Barclays Bank v O'Brien [1994] 1 AC 180 House of Lords


Mr O'Brien was a chartered accountant and he also had a shareholding in a company in which he was an auditor. The company was experiencing financial difficulty and the bank wished to find security for the company debts. Mr O'Brien offered the matrimonial home as security. He told his wife that the charge was limited to 60,000 and that it was only to last for a few weeks. Initially the wife refused to sign but was later persuaded to sign as the husband told her that the company would fail if she did not and that her son, who also had an interest in the company, would lose his home. In fact the charge was not limited in the amount of time. The wife agreed to sign the charge. The manager of the bank had left sent the documents to their local branch with instructions that the wife was to be advised of the full extent of the liability and that the wife should be advised to take independent advice before signing. However, the bank clerk got the wife to sign and failed to carry out the instructions. The bank sought to enforce the charge and the wife raised undue influence and misrepresentation in her defence to have the charge set aside.



The defence based on undue influence failed because the wife was held to exercise independence of thought on financial matters and was used to dealing with the family finances whilst her husband was working away. The wife was successful with regards to misrepresentation. The charge was set aside as the bank had constructive notice of the misrepresentation and failed to take reasonable steps to ensure that the charge had been obtained without influence or that Mrs O'Brien was aware of the full extent of liability.

Lord Brown Wilkinson introduced the concept of constructive notice and set out the steps required to be taken by banks to avoid being fixed with constructive notice:

"Therefore in my judgment a creditor is put on inquiry when a wife offers to stand surety for her husband's debts by the combination of two factors: (a) the transaction is on its face not to the financial advantage of the wife; and (b) there is a substantial risk in transactions of that kind that, in procuring the wife to act as surety, the husband has committed a legal or equitable wrong that entitles the wife to set aside the transaction.

It follows that unless the creditor who is put on inquiry takes reasonable steps to satisfy himself that the wife's agreement to stand surety has been properly obtained, the creditor will have constructive notice of the wife's rights.

What, then are the reasonable steps which the creditor should take to ensure that it does not have constructive notice of the wife's rights, if any? Normally the reasonable steps necessary to avoid being fixed with constructive notice consist of making inquiry of the person who may have the earlier right (i.e. the wife) to see whether such right is asserted. It is plainly impossible to require of banks and other financial institutions that they should inquire of one spouse whether he or she has been unduly influenced or misled by the other. But in my judgment the creditor, in order to avoid being fixed with constructive notice, can reasonably be expected to take steps to bring home to the wife the risk she is running by standing as surety and to advise her to take independent advice. As to past transactions, it will depend on the facts of each case whether the steps taken by the creditor satisfy this test. However for the future in my judgment a creditor will have satisfied these requirements if it insists that the wife attend a private meeting (in the absence of the husband) with a representative of the creditor at which she is told of the extent of her liability as surety, warned of the risk she is running and urged to take independent legal advice. If these steps are taken in my judgment the creditor will have taken such reasonable steps as are necessary to preclude a subsequent claim that it had constructive notice of the wife's rights. I should make it clear that I have been considering the ordinary case where the creditor knows only that the wife is to stand surety for her husband's debts. I would not exclude exceptional cases where a creditor has knowledge of further facts which render the presence of undue influence not only possible but probable. In such cases, the creditor to be safe will have to insist that the wife is separately advised.