Gifts Between Engaged Couples

Orders of the Day — Law Reform (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 10 April 1970.

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Photo of Mr Julius Silverman Mr Julius Silverman , Birmingham Aston 12:00, 10 April 1970

I beg to move Amendment No. 1, in page 2, line 23, at end add— (2) the gift of an engagement ring shall be presumed to be an absolute gift; this presumption may be rebutted by proving that the ring was given on the condition, express or implied, that it should be returned if the marriage did not take place for any reason. The Amendment arises from one moved in Committee by my hon. Friend the Member for Pontypool (Mr. Abse) and deals with the question of engagement rings. The present rule with regard to an engagement ring—this has aroused much more public interest than any other part of the Bill—is that, according to a decision of the courts taken in 1917—Jacobs v. Davis—an engagement ring is a conditional gift which is presumed to be conditional upon the marriage. This means that, if the marriage does not take place, the ring, being a conditional gift, is returnable.

In a later case—Cohen v. Sellers—it was held that on the termination of an engagement a conditional gift may not be recovered if the person responsible for terminating an engagement is the man. This applies to engagement rings as having been decided to be conditional gifts.

The object of the Amendment moved in Committee was, in substance, to reverse what would occur if the Clause came into operation; because the Clause removes the bar to the recovery of a conditional gift which is imposed if the donor is responsible for the termination of an engagement. My hon. Friend chose to reverse this and revert to what would be the position under Jacobs v. Davis. The major objection to the Amendment moved in Committee, although it received a certain amount of sympathy, was that Cohen v. Sellers involved an argument of who jilted whom; and this we considered to be objectionable.

If breach of promise cases must go—there are very powerful arguments advanced in the Commission's report for their going—they should not be revived under the pretext of discussing who should get an engagement ring. What ever the proposal which came before the House, it was the feeling of most members of the Committee that there should be a decision one way or another: either the ring should go back or it should not go back, but it should not in any sense depend upon a discussion as to who broke off the engagement, a matter which in any event it is very difficult for the court to decide in many cases. The decision may have been taken by the man due to an intolerable course of conduct by the woman. This was the general feeling of the Committee, as it is my feeling and that of the Law Commission.

To meet this situation, I drafted the Amendment, which reverses the presumption in the case of Jacobs v. Davis and says in substance that an engagement ring is not a conditional gift. In doing this, I have not merely considered this Amendment. I have discussed the matter with Members of the House and with many people from different walks of life. The almost universal reaction is that they would have thought that an engagement ring is not a conditional gift but one given absolutely. I should have thought that this was common sense.

One legal acquaintance of mine wrote to his wise mother as the fountain source of his knowledge. What she said was very interesting. She said that she thought that no decent man would want to ask for his ring back if the engagement was broken and no decent woman would want to keep the ring if the engagement was broken, but that in substance an engagement ring was not a conditional gift but an absolute one.

The Amendment therefore reverses the presumption. Unless the contrary is shown by the man who has given the ring, it shall be presumed that the ring is an absolute gift. This is the view of most people. It is common sense. There may be circumstances where the gift is a conditional one. One or two have been mentioned. For instance, a ring may be a family heirloom, and in such circumstances it is obvious that the gift was intended to be conditional upon marriage and to be returnable in the event of the marriage not taking place. These are matters which would be decided by the courts upon the evidence. The one point which would not arise is who broke off the engagement, how it came to an end, and who jilted whom.

One argument which was advanced in Committee against such a proposition as that which I now advance and, indeed, against the original proposition of my hon. Friend the Member for Pontypool, was—would not this provide a licence and charter for the gold-digger woman who would simply get herself engaged, get a valuable ring, proceed to break off the engagement, and then go to the next man and repeat the process?

I do not regard this argument very seriously. If the woman who is engaged is that sort of woman, the man is getting rid of her very cheaply if it is only the price of an engagement ring. Therefore, there is a solid argument in favour of the Amendment. It complies with what the feelings of the members of the Committee were, and I am sure that it would also comply with the feelings of the House.

12.30 p.m.

Photo of Mr Leo Abse Mr Leo Abse , Pontypool

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Aston (Mr. Julius Silverman) for having yielded to my request that we should not have a Bill, as we once did, whereby it was possible for a faithless lover who promised marriage to break his promise and, if he wished, to snatch back the engagement ring.

My hon. Friend is quite right in saying that this matter has aroused a great deal of public interest. It is quite clear to me from the avalanche of mail that he received as a consequence of the issue being publicly ventilated that there is a great amount of healthy concern that the act of betrothal should be dealt with in the way originally suggested. This Amendment helps to ensure that no man can lightly place an engagement ring on a woman's finger. It will now mean that the chances of a man ever obtaining his ring back, except by the wish of his fiancée, will be very slight indeed.

My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Mr. Ogden) has accused me of some romanticism. I remain romantic enough to believe that this proposal will not mean that there will be any reduction in the total value of rings purchased. If, in a marginal number of cases, it causes hesitation before the ring is proffered, then so much the better, because such temperate and calculating wooers would best be frightened off before, rather than after, the engagement.

I agree that the cynics may say that there are risks of women entering into a succession of engagements in order to obtain a succession rings, but I am glad that my hon. Friend the Member for Aston has not pursued the misogyny that he expressed previously when he seemed to imagine that most women were in danger of becoming extraordinarily predatory, and that he now takes a much more realistic view.

Photo of Mr Julius Silverman Mr Julius Silverman , Birmingham Aston

I do not accept that for a moment. I did not say it. I would not dream of saying it.

Photo of Mr Leo Abse Mr Leo Abse , Pontypool

My hon. Friend seemed to imagine that women are likely to start actions more readily than men—something which is a purely subjective impression and is, I am sure, wrong.

I am glad that my hon. Friend accepts that the objection—although is should have been raised so that it could be considered in Committee—is very unlikely and fanciful. I am certain that in the overwhelming majority of cases of broken engagements, a woman, to preserve her dignity, would hand the ring back. But I have always insisted that the choice should be hers and should be voluntary. To have it otherwise would mean that the law would be more likely to act as an exacerbation in a painful situation rather than, as it will now, a social lubricant.

Although my hon. Friend the Member for Aston has not mentioned it, I have yielded to his private persuasions in his concern for heirlooms. One of the circumstances in which it could be implied that a gift was not an absolute gift would be a case in which a man has handed over an heirloom. Perhaps there are still some ducal heirlooms, and perhaps there is still a world in which some impetuous pin-headed lords proffer priceless inherited jewels to chorus girls, and, if they do exist, I take the point. I can assure my hon. Friend that, if there is such a world, Pontypool—and I am sure Liverpool, too—is quite indifferent to it.

I see the force of the hon. Gentleman's argument in taking into account the fact that the ring proffered may have been worn by a man's great-grandmother or his mother, and the court, by noting this, should in some circumstances be able to conclude properly that the gift in those circumstances was impliedly conditional. I regard the response made by the hon. Member to the request that I and others made in Committee as a generous one, and I hope that this sensible Amendment will be accepted.

Photo of Mr Eric Ogden Mr Eric Ogden , Liverpool, West Derby

I hope the Amendment will not be accepted. Earlier the new Clause proposed by my hon. Friend the Member for Pontypool (Mr. Abse) was opposed by my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Aston (Mr. Julius Silverman), and I agreed with that opposition. There is now a consensus between the two, and I like this Amendment none the more for that.

An engagement ring was a symbol of a betrothal, of trust and confidence between two persons, long before it became a prestige symbol or an outward sign of a contract. If that contract should be broken, if that trust, confidence and love are to be broken by the breaking-off of the engagement, the way in which the engagement ring goes—whether it stays with one person or another person—is of much less importance than all the other considerations. If we are to discuss one part of the property—which may be of small or large financial value—which is exchanged between the parties to the contract, we should also discuss what happens to the other pieces of property which were acquired because of the contract. What happens to the house? What happens to the furniture or the fittings? What happens to the bottom drawer? Does one have to consider who bought which and who bought what? That is one of the reasons why I do not like this Amendment.

I like the first part of the Amendment, which is short, concise and quite clear: the gift of an engagement ring shall be presumed to be an absolute gift". If there were a full stop at that point, as there was originally, I would give this Amendment my wholehearted support. But then we have the second part of the Amendment: this presumption may be rebutted by proving"— I do not know how it will be proved— that the ring was given on the condition, express or implied"— that should perhaps read "expressed or implied".

Let us imagine a situation in which a young man asks a young woman to marry him. This may happen at a railway station.

Photo of Mrs Renée Short Mrs Renée Short , Wolverhampton North East

That is not a very romantic place.

Photo of Mr Eric Ogden Mr Eric Ogden , Liverpool, West Derby

Railway stations can be very romantic places. Imagine a boy asking a girl to marry him. Perhaps he has the ring available. Incidentally, how they always seem to have the right size amazes me. He says, "May I slip this ring on your finger? Would you sign this form to indemnify me before the marriage goes through, in case anything goes wrong?" I submit that that would not be a very realistic proof.

Then we come to the latter part of the Amendment: that it should be returned if the marriage did not take place for any reason. Why "any reason"? If it did not take place for any reason, there is no reason to have "for any reason" in the Amendment.

Photo of Mr Julius Silverman Mr Julius Silverman , Birmingham Aston

The words "for any reason" simply mean in this case however the engagement was broken off, whoever broke it off. Their object is to prevent a discussion on who jilted whom.

Photo of Mr Eric Ogden Mr Eric Ogden , Liverpool, West Derby

That object is acceptable, but I still think that exactly the same result would be achieved if the Amendment were to end with the words if the marriage did not take place". That would mean, "did not take place for any reason".

However, that is a debating point of less importance. My main point is that the engagement ring has been elevated to an importance greater than its worth; it has been given a false importance. The main thing that we should be concerned about is the breakdown of the engagement, not how particular pieces of property may be disposed of. I do not like the Amendment, although it will presumably be accepted.

Photo of Mrs Renée Short Mrs Renée Short , Wolverhampton North East

The Committee considering the Bill was a curious one, in that it was composed entirely of male members. It always surprises me that when in the House we do a great deal of work on the condition of women, if I may use that expression in the broadest sense, we do not think that it is necessary even to have just one statutory woman on the Committee so that the women's point of view might be heard.

I am not putting a particularly militant feminist point of view today—

Photo of Mr Eric Ogden Mr Eric Ogden , Liverpool, West Derby

But my hon. Friend is wearing the trousers.

Photo of Mr Leo Abse Mr Leo Abse , Pontypool

I made the point in Committee that by the end I had begun to feel that I was the only feminist serving on it.

Photo of Mrs Renée Short Mrs Renée Short , Wolverhampton North East

My hon. Friend has taken the words out of my mouth.

Generally, we can be certain if he is on a Committee that, with his great knowledge of female psychology, he will put the woman's point of view. I can think of only one occasion when my hon. Friend has erred in this direction, and that was when he and I served on the Committee considering the Bill for the reform of the abortion law. I can see that you are beginning to look agitated, Mr. Speaker, so I will not pursue that line. If I were to do so, I would simply say that my hon. Friend and I did not then agree, and I think that his insight into female psychology was perhaps not as acute as it normally is.

Photo of Dr Horace King Dr Horace King , Southampton, Itchen

Order. We must get back to the engagement ring.

Photo of Mrs Renée Short Mrs Renée Short , Wolverhampton North East

My hon. Friend really came up to expectations on the Committee considering the Bill. He is absolutely right to say that an engagement ring is a gift, full stop, with no conditions attached.

From time to time my hon. Friend gives us some interesting and highly-coloured descriptions of what life is like in the Welsh valleys. We had examples of some parts of Britain—I am not sure whether they were in Wales—where rather odd symbols of troth are given, such as bent sixpences. I think that we would have no hesitation in knowing what to do with such symbols, but an engagement ring is something very special. It is a landmark in a girl's life when she receives one, whether it is the first or perhaps one of a succession. It is also a landmark in the life of the young man who gives the ring, because it shows that he has a degree of seriousness in the particular girl, that he regards himself at least for the time being as her plighted troth, and that the intention is that the marriage shall be carried out and eventually consummated in the normal way.

It is possible to receive an engagement ring after marriage and not before. I was not able to receive an engagement ring before marriage simply because my fiancé and I could not afford it. We had both been students, and when we decided that we were meant for each other it was a question of whether we could afford to buy furniture for our flat or an engagement ring. I decided, very nobly, I think, and probably very sensibly, to defer buying the engagement ring to buy the furniture. This meant that probably I eventually got a very much better ring than by fiancé could have afforded before we married, so I think that I got a better deal in the end. A ring given after marriage as an engagement token is no less precious to the recipient.

Rings are given in very different circumstances. In Committee, the hon. Member for Blackpool, North (Mr. Miscampbell) described how he pushed his engagement ring to his fiancé across the teatable at Fuller's, in Liverpool, one afternoon, and said that she took a rather dim view of this unspectacular offer of the ring.

In many cases the young couple visit several jewellers' shops over a period of time to decide which ring they will buy. Having decided on the financial range in which they will operate, they take quite a long time over choosing it together. It must be a marvellous experience for a girl to be able to choose and not just to have to wear any old ring her fiancé decides to give her, whether across a café table or elsewhere. It is perhaps even more of a personal thing if she has been able to select the ring that she would particularly like to wear. But that makes it an even more bitter situation if the engagement is broken and she is faced with the question of whether to send the ring back or to keep it.

Perhaps because I am a woman, I come down firmly on the side of those who say that the ring should be hers. As my hon. Friend the Member for Pontypool said in Committee, she may decide that she wants to do something rather drastic with it after it can no longer sit on the third finger of her left hand as the symbol of her engagement to the man of her choice. He said that she might even want to chuck it in the river.

I believe that if she is jilted she is right to do what she likes with the ring—chuck it in the river, or perhaps sell it. She might feel that she particularly wants to keep it because it is a memento of a period of her life. Not all partings take place in an immense amount of bitterness and unhappiness. They may leave something sweet at the end, something that is to be remembered and valued.

Into the romantic atmosphere created in Committee by my hon. Friend the Member for Pontypool, bless him, the cold voice of male logic was introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, West (Mr. Oakes), who warned of the machinations of the female gold-digger—a phrase I have not heard for a long time. I think that it dates back to the 1920s. We remember those lush Hollywood musical films. He warned about the gold-digger who acquires a ring, perhaps a very expensive one—good luck to her—and then flagrantly breaks off the engagement and keeps the ring, and who may make this a sort of practice. Having pulled it off once she may think that it is a jolly good thing, and will find a succession of men in a position to buy her equally expensive rings.

This is not a very valid argument. The suggestion does not fit in with female psychology at all. Is it really within the bounds of possibility that one woman could find so many rich men to give her so many expensive rings? Maybe she can do it once, she might even get away with it twice, but this really is not a possibility.

As my hon. Friend has said, I think that if a man gets hooked with that sort of woman then it is really a cheap price to pay—even though he may have spent quite a lot of money on a nice engagement ring—to be rid of her and able to look with a clear conscience for a better sort of fiancée to provide him with a better life in the future.

One ought not to place too much weight on that. I would be very much happier, and here I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Mr. Ogden), if the Amendment finished at the words "absolute gift" and that the ring should be presumed to be an absolute gift. I can see the point about the family heirloom being handed over as an engagement ring and that if we said that the engagement ring was an absolute gift that would mean that the fiancé had no means of getting the family heirloom back into the family unless the Amendment continued as it does on the Notice Paper.

I should have hoped that in those circumstances, where it was obviously understood that this was the kind of gift which should remain in the family, to be handed down from generation to generation, that the girl would be reasonable and would be willing perhaps to do something that she would not do in normal circumstances.

I do not support at all the idea put forward in Committee that there should be any question of taking the matter to court to decide who broke off the engagement and why and who, therefore, should be entitled to have the ring back or keep the ring. This Amendment, therefore, is an improvement on that. But as I said, I should be happier if the Amendment finished at the words "absolute gift".

This is something which is tremendously important to a girl or a woman who receives a ring. I think that we accept the fact that a ring is a gift and a gift is a gift. It is not something given conditionally, although I understand that that is the position at the moment, and that the Law Commission's report said that there is a presumption that engagement rings are conditional gifts. But it is certainly an improvement to decide that engagement rings should be absolute gifts, and that they should be kept by the fiancée in the circumstances.

Photo of Mr Julius Silverman Mr Julius Silverman , Birmingham Aston

If the new Amendment is not carried then the position will be that which my hon. Friend the Member for Pontypool (Mr. Abse) objected to—that a ring, being a conditional gift, would be returnable to the fiancé in every case whoever broke off the engagement, unless she were able to prove—and it is not an easy thing to prove under the circumstances—that the gift was given unconditionally. That would be the position. I think that that would be found objectionable by most hon. Members. That was the first point which I considered in presenting the Amendment.

The second point that I took into consideration—and it is a point on which everybody has concurred, including my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, North-East (Mrs. Renée Short)—is that whatever the position it should be a position which did not depend upon who broke off the engagement. I think that most hon. Members would agree with that, because otherwise this would merely revive the whole wrangle of a breach of promise case in another form. Therefore, if that goes, one must decide one way or the other.

How to decide is basically a matter of ordinary common sense and the law should be based as far as possible on common sense, and this is the object of the Amendment. Common sense says, "What does the ordinary man intend when he gives an engagement ring to an ordinary woman?" That is the point I have had to consider. Not relying upon my own hunch in the matter I consulted as many people as possible and the general view was that notwithstanding what the case of Jacobs v. Davis has said, and what the High Court has said, the intention of a man in ordinary circumstances is that the gift should be given as a gift and that there is no question of conditions.

This being their view, it seems correct that this should be embodied in the law rather than the decision of a judge which was made 50 years or more ago and that this should be the law of the land and that, deciding what is conditional or unconditional, should be based on what the ordinary person thinks when he gives such a gift.

This was the basis of the Amendment. I concede that there are certain exceptions, although I think that they are very few. I mention the family heirloom as one. I am not talking about ducal arrangements. I am talking about people in Pontypool and Birmingham who may give, as my hon. Friend the Member for Pontypool has said, a mother's ring, or a grandmother's ring, which is valuable in the man's family and which a court may decide in those circumstances is a conditional gift from its nature. This is a matter for the court to decide in an individual case. I should have thought that based upon this there would be few arguments about the question of engagement rings. We have had this in the past and it has almost always been based on who jilted whom. Once one dismisses that from any action one can be sure that there will be few, if any, actions over engagement rings. This is decided once and for all by this Amendment, which I hope that the Government will accept it.

Amendment agreed to.