Navigating Legal Complexities: Insights from Williams v Harrison [2023] TASSC 47

Terracall and Associates recently litigated a complex case that delved into the intricacies of property rights and contractual intention. The case, Williams v Harrison [2023] TASSC 47, was adjudicated in the Supreme Court of Tasmania before Justice Pearce in October 2023. The case concerned controversy arising from the ownership of a property in Youngtown, Tasmania, following the death of the late Ms Joyce Evans.

The history to the dispute was largely uncontroversial. Ms Evans provided money to the Harrisons which was then used by them to purchase the Youngtown property. Before her death, Ms Evans made a variety of allegations against the Harrisons alleging, among other things, that the money was either misappropriated or constituted a loan and, as a consequence, that she was entitled to have the Youngtown property transferred to her. The Harrisons denied any wrongdoing and said the money was given to them by Ms Evans as a gift.

Ms Evans resided in the Youngtown property until her death on 6 March 2020, but she was not a registered proprietor on the title.

Numerous solicitor’s letters were exchanged between Ms Evans and the Harrisons before her death. Eventually, the terms of a draft deed of settlement were prepared.  Before the terms were settled and the deed executed, Ms Evans died. The Harrisons were not told of her death and continued to negotiate the terms of the draft deed.

Some months after Ms Evans’ death, in late August 2020, the Harrisons were advised by the solicitors acting for Ms Evans’ estate that Ms Evans had, in fact, died on 6 March that year. Upon learning this news, the Harrisons immediately abandoned the settlement negotiations. The executor of Ms Evans’ estate commenced legal proceedings seeking to enforce what he said was a binding agreement, notwithstanding the deed was not yet signed.

Terracall and Associates’ efforts were focused on demonstrating that the Harrisons had no intention to be bound by an agreement in circumstances where they did not know Ms Evans had died and were under a belief she was in fact still alive during settlement negotiations. The Court was asked to characterise the nature of the purported agreement with reference to the decision of Masters v Camerons (1954) 91 CLR 353 and to pronounce the contractual effect of the settlement negotiations, if any, in the absence of a duly executed deed.

The Harrisons were wholly successful in demonstrating they had no intention to create legal relations with the executor of Ms Evans’ estate and were wholly successful in the proceeding.

A critical factor in determining the enforceability of agreements is the presence of a mutual intention to create legal relations. In the absence of such intention, as demonstrated by the Harrisons’ lack of awareness of Ms. Evans’ death, no binding agreement can be formed.

This case exemplifies our firm’s dedication to pursuing justice and clarity in legal disputes, reflecting our expertise in handling complex legal challenges with professionalism and thoroughness. It underscores the importance of our role in guiding clients through the legal landscape, ensuring their interests are protected and their legal matters are resolved with precision and care.

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