Tuesday, January 18, 2011

You Want More? The Law of Property Act of 1925

In the course of discussing the law of the entail, Anonymous asked about the Law of Property Act of 1925.  Anonymous also asked about Lord Peter Wimsey's entail to his son Bredon.  Henry's responded to the Wimsey entail query, but as it happens, the best way to discuss the Law of Property Act of 1925 is discuss Dorothy Sayers' Unnatural Death.

Oh, wait -- Henry has a few things to say (in red, the preferred color for one lawyer telling another what she got wrong):

There is one major problem here.  The book refers to the “Property Act 1925.”  I cannot find that any such Act existed.  There is a “Law of Property Act 1925”, but it does not seem to contain the specific provision on which the book turns.  The Law of Property Act 1925 seems to have been one of a bundle of related and interlocking laws on the subject passed that year, and the texts available on the Internet are all up-to-date, meaning that superseded parts, have been deleted, so it is possible that the Property Act 1925 had been entirely repealed and was never worth loading onto the computers, although it seems unlikely they would have two Acts with quite such confusingly similar titles.  Bizarrely, the best available text of the Law of Property Act 1925 is on the Pacific Islands Legal Information Institute website, because it is apparently still good law in Vanuatu, fka The New Hebrides.  Hallelujah!  (As will be explained below, Hallelujah “had the pleasant, slightly aquiline features and brown-olive skin of the Polynesian.”)

But first, a hypothetical scenario.

Assume that you're a young woman trained as a nurse.  You agree to leave your job to care for a great-aunt, your grandfather's sister.  She's a bit notorious in the family -- she made a fortune breeding horses for people with more money than sense.  Plus, she never married, but instead moved in with her sister-in-law's sister, also your great aunt.  When the horsey great-aunt dies, her fortune goes to her uh, roommate, your "Auntie" Miss Dawson.

Now, Auntie's a handful.  She's got cancer, which is a shame, but she insists that when she dies, you'll get the fortune.  Which is only fair, as you're the great-aunts' only living relative.  (Well, there's that funny fellow from the West Indies, Reverend Hallelujah Dawson, but he's not legitimate, so who cares.)  But then you learn that Parliament (oh, sorry -- did I not say you're English?) is proposing to enact a law that ends this business of finding a living relative -- no matter how remote the relationship -- to inherit when someone dies intestate, meaning without a will.

Oh, bother.  Auntie doesn't like wills.  She doesn't believe in them -- they upset her, all that "sound mind and body" nonsense.  She's still alive and cancer or no cancer, she intends to stay that way.  Time enough to think about making a will if Parliament enacts the law.  But Auntie's not doing so well, and the doctor brings in another nurse to care for Auntie.

Time to get some legal advice.  Hmm.  Not good news -- a youngish solicitor in London (well away from the village you and Auntie live in) seems to think that a great-niece might have trouble inheriting under the new law.  Back you go to talk -- and if that doesn't work, trick -- Auntie into making a will.  No dice, and worse luck, now the two housemaids know the convoluted efforts you're making to get Auntie to sign something with two witnesses, with all three people in the room together.  The housemaids may be too stupid to understand the significance, but anyone else will know that you only need two witnesses when it's a will being signed.

And then it's official: Parliament has signed [That would take some pen.  Parliament has passed, and George V has given the Royal Assent to] the Law of Property Act of 1925; it goes into effect on January 1.  It's November.  Do you:

1) Give up and let nature take its course?  or

2) Use your nursing training to er, help Auntie along to her heavenly reward?  No one will ever know...

Needless to say, in Unnatural Death, Mary Whittaker opts for Path #2.  Which is a shame, really, because by the time Lord Peter has figured out what Mary's motive for killing her great-aunt is, Auntie's not the only victim in this story.

Now -- a word of caution.  I wanted this on my Kindle, so I did a little jiggery-pokery and got the only e-book version of Unnatural Death going, which is *cough* geo-restricted to the UK.  I don't know what's in an American version, but I do know that along with the many delights this book has to offer are some invidious racial slurs and characterizations.  This includes a Bad Word that might have meant something less demeaning in England in the 20s than it does now -- but it's hard to read, and it's not just the one time.  So, if that's a deal-breaker for you, look for an edited (or Bowdlerized) version.  (Ross says the audiobook version(s) tend(s) to clean up such language, but I can neither confirm or deny that.)  [Cross reference the current debate about the Bowdlerized version of Huckleberry Finn, who was at least as black as Hallelujah Dawson, and probably a lot blacker.]  (Here's Michiko Kakutani of the NY Times on why such Bowdlerization of that particular Bad Word is not a good idea.)

But, that said, this is a wonderful book.  The dialogue is so good -- Sayers clearly had an excellent ear -- and so evocative of a time and place.  I particularly commend Miss Alexandra Katherine Climpson to you.  She's a delight from beginning to end.  And, as this is the book where she's introduced, there's a wonderful scene where Charles Parker, Lord Peter's friend at Scotland Yard, rather assumes that the woman Lord Peter is taking him to meet -- the woman Lord Peter has installed in a flat in Pimlico -- is, uh, well, let's just say that Miss Climpson comes as a complete surprise.

And we have lawyers!  Lots of lawyers.  Mr. Murbles, Lord Peter's own solicitor, Mr. Towkington, K.C., and a Mr. Trigg.  Towkington's the best, because he explains the motive.  The issue is what does the word "issue" mean.  Normally, it means the children of, and the children of their children, and so forth ad infinitum, thus roughly equivalent to progeny.  And when someone dies intestate, then, yes, there is a provision in the new law for their issue to inherit.  But what if they have no issue, meaning no children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren...?  Their siblings inherit, and if their siblings are deceased, then their siblings' issue.

Ah, but even if the word "issue" means children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren when it's of the deceased's body, does the new law intend that the deceased's siblings' children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren should all be considered issue?  Or -- and here's Mary's problem -- is "issue" limited in that case to the children of the deceased's siblings?  If so, Mary doesn't inherit Auntie's estate, and it reverts to the Duchy of Lancaster, which is to say, the Crown.

Here's Towkington's explanation:
  'What does the Act say?  It says, "to the brothers and sisters of the whole blood and their issue."  Now in the absence of any new definition, I should say that the word is here to be construed as before the Act it was construed on intestacy -- in so far, at any rate, as it refers to personal property, which I understand the property in question to be, eh??

[It suddenly occurred to me to Google that exact quotation.  I got four hits.  All of them were copies of Unnnatural Death on Cyrillic (!) language sites: two in the Ukraine, one in Romania, and one in the Cocos Islands.  Hallelujah!]

Back to Mr. Towkington...

  '[I]t's like this,' said Mr. Towkington, graciously.  'Before 1837 -- '
  'Queen Victoria, I know,' said Peter, intelligently.
  'Quite so.  At the time when Queen Victoria came to the throne, the word "issue" had no legal meaning - no legal meaning at all.'
  'You surprise me!'
  'You are too easily surprised,' said Mr. Towkington.  'Many words have no legal meaning.  Others have a legal meaning very unlike their ordinary meaning.  For example, the word "daffy-down-dilly".  It is a criminal libel to call a lawyer a daffy-down-dilly.  ha!  Yes, I advise you never to do such a thing.  No, I certainly advise you never to do it.  Then again, words which are quite meaningless in your ordinary conversation may have a meaning in law.  For instance, I might say to a young man like yourself, "You wish to leave such-and-such property to so-and-so."  And you would very likely reply, "Oh, yes, absolutely" -- meaning nothing in particular by that.  But if you were to write in your will, "I leave such-and-such property to so-and-so absolutely," then that word would bear a definite legal meaning, and would condition your bequest in a certain manner, and might even prove an embarrassment and produce results very far from your actual intentions.  Eh, ha!  You see?'
  'Very well.  Prior to 1837, the word "issue" meant nothing.  A grant "to A. and his issue" merely gave A. a life estate.  Ha!  But this was altered by the Wills Act of 1837.'
  'As far as a will was concerned,' put in Mr. Murbles.
  'Precisely.  After 1837, in a will, "issue" means "heirs of the body" -- that is to say, "issue ad infinitum".  In a deed, on the other hand, "issue" retained its old meaning -- or lack of meaning, eh, ha!  You follow?'
  'Yes,' said Mr. Murbles, 'and on intestacy of personal property--'
  'I am coming to that,' said Mr. Towkington.
  '--the word "issue" continued to mean "heirs of the body", and that held good till 1926.'
  'Stop!' said Mr. Towkington, 'issue of the child or children of the deceased certainly mean "issue ad infinitum" -- but -- issue of any person not a child for the deceased only meant the child of that person and did not inclue other descendants.  And that undoubtedly held good till 1926.  And since the new Act contains no statement to the contrary, I think we must presume that it continues to hold good.  Ha!  Come now!  In the case before us, you observe that the claimant is not the child of the deceased nor issue of the child of the deceased; nor is she the child of the deceased's sister.  She is merely the grandchild of the deceased sister of the deceased.  Accordingly, I think she is debarred from inheriting under the new Act, eh?  Ha!'
  'I see your point,' said Mr. Murbles.

Clear as mud, eh? Ha!

Personally, I love this stuff, but I'm the first to admit it's not that coherent.  When I read Unnatural Death for the first time, decades ago, I probably just skimmed over the legal stuff.  (Even then, Property Law bored me to tears.)  But now I'm fascinated not so much by the substance as by the presentation.  Sayers nails these lawyers.  Even allowing for the 80+ year gap and different country, I can hear Towkington's loud, pompous style -- he's the smartest guy in the room (or so he thinks) and he knows it.

By the way, I haven't spoiled anything by telling you that Mary Whittaker is the murderer -- everyone surmises that almost immediately.  And if, like me, you read this book years ago, you may recall the method of the murder.  But even so this book still works -- I was racing for the end to see what happens next.  It's wonderful -- lawyers (and invidious racial slurs) notwithstanding.

As an aside, I will add that Henry and I discussed Mary's legal alternatives.  We think that Mary should have picked Path #1 above and let nature take its course.  When Auntie died, Mary could have filed letters of administration in the Probate, Divorce & Admiralty court to claim the estate.  What's the likelihood that the Duke of Lancaster would object?  And even if some representative of the Crown had objected, Mary's what's known in the law as a "sympathetic plaintiff" -- she's the only living relative of both the source of the original fortune but also the deceased, there's evidence that the deceased intended that Mary get the money, and she was a good sport about nursing not one but two elderly women.  Chances are good – but though not 100% -- that she gets the money on equitable groundsShe has two throws of the dice there.  (1) Given that it’s a totally new question of law, the judge can interpret “issue” either way, so he interprets it in her favor; (2) Even if she loses in Court, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster decides that Agatha really meant Mary to have the money, so it would be fairest to give her the money anyway.  And given that the chances were good -- but not 100% -- that she'd get away with murder, I'd have thought it better to pick the less uh, criminal of the two paths.


  1. "There is one major problem here. The book refers to the “Property Act 1925.” I cannot find that any such Act existed. There is a “Law of Property Act 1925”, but it does not seem to contain the specific provision on which the book turns."

    Wikipedia's article on Unnatural Death suggests that "The change in the law such that, in the case of intestacy, more distant relatives could not inherit was the Administration of Estates Act 1925." Does that help at all?

  2. Have you read DR Meredith? She wrote one series about two lawyers in the Texas panhandle that I think you'd probably enjoy.

  3. Laura Vivanco --
    No, that does not help, because Sections 46 and 47 of the Administration of Estates Act 1925 have the exact opposite effect. (Unless, of course, they were rewritten and the texts I am looking at did not show the rewrite: but the UK text seems to be pretty meticulously footnoted for changes.) They make it completely unambiguous that a great-niece does inherit. I'm beginning to think that Sayers invented the ambiguous law to provide the plot she needed, and relied on her readers knowing vaguely that there had been a big rewrite in 1925, and not being lawyer enough to check the details.

  4. "They make it completely unambiguous that a great-niece does inherit."

    I sit corrected, and somewhat reassured, since this suggests that my extremely vague impression of inheritance law, gleaned from watching parts of a couple of installments of Heir Hunters while trying to prise my child away from a TV, is not totally incorrect.

    The conclusions I draw from all of this are (1) I am very, very ignorant about many legal matters (2) I ought to keep my will up-to-date and (3) I should never try to write it myself (not that I had any plans to).

  5. Hey, thanks to both Magdalen and Henry for answering my question! I guess I hadn't read "Unnatural Death" since before law school -- because you're right, Towkington sounds just like an attorney pontificating at a CLE seminar....

  6. Just to pull in Towkington's "daffy-down-dilly" business, that was a slang term used for a lawyer who worked for both sides; the more formal term from the 16th century was "ambidexter". Here is Jonathan Rose's paper, which cites Sayers in a footnote. A criminal libel, for younkers outside England who have never heard of such a thing, is a defamatory, blasphemous, obscene, or seditious statement tending to produce a breach of the peace; falsity was not a defense.

  7. On investigation, the Duchy of Lancaster receives escheats only from within the boundaries of old Lancaster, as the Duchy of Cornwall does from within Cornwall. Everything else goes straight the Bona Vacantia office of the Treasury, and has done so since the 13C.


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