Slade’s Case

76 Eng. Rep. 1074 (1602)

Quick Summary

John Slade (plaintiff) sold wheat and rye to Humphrey Morley (defendant), who failed to pay the agreed price of 16 pounds. Slade brought an action on assumpsit against Morley. The Court of Exchequer Chamber was tasked with determining if assumpsit was a suitable legal remedy for recovering debts from informal contracts.

The Court concluded that assumpsit could indeed be used in such cases, thus advancing the scope and development of contract law within the common law jurisdiction.

Facts of the Case

John Slade (plaintiff) was engaged in agriculture, cultivating wheat and rye, which he sold to Humphrey Morley (defendant). In exchange for the grains, Morley had agreed to pay Slade a sum of 16 pounds. Despite this agreement, Morley failed to fulfill his payment obligation, prompting Slade to seek legal recourse through an action on the case grounded on assumpsit—a promise or agreement that had been made orally rather than in writing.

The legal landscape at the time was evolving, with the common law courts gradually extending their jurisdiction to cover contractual disputes that were traditionally dealt with by local courts or under the law merchant developed by great cities such as London.

The central question in this dispute was whether an assumpsit could serve as an appropriate cause of action for the recovery of debts arising from informal contracts—a question that would have significant implications for the development of contract law in England.

Procedural Posture and History

  1. Plaintiff John Slade sold grains to defendant Humphrey Morley and was not paid the agreed amount.
  2. Slade initiated legal action on the basis of assumpsit in the lower court.
  3. Morley contended that assumpsit was not the proper form of action for this dispute.
  4. The case was brought before the Court of Exchequer Chamber for a final decision on the matter.

I.R.A.C. Format


Whether an action on the case based on assumpsit is an appropriate legal remedy for the recovery of a debt arising from an informal contract.

Rule of Law

The rule of law in this context is centered on whether the common law courts have jurisdiction to enforce informal contracts through the use of assumpsit, and if so, how the substantive rights of parties within these contracts are determined by existing legal principles and procedures.

Reasoning and Analysis

The court examined the historical development of contract law and the jurisdiction of royal courts over private agreements. Initially hesitant to handle breaches of ‘private conventions,’ royal courts had to protect rights arising from proprietary relationships. Over time, a system evolved where actions such as debt and covenant were used to enforce obligations—although each had limitations when applied to informal contracts.

Debt required a quid pro quo and was limited to fixed sums, while covenant required a sealed instrument and was inadequate for certain damages. The legal community sought ways to enforce bilateral agreements and resorted to using penal bonds with defeasance clauses, which were actionable in debt. However, these methods did not fully address the shortcomings associated with informal contracts.

Eventually, trespass on the case, particularly assumpsit, emerged as a solution. Assumpsit became a versatile tool that could address both misfeasance and nonfeasance in contractual obligations without the need for formalities. This innovation allowed for a broader enforcement of private agreements and laid the groundwork for modern contract law.


The Court ruled in favor of John Slade, establishing that an action on the case based on assumpsit was indeed a valid legal remedy for recovering debts from informal contracts. This decision marked a pivotal moment in the expansion of common law jurisdiction over contractual disputes.

Key Takeaways

  1. The case confirmed that assumpsit is an appropriate action for recovering debts from informal contracts, broadening the scope of enforceable private agreements under common law.
  2. This ruling facilitated the transition from a rigid system reliant on formalities to one that recognized and enforced informal contracts based on oral agreements and promises.
  3. Slade’s Case played a significant role in shaping modern contract law by establishing precedent for future disputes involving informal contracts.

Relevant FAQs of this case

What constitutes an informal contract, and how can it be enforced in common law?

An informal contract is an agreement between parties that lacks the formalities of a written contract but still holds binding intentions to honor the terms agreed upon verbally or through conduct. Common law enforces such contracts by recognizing the mutual assent of parties involved and their intentions to create legal relations.

  • For example: Two friends agree verbally that one will sell his bicycle to the other for $100. Although there’s no written contract, if the buyer provides the money, common law generally recognizes this as a binding informal contract, enforceable through an action on assumpsit if payment is then withheld.

Under what circumstances would an assumpsit be an appropriate cause of action?

An assumpsit is suitable when a party has suffered a loss due to another party’s breach of a verbal or implied promise which amounts to a contractual obligation. It is most applicable when there’s no formal written contract but a clear understanding and intent to undertake obligations that have not been fulfilled.

  • For example: If a painter promises over the phone to paint a client’s house for $500 and the client agrees, but the painter fails to perform, the client can seek an assumpsit action for nonperformance.

How does reliance on oral agreements impact the legal enforceability of contracts?

Reliance on oral agreements impacts enforceability by requiring proof of the terms of the agreement and evidence that both parties intended to be bound by those terms. Courts look at actions and communications between parties to establish contractual relations and hold parties accountable for promises that prompted reliance.

  • For example: A homeowner tells a landscaper he will pay $300 for lawn care upon completion. After the work is done, if the homeowner refuses to pay citing lack of written contract, the landscaper may still have recourse because there was reliance on the oral agreement which indicated intent.
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