Court rules on unmarried couples' property rights

Leonard Kernott and Patricia Jones
Image caption Leonard Kernott and Patricia Jones bought the house in 1985 and took out a joint mortgage

A man who left his partner nearly 20 years ago is not entitled to half the value of the house they had shared, the Supreme Court has ruled.

The highest court in the UK decided Leonard Kernott was instead entitled to 10% of its value.

Patricia Jones was challenging a Court of Appeal ruling which gave Mr Kernott an equal share of the home's value.

The Essex bungalow was bought in joint names but, after separating, Ms Jones solely paid the mortgage for 13 years.

The judgement applies to unmarried couples in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. Scotland has its own law on unmarried couples' rights.

Lawyers said Tuesday's decision could alter the legal landscape for unmarried couples arguing over property after separating.

It is thought there are more than two million co-habiting couples in England and Wales.

Equal shares

During a hearing in May, the Supreme Court heard that ice-cream salesman Mr Kernott, 51, and Ms Jones, 56, broke up in 1993 after sharing the house in Thundersley for eight years.

The couple bought the house in 1985 in joint names and took out a joint mortgage. It was valued at £240,000 in 2008.

When Mr Kernott moved out, Ms Jones continued to pay the mortgage.

Last year the Court of Appeal decided that Mr Kernott was still entitled to half the value of the house because the couple owned equal shares when they separated and neither had done anything to change the situation since.

But Supreme Court judge Lord Kerr said that the split of 90% and 10% originally imposed by a county court judge was "a fair one between the parties".

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Media captionPatricia Jones's lawyer, Ivan Sampson said it "has been a nightmare for everybody"

'Paid for everything'

Ms Jones's solicitor Ivan Sampson said his client was "ecstatic" with the ruling, however he added that at four years, the length of the case meant it had been a "nightmare" for everybody.

Mr Kernott said he accepted the judgment and hoped to move on with his life.

He said he had never wanted 50%, but had thought 25% was a "fair reflection" of what he had put into the property.

"When I lived there, I paid for everything and I completely refurbished the place," Mr Kernott added.

"I have been painted as this ogre who walked out on his family. I love my family, I didn't want to leave but it was made unbearable for me to stay.

"It's a sad day for men who are left in a similar position to me and it feels like the law will always side with the woman.

"I'm battling a serious illness and that is more important to me right now. I just want to put all of this behind me."

He told BBC Look East that when he left, he had agreed with Ms Jones that he would get his half of the house when she was ready to split the house up or buy him out.

"As time went on, I knew she would never be ready so I waited until my youngest son was 18 - I wanted my children to live in the house without any upheaval.

"I thought I would have been angry about this; I expected it to go her way because the judgement took so long. It should never have gone as far as this."

'Protect weaker partners'

BBC correspondent Jane Peel said the court was saying that when a couple have not made their intentions clear, each of them is entitled to what it deems to be fair.

"The financial contributions that couples have made are relevant but there are many other factors which enable the court to decide what shares were either intended or were fair in all the circumstances," she added.

William Healing, family law partner at Kingsley Napley, said more clarity was needed in the law.

"Despite the Supreme Court achieving a fair result for Ms Jones, the law remains grey and unclear," he said.

"This case involved an ordinary couple who were forced to fight through four levels of court."

Mr Healing added that the difference between the two court rulings of the amount that Mr Kernott would have been entitled to was £90,000.

The family lawyer called for an overarching law, such as in Scotland, to "protect the weaker party in unmarried couples and to provide certainty".

In Scotland, the law recognises that a couple who live together as if married (or in a civil partnership) have had rights and obligations between them.

If the couple separate then either can claim against the other for any economic disadvantage that he or she has suffered in the interest of the family unit, and for any economic advantage that the other person has gained.

Philippa Cunniff, a partner at family law firm Turcan Connell, said Scottish courts allow for a greater degree of certainty than the courts in England and Wales.

"It is almost inconceivable that a case of this nature would have ended up in the Supreme Court had it been decided under Scots law," she said.

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