Jones v Kernott

JurisdictionEngland & Wales
CourtSupreme Court
Judgment Date09 November 2011
Neutral Citation[2011] UKSC 53
Date09 November 2011

[2011] UKSC 53


Michaelmas Term

On appeal from: [2010] EWCA Civ 578


Lord Walker

Lady Hale

Lord Collins

Lord Kerr

Lord Wilson



Richard Power

(Instructed by A I Sampson & Co)


Andrew Bailey

(Instructed by Francis Thatcher & Co)

Heard on 4 May 2011


This appeal gives the Supreme Court the opportunity to revisit the decision of the House of Lords in Stack v Dowden [2007] UKHL 17, [2007] 2 AC 432. That case, like this, was concerned with the determination of the beneficial interests in a house acquired in joint names by an unmarried couple who intended it to be their family home. Its reasoning was closely examined, in particular by Rimer LJ, in the present appeal: [2010] EWCA Civ 578, [2010] 1 WLR 2401. The fact that the Court of Appeal itself gave permission to appeal is a mark of the difficulties felt by the majority, not only with the reasoning but also with the outcome to which it led.


The decision in Stack v Dowden has also attracted a good deal of comment from legal scholars, which we have read although it was not referred to by counsel (who took a sensibly economical approach to the presentation of the appeal). This ranges from qualified enthusiasm (K Gray & S Gray, Land Law, 6 th ed (2009) para 7–072) to almost unqualified disapprobation (Swadling, "The Common Intention Trust in the House of Lords: An Opportunity Missed" (2007) 123 LQR 511; Dixon, "The Never-Ending Story – Co-Ownership After Stack v Dowden" [2007] Conv 456). But counsel have not argued that Stack v Dowden was wrongly decided or that this court should now depart from the principles which it laid down. This appeal provides an opportunity for some clarification.

Stack v Dowden

Mr Stack and Ms Dowden lived together for 19 years, from 1983 to 2002. They did not marry but they had four children born between 1986 and 1991. Ms Dowden was a well-qualified electrical engineer, and throughout the time when they lived together she worked full-time (except for periods of maternity leave) for the LEB and its successor. Mr Stack was a self-employed builder and decorator until 1987, after which he was employed by Hammersmith and Fulham LBC.


They started living together in 1983 in a house acquired in Ms Dowden's sole name at the price of £30,000. The deposit of £8,000 was paid out of a building society account in Ms Dowden's sole name; there was a conflict of evidence as to whether Mr Stack had made any contributions to the account. The balance of £22,000 was raised on a mortgage for which Ms Dowden alone was responsible. She made the mortgage payments and paid other household outgoings. Mr Stack kept his finances separate (he had most of his post, including his bank statements, sent to his father's address). They carried out extensive repairs and improvementsto the house. The judge found that Mr Stack was responsible for most of this work but could not put a figure on its contribution to the sale value of the house.


They moved house in 1993. Ms Dowden received over £66,000 from the sale of their first home. Their new home was bought for £190,000. Nearly £129,000 came from Ms Dowden's building society account and the balance from a bank loan secured on the house and on two endowment policies, one in joint names and one in Ms Dowden's sole name. The house was transferred into their joint names with no express declaration of trust, but a standard-form provision that the survivor could give a good receipt.


Mr Stack paid the mortgage interest and the premiums on the joint policy, to a total amount of nearly £34,000. The principal of the mortgage loan was repaid by a series of lump sum payments, to which Mr Stack contributed £27,000 and Ms Dowden over £38,000. The utility bills were in Ms Dowden's name and she paid all or most of them. There were some improvements to the property, but not on a large scale. The parties continued to maintain separate bank accounts and each made a number of separate investments.


In short, there was a substantial disparity between their respective financial contributions to the purchase. The trial judge held that the proceeds of sale should be divided in equal shares. Although Ms Dowden had been the bigger earner, "they have both put their all into doing the best for themselves and their family as they could". The Court of Appeal allowed Ms Dowden's appeal and divided the proceeds 65% to 35% as she had asked. The House of Lords (Lord Hoffmann, Lord Hope, Lord Walker, Lady Hale and Lord Neuberger) unanimously upheld that order, although Lord Neuberger did so for different reasons from the majority.


The curious feature of the decided cases up until then had been that, once an intention to share ownership had been established, the courts had tended to adopt a more flexible and "holistic" approach to the quantification of the parties' shares in cases of sole legal ownership than they had in cases of joint legal ownership. In the former, they had adopted a concept of the "common intention" constructive trust which depends upon the shared intentions of the parties. In the latter, they had tended to analyse the matter in terms of a resulting trust, which depends upon the law's presumption as to the intention of the party who makes a financial contribution to the purchase. This point was made by Lady Hale in Stack v Dowden, paras 64 and 65 (see also Peter Gibson LJ in Drake v Whipp [1996] 1 FLR 826, 827, cited in Stack v Dowden, para 29).


The leading opinion in the House of Lords was that of Lady Hale. Lord Hoffmann, Lord Hope and Lord Walker all agreed with it, though Lord Hope andLord Walker added some observations of their own. Lord Hope discussed Scots law, drawing attention to the importance in Scotland of the law of unjust enrichment. Lord Walker contributed what he referred to as an "extended footnote", with a detailed commentary on Lord Diplock's speech in Gissing v Gissing [1971] AC 886.


The conclusions in Lady Hale's opinion were directed to the case of a house transferred into the joint names of a married or unmarried couple, where both are responsible for any mortgage, and where there is no express declaration of their beneficial interests. In such cases, she held that there is a presumption that the beneficial interests coincide with the legal estate. Specifically, "in the domestic consumer context, a conveyance into joint names indicates both legal and beneficial joint tenancy, unless and until the contrary is proved": Lady Hale, at para 58; Lord Walker at para 33.


Secondly, the mere fact that the parties had contributed to the acquisition of the home in unequal shares would not normally be sufficient to rebut the presumption of joint tenancy arising from the conveyance: "It cannot be the case that all the hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of transfers into joint names … are vulnerable to challenge in the courts simply because it is likely that the owners contributed unequally to their purchase": Lady Hale, at para 68.


Thirdly, the task of seeking to show that the parties intended their beneficial interests to be different from their legal interests was not to be "lightly embarked upon. In family disputes, strong feelings are aroused when couples split up. These often lead the parties, honestly but mistakenly, to reinterpret the past in self-exculpatory or vengeful terms. They also lead people to spend far more on the legal battle than is warranted by the sums actually at stake. A full examination of the facts is likely to involve disproportionate costs. In joint names cases it is also unlikely to lead to a different result, unless the facts are very unusual": Lady Hale, at para 68; also Lord Walker at para 33.


Fourthly, however, if the task is embarked upon, it is to ascertain the parties' common intentions as to what their shares in the property would be, in the light of their whole course of conduct in relation to it: Lady Hale, at para 60. It is the way in which this point was made which seems to have caused the most difficulty in the lower courts. The difficulty is well illustrated in Lord Wilson's judgment, at paras 85 to 87, which read the judgment in a way which we would not read it. It matters not which reading is correct. It does matter that any confusion is resolved.


It was also accepted that the parties' common intentions might change over time, producing what Lord Hoffmann referred to in the course of argument as an "'ambulatory' constructive trust": Lady Hale, at para 62. An example, given in para 70, was where one party had financed or constructed an extension or major improvement to the property, so that what they had now was different from what they had first acquired. But of course there are other examples. The principal question in this case is whether this is one.


At its simplest the principle in Stack v Dowden is that a "common intention" trust, for the cohabitants' home to belong to them jointly in equity as well as on the proprietorship register, is the default option in joint names cases. The trust can be classified as a constructive trust, but it is not at odds with the parties' legal ownership. Beneficial ownership mirrors legal ownership. What it is at odds with is the presumption of a resulting trust.

A single regime?

In an interesting article by Simon Gardner and Katherine Davidson, "The Future of Stack v Dowden" (2011) 127 LQR 13, 15, the authors express the hope that the Supreme Court will "make clear that constructive trusts of family homes are governed by a single regime, dispelling any impression that different rules apply to 'joint names' and 'single name' cases". At a high level of generality, there is of course a single regime: the law of trusts (this is the second of Mustill LJ's propositions in Grant v Edwards [1986] Ch 638, 651)....

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