Midland Bank Plc v Cooke (1995)

English Property Law

Midland Bank Plc v Cooke
Image: ‘Pillars of Deceit’ by Michael Lang

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. 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; and 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.

Thorner v Major (2009)

English Family Law

Thorner v Major
‘Farm’ by Denis Pannett

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 falls to the House of Lords to lay to rest the true meaning behind the time shared between two cousins.

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 knew him probably 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 further, 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 (i) a gesture that indirectly disclosed the plans of the elder cousin in relation to deaths duties, and (ii) the inherent nature of their close friendship, and the disappearance and subsequent implied revocation of a will drawn up eight years prior to his passing.

Needless to say, the appellant had over the passage of time, made numerous adjustments to his own circumstances, in order that the relationship could sustain the changes discussed and alterations incorporated into the estate; and there were a number of other minor events that further supported his interpretation that he would be the sole successor of his cousin’s farm. Unfortunately for the respondents, the principle of proprietary estoppel relies upon the inability to identify the land discussed, therefore the challenge brought against the appellant was fundamentally flawed, while it was more importantly noted by one of the presiding judges that by all accounts, a constructive trust had by definition, been created through the dealings and partnering of the two individuals during the lifetime of their relationship.