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SQE Exam Point: Rights of Third Parties

The rights of third parties in contract law have long been a complex and evolving area. Traditionally, the doctrine of privity held that only the parties to a contract could enforce or be bound by its terms. However, this doctrine has been criticized for being overly rigid and failing to reflect the realities of modern commercial relationships.

The case of Tweddle v Atkinson (1861) 1 B&S 393 is a landmark decision and serves as a foundational example of the doctrine of privity of contract. Here's an overview of the case.


The case arose from a marriage arrangement between two families. The fathers of the bride and groom entered into an agreement to pay specific sums of money to the newlywed couple. Tragically, both fathers died before fulfilling their obligations, leading the groom to sue the executor of the bride's father's will for the promised payment.

Key Issue

The central issue in this case was whether the groom, as a third party to the agreement between the fathers, could enforce the contract. The groom's argument was based on the notion that the agreement's intention was to benefit the couple, and thus he should be able to enforce it.

Court's Decision

The court rejected the groom's claim, holding that he was not a party to the agreement between the fathers and had not provided any consideration for the promise made by the bride's father. Since he was a stranger to the contract, he had no legal standing to enforce it.


The decision in Tweddle v Atkinson is a seminal ruling that firmly established the principle of privity of contract in English law. It means that only the parties to a contract can enforce or be bound by its terms, even if the contract was clearly intended to benefit a third party.

This case illustrates the strict application of the privity doctrine, which has been both praised for its clarity and criticized for its rigidity. It has led to debates and subsequent legal reforms, such as the Contracts (Rights of Third Parties) Act 1999, to address perceived injustices and inflexibilities in the law.


Tweddle v Atkinson serves as an exam point for students studying contract law, highlighting the complexities and nuances of privity of contract. By understanding this case, students can appreciate the historical context of third-party rights in contract law and the ongoing evolution of legal principles in this area.

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