Johnson v Buttress

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Citation: Johnson v Buttress (1936) 56 CLR 113

This information can be found in the Casebook: Paterson, Robertson & Duke, Contract: Cases and Materials (Lawbook Co, 11th ed, 2009), pp. 918-20 [35.15] or here


Background facts

  • The Plaintiff's father [Buttress] was an old illiterate man who relied on the Defendant [Mrs. Johnson] to help him with day to day things.
  • Buttress expressed resentment towards his family, and wrote several wills under which he left nothing to them, but instead, to people who he spent time with currently.
  • He transferred his land to the Defendant as a gift, and the solicitor asked him several time if he is sure he wants to do it etc. Buttress was happy to give the property away as a gift to the Defendant, because of the help she lent him.
  • Once Buttress died, his son argued that the decision to give away the house was done under undue influence.

Legal issues


  • "The basis of the equitable jurisdiction to set aside an alienation of property on the ground of undue influence is the prevention of an unconscientious use of any special capacity or opportunity that may exist or arise of affecting the alienor's will or freedom of judgment in reference to such a matter."[1]
  • "facts must be proved showing that the transaction was the outcome of such an actual influence over the mind of the alienor that it cannot be considered his free act."[2]
  • Undue influence will be presumed if there is a relationship between the parties which is a relationship of influence. In such a case, the onus of proof transfers to the defendant who must then show that he did not unduly influence the other party.
    • "But the parties may antecedently stand in a relation that gives to one an authority or influence over the other from the abuse of which it is proper that he should be protected. When they stand in such a relation, the party in the position of influence cannot maintain his beneficial title to property of substantial value made over to him by the other as a gift, unless he satisfies the court that he took no advantage of the donor, but that the gift was the independent and well-understood act of a man in a position to exercise a free judgment based on information as full as that of the donee."[3]
  • Such a relationship arises whenever "one party occupies or assumes towards another a position naturally involving an ascendancy or influence over that other, or a dependence or trust on his part." [4]
  • In this case, the court concludes that a relationship of influence did exist - he was illiterate, he was dependent on people his entire life, etc. The onus of proof was therefore with the Defendant, and she failed to show that she did not unduly influence the decision.
    • "I think that when the circumstances of the case are considered with the character and capacity of Buttress they lead to the conclusion that an antecedent relation of influence existed which throws upon Mrs. Johnson the burden of justifying the transfer by showing that it was the result of the free exercise of the donor's independent will. This, in my opinion, she has quite failed to do."[5]
  • The Plaintiff wins.


  1. (1936) 56 CLR 113, 134
  2. (1936) 56 CLR 113, 134
  3. (1936) 56 CLR 113, 134
  4. (1936) 56 CLR 113, 134-5
  5. (1936) 56 CLR 113, 138
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