Equitable ownership: single framework for ‘domestic consumer’ and ‘investment’ cases

Marr v Collie ([2017] UKPC 17) is an important Privy Council decision re-stating the framework for deciding when equitable ownership differs from the ownership position as revealed by the legal title. Lord Kerr, giving the judgment, stated that the same analytical framework is to be applied regardless of context. This framework applies equally to ‘domestic consumer’ and ‘investment’ or ‘commercial’ cases. Context has a role to play when inferring actual intentions.

 

The framework

When dealing with ownership disputes:

  1. determine the legal ownership of the property;
  2. the onus is then on the party claiming that the ownership position in equity varies from the legal position to establish that this is the case;
  3. where the only available relevant evidence is that the parties have made unequal financial contributions then it may be appropriate to have recourse to the presumed resulting trust;
  4. but the court may have evidence of the parties’ actual intentions so that it would be inappropriate to apply the presumption of resulting trust;
  5. in such cases, the court needs to make findings as to the parties’ actual intentions and give effect to them;
  6. in doing so, the court should examine the whole course of conduct (which would include the state of the title, the reasons for the decision to put the title in joint names if that is the case, the relationship between the parties, whether the property was intended as a family home, how the acquisition was financed and so on).

 

The facts

The case was an appeal from the Court of Appeal of the Bahamas. M was a Canadian citizen working in the Bahamas. C was a building contractor and a citizen of the Bahamas. M and C were in a personal relationship with each other from September 1991 to July 2008.

During that time M and C acquired several properties which were conveyed into their joint names. M paid the entire cost of purchasing the properties. When the relationship broke down, M claimed to be the sole beneficial owner applying the presumption of a resulting trust in his favour.

C claimed that the parties’ common intention was that they would be equal beneficial owners. According to C, the arrangement was that C would carry out renovation works at the properties. C also contended that M was the ‘breadwinner’ in the relationship and that this was relevant to the analysis.

M claimed that C had failed to carry out any renovation works. M also argued that his understanding was that C would make financial contributions to the acquisition of the properties that would equal his own but that no such contributions were made.

C had succeeded in the Court of Appeal. The court attached particular importance to an email from M to the bank that had provided a loan for the purchase of one of the properties. In this email, M told the bank that the property would be held in joint names, ‘meaning that we would have a 50% interest’. The Court of Appeal thought that this was very significant evidence as to the parties’ actual ownership intentions.

In the Privy Council, M’s case was that this email had not been mentioned at first instance nor in the Court of Appeal hearing. He argued that the Court of Appeal should therefore not have made use of the email in its analysis. In any event, the email was, M alleged, inadmissible for procedural reasons.

 

Clash of presumptions?

Lord Kerr considered whether cases like this gave rise to a ‘clash of presumptions’. On this view, the relationship between the parties might place the case in the ‘domestic consumer’ category; the result was a presumption that equity followed the law and that the parties were joint legal and beneficial owners. Or did the fact that the properties were bought as investments place the case in a ‘non-domestic’ category to which the presumption of resulting trust would apply ([53])?

Lord Kerr’s review of the authorities led him to reject this way of approaching the ownership question. He continued:

‘The Board considers that, save perhaps where there is no evidence from which the parties’ intentions can be identified, the answer is not to be provided by the triumph of one presumption over another. In this, as in so many areas of law, context counts for, if not everything, a lot. Context here is set by the parties’ common intention – or by the lack of it. If it is the unambiguous mutual wish of the parties, contributing in unequal shares to the purchase of property, that the joint beneficial ownership should reflect their joint legal ownership, then effect should be given to that wish. If, on the other hand, that is not their wish, or if they have not formed any intention as to beneficial ownership but had, for instance, accepted advice that the property be acquired in joint names, without considering or being aware of the possible consequences of that, the resulting trust solution may provide the answer.’ ([54]).

 

Further fact-finding necessary

The courts below had not considered the relevant facts in sufficient detail. For example, the significance of M’s email to the bank should have been considered at first instance. M should have been given adequate opportunity to make submissions with regard to it.

The Court of Appeal had not addressed the first instance finding that M’s evidence was to be preferred over C’s; this included his evidence as to ownership intentions and the expectation that C would make financial contributions that C had failed to make. The case had to be remitted for hearing before the Supreme Court of the Bahamas.

The court should also consider whether account should be taken of the contributions made by the parties to the costs of acquisition ‘in line with the decision in Muschinski‘ ([60]). This envisages that it might be appropriate (depending presumably on inferred intentions) to use the proceeds of sale of the property to repay the contributions made and then divide the balance between the parties in accordance with their common intention as to ownership ([39]).

Michael Lower

 

 

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