Case name & citation: Gibbons v Proctor [(1891) 64 L.T. 594]
Year of the case: 1891
Jurisdiction: Queen’s Bench Division
Area of law: Communication of offer; acceptance
What is the case about?
This is an English contract law case that dealt with the issue of whether there can be a valid acceptance of an offer without the knowledge of it. Well, many conflicting views can be taken on this but in general, the law follows that the offeree should know of the offer to accept it.
Facts of the case (Gibbons v Proctor)
The police department placed an advertisement. The advertisement indicated that the police would reward anyone who provided the Superintendent with information leading to the arrest of a criminal for a particular crime. The claimant, a police officer, asked one of his co-workers to forward certain information about the criminal to the Superintendent. When he did this, he was unaware of the reward. However, he learned about the advertisement before the information reached the Superintendent. He, therefore, attempted to claim the reward.
Being ignorant of the offer, can the claimant be entitled to the reward placed in the advertisement?
Ignorance of the offer and similar cases
It is commonly believed that a person cannot accept an offer that they are unaware of because a binding contract can only be formed when both parties agree to it. It may be very convenient for both if their wishes just so happen to coincide, but that does not create a contract and cannot legally bind them.
Therefore, is A required to pay B the reward if A publishes a reward for the return of a lost cat and B, who hasn’t seen or heard of the advertisement, finds the cat, reads A’s address on its collar, and brings the cat back to A? This issue has not been clearly resolved in any English case, and many Court cases conflict with each other on this matter. But on general principles, B is probably ineligible to get the reward.
In general, there isn’t a legally binding contract if someone complies with the requirements for acceptance but is completely unaware of the offer.
If, on the other hand, a person is aware of an offer, it makes no difference whether the act of acceptance is conducted for motives other than obtaining the reward. This is demonstrated by the case of Williams v Carwardine (1833). In this case, the Court held that if an offer has been accepted with knowledge of the reward that is offered therein, the mere fact that the informer was influenced by motives other than claiming the reward shall be immaterial.
Another better view was taken in the Australian case of R v Clarke (1927). Here, it was held that there cannot be assent without knowledge of the offer; and ignorance of the offer is the same thing whether it is due to never hearing of it or forgetting it after hearing. In this case, the Australian Government offered a reward for information that led to the conviction of the murderers of two policemen. Also guaranteed by the government was a free pardon for any accomplice who provided such information. Clarke, being a suspect, delivered the information necessary in order to free himself of any potential dangers. Even though Clarke had once known about the offer, however, at the time when he provided the information, he had no intention of claiming any reward and had, in fact, forgotten about it. Hence, it was decided that he was not entitled to the money.
Another similar case called Tinn v Hoffman (1873) deals with the problem of cross-offers.
The decision of the Court in “Gibbons v Proctor”
Even though the plaintiff had not originally known of the offer, the Court allowed him to receive the reward.
In the given case of Gibbons v. Proctor (1891), it appears that a police officer who supplied information without being aware of the reward or offer was allowed to recover the reward. Nevertheless, the case is weak authority for saying that one can accept a contract in ignorance of an offer. Because by the time the information reached the required person, the police officer became aware of the offer.
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