Privy Council dismisses husband’s Jamaican property appeal

finances and divorce

You wait years for a family law-related Privy Council decision, and then two come along in quick succession. Hot on the heels of Marr v Collie, we have just been treated to the Board’s wisdom in Miller & Another v Miller & Another (Jamaica), a case concerning the ownership by a husband and wife of a property in, you guessed it, Jamaica.

Not that the wife lived in Jamaica. Although she, like the husband, was a Jamaican citizen, she met the husband in Connecticut, where they were married in 1993, and where they and their three children lived until the marriage broke down in 2007. The wife and children then moved to a property that she and the husband had recently bought in the state of Georgia, and the husband returned to live in Jamaica.

The parties were divorced in Connecticut in 2008, and the division of all of their assets save one was dealt with by agreement within the divorce proceedings. The exception was a property that they bought in Jamaica in 2004. There were said to be complex legal issues in relation to the property, and it was therefore arranged that if the parties could not agree what was to happen to the property, the matter would be dealt with by the court in Jamaica.

The Jamaican property was purchased in joint names. A hotel was built on it. The hotel was damaged by Hurricane Dean in 2007 and was thereafter reconstructed. The husband continues to live there and appears to continue to run a hotel business there.

And that is about as much as was agreed between the parties regarding the property. They could not agree how the purchase of the property was financed, nor how the building, equipping or reconstruction of the hotel was paid for. And they certainly could not agree what should happen to the property.

Accordingly in 2009 the wife applied to the Jamaican Supreme Court (which, strangely, is not the supreme court in Jamaica) for a declaration that she was the sole beneficial owner of the property (for an explanation of the difference between ‘legal’ and ‘beneficial’ ownership, see my earlier post on Marr v Collie). Unfortunately, her application did not go well. Not only did the court find that she was not the sole beneficial owner, it ordered her to transfer her interest in the property to the husband.

The wife appealed, to the Court of Appeal of Jamaica. The Court of Appeal, paying rather more attention to the evidence (see paragraph 14 of the judgment for an analysis of the Supreme Court judge’s findings), found that the original intention of the parties was to hold the beneficial interest in the property in equal shares, and that there was no reason to depart from that intention. Accordingly, it was ordered that the property should be sold and that the proceeds should be divided equally.

The husband appealed against that decision, to the Board (the name given to the panel of judges that hear a Privy Council case – I don’t know why, but it always conjures up images of the heads of a Mafiosi family in my (warped) mind). Unsurprisingly, he sought the restoration of the order of the Supreme Court, although with a fall-back position (adopted late in the day) that the Board should order that the wife’s claim be re-tried.

The Board agreed with the Jamaican Court of Appeal. There were some arguments about the applicable law in Jamaica, but I won’t go into those here, as the law is obviously different (albeit fairly similar to) the law over here. The case was dealt with under a Jamaican statute dealing with property rights of spouses, but the final reasoning was more akin to that used in a dispute between unmarried owners à la Stack v Dowden.

Essentially, the Board agreed that the starting-point was that the parties both intended that the property should be in their equal beneficial ownership (the husband had actually accepted this) and that, even on the Supreme Court judge’s findings, the costs of purchase and of the construction of the hotel had been met out of their pooled resources. Nothing that had been argued on behalf of either party provided a basis for departing from that original intention, and a re-trial was unnecessary.

Accordingly, the husband’s appeal was dismissed.

I’m not sure that this case adds anything to the jurisprudence on the issue of beneficial ownership, but I suppose it is effectively another example of the Stack v Dowden principles – look first at what the deeds say, and then look at the intentions of the parties, to see whether that alters what the deeds say.

The full report of the case can be found here.

Photo of Montego Bay, Jamaica, by Op. Deo via Wikipedia

John Bolch

John Bolch often wonders how he ever became a family lawyer. He no longer practises, but has instead earned a reputation as one of the UK's best-known family law bloggers.

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