The Indian Contract Act, 1872
56. Agreement to do impossible act-
An agreement to do an act impossible in itself is void. Contract to do act afterwards becoming impossible or unlawful: A contract to do an act which, after the contract is made, becomes impossible or, by reason of some event which the promisor could not prevent, unlawful, becomes void when the act becomes impossible or unlawful.1
Compensation for loss through non-performance of act known to be impossible or unlawful: Where one person has promised to be something which he knew or, with reasonable diligence, might have known, and which the promisee did not know to be impossible or unlawful, such promisor must make compensation to such promise for any loss which such promisee sustains through the non-performance of the promise.
(a) A agrees with B to discover treasure by magic. The agreement is void.
(b) A and B contract to marry each other. Before the time fixed for the marriage, A goes mad. The contract becomes void.
(c) A contracts to marry B, being already married to C, and being forbidden by the law to which he is subject to practise polygamy. A must make compensation to B for the loss caused to her by the non-performance of his promise.
(d) A contracts to take in cargo for B at a foreign port. A’s Government afterwards declares war against the country in which the port is situated. The contract becomes void when war is declared.
(e) A contracts to act at a theatre for six months in consideration of a sum paid in advance by B. On several occasions A is too ill to act. The contract to act on those occasions becomes void.
Contracting party must not be in default
In contracts in which the performance depends on the continued existence of a given person or thing, a condition is implied that the impossibility arising from the perishing of the person or thing shall excuse performance; Taylor v. Caldwel, 122 ER 30.
It is not permissible for the courts to travel outside the provisions of the section and import the principles of English law de hors the statutory provisions; Satyabrata Ghose v. Mugneeram Bangur & Co., AIR 1954 SC 44.
Impossibility may be in law or in fact
The doctrine of frustration is really an aspect or part of the law of discharge of contract by reason of supervening impossibility or illegality of the act agreed to be done and hence comes within the purview of section 56; Satyabrata Ghose v. Mugneeram Bangur, AIR 1954 SC 44.
Scope and applicability
Section 56 lays a positive rule relating to frustration and does not leave the matter of frustration to the court to be determined. There can be no agreement on altered circumstances and it has also been held that if a consideration of the terms of the contract in the light of the circumstances when it was made shows that the parties never agreed to be bound in a fundamentally different situation which unexpectedly arises the contract ceases to bind at that point, not because the court in its discretion considers it just but on true construction it does not apply in that situation; Shyam Biri Works Pvt. Ltd. v. U.P. Forest Corporation, AIR 1990 SC 205.
1. See section 65, infra.