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Owner's reasons for keeping property in sole name were not an admission of shared ownership

Thursday, 30 April, 2015

STEP Lead

The England and Wales Court of Appeal has rejected a woman's claim to a half share of a number of properties and a business held in the sole name of her former cohabitant.

The parties, Pamela Curran and Brian Collins, had known each other for more than 30 years, and lived together for some of that time in three West London properties. They also worked together in a dog-breeding and kennels business. Everything was in Collins' sole name, not least because his father part-funded the purchases, to which Pamela Curran had made no financial contributions.

When they parted in 2010, Curran brought an action claiming a half share in the properties and the business. There was no express agreement between the parties stating that she held any interest in any of the assets.

To establish her claim of constructive trust, Curran thus had to show that she reasonably believed that the parties' common intention was that she should have a share of the properties; and that she had acted to her own detriment on the basis of that intention. However Collins denied that he had ever had any such intention, and had made it expressly clear to her that the property purchases were his alone.

Curran's claim that she had made significant financial contributions to household bills and mortgage repayments were rejected, as her income was too small to be relevant. The only point considered by the Appeal Court related to one of the properties, bought in 1986. At that time, said Curran, she had asked for the house to be put in joint names, but Collins had refused because of the expense of paying for two life insurance policies. This 'excuse', alleged Pamela Curran, implied that Collins accepted that she should be an owner of the properties, if it were not for the extra expense. It was, she claimed, a classic example of a statement from which the court will infer that the parties intended that they should each have a beneficial share in property.

The judge at first instance rejected this argument, finding that Collins had only said it to avoid the embarrassment of refusing outright (actually Collins denied that the conversation ever took place). It was, she said, the kind of excuse given to make it easier to prevent difficulties or confrontation arising. She also found that Pamela Curran had not suffered any detriment as a result of her beliefs.

Curran appealed on the grounds that the first instance court's findings were wrong in fact and that the judge should have believed her account rather than Brian Collins'. She also claimed that the judge wrongly applied a subjective test to the so-called 'excuse'. The Appeal Court rejected these, citing evidence that the judge had sufficient evidence to make an objective determination – notably that the parties were not living together when the 'excuse' was given. She also rejected a further ground of appeal, that the judge had underestimated Curran's financial contributions, because it was merely a re-argument of points on which the judge found against Ms Curran (Curran v Collins, 2015 EWCA Civ 404).

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