Gifts Between Engaged Couples

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

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Photo of Mr Julius Silverman Mr Julius Silverman , Birmingham Aston 12:00 am, 10th 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.