Thursday, 10 May 2012

If ever tha does owt for nowt, allus do it for theesen!

I ranted a little while ago about a Mail article which suggested that it was easy to fall foul of a property claim from your unmarried partner.  I strongly disagreed- see here just to remind yourself:

what can the Daily Mail teach us about Family Law?

A classic example of why this just isn't so has been reported in the Court of Appeal.  You can read the report here:

Geary v. Rankine

It's a commonplace story - one I've heard in different minor variants many times over the years.  Mrs. G formed a relationship with Mr. R.  They began to live together.  They had a child together.  A few years after they got together, Mr. R bought a business - a guest house.  He bought it with his savings and in his sole name.  Clearly there were two distinct assets here - the premises and the guest house business which operated from it.  After a little while, the two of them moved to live at the guest house and ran the business there.  12 or 13 years later, the parties separated.  Mrs. G claimed that she was entitled to part ownership of the guest house.

The Business

What Mrs. G said was that she had worked unpaid in running the guest house.  The judge found that she had cooked, cleaned and done much of the paperwork.  She described Mr. R as being controlling - she only got money if she asked for it and needed it.  Mrs. G claimed that she was a partner in the business and also had joint ownership of the guest house itself.  The judge decided that she was not a partner in the business.  She had not been held out as one, the accounts didn't show her to be one, she hadn't received drawings and there were other reasons and explanations which were very much to the contrary.

If you work for someone you love, that does not of itself place you in a business relationship with them.  Working for them for nothing makes sense in its own way.  Family income is used for the benefit of the family.  If Mr. R's income was used to provide for the family, working for nothing in his business increases the benefit to the family.  What it doesn't do is create any legal rights or obligations.

The Building

Mrs. G said there was a common intention that she would have an interest in the building itself.  She said that although it had been bought originally for Mr. R alone, that had changed.  What the Court of Appeal emphasised here was that it had to be a shared intention - i.e. both of the parties needed to be agreed on it.  Mrs. G pointed out that she had given up her job in London at very short notice to go and live at the guest house to help get it back on its feet.  She said that that was evidence of a common intention that they would operate and own the business together.  The judge who decided the case and the Court of Appeal were agreed that that simply wasn't enough.  Whatever she thought was the case, she had to prove that Mr. R thought the same and that was always going to be very difficult indeed.

Why bring the case?

Reading between the lines, it seems to me that there were two main motivations for Mrs. G maintaining that she should receive some of Mr. R's property.  The first was that she deserved it.  She had worked very hard over the years and did things which seem to have been beyond Mr. R - like paperwork, for example!  So she had, but that isn't how this branch of law works.  If they had been married, the court would have had no problem in saying that they had both made equal contributions to the family welfare, he by buying the place, she by working in it.  That's fine where s.25 of the Matrimonial Causes Act is in play but it's irrelevant if it's not.

The second seems to me to be that Mr. R was a difficult man to live with.  He was controlling and mean with money.  In other words, he should be penalised for not being nice enough.  Again, that's just not relevant.  Even in divorce cases, although we see that sort of reasoning often, it cuts no ice at all.

Taken together, these may make Mrs. G aggrieved but they don't amount to a legal claim.

The Lesson

If ever tha does owt for nowt......  Just because someone else has benefited from your hard work, that doesn't mean you have a claim on their property.   So if you're going to work hard, make sure that you get something for it!  Don't, whatever you do, rely on the good nature and honesty of the person you do it for.  That's what generates cases like this and the legal fees which accompany them.  I have to say, this case really doesn't set any new precedents and I find it hard to see how it ended up running the distance in the first place.


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