Errington v Errington and Woods
Court of Appeal
Citations:  1 KB 290;  1 All ER 149;  1 TLR 231; (1952) 96 SJ 119;  CLY 624.
Errington’s son married the defendant. To provide for his son, Errington bought a house for the couple to occupy. He provided the deposit and paid certain rates associated with the purchase. The couple, meanwhile, promised to pay the weekly mortgage instalments. He told the defendant that so long as they paid off the mortgage, they were entitled to remain in the house. Errington also told her that he would transfer title to the house to them when they had fully paid the mortgage.
Errington died, leaving all of his property to his widow – the claimant. After his death, his son left the defendant. The defendant continued to occupy the house and pay the mortgage. Her sister later moved in with her. The claimant brought an action to evict the defendant and her sister from the property.
- Did the defendant and her husband have any property rights in the house?
- Did the defendant and her husband have any contractual entitlement to remain in the house?
- If the defendant was entitled to remain in the house, could her sister be evicted?
The Court of Appeal held in favour of the defendant. She and her husband had no property rights in the house. However, they had the benefit of a contract which allowed them to remain so long as they paid the mortgage. The defendant was entitled to have guests: her sister could not be evicted either.
This Case is Authority For…
This case effectively involve a unilateral offer by the father to let the couple live in the house if they paid the mortgage. The court held that it was no longer possible for the father (or his widow, claiming through his estate) to renege on the deal once they had begun paying the mortgage. This shows that unilateral offers cannot be withdrawn once the offeree has begun to accept through performance.
This case also demonstrates that where an agreement has a formal basis, such as the mortgage agreement in this case, the courts are likely to conclude that even family members can intend to be legally bound by an arrangement.
The judges did not reach a definitive conclusion on whether the couple were entitled to have the house transferred to them if they paid off the mortgage. Somervell LJ, however, noted that enforcing the contract at that point might run into difficulties. This was because the transfer of land requires certain formalities and in this case the contract was oral.
The judges, in finding that the couple did not have a lease, focused heavily on the fact that they were not obliged to pay rent. While the couple paid the mortgage instalments, they were not under any legal obligation to do so – the mortgage contract was in the father’s name. It is unclear if this point would be decided the same way today. Modern courts have been more relaxed about requiring rent. They have also significantly developed the doctrines of constructive trust and proprietary estoppel in a way which might apply to these facts.