Strong v Bird (1874)

English Equity & Trusts

Strong v Bird
‘Debtor Night’ by Seminary Road

While English common law requires the perfecting of a gift through written documentation, the circumstances of that prerequisite can be somewhat altered when the moment calls. On this occasion, a testatrix was ultimately able to complete an oral debt release through the appointment of her debtor as an executor.

In 1866 the deceased was cohabiting with her son in-law when due to her sizeable wealth, she entered into an agreement whereby a significant amount of rent was paid on a quarterly basis, after which the defendant borrowed £1100, on the proviso that she deducted £100 per quarter until the balance owed was clear.

After only two payments, the deceased relinquished the debt, and explained that no further deductions were necessary. This evidence was supported both by his wife and from handwritten notes left on the cheque counterfoils used before her demise.

Upon her passing, the beneficiary to her will contested that the £900 unpaid, was now owed under law, as the cessation of the loan had not been committed to any form of written notice aside from the cheque stubs, which were deemed insubstantial as proof.

Relying upon the essence of equity, the court examined the context in which her wishes had been executed, and knowing the oral and notary testimony were insufficient to stand as perfect, her appointment of the defendant as executor to her will, was evidence enough, and that while:

“The law requires nothing more than this, that in a case where the thing which is the subject of donation is transferable or releasable at law, the legal transfer or release shall take place. The gift is not perfect until what has been generally called a change of the property at law has taken place.”

Thus the court held that the deceased, having made no express acknowledgement of a debt within her will, was proof enough that the gift was perfect, and that its absence created in the defendant, an absolute right to title of the £900, therefore no challenge could be made, equitably or otherwise. The court further noted that her further payments of full rent for a period of four years after the money had been loaned, showed again that she considered the sum paid in full, and so sought no recovery in death, as she might in life.

Hasham v Zenab (1960)

English Equity & Trusts

Hasham v Zenab
‘Palace Gate, Udaiper’ by Colin Campbell Cooper

Specific performance and cessation of contract on grounds of mistake, are both viable arguments for either continuation of contractual obligations, or the cessation of a transaction for reasons non-detrimental to both contractees. However, both approaches rely upon the honesty and accountability of at least one party should the courts take a view to upholding either of them.

In this instance, a Gujarati widower entered into an agreement to convey a determinate plot of land for an agreed sum, yet immediately after signing the disposition, she tore up the document and refused to continue with the transaction on grounds that she had been misled as to (i) the size of the plot, and (ii) the identity of the individual to whom the purchaser was planning to sell it to.

During initial litigation in the Supreme Court of Kenya, her argument for the fraudulent misrepresentation was based upon her limited grasp of the English language, and so she had elected a representative to be present with her at the time of signing. However, it was also argued that no mention had been given of the size of the plot, which in the first instance was alleged to be half an acre, and not the two acres contained within the conveyance, a fact discovered only after the signing.

When cross-examined, the respondent was proven to have falsified the statement, and thus her witness was accused of perjury, whereas contrastingly, the appellant contested that during preliminary talks, the proposed plot was described as two acres, and not the half-acre suggested.

The contract itself was signed in the presence of a third party, however the respondent also relied upon the contention that at no point during an earlier meeting did anybody translate the contents of the contract, despite the appellant claiming that not only did he explain it, but that the respondent’s cousin had also clarified its contents to her.

It was likewise argued by the appellant that the respondent tore up the contract, not because of the plot variation, but upon the knowledge that the land was to be resold to an individual she disliked, however this was also proven to be untrue after lengthy cross-examination and questioning of oral evidence.

Upon summation, the trial judge awarded in favour of the appellant, despite reservations around the integrity of both parties, and so when presented to the Court of Appeal of East Africa, the Court took issue with the reliability of the appellant’s statements and proceeded to reexamine the facts, before reaching the same conclusion as the lower court.

Take finally to the House of Lords, it was noted that vol. 2 of ‘Williams on Vendor and Purchaser’ clearly illustrated that:

“[A]s a rule, either party to a contract to sell land is entitled to sue in equity for specific performance of the agreement. This right is, in general, founded on a breach of the contract, but not in the same manner as the right to sue at law. The court has no jurisdiction to award damages at law except in case of a breach of the contract; while the equitable jurisdiction to order an agreement to be specifically performed is not limited to the cases in which at law damages could be recoverable.”

Which translated that when contracting parties hold a good account of themselves throughout their dealings, equity would provide sufficient weight as to instigate specific performance; yet on this occasion, neither party had been anywhere near as truthful as a court would rightfully expect, and so on this principle it was impossible to uphold the appeal, nor enforce the equitable rights of the appellant, or those forwarded by the respondent, thus the appeal was dismissed while the House held that:

“In equity all that is required is to show circumstances which will justify the intervention by a court of equity.”

Healey v Brown (2002)

Succession Law

Healey v Brown
‘The Pact’ by François Bard

As can often result from mutual wills, the overlapping fields of contract law and equity become central to the resolution of this property dispute, after a claimant intervenes in the immoral acquisition of sole title to the matrimonial home of a son’s parents.

The drafting of mutual individual wills reflected that upon death, the surviving spouse became under law, the sole beneficiary of that person’s equitable and legal interest in the property occupied at the time of death. Where neither party were survivable, the individual wills stated that the wife’s niece was to become the beneficiary of the equally held share of the leasehold, and that the father’s son would inherit the remainder of the estate.

Following the death of the wife, the husband took the liberty of transferring his now sole title to that of a shared (or joint) title to the property with his son; an act that in and of itself, contravened the earlier agreement within their final (and irrevocable by declaration) wills. This transgression had remained unaddressed until the death of the father, preceding a naturally vehement claim by the niece that the transfer of title constituted fraud, and that under those circumstances, the son now held both parents’ share of the property upon trust for her, and that despite any contractual arrangements made between the father and son, the binding nature of the mutual wills superseded any administrative effects constructed under the laws of property.

Despite drawing argument against mutual testation under the property doctrine of survivorship, it remained evident that the father was acting within a fiduciary capacity when surviving his wife’s death, and so by avoiding the duties prescribed him, he breached that obligation in favour of his son’s expectation to benefit.

Again, as with the rules of equity and proscription of contract law, there appeared to be a lack of clarity surrounding the written intentions of the testator and testatrix, while the basis for this opposition relied upon s.2 of the Law Reform (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1989, where the disposition of land requires a single co-signed document containing the terms of the arrangement (or at the very least an exchange of those documents) as proof of intention; yet as the mutual wills were never signed by their respective partners, any desire to enforce their bequests became invalid under the Act itself. This essentially meant that:

“No disposition of land can be challenged unless done so with a written and signed document contrary to the one drafted by the person charged.”

Sadly, the nature of the wills were such that neither party co-signed the others wills prior to their deaths, which thereby prevented a contract of sorts to exist, so on this occasion the judges decided that instead of the property now becoming the sole title to the claimant, as was the design of the mutually drafted wills, the home was now held in equal shares for both parties to enjoy, albeit through the framework of a constructive trust.