Court Strikes Out Defenses of Non Est Factum, Duress, and Frustration in Robert Jewkes v Samuel Alexander Watson & Anor Case Law Analysis

Citation: [2023] EWHC 2993 (Ch)
Judgment on

Introduction

The case of Robert Jewkes v Samuel Alexander Watson & Anor ([2023] EWHC 2993 (Ch)) presented a series of legal principles that were pivotal in reaching the judgment handed down by Master Clark. This article analyses the case law summary provided, focusing on the key topics discussed, the legal principles applied, and the conclusions drawn by the court.

Key Facts

Robert Jewkes, the claimant, sought to enforce a deed of assignment under which the defendants were to pay him a sum of US$727,000 in installments, with US$697,000 still outstanding. The defendants, Samuel Alexander Watson and Emily Watson, contested the claim on several grounds, including non est factum, undue influence, duress, and frustration. The application was heard before Master Clark, with Arnold Ayoo representing the claimant and the defendants appearing in person.

Non est factum

The court evaluated claims of non est factum under the principle that individuals are bound by documents they sign, barring exceptional circumstances where they are misled about the nature of the document. The defense requires proof of a document’s nature being entirely different from what was believed, supported by some form of inability or disability causing this misunderstanding. Here, the defendants could not prove they took due care to understand the document before signing only its final page.

Undue Influence

The analysis of undue influence distinguished between actual undue influence, involving emotional pressure or misrepresentation, and presumed undue influence, which arises from relationships where trust and confidence are typically present, such as parent and child. The transaction in question must not be explicable by ordinary motives, and the presumption of undue influence can be rebutted usually by showing the influenced party had independent advice. The defendants, due to their lack of independent legal advice and the relationship with their father, exhibited a real prospect of showing undue influence.

Duress

Under the heading of duress, the court emphasizes that a contract entered into as a result of illegitimate pressure may be voidable. However, the judgment finds that, in the absence of unlawful threats, the defendants did not present a plausible claim of duress, thus holding no real prospect of success in this defense.

Frustration

The principle of frustration applies when an unforeseen event renders contractual obligations impossible or radically different than those undertaken. The doctrine of frustration is restrictive, requiring not merely a change in circumstances, but a fundamental change in the nature of the obligation itself. The court concluded that the defendants’ circumstances did not fundamentally alter the nature of their obligations under the deed.

Outcomes

Upon analysis, Master Clark decided to strike out the defenses of non est factum, duress, and frustration, yet denied summary judgment for the claimant. This left room for the defendants to argue the deed could be set aside on the grounds of undue influence at trial.

Conclusion

In Robert Jewkes v Samuel Alexander Watson & Anor, the court rigorously applied traditional principles of contract law to the modern context of a disputed deed of assignment. While the claim of non est factum, duress, and frustration were unsuccessful, the court identified merit in the undue influence claim, which underscores the UK judiciary’s careful balance between upholding contractual obligations and protecting individuals from exploitation. The case serves as a reminder that each defense must be substantiated with appropriate evidence and within the framework of established legal doctrines. The decision to strike out several defenses while denying summary judgment encapsulates the court’s prudence in ensuring a fair and just resolution.

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