Doctrine of Frustration under the Contract Act

In the intricate landscape of contract law, the Doctrine of Frustration emerges as a pivotal principle that addresses unforeseen and extraordinary events impacting the performance of a contract. This doctrine operates as a safety valve, offering relief when circumstances beyond the parties’ control make it extremely difficult or impossible to fulfil contractual obligations.

The Doctrine of Frustration safeguards against the rigidity of contractual obligations when external and uncontrollable circumstances intervene, altering the essence of the contract’s purpose.

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As we delve into the intricacies of this doctrine, we shall explore its fundamental principles, its application in diverse scenarios, and its role in alleviating the burdens of unforeseen adversities on contractual relationships. By shedding light on this principle, we aim to unravel the profound significance and implications of the Doctrine of Frustration within the context of the Indian Contract Act.

What Is the Doctrine of Frustration?

The Doctrine of Frustration is like a safety net in contract law. It comes into play when something unexpected happens, making it hard or even impossible to keep a promise in a contract.

Imagine you promised to deliver a cake for a birthday party, but suddenly, the cake shop catches fire, and there’s no cake. This doctrine says that if something unexpected and beyond your control happens, you might no longer have to stick to the contract. It’s like giving you a break when things go wrong.

Another example could be if you rented a place for a wedding, but the government suddenly says all gatherings are banned due to a pandemic. The Doctrine of Frustration could say, “Hey, it’s not your fault, so you don’t have to follow through on the contract.” It’s a way to be fair when things don’t go as planned.

The Doctrine of Frustration steps in when an unexpected event changes a contract’s fundamental purpose or nature, rendering its performance radically different from what was initially intended. This principle recognizes that contracts assume both parties can fulfil their promises under normal circumstances. However, when an unforeseen event – often referred to as a “frustrating event” – occurs, it can disrupt the equilibrium of the contract.

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Section 56 of the Indian Contract Act embodies the central principle of the Doctrine of Frustration. This section articulates that a contract becomes void if its performance becomes impossible or unlawful due to an unforeseen and exceptional event. This event must occur after the contract’s formation and should not be attributable to either party’s fault.

Section 56 provides relief when circumstances arise that make it impractical or illegal to carry out the terms of the contract. This aligns with the broader principle that parties should not be held responsible for the unanticipated, exceptional events that render the performance of their contract impossible. The section focuses on fairness and equity, freeing parties from the burden of continuing with an agreement that circumstances beyond their control have made unachievable.

For example, if someone contracts to rent a venue for a wedding reception but a natural disaster, like a hurricane, damages the venue beyond use, section 56 comes into play. The contract becomes void as the unforeseen event (hurricane) has made performance impossible and was not the fault of either party.

Essentials of the Doctrine of Frustration

The Doctrine of Frustration operates within a set of essential principles that guide its application in contract law. These fundamental elements outline the conditions under which a contract can be considered frustrated:

  1. Supervising Event: Frustration arises from an unforeseen and external event that occurs after the formation of the contract. This event must not have been within the parties’ contemplation when they agreed.
  2. Impossibility or Radical Change: The event must render the contract’s performance impossible, illegal, or fundamentally different from what was initially intended. Mere difficulty or inconvenience is insufficient to trigger frustration.
  3. Non-Attributable to Either Party: The frustrating event should not be due to the fault or negligence of either party. It must be an event beyond their control, making it unjust to hold them responsible for the contractual failure.
  4. Unforeseen Nature: The event must exceed what the parties could have reasonably foreseen or anticipated during contract formation. If the event was foreseeable, the doctrine might not be invoked.
  5. Practical Impossibility: The frustrating event should make performance difficult and genuinely impossible or impracticable. It must go beyond the parties, and the usual risks are taken when entering into contracts.
  6. No Fault of Either Party: Frustration is equitable relief that does not arise from any wrongdoing on the part of either party. It is a remedy to prevent unjust consequences resulting from unforeseen events.

Consequences of the Frustration of Contract

Frustration with a contract results in automatic termination, relieving both parties from further obligations. Any benefits exchanged are usually returned, and non-performance due to the frustrating event doesn’t incur liability or damages.

The contract’s essence is extinguished, and parties are freed from tasks made impossible or radically different by the unforeseen event. While fairness is maintained through equitable allocation of losses, exceptional contract clauses might dictate unique consequences.

The doctrine ensures parties aren’t bound by unattainable obligations due to external factors, promoting a just resolution to unexpected hardships.

Exceptions to the Doctrine of Frustration

While the doctrine provides relief from performing a contract when unforeseen events render it impossible or radically different, certain situations might prevent the application of frustration:

  1. Contractual Allocation of Risk: If the contract includes a clause that explicitly addresses the occurrence of certain events, such as a force majeure clause, the parties may have already allocated the risk of those events. In such cases, the contract’s terms would prevail over the Doctrine of Frustration.
  2. Self-Induced Frustration: If one party intentionally causes the frustrating event or their actions contribute to its occurrence, they may be unable to claim frustration. Courts may view such actions as a deliberate attempt to evade contractual obligations.
  3. Commercial Impracticability: If the frustrating event merely makes the performance more difficult or expensive rather than truly impossible, the doctrine might not apply. Courts often require a high threshold of impossibility to invoke frustration.
  4. Assumed Risk: If the frustrating event falls within the risks the parties contemplated and assumed when entering the contract, frustration may not be a valid defence. The parties are expected to foresee and allocate risks during their contractual negotiations.
  5. Partial Frustration: If only a portion of the contract is affected by the frustrating event, the doctrine may not invalidate the entire contract. The unaffected parts of the contract may still be enforceable.


The Doctrine of Frustration stands as a vital principle within contract law, offering a solution when unforeseen and uncontrollable events render a contract’s performance impossible or fundamentally different.

Recognized under section 56 of the Indian Contract Act, this doctrine operates to achieve fairness and justice for parties facing unexpected hardships. It releases parties from further obligations, restores benefits exchanged, and shields them from liability for non-performance. While providing relief from contractual obligations, the doctrine is subject to exceptions like contractual risk allocation and self-induced frustration. Its application involves carefully assessing whether the prerequisites for frustration have been met.

As a cornerstone of contract law, the Doctrine of Frustration highlights the law’s responsiveness to unforeseen and extraordinary circumstances that may disrupt the execution of agreements.

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Suhani Dhariwal
WritingLaw » Law Notes » Doctrine of Frustration and Its Essentials, Consequences, and Exceptions Law Study Material
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