The 1994 film ‘The Santa Clause’ is a Christmas classic. Tim Allen plays Scott Calvin, a businessman, who startles Santa causing him to fall off his roof on Christmas Eve. Scott then puts on Santa’s suit and finishes delivering the presents.
When Scott arrives at the North Pole, Bernard (Santa’s head elf) greets him and explains the Santa clause. By putting on the Santa suit containing a card with a ‘Santa clause’ in fine print, Scott accepted the terms of the contract to become the new Santa. While the elements of a legal contract are present, this article discusses whether the contract would be considered legally binding under Australian law.
The Terms of the ‘Santa Clause’
The card Scott found in Santa’s suit states that:
‘In putting on the suit and entering the sleigh, the wearer waives any and all rights to any previous identity, real or implied, and fully accepts the duties and responsibilities of Santa Claus in perpetuity until such time that wearer becomes unable to do so by either accident or design.’
The clause was in red fine print around the edge of the card. Bernard also states that Scott has 11 months to get his affairs in order and is due back at the North Pole by Thanksgiving. So under Australian law, would Scott be able to challenge that the contract is not legally binding?
The Elements of a Binding Contract
In Australia, there are five main elements to a contract that help determine whether it is legally binding, namely:
- offer and acceptance;
- intention to create a legal relationship;
- capacity; and
- validity and enforceability.
Offer and Acceptance
One party must make an offer setting out the terms for the other party to accept. The other party must expressly accept the offer (for example, making a statement or committing an act consistent with the offer).
In the movie, the offer is for someone to become Santa Claus by putting on the suit and entering the sleigh. When Santa falls off the roof, Scott retrieves the card with the ‘Santa clause’:
‘If something should happen to me, put on my suit. The reindeer will know what to do.’
While Scott and his son Charlie are looking at the reindeer on the roof, Santa vanishes. Charlie then climbs into the sleigh and the reindeer take off. They land on a neighbour’s roof, and Charlie asks Scott to put on the suit and deliver the family’s toys. Not wanting to upset Charlie, Scott puts on the suit.
By putting on the suit and getting into the sleigh, Scott arguably accepts the contract’s terms. However, he did not see the fine print and was not reasonably made aware that putting on the suit and entering the sleigh would mean he was accepting the offer to become Santa permanently.
Intention to Create a Legal Relationship
Parties must intend to enter into a legally binding relationship with one another. A contract should be in writing. However, verbal agreements can be legally binding.
It appears Santa and the elves intended for the terms to be legally binding. A court would likely consider the relationship between Santa and Scott a commercial arrangement since they are not friends or relatives. Again, this would be difficult to prove because Scott was not aware of the terms of the ‘Santa clause’.
A party must provide consideration to the other party in exchange for their promise to create a legally binding contract. Essentially, parties must exchange something of value (usually money is consideration). The court is not usually concerned with commercial considerations (i.e. whether or not the value of the consideration is suitable for the exchange), but rather that there has been consideration.
For example, an individual could pay $1 to another party to buy a car, and this would still be consideration as they are exchanging something of value. The terms of the ‘Santa clause’ do not suggest that there is consideration between the parties. Santa and the elves requires Scott to make a promise to undertake the duties and responsibilities of Santa Claus. But, they do not provide him with anything in return within the terms of the agreement.
The requirement of capacity refers to the fact that the parties to the contract must be capable of entering into a legally binding relationship. For example, people who have a mental impairment, or are minors, may not have the capacity to enter into a legally binding contract. Capacity refers to the requirement that the parties must have a general understanding of the nature of the contract.
It appears that both Santa and Scott are not minors and do not appear to be suffering from a mental impairment. At least from a cursory understanding, we can consider Santa and Scott to have the capacity to enter into a legally binding contract.
Validity and Enforceability
The final key element to determining whether a contract is legally binding is validity and enforceability. Validity and enforceability refer to when an agreement may have formed a contract, but it is not actually valid or enforceable because of certain circumstances. These can include:
- Fraud – where one party has made false statements to the other and attempted to deceive the other into entering into the contract.
- Duress – where one party has threatened the other party with violence or threats to their financial wellbeing to get them to enter into the contract.
- Undue influence – one party takes advantage of the other through an improper use of the other party’s weakness.
- Uncertainty – this refers to construction of the contract. A contract needs to include enough terms to provide certainty as to the rights and obligations of the parties. It also needs to contain clear time frames for doing certain actions.
- An absence of formalities – this is more to do with the enforceability of the contract. For example, in some legislation, certain contracts are required to be in writing. If there is only a verbal agreement in place, the contract will not be enforceable.
The key issues for validity and enforceability concerning the ‘Santa clause’ would likely be the misrepresentation, uncertainty and enforceability of the clause. Santa arguably misrepresented the terms of the contract by having the ‘Santa clause’ in barely readable fine print around the edges of the card.
The actual clause also contains uncertainties and would be unlikely enforceable for many reasons:
- it does not include time frames;
- it does not define what is meant by ‘accident’ or ‘design’;
- it does not set out when and how the wearer is required to waive their rights to their previous identity (e.g. forfeiting identification documents); and
- it requires the wearer to accept the duties of Santa Claus in perpetuity (meaning that there is no end date or ability to terminate the contract).
Would the ‘Santa Clause’ Be Legally Binding?
The range of issues highlighted in this article suggests that the ‘Santa Clause’ contract would unlikely be binding under Australian law and Scott could return home on Christmas day. Please note that we are unable to comment on how the court would consider the contract under the laws of the North Pole.