Love is the most precious thing in this world-it doesn’t know boundaries in the animal kingdom. When it comes to the more advanced human race, it gets sophisticated in such a way that many put a lot of resources in pursuit of love.
Indeed, we often try to find love and affection in our lifetime and form our own families with the people we meet.
Sometimes it takes more than mere conduct or actions to communicate to the other party our intentions and plans in the long run, but we continue to show what we intend to do or have with them.
In the African setting, marriage is at the center of adulthood, and anyone that reaches majority age is expected to marry at some point; hence, finding a partner kicks off at around 18-20 years of age.
Indeed, finding a partner can be draining, stressful, and sometimes costly, like in our modern era, where money is at the center of everything in dating and marrying.
The challenge, then, is what happens when your would-be wife/husband makes a U-turn and rejects to marry you after considerable representation of his or her intention to marry you.
It’s a hard and emotional moment when you first learn of their decision, and one wonders what their options are; in this article, we shall show you a well-developed common law principle under which you can proceed to courts of judicature for redress- seek relief like damages.
For the reasons above, it’s the promise to marry principle that I now turn to and dissect so that you get preliminary information on this fundamental principle in family law.
A promise to marry is sometimes called an agreement to marry. The Blacks law dictionary 9th Abridged Edition by Bryan A. Garner, on page 1045, defines a marriage promise as a betrothal, an engagement to be married.
At common law, a promise to marry amounts to a contract provided that there was an intention to enter into legal relationships; because of their high, personal, and commercial nature, they possessed certain peculiar characteristics.
It is agreed that a promise to marry is a contract per se- general principles of contract law apply together with family law principles, given the nature of the parties involved. Consequently, if either party withdraws from the contract without lawful justification, the aggrieved party could sue for breach of contract and seek reliefs like damages which is the major relief at the heart of breach of contract claims.
The first notable situation involving a promise to marry arrived in the St Louis court of appeal, Missouri, in the famous case of Woodman versus Woodman( 281 S.W.2d 555 (Mo. Ct. App. 1955). In that case, the plaintiff sued to recover damages for breach of promise to marry using three letters of evidence, i.e., one by herself, the second by her brother-in-law asking the defendant to make his position clear, and the third by the pastor where the plaintiff prayed. The defendant did not answer any of those letters. The plaintiff averred that silence amounted to consent, she also relied on the fact that she picked a ring that belonged to the defendant, but he had not asked for it.
The court did not find it satisfactory to amount to a promise, and silence did not amount to acceptance, and there was no promise to marry and hence no breach.
This decision delivered by the court of appeals on the 19th day of July 1955 shows us that all the circumstances surrounding the case should be considered before deciding if there is a breach of promise to marry.
In Uganda, the promise to marry situation was decided by the court in 1970 in a much-celebrated case of Rodento Larok V Pyerino Obwoya ( HCB 43); the respondent sued the appellant for a breach of a promise to marry in the grade one magistrate court at Gulu. The respondent filed the suit through a next friend P.O. the appellant and the respondent were lovers when the respondent was a pupil at Christ the king, Gulu. She was seduced by the appellant, became pregnant, and was expelled from college due to the pregnancy.
Consequently, the appellant promised to marry the respondent, in writing, by the end of April 1968. In October 1968, the appellant wrote to the respondent indicating that he was no longer keen to marry the respondent.
In January 1969, the appellant’s family took shs 600 to the respondent’s father as dowry. Still, the money was not accepted since an action was filed for breach of promise to marry.
The learned magistrate held that the appellant had committed a breach of promise to marry by failing to marry the respondent by the end of April 1968 and awarded shs 2,000 as damages. He based his computation of damages on two grounds: the fact that her chances of getting married had been impaired and, secondly, the injury to her feelings.
The High court, through Jones J, dismissed the appeal, and the sum of shs 2000 awarded as general damages in the lower court would not be interfered with.
Recently in the case of Tumwine Richard V Kyarikunda Fortunate Civil suit no. 024 of 2022 in the chief magistrate’s court at Kanungu (Uganda) awarded the plaintiff Ugx 1,000,000 damages for breach of promise to marry and recovery of 9,439,100/= that he had spent on educating the defendant.
The decision has been welcomed by Ugandan men, especially Kampala men whom we spoke to before this publication -some say it’s time men get justice due to this unjustifiable behavior spreading like wildfire in Uganda’s capital Kampala.
Be it as it may- it’s essential to appreciate that promises to marry are not enforceable if they are against public policy, as was held in the case of Spiers V Hunt (  1 KB 720).
Our domestic laws on domestic relations (family law) do not expressly provide for a promise to marry, leaving litigants in such disputes to rely only on case law and written literature to advance their arguments. In my view, it is an area that needs the attention of legislators.
Like every general rule, the promise to marry has exceptions which include If the plaintiff can show she lacked knowledge, as it was in Shaw V Shaw (2 Q.B. 429 (C.A. 1954) where it was held that promise to marry implied warranty that the deceased was in a position to do so which warranty continued throughout the deceased’s lifetime, and the plaintiff’s right of action was not extinguished. The plaintiff being unaware that the deceased was married at all material times, the court was not obliged to raise the question of whether the promise to marry was unenforceable as contrary to public policy and the action was maintainable.
Another exception is when the promise to marry is made after decree nisi had been made- this was seen in the case of Fender v. Mildmay  UKHL J0628-1, where the house of Lords held that no rule of public policy prevented the contract from being enforced. The enforcement of a contract is not against public policy unless it is likely to lead to an injurious action. The court further observed that. The whole position of married parties is changed and fixed not by a mere separation or lodging a petition for divorce but by a pronouncement of decree nisi and the further waiting period after the decree is imposed in the public interesting order to secure full disclosure before the court.
Therefore, all circumstances surrounding the case ought to be examined carefully before a case is decided in court or even before a litigant resorts to seeking redress in a breach of promise to marry. It is a well-developed legal concept at common law and worth exploiting if circumstances allow.
Disclaimer: This article is purely for general information and not legal advice. The JSE accepts no liability for the reliability of the work herein. Don’t hesitate to get in touch with the author at [email protected] should you have further inquiries. You can as well reach out to all our social media platforms @soundexponent.