Contract theory is the body of legal theory that addresses normative and conceptual questions in contract law. One of the most important questions asked in contract theory is why contracts are enforced. One prominent answer to this question focuses on the economic benefits of enforcing bargains. Another approach, associated with Charles Fried, maintains that the purpose of contract law is to enforce promises. This theory is developed in Fried's book, Contract as Promise. Other approaches to contract theory are found in the writings of legal realists and critical legal studies theorists.
More generally, writers have propounded Marxist and feminist interpretations of contract. Attempts at overarching understandings of the purpose and nature of contract as a phenomenon have been made, notably relational contract theory originally developed by U.S. contracts scholars Ian Roderick Macneil and Stewart Macaulay, building at least in part on the contract theory work of U.S. scholar Lon L. Fuller, while U.S. scholars have been at the forefront of developing economic theories of contract focussing on questions of transaction cost and so-called 'efficient breach' theory.
Another dimension of the theoretical debate in contract is its place within, and relationship to a wider law of obligations. Obligations have traditionally been divided into contracts, which are voluntarily undertaken and owed to a specific person or persons, and obligations in tort which are based on the wrongful infliction of harm to certain protected interests, primarily imposed by the law, and typically owed to a wider class of persons.
Recently it has been accepted that there is a third category, restitutionary obligations, based on the unjust enrichment of the defendant at the plaintiff's expense. Contractual liability, reflecting the constitutive function of contract, is generally for failing to make things better (by not rendering the expected performance), liability in tort is generally for action (as opposed to omission) making things worse, and liability in restitution is for unjustly taking or retaining the benefit of the plaintiff's money or work.
The common law describes the circumstances under which the law will recognise the existence of rights, privilege or power arising out of a promise.
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