Cohabitation: Ely v Robson 
Update: Ely v Robson  EWCA Civ 774
This case involved a property dispute following several years of cohabitation.
Mr Ely, the Claimant, solely owed the property in which both parties cohabited. In 2005 the parties separated, but they continued to live in the property together. Ms Robson’s elderly aunt also resided with them, as did Mr Ely’s mother at times.
Mr Ely issued possession proceedings and the trial was listed for September 2007. Shortly prior to this, the parties had a meeting without their solicitors present in which they attempted to negotiate a settlement. Ms Robson argued that no agreement was reached at this meeting, but Mr Ely suggested otherwise and argued that they agreed for him to hold the property on trust for himself for life, with a remainder of 80% for his heirs and assigns and 20% to the Respondent. In addition, they agreed that Ms Robson could occupy the property whilst the elderly aunt and mother were still alive.
A few years later, the elderly aunt and mother passed away and Ms Robson refused to move out of the property. Mr Ely applied for a declaration of the parties’ beneficial interests and for an order for sale under TLATA 1996. Mr Ely argued the agreement stood, particularly as it was subsequently confirmed in writing by Mr Ely’s solicitors. Ms Robson disputed this and instead argued that the agreement between them was uncertain and incomplete, further terms in their agreement hadn’t yet been decided, and that the whole agreement should have been in writing not just part. She also argued that the parties did not intend for the agreement to be immediately binding.
The Court of Appeal held that at the meeting held between the parties, they had a common understanding as to their interests in the property, and Mr Ely subsequently acted to his detriment in reliance. Equity therefore stepped in and came to Mr Ely’s rescue.
The key significance of this decision, particularly from our perspective, is that it is clear that the terms of a solicitor’s letter are capable of forming the basis of a binding agreement in a dispute such as this. The decision also reminds us of the need to remind clients that oral discussions that take place without solicitors present are capable of being binding if the parties understand the nature of the agreement.
Please contact Richard Phillips or Holly Baker if you would like more information about the issues raised in this article or any aspect of family law.