Contractual interpretation: What did we even agree upon?

It is the question as old as human trade and commerce: when we made that agreement, what did we mean?

This is a deceptively simple question. It may appear to parties with amicable relations that the meaning of a document is clear, but when a dispute opens up, what tends to happen is that each party will stretch every definition to suit its purposes.
As will become clear, courts are still grappling with difficult questions about how an agreement should be interpreted, and what evidence put forward by the parties can be considered to discern its meaning.
We consider some basic principles to do with contractual interpretation, and look a recent example of the circumstances in which courts will look at negotiations between the parties and the effect this has on the meaning of the agreement.

Basic principles

Where there is a written contract between two parties that are legally represented and commercially experienced, the law will likely consider this contract to be the complete statement of their legal rights and obligations. In some cases, a contract may be both oral and in writing, but proving this is onerous.
As a result, where there is a dispute, the contract is the first thing that the lawyers and judges will consider. The contract is considered to reflect how the parties intended to allocate risk.
When looking at a contract, the court will assess and interpret the contract to give effect to what is called the objective intention of the parties. This is not what was actually in the minds of the parties. Rather, it is what a reasonable person, a third-party bystander, would understand the words or actions of the parties to show about the parties’ intention.
In the commercial context, this means the court will look at the words used in drafting the contract and determine what they mean to a reasonable businessperson informed about the circumstances of the case.

But wait there’s more

What is said above does not mean that the actions of the parties are irrelevant. Far from it.
In fact, it is sometimes necessary for courts to consider the surrounding circumstances of an agreement, so that they can determine what the intentions of the parties are with respect to what exactly constitutes the agreement and what its terms mean.
This might seem contrary to the court’s tradition of only looking at the contract. However, it will generally only be done when there is ambiguity in the words of the contract.
For example, in Toll (FGCT) Pty Ltd v Alphapharm Pty Ltd (2004) 219 CLR 165, the High Court stated that it is not what the parties think about their rights and obligations that govern contractual relations. Rather, it is the words and conduct of each party that would lead a reasonable person in the position of the other party to believe.
Ten years later, the High Court again commented on the use of evidence outside the contract in Electricity Generation Corporation v Woodside Energy Ltd (2014) 251 CLR 640. In this case, the High Court said that evidence of the parties’ actual (subjective) intentions is not relevant to construction. What is relevant is the evidence of surrounding circumstances known the parties.
External circumstances can be considered by the courts when interpreting contracts between disputing parties.

So how does this all work?

If courts are supposed to consider the contract as the full statement of the parties’ rights and obligations, but they are able to look at circumstances beyond the contract, how does a judge determine what is the agreement?
Firstly, the contract is still the primary document that is interpreted. The evidence considered by a court of what has been said or what has happened outside of the contract cannot be used to give the contract a meaning that is contrary to what the contract clearly states.
Put another way, evidence outside of the contract cannot be used to add to, vary or contradict the language of the written contract. This is the case no matter how unjust or inconvenient the written terms are. This makes sense, as effective relations depend on the meaning of an agreement being fixed and clear.
Permitting outside factors to change the meaning of a contract introduces significant uncertainty. As any businessperson will know, where there is uncertainty there is conflict. A party could for example attempt to impose its own view on the meaning of the document. External conduct is used to make the meaning of the contract clearer, not to change it. In practice, however, the line between these two can be very difficult to draw.
Secondly, matters outside of the contract become relevant only where there is ambiguity or more than one meaning in what is inside the contract. Words may have different meanings in different contexts, so the context is important in choosing the right interpretation.
To this end, courts may consider the commercial purpose of the contract, the market and industry in which it arose, and the factual background of the agreement. All of this can shed light onto what the parties “must have” intended when they drafted the contract.
It is important to note that courts will only consider outside circumstances that are known to both parties.
However, courts will only consider these factors if the meaning of the written document is not clear. Negotiations that occurred prior to the signing of the agreement are also rarely considered, for the simple reason that they do not often show what was agreed.

For example …

Cherry v Steele-Park [2017] NSWCA 295 was a case that turned on the meaning of a deed of guarantee. Specifically, whether this deed of guarantee required the guarantor to pay the damages that resulted from the failure of their company to complete a contract for sale of land. The guarantor argued that the deed only covered the amounts promised for extending the contract’s completion date. The difference was around $145,750.
The case appeared to challenge the principles talked about above.
The argument was around whether the meaning of term had to be ambiguous before a court would admit evidence outside of the contract to explain its meaning. What happens when a term that appears to have a plain meaning “becomes” ambiguous only when outside material is introduced?
The answer is that as long as the evidence is relevant as information about the genesis or purpose of the transaction, it can bear on the contractual language and can be considered. Then the court will make a conclusion about whether the written terms are clear or ambiguous.
In Cherry v Steele-Park, Cherry wanted to include in evidence emails exchanged between the parties, that represented negotiating positions that were communicated between the parties. (As a side note, it was important that both parties knew about these emails when entering the contract.)
The Court considered the emails. However, the case ultimately reinforces not challenges the conclusions talked about above. The interpretation of the clause given by the court ultimately did not bend to what was said in these emails.
Rather, the Court considered as primary the terms and the structure of the contract, including the definitions and the generality of their language. The interpretation put forward by Cherry was some but clearly not all of the guarantee.
The Court concluded that the emails did not defeat “the wide words in the Guarantee”. The emails showed that there may have been a commercial purpose to make a limited guarantee. However, this context could not overcome the content of the Guarantee. Or, as Leeming JA stated, “such context – even relatively powerful evidence of context such as the present – does not warrant doing the violence to the general language of the document executed by them that they require.”
It was in effect a warning, that regardless of how persuasive evidence of negotiations is, it will not limit or take away from what is stated in a contractual document.

Conclusion

Prevention is always better than the cure. In the early stages of a commercial agreement, a little expense given to ensuring a contract tabled between the parties truly expresses your intentions goes a long way to preventing protracted disputes.
Problems can arise even between parties with a great relationship, and as discussed, once a problem does arise courts will be very reluctant to look beyond the written document that was exchanged. What this written document says will be of paramount importance, so it is worth the extra attention.
If you or someone you know wants more information or needs help or advice, please contact us on +61 2 9248 3450 or email info@bradburylegal.com.au