Citation(2011) 23 SAcLJ 607
Date01 December 2011
Published date01 December 2011

In Singapore, the resulting trust is used as a default legal device in the context of non-commercial shared property. This article seeks to underscore that the conceptual underpinnings of the resulting trust in Singapore may not be completely satisfactory, show the weaknesses of such an approach, and register the adverse consequences it brings. It goes on to suggest the reasons why the common intention constructive trust may be considered as a better alternative.

I. Introduction

1 In Singapore, the resulting trust persists as the default legal device in the context of non-commercial shared property. The cases of Low Gim Siah v Low Geok Khim1 and Lau Siew Kim v Yeo Guan Chye Terence2 represent an insistence on the use of the resulting trust as a default legal device in analysing such situations. This article seeks to show the weaknesses of such an approach, and the adverse consequences it brings. It is argued that the common intention constructive trust3 should be adopted as the default legal device over the resulting trust.

II. Conceptual foundation

2 Before discussing the conceptual underpinnings of the resulting trust in Singapore, it is useful to take a look at its uncertain conceptual character.

3 The classic formulation of the conceptual nature of the resulting trust can be found in Westdeutsche Landesbank Girozentrale v Islington London Borough Council4 (“Westdeutsche”), where Lord Browne-Wilkinson held that “[a] resulting trust is not imposed by law against the intentions

constructive trust) but gives effect to his presumed intention”. This “intention” analysis can be contrasted with that in Air Jamaica Ltd v Charlton,5 where Lord Millett held that a resulting trust “arises whether or not the transferor intended to retain a beneficial interest”.

4 Other explanations for the nature of the resulting trust range from that arising from “non-beneficial transfers”6 to a split between two types of resulting trusts, the “presumed” resulting trust and the “automatic” resulting trust. But till today, there is no consensus among the courts or academic commentators of a satisfactory and coherent basis for a unified theory of resulting trust.

5 This split between “presumed” and “automatic” resulting trust can be seen in Westdeutsche,7 where Lord Browne-Wilkinson held a resulting trust arises in two situations: (a) where A makes a voluntary payment to B or pays (wholly or in part) for the purchase of property which is vested either in B alone or in the joint names of A and B, there is a presumption that A did not intend to make a gift to B: the money or property is held on trust for A (if he is the sole provider of the money) or in the case of a joint purchase by A and B in shares proportionate to their contributions; and (b) where A transfers property to B on express trusts, but the trusts declared do not exhaust the whole beneficial interest. Pearce, Stevens and Barr describe these as two manifestations of the resulting trust, divided into two categories, viz, that of the “presumed” resulting trust and the “automatic” resulting trust.8 Both types of resulting trust are traditionally regarded as examples of trusts giving effect to the common intention of the parties.9

6 On this view, there may be a coherent basis for imposing a resulting trust. Lord Browne-Wilkinson talked about the resulting trust responding to the intention of the transferee.10 However, this is not

entirely satisfactory. Pearce, Stevens and Barr opine that there are situations where a resulting trust arises against the wishes of the parties. For instance, a resulting trust may arise in favour of A in situations even though B anticipated that he was the beneficiary of an absolute gift.11 More significantly, a resulting trust may arise even where the transferee of property was unaware that the transfer had taken place.12

7 Similarly, Lord Millett opined that:13

Like a constructive trust, a resulting trust arises by operation of law, though unlike a constructive trust it gives effect to intention. But it arises whether or not the transferor intended to retain a beneficial interest - he almost always does not - since it responds to the absence of any intention on his part to pass a beneficial interest to the recipient. It may arise even where the transferor positively wished to part with the beneficial interest …

8 Thus, the inquiry as to the theory behind the resulting trust is no less clarified. There seems to be no unified theory of resulting trust. There is no consensus as to whether the resulting trust responds to intentions, against intentions, or to prior intentions.

9 William Swadling14 argues that while the “presumed” resulting trust is seen as premised on an accepted understanding that the presumption invoked is one where the “transferor declared a … trust in his own favour”,15 the “automatic” resulting trust, on the other hand, does not appear to have a satisfactory theoretical basis.16 The notion put forth of a “presumed” resulting trust arising from the transferor‘s intention to create a trust is known as the positive intent analysis. Swadling distinguishes Air Jamaica Ltd v Charlton by noting that it “provides nothing more than an unremarkable application of a decision of the House of Lords; it did not attempt to say anything new about resulting trusts. And in any case, since only a failed trust resulting trust was in issue, it says nothing of the content of the presumption operating in the other types of resulting trust”.17 But Swadling could not adequately provide an explanation with regard to unifying the theory of resulting trusts. He admits as much that “though [there is a] convincing though anachronistic explanation for the ‘presumed‘ resulting trust, the

‘automatic‘ resulting trust still defies legal analysis”.18 Within the context of the “presumed” resulting trust, Swadling writes that he “does not seek to defend the continuation in the modern day of a presumption of declaration of trust where the common experience is that citizens do not generally create trusts for themselves. The point is only that no change in the content of the presumption has yet occurred in the view of the courts”.19

10 Chambers attempts to conceptualise the problem through the lenses of restitution, asserting that there is a unified theory of resulting trust. He opines that “all resulting trusts operate on precisely the same principle regardless of the situations in which they arise. They do not depend on an implied intention to create a trust, but neither do they arise completely independently of intention. All resulting trusts come into being because the provider of property did not intend to benefit the recipient”.20 This is known as the absence of intent or negative intent analysis. This analysis appears consistent with reported cases, where it was not possible to establish or enforce a plaintiff ‘s intention for the property to be held on resulting trust but nevertheless one was found.21 It would also not contradict cases where such intention for a property to be held on trust was clear since this necessarily meant that there was no intention for the defendant to receive the beneficial interest of the property which was transferred. But the conclusion from Chambers‘ premise is that “resulting trusts reverse unjust enrichment”, and that this “merely restates [the] principle, using general terms taken from the language of restitution”.22 However, it must be noted that the unjust enrichment analysis was rejected by Lord Browne-Wilkinson as a distortion of trust principles in Westdeutsche.23 Firstly, it elides proprietary rights in the subject matter of a trust into rights in the value transferred.24 Secondly, it renders a recipient of money a trustee automatically from the date of receipt, even though his conscience is unaffected because he is unaware of the factors which give rise to the supposed trust. Thirdly, adopting the unjust enrichment analysis would introduce an arbitrary and unprincipled modification to existing trust principles to ensure that the resulting trust does not arise when there has only been a failure to perform a contract, as opposed to total failure of consideration.

11 The survey of jurisprudence shows how confusing, and unsettled, the theory of resulting trust is. It is perhaps the case that one can do no better than the statement by Megarry VC that “[a] resulting trust is essentially a property concept: any property that a man does not effectively dispose of remains his own”.25 Any attempt to further achieve coherence has failed, and there is not much basis to believe that a unifying theory can soon be found.

III. Singapore‘s approach

12 While the English cases appear to contradict in terms of the bases of their holdings, Singapore judges generally avoid enunciating the true basis of resulting trusts at all. For instance, Woo J in Chan Gek Yong v Chan Gek Lan26 (“Chan Gek Yong”) held:

Even if [the plaintiff] had provided the funds to pay 65% of the purchase price, that would only raise a presumption of a resulting trust … that the presumption would have been rebutted in that she had agreed to the defendant having a legal and beneficial half-share in the Hillside property irrespective of how much money she had provided, so long as that was the wish of the father. [emphasis added]

13 No authority on trust law was cited by Woo J for his holding. The principle underlying the raising of such a presumption was not further discussed. This is unfortunate, given that both the positive and negative intent theories of resulting trusts could have been used to support Woo J‘s holding.

14 Under the negative intent theory, the plaintiff ‘s agreement to the defendant having a legal and beneficial share can be said to have indicated an intention to make a gift, thus rebutting the presumption of resulting trust. On the other hand, the plaintiff ‘s agreement to the defendant‘s legal and beneficial...

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