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When the Legal System Fails

  • Image: “Bee keeper” by Oregon Department of Agriculture is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Few people wish for their case to make ground breaking law.

Few desire fame through a court decision. 

I was reminded recently of a tragic example of a famous Canadian case.

Up to the late 1970s, women who claimed a beneficial share of property acquired during common law relationships had to prove a common intention that she acquire such an interest.  If she could not establish a common intention, she would not generally succeed.

Then along came Ms. Rosa Becker.  

In 1954, at age 26, she had immigrated to Canada from Europe. So did a man named Mr. Lothar Pettkus.

In 1955, the two met in Montreal. That same year, Mr. Pettkus moved into her Montreal apartment and they began living together.  Ms. Becker wanted to get married. He considered that unnecessary.

Over the next five years, she supported him while he saved his earnings from working as a mechanic.

He saved virtually all of his income. She paid their living expenses such as rent, food and clothing.

In 1960, having saved $12,000, Mr. Pettkus bought some land and began a successful beekeeping business.

He used the business’ earnings to buy more land, from which the bee keeping business was conducted.

All of it was held in his name alone.

Through her labour and earnings, Ms. Rosa Becker also contributed substantially to the good fortune of the business.

Although unmarried, the two lived as husband and wife for 19 years.

When the relationship ended in late 1974, Ms. Becker commenced a court action seeking an entitlement to half of the lands plus a share in the beekeeping business.

The trial judge awarded Ms. Becker forty beehives without bees, plus $1,500 representing earnings from those hives for 1973 and 1974.  He stated that Ms. Becker’s initial financial support of Mr. Pettkus was “in the nature of risk capital invested in the hope of seducing a younger defendant into marriage.”

Mr. Pettkus was unhappy with the ruling. He appealed at the Ontario Court of Appeal.

Then-Ontario Court of Appeal judge Bertha Wilson varied the trial judge’s ruling. The Ontario Court of Appeal awarded Ms. Becker one-half interest in the lands owned by Mr. Pettkus and in the beekeeping business.

Sidenote: Justice Bertha Wilson later went on to become the first female judge to sit on the Supreme Court of Canada. 

Mr. Pettkus again appealed.

Forty years ago, on Dec. 18, 1980, a six member majority of the Supreme Court of Canada ruled in Ms. Becker’s favor, calling it a “compelling” case.  

Justice Brian Dickson observed that Mr Pettkus "freely accepted the benefits conferred upon him through [Miss Becker's] financial support and her labour."'

"Mr. Pettkus has had the benefit of nineteen years of unpaid labour, while Miss Becker has received little or nothing in return."

He concluded that there was:

no basis for any distinction, in dividing property and assets, between marital relationships and those more informal relationships which subsist for a lengthy period.

Ms. Becker’s win was a huge legal victory. She won the first case in Canada awarding property rights to common law spouses who separated. 

Lawyers spoke about it in coffee rooms and at water coolers. It has been written about it at length.  

To this day, Pettkus v. Becker remains one of the most important cases in Canadian history. 

The common law constructive trust formulation from her case was later adopted in other common law countries. 

Her case set a precedent helpful to many others.

It was reported that the decision should have been worth about $150,000, plus court costs, to Ms. Becker.

But the case is important for another more tragic reason.

Despite Ms, Becker’s historic win, justice continued to elude her.

In 1974 Mr. Pettkus married and put his property in his wife’s name.     

Though Ms. Becker made various attempts to enforce her court award, these steps were expensive and time consuming. Enforcing a judgment can be a battle of its own.

When two of the properties were finally sold in 1985 for $68,000, Ms. Becker’s lawyer at the time took the money in payment for 11 years’ worth of legal fees.   

In the end, five years later, Ms. Becker had nothing to show for her victory.

At age 60, she had not received a penny from her win. Ms. Becker was working as a live-in housekeeper. She earned room and board plus $60 per week.

In November, 1986, Ms. Becker took her life.

At her bedside were letters written in German. “Don’t be sorry about my death.”

She went on to explain that her suicide was a protest against an unfair legal system which deprived her of her rights.

Although this case was an important and ground breaking victory, it is also a striking example that legal processes are not infallible.    In this case, in spite of the court decision in her favor, Ms. Becker was, in effect, denied the justice she sought.

This is a modified version of an article appearing on or around December 15, 2020 in online publications including the Kelowna Capital News. The content of this article is intended to provide very general thoughts and general information, not to provide legal advice. Advice from an experienced legal professional should be sought about your specific circumstances.  We may be reached through our website at inspirelaw.ca