A written agreement is only legally binding if the agreement constitutes a valid legal contract that a court will enforce. Even if placed in writing, agreement is only one of the necessary elements to create a contract; certain types of agreements are not recognised by the law. Those with questions about the legal ramifications of a specific agreement should consult an attorney.
A legally enforceable contract requires agreement, meaning that one party made an offer and the other accepted that offer. The fact that an agreement is immortalised in writing may matter much or little. Under a legal doctrine known as the Statute of Frauds, certain types of contracts need to be in writing and signed to be binding, including real estate transfers, marital contracts and sales of goods worth more than £325. Outside of these defined categories, oral contracts are just as enforceable under the law. A written contract does have the advantage of making the contract terms easier to prove as evidence.
Competence to Contract
Even if two parties come to an agreement, the law will not uphold that agreement as a contract if one of the parties was not competent to contract. If a party can prove that he was mentally incapacitated to the point that he could not understand that he was making a contract, the party will have the right to rescind -- or invalidate -- the contract. A party also has the right to rescind contracts made before he reached the age of majority and take back any property given to the other party, unless the contract was for necessities that are essential to life, such as food.
No contract is legally binding unless the parties furnished consideration. Consideration is a legal concept that demands that each party bargain for and relinquish something valuable in exchange for the other party's promise. For instance, if Jim tells Shelly, "If I feel like it, I'll paint your house tomorrow" and Shelly says, "OK," they have an agreement, but it lacks consideration. Shelly has not relinquished anything of legal value in exchange for Jim's promise. Although there's no contract, if Jim's failure to paint the house as promised causes Shelly to incur some sort of loss, she may have other remedies.
The law will not recognise certain types of contracts even if those contracts are otherwise valid. Contracts that bind one party to act illegally are always unenforceable. If a contract binds a party to act legally, but for an illegal purpose, courts will generally refuse to enforce the contract, except to the extent that one party was completely ignorant of the illegal purpose. Courts also have the right to refuse to enforce contracts based on evidence that enforcement of the contract will injure the public.
Defenses to Contract
Once a legally enforceable contract is formed, parties still have the option to raise numerous legal defences in order to avoid performing their duties under the contract.