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Unmarried couples and property problems

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My attention has recently been turned to the case of Southwell v Blackburn [2014] EWCA Civ 1347.

The case involved the breakdown of an unmarried couple’s relationship which had lasted 10 years. The Court was asked to decide whether or not the partner who had given up her secured tenancy to move into her partner’s house, which he owned, was entitled to a share of the property which they had lived in.

On the facts it was Blackburn who had claimed that she had given up everything to be with Southwell and that she had heavily invested in the previous property she had rented. On this basis she asked the Court to find that the property was either held on trust between them in equal shares or that she was entitled to a claim of enforceable equity by reason of proprietary estoppel.  

The Court did not accept the claim by Blackburn that the property was held on trust in equal shares as on the facts, the evidence did not show that Southwell had made any clear promise about shared ownership.  However the Court did find that Southwell had always assured Blackburn that she would always have a home, promised her secured rights of occupation and told her that he was making a long-term commitment to provide Blackburn with a secure home. The Court found that without those assurances Blackburn would not have given up her secured tenancy. The lost security and money she had lost was valued at £28,500 and therefore the Court ordered Southwell to pay Blackburn this sum.

Even though Southwell appealed the decision to the Court of Appeal this was not successful.  The Court of Appeal agreed with the decision of the lower Court finding that Blackburn acted in her detriment on the promises made by Southwell that she would have a home for life.

This case illustrates that more and more the Courts will find a way to try and award some form of compensation to the party who appears to have been left ‘worse off’ on the breakdown of a relationship.

A potential problem to avoid litigation is for couples to enter into a cohabitation agreement which records exactly what is agreed between the parties on the contributions to a household which will avoid any uncertainty in the future.

To read the judgment on this case, click here.

By Liam Waine, partner in the dispute resolution team

For advice in relation to any unmarried cohabitation dispute you can contact the Dispute Resolution team at Stephensons Solicitors LLP on 01616 966 229