Tinsley v Milligan [1994]

January 26, 2024
Micheal James

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Introduction to Tinsley v Milligan [1994]

Tinsley v Milligan [1994] stands as a landmark case in English trust law, addressing the complex interplay between resulting trusts, the presumption of advancement, and the potential taint of illegality. In essence, the case revolved around the ownership of a property purchased jointly by two cohabiting partners, Ms. Tinsley and Ms. Milligan, where the legal title remained solely in Ms. Tinsley’s name while intended to facilitate fraudulent benefit claims by Ms. Milligan. The central issue was whether Ms. Milligan, despite her involvement in the illegal scheme, could still lay claim to a beneficial interest in the property.


Ms. Tinsley and Ms. Milligan, a couple living together, purchased a property in 1986 to cohabit and run a joint lodging house business. However, they agreed to register the legal title solely in Ms. Tinsley’s name so Ms. Milligan could continue claiming social security benefits without disclosing their cohabitation and income from the business. This arrangement served both their practical and financial needs for several years.

However, their relationship eventually deteriorated, leading to a breakdown in 1992. Ms. Tinsley sought to evict Ms. Milligan, prompting the latter to counterclaim for a half share in the property based on a presumed resulting trust arising from her financial contributions towards the purchase.

Legal Issues

The case presented two primary legal issues:

  1. Resulting Trusts and Presumption of Advancement: Did Ms. Milligan’s contribution towards the purchase create a resulting trust in her favor, even though the property was solely registered in Ms. Tinsley’s name? Could the presumption of advancement (a common law rule assuming gifts from parent to child) be applied in this case, despite the lack of a familial relationship?
  2. Illegality and Equitable Relief: Would Ms. Milligan’s involvement in the fraudulent benefit claims disqualify her from seeking equitable relief in the form of a beneficial interest in the property? Should the court enforce an unlawful agreement, even if it resulted in unfairness for Ms. Milligan?

Arguments of the Parties

Ms. Tinsley:

  • Argued that legal title to the property is paramount, and since it solely stood in her name, she should be the sole owner.
  • Claimed that the arrangement was illegal due to the fraudulent benefit claims, rendering Ms. Milligan’s contribution tainted and ineligible for recognition in a resulting trust.
  • Emphasized the public policy rationale against enforcing illegal agreements, arguing that awarding Ms. Milligan a share would incentivize fraudulent behavior.

Ms. Milligan:

  • Contended that her financial contribution created a presumed resulting trust in her favor, regardless of the legal title being in Ms. Tinsley’s name.
  • Argued that the presumption of advancement should be applied, as their cohabitation resembled a “quasi-marital” relationship where shared financial responsibility was expected.
  • Maintained that denying her a beneficial interest due to the illegality would be inequitable, especially considering Ms. Tinsley’s full knowledge and participation in the scheme.

Judgment and Reasoning

The House of Lords ruled in favor of Ms. Milligan, recognizing her beneficial interest in the property. The court acknowledged the illegality of the scheme but reasoned that Ms. Milligan could establish her beneficial interest without directly relying on the illegal purpose. Their reasoning hinged on the following points:

  • Presumption of Advancement: Although not technically parent and child, the court recognized the “quasi-marital” nature of their relationship and applied the presumption of advancement, inferring an intention to share the beneficial ownership equally.
  • Separation of Illegality and Trust: The court distinguished between the illegal purpose of facilitating benefit claims and the separate issue of creating a resulting trust based on Ms. Milligan’s actual financial contribution. Ms. Tinsley’s own involvement in the illegality weakened her argument against equity for Ms. Milligan.
  • Balancing Policy and Fairness: The court acknowledged the public policy concerns regarding illegality but ultimately balanced them against the principles of fairness and unjust enrichment. Denying Ms. Milligan a share solely due to her involvement, while Ms. Tinsley also benefited from the property, was deemed overly harsh.

Impact and Analysis

Tinsley v Milligan significantly impacted English trust law by emphasizing the flexible application of equitable principles in the face of illegality. While the case upheld the public policy against enforcing illegal agreements, it also recognized the need for fairness and proportionality. This reasoning paved the way for subsequent cases dealing with illegality and trusts, emphasizing the separation of the illegal purpose from the underlying property itself.

Patel v Mirza (2016), for instance, took a much stricter approach to illegality compared to Tinsley v Milligan. In Patel, the court refused to recognize the plaintiff’s claim to a beneficial interest in a jointly purchased property because their entire joint venture was based on an illegal immigration scheme. Unlike Tinsley, where both parties benefitted from the property regardless of the illegal purpose, Patel found the illegality intertwined with the very acquisition and ownership of the property, making it impossible to separate the two.


Tinsley v Milligan remains a landmark case in English trust law, showcasing the delicate balance between public policy considerations and equitable principles in situations involving illegality and resulting trusts. The case recognizes the need to deter unlawful arrangements while preventing one party from unjustly profiting from another’s involvement in the same scheme. Its legacy lies in emphasizing the flexible application of equity, urging courts to consider the specific facts and nature of the illegality before denying relief based solely on its presence. Ultimately, Tinsley v Milligan reminds us that the pursuit of justice in equitable cases often requires a nuanced and context-specific analysis, one that balances policy, fairness, and the individual circumstances at hand.

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