Duhaime's Law Dictionary


Melton's Case Definition:

A mid-1500s English case, never brought to Court because the king and his Parliament defeated the otherwise meritorious claim by retroactive statute.

A mid-1500s English case, never brought to Court because the king and his Parliament defeated the otherwise meritorious claim by retroactive statute.

Sir John Melton was an aging English gentleman when he noticed an omission in regards to the coat of arms of the Earl of Northumberland, an omission which by the words of an old will he knew of, meant that he thereupon inherited the Earl's land and castle at Cockermouth (pictured, now in ruins).

When a person creates a trust but provides that the trust will fail and the property shall go to another person should a certain event occur, the law calls this a contingent remainder.

In the meantime, by July of 1531, the castle had been mortgaged to the King in order to pay off the Earl's debts of over £8,000.

Melton pressed the issue saying that the mortgage, royal or otherwise, could not have precedence over his contingent remainder rights which came into being once the will's requirement in regards to the coat of arms of the Cockermouth occupier had been violated.

Could such a remote contingent remainder survive hundreds of years and have the effect of reverting ownership of considerable real estate and if so, were not the holding of all the - herrumph! - British Lords in jeopardy?

Cockermouth Castle A series of historic letters was exchanged between Montague and Fitzherbert on the esoteric legal point summarized as follows in J. H. Baker's 2000 book "The Common Law Tradition: Lawyers, Books and the Law" (Hambledon Press, London), still a marvel of lawyer-speak:

"It had been held in 1366 that a remainder to the right heirs of the donor was a reversion. But that was a simple remainder after the natural determination of a gift in tail to another person. Under the 1384 settlement, however, the donor was herself tenant in special tail, and - perhaps to prevent merger, and to avoid the potential contingency just mentioned - the final remainder was limited to her heirs general as at the time when the special tail came to an end."

This prompted F. W. Maitland to write, three centuries later:

"Who shall interest us in contingent remainders while Chinese metaphysics remained unexplored!"

Any event, the King, through his Lord Chancellor Oliver Cromwell, asserted the King's rights over Cockermouth in a statute passed by Parliament, thereby trumping and moving Melton's pending case.

As the legal community pondered the implications of retrospective legislation, it became clear that such a precedent violated anyone's sense of justice and fairness.

In a further result, Melton's Case began a fascination for contingent remainder lawyers in a country, England, always fascinated with heraldy and the protection of ancient landholdings.


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