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Fibrosa SA v Fairbairn Lawson Combe Barbour Ltd

April 02, 2024
Micheal James

Jurisdiction / Tag(s): UK Law

Introduction to Fibrosa SA v Fairbairn Lawson Combe Barbour Ltd

The 1943 case of Fibrosa SA v Fairbairn Lawson Combe Barbour Ltd explored the legal doctrine of frustration of contract. Fibrosa SA, a Polish company, entered into a written agreement with Fairbairn Lawson Combe Barbour Ltd, an English company, to purchase machinery for £4,800. As per the contract, Fibrosa paid a £1,000 deposit upfront with the balance due upon delivery. However, before the remaining balance could be paid and the machinery delivered, World War II erupted, making trade between Poland and England illegal. This unforeseen event ignited a legal battle over the fate of the contract and the pre-paid deposit.

Legal Issue

The central legal issue in Fibrosa v Fairbairn revolved around the concept of frustration of contract. Frustration is a common law principle that discharges both parties from their contractual obligations when an unforeseen event, beyond the control of either party, renders performance of the contract radically different from what was originally contemplated at the time of formation. The key question was whether the outbreak of war fundamentally changed the nature of the contract, making its performance impossible or impractical.

Legal Reasoning of the Court

The House of Lords, the highest court in the United Kingdom at the time, ruled in favor of Fibrosa. The court acknowledged the principle of frustration, emphasizing that the event causing frustration must be unforeseen and outside the control of either party. The outbreak of war, undeniably unforeseen, completely transformed the situation. Trading with a country at war, especially an enemy nation, became not only impractical but also illegal. This rendered the performance of the contract, which relied on cross-border trade, impossible.

The court further addressed the concept of “self-induced frustration.” This principle states that a party cannot claim frustration if their own actions or inactions caused the frustrating event. In this case, neither party could be blamed for the war’s outbreak.

Holding and Significance

The House of Lords ultimately held that the contract was frustrated due to the outbreak of war. This decision significantly impacted the legal understanding of frustration of contract. Prior to Fibrosa, courts adopted a stricter approach, requiring near-impossibility of performance for a contract to be frustrated. This case established a more flexible test, focusing on the radical change in circumstances caused by the unforeseen event.

The court’s reasoning emphasized the allocation of risk. Since neither party could have anticipated the war, both were released from their obligations. Additionally, the court’s decision regarding the deposit was crucial. As the contract could not be performed, Fibrosa was entitled to recover the £1,000 prepayment, reflecting the principle of restoring parties to their pre-contractual positions as much as possible.


Fibrosa v Fairbairn stands as a landmark case in contract law. It clarified the concept of frustration, emphasizing the radical change in circumstances caused by an unforeseen event. The case established a more flexible approach to frustration claims, balancing the allocation of risk and the parties’ ability to perform under drastically altered circumstances. This principle continues to be a cornerstone in resolving contractual disputes arising from unforeseen events.

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