Shelley's case was argued by Edward Coke when he was still a strapping, young barrister, although one of many in the case. The litigation began when Henry Shelley's cattle strayed onto the land of his tenant, Nicholas Wolf, and destroyed grass. Death marked the parties to the extent that no record exists as to which won the litigation. Instead, the justices of England found themselves embroiled in a fantastic estate matter with a will that left property: "to the heirs male and the heirs m,ale of the heirs male".
The actual law report is 39-pages of stifling, diatribe of archaic law "most of them incomprehensible to lawyers as well as laymen".1
In Miscellany-at-Law, the author defines the Rule in Shelley's Case as:
"An old decision establishing an arbitrary rule which gave the ownership of land to a person who was usually intended to have only a life interest."
The Rule in Shelley's Case had the effect of taking potential property away from the heirs of the person who stood between them and the property with the life estate.
Coke's biographer rendered the rule as follows:
"Where a transfer of real estate provides that the property shall be owned successively by a number of people, John Doe has the rights of property for his lifetime. When he dies, his heirs receive full rights. The effect is: John Doe has full rights for himself and can cut off his heirs by selling the property or leaving it to another."1
There is hardly a rule in law that has been the subject to more arcane, legalese definitions than that of poor Mr. Shelley.
In 1897, Justice Davey explained the rule in Shelley's case as follows:
"[W]herever an estate for life is given to the ancestor ... and a subsequent gift is made to take effect after his death, in such terms as to embrace, according to the ordinary principles of construction, the whole series of his heirs, or heirs of his body, or heirs male of his body, or whole inheritable issue taking in a course of succession, the law requires that the heirs, or heirs male of the body, or issue shall take by descent, and will not permit them to take by purchase, notwithstanding any expression of intention to the contrary. Wherever, therefore, the Court comes to the conclusion that the gift over includes the whole line of heirs, general or special, the rule at once applies, and an estate of inheritance is executed in the ancestor or tenant for life, even though the testator has expressly declared that the ancestor shall take for life and no longer, or has endeavoured to graft upon the words of gift to the heirs, or heirs of the body, additions, conditions, or limitations which are repugnant to an estate of inheritance, and such as the law cannot give effect to. The rule, I repeat, is not one of construction, and, indeed, usually overrides and defeats the expressed intention of the testator."
In Re Rynard, Justice Walsh adopted these words:
"Shortly stated, the rule in Shelley's Case is a rule of law, applicable to deeds and wills of realty, which comes into operation when an estate of freehold is created in a person and my the same instrument a remainder is limited to the heirs or heirs of the body of such person. In such case, if the limitation to heirs or heirs of the body (or by way of equivalent expression) is to an indefinite line of succession of heirs or heirs of the body (and not to designated persons), and the estate to the ancestor and that given in remainder, mediately or immediately, to heirs or heirs of the body are both legal or both equitable, the remainder is construed as a fee simple or fee tail, as the case may be, to the ancestor."
- Bowen, Catherine Drinker, The Lion and the Throne: The Life and Times of Sir Edward Coke (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1957), page 73, NOTE 1.
- Meggarry, R. E., Miscellany-at-Law (London: Wildy & Sons Ltd., 2006), page xvi.
- Re Rynard, 6 E.T.R. 115, 27 O.R. (2d) 619, 107 D.L.R. (3d) 443 (Ontario, 1979)
- Shelley's Case 76 E.R. 206 (1581)
- Van Grutten v. Foxwell, 1897 A.C. 658