Agency in Case of Husband and Wife

In general, agency between a husband and his wife does not exist, unless it has been expressly or implicitly agreed that either of them would do specific acts or transactions as the agent of the other. For example, if X asks his wife Y to buy a shirt on credit, Y’s agency is express. On the other hand, if Y buys the shirt on credit without express authority from X, but X pays for the shirt, X’s agency is implied. This means that marriage, by itself, does not create any agency between the husband and wife and a relationship of agency can exist between them only through contract, appointment, ratification or through the actions of the two persons.

In a situation where the wife and husband live together, the wife has the implied authority of the husband to buy articles of household necessity. However, the liability of a husband for his wife’s credit purchases depends on certain necessary conditions.

Firstly, it is necessary that the husband and wife are living together. In cases where the husband and wife live separately due to the husband’s fault, the husband is required to pay for the necessaries to his wife, resulting in an agency of necessity. However, the husband is not liable for his wife’s necessaries if they live separately without his fault.

Secondly, they must be living together in a domestic establishment. When a husband and wife live together in a domestic institution of which the wife is the incharge, she can pledge her husband’s credit, and he becomes liable for the debt she incurs for supply of necessities. This principle of co-habitation in a domestic establishment was established by the Court in Debenham v Mellon[1]. In this case, the defendant and his wife were managers of a hotel. They lived together in the same hotel but did not have a domestic establishment of their own. Here, the wife bought some clothes from a tradesman on credit, the payment for which was demanded from the husband. However, the husband was not held liable to pay for the debt. The Court said that the mere fact that the husband and wife lived together did not give rise to presumption of agency, unless they lived in a domestic establishment of their own. And since living in a hotel did not count as ‘domestic establishment’, it was found that there was no agency between the husband and his wife. At the same time, if the above conditions are fulfilled, it is immaterial if the tradesman knew if the buyer was married or not, as was stated by the Court in Paquin Ltd v Beauclerk[2].

Thirdly, the wife can pledge her debt onto the husband only for necessaries. Here, even though the term ‘necessaries’ is very ambiguous, the Court in Robert Simpson Co Ltd v Rugglas[3] tried to define it by saying that necessaries included those articles which suited the style in which the husband chose to live. Additionally, the Court in Phillipson v Hayter[4] said that “The domestic arrangement of the family being usually left to the control of the wife, her authority extends to all those matters which fall within her department, as, for example, the supply of provisions for the house, clothing for herself and things of that sort.”

Lastly, there would be no agency in a case where the husband has made a reasonable allowance to his wife for her needs. This principle was used by the Court in the case of Girdhari Lal v W. Crawford[5], where the Court clearly stated that if a husband is providing a reasonable allowance to his wife, then he would not be held liable to pay the debt of his wife. Here, it the Court also said that it was immaterial if the fact of allowance was known to the seller or not.

Also, the (English) Matrimonial Proceedings and Property Act, 1970 in Section 4(1) provides that “Any rule of law and equity conferring on a wife authority, as agent of necessity to her husband, to pledge his credit or to borrow money on his credit is hereby abolished”, thereby restricting the implied agency of wife.

Similarly, a husband has no authority to act as the agent of his wife, unless such authority has arisen through an appointment as an agent, either expressly or impliedly, or by ratification by his wife of acts done by him on her behalf.


[1] Debenham v Mellon (1880) LR 6 AC 24

[2] Paquin Ltd v Beauclerk, 1906 AC 148 (HL)

[3] Robert Simpson Co Ltd v Rugglas, 8 Can BR 722.

[4] Phillipson v Hayter, (1870) LR 6 CP 38.

[5] Girdhari Lal v W. Crawford ILR, (1887) 9 All 147.

Aishwarya Says:

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