Parker v Clark


[1960] 1 All ER 93

Exeter Assizes


Mr and Mrs Clark were an elderly couple who lived in a house called Cramond. Mrs Parker was Mrs Clark's niece. The Parkers lived in a cottage called The Thimble. They were on very friendly terms with the Clarks and visited them from time to time. On 18 September 1955 Mr Clark proposed that the Parkers should join forces and live with them. Commander Parker said that it was a big thing and required much study. After thinking it over Commander Parker wrote to Mr Clark saying that if they went to live with the Clarks they would have to sell The Thimble. On 25 September Mr Clark replied by letter which stated 'Many thanks for your letter. The major difficulty re what is to happen to the 'Thimble' can be solved by our leaving 'Cramond' and its major contents.. [to Mrs Parker, and Mrs Parker's daughter and sister] when we both pass away and if you cannot maintain it they can sell out. Its present value is £9,000 to £12,000 without contents. Maintenance at present costs £200... If we go fifty-fifty on maintenance of house it would cost you half of the £200 odd... and half the running expense of food, drinks, etc. but I think it would be fair if your share of the £200 was the same as you now pay at the 'Thimble' if it is less than £200. I would pay for a daily woman four mornings a week, have a TV and a new car. You could sell out and pay off your mortgage and invest proceeds to increase your income.' The Parkers accepted this offer, sold their house and on 1 March 1956 moved in with the Clarks. Eventually the Parkers and Clarks fell out and in December 1957 the Parkers moved out of the house. They sued the Clarks for breach of contract claiming, inter alia, a third share of the house.


The issue before the court was whether the two families had intended to create a legal relationship.


Devlin J


The contract relied on by the plaintiffs is said to be contained in the defendants' letter of Sept. 25 and Commander Parker's acceptance thereof. In this part of the case, since Mr. Clark and Commander Parker were the contractual protagonists, it is convenient to refer to them simply as plaintiff and defendant. The defendant's first submission in answer to the claim is that the letters, construed in the light of the surrounding circumstances, show no intention to enter into a legal relationship or to make a binding contract. No doubt a proposal between relatives to share a house and a promise to make a bequest of it may very well amount to no more than a family arrangement of the type considered in Balfour v Balfour which the courts will not enforce. But there is equally no doubt that arrangements of this sort, and in particular a proposal to leave property in a will, can be the subject of a binding contract. The letter proposal has been considered chiefly in relation to marriage contracts. In Synge v Synge it was held that the defendant, who promised in writing, as part of the terms of the marriage, to leave a house and land to the plaintiff, had thereby entered into a binding contract. Kay, LJ, delivering the judgment of the Court of Appeal, quoted the dictum of Lord Lyndhurst, LC, in Hammersley v De Biel, which is as follows:


'... the principle of law, at least of equity, is this -- that if a party holds out inducements to another to celebrate a marriage, and holds them out deliberately and plainly, and the other party consents, and celebrates the marriage in consequence of them, if he had good reason to expect that it was intended that he should have the benefit of the proposal which was so held out, a court of equity will take care that he is not disappointed, and will give effect to the proposal.'


That is the principle which I apply here; and, indeed, a contract of marriage is not dissimilar to an agreement by two families to live together for the rest of their joint lives.


The question must, of course, depend on the intention of the parties to be inferred from the language which they use and from the circumstances in which they use it. On the plaintiff's side, I accept his evidence that he considered that he was making a binding contract. An important factor in this was that he disposed of his own residence. It does not matter for this purpose whether it was or was not a term of the contract that he should sell The Thimble; the important thing is that the contract required him to give up his occupation of The Thimble and that he was always quite clear, and made it quite clear, that he would not give up occupation unless he also gave up the ownership and parted with the property. He would not have done that, he says (and I believe it), unless he thought that he was securing another permanent home. There is, undoubtedly, in the arrangement a lack of formality on which counsel for the defendants greatly relies. This, I think, is largely explained by the relationship between the parties; it is easier to demand formal documents from a stranger than it is from a relative and friend. It is clear that the plaintiff constantly relied on the letter of Sept. 25, 1955, as a sort of title to his rights; he kept it and referred to it whenever his rights were called in question. When, on Oct. 24, 1957, they were seriously threatened, he went forthwith and consulted a solicitor. He is not, in my judgment, the sort of man who would 'think up' a legal action as an afterthought when he found that he was not getting what he wanted.


The plaintiff is not a moneyed man. On the strength of the defendant's promise he, so to speak, put down £672 10s. That is the figure which is agreed as the expense which he incurred in giving up The Thimble, on the assumption that he could re-purchase The Thimble or a cottage like it. In addition to that, he tied up £2,000, so that he has never since been in a position to buy another property like The Thimble and has never in fact bought one. The defendant knew this and had plenty of time to reflect on it between Sept. 25, 1955, when he wrote his letter, and Mar. 1, 1956, when the plaintiffs arrived. If he had thought that all that his letter involved was an amicable arrangement terminable at will, I cannot believe that he would not have enlightened the plaintiff and, as a cautious man himself, have warned him against the folly of what he was doing. I cannot believe either that the defendant really thought that the law would leave him at liberty, if he so chose, to tell the plaintiffs when they arrived that he had changed his mind, that they could take their furniture away and that he was indifferent whether they found anywhere else to live or not. Yet this is what the defence means. The defendant gave several answers which show that this was not really his state of mind. He said that the object of the letter was to induce the plaintiffs to come to Cramond; and he agreed also that he made the will in fulfilment of the promise. I am satisfied that an arrangement binding in law was intended by both sides.