Years ago, when I was still a law student, a lady approached me to complain about her fiance who was getting married to another girl. She said the man started dating her when she was only 16 and the relationship lasted 16 years in total. He had gone to her parents officially to make his intentions to marry her known and they accepted him wholeheartedly. A year after the marriage introduction with her parents, he started to see another girl and got the new girl pregnant. He then told the fiancee he wanted to cancel the planned marriage with her and marry the one who got pregnant for him. When the fiancee said no, he told her she should also get pregnant for him BEFORE he married her or he wouldn’t go on with the marriage. When she refused to have a baby outside wedlock, he went ahead to have his marriage introduction with the new girl.
The lady jilted came to me to ask what she could do to make him pay for wasting her life for so many years. She was in her 30s and had never been with anyone else as this man had groomed her from her teenage years and dangled the promise of marriage before her to get her to be with him. I told her to get a lawyer and sue for breach of Promise to marry.
In 2016, another girl, Ms. Victoria Alonge was jailed for pouring hot oil on one Mr. Roland Nna who had promised her Marriage before her parents then jilted her after four years of relationship. It is possible Ms. Alonge did not even know there is a legal remedy for breach of Promise to marry so she ignorantly took the law into her hands and landed in prison for it.
A lot of Nigerians do not know that a Breach of Promise to Marry is part of our civil laws. Breach of Promise to marry is a civil wrong that occurs when a person promises to marry another and then reneges on the agreement. The agreement to marry is placed on the same pedestal as a breach of any other binding contract.
Promise to Marry, like any other contract, can be oral, in writing, or implied. Oral agreement to marry must be proved the same way any claims of an existing agreement would be held to the strictest proof. Witnesses may be called upon to adduce evidence in support of the promisee’s claims of the promise to marry. If it was promised in writing, the person it was promised to would have to tender the document the promise was written on. A Promise to marry can also be implied. For instance, the customary introduction where a man goes to a girl’s family to introduce himself as the one who wants to marry their daughter and seek to start the process of marriage. It is a sure way of affirming his intentions to marry the girl.
ELEMENTS REQUIRED TO PROVE BREACH
There are two elements to be proved before a breach of Promise to marry can be established. These are:
1. That there was indeed a promise to marry:
In the case of Ezeanah V. Attah, the Supreme Court per Tobi JSC (as he then was) held that: “Two elements are necessary to constitute a breach of agreement or promise of marriage. First, the party jilted must prove to the satisfaction of the court that there was, in fact, a promise of marriage under the Matrimonial Causes Act, 1990, or under Islamic Law or Customary Law, on the part of the other sex. Second, the party reneging has really, and as a matter of fact, failed or refused to keep to the agreement of marriage. Marriage is regarded as a very sacred institution both in our jurisprudence and in our sociology. Accordingly, an agreement to enter into a marriage should leave nobody in doubt as to the real intention of the parties to enter into a marriage. A mere convivial or romantic relationship without more is not enough for a court to found an agreement to marry.”
In the above-cited case, Alhaji Attah had tried to retrieve a piece of land in Abuja from his ex-girlfriend, Miss Chineye Ezeanah, claiming that he built the house for her as part of the contract to marry, and when she ended their relationship, he was entitled to taking back the property. Though this case has more elements of land law and ways to prove ownership of land, the claim of breach of Promise gave the Supreme Court opportunity to make a pronouncement on the breach of Promise to marry and how these can be proved. In this instance, the Alhaji had not by any way laid down by law, proved the agreement to marry Miss. Ezeanah which he claimed she breached. To prove this agreement, the court held that “An agreement to enter into a marriage should leave nobody in doubt as to the real intention of the parties to enter into a marriage. A mere convivial or romantic relationship without more is not enough for a court to found an agreement to marry“.
So if you have a relationship with a person for years or even decades but this person you are romantically involved with did not expressly promise you marriage in a way you can prove in court, your action for breach of Promise to marry may fail. You should have evidence to prove that beyond “boyfriend/girlfriend”, you had an agreement to marry because the court is not about making claims but adducing evidence to back said claims as any claims not backed by evidence are deemed abandoned.
2. That a party (also called the promisor) reneged on that promise:
This one is easier to prove. Once the person who promised you marriage backs out of the agreement to marry, the elements of this breach of contract is complete.
For every wrong, there is a remedy (Ubi jus ibi remedium), so if this suit succeeds in court, the court cannot grant specific performance like it would probably do in other instances of breach of contracts. This is because no law can force an unwilling person to marry another. But the court will order for damages to be paid to the aggrieved party. The amount to be paid for damages differs depending on the circumstances of each unique case.
The court typical award damages for financial losses, compensatory damages and punitive damages are some of the types of damages that may be available to an aggrieved party. But generally, there are some factors the court takes into consideration while granting payment of damages.
COMPENSATORY DAMAGES include:
Age of the aggrieved party and the duration of the relationship. This means that damages awarded to a 22-year-old girl who had dated a man for six months may significantly vary from the damages awarded to a 45-year-old woman who had been dating a man with promise to marry for fifteen years. This is to compensate her for the number of years wasted, her diminishing desirability and declining marriage prospects etc.
This is the money wasted because of the agreement to marry. It could be the cost of planning a wedding, or giving of financial assistance for the purpose of marriage. This will be calculated into financial losses and damages awarded for it.
This is usually to punish the promisor for his outrageously bad behavior and to prevent others for doing same. This kind of damages are not covered by mere compensation so they are specifically awarded to punish for bad behavior. This ranges according to the severity of the behavior.
DEFENCES TO THE SUIT
Like every other suit, there are defences in the suit of a breach of Promise to marry. These defences are:
FRAUD: Also known as a sham marriage. Where someone wants to marry another under false representations in order to gain some benefits. For instance, marrying a person to gain residency permit or citizenship of another country or to prevent them from testifying against one in court. If discovery of a fraudulent proposal of marriage is the reason the promisor reneged on the agreement, the promisee’s case of breach of promise to marry will likely come to naught.
DURESS: In the case of AMOBI v. NZEGWU &ORS (2013) LPELR-32863 (SC), the supreme Court per ARIWOOLA JSC made reference to HYDE V. HYDE and echoed this definition of marriage as “A voluntary union for life of one man and one woman to the exclusion of all others”. This means that marriage cannot be under duress. If one is threatened or compelled to agree to a marriage, he or she can use this as a defence to an action for a breach of Promise.
MISREPRESENTATION OR DECEIT: In the case of MARIAM MOHAMMED V. A.G OF THE FEDERATION, the Supreme Court per KEKERE-EKUN JSC held that “fraudulent and deceptive misrepresentation…used by one or more persons to deceive and trick another who is ignorant of the true facts, to the prejudice and damage of the party imposed upon.”
I am sure you have heard of cases where men propose marriages and carefully conceal their sexual incapacitation. Or where people lie about who they are or what they do in order to get an innocent, unsuspecting party into a marriage. Marriage is sacred so the courts will not allow a person use deceit to trap another in a marriage. If someone reneges on an agreement to marry because of proven deceit, this can be a defence to the suit.
Other defences to this action include: undue influence, frustration, illegality, incapacity, STI etc.
But where a person who knows the facts of the risk and still promised marriage inspite of it, he cannot turn around to use that circumstances as a defence for his vitiation of the binding agreement. This is because of the legal maxim Volenti non fit injuria which means “To a willing person, injury is not done”. A willing person cannot use the same circumstances he knowingly agreed to as a defence or a cause of action. So if Adaobi had STI and Obi knowing this fact, still said he wanted to marry her. Obi cannot breach that agreement and use the infection as his excuse for breach as this will not be accepted by the court.
CONCLUSION Breach of promise to marry is actionable at the instance of the promisee against the promisor and it is a recognized cause of action in our legal system. If the plaintiff can prove an agreement and a breach of it, she will likely succeed in this suit.
Note: in this article, I used “woman” to represent the party marriage was promised to also known as the promisee. This is because women are usually the aggrieved parties in cases of breach of Promise to marry. But take cognizance that the promisee could be either the man or the woman.