Archive for the ‘common intention constructive trust’ Category

Informal land contracts: overlapping equitable doctrines

March 3, 2021

Introduction

The judgment in Ng Yuk Pui Kelly v Dung Wai Man [2019] HKCFI 210, shows that part performance, common intention constructive trust and proprietary estoppel are each available to plaintiffs seeking to enforce oral land contracts. The court also decided that a belief that one is in possession as owner by virtue of a valid contract (even when this belief is correct), is no bar to a successful adverse possession defence / claim.

Facts

Kelly (P) and Kuen were brothers. Kuen provided the finance to acquire two flats but legal title was assigned to his wife (D). D held the flats on resulting trust for Kuen.

In 1985, Kuen was in financial difficulty and orally agreed to sell the flats to P for HK$1 million (‘the 1985 agreement’). P paid the HK$ 1 million to Kuen but agreed not to press D to assign the legal title to P.

Kuen died and D and her children denied that P was the beneficial owner pursuant to the 1985 agreement.

P relied on part performance, common intention constructive trust and proprietary estoppel. Alternatively P argued that his adverse possession since 1985 meant that D’s title was extinguished.

P was successful under each heading except for part performance (where the problem may have been technical rather than substantive).

Part performance

P argued that payment of the HK$ 1 million to Kuen was an act of part performance of the 1985 agreement. P’s claim failed because he had not shown that payment of the money was referable to the agreement ([460]).

Common intention constructive trust

This succeeded. The 1985 agreement provided the common intention and the payment of the HK$1 million was the detrimental reliance ([466]).

D’s attempt to rely on Luo Xing Juan (to argue that the fact that D was not a party to the common intention was fatal to P’s claim) failed. Kuen did own the beneficial interest and the common intention can refer to a beneficial interest ([468]).

D’s attempt to rely on CPO s. 3(1) also failed. Cobbe v Yeoman’s Row was distinguished on the basis that in that case there was no valid agreement while in this case there was ([469]).

Proprietary estoppel

P could also succeed in proprietary estoppel. The lack of written formality for the disposal of an equitable interest in land (CPO s. 5(1)) was not a problem ‘where constructive trust and proprietary estoppel overlap’ ([471]).

The 1985 agreement was the assurance and payment of the HK$ 1 million was the detrimental reliance ([473]).

Adverse possession

As mentioned above, the alternative adverse possession claim also succeeded ([488]).

Michael Lower

Cheung Lai Mui v Cheung Wai Shing (Hong Kong Court of Appeal)

October 26, 2020

Introduction

Cheung Lai Mui v Cheung Wai Shing ([2020] 2 HKLRD 15) concerned a claim based on common intention constructive trust and proprietary estoppel. Where the landowner (the maker of the relevant assurance) has died, does detrimental reliance need to take place before the death? What kind of knowledge of the detrimental reliance must the maker of an assurance have for a proprietary estoppel claim to succeed.

Facts

Three brothers (W, K and F) were tenants in common in equal shares of land in a village near Sai Kung. From the late 1970s onwards, they reached a common understanding (‘the common understanding’) that D3 (W’s grandson and the sole surviving male descendant of the Cheung family) would own the land when he became an adult.

P was K’s daughter. When he died, she became the executrix of his estate. F died intestate and letters of administration of his estate were granted to P. She thus became the legal owner of K and F’s shares and the beneficial owner of K’s share and beneficial co-owner of F’s share.

W was the last of the brothers to die (he passed away in 1999). His share in the tenancy in common passed to his son and daughter (D1 and D2). D3 was D1’s son.

In 2002, D3 built a one-storey structure on the land and in 2003 he created a second one-storey structure to which he added a second storey. D3 and his family began to live in these buildings in 2002 or 2003.

P lived near D3’s home and visited it on various occasions. She knew that D3 carried out work on the land and raised no objections.

Relations between P and D3 started to deteriorate in 2012. P sought an order for D3 to remove the structures he had built. D3 claimed to be the sole beneficial owner of the land relying on common intention constructive trust and proprietary estoppel.

D3’s claim was based (a) on the common understanding, and (b) on P’s acquiescence in the works that D3 carried out on the land.

The common understanding: timing of the detrimental reliance

P argued that D3’s claims based on common intention constructive trust and proprietary estoppel had to fail because D3’s detrimental reliance (the building works) was incurred after the death of the brothers.

The Court of Appeal agreed that this would be fatal to a common intention constructive trust claim. The case was remitted to the first instance judge for him to determine whether there was any detrimental reliance while the brothers were still alive.

There appears to have been a difference of opinion as to whether detrimental reliance also needed to have been incurred before death for the proprietary estoppel claim to succeed.

Lam VP ([1.6] and Cheung JA ([6.35 and 6.38]) agreed that for common intention constructive trust purposes the detrimental reliance needed to take place before death.

If it had then the brothers’ estates were subject to the equity that had arisen. If not then the property would pass according to their wills or under the intestacy rules, unencumbered by any equity ([1.20] and [6.36]).

Lam VP thought that, in this respect, the law of proprietary estoppel might be different from that of the common intention constructive trust ([1.28]) and that D3’s proprietary estoppel claim based on the common understanding succeeded ([1.35]).

The assurance was that D3 would become the owner of the land when he became an adult. It was not a promise that he would inherit the property on the death of the brothers.

Cheung JA, on the other hand, thought that the requirement for detrimental reliance before the death of the brothers was the same both for proprietary estoppel and the common intention constructive trust ([6.38]).

Could D3 succeed even if there were no detrimental reliance before the death of the brothers? Estoppel by silence.

Cheung JA thought that D3 might still succeed in proprietary estoppel even if D3 only incurred detrimental reliance after the death of the brothers.

It might be possible to argue that she was a party to the common understanding ([6.39]).

Alternatively, there might be an estoppel by acquiescence or standing by ([6.40]). Cheung JA referred to the outline of the relevant law in Mo Ying ([5.6]). P stood by and allowed D3 to carry out the building works in (possibly mistaken) reliance on the common understanding. The case was being remitted to the Court of First Instance and this aspect of the matter would also need to be re-appraised.

Does the maker of the assurance need to know about the detrimental reliance?

It is not normally necessary for the maker of the assurance (the brothers) to know about the detrimental reliance ( Lam VP at [1.34]). Cheung JA addresses this issue at some length in his judgment.

Cheung JA tied his discussion of a knowledge requirement into the ‘narrow’ concept of unconscionability which is concerned with the state of mind of the person giving the assurance ([6.46]). The emphasis is on the quality of the words used not on knowledge of any actual detrimental reliance (Thorner v Major Lord Hoffmann at [5]).

In active encouragement cases (express words of encouragement or assurance) there is not usually any need for the maker of the assurance to have actual knowledge that there was detrimental reliance or the form it took. This knowledge is necessary in the case of estoppel by silence or acquiescence ([6.59] – [6.60]).

Comparison of the common intention constructive trust and proprietary estoppel

Lam V-P thought that the outcome was different in the case of proprietary estoppel when compared with common intention constructive trust. It is not surprising, then, that he draws attention to their differences ([1.4]).

Equitable estoppel ‘is the more flexible tool’ and the court looks backwards from the time when the promise falls to be performed([1.10] referring to Lord Hoffmann’s words in Walton v Walton at [105]).

Michael Lower

The family home. Types of constructive trust. The end of detrimental reliance?

August 22, 2020

Archibald v Alexander: the facts

In Archibald v Alexander ([2020] EWHC 1621) a mother and her three children (Patsy, Brenda and John) orally agreed that a house would be purchased in the name of the mother and one of the siblings. It was to be held on trust for the mother for life and then for the three children equally.

This was for tax-planning reasons and to protect the property from any claim by the mother’s husband should she re-marry. The assumption was that there was no need to take excessive care to formalise the trust given the loving family context.

The property was transferred to the mother and Patsy as joint tenants, neither Brenda nor John was available to attend the solicitor’s office at the time of the purchase.

When the mother died, there was a dispute as to whether Patsy was the sole owner of the property or held it on the terms of the oral trust.

Was there reliance?

If this was a common intention constructive trust, then Brenda and John needed to show detrimental reliance. Fancourt J. held that there was reliance: ‘the non-signing siblings were self-evidently relying on the word and promise of those who did become owners’ ([14]).

Was there detriment?

Given the finding of reliance, the detriment was the decision of Brenda and John not to take steps to legally protect their ownership interest in the house; this was a sufficient change of position ([30]).

Not a common intention constructive trust?

The findings on detrimental reliance were obiter:

‘the instant case is of a different kind, in which a property is transferred (gratuitously) into the name of the owner on the basis of their express agreement to hold the property on trust for another. The owner only obtains the property on the terms of the agreement and equity does not permit them unconscionably to refuse to give effect to the terms. The trust arises from the terms on which the property was transferred, not from detrimental reliance on the agreement by the beneficiary.’ ([32]).

The essential elements of this constructive trust are: ‘property had been transferred to a volunteer on the basis of his promise to hold it on certain terms, and would not otherwise have been so transferred’ ([37]).

Fancourt J. referred to Rochefoucauld v BousteadBannister v Bannister and De Bruyne v De Bruyne.

There is no need to establish detrimental reliance for constructive trusts like this.

Michael Lower

 

Purchaser pays owner who enters into a second contract to sell to a third party

December 14, 2019

Introduction

In Mui So Bing v Wan Chi Sing ([2019] HKCA 1341) D1 and D2 orally agreed to sell property to P. The parties later entered into signed written agreements; these were not registered at the Land Registry.

P paid the entire purchase price in stages to D1 and D2. D1 and D2 then entered into signed written agreements to sell the same property to D3 and D4. D3 and D4 registered their agreements at the Land Registry.

At first instance, P’s claim to be entitled to the property as against D3 and D4 based on a presumed resulting trust failed. The facts did not bring the case within any category of resulting trust. There was no voluntary transfer by P nor did P provide any part of the purchase price at the time of D1 and D2’s acquisition.

P’s claim against D1 and D2 in unjust enrichment succeeded.

P appealed against the first instance decision seeking to rely instead on the common intention constructive trust or the vendor and purchaser constructive trust.

The common intention constructive trust

While a common intention constructive trust can arise in the commercial context, there was no such trust here. There was no basis for finding that D1 and D2 had agreed to hold the property on trust for P. They had agreed to sell the property to P ([25] Yuen JA).

Vendor and purchaser trust

The vendor and purchaser resulting trust only arises if specific performance is available ([27.3]). Since P had not argued for the existence of such a trust at trial, a number of facts relevant to whether specific performance would be awarded were not explored ([27.4]). It was too late for P to raise this argument on appeal.

Priority

In any event, the contract with D3 and D4 had priority over the contract with P. P had not registered and so D3 and D4 could rely on section 3(2) of the Land Registration Ordinance. Notice was irrelevant because D3 1nd D4 had duly registered ([28.4]).

Any unwritten equity that P may have had (though the Court of Appeal was clearly sceptical as to whether there was any) was subsumed by the written agreement between P and D1 / D2 ([28.3])

Importance of pleading the relevant legal consequence

The Court of Appeal was severely critical of P’s attempt to plead legal consequences (common intention constructive trust and vendor and purchaser constructive trust) for the first time on appeal:

 ‘As the court’s primary aim in exercising its powers is to secure the just resolution of disputes in accordance with the substantive rights of the parties, and to further these objectives by actively managing cases 35 , it seems to me to be high time that consideration should be given to requiring legal representatives to plead not only material facts, but also all the legal consequences to which those facts validly lead 36 , with the effect that the parties would be barred from contending different legal consequences on appeal.’ ([23.3] per Yuen JA).

Michael Lower

Estoppel where the family home is owned by a company

April 26, 2019

 

The inference of a trust when the family home is owned by a company controlled by a spouse
In Prest v Petrodel Resources Ltd the UK Supreme Court established that English family law (specifically section 24 of the Matrimonial Causes Act) does not give the court any special power to pierce the corporate veil in the case of disputes concerning the family home owned by a company controlled by one of the spouses.

In an important passage of his judgment, however, Lord Sumption suggested that, ‘in the case of the matrimonial home, the facts are quite likely to justify the inference that the property was held on trust for a spouse who owned and controlled the company.’ This beneficial interest would count among the spouse’s assets when dealing with ancillary relief.

Other forms of equitable intervention
There might be cases, though, where the courts do not feel able to infer the existence of a trust but where the spouse (or co-habitee) who owned and controlled the company has assured the other that they have or will have an interest in the family home.

On the face of it, the person giving the assurance has no legal or equitable interest in the property. It would seem to follow that there is no basis on which the recipient of the assurance can claim an interest in the family home.

How might equity intervene to protect the expectations of the recipient of the assurance in these circumstances? In 2008, in Luo Xing Juan v Hui Shui See, the Hong Kong Court of Final Appeal considered this question.

The facts in Luo Xing Juan v Hui Shui See

Luo Xing Juan (‘L’) and Hui Shui See (‘H’) co-habited in a property owned by Glory Rise Ltd (‘Glory Rise’). Glory Rise had acquired the property as an investment. The company had two shareholders when incorporated but subsequently H became the sole shareholder and director.

H asked L to marry him and she agreed. H assured L that he would give her a 35% interest in the property when he was in a position to do so. In the meantime, he transferred a 35% shareholding in Glory Rise to L.

H died before he was in a position to give effect to his promise to make L a co-owner of the property. H’s estate sought to revoke L’s licence to occupy the property. L responded with claims to an interest in the property based on the common intention constructive trust and proprietary estoppel.

The corporate veil rules out the use of the common intention constructive trust and proprietary estoppel

L’s claims failed because there was no reason to pierce the corporate veil: H had given an assurance about property owned not by him but by a third party, Glory Rise. Unlike Prest, it could not plausibly be suggested that the company held the property as trustee for H.

Promissory estoppel as the solution
L successfully resisted the company’s attempt to evict her by relying on promissory estoppel. H’s assurance was re-interpreted so that it related to the exercise of his powers as controlling shareholder of Glory Rise.

In effect, H had assured L that he would not allow his powers as controlling shareholder to be used to evict her until she had received the 35% beneficial interest in the property that she had been promised.

The Court of Final Appeal ordered that Glory Rise should be wound up on the just and equitable ground. The property was to be sold and L was to vacate it once a buyer had been found. L would then receive 35% of the net sale proceeds.

This solution has the clear merit of both respecting the corporate veil and of giving practical (and just) effect to H’s assurance and L’s detrimental reliance on it.

Promissory estoppel: no proprietary effect

Ribeiro PJ, in the main judgment in Luo Xing Juan, emphasised that promissory estoppel was a mere equity; it was not proprietary. It conditioned H’s exercise of the voting power connected with his controlling stake in Glory Rise and, indirectly, deferred Glory Rise’s ability to evict L.

The blurring of the distinction between proprietary and promissory estoppel

It is not surprising that promissory estoppel should be invoked so as to defer a licensor’s right to evict a licensee. Maharaj v Chand had already shown the way on this; promissory estoppel was used to prevent the man who was the legal owner of the family home from evicting his wife.

On the other hand, it is very noticeable that, in considering the relief to be granted, the Court of Final Appeal was guided by the classic English proprietary estoppel authorities (Crabb v Arun District Council; Pascoe v Turner; Gillett v Holt; Campbell v Griffin and Jennings v Rice). The Court of Final Appeal clearly intended that L’s relief should be designed with the exercise of the proprietary estoppel remedial discretion in mind.

Promissory estoppel was used, in effect, to protect L’s expectation of a 35% interest in Glory Rise’s property. This is surprising because it seems to contradict the proposition in Coombe v Coombe that promissory estoppel cannot be used as a cause of action.

The interplay between promissory estoppel and winding up on the just and equitable ground

The order was that Glory Rise should be wound up on the just and equitable ground. The substratum of Glory Rise was as ‘the intended vehicle for holding the Property as the matrimonial and family home of the deceased, Miss Luo and [Miss Luo’s daughter]’ (Ribeiro PJ at [74]). This substratum disappeared with H’s death.

This prompts the reflection that where, like L, the plaintiff is a shareholder in the company then a winding up petition (or, perhaps, unfair prejudice proceedings) are an option. Further, they represent an option which is available independently of any estoppel claim.

Limited to cases where the recipient of the assurance is a shareholder?

The Luo Xing Juan promissory estoppel approach is available even in cases where the recipient of the assurance is not a shareholder in the company that holds the property. Thus, in Hong Kong Hua Qiao Co Ltd v Cham Ka Tai (later upheld by the Hong Kong Court of Appeal), the Luo Xing Juan approach was adopted in a case with similar facts.

L and C began to co-habit in a property owned by a company in which L was effectively the sole shareholder. Each was already married when the relationship began.

L assured C that she would be able to live in the property for the rest of her life. L and C co-habited for five years before L died intestate. His wife and son sought to evict C from the property.

C was not a shareholder in the company that owned the family home, although the assurance concerned both the family home and shares in the company that owned it. Winding up would have been of no use to the recipient in this case.

Deputy Judge Saunders, relying on Luo Xing Juan, decided that L’s promises that C could live in the property for the rest of her life were ‘enforceable by way of promissory estoppel’ ([115]).

On relief, Deputy Judge Saunders, relying on Luo Xing Juan, said that C was entitled to an order transferring the legal title of the property to her ([118]). Again, this seems to have been a proprietary estoppel case in all but name.

Limited to family home cases?
Luo Xing Juan and Hong Kong Hua Qiao each concerned the use of promissory estoppel to establish a claim to the family home.

In Hong Kong Hua Qiao, Deputy Judge Saunders drew attention to the fact that both cases involved couples living together as man and wife ([93]) without explaining the significance of this fact. In Chan Sung Lai v Chan Sung Lim Paul, Deputy Judge Saunders (at [128]) expressed his uncertainty as to whether the doctrine could apply as between father and son.

Clearly, the distinction drawn in Thorner v Major between this context and the commercial context is likely to be relevant if there is any dispute as to the meaning of any words or conduct said to constitute an assurance.

Luo Xing Juan and Hong Kong Hia Qiao, however, were not concerned with questions of interpretation. If context was relevant it was for some other reason.

Deputy Judge Saunders may have intended to indicate that this approach to promissory estoppel was more likely to be used in the family home or ‘domestic’ context.

It may be that the Luo Xing Juan promissory estoppel will turn out to be confined to cases with the very specific features of these cases; it may be limited to cases where a couple are living together as man and wife (whether or not they are married) in a property owned by a company controlled by one of them (who gives the relevant assurance).

Limited to company owned by a single shareholder?

In both Luo Xing Juan and Hong Kong Hia Qiao, the company that owned the family home was solely owned by the maker of the relevant assurance. In Luo Xing Juan, H bought out his sister’s 20% minority stake around the same time as he transferred the 35% shareholding to L.

This raises the question as to whether the doctrine can only operate where the maker of the assurance is the sole shareholder. There are arguments in principle in favour of either possible answer to this question.

On the one hand, the relevant assurance is an assurance as to the exercise of voting control. There is no need for a shareholder to own all of the shares in a company to have the power to dictate the outcome of the board decision on any question.

On the other hand, if there are minority shareholders, other than the recipient of the assurance, then the effect of the use of the doctrine on their interests would need to be taken into consideration. They may view the property as an investment and in some market conditions might prefer the company to retain ownership.

This may seem a purely theoretical question but in Luo Xing Juan, H’s sister retained a 20% stake in the company for a few months after the transfer of the 35% shareholding to L. Had H died during those few months then this question would have had practical importance.

Limited to cases where the recipient of the assurance is in occupation of the relevant property at the time of the proceedings?

In Luo Xing Juan and Hong Kong Hia Qiao, the company that owned the family home sought to evict the recipient of the assurance who was in occupation of the property. Promissory estoppel is invoked, in the first place, as a defence against this attempted eviction.

Is this an essential element of the Luo Xing Juan doctrine? The company’s right to possession is not taken away but is conditioned by the estoppel. This accords with a traditional understanding of promissory estoppel and, as noted earlier, suggests a continuity with Maharaj v Chand.

Limiting the Luo Xing Juan approach to cases like this would be consistent with the idea, just discussed, that its use might be limited to family home cases.

A more general relaxation of the distinction between promissory and proprietary estoppel?

The approach in Luo Xing Juan challenges what had seemed to be a well-established distinction between proprietary and promissory estoppel in ways that I have indicated.

I have considered the possibility that the Luo Xing Juan approach is only intended to take effect in certain circumstances. I have considered what those circumstances might be.

It is possible, however, that the Court of Final Appeal intended to establish a more general proposition; it may be that the judgment intended to minimise or even abolish altogether the distinction between proprietary and promissory estoppel. This would explain why proprietary estoppel principles and authorities were applied so readily.

On the other hand, there is no express indication in any of the judgments to indicate that this was the intention; one would have expected that an intention to restructure the law in this way would be clearly flagged up and that some justification would be offered for it.

In paragraph [54] of his judgment, Ribeiro PJ raises the question of the relationship between promissory and proprietary estoppel:

‘The doctrine of estoppel continues to represent a developing area of the law and aspects of the applicable principles are subject to debate. Thus, there is discussion as to the extent to which promissory estoppel and proprietary estoppel overlap, with a body of opinion inclining towards the view that there is no real difference between them. In the present context, proprietary estoppel is inapplicable because the deceased, not being the owner of the Property, was not in a position to confer on Miss Luo a proprietary interest in it. However, as Maharaj v Chand establishes, this does not prevent recourse to promissory estoppel. The doctrines therefore differ at least to that extent. However, it is at the same time clear that many of the constituent elements of the two forms of estoppel are shared and where that is so, authorities on proprietary estoppel provide guidance in cases involving promissory estoppel.’

This passage leaves the question in the balance: there is substantial overlap but some (unspecified) difference. There is no suggestion here of an intention to effect radical change in the law.

Conclusion
When a limited company holds the title to the family home, assurances concerning ownership of the home given by a director or shareholder cannot directly limit the rights of the company nor give rise to a common intention constructive trust or proprietary estoppel claim.

Luo Xing Juan created the possibility that such an assurance could condition the exercise of that shareholder’s voting rights so that they could not be exercised in a way that is inconsistent with the assurance that has been given. This limitation is presented as a form of promissory estoppel.

The Court of Final Appeal went further when it decided that the effect of the estoppel was, in effect, to require the company to make good on the assurance given by the controlling shareholder.

It is not clear whether this promissory estoppel has general application or applies only in limited circumstances. If the latter, the circumstances in which the estoppel applies are not clearly defined.

Michael Lower

Family home in joint names and wife’s failure to transfer her interest to her husband in accordance with a consent order

November 4, 2017

In Chu Tsan Leung v Leung Mee Ling Amy ([2017] HKEC 2347) H and W were married. Title to the family home was in joint names. W left the family and in the subsequent matrimonial proceedings agreed to transfer her entire interest in the property to H. This agreement was incorporated in a consent order. W did not execute a deed to give effect to the order.

W was subsequently declared bankrupt. The Trustee in Bankruptcy claimed that W’s interest in the property remained an asset of hers. H sought a declaration that W did not have any beneficial interest in the property.

The Trustees in Bankruptcy argued that the consent order was procured through the exercise of undue influence by H and his solicitors. They argued that there was a presumption of undue influence on the facts of the case. This failed.

The evidence pointed away from the idea that the wife reposed trust and confidence in her husband at the time of signing the consent order. Nor was there anything unconscionable or manifestly disadvantageous to W when the context was properly considered: H, a construction worker, had been left to take care of two young children on his own.

It did not help W’s case for her to argue that she did not have full knowledge and understanding of the documents that she had signed. A person who signs a legal document he or she is bound by the act of signature (Bank of China (Hong Kong) Ltd v Fung Chin Kan and Ming Shiu Chung v Ming Shiu Sum).

H became the sole beneficial owner of the property from the moment of the decree absolute.

H argued, in the alternative, that he had always been the sole beneficial owner of the property since he alone had provided all of the purchase money and mortgage payments. This claim failed. Since title was in joint names, it was for H to show that she had no equitable interest. H was unable to do so.

Michael Lower

 

 

Variation of an express trust or a common intention constructive trust

September 24, 2017

In Insol Funding Company Ltd v Cowlam ([2017] EWHC 1822 (Ch)) Ms Cowlam and Mr Cowey began to co-habit in 1994 and had a son in 1995. They lived in a property owned by Ms Cowlam. They sold it and in 1998 they bought a new property to be the family home (‘the property’). The transfer of the property into their joint names recorded that they held it as beneficial joint tenants. They did not sign the transfer form.

The purchase of the property was funded by the proceeds of sale of Ms Cowlam’s home and by a mortgage. Initially, they each contributed to the repayment of the mortgage. Ms. Cowlam later injected further substantial capital sums into the property helping to pay off the mortgage and to finance improvement works.

In November 2001 the couple agreed that, in the light of Ms Cowlam’s greater contributions to the property, she had an 80% share and Mr Cowey had a 20% share.

Mr Cowey received GBP85,000 as a severance payment from his employers. He used this to finance his new business. He refused to use any part of it towards the property. He also made it clear that he did not intend to marry Ms Cowlam. From 2006, Ms Cowlam made nearly all of the mortgage payments. From 2007 onwards she made all of the payments.

The court had now to consider the extent of the respective beneficial interests of Ms Cowlam and Mr Cowie (since Mr Cowie’s charge was subject to an equitable charge in favour of Insol Funding Company Ltd).

The declaration in the 1998 transfer of the property to the couple would have been decisive had it been signed by the couple ([76]). It could not have been displaced by a common intention constructive trust ([77] – [79]). It could have been affected by proprietary estoppel ([79]).

The declaration was not enforceable, however, since it was not manifested and proved in writing signed by the parties as required by section 53(1)(b) of the Law of Property Act 1925 (cf Conveyancing and Property Ordinance, s. 5(1)(b)).

There was, however, a presumption of a beneficial joint tenancy under a common intention constructive trust given the domestic context and the fact that the title was in joint names ([86]). There was nothing here to rebut the presumption. The presumption reflected the reality that in 1997 Ms Cowlam and Mr Cowie were a mutually committed couple ([89]).

It is, however, possible for a common intention constructive trust to be varied where the later emergence of a different common intention can be proved.

Such a variation could be shown here. The principal evidence of this was the express agreement between the parties in 2001 that Ms Cowlam had an 80% share. The variation was confirmed by Mr Cowey’s refusal to apply the severance pay to the property and by Ms Cowlam’s assumption of sole responsibility, in fact, for the mortgage payments.

This latter fact was also the necessary detrimental reliance on the changed common intention. Detrimental reliance remains an essential element of the common intention constructive trust ([99]). The fact that Ms Cowlam was also motivated by a concern to maintain a home for her son did not affect this conclusion ([102]).

Ms Cowlam had an 80% beneficial share in the property. Master Bowles would have been prepared to reach the same conclusion had he relied on the principles of proprietary estoppel ([109] – [110]).

Michael Lower

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

August 27, 2017

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

 

 

Compelling evidence of post-acquisition variation of common intention

August 17, 2017

In Chan Ling Ling v Chan Ching Kit ([2017] HKEC 1474) property was held by four siblings as tenants in common. The common intention at the time of acquisition was they would have equal shares.

The defendant argued that there was a post-acquisition variation of this common intention; the varied common intention was that the parties’ respective beneficial interests would reflect their financial contributions.

The defendant argued that the agreement to vary the original common intention should be inferred from an alleged failure of the other siblings to contribute to certain costs associated with the property.

He sought to show that he had contributed 80% of the purchase price / mortgage repayments and so had a corresponding equitable interest.

Deputy Judge Kent Yee summarised the relevant legal principles: there had to be compelling evidence of a post-acquisition variation of the common intention. The court should be slow to infer such an agreement from conduct alone ([38]).

Even if one accepted the defendant’s version of the facts, they did not provide the necessary compelling evidence. The parties remained equal beneficial owners.

Michael Lower