As any long-time reader of this blog will be aware, I am a staunch supporter of basic property rights for cohabitees. I strongly believe that, for example, if one cohabitee makes a significant contribution towards a property owned by the other cohabitee (i.e. usually the property in which they both lived), then they should be entitled to a share of that property if the relationship breaks down. In other words, I don’t think it is fair that the owning cohabitee should benefit from the efforts of the non-owning cohabitee.
A recent case demonstrates just how hard it can be under the current law for such a ‘contributing cohabitee’ to succeed with a claim for a share in a property owned by their former partner, and perhaps, therefore, the need for a fairer system.
The case was Dobson v Griffey, heard by His Honour Paul Matthews in the High Court last month (his judgment was handed down on the 10th of May). Note that the case was heard in the Chancery Division, rather than the Family Division, as cohabitee disputes such as this are not classified as ‘family’ matters, despite obviously having a strong ‘family’ element and many of the characteristics of a family dispute following the breakdown of a marriage or civil partnership.
As we will see, the fact that it is not a ‘family’ case is not a trivial matter for the claimant, as the case is determined according to complex rules which must seem quite alien to most claimants – how they could ever deal with such a claim without specialist legal advice, I don’t know.
Anyway, to the facts of the case.
The relationship between the parties began in October 2004, and by August 2006 they were living together, in a rented property. In February 2007 the defendant, Mr Griffey, purchased a farm in his sole name, with the aid of a mortgage. The parties lived together in the farmhouse. Their relationship broke down in December 2011, and the claimant, Ms Dobson, moved out in the following year. Between the purchase of the farm and the breakdown of the relationship various works of renovation and improvement were carried out to the farm, first to the stables and other parts to be used as a livery business, and later to the farmhouse itself.
HHJ Matthews explained Ms Dobson’s case thus:
“The claimant’s case is that, before the property was bought, there was an agreement between them as to their respective rights in relation to it and that the claimant relied to her detriment on that agreement by carrying out some of the works of renovation and improvement. Alternatively, an agreement to similar effect is to be inferred from the course of dealing between them. She has a fallback position that she had an expectation of being able to live at the farm for the rest of her life.”
Mr Griffey denied that there was any such agreement, and also minimised the extent to which Ms Dobson carried out or contributed to the works of renovation.
Obviously, Ms Dobson could not rely upon any law akin to that available upon divorce, where the court can adjust ownership of property, as it thinks fit. Instead, she had to rely upon the doctrines of ‘constructive trust’ and/or ‘proprietary estoppel’. These are explained by HHJ Matthews in his judgment, but essentially a ‘constructive trust’ is where the parties had a common intention that the property should be shared, and the non-owner acts to her detriment, in reliance of that intention. ‘Proprietary estoppel’ is similar, whereby the owner “by his words or conduct makes an assurance to or creates an expectation in the claimant.”
To cut a long story short, HHJ Matthews found that Ms Dobson had done “significant work” to the property, had “made a real contribution by her labour and her supervision”, and during one period “did a great deal of heavy and laborious work”, which “amounted to a significant contribution to the renovations.” However, he held that none of this was done for the purpose of financial gain – her labour and commitment were simply “understandable in the context of their relationship and their intended long-term future together with children.”
Further, and crucially, whatever Ms Dobson’s intentions, HHJ Matthews could not infer that Mr Griffey’s intentions were to agree to share the property, or any profit that might be derived from it, with Ms Dobson. He had paid for everything, and had made no promise or assurance to Ms Dobson of an interest in the property, or that she could remain there for the rest of her life.
Accordingly, Ms Dobson’s claim was dismissed.
Has the law treated Ms Dobson unfairly? Well, to be honest, this is not necessarily a cut and dried case. The relevant part of the relationship was only four years, and there were no children. The typical sort of case where I see real unfairness, and therefore the need for reform, is where the relationship is much longer, often with children, and the non-owning party has therefore devoted a considerable part of their life to it – in those circumstances, I do not think it is fair that she (and it usually is ‘she’) should come away with nothing.