"…there is nothing out of the ordinary about a contest of this kind". So said Sir William Blackburne sitting in the Chancery Division of the High Court in the case of Singh v Singh.
The case concerned the beneficial ownership of property, including Tetworth Hall (a very large house at the edge of Ascot Racecourse) and shares in a successful hotel group called The Edwardian Group Limited.
The claimant was the father of the defendant son. The father claimed that the property was joint family assets held in accordance with the principles of what is known as the Mitakshara.
The Mitakshara is a legal code by which a Hindu family living and eating together as a composite household may hold its property. The code, which is of very ancient origin, applies as much to Sikhs as to Hindus. This is relevant because the Singh family are Sikhs.
The doctrine provides that the beneficial interest in property of a joint Hindu (or Sikh) family, if held subject to theMitakshara, belongs jointly to the male members of that family down to the third generation from a common male ancestor. The doctrine creates rights for younger generations over property inherited by older generations.
Whether or not foreign legal doctrines, including Mitakshara, can be relied on in the English courts where they are applying English law, however, is of course a question of the application of English law principles. The court will only apply foreign doctrines if the parties have agreed that they should be applied, or if the foreign doctrine being relied on can also be determined by reference to English law principles.
There are no English law principles which are on all fours with Mitakshara. It falls somewhere between a constructive trust and the intestacy rules.
Sadly for the father in this case, the Court rejected his argument.
On the relevant points the judge said:
"I was not shown a single document out of the voluminous quantity disclosed which assumed that any property that was being acquired was a joint family asset."
"The question is whether father has demonstrated that as between himself and his son there existed an understanding that any property which they or either of them acquired would be held as joint family property. I am unable to find there was such an understanding".
As a small token of comfort to the father though the judge did not regard the claim as having been brought dishonestly:
"Although I have rejected Father's claim it by no means follows that I regard him or Mother as having in any way acted dishonestly in making it. On the contrary, they struck me as having advanced this claim in all good faith believing it to be well founded".
This case clearly demonstrates that on matters of foreign law in the English courts, English law principles must first be applied and satisfied.