I must have heard people say a hundred times: "Now we've agreed the contract, we can put it in a drawer and forget about it." I try not to take it personally but I think that this is a misunderstanding of the point of a contract.

A contract doesn't belong in a drawer. It's there to be used and if it's not, you've wasted your time.

The other common gripe about contracts (inevitably when something has gone wrong) is that a particular agreement doesn't reflect what the parties agreed or how they imagined they would have to deal with a particular set of circumstances.

But courts have consistently taken the view in this country that when the parties to a contract fall out, the meaning of the words of the contract itself are far more important than what the parties thought they meant or, indeed, more important than merely establishing 'justice' between the parties.

Judges take the approach that their role is to determine what the contract would convey to a reasonable person having all the appropriate background knowledge. The primary material available to the court is, of course, the contract itself. Any other facts or emails about negotiations may help to reach a decision on what the parties intended the contract to mean, but only really when that position is unclear from the document itself.

Difficult issues may arise if a contract is genuinely ambiguous on a particular point, and most judges will try to come up with a sensible commercial interpretation. But that doesn't mean that they will set aside the meaning of the contract simply in order to restore balance and justice between the parties.

Where contracts are negotiated (as opposed to where they are imposed as standard terms), most organisations will take time to try to make certain the contract reflects the terms of the deal between them. Most often where problems occur it's due to changes in circumstances outside the parties' control which may or may not be dealt with by the terms of the contract itself.

The hardest situation to deal with is where one party simply ignores the contract and feels as if it has some kind of right to be restored to its original position or intended level of profitability.

Generally, a contract is there for the parties to use as a guide to a successful relationship. Where that happens most successfully, it tends to nudge parties on to the right track on a day-to-day basis. Where most of the disputes occur is where a contract is ignored until a big dispute arises and then the parties seek to use it as a big stick to beat each other up with.