Detriment, conscience and the fine art of judicial shade

As the Land Law year rolls into co-ownership/constructive trust season, I was interested/irritated* (*delete as applicable) to see the appearance of another in the seemingly unending  parade of common intention constructive trusts cases: O’Neill v Holland [2020] EWCA Civ 1583.

Sometimes these things make me wish that (ALERT: mostly gratuitous Legal History reference coming up, to justify inclusion in ostensibly LH-centric blog) the Statute of Uses had done a better job of stamping out the whole law-equity separation business, but never mind – they must be read and inwardly digested.

This was a Court of Appeal case, centred on (parts of) a case which had been dealt with by a District Judge, District Judge Obodai, and then, in a County Court, by HHJ Pelling. The ‘live’ part of the dispute centred around a house in Farnworth, Bolton (53 Worsley Road for those keen Land Law fans who want to enter it on their Constructive Trusts Cases Maps … well, there might be such people). Ms O’Neill wanted reaffirmation of an earlier holding that this property, held in the sole name of Mr Holland, was in fact held on trust for both of them, and that she had a 50% equitable interest. She got it.

The main point of Land Law interest was, I suppose, discussion of whether it would matter if there was not specific pleading of detrimental reliance, or a specific finding of it, in the circumstances that, as far as the CA was concerned, there was in fact evidence of detrimental reliance. Answer – no. Also, there was a bit of an attempt to expand the importance of ‘unconscionability’ as something which could make up for lack of (pleading of? or actual?) detrimental reliance. This did not work. Nevertheless, the CA seemed happy that there had been evidence of DR – with particular reference to not sorting out legal/equitable positions earlier on, as a result of a misrepresentation that Ms O’Neill would not have been able to obtain a mortgage. (A minor legal point – I confess I had to look up what an ‘equity of exoneration’ was – mentioned early on, at 12).

Apart from that, I found myself going back to a bit of an obsession – how judges in judge-only trials present their views of those who have given evidence before them. Clearly they are going to have to evaluate credibility, and prefer one version to the other, but there is quite a variation in how critical, or condemnatory they are prepared to be. I have mentioned this in previous posts. Here, the DJ went for it in a fairly strong way. As Henderson LJ put it, at para. 9, ‘It is fair to say that the District Judge was distinctly unimpressed by the evidence of these witnesses, and in particular by the evidence of Mr Holland whom she described on more than one occasion as “a stranger to the truth”.’ Also, at 49, Henderson LJ noted that Mr Holland had been held by the DJ to have given evidence which “beggared belief”. This view of the party’s honesty was thus stated, and repeated in the easily-available public judgment (and by those commenting on it …). Not for the first time, I do find myself wondering about what that must feel like – if the parties know.

On a related matter, when judges’ cases are appealed, there is an issue of the level of ‘shade’ to be ‘thrown’ on them (see how down with the kids I am!). Here, Henderson LJ, at 7.,  is a touch sniffy about the fact that the DJ’s judgment ‘[ran] to 50 pages and 184 paragraphs’ and suggested at 18 that she had ‘fallen into error’ by not using existing case law properly. At 46., he gives us ‘The relevant findings of the District Judge are contained in paragraphs 154 to 161 of her judgment. With respect to her, they could sometimes have been more clearly expressed and are not always entirely easy to follow.’ Relatively mild, I suppose. In relation to the decision in County Court, he says, at 60, ‘In my respectful opinion, Judge Pelling adopted too narrow a view of the District Judge’s findings of fact, and he was also wrong to take the view that detrimental reliance had not been pleaded sufficiently or at all by Ms O’Neill’ . Possibly slightly more ‘respectful’? I am not sure. It would certainly be interesting to consider the range of different ways of dealing with/ disagreeing with lower level decisions which are used by appeal courts, by whom, and in relation to whom. A project for somebody?

Finally, this touched on another of my obsessions – questioning gendered writing in legal documents. As another page on the blog makes clear, I am not in favour of the rather frequent use of ‘emasculation’ in legal discourse, to indicate weakening/ worsening. I wonder whether similar concerns apply to the description of things, including judgments, as ‘seminal’ (here, at 27, we have the ‘seminal speech’ of Lord Diplock in Gissing v Gissing [1971] AC 886.’ Does it need the sperm-related subtext? (Could a speech ever be ‘ovular’, and if not, why not?). Or can this usage be excused on the ground that the word is wider than human sperm, and takes in all sorts of ‘seeding’? A point to ponder.





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