Balfour vs. Balfour

Balfour vs. Balfour

This article is submitted by:

  • Ravi Pahwa
Equivalent Citation – [1919] 2 KB 571
Petitioner: Balfour
Respondent: Balfour
Bench: Kings Bench Lord Justice Warrington, Lord Justice Duke, Lord Justice Atkin


The parties in this case were Husband and Wife who had gotten married in August 1900. The husband was employed as Director of Irrigation under the Government of Ceylon (modern day Sri Lanka). The parties resided in Ceylon together till 1915, with 2 small visits to UK in 1906 and 1908. In November 1915, the parties came to England, while the husband was on leave. They remained there till August 1916, when the husband had to return due to his job commitments, however the wife was instructed to stay till November 4 on doctor’s advice. She was suffering from rheumatic arthritis.  On the day of 8th August 1916, when the husband was about to set sail, they entered into an agreement whereby the husband would pay her £24 for the month of August and thereafter £30 per month till she returned to him in Ceylon, for her maintenance. The wife admits that the agreement of August 8, was made prior to any differences arising between them. She was also under the impression that the husband would be returning to England soon. However, the husband soon wrote to her demanding that they ought to separate. The wife commenced divorce proceedings in 1918 and she obtained an order for alimony. The present proceedings were started by wife to enforce the alleged agreement between the parties on August 9, 1916.

Case History:

This case was first presided over by Justice Sargent, an additional judge of the King’s Division Bench. The lower court ruled in favour of the wife. It held that the husband was under an obligation to support his wife and the consent of the wife to such an arrangement was sufficient consideration to constitute a contract. The husband subsequently appealed in the Court of Appeal (Civil Division) resulting in this judgement.


  1. The main legal issue for the court to decide was whether the parties had any intention to enter into a contract.
  2. Can an agreement for an arrangement between a husband and wife in the course of their relationship, result in binding contractual obligations on any of them, the non-performance of which can lead to a suit in the court?


Barrington-Ward K.C. and Du Parcq (Counsel) for the Appellant (Husband) –

It was agued on behalf of the husband, that the parties were living apart on a temporary basis. There was no agreement for separation. It was a temporary arrangement till the time the wife re-joins the husband. It was a domestic arrangement in which no consideration was given by wife, hence there is no contractual obligation.

Hawke K.C. and Tebbs (Counsel)for Respondent (Wife)-

It was argued on behalf of the wife that where the parties are living together, the wife is as capable of contracting with her husband that he shall give her a particular sum as she is of contracting with any other person.


Warrington LJ

  1. According to Justice Warrington the question which needs to be considered is that whether the parties entered into any Contract? He answered that question in the negative. According to him, there was no contract in either express or implied terms. There was no consideration moving from the wife. The parties merely made an arrangement in friendly terms for the maintenance of wife while she was detained in England and husband had to go back to his job. They mutually decided that £30 would be enough to support the wife, in husband’s absence.
  • Applying the doctrine of intention to create legal relations, it was held that the husband and wife never intended to enter into any contract that could be enforced in law. The husband made a promise to support his wife and he is bound by honour to continue it till he can. However, there is no contractual obligation on him under any law. The wife on the other hand did not make any bargain.
  • He overruled the judgement of Justice Sargant and ruled in favour of the husband.

Duke LJ

  1. According to Justice Duke, the main question in this case was ascertaining whether there was any consideration in law on the part of the wife to convert the promise of the husband into a binding agreement. He opined in the negative. He believed that this case didn’t fall under Married Woman’s Property Act, 1882.
  • In response to the point argued by wife’s counsel, that any such mutual promises as in this case, would have created contractual obligations between any two parties, he held that the basis of the agreement in this case was the relationship between the husband and wife. It is impossible to say where the relationship between spouses exists, and promises are exchanged, they must be deemed to be promises of a contractual nature. For such domestic agreements to become contracts, it is required for the obligations arising out of their relationship to be displaced.
  • An agreement for separation does involve mutual considerations, however in this case the agreement was made during a period of amity. Hence, the facts were distinct from Eastland v. Burchell[1], and separation was held to be not significant.
  • The wife’s argument that, in return for £30 per month, she would forsake her right to pledge the husband’s property was rejected. The wife had no right to offer such consideration as the time when such agreement was made, the parties were spouses. The mutual promises in ordinary domestic relationship of husband and wife related to necessities cannot give rise to a cause for action on a contract. If held so, it could result in unlimited litigation. It was held that there was no consideration moving from the wife to the husband. The appeal of husband was allowed.

Atkin LJ

  1. Lord Justice Atkin agreed with the argument of the defendant and reiterated the common law principle that not all agreements result in contracts. To prove his point, he gave the example of two people agreeing to go on a walk or a situation of acceptance of hospitality which cannot result in a contract. One of the most common agreements not resulting in a contract were held to be those between a husband and wife.
  • The inevitable and natural consequence of relationship between spouses is of mutual arrangements. Arrangement such as, allowance by a husband weekly, monthly or annually  to be used for necessities of a household and children with an express or implied promise by the wife, to use it for the stated purposes; may have necessary consideration in law, however they can never result in contracts because the parties never intended to be affected by legal consequences. Such agreements are outside the realm of contracts.
  • Holding such domestic agreements between husband and wife as contracts was considered to be a dangerous precedent, which could have adverse ramifications. Justice Atkin remarked that the smaller courts would have to be increased ten-fold if such a precedent is set. Common law doesn’t govern the agreements between spouses. Equating agreements between spouses to contracts is unfeasible because the consideration in the former is the natural love and affection between the spouses.
  • Weighing all the evidence submitted before the court, he ruled that there was no contract between the parties. The judgment of the lower court was overruled, and appeal was allowed.

Conclusion: All 3 judges ruled that there was no contract. Husband’s appeal was allowed.

“The views of the authors are personal


[1] (3 QBD 432 1879)

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