Undue influence?

Photo by Simon Rae on Unsplash

A recent case in the Outer House of the Court of Session dealt with the issue of undue influence between a mother and her daughter, but don’t jump to conclusions – yet.

We often think of parents exercising a huge amount of influence over their children – especially when they are younger. This is a necessary condition of life. We trust and hope that our parents and guardians will use this influence for our benefit.

As the years go by, children naturally enough want to take control and make their own decisions – good or bad – in spite of parental opinions. Making your own decisions can be an example of youthful rebellion or a sign of growing maturity and confidence – depending on the type of relationship that we have with our parents.

I want to flip this discussion around and change focus. What if the influence in the relationship is going in a different direction? What if it is the child rather than the parent who is the influencer (to use a fashionable term)?

This is not a particularly unusual situation: many people with older parents (and we do live in what seems to be a rapidly ageing society in Scotland and the rest of the UK) will be acting in a very sound legal fashion if they set up a power of attorney to make decisions on behalf of their parents.

We all hope that our parents will remain healthy in old age and will continue to enjoy their independence, but what if the day comes when parents can no longer exercise their autonomy in decision making. The power of attorney facility in Scots Law allows children (or other relatives) to make vital decisions on behalf of their ailing parents. In short order, the power of attorney is something most of us would rather not use; it’s an insurance policy when the worst happens allowing us to make those vital decisions about parental healthcare and the management of family assets.

The case in question was Adeline Margaret Wilson v Peter Watkins & Another [2019] CSOH 44 where Lord Brodie concluded in his Opinion that there was no evidence of undue influence which would have rendered the course of dealings (the transfer of ownership of the parental home) between mother and daughter suspect or dubious in any meaningful way.

In this case, the mother (Mrs Wilson) had invited her daughter and her son-in-law (Mr Watkins) in 2012 to come and live with her. Mrs Wilson had gained title to her home following the death of her husband some years before. The Watkins sold their property in order to move in with Mrs Wilson.  The trio enjoyed a good relationship at first and, some time later (2013), Mrs Wilson transferred the ownership of the property to her daughter by way of a disposition (although she reserved a liferent to herself permitting her to remain living in the house). There appears to have been a falling out in 2015 and Mrs Wilson left the home to move in with her other daughter.

A legal challenge was lodged by Mrs Wilson at the Court of Session in order to have the disposition (the conveyance of title) set aside i.e. made voidable on the grounds that Mrs Watkins (and her husband) had exercised undue influence by persuading her to transfer the ownership of the property to them.

As Lord Brodie emphasised, the relevant judicial precedent in Scotland is Gray v Binny (1879) 7 R 332 which contains Lord Shand’s four part  test addressing the issue of undue influence.

In the essence, the key elements of this test are as follows:

(1) that there was a relationship which created a dominant and ascendant influence,

(2) that the relationship was one of confidence and trust,

(3) that a material and gratuitous benefit had been given to the
prejudice of the granter, and

(4) that the granter had been without the benefit of any independent advice at the material time.

Critically, Lord Brodie was of the view that Mrs Wilson’s case failed to satisfy elements 2-4 of the Shand criteria. Put simply, the mere existence of the relationship of parent and child did not of itself prove that undue influence had affected the transaction or legal dealings between the parties to the dispute. Mrs Wilson’s case was therefore without merit and was not permitted to proceed to trial or proof.

As a point of interest, the Watkins had submitted a counter-claim of £45,000 in respect of an allegation of unjust enrichment against Mrs Wilson had the issue of undue influence been permitted to proceed to proof. This figure represented the sum which the Watkins had used from the sale of their own house to make improvements to Mrs Wilson’s home prior to the falling out of the trio.

A link to Lord Brodie’s Opinion can be found below:

https://www.scotcourts.gov.uk/docs/default-source/cos-general-docs/pdf-docs-for-opinions/2019csoh44.pdf?sfvrsn=0

The effect of undue influence

Undue influence potentially renders a contract or legal transaction voidable so that it may be rescinded or cancelled. It is therefore a factor which can undermine the validity of contracts or legal transactions.

If rescission, however, is being sought as a remedy by one of the parties to the contract as a remedy, there must be no delay in claiming relief after the influence has ceased to have an effect. Delay in claiming relief in these circumstances may bar the claim since delay can be used as evidence of affirmation or agreement.

Undue influence can perhaps occur particularly in the following types of relationship: parent and child; and husband and wife.

There will, of course, be other relationships where a stronger party may exert a particularly negative influence on the weaker party, for example, members of a religious cult who unquestionably obey the orders of their spiritual leader (see both the English decision of Allcard v Skinner (1887) 36 Ch D 145 and the Scottish decision of Anderson v The Beacon Fellowship (1992) S.L.T. 111 which I discuss in Chapter 2 of Introductory Scots Law: Theory & Practice )(3rd Edition)).

During the 1990s, the issue of undue influence in connection with the relationship of husband and wife was given much needed judicial clarity Several cases were brought before the Scottish and English courts regarding the issue of undue influence in the marital relationship and all of these cases had remarkably similar facts, whereby the pursuers, a number of wives, alleged that they had agreed to re-mortgage the marital home so that a bank would lend money to their husbands (usually, but not always, for business purposes).

These wives claimed that they had not been given sufficient information by their husbands when they had agreed to approve what later turned out to be very risky transactions. Some of the pursuers had not sought independent legal advice before agreeing to take out the second mortgage.

Initially, the House of Lords, in Barclays Bank plc v O’Brien [1993] UKHL 6, stated that a married woman (or cohabitee) must be regarded as a special, protected class of guarantor when agreeing to guarantee her husband’s (or partner’s) debts because of the nature of the relationship. The bank should be on alert for signs of undue influence which would undermine the validity of the transaction. Their Lordships were of the opinion that the bank should be placed under a duty of care to ensure that the wife or the cohabitee had had the benefit of independent advice.

Their Lordships, however, rowed backed slightly from this position in a subsequent English case: CIBC Mortgages v Pitt [1994] 1 AC 200. In other words, the legal position on undue influence as factor which might undermine a legal transaction was evolving. In Pitt, a wife was not allowed to succeed in her claim of undue influence because the mortgage was in the names of both husband and wife and, therefore, she was benefiting from the transaction.

The decision of their Lordships in Barclays Bank plc v O’Brien was, however, not followed by the Inner House of the Court of Session in Mumford v Bank of Scotland 1996 SLT 392 where it was held that banks are not under a general duty to explain all the material circumstances of a loan to someone who has guaranteed it.

In Smith v Bank of Scotland [1997] UKHL 26, the House of Lords attempted to bring Scots law into line with English law. Lord Clyde stated that there were a number of sound reasons for attempting to harmonise the laws of Scotland and England:

“I am not persuaded that there are any social or economic considerations which would justify a difference in the law between the two jurisdictions in the particular point here under consideration. Indeed when similar transactions with similar institutions or indeed branches of the same institutions may be taking place in both countries there is a clear practical advantage in the preservation of corresponding legal provisions.”

In a further English case, Royal Bank of Scotland PLC v Ettridge (No. 2) [2001] UKHL 44 the House of Lords appeared to retreat from the position that it had originally laid out in Barclays Bank v O’Brien (1993) whereby that married women or cohabitees should be regarded as a special, protected class of guarantor. The House of Lords in Ettridge has stated that undue influence will not be automatically presumed merely because the parties to a transaction are husband and wife.

In a series of of subsequent cases (Forsyth v Royal Bank of Scotland PLC (2000) SLT 1295, Clydesdale Bank Ltd v Black (2002) SLT 764 and Royal Bank of Scotland PLC v Wilson & Ors (2003) ScotCS 396), the Inner House of the Court of Session refused to accept the automatic presumption that wives were unduly influenced by their husbands. Misrepresentations by the husband were more likely to have induced the wives to agree to become guarantors rather than any hint of undue influence. Misrepresentation, of course, a completely separate factor which can potentially render a legal transaction voidable.

In Mumford v Bank of Scotland (1996), Lord Hope made the following statement which (I think) sensibly sums up the approach taken by the Scottish courts in these types of cases between husbands and wives:

There is no indication in this passage that a presumption of undue influence can arise merely from the nature of the transaction and the fact of the relationship. What is important is the effect of that relationship in the particular case, with the result that each case must be examined upon its own facts.” [my emphasis].

In conclusion, I think that Lord Hope hit the nail on the head: the mere existence of a relationship where influence could be abused does not of itself mean that anything underhand has occurred and, therefore, each case will have to be approached on its own merits.

Copyright Seán J Crossan, 26 October 2019