The common intention constructive trust and the ‘specious’ excuse

In Curran v Collins ([2015] EWCA Civ 404, CA (Eng)) Mr. Collins and Ms Curran were in a relationship from the late 1970s until 2010. During that time, Mr. Collins had owned three properties (one after another) and title to these properties was in his sole name in each case. Ms. Curran claimed that she had had an interest under a common intention constructive trust in the second house to be bought and that this gave her an interest in the third house (since the proceeds of sale of the second house were used to part-fund the acquisition of the third house).

Ms. Curran had made no direct or indirect contribution to the purchase price from which an agreement could be inferred. It seemed that there was no express agreement upon which a common intention constructive trust could be founded.

Ms. Curran pointed, however, to what she referred to as the ‘excuse’ for not putting her name on the title to the second property. Mr Collins told her that this was because if he were to do this the mortgagees would insist on a second life insurance policy; having title in his name alone meant that they would spare themselves the expense of the second policy. Ms. Curran argued that this excuse was like those given in Eves v Eves and Grant v Edwards and was actually an acknowledgement of an understanding that she had a beneficial interest in the property.

The judge at first instance rejected this. In this case, the excuse was given to avoid difficulties or confrontation. Ms. Curran argued that the meaning of the words was to be understood objectively, not subjectively; the judge should have considered the meaning that a reasonable person would have given to the excuse. This argument failed. There was nothing to suggest that the judge had misinterpreted the relevant facts and circumstances. There was no basis for thinking that the judge’s interpretation was wrong ([41], Arden LJ).

Lewison LJ distinguished this case from Eves v Eves and Grant v Edwards. First, in each of those cases, the home was being acquired as a family home. There was a pre-existing family unit (the couple were living together and had children at the time of the excuse). Second, in each case, there was a positive assertion that but for (the excuse) the claimant’s name would have been put on the title deeds. Neither of these factors was present in this case ([70] – [74]).

Lewison LJ said:

‘[I]t cannot be right that the giving of a reason why someone is not on the title deeds inevitably leads to the inference that it must have been agreed that they would have an interest in the property. If one who is not versed in the difference between legal and equitable ownership asks to be on the deeds and is told ‘no’, the more usual inference would be that they have understood that they were not to become owners or part owners of the property.’ ([69]).

In any event, there was no detrimental reliance and this remains a requirement for the existence of a common intention constructive trust ([77] – [78], Lewison LJ).

In 1992, Mr Collins told Ms Curran that he had made a will leaving the property to her. This was not the basis for finding a common intention constructive trust since, among other reasons, it was not an assurance that she had a present interest in the property and there was no promise that he would not alter his will later. ([75] – ([76]) and there remained the lack of detrimental reliance.

Michael Lower

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