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Court sides with National Commercial Bank, refuses access to joint accountholder

Published:Sunday | February 1, 2015 | 12:00 AMMcPherse Thompson
File NCB headquarters, The Atrium.

The Court of Appeal has dismissed a case brought against National Commercial Bank Jamaica (NCB) for refusing a customer access to funds in a joint account she held with her aunt, following the latter's death.

The decision upheld a 2010 judgment by Justice Marva McDonald-Bishop, who ruled that Clover Robinson - the sole surviving holder of a joint bank account with her deceased aunt Ruby Noel - was not beneficially entitled to the funds. Robinson was also Noel's caregiver.

Robinson complained that the judge ought to have found that the right of survivorship, stipulated in the terms applicable to the account, should have been enforced.

In the circumstances, according to Robinson, Noel's estate was not entitled to the funds, and the bank was wrong to have denied her access to the money.

right of survivorship

Court of Appeal judge Justice Patrick Brooks said the appeal raised the issues of the right of survivorship in respect of jointly held bank accounts and the interaction between that right and the presumption of a resulting trust, which ascribes beneficial ownership to the person who has provided the funding.

The claim had its genesis on September 17, 2007 when Noel, then the sole account holder, was so ill she was unable to go into NCB's branch in Santa Cruz, St Elizabeth, which administered the accounts, to do business. A representative of NCB, Trudy Chung, had to attend to her at a motor vehicle, which was parked outside the branch.

During an interaction with Chung, Noel indicated that she needed money to pay her bills, but was unable to sign the requisite document and asked that Robinson's name be added to both her savings and fixed deposit accounts.

The Appeal Court noted that although not discussed at the time Robinson's name was added, it was an express term of the contract governing the joint accounts that, in the event of the death of either account holder, the survivor would have had full control of the money and that NCB would be entitled to pay it to the survivor.

Noel died on September 22, 2007, five days after the addition of Robinson's name, but she did not initially report the death to the bank.

However, on September 24, 2007, she attempted to withdraw $3 million from the savings account to open another account in her sole name. When the Santa Cruz branch denied her request, she, that very day, went to NCB's Black River branch and withdrew $500,000 from the savings account.

Two days later, Robinson went to the Mandeville branch to make another withdrawal, but by that time NCB had frozen the account and her request was denied. It was only after that denial that she revealed to NCB that Noel had died.

In October 2007, the executors of Noel's estate, Desna Williamson and Janet Barnett, laid claim to the funds and requested that nothing be paid out from them.

only defendant

NCB's freezing of the accounts and its continuous refusal to allow Robinson any further access to the funds, except for money to pay funeral expenses, led her, in April 2008, to file a claim, with NCB as the only defendant.

In the claim, she sought an order for the release of the funds in the savings account and a disclosure by NCB of any other account for which she was a joint holder with Noel. During the case management process, it was ordered that the executors be joined as defendants, resulting in Williamson and Barnett being joined, although they had not yet been granted probate in the estate.

The claim came on for hearing before Justice McDonald-Bishop in October 2009. Robinson was the sole deponent, but gave no evidence concerning the circumstances surrounding the adding of her name to the accounts.

She stressed, instead, her entitlement to the funds by virtue of being the surviving account holder, that she was the only person who gave Noel any assistance when she was ailing, and that Noel gave no instructions to NCB concerning the disposal of any of the funds.

According to the judgment handed down after January 16, Justice McDonald-Bishop found, first, that the money was all provided by Noel and that, as a result, there was a rebuttable presumption - an assumption taken to be true unless proven otherwise - that her estate was beneficially entitled to the funds by virtue of a resulting trust (whereby one person holds property for the benefit of another).

Second, the judge found that from the circumstances of the adding of Robinson's name, it appeared that Noel did not intend for Robinson to become beneficially entitled to the money, but rather the addition was solely for Noel's convenience. That convenience, Justice McDonald-Bishop found, was Robinson being able to pay bills for Noel.

Third, based on that intention, the judge held that NCB was entitled to refuse Robinson access to the funds.

Robinson did not assert that she provided any part of the money in the accounts.

challenge to claim

Justice Brooks said if there was no challenge to Robinson's claim on the funds she would have been entitled, in law, to recover them from NCB. However, the executors challenge fortified NCB's refusal to pay over the funds. He said it may be that NCB was in breach of contract to have initially refused her request for withdrawal of the funds, but she has not proved that she suffered any loss from that refusal.

The Court of Appeal said there is no evidence whereby it may be said that Noel indicated an intention that the addition of Robinson's name was the conferral of a gift.

Justice Brooks said it must be found that Justice McDonald-Bishop was correct in her conclusion that the presumption of a resulting trust had not been rebutted.

"It followed that she would not have castigated NCB for its initial refusal to honour Ms Robinson's request for the withdrawal of funds from the account. NCB would have been wrong in law in its refusal but ... Ms Robinson would have suffered no loss by virtue of that refusal. The challenge to the learned judge's conclusions must fail," the Court of Appeal held.

mcpherse.thompson@gleanerjm.com