This was an appeal against a decision that Ms Curran, the appellant, had not acquired a beneficial interest in property in the sole name of Mr Collins, the respondent. Mr Collins and Ms Curran were in a relationship from about 1978 until 2010. However, she did not move in to live with Mr Collins until 2002, having maintained a close relationship with her own family.
From about 1994 onwards, the couple bred Airedale terriers. Over the course of the relationship, Mr Collins owned three properties in his sole name, referred to as the Bendfont flat, the Feltham house and The Haven. He owned the Bedfont flat between 1984 and 1986, at which time he sold the Bedfont flat and purchased the Feltham house in his sole name. This was later sold, and in 2007 Mr Collins bought The Haven, which had a kennels business which Mr Collins ran. Ms Curran carried out some tasks for the kennels business and was paid a modest wage. She was treated in the paperwork of the kennels business as an employee.
Ms Curran asserted that she was entitled to a half share of the properties on the basis of a common intention constructive trust. There was no express agreement as the beneficial ownership of the various properties and Ms Curran relied on the whole course of conduct in relation to the property. She also relied on the fact that, in about 1986, when Ms Curran raised the subject of having a share in the property, she was told by Mr Collins that it was too expensive for her name to be on the property as it would involve paying the premia for two life insurance policies (the excuse).
The trial judge found that Ms Curran did not make any contribution (direct or indirect) to the acquisition of any of the properties. He also found that there had been no detrimental reliance on Ms Curran’s part and that the parties’ relationship was not such as to give rise to an inference of fact in relation to the beneficial ownership of The Haven. The judge had rejected the suggestion that Mr Collins and Ms Curran were partners in the kennel business. Accordingly the trial judge rejected the claim that Ms Curran was entitled to a beneficial interest in the Haven.
Ms Curran appealed on the grounds that (i) the judge was wrong in her assessment of the evidence; (ii) the judge’s approach to the excuse had been wrong in that the judge had relied on subjective factors – the reasonable person in Ms Curran’s position would have understood that she was to have an interest in the property; (iii) the judge’s approach to financial contributions had been wrong in that she had placed too much emphasis on financial contributions; (iv) the judge had been wrong to find that the business was a partnership.
Held (dismissing the appeal)
- 1) There was no basis for setting aside any of the findings of fact made by the trial judge. An appellate court will only rarely overturn findings on credibility;
- 2) the judge had correctly applied an objective test in her interpretation of the excuse, taking into account the relevant factual circumstances;
- 3) it was clear that the judge had correctly taken into account factors beyond financial contributions;
- 4) as there was no partnership agreement or documentary evidence, the existence of a partnership was a question of fact, turning on the parties’ intentions. The judge had made clear findings and these should not be overturned;
- 5) (per Lewison LJ) the cases of Grant v Edwards  Ch 638 and Eves v Eves  1 WLR 1338 do not establish the mere giving of an excuse will necessarily leads to the inference that the person to whom the excuse is given can reasonably regard themselves as having an immediate entitlement to an interest in the property in question; and
- 6) (per Lewison LJ) the need for detrimental reliance on the part of the claim is an essential feature and the decisions Stack v Dowden  WTLR 1053 and Jones v Kernott  WTLR 125 had not altered this requirement.