Legal English Shot – Terminate a contract, resolve it, cancel it, revoke it, avoid it, or rescind it ?

You know you want out of the contract, but how do you say it in legal English? Are you going to terminate it, resolve it, cancel it, revoke it, avoid it, or rescind it? Child’s play, with the help of our latest Legal English Shot!

And since good news rarely travels alone…

To brighten your autumn evenings, our “Legal English Shots” are now accompanied by micro-videos on the pronunciation of legal English terms. At the end of this note you will find the first episode in our new series on English words that Swiss lawyers most often tend to mispronounce. #1: Rescind

As in French and German, there are numerous legal English terms for the acts by which it is possible to discharge a contract (German: einen Vertrag beenden; French: mettre fin à un contrat) – the meaning of which can vary, depending on the documents in question and the context.

The means available for the ordinary or consensual discharge of a contract include:

  • discharge by performance (German: Beendigung/Erlöschen durch Erfüllung; French: exécution ordinaire du contract);
  • expiry or expiration of a fixed term agreement (German: Ablauf eines befristeten Vertrags; French: expiration or échéance d’un contrat de durée déterminée) at the date specified therein (term, expiry date; German: Ablauf, Ende der Vertragsdauer, Fälligkeit; French: échéance, date d’expiration);
  • contract variation or mutually agreed abandonment (German: einvernehmliche Vertragsänderung or Vertragsaufhebung; French: modification or rupture consensuelle d’un contrat);
  • debt release (German: Schuldenerlass or Gläubigerverzicht; French: remise de dette).

The terminology for the acts of unilaterally discharging a contract is less fixed and a bit more complex. Below is a table summarising the most commonly used terms and their French and German equivalents:

English term:

Verb (and noun)

German/French equivalents Comments
to terminate a contract

(termination)

den Vertrag kündigen, auflösen

résilier, dénoncer le contrat

The U.S. Uniform Commercial Code (UCC) distinguishes between “cancellation” of a contract (in the absence of a breach) and “termination” (in the presence of a breach). This distinction is not drawn in the United Kingdom, where the term “cancellation” has no specific legal meaning and may thus also be used in the sense of “rescission” (ab initio).
a.     UK: to terminate (termination) without cause/for convenience/on notice

US: to cancel (cancellation)

die ordentliche Kündigung

la résiliation ordinaire

b.     to terminate (termination) for cause die fristlose Kündigung, die Kündigung aus wichtigem Grund

la résiliation / dénonciation pour juste motif

to rescind

(rescission)

aus dem Vertrag zurückzutreten; der Rücktritt; bei Sachgewähr-leistung: die Wandelung

résoudre ou se départir d’un contrat; la résolution

The contract is undone ab initio, as if it had never existed (der Vertrag fällt dahin ex tunc; le contrat devient caduc ex tunc).
to rescind

(rescission)

to avoid, to void (a voidable contract)

(avoidance, voidance)

anfechten, die Anfechtung (eines anfechtbaren Vertrages)

invalider, annuler (un contrat annulable)

In the Anglo-Saxon legal world, the term “rescind” is used both for the termination of a contract in the presence of a breach (Rücktritt; résolution) and for the avoidance of a voidable contract (Anfechtung eines anfechtbaren Vertrags; invalidation d’un contrat annulable), rendering the contract void ab initio. In the English text of the UNIDROIT Principles and Translex-Principles, the term “avoidance” is used consistently throughout.
to withdraw from the contract

(withdrawal; right of withdrawal) (UK, EU)

to revoke

(revocation, right of revocation)

widerrufen; der Widerruf; das Widerrufsrecht

révoquer; la révocation, la  rétractation; le droit de révocation

To withdraw from a contract (by exercising a right of withdrawal) in particular in the context of consumer rights. The term “right of revocation” is found less often than “right of withdrawal”, but is nevertheless still in use (e.g., in the US Telephone Consumer Protection Act).
to repudiate (anticipatorily)

(anticipatory repudiation; anticipatory breach)

der antizipierte Vertragsbruch

l’inexécution / la violation anticipée du contrat

To give prior notice, express or implicit, of intent not to perform a contract before performance has fallen due

 

As the precise meaning of these terms may vary, depending on the context and jurisdiction in which they are used, we recommend that you specify in the translations of your contracts, legal writings or letters the exact legal effect you intend to attach to each chosen term:

If the effect is intended to be retroactive, it is referred to in Switzerland as an ex tunc effect; in the United Kingdom the term ab initio is used (e.g. to rescind a contract ab initio; the contract is rendered void ab initio). In such case, the parties must find themselves in the same position in which they would have been had the contract not been concluded. The contract is said to have been “undone”, “unravelled” or “unwound”, bringing the parties back to the position in which they were before they entered into the contract, i.e. restoring them to their pre-contractual positions – to the status quo ante (“restitutio in integrum“).

If the effects are to be felt only in the future (ex nunc), the expression used in the United Kingdom is “de futuro”. In such case, the contractual relations between the parties are terminated from that time forward, that is, the obligations under the contract are said to have been discharged “prospectively”; or, in other words, the parties are “discharged from the further performance of the contract”.

In addition, it will normally be useful to specify the type of damages to which the parties will be entitled:

  • reliance damages (German: negatives Vertragsinteresse; French: dommages-intérêts négatifs), restoring the non-breaching party to the same position in which it would have found itself had the contract not existed;
  • expectation damages (German: positives Vertragsinteresse, Erfüllungsinteresse; French: dommages-intérêts positifs), including all costs incurred by the non-breaching party (which it would not have incurred but for the breach) (damnum emergens), and the profits it has foregone (which it would have earned but for the breach) (lucrum cessans).

And now, having mastered all the intricacies of the term “rescind”, learn how to (not) pronounce it, too.

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