Lord Denning’s contribution to selected areas

The brief will investigate Lord Denning’s contribution to selected areas in Contract Law. It will first give a short description of Lord Denning’s life and comments of other Lords in relation to his contribution to the law. It will then discuss his contribution to promissory estoppel, offer and acceptance and mistake. The brief will attempt to show that Lord Denning was a judge that looked at practical solutions to some complex legal problems.


Lord Denning was born at Whitchurch, Hampshire in 1899 [1] and died at the age of 100 years. He was a judge for 38 years and was known as the “people’s judge". Lord Denning became a judge of the High Court at the age of 45 and became a Law Lord at 58. At the age of 63 he moved to the Appeal Court.He retired at the age of 83.

Lord Denning came into prominence when he was appointed to investigate the Profumo Scandal in 1963. The Profumo scandal was named after Mr John Profumo, a minister, who was involved in an affair with a model.

In his later years Lord Denning took to writing books and in one of these he wrote that some immigrants may not be suitable as jurors. Unfortunately this marred his status. [2] 

Comments by Other Lords

Lord Irvine said that the name “Denning" was a byword for the law itself. He said that Lord Denning’s judgements were the model of simple English which ordinary people understood. [3] 

Lord Birmingham, the Chief Justice said that Lord Denning was the best known and best loved judge of perhaps any generation and that he was a legend in his own lifetime. [4] 

Lord Devlin, when commenting on one of Lord Denning’s early cases said that he was a very decent puisne and preferred to cut a new channel from the main stream. [5] 

Promissory Estoppel

In High Trees [6] Lord Denning referring to the Metropolitan Railway [7] judgement as support, held that if a person makes a promise and someone else relies on that promise with the knowledge of the promisor, the promisor is bound by the terms of the promise. This became known as promissory estoppel. Traditionally, estoppel only applied to a misrepresentation of existing fact. [8] Consideration was absent in the scenario as the courts held that the acceptance of a lesser amount than that which is owed does mean that the creditor cannot claim the balance. [9] 

Lord Denning said that the doctrine may be further developed thereby implying that the principle may be used as a sword and not only a shield. It has always been accepted that promissory estoppel cannot form the basis of an action. Pursuant to this statement, the court a quo in Combe [10] held that promissory estoppel may be used as a sword but on appeal Lord Denning said that it was not thus available.

Offer and Acceptance

There must be a meeting of the minds before a contract can exist. Such meeting of minds is manifested in the form of offer and an unequivocal acceptance by the offeree. [11] The facts in Gibson [12] disclosed that there were no actual contract between the council and Mr Gibson. It did however show a series of correspondence between the parties.

Once again Lord Denning showed his ingenuity by holding that the rules of offer and acceptance did not apply in every case but that the court should take a global approach and look at the dealings between the parties in its entirety and from that come to a conclusion whether an agreement has been concluded. Lord Diplock conceded that some contracts required an unorthodox approach but in this instance he opted for the approach of offer and acceptance. [13] 


Lord Denning held that there are two kinds of mistake namely, one which makes the contract void and the second one which makes the contract voidable. The first one falls under the common law and the second one under equity. Lord Denning has thereby adopted a new approach in cases of mistake. He said that the contract under discussion was not made void by the common law but made voidable under the principles of equity. He said that if one party makes a mistake and the other knows of that mistake then there is no reason why equity should not assist the mistaken party to set the contract aside. In this case Lord Denning therefore extended equitable principles. [14] 


Lord Denning has clearly made an indelible mark on the law and his contribution to the Law of Contract will remain. His everyday solutions to legal problems are clearly visible in the discussion of promissory estoppel, offer and acceptance and mistake above.

He was not afraid to take a position that may not be acceptable to other judges and more often than not he won them over to his point of view.