Post-acquisition constructive trust: evidential burden where there is reliance on an express statement. Detriment: where the plaintiff’s benefit outweigh any detriment

In Kwan So Ling v Woo Kee Yiu Harry ([2015] HKEC 694, CFI) the plaintiff (a widow) claimed that her parents-in-law had promised to give her and her husband two flats that they owned in Hong Kong. The plaintiff followed her husband to Hong Kong from the mainland. The parents-in-law transferred the title to one of the flats to the plaintiff and her husband. The plaintiff and her husband were allowed to make full use of the other flat (‘the second flat’) for several decades. Sometimes they lived in the second flat and sometimes they rented it out. The plaintiff’s husband and father-in-law died. The mother-in-law, shortly before her own death, transferred the title to the second flat to one of the plaintiff’s nephews. The nephew claimed that the plaintiff was a mere licensee of the second flat and he revoked this licence. The plaintiff claimed that she was the sole beneficial owner of the flat under the terms of a common intention constructive trust. Alternatively, she sought relief on the basis of proprietary estoppel.

The plaintiff’s claims failed for the simple reason that Godfrey Lam J found that there was no common intention / assurance. Nevertheless, he commented on the assertion that a more compelling standard of proof was needed since this would be a post-acquisition constructive trust. He suggested that this idea had no application where the trust was based on an express promise ([24]).

Godfrey Lam J also considered whether there was detriment. The plaintiff and her husband spent several hundred dollars to create internal partitions within the second flat in the 1970s. While this could potentially be detriment, it was not in this case since the income and other benefits that the plaintiff and her husband derived from the second flat far outweighed the expenditure ([53]). The same consideration was also relevant at the level of calculating any relief (53)).

The fact that the plaintiff made significant changes to her life by moving to Hong Kong was potential detriment. There was no causal linkage between this and any possible assurance by the parents-in-law. She moved to Hong Kong because of her love for her husband (54)).

Michael Lower

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