© 1993 Karen Selick
 The Wages of Living in Sin
An edited version of this article first appeared in the August, 1993 issue of Canadian Lawyer.  If you wish to reproduce this article, click here for copyright info.


 The Wages of Living in Sin

There has been a fringe movement around for years harping on the idea that people who do housework in their own homes, for their own families, should be paid by someone else for their efforts.  I used to consider these folks a source of comic relief with a snowball's chance in hell of ever transforming their demands into reality.

It looks like I was wrong.  Last year, the Supreme Court of Canada announced that household services have been systematically undervalued in Canada.  They decided to remedy that situation.

Their scapegoat was William Beblow, a B.C. man who had once made the ruinous error of entering into a common-law relationship with one Catherine Peter.  He invited her and her four kids to move into his home, rent-free.  She lived there 12 years altogether. 

She cooked, cleaned and did the laundry for Mr. Beblow's two children as well as her own brood.  She painted the fence, built a chicken pen and planted flowers.  She also worked seasonally outside the home, and collected UIC benefits for part of each year.  She bought some real estate and took a vacation with her earnings.

He had owned the house before she moved in.  He paid off the mortgage from his earnings as a grader operator within two years of her arrival.  He bought more than half of the household groceries.  He never paid her for her housework, and she never paid him rent or board.  He never promised to marry her, or to give her a share of his property.

The Supreme Court decided that Mr. Beblow had been unjustly enriched by Ms. Peter's services.  The value of the work she had done, they said, outweighed the free rent and groceries she had received.  They handed her Mr. Beblow's mortgage-free house. 

What's wrong with this decision?  Plenty.  For starters, it presumes that there's an objective value, a true value, a concrete and identifiable value, for household services.  This notion is simply wrong.  Values are subjective.  People value things according to their individual tastes, their particular needs and the alternatives open to them. 

For example: what is the value of a ticket to a rock concert?  Some people pay as much as $100 for one, I'm told.  Personally, I would pay nothing for one.  In fact, I'd have to be paid to attend.  The price may be $100, but the value to me is less than zero.  Consequently, I don't buy them. 

Whenever any voluntary transaction takes place--any sale, any trade, any barter--it occurs precisely because the two parties to the deal place opposing values on the items being traded.  If I put my car up for sale and someone offers me some cash for it, a transaction will occur only if I value that amount of cash more than I value the car.  The buyer will make the offer only if he values the car more than he values the cash. 

If we both agreed that the car was worth more than the cash, no trade would occur, because I'd refuse to sell the car.  If we both agreed that the cash was worth more than the car, again no trade would occur, because the other guy would refuse to hand over that much money.

In short, opposing opinions about value are a prerequisite to any trade.  If Ms. Peter and Mr. Beblow traded household services against rent and groceries for 12 years, we can only conclude that each one valued what he or she was gaining from the deal more than they valued what they were giving up.  Otherwise, why would they have done it?  If Mr. Beblow had known in advance that the price would include his house, there might well have been no deal.

Our Supreme Court justices may feel that Ms. Peter did a poor job of checking out the market for her services, and ended up selling herself short.  So what?  For one thing, they may be wrong.  They haven't tasted her cooking or looked under her furniture for dustballs.  More importantly, though, when did it become the function of the highest court in the land to act as retroactive bargaining agents and financial counsellors for cooks and cleaning ladies?

To dignify the whole proceeding, the court recited what has become the three-part mantra of trust claims: one, Ms. Peter had conferred a benefit on Mr. Beblow; two, she had suffered a corresponding deprivation; three, there was no juristic reason for her to do this.  Part three is the interesting one. 

"There is no general duty presumed by the law on a common law spouse to perform work and services for her partner," says Madam Justice McLachlin.  Maybe not.  But there is a general duty presumed by law to keep your bargains.  Let's not forget that Mr. Beblow also conferred a benefit (food and shelter) and suffered a corresponding deprivation (crowding in the house, extra grocery expense).  Was there a juristic reason for him to do this?

Of course there was.  The juristic reason, on both sides, was that this couple had made a deal: they had agreed to exchange tit for tat.  Mr. Beblow had a right to come before the court and have that deal enforced, not rewritten.



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June 07, 2000