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Lecture 1

BUSI 2001 Lecture Notes - Lecture 1: Bee Hives, Common-Law Marriage, Beekeeping

Course Code
BUSI 2001
Ouafa Sakka

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January/February 2009
A Famous Case Revisited
Peter Bowal
Becker v. Pettkus: Limits of the Law
This new feature profiles a famous Canadian case from the past that holds considerable public and
human interest. It explains what became of the parties and why it matters today.
Limits of the Law
The lay public have faith in the legal system to produce just outcomes. They expect the
law and legal system to come to their rescue when they need it. But, lawyers are keenly
aware every day that the law and legal system, as human institutions, have their limitations.
There are many limits to the law. One is unintended consequences. When legislators
and judges make a law, they usually have intended consequences; to assist some people
or remove an existing injustice. Yet they can never be sure how these new laws will play
out in practice. Often the new law backfires and causes an unfortunate result that no one
predicted. An increase in the minimum wage, for example, might mean that fewer of those
jobs may be available, effectively hurting the same people the lawmakers sought to assist.
Regulations designed to help people may hurt the same people.
Too many laws, and illogical or unjust laws, can give rise to black markets or civil
disobedience. People find ways to get what they want by going around the law. A Supreme
Court of Canada decision, or even a sentence or paragraph within a decision, may lead
to even greater uncertainty or disputation. After the Askov case on what was a reasonable
time for trial under the Charter, it was reported that thousands of accused criminals, some
charged with very serious crimes, were released. Later the judge who wrote the decision
said this was not what he intended. A Supreme Court of Canada decision in late 1999
about native fishing rights set off clashes along racial lines over east coast fishing. The
Court took the rare step of issuing a press release to explain that its decision was not as
broad as people had understood.
These limitations arise because legislatures and courts are too often called upon to cure
all the ills of society. They are not equipped to do that. The law is very limited in its ability
to change people’s attitudes and opinions. Law reform and justice are agonizingly slow.
Political priorities may not correspond with true justice priorities. Human factors such
as the discretion, ignorance and the obvious inability to enforce every law all of the time
also limit effectiveness of the law. Judges will simply be wrong in some decisions, and
legislatures will adopt ineffective wording in some of their statutes. The written word has
The Facts in Becker v. Pettkus
The case of Becker v. Pettkus ([1980] 2 S.C.R. 834) is a tragic example of how law and justice
can fail the weak and needy. It highlights how courts are ineffective to enforce their own judg-
ments and the role money plays in accessing civil justice.
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January/February 2009
A Famous Case Revisited
Rosa Becker and Lothar Pettkus, two immigrants to Canada, met in 1955. They
moved in together and lived as husband and wife, although they did not marry, and
they had no children. Until 1960, Becker paid the rent and living expenses from her
outside income and Pettkus deposited his income in a bank account in his name. In
1961, they bought a farm in Quebec. The money came from Pettkus’ account and
ownership (“title“) was taken out in his name, as was the custom in those days.
They shared the farm labour and both worked very hard. They turned their farm
into a profitable bee-keeping operation. Becker also earned some income which was
used for household expenses and to repair the farmhouse. Their savings went back
into the farm or the Pettkus bank account.
In 1971, with profits from the farm and more money from Pettkus’ bank account,
they purchased a property in Ontario and again registered it in his name. In 1972,
Becker separated from Pettkus. He threw $3,000 on the floor and told her to take it,
along with a car and forty beehives with bees.
At his request, she moved back in with him three months later. She returned
with the car, deposited $1,900 in
his account, and the forty bee-
hives without the bees. Shortly
thereafter, with these returned
assets, joint savings and proceeds
from the sale of the Quebec land,
they purchased another Ontario
farm in Pettkus’ name. They now
had two valuable pieces of land, and in 1974 they moved and built a house upon one
of them. They lived off their income from their thriving bee-keeping business. In the
fall of that year, she left him for good, taking the car and $2,600 in cash.
She also sued for a one-half interest in the properties, bee-keeping business and
assets acquired through their joint efforts. Pettkus and Becker had lived together as
husband and wife for almost twenty years. Under Ontario legislation at that time, a
common law wife was not legally entitled to a share in any property owned by her
husband. Therefore, any remedy for Becker would have to be based on the wholly
equitable doctrine of constructive trust and principles of unjust enrichment.
Decision in the Supreme Court of Canada
Since Rosa Becker had contributed work and money in the reasonable expectation
of receiving an interest in the property, a majority of judges in the Supreme Court of
Canada found a constructive trust on the basis of this common law relationship. Three
requirements must be satisfied: there must be an enrichment, a corresponding depriva-
tion, and absence of any good legal reason for the enrichment. The Court ruled that
all three requirements were met in this case. Becker conferred benefits on Pettkus and
never received anything in return from the land and business. It determined that the
contribution of money and labour by Ms. Becker to the beehive business allowed Mr.
Pettkus to acquire the property that he held in his name.
legislatures and courts are too often called upon to cure all the
ills of society. They are not equipped to do that. The law is very
limited in its ability to change people’s attitudes and opinions.
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