Will ending a joint tenancy by serving a notice to quit constitute a breach of trust?

In the recent case of Pile v Pile [2022] EWHC 2036 (Ch) the High Court ruled that the service of a notice to quit a joint periodic tenancy by a joint tenant, who was a trustee, did not constitute a breach of trust. 

The trust in question was a simple one, where the land was held in the trustees' names. There was no breach of trust, even though the trustee/joint tenant had served the notice with a view to obtaining a personal benefit. The personal benefit in question was obtaining a new lease of land without the other joint tenant.

In its judgment, the Court's reasoning was that:

  • In this type of trust, there was no duty owed between the joint tenants that would stop one of them from ending the tenancy.
  • This 'no duty owed' position was unaffected by the fact that by serving notice to end the tenancy, the trustee/joint tenant would acquire an advantage, such as getting a new tenancy for themselves.

As there were no additional trust duties owed between the joint tenants and, in the absence of any legal basis for the existence of other fiduciary duties, there was nothing to prevent one joint tenant from serving a notice to quit. The existence of a co-ownership relationship with another joint tenant under a periodic tenancy does not in itself create extensive trustee duties.

Interestingly, this decision appears to show that where a party has served a notice to quit, it will be crucial for a claimant who is trying to argue a breach of trust to lay out all of the elements of the trust in their pleading.  It will be important for them to ensure that they include full details about why the land is being held. A claimant will have a difficult time making their case unless they can demonstrate that the trust in their claim is not merely a standard co-ownership trust.