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Cohabiting Couples and Property Rights: Ex-girlfriend Receives Payout in Landmark Ruling

Cohabiting Couples and Property Rights: Ex-girlfriend Receives Payout in Landmark Ruling

In a landmark ruling, a businessman has been ordered to pay an ex-girlfriend £28,500, after the Court of Appeal ruled he had led her to believe she would be “looked after for life”. David Southwell lost his appeal against a county court ruling after Catherine Blackburn had initially claimed half of the £320,000 house they shared during their 10 years together.

Ms Blackburn had been given the impression that, although she and Mr Southwell would never marry, “she would have the sort of security that a wife would have”. The two met in early 2000, and decided to buy a house in Droitwich, Worcestershire, with £140,000 of Mr Southwell’s money and a £100,000 mortgage taken out in his name. Ms Blackburn gave up her own home, in which she had invested £15,000, and put £5,000 of her own money in the new property.

The relationship broke down in 2012, leaving Ms Blackburn, and her two daughters from an earlier marriage, with nowhere to live after the locks of the house they had shared were changed.

“Unconscionable behaviour”

In December 2013, Judge Daniel Pearce-Higgins, QC, ruled that Mr Southwell had acted “unconscionably” in his quest to deny his former partner a share of the equity of the home they had once shared, commenting further that “The promise made was not of a half-share in the house, but it was of security”.

Mr Southwell contested the decision to award her the sum of £28,500. However at the Appeal Court, Lord Justice Tomlinson, sitting with Lord Justice McFarlane and Lady Justice Macur, said that Ms Blackburn was “effectively a wife”, and had contributed major housekeeping duties to a property which increased in value from £240,000 to £320,000.

Promissory estoppel

The judges awarded Ms Blackburn a payment under the property law principle of promissory estoppel – meaning in effect that he was not entitled to go back on the promise he had made to her with regard to the property.

Although cohabitees do not have the same rights as married couples, the Law Commission says a childless couple should be bound to support each other after living together for five years – although critics claim it would unfairly bind couples together. The government has yet to act on the matter.

One option for cohabiting couples wishing to avoid difficulties if their relationship comes to an end is to have a declaration of trust drawn up, setting out what interest each party has in a property; importantly it cannot be altered unless both sides give consent.

A wake-up call for co-habiting couples

Speaking after the Court of Appeal came to its verdict, David Southwell described it as “ridiculous”, adding that it should act as “a wake-up call for co-habiting couples”.

Ms Blackburn said she had “trusted him and believed everything he said, thinking I would be secure”. She went on to speak of her hope that the ruling would help others who find themselves in her position in the future.

We do everything in our power to make the separation and divorce process as painless as possible. Our divorce and family lawyers provide you with a full range of family law services in complete confidence.

Sometimes a situation can be resolved through mediation, rather than going all the way to a family law court. Our expert mediation and collaborative lawyers can help both parties reach an amicable settlement that protects the interests of everyone involved.

If you would like to discuss any aspect of family law, are considering divorce proceedings, or a trial separation, or want to draw up a pre or post-nuptial agreement, call us in absolute confidence on 01494 790058 or 01494 790047. Alternatively, email us at familylaw@ibblaw.co.uk.