Agnew v The Belfast Banking Company and Maria Claney

Judgment Date30 January 1894
Docket Number(1892. No. 3061.)
Date30 January 1894
CourtCourt of Appeal (Ireland)
The Belfast Banking Company and Maria Claney (2).


(1892. No. 3061.)













Donatio mortis causa — Deposit receipt — Suicide — Public policy.

The owner of a deposit receipt gave the document to her sister under circumstances such that the jury found that it was so given in contemplation of death which was to be effected by suicide, and that the gift was to take effect only in the event of the donor's death.

Held (affirming the decision of the Exchequer Division), that the gift under such circumstances did not constitute a valid donatio mortis causa.

Quaere — Can there be a valid donatio mortis causa when the donor at the time of the donation is in good bodily health?

Appeal from an order of the Exchequer Division, dated the 3rd May, 1893, whereby judgment was directed to be entered for the plaintiff as against the defendant Maria Claney.

The action was brought by Robert Agnew, as administrator of Jane Claney, otherwise Agnew, deceased, against the Belfast Banking Company for the sum of £200 lent to them by the said

Jane Claney, deceased, and 5s. 11d. interest thereon, and against the defendant Maria Claney for trover and detinue of a deposit receipt for the said sum of £200, and for £50 money, had and received for the plaintiff's use.

The defendant Maria Claney traversed the detinue and the conversion of the deposit receipt; denied that it was the property of the plaintiff, and paid £36 11s. 11/2d. into Court in respect of the claim for money had and received. The Belfast Banking Company, on an affidavit stating that they admitted their liability on the deposit receipt, but that both the plaintiff and Maria Claney had claimed to be paid the sum due on foot of it, obtained an interpleader order, whereby it was directed that, on their lodging in Court to the credit of the action the sum due on the deposit receipt, less by £6 6s. as and for costs of action and motion, all further proceedings against the said Belfast Banking Company should be stayed, and that an issue should be tried upon the trial of the action wherein the said plaintiff Robert Agnew should be plaintiff, and the said Maria Claney should be defendant, the question on the trial of such issue to be, “whether the said Robert Agnew or the said Maria Claney is entitled to the said sum of £200 and interest, less by the said costs as aforesaid.”

The action came on for trial before Mr. Justice Harrison and a common jury of the City of Dublin, on February 10, 1893, whereupon it was agreed between the plaintiff and Maria Claney that the sum paid into Court by the defendant Maria Claney should be accepted by the plaintiff in full discharge of the cause of action for money had and received by the said defendant for the use of the plaintiff.

The trial of the other cause of action and of the issue then proceeded. It was proved that the deposit receipt was given by the Bank to Jane Claney for money admitted to be her own, on May 7, 1892. The plaintiff married Jane Claney on May 12, 1892. Previously to the marriage Jane Claney and her sister, Maria Claney, had lived together at Bangor (Co. Down). After the marriage the plaintiff and his wife lived at Balloo, three miles from Bangor. On May 16, 1892, Jane Agnew returned to her sister Maria, at Bangor, and slept there. She had a box which she had left in her sister's house, and of which she kept the key. On the morning of May 17 the plaintiff came to Bangor, saw his wife, and borrowed some money from her to pay his rent. He then went away, leaving his wife and her sister together. What next happened was thus described by Maria Claney at the trial: — After he left, my sister went upstairs and brought down this deposit receipt (produced). She said to me that she thought it was going to take a great deal of money to do him. She said nothing more but signed the deposit receipt. I saw her write her name on it. She then brought over the deposit receipt and gave it to me. I was sitting in the room when she gave me the deposit receipt. She handed it to me and said, ‘Maria, that is yours: if anything should happen to me, that is yours in God's Name.’ She said nothing more. I took the deposit receipt from her, but not in a hurry. I said to her, ‘Jane, what are you doing that for?’ She just said, ‘That is yours, for and be sure and lock it up.’ I then went up to my room. She followed me, and stood by me whilst I locked the deposit receipt in my own box. She saw me do it. Nothing more was said. She left me about two o'clock that afternoon; her husband came for her, and they left together.” It was proved that at the time when she gave the deposit receipt to her sister, Jane Agnew was in good bodily health, and so continued until she became suddenly ill, and died on the night of May 21, 1892, it being agreed by the respective counsel on both sides that the verdict of the jury on the inquisition to inquire into the cause of death of the said Jane Agnew, and the several depositions made therein, should be received and entered in evidence on the trial of the issue. These several depositions contained the evidence on which the coroner's jury found “that the said Jane Claney Agnew did commit suicide by taking an irritant poison while in a state of temporary insanity, and died on May 21, 1892, at Balloo Lower. No blame can be attached to any person.” After Jane Agnew's death a letter addressed to the defendant Maria Claney was found in the deceased's box in the defendant's house. The letter was written, and the envelope in which it was enclosed, was directed in the deceased's handwriting. Maria Claney at the trial swore that she knew nothing of the letter till she found it after her sister's death. The letter was admitted in evidence at the trial not as a will, nor as an incomplete will, but as written after the alleged gift, and forming portion of the entire transaction. It was as follows:—“May 17. Dear Maria. This is my will. I gave you the cheque, and I leave to wee Jenny the £50 in this box and the other, what is left to pay my funeral expenses. I leave to Jenny my knitted quilt and everything that is useful to her; but you can do as you please. I was foolish to get a home. Do not forget Mrs. Heaman and Miss Heaman — what you like. I have sheets in the box in Balloo, and my knitted quilt; be sure and get them; get everything belonging to me… The Lord will forgive me, I hope, for taking away my life, for I cannot live any longer. So good-bye, Maria dear.” There was evidence that the deceased thought she was involved in expense by her marriage; but there was no dispute between her and her husband, and they had lived happily together. It was proved that the deceased had purchased poison on May 21, 1892.

At the conclusion of the evidence counsel for the plaintiff asked for a direction on the ground—(1) That there cannot in law be a donatio mortis causa when the death in alleged contemplation is a death by suicide; (2) that there can be no donatio mortis causa where the donor at the time of the alleged donation is in good bodily health: Hedges v. Hedges (1); (3) that there was not any evidence to show that at the time the transaction took place Mrs. Agnew was in such a state of illness, or expectation of death, as would warrant a supposition that the gift was made in contemplation of that event. Counsel for the plaintiff further submitted that there was no case or evidence to go to the jury of a donatio mortis causa, because the gift apparently was an out-and-out gift purporting to pass the property; and further, that there was no contemporaneous evidence, or rather the reverse, that the donor had death in contemplation at the time of the gift, and he objected to any question being left to the jury.

The Judge declined to direct, and left the following questions to the jury:—

1. Did the late Jane Agnew indorse, give, and hand over to the defendant the deposit receipt in question?

2. If so, was same indorsed and handed over in contemplation of death?

3. If so, was it a death by suicide?

4. Was same given or handed over to take effect in the event of Jane Agnew's death and then only?

All these questions were answered by the jury in the affirmative; and on these answers the Judge directed the jury to answer the question directed by the said issue, “that the said Maria Claney was entitled to the said sum;” and the jury did so answer, and found for the said Maria Claney, as against the said Robert Agnew, on the counts of detinue and trover and conversion. The Judge abstained from giving judgment, and left the respective parties to move the Court as they might be advised; but he ordered that the sum of £36 11s. 11/2d., lodged in Court by Maria Claney, should be paid out of Court to the plaintiff.

On May 2, 1893, the plaintiff applied to the Divisional Court that judgment be entered for the plaintiff against Maria Claney for the sum of £200 5s. 11d., and for the return of the deposit receipt mentioned in the pleadings, and for the costs of the action and issue, including £6 6s. paid to the Belfast Banking Company, or in the alternative, that the finding of the jury might be set aside, and a new trial ordered on the grounds of misdirection by the learned Judge, the reception of illegal evidence, and that the findings were against the evidence and the weight of evidence. On this application the Exchequer Division (Palles, C.B., and Murphy, J.) being of opinion that there was not a valid donatio mortis causa of the deposit receipt, ordered judgment to be entered for the plaintiff, as against the said Maria Claney, for the sum of £200, the amount of the deposit receipt sued for, and also the return of the deposit receipt with his costs of the action, of the issue, and of this application; and...

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3 cases
  • Mills v Shields and Kelly
    • Ireland
    • High Court
    • 18 May 1948
    ...the death of the donor from a cause other than that apparently contemplated, nor (distinguishing Agnew v. The Belfast Banking Company [1896] 2 I. R. 204) by the mere possibility that the donor contemplated being visited by an irresistible impulse to commit suicide, nor (following In re Korv......
  • Koh Cheong Heng v Ho Yee Fong
    • Singapore
    • High Court (Singapore)
    • 2 March 2011
    ...on the effect of delivery do not speak with one voice (see Borkowski at p 106). One line of cases (eg Agnew v Belfast Banking Co [1896] 2 IR 204) appears to suggest that the donee does not acquire any title until the donor dies. A second line of cases is ambiguous as to the effect of a dona......
  • Koh Cheong Heng v Ho Yee Fong
    • Singapore
    • High Court (Singapore)
    • 2 March 2011
    ...on the effect of delivery do not speak with one voice (see Borkowski at p 106). One line of cases (eg Agnew v Belfast Banking Co [1896] 2 IR 204) appears to suggest that the donee does not acquire any title until the donor dies. A second line of cases is ambiguous as to the effect of a dona......

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