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CASE COMMENT: BALFOUR VS. BALFOUR

Author: Shashank Singh Rathor, II year of B.A.,LL.B. from Ideal Institute of Management & Technology and School of Law, Affiliated to G.G.S.I.P.U. , Delhi


In the Court of Appeal (Civil Division)


Name of the Case Balfour vs. Balfour

Citation [1919] 2 K.B. 571

Judgment Date 25 June 1919


Appellant Mr. Balfour

Respondent Mrs. Balfour

Bench/Judges Duke LJ, Warrington LJ and Atkin LJ

Major Contribution Any kind of agreement between husband and wife for providing the maintenance is not a legally binding contract until or unless not made with the intention of legal enforceability.

Abstract

The Balfour v. Balfour case deals with intending to create a legally binding contract, especially between the married couple. This case was decided in 1919, initially, wife Mrs. Balfour filed the case in King's Bench Division (Lower Court) and fortunately got the judgment in her favour against her husband Mr. Balfour but due to the dissatisfaction with the judgment Mr. Balfour further appealed in the higher court and the court of appeal reversed the judgment of the lower court. According to the judgment of the court of appeal (Civil Division), it can be inferred that the intention is really important to get into any kind of contract and the promise made between the spouses in the daily course of life neither come under the purview of contract law nor legally enforceable if the intention to form a legally binding contract is absent. The court also said in the respective judgment, that the court can not intervene in such small issues between the spouses and ultimately this case gave birth to the doctrine of intention to create a legally binding contract.


Introduction

In the early 19th Century a dispute between husband and wife gave rise to a new aspect of contract Law and made a big question mark on the legal enforceability of agreements between spouses. In the Balfour v. Balfour case, a dispute arose between the husband and the wife for the maintenance-related money which had to be provided by the husband to the wife, according to a promise made by her husband somewhere in the past. Initially, the husband was challenged by the wife in the King’s Bench Division that the promise was legally binding to Mr. Balfour (husband) to provide maintenance to Mrs. Balfour (wife) and the King’s Bench Division Judge Sargant J. gave the verdict in favour of the wife, but the husband appealed in the honourable court of appeal and in the final decision of the honourable court of appeal it was held that any kind of agreement couldn't be legally binding between the married couples if that promise or agreement was not made with the intention of legal enforceability. And this reversed the judgment of the King's Bench Division.


Facts of the Case

  • Mr. and Mrs. Balfour married in August 1900.

  • Mr. Balfour, being a resident of Ceylon (Sri Lanka) and a government employee in Ceylon, had to return to Ceylon. Mrs. Balfour accompanied him and both of them went to Ceylon.

  • In November 1915 Mr. and Mrs. Balfour came back to England. Mr. Balfour was on leave.

  • Both of them remained in England until August 1916. The leave of Mr. Balfour got over, so he had to come back to Ceylon.

  • Unfortunately in the meantime, Mrs. Balfour had developed rheumatic arthritis (a chronic progressive illness that gives rise to inflammation in the joints and immobility, especially in fingers, wrists, ankles and feet). The doctor advised her not to go out till November 1916. So, as per the advice of the doctor, Mrs. Balfour remained in England and her husband had to leave for Ceylon alone only.

  • After a sort of discussion with Mrs. Balfour, Mr. Balfour decided to give a 24 GBP check to Mrs. Balfour, also promised her to send 30 GBP per month until he returns to England.

  • According to the statement made by both Mr. and Mrs. Balfour then everything was fine between both of them and there were not any kind of differences between them and the decision of sending 30 GBP per month was held with mutual consent between both of them as married couple.

  • After some time the relationship between Mr. and Mrs. Balfour started deteriorating. Later, Mr. Balfour wrote to Mrs. Balfour to make the separation permanent.

  • In March 1918, Mrs. Balfour initiated proceedings against Mr. Balfour for restitution of conjugal rights (this conception comes into the picture when one of the marital partners deprives any of the marital rights of the other marital partner. For example, if a husband refuses to live with his wife under the same roof then this is a violation of conjugal rights.)

  • In July 1918, they made their separation legally permanent. That means Mr. and Mrs. Balfour were divorced.

  • Later, Mrs. Balfour sued her husband for non-payment of the amount that he was supposed to pay.


Issues Raised

  • Was the agreement between Mr. and Mrs. Balfour legally binding at all?

  • Did Mr. Balfour ever intend to make a contract with his wife?

  • Whether the domestic agreements fall under the purview of the contract law?

  • Does any mere promise between the husband and the wife lead to a legally enforceable contract?

  • Does every oral agreement amount to a contract?


Rule of Contract Law Involved

This case is from English contract law, and as per the English contract law to make a contract legally binding, some essentials must be followed in the respective agreement those essential elements are -

1. Consideration

2. Intention to form a legally binding contract

And in the above case, the agreement which was held between Mr. and Mrs. Balfour was not under the purview of the contract law and a mere promise in the domestic realm cannot be enforced as a contract.


Procedural History of Balfour v. Balfour Case

In March 1918, to seek maintenance and the basic support from Mr. Balfour Mrs. Balfour moved to the court and commenced the proceedings against Mr. Balfour in the King's Bench Division presided by the additional judge Justice Sargant. And the lower court gave the judgment in favour of Mrs. Balfour (Petitioner) and held that the husband Mr. Balfour (defendant) was liable to pay the maintenance to Mrs. Balfour and that agreement was legally binding as well as enforceable, and fulfilled all the essentials of a valid contract. It was interpreted by the court that the consent given by the wife for the monthly money transfer was a valid consideration to form a legally binding contract between the aggrieved and the defendant.


In July 1918, after getting the judgment in her favour Mrs. Balfour got the decree nisi and subsequently in December 1918 obtained the order for alimony. Mr. Balfour, who was the defendant in the respective case, was not satisfied with the judgment given by the lower court and because of dissatisfaction with the verdict, he appeared in the higher court.


Contention - from the Appellant Side (Mr. Balfour)

Arguments from the appellant side were that the agreement held between Mr. Balfour and Mrs. Balfour was domestic. He never intended to make a legally binding contract with his wife, so there couldn't be any legal obligation on him to pay monthly maintenance to his wife.


Contention - from the Respondent Side (Mrs. Balfour)

Arguments from the respondent side were that the husband had to pay the maintenance amount to Mrs. Balfour because Mr. Balfour made a domestic contract with his wife, so he was obliged to send 30 GBP per month to his wife as maintenance and support. This was the only reason that she had agreed to remain in England for her treatment.


What was held in Balfour vs. Balfour (1919)

In the court of appeal, it was interpreted by the judges that the realm of the agreement was domestic. The judge, Lord Justice Atkin held that when the couple (Mr. and Mrs. Balfour) entered into an agreement they never intended to make it legally binding to each other. And the nature of their agreement was purely domestic, and they never intended to make it legally bound.


Furthermore, a court will never take into account the domestic agreement between the husband and the wife which is usual in the daily course of life and the agreement between Mr. and Mrs. Balfour was outside the scope of the contract in the given circumstances.


Judgment

The bench comprising Duke LJ, Warrington LJ and Atkin LJ looked into the matter. Before reaching any decision, the court analyzed the set of evidence submitted by both sides. In the court, Mrs. Balfour quoted the promise of Mr. Balfour that he had promised to send 30 GBP per month as maintenance, and it could be inferred that she had submitted the same set of letters as evidence before the court. One of the judges in panel Warrington, L.J. questioned the validity of that agreement, whether that agreement fulfils all the requirements of the contract or whether it was just a mere promise that may be made in the daily course of life between the spouses, living together in friendly intercourse. Adding to this he also said that after looking into the facts it could be interpreted that there was no contract between Mr. and Mrs. Balfour “in express terms” and everything that happened was just a promise between the friendly married couple. He concluded by saying that the decision given by the lower court judge Justice Sargant could not stand and the appeal should be allowed.


The other Judge in the panel Atkin, L.J. said that there could be an agreement between Mr. and Mrs. Balfour but at that point of time, Mr. Balfour (appellant) had not intended to make it legally binding at all. So, it was just a mere promise between the couple we could not call it a contract. He then added that such kinds of agreements between husband and wife are usual and could not be called a contract. He also said that the appeal should be allowed.


Duke, L.J. agreed with both of the judges and added that the agreement between Mr. and Mrs. Balfour was made as a happily married couple. The agreement was purely domestic, with mutual consent. So, it could not be legally binding at all.

Short Analysis of the Case

In the initial stage, Mrs. Balfour filed the case in the King’s Bench Division and commenced the proceedings against her husband in the court; the court had given verdict in favour of Mrs. Balfour, the additional judge Justice Sargant held that the agreement between Mr. and Mrs. Balfour was legally sound and binding. So, he gave the judgment in favour of Mrs. Balfour.


Due to dissatisfaction with the decision of the King's Bench Division, Mr. Balfour appealed in the court of appeal (Civil Division), wherein the panel of judges there were Duke LJ, Warrington LJ and Atkin LJ. After some analysis of the case, the bench held that the decision given by the lower court was not legally valid and the court of appeal reversed the judgment of Justice Sargant and gave the verdict in favour of Mr. Balfour. According to the bench’s interpretation, the agreement held between Mr. and Mrs. Balfour was domestic; there was no intention to make it legally binding. Atkin, L.J. observed that the agreement was domestic and the intention to agree legally binding was also missing there. Whereas Duke, L.J. and Warrington, L.J. doubted that the wife gave consideration. Also, Atkin, L.J. enforced the doctrine of intention to create a legal relationship which was missing in the case of Mr. and Mrs. Balfour.


It can be inferred that the doctrine is basically for public policy and has got nothing to do with the domestic agreement. It can also be inferred that a court can never indulge in any sort of small issues like these, in between the family.


Although, there can be some conditions or circumstances. Where there might be a possibility in which a husband and a wife may enter into an agreement that could be legally sound and enforceable in the court of law. But in this case, there were no such circumstances present. The doctrine which was highlighted by Atkin, L.J. attracted attention and gained much prominence with time and the intention to create legal relationships sometimes referred to as animus contrahendi.


In later cases, there was a case named Jones vs. Padavatton [1969] 2 All ER 616 at 621, in which Salmon, L.J. made it clear that legal intention might not be just a legal presumption, but it is a matter of fact as well, which helps us to decide the legality of any contract. It is one of the basic elements to form a legally sound and enforceable contract. Later on, this doctrine applied in a series of judgments; one of those is Shadwell v. Shadwell (1860) 9 C.B. (N.S.) 159, where the doctrine of intention to create a legal relationship applied.


Conclusion

In the Balfour v. Balfour case, the whole matter revolved around the argument, whether there was the intention to create a legally binding contract or not. Initially, the lower court gave the verdict in favour of Mrs. Balfour but was reversed in the court of appeal. The court of appeal interpreted that the promise made by Mr. Balfour was just a mere promise only. He had never intended to create any legally binding contract with his wife, Mrs. Balfour. One of the judges in the court of appeal Atkin, L.J. highlighted the importance of the doctrine of intention to create legal relations. In simple terms we can interpret that without intending to make a legal relationship; it is not possible to form a legally binding contract.


Mrs. Balfour, who won the case in the lower court, was not able to get the judgment in her favour in the court of appeal, but if we see her side of the story then, somewhere it hurts because as a woman who was even economically dependent on her husband got nothing in the end. But the court could not give judgment in her favour on moral grounds only. Also, the court after looking into the facts couldn't give the verdict in her favour because whatever happened between Mr. and Mrs. Balfour could not be called a contract and the real truth is, it was just a mere agreement between a couple and that was it. People cannot come to the court to resolve such trifle issues. These kinds of agreements are usually between the married couple in the daily course of life. The court cannot intervene in such small domestic agreements.


Moreover, it cannot be denied that this case is one of the significant judgments in the whole history, which gave birth to the doctrine of intention to create legal relations. This doctrine gave path to various judgments and applied in various cases as well. Balfour v. Balfour is one of those cases whose viewpoint is less likely to change in the future as well.


Author's Biography

This article has been written by Shashank Singh Rathor, he is in 2nd year, currently pursuing his B.A. LL.B. from Ideal Institute of Management & Technology and School of Law, Affiliated to G.G.S.I.P.U., Delhi


His LinkedIn Profile - https://www.linkedin.com/in/shashank-singh-rathor-38586b189