Park Bench Agreement Leads to Legal Battle
The Court of Appeal has taken the unusual step of concluding that a verbal agreement reached by a couple on a park bench should determine the outcome of a dispute over the ownership of a house.
The two met in 1986 and began living together. In 1987, the male partner, Mr Ely, purchased a house for them to live in with the assistance of a mortgage. His partner, Ms Robson, owned another house nearby, which she retained. The couple had two children.
Ms Robson purchased a further house in 1989. Her elderly mother and aunt also went to live in the house the couple shared. Things went well until 2005 when they ended their relationship, but they continued to live together. In 2007, Mr Ely asked Ms Robson to vacate the property. She refused, so he sought a possession order.
She counterclaimed against him, arguing that it was agreed between them that the property would be owned in equal shares, although the legal title was in his name alone. He claimed that he had advanced £16,000 towards the purchase of her property and this should be repaid to him.
Prior to the hearing, the couple met alone on a park bench to resolve the matter, and although their later accounts of what was agreed differed substantially, the judge accepted Mr Ely's contention that Ms Robson would be entitled to a 20 per cent share of the property they occupied and that she and her family would have the right to occupy it as long as her mother or her aunt were alive. On their deaths, Mr Ely would have the right to sell it. Mr Ely would also give up his claim as regards Ms Robson's property.
A letter was sent by Mr Ely's solicitors to Ms Robson outlining the agreement. No response was received.
In the end, the matter did not go to court for a formal resolution. Prior to the hearing date, both parties' solicitors advised the court that a resolution of the dispute was close at hand so the hearing was not required. No new hearing date was ever set.
Ms Robson's mother and aunt subsequently died. In 2014, Mr Ely sought a court order so that he could sell the property. Ms Robson claimed that the positon regarding the property was not resolved and the result was a series of claims and counterclaims regarding all the properties they owned between them.
In court, the judge accepted that the version of events presented by Mr Ely was likely to be correct, as there was no evidence that the proposals set out in the solicitors' letter of 2007 were not accepted at the time. He made the requisite orders. Ms Robson appealed.
The Court of Appeal rejected the appeal on the ground that, having heard the evidence, the judge was entitled to reach the conclusion he had.