Harris v Nickerson

April 01, 2024
Micheal James

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Introduction to Harris v Nickerson

Harris v Nickerson (1873) is a landmark case in English law concerning the formation of contracts. It serves as a cornerstone for understanding the crucial distinction between an offer and an invitation to treat. This case study delves into the details of the case, the legal question it raised, and its lasting impact on contract law.


The case involved a dispute between an auctioneer, Mr. Nickerson (defendant), and a potential buyer, Mr. Harris (plaintiff). Mr. Nickerson placed an advertisement in London newspapers announcing an upcoming public auction where various goods, including brewing materials, furniture, and plants, would be available for purchase. Intrigued by the advertisement, Mr. Harris decided to attend the auction.

However, upon arriving at the auction, Mr. Harris discovered a crucial detail – the advertised goods he was particularly interested in had been withdrawn from the sale by Mr. Nickerson. Feeling his time and travel expenses wasted, Mr. Harris took legal action. He sued Mr. Nickerson, claiming compensation for the inconvenience caused by the withdrawal of the advertised goods.


The central legal question in Harris v Nickerson hinged on the interpretation of the advertisement placed by Mr. Nickerson: Did the advertisement constitute a legally binding offer to sell the listed goods, or was it simply an invitation for potential buyers to attend the auction (an invitation to treat)?


The court unanimously ruled in favor of the defendant, Mr. Nickerson. They held that the advertisement did not constitute a binding offer to sell the specific goods listed. Instead, the court interpreted it as an invitation to treat, essentially inviting potential buyers to attend the auction and participate in the bidding process.


The court’s decision focused on the inherent nature of auctions and the need for flexibility in conducting them. They reasoned as follows:

  • Auctions involve a dynamic process where the seller (auctioneer) can adjust the offer based on the bids received from participants. Allowing the advertisement to be a fixed offer for each item would hinder this flexibility.
  • An advertisement typically lists a variety of goods, and it’s impractical to consider it a binding offer for each item, as unforeseen circumstances might necessitate the withdrawal of specific items before the auction.
  • A seller might have legitimate reasons for withdrawing items from the auction, such as receiving a more attractive offer beforehand. Interpreting the advertisement as a binding offer would create an unfair and impractical situation for auctioneers.


Harris v Nickerson is a foundational case in contract law, establishing a clear distinction between an offer and an invitation to treat. It clarifies that advertisements generally function as invitations to treat, generating interest and attracting potential buyers, but they do not necessarily create a binding legal obligation to sell specific items at advertised prices. This decision provides predictability and flexibility in auction settings, ensuring that both sellers and buyers understand their rights and obligations at the outset.


Harris v Nickerson remains a vital case in contract law. It clarifies the nature of advertisements and their role in the offer and acceptance process. The case emphasizes the distinction between invitations to treat and binding offers, ensuring a clear understanding of when a contract is formed in the context of auctions and similar situations.

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