I have written before about a young man in 1916 who promised a young lady the earth (including an engagement ring) but failed to honour the word that she took as binding. Gladys took him to court for child maintenance and for breach of promise – and secured herself the princely sum of £35 in the process.
That right to bring a specific action for breach of promise for a broken engagement disappeared with a specific statute* introduced in the 1970s which provided that “An agreement between two persons to marry one another shall not under the law of England and Wales have effect as a contract giving rise to legal rights.”
However, as an engaged, or formerly engaged person, the legal remedies available to you in law to resolve financial disputes are not exactly the same as those available to either a cohabitant or a married person.
Cohabitants’ rights to claim against each other are limited to a specific set of trust laws in relation to property, that they would equally be able to rely on if they had not been in a relationship with each other. Married couples have a bespoke raft of statutes to resolve financial dispute. Engaged couples have the benefit of access to property rights defined in statute, over and above those available to cohabitants, thanks to specific law which deals with their situation.
In a case** in the Court of Appeal in 2010, the property rights of a couple fell to be determined. It was not until an appeal was heard by the Court of Appeal that the panel reminded the parties that they had been engaged, and so could rely on that specific law, stating “Everyone in the case overlooked the fact that the parties became engaged to each other in 1994 and that it must be inferred that the agreement to marry was terminated when their relationship broke down and they separated. Section 2 of the Law Reform (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1970 did not cross the radar until I drew it to their attention.” This statute is another tool in the box for those seeking to assert property rights after the breakdown of a non-marital relationship.
As for the ring? It is presumed to be an “absolute gift” and stays with the person who received it, unless it can be demonstrated that it was only given to the fiance/e on the proviso that the marriage took place.
*Law Reform (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1970
**Dibble v Pfliger EWCA Civ 1005