts alters the subject-matter in contracts.

Lord Warrington of Clyffe (dissenting)

Erroneous assumption

  • The judge held the “erroneous assumption was essential to the contract which without it would not have been made”.
  • “It is true that the error was not one as to the terms of the service agreements, but it was one which, having regard to the matter on which the parties were negotiating – namely, the terms on which the service agreements were to be prematurely determined and the compensation to be paid therefor, was in my opinion as fundamental to the bargain as any error one can imagine”.

Significance of Bell v. Lever Brothers Ltd

Bell v. Lever Brothers Ltd (1932) has profoundly influenced the legal landscape regarding the role of mistake in contract law. This landmark decision clarified the conditions under which a contract can be voided due to mistakes. The impact of this ruling is evident in several key subsequent cases:

  1. Solle v. Butcher (1950): This case further explored the concept introduced by Bell, distinguishing between common mistake and mutual mistake. It elaborated on the requirement that for a mistake to void a contract, it must be fundamental and must have been operative at the time of the contract’s execution, refining the criteria set out in Bell.
  2. Great Peace Shipping Ltd v. Tsavliris Salvage (International) Ltd (2002): Decades after Bell, the Great Peace case revisited the principles of mistake, particularly regarding the feasibility of rescinding contracts. It reinforced the stringent standards for rescinding a contract based on mistake, asserting that the mistake must significantly change the contract’s substance, as originally stipulated in Bell.
  3. Associated Japanese Bank (International) Ltd v. Credit du Nord SA (1989): This case tackled the issue of unilateral mistakes and their impact on contract enforceability. The court held that a unilateral mistake by one party about a fundamental fact known to the other party can invalidate a contract, building on the understanding of mistake as a critical factor in contract law from Bell.

Exam Questions and Answers

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

How has the interpretation of “fundamental mistake” evolved in contract law since the Bell decision?

Since Bell v. Lever Brothers, the interpretation of “fundamental mistake” has evolved to require that the mistake must go to the root of the contract and significantly affect the agreement’s substance. In Great Peace Shipping Ltd v. Tsavliris Salvage (International) Ltd (2002), the court refined the application of fundamental mistake, stating that the mistake must be about something that substantially defines the contract. This evolution emphasizes a higher threshold for voiding contracts, ensuring that only mistakes which drastically alter the contractual obligations or benefits are considered fundamental.

What are the implications of Bell v. Lever Brothers on international contract law?

Bell v. Lever Brothers has had significant implications in international contract law, particularly in jurisdictions that follow English common law. The principle that a mutual mistake must be fundamental to void a contract is widely accepted. For example, in Canada, the case of Karakatsanis v. Moulds (2018) applied similar principles, examining whether a mistake significantly altered the contract’s nature. The Bell decision has encouraged a uniform approach in common law jurisdictions, ensuring that contracts are upheld unless a substantial error undermines the agreement’s very essence.

How do contemporary courts differentiate between mistake and misrepresentation when deciding contract disputes?

Contemporary courts differentiate between mistake and misrepresentation by focusing on the nature of the error or deceit involved. A mistake is an erroneous belief held by one or both parties about a fundamental fact at the time of contract formation, as seen in Smith v. Hughes (1871). Misrepresentation, however, involves incorrect statements made by one party to induce another into a contract, intentionally or negligently, which was central in Redgrave v. Hurd (1881). Courts look for intent and reliance; misrepresentation requires reliance on a false statement, whereas mistake involves a mutual misunderstanding about essential facts.