Petelin v Cullen (1975) 132 CLR 355

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  • Petelin had extremely poor English skills and could not read.
  • Petelin owned land in Liverpool.
  • He granted Cullen an option to purchase land from him.
  • After the timeframe had expired, Cullen sent a letter asking for an extension with $50 enclosed.
  • Petelin thought that the letter was a receipt.  Petelin signed it because Cullen’s agent told him he had to.
  • Petelin then refused to sell the land to Cullin.


  • Petelin had a plea of non est factum (it is not my deed) which gets him out of the contract.
  • This is only available to a certain class of people; Petelin falls into that class because of his limited grip on English.
  • Petelin had no idea that he was signing away his land and thought that the letter was something totally different.
  • He was induced by the agent who knew he did not competently understand English and did not try to explain it to him.
  • Even if Cullen was unaware of the agent’s conduct, it was his responsibility.
  • The High Court did not believe that Petelin had been careless. He had every reason to believe the agent and to investigate it himself would have been longwinded and too difficult for him.


“The class of persons who can avail themselves of the defence is limited. It is available to those who are unable to read owing to blindness or illiteracy and who must rely on others for advice as to what they are signing; it is also available to those who through no fault of their own are unable to have any understanding of the purport of a particular document. To make out the defence a defendant must show that he signed the document in the belief that it was radically different from what it was in fact and that, at least as against innocent persons, his failure to read and understand it was not due to carelessness on his part. Finally, it is accepted that there is a heavy onus on a defendant who seeks to establish the defence.”

(High Court majority at pages 359-360)

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