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Last edited 10 Jan 2018
Legal and equitable assignment
 Common law and equity
There are four types of assignment:
- Statutory or legal assignments of legal choses in action.
- Statutory or legal assignments of equitable choses in action.
- Equitable assignments of equitable choses in action.
- Equitable assignments of legal choses in action.
A brief knowledge of English legal history is helpful in understanding the dichotomy between legal and equitable assignments. Legal rights derive from the common law of England which was conceived and developed during the period between the Norman Conquest and the fourteenth century. The common law was administered by the King's Justices on circuit through the three common law courts of King's Bench, Common Pleas and Exchequer. There were no courts of equity.
However, because of restrictions placed on the continued development of the common law, not least the baronial intimidation of the common law courts and their juries, plaintiffs in search of justice began to petition the King in Council for a resolution of their disputes pursuant to the King's inherent judicial powers. Eventually this practice led to the petitions being referred to the King's Chancellor who initially discharged this function in the name of the King but who subsequently established the Courts of Chancery as an independent tribunal from the King in Council.
The jurisdiction of the Courts of Chancery were based on the cannon law concept of ‘conscience’ and ultimately developed into the rules of equity. England therefore had two court systems, the Common Law Courts and the Courts of Chancery, each developing their own rules of law. This separation was abolished by statute in 1875, which replaced the old court structure with the present day structure of the Supreme Court of Judicature. Nevertheless the rules of equity remain distinct from the common law.
 Legal assignments of choses in action
The right to make a legal assignment is now governed by statute – section 136 of the Law of Property Act 1925. Sub-section 1 of section 136 provides:
'Any absolute assignment by writing under the hand of the assignor (not purporting to be by way of charge only) of any debt or other legal thing in action, of which express notice in writing has been given to the debtor, trustee or other person from whom the assignor would have been entitled to claim such debt or thing in action, is effectual in law (subject to equities having priority over the right of the assignee) to pass and transfer from the date of such notice:
- (a) the legal right to such debt or thing in action;
- (b) all legal and other remedies for the same; and
- (c) the power to give a good discharge for the same without the concurrence of the assignor.’
- An absolute assignment in writing signed by the assignor;
- A debt or other legal thing in action; and
- Express notice in writing to the debtor.
In Walter and Sullivan Ltd v J Murphy & Sons Ltd, WS were plastering sub-contractors who commenced legal proceedings against M for the sum of £1808 alleged to be due in respect of a sub-contract for plastering works. After the commencement of the proceedings, WS, who were indebted to a third party H & Co, notified M that M were 'to pay to H & Co the sum of £1558 17s 8d from monies owing by you to us.. the receipt of H & Co shall be good and sufficient discharge to you in respect of payment made hereunder'.
By a second document, H & Co agreed with WS that in consideration of the irrevocable authority given by them to M ‘we will pay over to you any monies which are paid to us by (the Defendants)... after your debt to us … has been fully repaid .’ The court held that the arrangement between WS and H & Co was an assignment of part of a debt and therefore did not satisfy the requirements of sub-section 1 of section 136 of the Act.
An assignment that purports to be by way of charge only is not an absolute assignment. This is a complex legal concept. Suffice it to say that the relevant test is to decide whether the assignment merely gives a right to the assignee to payment out of a particular fund by way of security rather than an unconditional transfer of the fund to the assignee. In the Walter and Sullivan case, as well as being an assignment of part of a debt the court also held that the assignment purported to be by way of charge.
By way of contrast, it was held in Tancred v Delagoa Bay Company that an assignment by way of mortgage was absolute because there was a condition for re-assignment on payment of the loan. It is the substance of the transaction and not the titles of documents that determines the nature of the assignment.
An assignment which is qualified by conditions cannot be a legal assignment. In Re Williams, Williams v Ball the assignor purported to transfer the benefit of a life insurance policy but made it conditional upon the assignee surviving the assignor. This was held to be a conditional assignment falling outside section 136 of the Act. The judicial reasoning behind the requirement for an absolute assignment is that the debtor should not be put in doubt or jeopardy by the arrangements between the assignor and the assignee as to whom he is to discharge his obligations. In the cases of Walter and Sullivan and Williams there were such doubts, but not in the case of Tancred where the re-assignment on repayment of the loan would have to be notified to the debtor.
To create a legal assignment there must be a written document signed by the assignor. Signature by an agent would not appear to be sufficient. Any form of wording may be used provided there is a clear intention to make an absolute assignment. The assignment may be a document passing between the assignor and the assignee, or a written demand from the assignor to the debtor that the debtor pays or discharges his obligations to the assignee.
In the latter case, in order to be an effective assignment rather than merely an authority to pay a third party, there must be evidence that the assignee consented to the arrangement between the assignor and the debtor (see Curran v Newpark Cinemas Ltd). Unlike an assignment, an authority to pay can be revoked prior to the actual payment.
A debt or other legal thing in action includes both legal choses and equitable choses. The purpose of section 136 of the Act, which replaced but substantially re-enacted section 25, sub-Section 6 of the Judicature Act 1873, was procedural and not intended to create new forms of choses or things in action.
To create a valid legal assignment, written notice of the assignment must be given to the debtor. No particular form of wording is required; indeed a document can constitute notice even though it was not intended to be a notice.
In Van Lynn Developments Ltd v Pelias Construction Co Ltd P's bank overdraft was paid off by Van Lynn in consideration of P assigning the debt to Van Lynn. The assignment was dated 26 June. By a letter dated 27 June, Van Lynn demanded payment from P. In their letter Van Lynn stated, incorrectly, that notice of the assignment had previously been given to P. The court held that a notice of assignment was still good notice to the debtor even though it did not refer to the date of the assignment.
Further, as regards Van Lynns letter dated 27 June, the incorrect statement as to a notice could be ignored as 'an inaccurate surplusage' and it was immaterial that the letter was not written with the intention that it should perform the function of giving notice under the Act. It is not necessary for the notice to the debtor to be given by the assignor or the assignee; it may be given by a third party. In Bateman v Hunt, a valid notice was given by the executor of a deceased sub-assignee. In Herkules Piling Ltd and Another v Tilbury Construction Ltd, purported notice to the debtor by way of disclosure of documents in legal proceedings in which the debtor was a party, was considered to be insufficient notice of a legal or equitable assignment.
Once there has been an assignment which complies with the formalities of section 136, there is a transfer to the assignee of the legal right to the chose in action and the assignee can give good discharge upon payment or satisfaction by the debtor. It follows that the assignor has no right to sue in respect of the chose in action unless of course there is a re-assignment to the assignor. The same rules apply to intermediate assignments, thus creating a potential problem where a tenant assigns to a sub-tenant part of the demised property.
 Equitable assignments
A failure to comply with the formalities of section 136 of the Act is not necessarily fatal to the transaction; a defective legal assignment may operate as an equitable assignment (see William Brandts Sons & Co v Dunlop Rubber Co). Indeed a defective legal assignment which takes effect as an equitable assignment may subsequently become a legal assignment if the defect is removed; for example, where an equitable assignee of a defective legal assignment subsequently serves written notice on the debtor to perfect the legal assignment.
There may be an equitable assignment of an equitable chose or an equitable assignment of a legal chose. No consideration is required for the assignment of an equitable chose provided that the assignor has, at the material time, done all that he can to perfect the gift (see Letts v Inland Revenue Commissioners). It is suggested that the better view is that the same rule applies to equitable assignments of legal choses although there are judicial dicta to the contrary.
An equitable assignment may be in writing or oral. Any words will suffice provided they are unambiguous. Referring to the form of an equitable assignment Lord Macnaghten in the William Brandts case stated:
'It may be addressed to the debtor. It may be couched in the language of commerce. It may be a courteous request. It may assume the form of mere permission. The language is immaterial if the meaning is plain. All that is necessary is that the debtor should be given to understand that the debt has been made over by the creditor to some third person.’
Lord Macnaghten's judgment in William Brandt referred to notice to the debtor. In law there may be a binding equitable assignment between assignor and assignee without notice to the debtor. However, as a matter of practice, notice to the debtor is very important for three reasons. Firstly, in the absence of notice the debtor is entitled to discharge his obligations to the assignor and not to the assignee, whereas if he has notice he does so at his own peril and he may well be required to discharge the obligation a second time to the assignee with no entitlement to recovery from the assignor (see Walter & Sullivan Ltd).
Secondly, the giving of notice to the debtor has an effect on prior equities (see below). Thirdly, the date of notice establishes the order of priority as between successive assignees (see Dearie v Hall). The notice may be written or oral and the wording of the notice may be informal, although casual conversations may not be sufficient notice (Re Croggon ex parte Carbis). Indeed in the case of Lloyd v Banks, the court held that a newspaper article was sufficient notice to the debtor.
An equitable assignment may operate by way of a charge only or be of part of the debt or chose (see Walter & Sullivan Ltd). Thus, where a developer wishes to dispose of the completed building to more than one purchaser or tenant, it is submitted that he will only be in a position to give each individual purchaser or tenant an equitable assignment of the benefits arising under the principal design and construction contracts.
If a legal assignment is required, then the draftsman of the principal contracts should take care to impose an obligation on the designers and contractors to provide a sufficient number of collateral warranties to satisfy the requirements of multi-occupation.
 Procedural differences between legal and equitable assignment
Substantively legal and equitable assignments (provided notice has been given to the debtor) are essentially the same. In the Herkules Piling case, it was considered that an arbitration clause in the FCEC form of sub-contract could be assigned by a legal assignment by reason of the wording of section 136 of the Law of Property Act 1925, which stipulated that all attendant remedies were transferred, but not by an equitable assignment as the arbitration clause conferred discrete rights and obligations between the original contracting parties. There are however important procedural differences.
A legal assignment within the Act transfers a legal right in the chose to the assignee. Consequently the assignee sues the debtor in his own name. If there is an equitable assignment of an equitable chose in action the assignment being absolute, then again the assignee is entitled to sue in his own name. However, if there is an equitable assignment of a legal chose in action or an equitable chose which is not absolute, for example a part of the debt, the assignor must be joined into the action either as claimant, if he co-operates, or as defendant if he does not.
If the assignor is not joined as a party, the assignee's action may well fail although it is important to stress that these requirements are procedural and are not substantive, therefore the courts have a discretion to dispense with joinder of the assignor if they are satisfied that there is no prospect of a further claim by the assignor (see The Aiolos). Also note that under the Civil Procedure Rules Part 19, the Supreme Court has a wide discretion to order that additional parties should be joined to an action.
 Prior equities
The effect of an assignment, whether it is a legal assignment or an equitable assignment, is to place the assignee in the shoes of the assignor in respect of the benefits (but not the burdens) arising under the original transaction with the debtor. Consequently the assignee cannot by the assignment obtain a more advantageous position vis-à-vis the original debtor than that which was occupied by the assignor. In Business Computers Ltd v Anglo African Leasing Ltd, Templeman J stated that:
'a debt which accrues due before notice of an assignment is received, whether or not it is payable before that date, or a debt which arises out of the same contract as that which gives rise to the assigned debt, or is closely connected with that contract, may be set off against the assignee.’
It is important to note that if the set-off arises independently from the original contract between the assignor and the debtor, then it cannot be set off against the assignee if the liability (as distinct from the actual payment) accrued after the date of receipt of a notice of assignment. The giving of notice of assignment is however irrelevant to claims by way of set-off or counterclaim that arise from the original contract or a contract which is closely connected to the original contract.
For example, A is the developer, B the architect appointed by A, C the first purchaser of the development from A and D the second purchaser from C. The contract between A and B provides for design works to be carried out by B and payment therefore to be made by A. B also enters into a collateral warranty undertaking to C that he will carry out his design works with reasonable skill and care. C assigns the benefit of the collateral warranty to D. A has not paid all of B's professional fees.
In the event that B is in breach of his collateral warranty, if D brings proceedings against B then B will be able to set off the amount of the unpaid fees against D's claims regardless of whether the entitlement to the fees arose after the date of D's notice of assignment to B. This is because the collateral warranty and the original contract between A and B are closely connected contracts.
In the above example the same right of set-off arises as between B and C if C were the ultimate purchaser who took an assignment of A's benefits under the original contract with C. In this latter example, the rights of set-off and counterclaim would arise from the same contract.
The debtor's right to counterclaim against the assignee is limited to defending the claims brought by the assignee, the counterclaim being set off in extinction or diminution of the assignee's claims. It does not entitle the debtor to bring positive counterclaims against the assignee, i.e for sums in excess of the assignee's claims. This is because, as stated above, the assignee only takes the benefit and not the burden of the original contract.
It would appear that where there have been successive assignments the debtor is not entitled to set off against claims brought by the ultimate assignee, counterclaims which the debtor has against intermediate assignees (see The Raven).
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