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PROPERTY: Morris v Morris [2008] EWCA Civ 257

Date:22 FEB 2008

(Court of Appeal; 22 February 2008; Pill and May LJJ and Sir Peter Gibson)

The husband had run a farming business in partnership with his mother; the mother owned the property, and leased it to the farming business. After the wife brought divorce proceedings, the husband's mother changed her will, leaving the property to the husband's children by a previous marriage, rather than to the husband, in an attempt to minimise the wife's recovery in the divorce proceedings. The wife, who had worked for many years without pay to assist the farming business, and had operated a riding school from the farm, brought an action against the estate of the husband's mother, arguing that she had a beneficial interest in the farm. The judge found that although there had been no agreement or arrangement to share the beneficial interest, there was a common intention constructive trust based on conduct, and proprietary estoppel, and he declared that the wife had a 25% interest in the property.

The judge had been beguiled into believing that he could produce what he regarded as a reasonable or fair result in the wife's favour; he did not have that luxury. There had been insufficient evidence to establish either a common intention constructive trust based on conduct, to be found only in exceptional circumstances, or proprietary estoppel. The court was to be cautious before finding that the activities of a wife or cohabitant could be explained on the basis that she believed she was acquiring an interest in land.