There are a plethora of civil wrongs, known as torts, for which remedies exist but that are widely unknown nor taken advantage of. The English Common Law principles flow principally from the codified customs of the Norman-controlled Old England and in some of its precepts can be found areas of law that may astound the lay public.
One such tort is the breach of a promise to marry which by its suggestive title simply means reneging on a promise of marriage made to or conceived between two people, and on which one or both acted on, believing same to be a reliable promise, and having placed themselves at great disadvantage where the promise fails or isn’t kept.
In other words, you can sue a man or woman who makes a promise to marry you but fails to. This promise can be in form of conduct or oral. As strange as the concept might appear to some, it is a legal safeguard against not just emotional trauma but exploitation of persons based on a promise to marry.
More often than not, people alter, adjust or undertake new roles and responsibilities upon receiving a promise to marry, it is accepted that said promise exacts its toll on the recipient whose life choices or actions in a lot of ways going forward revolves around such a promise and in some cases are so irreversibly built upon such a promise that its failure occasions great hurt, distraught and trauma.
In some ways, there are striking similarities between a contractual law and a breach of promise to marry. When making a contract, each parties undertake new roles and responsibilities intended to fulfil the objectives of the contract, in a promise to marry, objectively and as is often the case, one or both parties may arrange their lives or alter same in a way that shows faith in the promise made such as to make full restitution devoid of the marriage a near impossibility. It could take the form of emotional or financial investments in the relationship, or chasing away other suitors.
A promise to marry must, however, not be written or attested to beyond an oral exchange of promise, and conducts from which it is deducible that a promise to marry was made and preliminary actions were taken or undertaken towards its fulfilment.
While men and women alike are victims of a breach of this promise, it is more often the case that women are at its receiving end. This is because it is men, customarily in Nigeria and lots of places around the world, who initiate the marriage process. This is why a preponderance of case laws on the tort of a breach of promise to marry have women as its plaintiff.
Given how widely unknown this civil wrongs is and the remedy available to victims of it, many young men and women remain helpless and distraught. In some instances, some are badly heart broken and find it difficult to start something new at that point in their life. The thrust of this brief work is to espouse on the rights of a man or woman to sue in court for a breach of a promise to marry, and the elements required to successfully prove a breach of promise to marry.
It is important to start by stating that marriage, according to Black’s Law dictionary, is a legal union of one man and woman as husband and wife. This implies that marriage is a life contract to which parties enter to be together forever.
Promise is defined as the manifestation of an intention to act or refrain from acting in a specified manner conveyed in such a way that another is justified in understanding that a commitment has been made.
Promise to marry is an agreement to marry a person. It emanates from the mutual exchange of promises by the parties to marry each other. Marriage is usually preceded by a romantic relationship where two people meet socially with the aim of each assessing the other’s suitability as a prospective partner for marriage. It is a form of courtship, consisting of social activities done by the couple, either alone or with others.
During this period, promise or agreement to marry by both parties can be discussed and undertaken. This could be oral, written, or by conduct. When there is a promise to marry and both parties have discussed and agreed that their relationship is for the purpose of marriage, a breach of this will give rise to a common law action for breach of promise to marry.
In a matter between AIYEDE VS NORMAN-WILLIAM, the court held that promise to marry need not take the oral or written exchange of mutual promise.
Elements of a Breach of Promise to Marry.
It is pertinent to note that in times past, many people have fallen victim of a breach of promise to marry without knowing that they can sue and claim damages for same but rather suffer emotion brokenness and psychological distraught without succor or solace.
However, to sue and succeed in an action for breach of promise to marry, one must be familiar with the elements that make up a breach of promise to marry. For a case of breach of promise to marry to succeed, three things must be given premium attention as stated below.
1.It must be proven to the satisfaction of the court that there was a promise to marry.
2.It must be shown that one party to the agreement, whether the man or woman, has failed or refused to honor the obligation.
3.It is also useful that the person suing believed and relied on the promise or also has performed a particular act or consideration towards the marriage. For example, when a lady allows a man to deflower her, with the promise he will marry her, or when either party has been taking up financial obligations for the other because of the assurance and agreement of promise to marry or living together with agreement to marry.
Available Remedy At Law.
When the above are established, the injured party may successfully sue the other for breach of promise to marry. While the court cannot order a performance of the promise because marriage must be voluntarily undertaken, the court can order payment of damages.
By virtue of s.197 of the Evidence Act, 2004, damages can only be recovered in a breach of promise to marry if some other material evidence in support of such promise corroborates the testimony of the aggrieved party.
Other Forms and Reliefs at Law.
Breach of promise to marry could also be in the form of non – performance or anticipatory breach. There may be non-performance where the time for performance is fixed, for example where parties agree on a particular date, the failure or refusal of one of the parties to turn up for the marriage constitutes a breach. Where no date is fixed, the law implies that the promise is one to marry within a reasonable time or at the request of one party.
There can also be a form of anticipatory breach which occurs where one party to an agreement by his own act puts it out of his or her power to perform the marriage obligation. In the case of USO VS IKETUBOSIN, (1970) WRNLR 187, the defendant promised to marry the plaintiff in 1947 but by 1957 the defendant married another woman in breach of his promise to marry the plaintiff. The court held that the defendant’s act constituted a breach for which the plaintiff was entitled to damages.
The court will award damages for breach of promise to marry to recover for money spent on love, wasted years, psychological trauma, emotional trauma and loss of other suitors.
In the case of MARTINS VS ADENUGBA (1946) 18 N.L.R 63, the parties had agreed to marry each other, one day the man took the woman to the marriage registry in Lagos and asked her to wait outside the building. He went inside and came out a few minutes later to tell the woman that they were now married.
They later went for a church blessing of the union at St. Peter’s Church Lagos, she believed him and lived with him as his wife for three years before the purported marriage broke down as a result of the ill treatment of the woman by the man.
The woman consulted a solicitor with a view to instituting divorce proceedings. Enquiries were made and it was discovered that no valid marriage had actually taken place. The plaintiff brought an action against the defendant for damages for breach of promise to marry the plaintiff in accordance with the provision of the marriage ordinance or in the alternative damages for fraudulent misrepresentation or a deceit whereby the plaintiff was induced to live with the defendant as husband and wife for a number of years. The court held that the man’s action constituted a breach of promise to marry and damages were therefore awarded.
It is important to note that claim of damages is not only limited to the defaulting partner, an aggrieved person can also take up action in court and claim damages from a third party, such as the mother, father, relatives or other persons who in any way induced the breach of the promise as posited by Nasiru Tijani in his second edition of Matrimonial Causes In Nigeria- Law And Practice.
Also it is of importance to know that promise to marry by a person below the age of full legal responsibility, that is below the age of 18 years in Nigeria is voidable at the option of such a person. Such a person who is a minor may sue on such a promise but may not be sued, even if he or she has ratified the promise after coming of age except if a new promise has been exchanged between both parties as an adult.
By incriminating a breach of promise to marry, the law doesn’t just cure but seeks to prevent its occurrence. Many would be less willing to make such promises only to default on same having taken advantage of another where it is known that the law drains upon such emotional exploitation and punished same. This informs the need to inform the public of this pertinent area of law, humane in its conception and thorough in its application.
A promise to marry is a legal undertaken punishable at law, it’s best dissolved where both parties come to a mutual agreement to discontinue their relationship but attracts legal culpability where one party continues to hope and act on the promise only to be disappointed.
Pelumi Olajengbesi Esq., is a Legal Practitioner and the Principal Partner at Pelumi Olajengbesi & Co. Law Corridor, Abuja.