Stack v Dowden

JurisdictionEngland & Wales
CourtHouse of Lords
Judgment Date25 Apr 2007
Neutral Citation[2007] UKHL 17

[2007] UKHL 17


Appellate Committee

Lord Hoffmann

Lord Hope of Craighead

Lord Walker of Gestingthorpe

Baroness Hale of Richmond

Lord Neuberger of Abbotsbury



Lucy Theis QC

Francis Wilkinson

Miriam Shalom

(Instructed by Attiyah Lone)


Christopher Lundie

Emily Saunderson

(Instructed by Walter Jennings & Son)


My Lords,


I have had the advantage of reading in draft the opinion of my noble and learned friend Baroness Hale of Richmond, and for the reasons she gives I too would dismiss the appeal.


My Lords,


As my noble and learned friend Baroness Hale of Richmond whose speech I have had the privilege of reading in draft indicates, this case is about the property rights of a cohabiting couple in a house which they occupied together as their home until the breakdown of their relationship. They have an obvious interest in the determination of their respective property rights in such a valuable asset. But the issue between them is a matter of general public interest too. It has become an increasingly pressing social problem, as house prices rise and more and more people are living together without getting married or entering into a civil partnership. The situation is complicated by the fact that there is no single, or paradigm, set of circumstances. The only feature which these cases have in common is that the problem has not been solved by legislation. The legislation which enables the court to reallocate beneficial interests in the home and other assets following a divorce does not apply to cohabiting couples. Otherwise the circumstances which define relationships between cohabiting couples and their property interests are infinitely various.


The key to simplifying the law in this area lies in the identification of the correct starting point. Each case will, of course, turn on its own facts. But law can, and should, provide the right framework. Traditionally, English law has always distinguished between legal ownership in land and its beneficial ownership. The trusts under which the land is held will determine the extent of each party's beneficial ownership. Where the parties have dealt with each other at arms length it makes sense to start from the position that there is a resulting trust according to how much each party contributed. Then there is the question whether the trust is truly a constructive trust. This may be helpful in their case but in others may seem to be a distinctly academic exercise, as my noble and learned friend Lord Walker of Gestingthorpe points out. But cohabiting couples are in a different kind of relationship. The place where they live together is their home. Living together is an exercise in give and take, mutual co-operation and compromise. Who pays for what in regard to the home has to be seen in the wider context of their overall relationship. A more practical, down-to-earth, fact-based approach is called for in their case. The framework which the law provides should be simple, and it should be accessible.


The cases can be broken down into those where there is a single legal ownership and those where there is joint legal ownership. There must be consistency of approach between these two cases a point to which my noble and learned friend Lord Neuberger of Abbotsbury has drawn our attention. I think that consistency is to be found by deciding where the onus lies if a party wishes to show that the beneficial ownership is different from the legal ownership. I agree with Baroness Hale that this is achieved by taking sole beneficial ownership as the starting point in the first case and by taking joint beneficial ownership as the starting point in the other. In this context joint beneficial ownership means that the shares are presumed to be divided between the beneficial owners equally. So in a case of sole legal ownership the onus is on the party who wishes to show that he has any beneficial interest at all, and if so what that interest is. In a case of joint legal ownership it is on the party who wishes to show that the beneficial interests are divided other than equally.


The advantage of this approach is that everyone will know where they stand with regard to the property when they enter into their relationship. Parties are, of course, free to enter into whatever bargain they wish and, so long as it is clearly expressed and can be proved, the court will give effect to it. But for the rest the state of the legal title will determine the right starting point. The onus is then on the party who contends that the beneficial interests are divided between them otherwise than as the title shows to demonstrate this on the facts.


It is worth noting how the solution which Baroness Hale proposes fits in with how the problem would be addressed in Scotland: had the dwelling which the parties purchased in joint names in 1993 been situated in, say, Eyemouth – a few miles north of Berwick-upon-Tweed. The social problems under which cohabiting couples live together in England and Wales are, in general, no different from those that exist in Scotland. Can it be said that the problem would be solved in much the same way both north and south of the border? I think that it can. The law of property in Scotland is, of course, different and so also are Scots family law and the Scots law of obligations. But in the case of cohabiting couples the facts would be examined from a similar starting point.


Scots family law does not provide the answer to how the value of the home of a cohabiting couple is to be divided between them when their relationship terminates. Section 27(3) of the Family Law (Scotland) Act 2006 excludes a residence used by cohabitants as the sole or main residence in which they live (or lived) together from the general rule which that section lays down that, subject to any agreement between them to the contrary, money derived from any allowance made by either cohabitant for their joint household expenses or for similar purposes or any property acquired out of such money is to be treated as belonging to each cohabitant in equal shares. So the solution in their case must, in the first instance, be found in Scots property law. Except in cases where it can be shown that a title was held in trust although it is ex facie absolute, Scots property law does not distinguish between the legal and the beneficial interests in heritable property.


Where the title to a dwelling house is taken in one name only, the presumption is that there is sole ownership in the named proprietor. Where it is taken in joint names those named are common owners and, if the grant does not indicate otherwise, there is a presumption of equality of shares: Kenneth G C Reid, The Law of Property in Scotlandr (1996), para 22. The rights that are thus divided from the outset between those named in the title in the Land Register are rights of ownership. There are no intervening equitable interests. The presumption that the common owners are entitled to share the value of the property equally is however capable of being displaced by evidence to the contrary. The analysis now moves from the law of property to the law of obligations. This opens the door to evidence of an agreement that the title was to be held in trust or to an examination of the contributions which each party made to the purchase of the house and to its upkeep and improvement during their relationship: Galloway v Galloway, 1929 SC 160; Wissenbruch v Wissenbruch, 1961 SC 340; Denvir v Denvir, 1969 SLT 301. Proof of these matters has been made easier by the abolition of the requirement of proof by writ or oath by section 11 of the Requirements of Writing (Scotland) Act 1995. But cases where this exercise is attempted are rare, in view of the weight that is attached to the state of the title as evidence of the beneficial ownership of the property.


More recently resort has been had to restitutionary remedies. In McKenzie v Nutter, 2007 SLT (Sh Ct) 17 the title was taken in joint names. The intention of the cohabiting couple was that they would live together as a couple in the property, and that they would both sell their own separate houses and apply the proceeds towards the purchase of their new home. In the event only one party contributed the proceeds of his house towards its purchase and paid the costs associated with maintaining and improving the property. The other party continued to reside in her own house, which due to her bad faith she did not sell. She then insisted on a division and sale of the property. Following the state of the title, the expectation was that when the property was sold the proceeds would be paid to the parties equally. But an order was made that the party who had contributed everything towards its purchase and upkeep was to be entitled to recover the other party's share of the proceeds. As Sheriff Principal Lockhart explained in his judgment, this was on the ground that she had been unjustly enriched because the condition on which the enrichment was given, due to her bad faith, did not materialise.


The law of unjust enrichment has also been invoked where the title was taken in the name of one of the co-habitants only and they subsequently separated. It was held that the other co-habitant was entitled to the return of sums which he contributed to the purchase of the house and its refurbishment while the parties were living there: Satchwell v McIntosh, 2006 SLT (Sh Ct) 117. The problems which these very unusual cases create are for the most part problems of fact. The law that is to be applied, now that the former restrictions on the mode of proof have been abolished, is relatively uncomplicated.


In a case such as this, where the parties...

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