Agency (law)

Commercial law dealing with the contractual

 Agency is an area of commercial law dealing with a contractual or quasi-contractual tripartite Pact, or non-contractual set of relationships when an agent is authorized to act on behalf of another (called the Principal) to create a legal relationship with a Third Party. Succinctly, it may be referred to as the relationship between a principal and an agent whereby the principal, expressly or impliedly, authorizes the agent to work under his control and on his behalf. The agent is, thus, required to negotiate on behalf of the principal or bring him and third parties into contractual relationship. This branch of law separates and regulates the relationships between:

  • Agents and Principals;
  • Agents and the Third Parties with whom they deal on their Principals' behalf; and
  • Principals and the Third Parties when the Agents purport to deal on their behalf.
The common law principle in operation is usually represented in the Latin phrase, qui facit per alium, facit per se, i.e. the one who acts through another, acts in his or her own interests and it is a parallel concept to vicarious liability and strict liability in which one person is held liable in Criminal law or Tort for the acts or omissions of another.

The concepts

The reciprocal rights and liabilities between a principal and an agent reflect commercial and legal realities. A business owner often relies on an employee or another person to conduct a business. In the case of a corporation, since a corporation is a fictitious legal person, it can only act through human agents. The principal is bound by the contract entered into by the agent, so long as the agent performs within the scope of the agency. A third party may rely in good faith on the representation by a person who identifies himself as an agent for another. It is not always cost effective to check whether someone who is represented as having the authority to act for another actually has such authority. If it is subsequently found that the alleged agent was acting without necessary authority, the agent will generally be held liable.

Brief statement of legal principles

There are three broad classes of agent
  1. Universal agents hold broad authority to act on behalf of the principal, e.g. they may hold a power of attorney (also known as a mandate in civil law jurisdictions) or have a professional relationship, say, as lawyer and client.
  2. General agents hold a more limited authority to conduct a series of transactions over a continuous period of time; and
  3. Special agents are authorized to conduct either only a single transaction or a specified series of transactions over a limited period of time.

Authority

There are three bases by which parties may be held to have assumed the duties of principal and agent. These are actual authority, apparent authority, and implied authority.

Actual authority

Actual authority arises where the principal's words or conduct reasonably cause the agent to believe that he or she has been authorized to act. This may be express in the form of a contract or implied because what is said or done make it reasonably necessary for the person to assume the powers of an agent. If it is clear that the principal gave actual authority to agent, all the agent's actions falling within the scope of the authority given will bind the principal. This will be the result even if, having actual authority, the agent in fact acts fraudulently for his own benefit, unless the third party with whom the agent is dealing was aware of the agent's personal agenda. If there is no contract but the principal's words or conduct reasonably led the third party to believe that the agent was authorized to act, or if what the agent proposes to do is incidental and reasonably necessary to accomplish an actually authorized transaction or a transaction that usually accompanies it, then the principal will be bound.

Apparent authority

Apparent or ostensible authority exists where the principal's words or conduct would lead a reasonable person in the third party's position to believe that the agent was authorized to act, even if the principal and the purported agent had never discussed such a relationship. For example, where one person appoints a person to a position which carries with it agency-like powers, those who know of the appointment are entitled to assume that there is apparent authority to do the things ordinarily entrusted to one occupying such a position. If a principal creates the impression that an agent is authorized but there is no actual authority, third parties are protected so long as they have acted reasonably. This is sometimes termed "agency by estoppel" or the "doctrine of holding out", where the principal will be estopped from denying the grant of authority if third parties have changed their positions to their detriment in reliance on the representations made.

Implied authority

Implied authority considered held by the agent by virtue of being reasonably necessary to carry out his express authority. As such, it can be inferred by virtue of a position held by an agent. For example, partners have authority to bind the other partners in the firm, their liability being joint and several, and in a corporation, all executives and senior employees with decision-making authority by virtue of their position have authority to bind the corporation.
    Authority by virtue of a position held:
    • To deter fraud and other harms that may befall individuals dealing with agents, there is a concept of Inherent Agency power, which is power derived solely by virtue of the agency relation.
    • For example, partners have apparent authority to bind the other partners in the firm, their liability being joint and several (see below), and in a corporation, all executives and senior employees with decision-making authority by virtue of their declared position have apparent authority to bind the corporation.
Even if the agent does act without authority, the principal may ratify the transaction and accept liability on the transactions as negotiated. This may be express or implied from the principal's behavior, e.g. if the agent has purported to act in a number of situations and the principal has knowingly acquiesced, the failure to notify all concerned of the agent's lack of authority is an implied ratification to those transactions and an implied grant of authority for future transactions of a similar nature.

Liability of agent to third party

If the agent has actual or apparent authority, the agent will not be liable for acts performed within the scope of such authority, so long as the relationship of the agency and the identity of the principal have been disclosed. When the agency is undisclosed or partially disclosed, however, both the agent and the principal are liable. Where the principal is not bound because the agent has no actual or apparent authority, the purported agent is liable to the third party for breach of the implied warranty of authority.

Liability of agent to principal

If the agent has acted without actual authority, but the principal is nevertheless bound because the agent had apparent authority, the agent is liable to indemnify the principal for any resulting loss or damage.

Liability of principal to agent

If the agent has acted within the scope of the actual authority given, the principal must indemnify the agent for payments made during the course of the relationship whether the expenditure was expressly authorized or merely necessary in promoting the principalís business.

Duties

An agent owes the principal a number of duties. These include: (a) a duty to undertake the task or tasks specified by the terms of the agency (that is, the agent must not do things that he has not been authorised by the principal to do); (b) a duty to discharge his duties with care and due diligence; and (c) a duty to avoid conflict of interest between the interests of the principal and his own (that is, the agent cannot engage in conduct where stands to gain a benefit for himself to the detriment of the principal). An agent must not accept any new obligations that are inconsistent with the duties owed to the principal. An agent can represent the interests of more than one principal, conflicting or potentially conflicting, only after full disclosure and consent of the principal. An agent also must not engage in self-dealing, or otherwise unduly enrich himself from the agency. An agent must not usurp an opportunity from the principal by taking it for himself or passing it on to a third party. In return, the principal must make a full disclosure of all information relevant to the transactions that the agent is authorized to negotiate and pay the agent either a prearranged commission, or a reasonable fee established after the fact.

Termination

An agent's authority can be terminated at any time. If the trust between the agent and principal has broken down, it is not reasonable to allow the principal to remain at risk in any transactions that the agent might conclude during a period of notice. As per Section 201 to 210 The Indian Contract Act, 1872, an agency may come to an end in a variety of ways: (i) By the principal revoking the agency Ė However, principal cannot revoke an agency coupled with interest to the prejudice of such interest. Such Agency is coupled with interest. An agency is coupled with interest when the agent himself has an interest in the subject-matter of the agency, e.g., where the goods are consigned by an upcountry constituent to a commission agent for sale, with poor to recoup himself from the sale proceeds, the advances made by him to the principal against the security of the goods; in such a case, the principal cannot revoke the agentís authority till the goods are actually sold, nor is the agency terminated by death or insanity. (Illustrations to section 201) (ii) By the agent renouncing the business of agency; (iii) By the business of agency being completed; (iv) By the principal being adjudicated insolvent (Section 201 of The Indian Contract Act. 1872) The principal also cannot revoke the agentís authority after it has been partly exercised, so as to bind the principal (Section 204), though he can always do so, before such authority has been so exercised (Sec 203). Further, as per section 205, if the agency is for a fixed period, the principal cannot terminate the agency before the time expired, except for sufficient cause. If he does, he is liable to compensate the agent for the loss caused to him thereby. The same rules apply where the agent, renounces an agency for a fixed period. Notice in this connection that want of skill continuous disobedience of lawful orders, and rude or insulting behavior has been held to be sufficient cause for dismissal of an agent. Further, reasonable notice has to be given by one party to the other; otherwise, damage resulting from want of such notice, will have to be paid (Section 206). As per section 207, the revocation or renunciation of an agency may be made expressly or impliedly by conduct. The termination does not take effect as regards the agent, till it becomes known to him and as regards third party, till the termination is known to them (Section 208). When an agentís authority is terminated, it operates as a termination of subagent also. (Section 210). This has become a more difficult area as states are not consistent on the nature of a partnership. Some states opt for the partnership as no more than an aggregate of the natural persons who have joined the firm. Others treat the partnership as a business entity and, like a corporation, vest the partnership with a separate legal personality. Hence, for example, in English law, a partner is the agent of the other partners whereas, in Scots law where there is a separate personality, a partner is the agent of the partnership. This form of agency is inherent in the status of a partner and does not arise out of a contract of agency with a principal. In the English Partnership Act 1890 provides that a partner who acts within the scope of his actual authority (express or implied) will bind the partnership when he does anything in the ordinary course of carrying on partnership business. Even if that implied authority has been revoked or limited, the partner will have apparent authority unless the Third Party knows that the authority has been compromised. Hence, if the partnership wishes to limit any partner's authority, it must give express notice of the limitation to the world. However, there would be little substantive difference if English law was amended (see Law Commission Report 283): partners will bind the partnership rather than their fellow partners individually. For these purposes, the knowledge of the partner acting will be imputed to the other partners or the firm if a separate personality. The other partners or the firm are the principal and third parties are entitled to assume that the principal has been informed of all relevant information. This causes problems when one partner acts fraudulently or negligently and causes loss to clients of the firm. In most states, a distinction is drawn between knowledge of the firm's general business activities and the confidential affairs as they affect one client. Thus, there is no imputation if the partner is acting against the interests of the firm as a fraud. There is more likely to be liability in tort if the partnership benefited by receiving fee income for the work negligently performed, even if only as an aspect of the standard provisions of vicarious liability. Whether the injured party wishes to sue the partnership or the individual partners is usually a matter for the Plaintiff since, in most jurisdictions, their liability is joint and several..

Agency relationships

Agency relationships are common in many professional areas.
  • employment procurement
  • real estate transactions (real estate brokerage, mortgage brokerage). In real estate brokerage, the buyers or sellers are the Principals themselves and the broker or his/her salesperson who represents each Principal is his/her Agent.
  • financial advice (insurance agency, stock brokerage, accountancy)
  • contract negotiation and promotion (business management) such as for publishing, fashion model, music, movies, theatre, show business, and sport.

See also

  • Corporate officer
  • Employee
  • Entertainment law
  • Independent contractor
  • Literary agent
  • Ostensible authority
  • Principal-agent problem
  • Hawala
  • Cestui que

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