GISSING v GISSING

The imputation of beneficial rights to property based upon the conduct of the contending parties, has been a delicate issue for the courts for many years.

On this occasion, the lines of demarcation were drawn by the House of Lords, in order to prevent further abuses of equity and its associated maxims.

After marrying at a young age in 1935, the respondent in this appeal joined her husband in the purchase of their first home in 1951 for a sum of £2,695. The mortgage was held in sole title by her appellant husband, who contributed £500 by way of a loan, and £45 from his own savings; while the respondent paid £220 for a new lawn, household appliances and furniture.

During the time of their marriage, the mortgage was paid by the appellant, who also provided the respondent with regular weekly payments for housekeeping costs, while repaying the loan furnished him by his employer.

Prior to the purchase, the appellant had served time in the military, and after finding himself discharged following the war, the respondent secured him a position with a printing firm that she herself worked at.

While the respondent’s earnings remained at a stable £500 p.a, the appellant was successful in his endeavours, and soon established himself as director of the firm, with earnings  of around £3,000 p.a.

After twenty-five years of marriage and the raising of their son, the appellant committed adultery with a younger woman, before leaving the home and beginning a life with her.

This led to their divorce; during which, the appellant continued to pay the mortgage, loan and outgoings on their marital home, until the loss of his job and subsequent financial troubles.

Around this time, the respondent issued a summons declaring absolute ownership of the home, based upon the oral promise by the appellant that she could keep the house.

Under section 53(1) of the Law of Property Act 1925, any declaration of trust with regard to beneficial interest in property must be written; however, the courts can find the existence of such an agreement by equitable principles of resulting, implied and constructive trusts where sufficient evidence allows.

In order to establish this, the court would seek to infer through the conduct of the parties, reasonable proof that when engaging in the purchase of the home there had either been agreement as to how to apportionment of interest was to be divided, or the financial contributions made by each party for the duration of the marriage or occupancy.

In the first hearing, the court awarded that the appellant was, by extension of his financial payments and obvious legal title, the sole owner of the property, and allowed for repossession under law.

In the Court of Appeal, the decision was reversed by a majority, who held that the respondent was entitled to a fifty percent share of the home, while presented to the House of Lords, the recent outcome of Pettitt v Pettitt was taken under consideration, along with the principles of cestuis que trusts.

In Pettitt, the former wife pursued proprietary interest of the sole legal title held by her ex-husband under section 17 of the Married Woman’s Property Act 1882, on a home still subject to an outstanding mortgage.

Her contention was that having occupied the home for ten years, she was entitled to a beneficial interest due to her substantial contributions to both the deposit and subsequent repayments during the time of their marriage; whereupon the husband countered that his individual improvements to the house afforded him an equal share of the property. 

While on that occasion the judgment fell in favour of the wife, there was little with which to compare it to this case; and so, the equitable nature of trusts were explored through the conduct of the respondent.

Here it was held by majority, that while an oral declaration by the appellant suggested otherwise, there was absolutely no evidence that the respondent did, at any time, intend to contribute to the purchase of the home, or the upkeep of mortgage repayments, even when the appellant had suffered financial setbacks.

And so it was for those reasons, that suggestions of trusts of any kind were simply obiter dictum, and that for the purposes of natural justice, the appeal was upheld with costs, while the House reminded the parties that:

“Any claim to a beneficial interest in land by a person, whether spouse or stranger, in whom the legal estate in the land is not vested must be based upon the proposition that the person in whom the legal estate is vested holds it as trustee upon trust to give effect to the beneficial interest of the claimant as cestui que trust.”

MIDLAND BANK PLC v COOKE

When two first-time homebuyers rely upon a financial donation from family members, the equality of shared ownership can become displaced, despite individual perceptions of common intention and the partnership of marriage.

When two young newlyweds entered into a mortgage of their family home, it was not without a significant cash contribution from the groom’s parents, while this gift was bestowed upon the couple after the bride’s parents had covered the costs of the wedding, and therefore implied equal investment into their committed relationship.

At the time of conveyance, the deeds fell under sole title in favour of the groom, and no assumptions were otherwise made than it was their home, and that both parties were joint occupants and thus entitled to equal benefits.

A few years after the purchase, the nature of the mortgage altered, and was now liable under the terms of an acquiring bank, at which point the wife was asked to sign away any beneficial interest she held in favour of the new mortgagee.

Her agreement to this request was given (albeit under visible duress) so that the husband could continue to run his business, while the family (now with three children) could remain in secure occupation.

After re-mortgaging the property a number of years later, the wife took the opportunity to have her name included within the title, and thus became a legal tenant-in-common.

When the business began to fail and the mortgage fell into unrecoverable default, the bank sought to repossess; at which point, the wife challenged the order on grounds that any relinquishing of interest had not been of her volition, rather that her now estranged husband’s undue influence led her to act against her will and under marital obligation.

In the first hearing, the judge found in favour of the wife on the grounds described, before going further to explain that while her collective time and monies invested into the home during the course of their marriage could not translate into an equal half-share of the property, it did result in a six percent stake hold, arising from her half-share entitlement of the cash gifted by the groom’s parents at the point of purchase; therefore, under those circumstances, any repossession order could not stand.

When challenged by the bank and the wife in the Court of Appeal, the principle of shared equity was given greater consideration, along with the equitable maxim ‘equality is equity‘; which on this occasion, was not relied upon.

Instead, it was agreed that the wife’s actions, first dismissed as non-contributory,  were embraced as wholly acceptable despite no verbal agreements between the couple as to whether or not the home was equally divisible to begin with, while the court reminded the parties that:

“[W]here the partner without legal title has successfully asserted an equitable interest through direct contribution, to determine (in the absence of express evidence of intention) what proportions the parties must be assumed to have intended for their beneficial ownership, the duty of the judge is to undertake a survey of the whole course of dealing between the parties relevant to their ownership and occupation of the property and their sharing of its burdens and advantages.”

THORNER v MAJOR

While of a strictly familial nature, this case relies upon elements of land law and principles of equity for its proximation of fact.

After a decade-spanning relationship of trust and obligation observed by the appellant, it fell to the House of Lords to lay to rest the true meaning behind the time shared between two cousins; while the core of this dispute rests within the subjective disparity of those seeking claim to the estate of a private farmer, and the man who likely knew him better than anybody.

After growing up and working on his father’s farm, the appellant found himself extending his energies to his older cousin, after witnessing him suffering loss both through death and divorce.

Having no children of his own, the cousin had continued to toil the land left him; and in turn, looked to the appellant to help manage the considerably extensive freehold.

For one reason or another, the arrangement required no payment exchange; and so, it was that until the death of the landowner, the two men worked the farm and developed it through an intimate relationship based upon the appellant’s unique ability to understand the emotion and intentions of a man renowned for his narrow vocabulary and deep introspection.

When upon his death, the appellant followed up on his understanding that the farm had been bequeathed him, the claim of succession was contested on grounds of proprietary estoppel and the ambiguity of true intention displayed by the deceased.

There were principally two events that triggered the assumption of his entitlement, namely a gesture that indirectly disclosed the plans of the elder cousin in relation to deaths duties, and the inherent nature of their close friendship and disappearance and subsequently implied revocation of a will drawn up eight years prior to his passing.

Needless to say, over the passage of time the appellant had made numerous adjustments to his own circumstances in order that the relationship could sustain the changes discussed and alterations incorporated into the estate, while there were a number of other minor events that supported his interpretation that he would become the sole successor of his cousin’s farm.

Having had his claim dismissed in the lower courts, it became fatal to the respondents in the House of Lords that the principle of proprietary estoppel relies upon an inability to identify the land in contention, therefore the House upheld the appeal, while reminding the parties that:

“If it is reasonable for a representee to whom representations have been made to take the representations at their face value and rely on them, it would not in general be open to the representor to say that he or she had not intended the representee to rely upon them.”

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