Harris vs Nickerson

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In the case of Harris vs Nickerson (1873) LR 8 QB 286, the court dealt with the rules about making a contract by offer and acceptance in English law. The court decided that when someone advertises that they will auction goods, it doesn’t mean they’re making an offer to sell those goods to anyone.

Instead, the person who placed the ad can change their mind and decide not to auction the goods before the auction happens. All three judges agreed with this in Harris vs Nickerson, but they each wrote their own opinions.

Facts of Harris vs Nickerson

The Defendant in Harris vs Nickerson advertised in London papers that various items, including brewing equipment and office furniture, would be auctioned over three days in Bury St. Edmunds. The Plaintiff, having secured a commission to purchase office furniture, invested time and money to travel to Bury St. Edmunds with the intention of bidding.

However, on the third day, the office furniture lots were withdrawn. The Plaintiff then sued for the incurred loss of time and expenses. The initial court ruling favored the Plaintiff, leading to permission to appeal to the High Court.

Key Issues

The key issues raised in Harris vs Nickerson were:

  • Whether the advertisement should be considered an offer or an invitation to offer?
  • Whether the Defendant could be held responsible for withdrawing the goods from the auction sale?

Plaintiff’s Contention (Harris)

Harris’s lawyer, Warton, contended in Harris v. Nickerson that the defendant’s advertisement amounted to an offer for sale. According to Warton, the expenses incurred by Harris to attend the auction should be seen as his acceptance, forming a valid contract between Harris and the defendant.

Warton further argued that the cancellation or withdrawal of the auction should be considered a breach of this contract, entitling Harris to compensation.

Defendant’s Contention (Nickerson)

Nickerson’s lawyer, Macre Moir, argued in Harris vs. Nickerson that the mere act of advertising a sale does not create a contract with anyone. The advertisement, according to Macre Moir, was merely an invitation to offer and a declaration of intent. As a result, the defendant believed they were not obligated to compensate the plaintiff.

Judgment of Harris vs Nickerson

The court in Harris vs Nickerson unanimously ruled that the advertisement did not constitute an offer but was rather a declaration of intent. Blackburn, J. based his judgment on public policy, deeming it a “startling proposition” that someone advertising a sale would be responsible for everyone’s expenses.

Quain and Archibald, JJ. also highlighted public policy considerations, stating that there was no legal basis to hold the defendant liable to compensate all attendees. The court upheld the appeal.


In Harris v Nickerson (1873) LR 8 QB 286, the court addressed the contractual implications of an auction advertisement. The plaintiff, Harris, argued that the ad constituted an offer, with his travel expenses serving as acceptance, forming a contract. The defendant, Nickerson, contended that the ad was merely an invitation to offer, not a contract.

The court in Harris vs Nickerson unanimously held that the ad was a declaration of intent, not an offer. Relying on public policy, the judges deemed it unreasonable to hold advertisers responsible for attendees’ expenses. The appeal was upheld, affirming that the withdrawal of goods did not breach a contract, setting a precedent for auction-related legal principles.

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