Enforcing promises/contracts of a social nature

Undertakings given within a social context are often held not to give rise to any legally enforceable contracts (or unilateral promises). A story, on the BBC’s website (here) therefore makes for interesting reading. A boy (or perhaps his parents, it is unclear from the story exactly who) has been invoiced for costs resulting from his failure to attend a friend’s birthday party. The precise item billed by the birthday boy’s disgruntled parents is listed in the invoice as being “Birthday Party No Show Fee”, though what this actually relates to seems to be be an amount charged by the ski slope at which the party took place in respect of the absent boy.

The issuing of such an invoice may be a bizarrely cold and formal way to complain about the absence of a party guest, but it raises the interesting question of whether the sum can be claimed at law. The birthday boy’s parents seem to think it can: they are suing the absent boy (or his parents) in the small claims court for the amount of £15.95. But is there legal liability here? For any claim to be contractual in nature there would require to be a determination that the absentee boy’s parents, in accepting the invitation, had intended to enter into a contract obliging the child to attend. That seems an unlikely inference, albeit that there would be (as it seems there was in this case) wasted expenditure incurred by the birthday boy’s parents if the invited child did not in fact attend (a pecuniary interest can sometimes clothe an otherwise unenforceable agreement with contractual force). If there was no contract (or, had the events taken place in Scotland, no unilateral promise either), then it is hard to see what else might provide the basis for the claim. Did the absent boy’s parents make an actionable misrepresentation in stating he would attend, or in not intimating his non-attendance when it became clear that he could no longer attend? It seems unlikely that any such misrepresentation, if such there was, would be held to give rise to a duty of care in tort/delict in respect of the economic loss suffered by the birthday boy’s parents.

All in all, this looks like a small claim which is destined to be thrown out by the court if the matter does indeed get that far. A finding otherwise would certainly make this blogger think twice before accepting any future birthday party invitations.

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