Allcard v Skinner
Court of Appeal
Citations: (1887) 36 Ch D 145.
The claimant’s confessor introduced to the defendant, a lady superior of a sisterhood, when she was young. The claimant decided to become a member of the sisterhood. As part of her initiation, she had to swear a number of vows of obedience and poverty. The vow of obedience required her to treat the defendant as the word of God. Sisters required the defendant’s permission to seek external advice or counsel. The vow of poverty required her to give away all her possessions, either to relatives, the poor or to the sisterhood itself. The defendant held any property given to the sisterhood on trust for the organisation.
The claimant chose to give all her possessions to the sisterhood. Just over a decade later, she left the sisterhood. She discussed the possibility of reclaiming her property with a lawyer shortly after, but did not act on this. Six years after that, she claimed back the property. She argued that she had made the gift under undue influence.
- Was the claimant under undue influence when she made the gift?
- Was the claim barred by laches and acquiescence?
The Court of Appeal concluded that the gift was tainted by undue influence. They presumed this from the claimant’s relationship with the sisterhood, the defendant and her confessor.
However, the claim was barred for laches and acquiescence. The claimant’s delay, combined with evidence that she had considered reclaiming the gift but had chosen not to, showed that she acquiesced to the defendant keeping the property. The claimant could not reclaim her gift as a result.
This Case is Authority For…
There are two types of undue influence. The first is where there is evidence that the gift was made as a result of overt pressure or influence. The second is where that influence can be presumed from the relationship between the donor and donee. In the latter case, the burden is on the donee to show that the donor made the gift of their own free and independent will.
There is no need for the influence exercised over the donee to be wrongful or done in bad faith for the court to find it ‘undue’. Undue influence can be inherent in the degree of power a particular person has over another by virtue of their relationship.
Mere delay is not enough to establish laches and acquiescence. Only delay or behaviour which indicates that the claimant acquiesces to the situation counts. The claimant must be aware of their rights.
Cotton LJ (who dissented on the issue of laches) noted that the justification for voiding contracts in express undue influence cases was the principle that ‘no one shall be allowed to retain any benefit arising from his own fraud or wrongful act’. The justification for the implied undue influence is not wrongful behaviour, by contrast. Instead, public policy requires the return of the gift ‘to prevent the relations which existed between the parties and the influence arising therefrom being abused’. Lindley LJ thought that the doctrine’s purpose was to protect people from victimisation.