Woman wins ‘home for life’ fight with ex-partner

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A woman promised “a home for life” by her former lover is entitled to a payout after he went back on the promise, the Court of Appeal has ruled.

Catherine Blackburn was led to believe that, although she and David Southwell would not marry, “she would have the sort of security that a wife would have”, appeal judges heard.

Because of the promise, “too trusting and foolish” divorcee Ms Blackburn gave up a secure home in 2002 to move in with “shrewd” bachelor David Southwell, who did not believe in marriage.

The appeal court judgment revealed how the couple first met in early 2000 when Mr Southwell was 41 and a claims manager living in the Portsmouth area.

Ms Blackburn was a 40-year-old teaching assistant, recently divorced and caring for daughters aged 11 and 12.

She also invested a further £4,000-£5,000 as her contribution to their £240,00 new home in Charlotte Bronte Drive, Droitwich, Worcestershire.

The house was bought in Mr Southwell’s name and he financed it with a £100,000 mortgage and £140,000 equity from his previous house.

When the relationship broke up in 2012 Ms Blackburn found herself and two daughters from her earlier marriage homeless.

Judge Daniel Pearce-Higgins QC ruled at Worcester County Court on December 13 2013 that Mr Southwell was acting “unconscionably” in seeking to deny his estranged partner part of the equity of the home they had shared.

The judge awarded her £28,500 to allow her to set herself up in much the same way as she had lived before the couple met.

Mr Southwell appealed, but today the appeal court ruled there was no reason to doubt that the county court judge was right and Mr Southwell’s repudiation of the assurance he had given Ms Blackburn was unconscionable.

Lord Justice Tomlinson, sitting with Lord Justice McFarlane and Lady Justice Macur, said: “The essence of the promise here ... was that Ms Blackburn should have a home for life, on the strength of which she gave up her own secure home in which she had invested about £15,000.”

The appeal judge said the value of the house the couple shared “in which she no doubt shouldered the major housekeeping activities, albeit she made no financial contribution, increased in value from £240,000 to £320,000.”

Mr Southwell gave evidence in court that he had no thought of getting married “having seen friends’ marriages break up”.

Judge Pearce-Higgins said in his county court ruling that Mr Southwell “did not envisage marriage because he was aware that, as a wife, Ms Blackburn might have a substantial claim against him in the event of a breakdown”.

By nature “shrewd, cautious and guarded”, he was prepared to provide a home for her and her daughters “but it was to be on his terms”.

Judge Pearce-Higgins said he was satisfied their intention was to live together as man and wife, but Mr Southwell made sure that Ms Blackburn was kept away from any of the paperwork that might suggest she had an interest in the property.

He reassured her that “she would always have a home and be secure in this one”.

In court, Mr Southwell accepted that he had agreed to provide Ms Blackburn with a home, but said it was only for so long as the relationship lasted.

Judge Pearce-Higgins concluded: “He told her that he thought he was providing her with a home for life, but now the relationship has ended he has no legal obligation to her at all.”

The judge ruled Mr Southwell had made “such reassuring promises as were necessary to persuade her to move - and thereby give up her own independence and security”.

Documents she did see provided for her to receive a lump sum if he died and were intended to encourage and reassure her.

The judge said: “He led her to believe that she would have the sort of security that a wife would have in terms of accommodation at the house and income. And she relied on that.

“And without such promise and assurance she would not have given up her house and moved in with him.”

She had taken a big risk and moved from a secure rented house on which she had spent a lot of money, left her job and moved her children.

Without trust in him and his reassurances she would not have moved as she did, the judge ruled.

The judge said: “With the benefit of hindsight, I conclude that (Ms Blackburn) now realises she was too trusting and foolish and she likes to think she would have been more cautious and more aware of the need for proper documents and clear promises and firm agreements.”

But she did gain advantages while living with Mr Southwell, including receiving his support in completing a three-year course to qualify as a speech and language therapist which increased her earning ability.

Just because Mr Southwell avoided any assurance that they were equal owners of the property “it does not follow that he could not have given an assurance as to security of rights of occupation in the house they were buying together”.

The judge said: “The promise made was not of a half share in the house, but it was of security. His promise has not been fulfilled.”

He ruled that it would be unconscionable for Mr Southwell to do anything “other than to seek to put her put her back in much the same position as she was before she gave up her own house”.

The appeal judges unanimously agreed.