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Legal and beneficial ownership

Investment property

Application of Stack

Marr v Collie (Bahamas)
[2017] UKPC 17

Summary

The Privy Council has clarified that the principle that beneficial ownership follows legal ownership unless the contrary is proven as held in Stack v Dowden [2007] AC 432, is not limited to a domestic context and can apply where the parties' personal relationship has a commercial aspect. The context was key, informed by the parties' common intention, or the lack of it.

Facts

The appellant (M), and the respondent (C) were in a personal relationship with each other for about 17 years. During that time, they acquired a number of properties, including investment properties and other items. The appeal related to the ownership of the properties and the other items and how they should be disposed of on the breakdown of the personal relationship between them. Each party was relying on common intention but they could not agree on what it was. M had purchased various properties over a 10-year period, making all the financial contributions, but at the same time placing them in joint names with C as he alleged that C had promised to make financial contributions but failed to do so. He therefore claimed he was entitled to full beneficial ownership of the properties. C maintained that the parties had agreed that he was responsible for renovation, maintenance and furnishing the properties, much of which he had funded himself, and that he held a beneficial interest in the properties.

Main issue

What is the correct the approach that should be taken where cohabitees jointly own property purchased as an investment, rather than for a domestic purpose?

First instance

The trial judge, decided that the burden was on C to rebut the presumption of a resulting trust in favour of M but that C had failed to discharge it. The trial judge interpreted Laskar v Laskar [2008] EWCA Civ 347 as meaning that the principle in Stack v Dowden [2007] AC 432, that the starting point for jointly held property is that the beneficial interest is also held jointly, as equity follows the law, applied only in the "domestic consumer context". The presumption could not apply where the primary purpose of the property purchase was as an investment, even if the parties were in a personal relationship.

Court of Appeal

The Court of Appeal focused on the intention of M, and in particular an email that the trial judge had not considered that stated that to M a joint purchase meant a 50% interest held by each party. The appeal court also held that the first instance judge was wrong to place the burden of rebutting the presumption of resulting trust on C. It ordered the properties to be sold and the case remitted to a judge to assess the parties' respective contributions to the improvement works, so that these could be reflected in the division of sale proceeds. M appealed to the Privy Council.

Decision by the Privy Council

The Privy Council allowed the appeal and remitted the case for hearing before the Supreme Court of the Bahamas.

Where a property was bought in the joint names of a cohabiting couple, even if that was as an investment, it did not follow inexorably that the resulting trust solution must automatically provide the inevitable answer as to how its beneficial ownership was to be determined. The principle in Stack v Dowden was not confined exclusively to a domestic setting. In Laskar, the financial arrangement between mother and daughter was not associated with a mutual commitment to each other for the future, so the investment could be described as purely financial. Laskar was not therefore authority for the proposition that the principle in Stack v Dowden (that beneficial ownership follows legal ownership unless the contrary was proved), only applied in a domestic context.

The Privy Council identified a “clash of presumptions”: the presumption that joint legal ownership should signify joint beneficial ownership appeared in conflict with the presumption of a resulting trust, where joint owners had contributed unequally to the purchase price. The answer was not that one presumption triumphed over another (unless there is no evidence from which the parties' intentions could be identified). Context was key, informed by the parties' common intention (or lack of it). If it was the parties' mutual wish that the joint beneficial ownership should reflect their joint legal ownership, effect should be given to that wish. If that was not their wish, or they had formed no intention about beneficial ownership, then the resulting trust solution may be the answer.

Intentions can change over time, which is why the majority in Stack v Dowden emphasised that examination of the parties' course of conduct over the years in which they dealt with the property is crucial. Here, properties were still being purchased in joint names years after M alleged he expected C to have contributed financially. If the financial contributions had not materialised, why did he continue to agree to purchase the properties in joint names? The trial judge and Court of Appeal had not adequately examined the central question of intention.

Comment

This case provides important clarification about the approach that should be taken where cohabitees jointly own property purchased as an investment, rather than for a domestic purpose. This judgment emphasises that no one presumption must triumph. Instead, the focus must be on the parties' intentions during the course of dealing with any investment property.


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