The inference or imputation of equitable and proprietary rights, are two very distinct approaches within the remit of court discretion, while this family law appeal case serves the merits of those distinctions well.
When an unmarried couple chose to purchase their first family home, it was executed under joint legal title.
While this itself is not an uncommon approach to home-buying, the eventual separation that followed, fractured the robustness of their intentions, and raised questions around the true feelings of the parties at the time the mortgage began.
During their time together and the period in which they started to raise children, the couple remained unmarried for reasons best known to themselves; however, after nearly nine years of shared occupancy (albeit with disproportionate financial contributions), the decision was made by the father to separate and leave the family.
When a failure to sell their property led him to purchase one of his own, his previously meagre financial contributions to the home and family were now funding his new purchase, while the mother and children remained in occupation, as she honoured the mortgage repayments without interruption.
Thirteen years after his departure, the respondent took steps to claim his share of the equitable interest held within the home previously shared; whereupon, his former partner initiated proceedings to prevent it.
Counter claiming under section 14 of the Trusts of Land and Appointment of Trustees Act 1996, it was her opinion that she was now the sole beneficiary of their family home, and that should the respondent feel he held any beneficial interest in that property, she was subsequently entitled to an equal share percentage of his.
The issues facing the courts ultimately stemmed from a lack of communicated intention (written or otherwise) by either party when purchasing the family home, along with the Stack v Dowden precedent when deciding the true intentions of cohabiting couples that have decided to terminate their relationship before dividing the assets of the property.
In cases that meet the requirements of such an approach, the outcome is fairly predictable; however, on this occasion the home discussed did not fall under sole legal title; and so, the inclination to apply it was reserved.
In the first hearing, the judge concluded that the shares held were ninety percent for the mother and ten percent for the father, based upon his agreement to sell, and the numerous events that followed (including his leaving and full investment into a solely occupied property of his own).
When challenged, the Court of Appeal found in favour of the Stack assumption that regardless of financial difference, the intention to purchase under joint title provides that equal shares are afforded the signing parties.
When heard in the Supreme Court, the question was whether automatic imputation of equitable rights could reasonably stand, when the actions shown by the father indicated his lack of interest in a home he no longer shared and had ceased contributing towards.
After a close examination of the validity of inference, it was agreed that there were indeed sufficient grounds to approximate beneficial interest, despite appreciation of the history behind unmarried couples, and the nature of intention by virtue of individual action, while the court also reminded the parties that:
“As soon as it is clear that inferring an intention is not possible, the focus of the court’s attention should be squarely on what is fair.”