Wife’s title as joint proprietor with husband not defeasible by reason of husband’s fraud

In Cassegrain v Gerard [2015] HCA 2 the High Court of Australian had to decide whether a wife’s title as a joint proprietor with her husband was defeasible by reason of the husband’s fraud. The case contains an interesting discussion about when the fraudulent acts of an agent can be attributed to the principal and also the nature of a joint tenancy.

Section 42(1) of the Real Property Act 1900 (NSW) provides that the estate of a registered proprietor is paramount. It provides that, subject to some exceptions:

“Notwithstanding the existence in any other person of any estate or interest which but for this Act might be held to be paramount or to have priority, the registered proprietor for the time being of any estate or interest in land recorded in a folio of the Register shall, except in case of fraud, hold the same, subject to such other estates and interests and such entries, if any, as are recorded in that folio, but absolutely free from all other estates and interests that are not so recorded“. (emphasis added)

Section 118(1) provides that:

“Proceedings for the possession or recovery of land do not lie against the registered proprietor of the land, except as follows:

(d)       proceedings brought by a person deprived of land by fraud against:

(i)        a person who has been registered as proprietor of the land though fraud; or

(ii)       a person deriving (otherwise as a transferee bona fide for valuable consideration) from or through a person registered as proprietor of the land through fraud.”

The vendor transferred the land to the husband and wife as joint tenants for consideration to be satisfied by debiting the husband’s loan account with the vendor. The husband knew that the vendor did not owe him the amount recorded in the loan account. The husband then transferred his interest in the land to his wife for a nominal consideration. The questions were whether the wife’s title, first as joint proprietor with her husband, or second deriving from or through her husband under the subsequent transfer, was defeasible by the vendor.

Much attention was given in argument to whether the husband was the wife’s “agent”. In Assets Company Ltd v Mere Roihi [1905] AC 176 at 210 Lord Lindley that:

“the fraud which must be proved in order to invalidate the title of a registered purchaser for value … must be brought home to the person whose registered title is impeached or to his agents. Fraud by persons from whom he claims does not affect him unless knowledge of it is brought home to him or his agents.” (emphasis added)

The argument was about whether the fraud was “brought home” to the wife because the husband was fraudulent and was her “agent”. It was not disputed that the husband acted fraudulently in both the first and second transfers.

The court rejected the contention that the husband’s fraud could be sheeted home to the wife as a matter of agency. The court referred to the statement by Street J in Schultz v Corwill Properties Pty Ltd 1969] 2 NSWR 576 where his Honour said :

“It is not enough simply to have a principal, a man who is acting as his agent, and knowledge in that man of the presence of a fraud. There must be the additional circumstance that the agent’s knowledge of the fraud is to be imputed to his principal. This approach is necessary in order to give full recognition to (a) the requirement that there must be a real, as distinct from a hypothetical or constructive, involvement by the person whose title is impeached, in the fraud, and (b) the extension allowed by the Privy Council that the exception of fraud under s 42 can be made out if ‘knowledge of it is brought home to him or his agents’.”

There was no evidence that the wife was knowingly engaged in the husband’s scheme to deprive the vendor its land for nothing.

The majority (French CJ, Hayne, Bell and Gaegler JJ) held that the wife’s title as joint tenant was not defeasible by showing that the husband had acted fraudulently because the fraud had not been brought home to her.

Keane J dissented on this issue. His Honour decided that the land was acquired by the wife and the husband as joint tenants and as joint tenants they acquired a single estate. The title was acquired by fraud “sheeted home” to the wife, not because the wife claimed the title through her husband, but by virtue of the joint tenancy of the single estate to which they were entitled.

The vendor succeeded in recovering the land because the whole court  decided that s.118(1)(d)(ii) applied: the wife had acquired an interest as tenant in common as to half from the husband who had been registered as proprietor through fraud.

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