By Dr Joanna McCunn, Lecturer in Law (University of Bristol Law School) and Dr Andrew J Bell, Research Assistant (Institute for European Tort Law of the Austrian Academy of Sciences and University of Graz, Vienna).
The ‘extraordinary’ recent case of Scarle v Scarle has brought national press attention to a property law rule dating from 1925. Though little-known and seemingly bizarre in application, the rule stands atop millennia of legal thinking and is a useful and pragmatic tool for solving this instance of an unusually challenging evidential problem. This problem, of intractable uncertainty, occurs across the legal system, and the various rules used to address it can have surprisingly extensive policy benefits.
Scarle v Scarle
John and Ann Scarle were discovered dead at their home, having both succumbed to hypothermia under mysterious circumstances. It became vital to know which of the two had died first. If Ann had outlived her husband, she would have inherited the whole of their jointly owned property; if Ann had died first, it would have passed to John. Dispute arose because each of the spouses was to be succeeded by a daughter from a previous relationship; each daughter thus stood to inherit all or nothing from her parent.
The dispute coalesced around a presumption known as the ‘commorientes rule’. Found in section 184 of the Law of Property Act 1925, this provides that, where it is uncertain which of two or more persons has outlived the other(s), a younger person is deemed to have survived an elder. While the rule itself is clear, it has been unclear what kind of ‘uncertainty’ is required for the rule to apply. Does a sequence of deaths have to be proven beyond reasonable doubt to avoid the presumption (the criminal law standard), or only on the balance of probabilities (the civil standard)?
HHJ Kramer decided that the ordinary civil standard applied: the commorientes rule is only engaged when it cannot be proven on the balance of probabilities (i.e. >50% probability) which person survived longer. In Scarle, however, even that hurdle was not met. The evidence as to the order of deaths was too equivocal and section 184 therefore kicked in: Ann Scarle was younger than, and so taken to have outlived, her husband. Her daughter inherited everything. (more…)
Since the 19th century, contract law in England has been strongly influenced by will theory: the idea that all contractual liability is founded on the intentions of the parties. Enthusiasm for this model dipped during the 20th century, as it became clear that many contracting parties were being strong-armed into contracts they only vaguely understood. However, will theory is now back with a vengeance, at least in the commercial sphere. Its implications can be seen clearly in the recent case of MWB Business Exchange Centres v Rock Advertising  UKSC 24, judgment in which was helpfully handed down by the Supreme Court the day after the Bristol contract law exam.
In November 2011, Rock Advertising began to occupy offices which were managed by MWB Business Exchange Centres. Rock were unable to meet the licence fee, and within a few months had fallen into arrears of over £12,000. On 27 February 2012, Rock proposed to defer some of its payments to MWB. The result would be that MWB would recoup the arrears, but at a later date, losing interest on the money in the meantime. In a phone conversation, MWB’s representative initially accepted the proposal. However, after consulting with her manager, she later emailed Rock purporting to reject it. On 30 March, MWB locked Rock out of the office for non-payment of the arrears, and gave notice to terminate their licence. The question was whether Rock could enforce the 27 February agreement. (more…)
Contractual interpretation continues to be a controversial topic. In a recent speech, Lord Sumption attacked Lord Hoffmann’s judgment in Investors Compensation Scheme  1 WLR 896, still the leading case in the area. For Lord Hoffmann, the key question was what a reasonable person would understand the parties to have intended by their contract, even if this was something different to the ordinary meaning of the words they had used. Lord Sumption, however, argued that the courts must give primacy to the meaning of the words.
It is sometimes suggested that Lord Hoffmann’s approach is an aberration in the common law of contract, which has consistently prioritised the meaning of the words over the parties’ apparent intentions. In fact, however, it bears a striking resemblance to the approach taken by the courts in sixteenth century England, where a very similar debate about interpretation was playing out. In a recently-published book chapter*, I explore this history and what it means for contract lawyers today. (more…)