Vijay discusses the recent High Court decision in Evans& Ors v Lloyd & Another EWHC 1725 (Ch)over whether a gift made during a farmer’s lifetime could be rescinded on grounds of undue influence or unconscionable transactions.
In the recent case of Evans & Ors v Lloyd & Another  EWHC 1725 (Ch) the personal representatives of a Welsh farmer argued that the High Court should rescind a gift made during his lifetime to his employers of all his property on the grounds that it was either unconscionable or procured by undue influence.
The deceased, Wynne Evans, spent his entire life from the age of 14 living on a farm known as Cefnbarrach and working for the proprietors, David and Elizabeth Lloyd (and before that, their parents). Wynne was not related to Mr and Mrs Lloyd in any way but over the years had developed an extremely close relationship with the Lloyds and was in effect accepted as a member of the family.
Being the only member of the family with a farming background, Wynne was left a farmhouse and a 10 acre plot of land on the death of his older brother, Ieuan, in 1985 which he later gifted to Mr and Mrs Lloyd free of charge.
Following Wynne’s death, his remaining family sought to have these gifts set aside on the grounds that they were unconscionable transactions and that Mr and Mrs Lloyd had unduly influenced Wynne to make these gifts.
The principles regarding claims for undue influence have been clearly identified in the case of Allcard v Skinner (1887) 36 Ch D 145 and a transaction is liable to be set aside where the relationship is one where B places such trust and confidence in A that he is disposed to agree with A and where A takes advantage of this trust and confidence. In the facts of this case, it was clear that Wynne was wholly dependent on Mr and Mrs Lloyd in relation to his employment and accommodation. He had little education and practically no experience of the world outside the home. The High Court rejected the claimants’ argument that the gifts should be set aside under this ground firstly, because this relationship of trust and confidence did not exist. Mr and Mrs Lloyd never managed Wynne’s finances and there was clear evidence to suggest that, although Wynne enjoyed a simple life, he was an “independently minded man” with his own views on areas such as politics. Secondly, the High Court rejected the claim of undue influence as the gift could be explained as “ordinary motives by which people are accustomed to act” – Lord Scott at paragraph 220 Royal Bank of Scotland v Ettridge  UKHL 44,  2 AC 773.
The main distinction between the grounds of undue influence and unconscionable transactions is that the latter does not require a pre-existing relationship between the parties. A transaction can be set aside as unconscionable if B is suffering from a certain kind of disability or disadvantage, the transaction is oppressive to B and A knowingly acted unconscionably in taking advantage of A. The claimants argued that Mr and Mrs Lloyd knowingly took advantage of the fact that Wynne left school at an early age, had little worldly experience and did nothing to dissuade him from seeking independent legal advice when making the gifts. Although the High Court accepted the fact that the gifts were disadvantageous to Wynne in a practical sense, it was not possible to say that the defendants were morally culpable to justify this ground.
Whilst it seems that the High Court, in any event, would have dismissed the claimants’ claims, it did so primarily because of a technicality.
The High Court dismissed the claimants’ case on the ground of “laches” which is where claims can be dismissed by reasons of them being brought after an “unreasonable delay”. In the present case, the claimants exercised an unreasonable delay in pursuing the claim as their action was brought more than 15 years after the gifts were made and nearly 6 years after Wynne’s death. The High Court was of the opinion that Wynne’s brother (the person entitled to a Grant of Representation in his estate) had clearly taken no steps to take a Grant or challenge the gifts until 2011, under the influence of another family member.