Should a former cohabitant who has had a child and worked in a successful business which has helped maintain the house he owns in his sole name be able to claim over that property when the relationship ends? Is it fair she leaves with nothing?
These were the questions recently pondered by their Lordships at the Court of Appeal. In the end, though, they dismissed the woman’s appeal.
The case concerned a former unmarried couple, who lived together in the man’s house in Plaistow, east London.
The couple set up and ran a computer business called SMC while living together. This was run as a partnership, with each having equal shares.
The relationship came to an end in 2005, at which point the girlfriend, Yvonne Slater, launched a lawsuit against her former boyfriend, Stephen Condappa, 48. She claimed that she had been given a half share of the property and further, that he had promised, during a difficult patch in their relationship, to give her sole ownership of the house, reported to be worth £230,000, if they ever broke up.
He denied the claim, insisting that he had only ever been a “lodger”.
The case eventually reached the courts in November 2010, where Judge Gerald dismissed her claims as “fanciful”, to quote Lord Justice Patten at the Court of Appeal.
Judge Gerald had:
“…preferred the defendant’s evidence that beneficial ownership of the property had never been discussed. Given that the claimant and the defendant were the only witnesses and the claims depended upon alleged oral assurances, the credibility of the parties was an important matter for the judge to assess.”
There had been no contract between the couple, he ruled, after examining complex allegations of dishonesty on the part of both partners. It emerged that the computer business was an ‘off the books’ operation. To quote Lord Justice Patten:
“No accounts were ever produced for SMC and its income (which was largely received in cash) was never declared to the Inland Revenue by either of the parties.”
Ms Slater, who is originally from Romford, appealed, claiming that Judge Gerald had not considered all the evidence, had misunderstood parts of it, and had been biased against her.
She claimed Mr Condappa had promised to give the house after being unfaithful to her., telling the court:
“The judge looked at it [the alleged promise] and said it was totally ridiculous. But when this conversation took place, we were looking at salvaging the relationship and Mr Condappa was saying whatever he could say to get a second chance. We became a family. I didn’t see that we were going to break up and neither did he, or I don’t think [Judge Gerald] would have made that statement that he did.”
However, Lord Justice Patten dismissed her appeal, saying that the original judge would have been unlikely to come to a different conclusion about her credibility if he had not accepted that letters involved in the case had been forged. His Lordship also dismissed a second claim, that a conversation in 1995 regarding a half share in the house had been bolstered by a further conversation in 1997. This was “highly improbable”, said Lord Justice Patten.
So did the agreement ever exist? It seems unlikely – after all, Mr Condappa owned the house for several years before Ms Slater moved in 1994. There was plenty to suggest during the proceedings that both parties were capable of dishonesty
But on the other hand, they did live together as an “established family unit” for years, and even seem to have prospered while she helped to run the computer business. I can understand why she would find it very hard to accept she should leave with nothing but in the absence of a marriage, her only option to establish a claim on the property would have been to make an argument based on Chancery property law.
Cohabitation legislation such as they have in Scotland could have meant a different outcome for Ms Slater. Were such legislation to be introduced here, former partners no longer would have to make their claims to property on the basis of complex Chancery law. I think it is high time England caught up with Scotland in this regard and I have consistently called for a cohabitation law to be introduced. Given that there are now as many people cohabiting with children as married couples, some form of legal redress should those relationships end must be in the interests of all those children.