Understanding the Shifrin Case and the “Written Variation” Rule in South African Contract Law


In South African law, contracts play a pivotal role in regulating agreements between parties. The Shifrin case is a significant legal decision that has had a profound influence on how contracts operate. It introduced a key rule that states when a contract is in writing and includes a provision that requires any changes to be in writing, any attempts to alter it through oral agreements are not permissible and will not be legally recognized.

Summary of the Shifrin Case and the “Written Variation” Rule:

The Shifrin case involves written contracts that incorporate a stipulation mandating written modifications. Here are the main points:

  • Written Contracts and Modifications: Many contracts include a provision requiring that any changes or revisions to the contract be documented in writing. This is done to avoid misunderstandings.


  • The Shifrin Case: In the Shifrin case, the parties had a written contract with a provision specifying that changes must be documented in writing. Nonetheless, one party attempted to effect changes through verbal discussions.


  • The Legal Rule: The court in the Shifrin case determined that when a contract insists on written modifications, all parties must adhere to that requirement. Therefore, any attempts to amend or annul the contract through oral discussions are ineffective and will not be legally enforced.


  • Implications: The Shifrin rule underscores the significance of written agreements and contributes to legal certainty. It restricts the capacity to casually modify a contract through verbal discussions, particularly when the contract stipulates that changes must be documented in writing. This rule fosters clarity and stability.


  • Exceptions: Although there can be exceptions, they typically necessitate compelling evidence to substantiate.



The Shifrin case and the “Written Variation” rule have had a profound influence on how contracts are employed in South African law. They emphasize the importance of written agreements and ensure adherence to the terms specified in the contracts. This serves to avert misunderstandings and bolster the reliability of contracts. While there are limited exceptions, they demand substantial evidence for validation. In simple terms, the Shifrin case ensures that written contracts are accorded serious consideration, and any modifications should conform to the written requirement as set out in the contract.

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