13

Obviously in Colleen Stan’s actual case there are several other problems: fraud/brainwashing/deception, possibly a lack of consideration, to name a couple.

But is there anything wrong in principle with freely consenting adults contracting for one to become a slave to the other for life?

Relevant elements of the arrangement for the purposes of this question (non-exclusive) may include the general lack of dignity and lack of free will, including lack of entitlement to object to inhumane conditions and treatment, inability to freely leave, the eternal/lifelong term of the agreement, lack of meaningful compensation for the labour performed beyond scraps of food needed for survival, etc etc etc.

What would be the barriers to creating such a contract and its having the force of law?

7
  • 3
    I don't think the example applies. Colleen Stan did not voluntarily sign the contract, she was threatened with violence from a supposed powerful criminal organization. There's no evidence that she ever believed the contract had legal force or was worried about being sued for breach of terms. Oct 11 at 14:23
  • 3
    Also, you should edit to clarify if you're asking about just signing (usually legal, but may be conspiracy to commit a crime) or actually trying to go through with the contract or trying to sue someone for failing to go through it. Oct 11 at 14:27
  • Well the question I think clearly to most was about whether it could ever be legally binding as a contract. But you make some good points in your earlier comment. Oct 11 at 14:42
  • 2
    Oh I don't think the question is bad or anything. It's just conflating a few different things, so it would be better to pick one. That way, you or someone else could ask separate questions about the other aspects. When you have multiple questions in one post, it makes it harder for people to post a clear answer, as everyone tends to "take" the question in a different way. Oct 11 at 15:13
  • The drawback to signing this contract (for the at-the-time voluntary slave) are obvious, i.e. the inability to backtrack on that decision. What would be the benefits of signing it? What would be gained that could not be gained from just indefinitely agreeing to do something that is being asked without the need to put it in contract form (thereby also keeping the option to reconsider open at all times)? Because if there's no benefit attached to it for one of the parties, it raises the question whether this contract is really a mutually agreed upon decision or if there are ulterior forces.
    – Flater
    Oct 12 at 2:16

6 Answers 6

27

Is it legal to sign a “contract” like that of Colleen Stan to voluntarily bond oneself into slavery?

No.

In the United States, this is prohibited by the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution (which also prohibits indentured servitude that unlike slavery was historically often entered into voluntarily in the colonial era in North America).

The 13th Amendment contains an exception for punishment for a crime (which a few states have foreclosed in their own state constitutions). But that isn't applicable in the context of the question, and no U.S. jurisdiction currently authorizes that punishment for any crime, although some involuntary servitude (i.e. "chain gangs") are permitted in some U.S. states for incarcerated prisoners, including people detained in the military justice system where a term for a limited number of years of involuntary "hard labor" is a common punishment for many serious offenses.

In addition to being a crime, any such contract would void ab initio as contrary to public policy and would have no legal effect.

Other Countries

Every country in the world other than the U.S., except not widely internationally recognized ISIS-controlled enclaves, also expressly bans slavery by statute, treaty, or a constitutional provision (some only recently), at least de jure, although de facto slavery persists illegally in a few places.

Similar Circumstances That Aren't Slavery

Military or Paramilitary Service

The closest thing in the U.S. to a legally recognized, voluntary, commitment to involuntary servitude is an enlistment for a fixed term of years in military service (or a handful of comparable civilian but paramilitary service arrangements such as certain positions with the Center for Disease Control). These are the only occupations which you cannot quit at-will subject to only economic sanctions, and for which you can be ordered to undertake tasks that may put you at grave risk of being killed in circumstances that make this necessary arise.

But, the law does not consider military service to be a form of involuntary servitude for 13th Amendment purposes, and military service commitments are never for more than a term of years (typically five years at a time or less).

Also, unlike slavery, military service is not unpaid and leaves the person in military service with some liberties (e.g. the right to marry and the right to practice a religion of your choice), even though other rights of people in military service are limited. Military service also binds you to an organization that is part of a country, not to the service of a single, predetermined individual.

A Guilty Plea To A Serious Crime

One can also voluntarily plead guilty to a crime with a life sentence or a long period of incarceration in excess of one's life expectancy if a prosecutor has charged you with a crime.

Voluntary Commitment To An Institution

One can be voluntarily be committed to a mental institution if the mental institution determines that you are suffering from certain kinds of serious mental impairments or substance abuse.

Adult Guardianship And Conservatorship

One can voluntarily consent to an adult guardianship and/or conservatorship which entails an immense deprivation of liberty and loss of control of your money, but which is only legal for a court to impose if it believes you are incapacitated to a requisite extent or suffer from a serious drug or alcohol addiction.

This kind of relationship, unlike slavery, places the guardian or conservator with a fiduciary duty to act in your best interests, rather than the interests of the guardian or conservator. But if this fiduciary abuses that power, it can be hard for the protected person to obtain relief for the fiduciary's misconduct as a practical matter. There are recent high profile examples of these arrangements being abused.

Marriage

The only jurisdictions in the world that completely prohibit divorce are the Philippines (for non-Muslims) and Vatican City. Vatican City has very few residents and almost no married residents anyway. The Philippines does recognize the concept of a "legal separation", however, and recognizes divorce for Muslims (and possibly for certain indigenous peoples of this country).

Marriage, obviously, isn't slavery, but has historically greatly limited the rights of married women. These days, only the rights of marriage and sexual freedom are likely to be limited in some jurisdictions by marriage, although legal economic rights are modified by marriage.

18
  • 8
    paying off debts @Seekinganswers
    – jwenting
    Oct 10 at 14:57
  • 8
    @Seekinganswers "Indentured servitude was popular in the United States in the 1600s as many individuals worked in exchange for the price of passage to America." from investopedia.com/terms/i/indentured-servitude.asp
    – stannius
    Oct 10 at 15:28
  • 1
    @Seekinganswers Even in the 1800s, many people making the emigration to the US pretty much broke the bank of whole families just to pay for one passage (and some families even went into debt), with the plan that the person in America would be paid well enough to afford other passages - and often enough spectacularly fail.
    – Trish
    Oct 10 at 20:30
  • 2
    @phoog Specifically, the doctrine you are referring to is coveture. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coverture
    – ohwilleke
    Oct 11 at 21:26
  • 2
    +1 for mentioning conservatorship, which comes really, really close to what OP is asking about. Oct 12 at 19:41
17

ohwilleke's answer explains why slavery is illegal but it's also important to understand that, at least in English Common Law-based legal systems, illegal contracts (i.e., a performance of the contract that requires illegal actions) are inherently unenforceable (with some very specific caveats as noted in the paper linked to at the end). You can write up and sign a contract like this, but no court would enforce it and anyone attempting to enforce a slavery contract would be putting themselves in legal jeopardy. Here's a good quote that I think succinctly addresses this scenario:

The test... whether a demand connected with an illegal transaction is capable of being enforced at law, is whether the plaintiff requires the aid of the illegal transaction to establish his case. If the plaintiff cannot open his case without showing that he has broken the law, the court will not assist him, whatever his claim in justice may be upon the defendant.

Or more generally:

[E]very contract made for or about any matter or thing which is prohibited and made unlawful by any statute, is a void contract, tho' the statute itself doth not mention that it shall be so, but only inflicts a penalty implies a prohibition, tho' there are no prohibitory words in the statute.

The Enforceability of Illegal Contracts

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  • Would it be better to write "illegal contracts are inherently unenforceable" as "contracts to do something illegal are inherently unenforceable". It's why statutory rape exists.
    – RonJohn
    Oct 11 at 19:13
  • 2
    @RonJohn Not totally sure that your last sentence is relevant to contract law, but I added some clarification. Does that help?
    – JimmyJames
    Oct 11 at 20:20
  • 1
    @RonJohn No, a contract can be illegal even if the contract is to do something legal. For instance, California bans contracts saying "if I quit this company, I won't work for a competitor for 3 years." But it's perfectly legal for an employee to in fact decide not to work for a competitor, they just can't be bound to that by contract.
    – cpast
    Oct 12 at 11:25
  • @JimmyJames 13 year olds can make decisions (oral contracts). We’ve statutorily stated that some of those “oral contracts” can’t be made.
    – RonJohn
    Oct 12 at 12:54
  • 1
    @RonJohn I kind of see where you are coming from but I don't think personal intimate relationships fall under contract law, at least not in the US or similar systems. Someone can verbally say they will be intimate with another person, but no court will force them to follow through on that, or some other remedy regardless of the age of the person who said it.
    – JimmyJames
    Oct 12 at 16:07
8

Contractual obligations are generally not enforced by ordering specific performance. This is especially true when it would require personal labour or servitude. The terms you describe would also be contrary to public policy so would be void at common law.

1
  • Comments have been moved to chat; please do not continue the discussion here. Before posting a comment below this one, please review the purposes of comments. Comments that do not request clarification or suggest improvements usually belong as an answer, on Law Meta, or in Law Chat. Comments continuing discussion may be removed.
    – feetwet
    Oct 11 at 14:07
6

Contractual Law

In Germany, a contract by which a person agrees to be a slave is clearly sittenwidrig and therefore void per § 138 BGB, Abs. 1. Online translations offer unconscionable contract or agreement contra bonos mores; contrary to public policy is the best equivalent legal term from common law. Even though the German term is Sitte (= custom) and its Latin translation is mores, this is not primarily a specific moral judgement but rather a violation of the general fundamental values of the society - which is also included in the term Sitte.

When evaluating the applicability of §138 BGB, the Fundamental Rights of the German Basic Law become indirectly effective because they are the legal codification of these fundamental values.

Constitutional Law

Besides its indirect relevance for § 138 BGB, the German constitution — the Basic Law — is also directly applicable and binding law (this is an an important difference to the American constitution). The core of what is worthy of protection in a human is stated in the famous Art. 1 GG:

The dignity of man is inviolable.

This is the very first sentence in the Basic Law, for a reason. It is the principle from which everything else follows, the legal "Let there be Light" of our legal order (and for good reason).

Not only is the dignity "inviolable"; Art 1 Par. 2 states that the human rights are "inalienable" (unveräußerlich).1 One cannot forfeit them, which essentially ends the discussion right here. The remainder of this post is context, clarification and discussion.

Some might argue that the freedom to enter contracts at will is also an expression of human dignity; after all, freedom of contracts allows people to live the lives they want and has its eventual base in the same ideal of a free person which the Fundamental Rights secure. But the freedom of contracts is often limited for much lesser reasons — like consumer protection —, and certainly, when weighing the indignity of being a slave versus the indignity of being denied this freedom of contract, slavery is the overriding consideration.

International Law

There are a number of international conventions Germany ratified which forbid slavery. Their ratification has made them binding law in Germany as well (and likely in other signatory nations).

Additionally, the German Constitutional Court has repeatedly affirmed that the Basic Law is designed to be part of an international standard of rights, and that international standards and conventions inform the interpretation of and jurisdiction regarding the Basic Law, even though the conventions themselves only have the status of simple laws. For a discussion in German, see this decision, numbers 57, 60, 61 (which mentions the prohibition of slavery). Finally, no. 69 confirms that the European Convention on Human Rights as well as the "constitutional traditions of the member states" inform the interpretation of the fundamental rights in the German Basic Law, which indirectly elevates their principles above simple law and is a mechanism for the evolution of the Basic Law.

Natural Law

Lastly one could argue that — even without any formal codification! — natural law would already forbid slavery.

There are certain problems with non-codified laws though: They change, are not universally agreed upon (or this question would not have been asked), and are hard to enforce. For example, today's consensus in the Western world that the enslavement of persons is for first reasons impermissible even when they are of African descent gained traction only during the 19th century. Even today not everybody agrees on it, and its enforcement needed a certain, shall we say, assertiveness.


1 While unveräußerlich in a commercial context simply means "not for sale", in this context inalienable is the proper translation. It means that something cannot be forfeited or transferred in any way.

12
  • sittenwidrig best translates to contra public policy, and falls under void ab initio. However, unveräußerlich is not inalienable - it is just "unsellable" - inalienable means you can not take it away, and technically, art 2 allows to alienate the right to life due to law, as long as that law is not violating the ban on the death sentence or art. 1
    – Trish
    Oct 11 at 11:23
  • @Trish Thanks. Our edits collided, I have added your suggestion. Oct 11 at 11:26
  • happens - there's a tiny error due to the classic translation of Art 1(2): unverletzlichen und unveräußerlichen Menschenrechten is better translated as '[We] acknowledge inviolable and inalienable human rights as the basis of every community' - which then are then restricted in the following articles in that only human dignity can not be restricted in any way. unveräußerlich and inalienable are... somewhat false friends in this context.
    – Trish
    Oct 11 at 11:29
  • 1
    @Trish Reading a bit in one of the first google hits (I know, it's pitifully insufficient, but still), enzyklopaedie-rechtsphilosophie.net/inhaltsverzeichnis/…: The author defines unveräußerlich as "cannot be forfeited or transferred". I think a translation as "unsellable" is too narrow. But admittedly, it is a word which appears essentially nowhere except here, and the non-negated veräußern is indeed a synonym for "sell". Still, in context I'd side with the scholar here. Oct 11 at 11:41
  • 1
    The German labor law would probably also be a consideration here. And indentured servitude contract would probably violate legally guaranteed minimum wage, maximum work-hours and termination clauses.
    – Philipp
    Oct 12 at 8:40
3

I'm not a lawyer, but I'll give you an answer to the best of my knowledge under French law.

For the title of your question, as far as I know, it's not illegal to sign such a contract. Meaning you should have nothing to fear from justice to have signed such a contract (as the "slave").

Would the contract be enforceable? Certainly not. Contracts must abide the law, which prohibits slavery, and possibly other stipulations of that contract.

So not only one or more clauses if not the whole contract wouldn't be enforceable, but trying to enforce it would draw unwanted attention to the person trying to enforce it, and likely not end well for them.

-5

For broadly the same reason that in civilised jurisdictions, no contract can authorize anyone to mutilate someone else by, for instance, lopping off body parts, no contract for slavery could ever be valid.

That doesn't prevent you from entering into contracts for various kinds of domestic or personal servitude but you will be relying on the wording, which will need an expensive lawyer.

4
  • This answer could be improved by citing the actual legal norms which state that "no contract for slavery could ever be valid".
    – Philipp
    Oct 12 at 8:45
  • That would assume we were talking about territories where jurists did not realise slavery had been banned… just as it would assume there were jurists who did not realise sadists may not use contracts with masochists as any excuse for mutilation. Some things do need law school; others need no more than a little thought. If it helps, start from the fact that both EU and UK law say unfair contract terms are not binding… (google.com/…) Oct 12 at 18:03
  • 1
    This website is called law stack exchange. If you want an answer to be well-received by this community, then that answer must be based on the law, and not just on "a little thought" or "google it yourself".
    – Philipp
    Oct 13 at 7:03
  • Thanks Philipp and if you want restrictions like that in cases like this, I'd much rather leave my Answer swinging in the wind. With all due respect, can you Post back after finding one jurist who doesn't accept both that slavery has been banned almost everywhere, and also that that necessarily means no contract for slavery could ever be valid? Almost separately, how was it fair of you to suggest I said anything like 'Google it yourself' when in fact, I provided first a brief extract and then a clear link? Oct 13 at 21:54

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