When family members reach important decisions between themselves, it is tempting to dispense with formality and save a little money on legal fees. However, one case in which an elderly woman faced eviction from the home where she had lived all her life showed how very unwise that approach can be.
The woman was one of three children brought up in the house and, when her brother and sister moved out, she remained living there with her parents. When her mother died, the house was left to her siblings. However, it was agreed at a family meeting that she could remain living there for the rest of her life. No written record was kept of what was said at the meeting or the terms of the agreement reached.
Following her sister’s death, her brother sold the house. The price that he received reflected the woman’s continuing right to live in the property. He made a statutory declaration that she was entitled to occupy the house for life, or for so long as she wished, provided that she maintained and insured it.
The freehold of the house ultimately came into the hands of a company, which served the woman with notice to quit. It alleged that, in breach of her licence to occupy the property, she had failed to insure it or maintain it properly. A judge upheld the company’s arguments and issued a possession order against her.
In ruling on her challenge to that decision, the Court of Appeal noted that, in interpreting the informal family agreement, it was constrained to rely on the terms of the statutory declaration that had been signed by the brother 23 years after the event. Dismissing the appeal, the Court rejected arguments that the woman’s right to remain in occupation was not conditional upon her insuring and maintaining the property and that the company could do no more than claim damages against her. Her admitted breaches provided sufficient grounds for termination of her licence.