This chapter addresses the issue of whether, and to what extent, unilateral legal transactions are allowed as autonomous sources of obligations. Contrary to what occurs in respect of contracts, a numerus clausus system prevails in several legal systems, such as the German and the Portuguese, in respect of such legal transactions, whereby the law only confers the power to create obligations unilaterally upon individual intent in a select number of situations expressly prescribed by statute. This is the so-called “contract principle”. The chapter seeks to explain the reasons underlying this principle and examines a number of typical unilateral legal transactions, such as the promise of a reward, or prize competitions. It also reports on legal systems that do not enshrine the notion of a unilateral legal transaction, and where contracts are accordingly the sole conceivable source of voluntary obligations: this is the approach of English law and of most American States.
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