Lumley v. Wagner - Case Summary

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Modified: 22nd Feb 2024
Wordcount: 632 words


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Legal Case Summary

Summary: Influential English contract law case establishing the principle that a court may use the equitable remedy of injunction to prevent breach of a negative covenant.


In the case of Lumley v Wagner, the plaintiff, Mr Lumley, manager for Her Majesty’s Theatre, hired Johanna Wagner to perform as a singer exclusively for his theatre over a three-month period in 1852. During this period, Johanna Wagner was not legally permitted to perform at any other theatre (Cooke, 2017). Despite the contract agreement, Wagner received a better offer from the plaintiff’s competitor, Mr. Gye. Therefore, she threatened to breach the agreement with Mr. Lumley by intending to perform for Mr. Gye.


At the heart of the Lumley v. Wagner case, the primary issue revolves around contract law, and specifically the enforcement of contractual promises using remedies. The case raised the question of whether equitable remedies such as injunctions can be used to prevent the breach of a negative covenant, in this case, the covenant that Wagner would not sing in a rival's theatre during the period of her contract with Lumley (McKendrick, 2017).


The Lumley v. Wagner case served as a landmark moment in shaping contract law by illustrating that courts can enforce negative covenants using equitable remedies like injunctions. This promotes the fulfilment of contractual obligations and discourages contractual breaches. It is a pivotal case because it essentially laid down the principle that equity will not decree specific performance of a personal services contract, but it will enjoin a party from entering into a similar contract with a third party if there exists a valid negative covenant. The case has been cited in numerous cases thereafter and continues to be relevant in contemporary contractual disputes (Andrews, 2015).


The court under the helm of Justice Wood decided in favour of Lumley. It held that while they could not force Miss Wagner to perform for Mr. Lumley, they were able to prevent her from performing for Mr. Gye. In essence, the negative covenant in her agreement with Lumley was upheld, as she was forbidden from singing elsewhere during the stipulated three-month period. The court therefore granted an injunction to Lumley enforcing the negative clause (Burrows, 2019).


  • Andrews, N. (2015) Contract Law. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Burrows, A. (2019). A Casebook on Contract. Oxford: Hart Publishing.
  • Cooke, P. (2017) Law of Contract. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • McKendrick, E. (2017) Contract Law: Text, Cases, and Materials. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Journalist Brief

In the case of Lumley v Wagner, opera singer Johanna Wagner was contracted to sing exclusively for one theatre, yet was tempted to break this agreement when offered a better deal by a rival theatre. In simple terms, the court ruled that while they couldn't force Wagner to perform for the first theatre, they could prevent her from performing elsewhere, thereby upholding the agreement Wagner had signed. This case is significant because it demonstrated that courts can use certain legal tools, called 'equitable remedies', to enforce parts of a contract and discourage people from breaking their agreements.


What was the decision in Lumley v. Wagner?

Answer: The court decided that while they could not compel Wagner to perform for Lumley, they could enforce a 'negative covenant' preventing her from performing elsewhere during her contract.

Why is Lumley v. Wagner significant?

Answer: It established the principle that courts can enforce negative covenants in contracts using 'equitable remedies' such as injunctions.

What is a 'negative covenant'?

Answer: A negative covenant is a promise made in a contract not to do certain things, such as Wagner's agreement not to sing in rival theatres while contracted to Lumley.

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