In the evolving landscape of gender equality and women’s rights, one significant aspect that is commonly debated is the issue of wives having equal rights to their husbands’ property.
Since ancient times, most African women have often been denied ownership of property. They have also faced numerous legal and societal barriers that have impeded their financial independence and security.
However, in recent years, we have seen a growing movement that advocates for a shift in these norms and demands equal rights for wives in terms of property ownership.
According to a recent report by Arise News, Justice Dorcas Olatokun, presiding over the Lagos State High Court, had brought forth a significant advancement in women’s rights in Nigeria.
In a ground-breaking decision, the Court had established that, “Wives are equal co-owners of properties acquired by their husbands, with men holding these properties in a ‘constructive trust’ on behalf of the family.”
Quoting the English Master of Rolls, Lord Denning, the Court said that ‘constructive trust’ refers to a legal concept where a court recognizes a trust relationship between parties, despite the absence of a formal trust arrangement.
It is a remedy applied by the court to prevent unjust enrichment or unfairness in certain situations.
This decision was made by Honorable Justice Dorcas. T. Olatokun at the Lagos State High Court, Ikeja Division, in the case between Mrs. Caroline Aina (the claimant) and Mr. Pius Aina (the defendant).
According to the report, Mrs. Aina had sued her husband for selling their two-bedroom bungalow situated at House 6, N Close, 3rd Avenue, Festac Town, without her consent.
The property was initially allocated to the Defendant by the Federal Housing Authority (FHA) in the early 1980s.
where a property is jointly owned, the consent of the other is required before disposing of the property
Mr. Pius Aina was an employee of FHA when he received the allocation. However, in 1989, the FHA terminated his employment suddenly, along with 69 other employees, and they were ordered to vacate the property.
The employees went to court to challenge the decision of the Federal Housing Authority. Thankfully, they won the case and were reinstated on November 24, 1997.
Fast forward to July 4, 2001, when Mr. Aina retired, and as part of his retirement benefits, the Federal Housing Authority gave him a right of first refusal to purchase the allocated property for the sum of N400, 000.
The Claimant said she contributed N200,000, while her husband paid the balance of N200,000.
By then, the couple had been legally married for 35 years and had lived on the property with their three children for over 30 years.
Mrs. Aina stated that during that period, she had made countless direct and indirect contributions to the maintenance of the family property. However, on December 8, 2018, while she was on a trip, she heard that her husband had sold the property without her consent.
Where joint ownership of property exists, it means that each party has an equal proprietary right of ownership
She stated that fake documents were used for the sale, and that after numerous failed attempts to convince her husband to cancel the transaction, she had to implore the court to fight for her.
She also brought to light another incident when the FHA attempted to revoke her husband’s right of first refusal because he had acquired and sold another property allocation within the Ipaja scheme of the authority.
Meanwhile, the FHA stated that Mr. Pius Aina was only entitled to a single allocation. However, his wife encouraged him to contest the matter in court.
She claimed that she had paid the sum of N1.5 million for the legal proceedings. Thankfully, the case was ruled in their favour.
After retiring from active service, Mr. Aina decided to relocate to his hometown in Ondo State. So, he sold the property for N20m. The buyer of the property and two additional defendants, who were identified as the agents responsible for facilitating the sale, were all named as defendants in the lawsuit.
In defense, Mr Aina claimed that the property was the product of a private contract between him and FHA; so, his wife had no right to challenge his decision to sell it.
According to him, there’s no law that binds him to seek approval from his wife before selling his property. However, he claimed to have consulted her, and that she gave her consent.
government should provide support services and resources to help women navigate the legal system seamlessly
After the property was sold, he bought a three-bedroom flat for the Claimant, which she joyfully accepted.
After listening to both parties, Honorable Justice Olatokun acknowledged the validity of the marriage between Mr. and Mrs. Aina, emphasizing that both individuals had made financial contributions towards the marriage and the acquisition of the property.
Therefore, the Court declared them joint owners of the property in terms of equity.
The Court further stated that, “Where joint ownership of property exists, it means that each party has an equal proprietary right of ownership in the said land, notwithstanding the weight of contribution made by each party, and can jointly exercise such right in respect of the property.
Therefore, the position of the law is settled; where a property is jointly owned, the consent of the other is required before disposing of the property.”
Wives are equal co-owners of properties acquired by their husbands, with men holding these properties in a ‘constructive trust’ on behalf of the family
This landmark decision by the Lagos State High Court sets a precedent for recognizing women’s equal rights in property ownership, taking into account their contributions to marital property beyond monetary terms.
While we applaud Mrs. Aina for her courage to fight for what belongs to her, let’s not forget that there are women who may not speak up when their rights are violated due to the fear of retribution, social stigma, and a lack of awareness and trust in the judicial system.
Also, there are still some cultural and societal norms that discourage women from asserting their rights.
So, what is the way forward? Education and awareness campaigns can play a vital role in informing women of their legal rights and encouraging them to speak up when they are violated.
Finally, the government should provide support services and resources to help women to navigate the legal system seamlessly.