HB Balogun and Co

Lovers Groove; a short love story An analysis of the Principle of Unjust Enrichment in Romantic Relationships

By Abimbola A. Laoye-Balogun

Let me tell you a love story that’s not about love. It is a true story too.

Once upon a time, I got a referral from a friend for a lady who needed legal assistance. The client called for consultation the next day. She seemed very bubbly and jovial over the phone. She did her best to explain her predicament to me over the phone and while listening to her, I couldn’t help but marvel at the lengths one would go for another in the name of love.

In summary, she had been in a relationship with one fine doctor (let’s call him Mr. Boyfriend) for a couple of years within which period she had rendered several services to him. Her mistake as she called it was sharing in the dream of growing the new business of her man and living the good life eventually. She is a brilliant Public relations personnel and Social media manager and she practically single-handedly multiplied the net worth and overall business popularity of Mr. Boyfriend over a few years. A few examples of things she did for Mr. Boyfriend included setting up and managing Mr. Boyfriend’s business website and social media pages, carrying out internet campaigns periodically setting up and organizing medical seminars, and much more, and at her own expense. A few years down the line the relationship broke up and my client took down the social media pages and website she had created. Mr. Boyfriend demanded that the internet data be reinstated, and my client declined demanding that Mr. Boyfriend pay for the services provided and money spent first. Call her a scorned lover, but this is what this article is talking about.

During the consultation, my client was able to break down services (Tangible and intangible) and monies spent with impeccable specificity. I jumped into action and wrote a letter of demand to which a meeting was scheduled. To cut my long story short, the meeting did not go quite as smoothly as anticipated and nothing was resolved as Mr. boyfriend was not willing to discuss at all; he stated his stance on not being indebted (among other bitter utterances) and stormed out. Now the question of the day is whether or not my client is entitled to claim money spent back being that all this work and money spent was done without a contract of any kind, and during a romantic relationship with her Mr. Boyfriend.

Upon studying to write this article I had initially attempted to this issue to a claim of damages under the equitable law of tort of breach of promise to marry. However, the salient components that will ordinarily entitle my client to damages were lacking as follows:

1.    The actual promise to marry: proof can be by documentary proof of promise to marry or a ring received at any time as a pledge of marriage.

2.    The breach or reneging on the promise to marry. There must be the actual reneging; proof of which is by showing the actual breakup or marriage of the promising partner to another person.

3.    Direct damage caused by the breach of promise to marry; this may include mental breakdowns, money spent on love, wasted years, psychological trauma and emotional trauma, financial loss, and foregone alternatives, as a direct result of the breach of promise to marry.

The above components are cumulative and are pretty hard to prove totally and successfully in court. The result of a successful suit on breach of promise to marry will be damages. Failure to prove all elements means that the heartbroken party was just the nicer one during the relationship and will bring to fruition the saying that there is no loss in love and war. As stated by PATS-ACHOLONU JSC in EZEANAH V. ATTA (supra):

“I refuse to lend a hand to assuage the feelings of a lover whose romance went away. The love that once bound these two people and now got frosted can be likened to the verse of Shakespeare’s “Sonnets” a sort of lamentation, and also verse 1 of “Passionate Pilgrim”. Thus, we have in this case so much love and then so much pain. It is the way of the world”.

This position took me aback for more than a second, as those who know me know that I don’t back down easily. Meeting this guy also made me take the matter personally since he showed me what kind of disrespectful and ungrateful person he could be, there was no way I was letting this matter die without getting my pound of flesh or at least my client’s money back.

My short story however seems to vary far from a breach of promise to marry, as I had not heard from her story about an actual promise to marry, and the issue was more about steps taken by her in hopes of the relationship cumulating into her happily ever after.

Looking back at my journey as a lawyer, one of the scariest and most important topics in my journey has been the issue of contracts. The law of contract is riddled with specifics without which the contract becomes invalid and unenforceable. But once again equity has come to the rescue. Thankfully, the law of contract is also riddled with many exceptions and variations which led to my eureka moment. These exceptions and variations to the laws of contract are the savior of service providers who otherwise can be taken advantage of. Among the many exemptions and variations, I shall highlight the contracts which is most relevant here. 

Quasi contract

Quasi contracts also known as implied or constructive contracts will generally cover parties who may have not intended to enter into a contract originally. A quasi-contract is a contract implied in fact and is illustrated by the way the parties behave.[1] Quasi-contracts provide for one party to recover services rendered even without a signed agreement. While it is more ideal to have an agreement whether oral or written the law recognizes that it is not always possible for all business transactions to be documented and therefore will not turn its back on people who are likely to be treated unfairly in these circumstances.

Quasi-contracts guard against the unjust enrichment of people who otherwise will attempt to take unfair advantage of others. The law states about quasi-contracts that there should be payment for the services rendered and repayment of finances extended on behalf of the receiving party. Quasi-contracts generally lower the burden of contractual requirements; this essentially means that the meeting of minds or parties, whether orally or in written form can be overlooked to a large extent.

The principle of unjust enrichment[2]

Looking further into quasi-contracts, the wonderful principle of unjust enrichment popped up and is even more specific to our purposes here. But first the definition.

Black’s Law Dictionary 8th Edition at pages defines unjust enrichment as

1.    the retention of a benefit conferred by another without conferring compensation, in circumstances where compensation is reasonably expected

2.    A benefit obtained from another, not intended as a gift and not legally justifiable, for which the beneficiary must make restitution or recompense.

Unjust enrichment crystalizes when value is passed or given. An exchange of value whether financial or otherwise, directly, or indirectly will breed liability for value through exchange to the extent of its value in the event of wrongful injury or deprivation.

The principle of unjust enrichment is pretty obvious when applied to issues of fraud, or embezzlement, and other related crimes whose circumstances are well handled by anti-graft laws and agencies like the Nigerian Police Force and The Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, and relevant agencies[3] and other relevant laws. My story has however highlighted less obvious issues, but more commonly overlooked and relating to our daily affairs with regular people. The story is about blind bliss when parties tend to dish out financial and business sacrifices as favors when the going is good and without thinking that things can go sour.

Other relationships more likely to fall under this category include:

  • Family members who may have exchanged money or services without proper documentation
  • Lovers who provide financial support based on affection
  • Persons who have exchanged services or finances with flaws in their contract, incomplete or no contract at all.
  • Money received

Regardless of whether the value transferred is monetary or in the form of services provided whether professional or otherwise, the principle of unjust enrichment generally ensures that the law does not close its eyes to a person on the receiving end of such circumstances arising out of a quasi-contract.

The following are elements that must exist for claims to succeed under an unjust enrichment:

a.    There must be an enrichment. An enrichment means anything of value whether moveable or immovable, money or services.

b.    The enrichment received must be shown to be at the giver’s expense.

c.    There must exist an unjust factor that requires the reversal of the enrichment [4]

The Unjust Factor

The principle of unjust enrichment originates from the Roman legal maxim’ “nemo locupletari potest aliena iactura or nemo locupletari debet cum aliena iactura” which translates as no one should be benefited at another’s expense. The unjust factor is generally embedded in factors such as mistake, duress undue influence, exploitation, of weakness, human incapacity, failure of consideration, legal compulsion, necessity, illegality, and public authority illegal exaction and payment.[5] The unjust factor in actual sense could mean any of the following:

a.    That the reason for the transfer of advantage was mistaken i.e. based on mistaken data, e.g. knowledge of certain factors would have led to a variation in my decision to transfer

b.    Consideration evaporated. i.e. we were dating and now we are no longer dating,

c.    Consideration has failed: I gave you on condition that did not materialize’

The unjust factor in the receiver’s enrichment is tied to the vitiation of consent. This means that the situation under which the advantage was advanced is different and therefore the retention of the said advantage no longer has any basis.

I know what you are thinking, my client did all her good deeds of her own free will; or after all, Mr. Boyfriend never asked for her services expressly. To set this straight, the question of whether or not my client will have a claim in court for money spent while blinded by love; or whether Mr boyfriend should be liable to pay my client since she gave out of free will or she gave as she saw fit. One must distinguish between a gift and unjust enrichment.

Gift and unjust enrichment

Gifting is the absolute transfer of an object or value without compensation[6] or the expectation thereof[7]. While gifting and unjust enrichment are very similar and very closely connected, there is a slim distinction between the two principles of gifting and unjust enrichment. One must very carefully analyze the intentions of parties. Gifting is a very fragile concept that interestingly requires the consent of both parties. It has a signal function usually intended for forming or strengthening a relationship. Gifts when without fault are absolute and irrevocable, however much like any other contract, there must be a meeting of the mind, or else the gift is very easily vitiated.[8] The giver of a gift must have given the gift with the clear intention of gifting which gift must be also accepted as a gift. In simple terms, the giver must have expressly gifted or conferred the benefit. However, in the absence of an express statement of gift, the gift must be transferred without giving the receiver the choice to reject (the gift must be expressly unequivocal). Any shift in this dynamic or absence of a gift element or mistake as to the status of the transfer will render the gift revocable. For example, if the giver intended a loan rather than a gift, or the receiver thought a gift was a loan or refused to accept it, then the transfer is defective, and the proprietary right remains with or reverts to the giver[9]. On the other hand, unjust enrichment is a transfer of value to which the law assumes on behalf of the giver that the equivalent value or compensation is reasonably expected in return. From the above analysis, therefore, a gift may morph into unjust enrichment it is defective by lacking in intention or consent. While it may be tough to draw a distinction or to analyze whether a transfer of value should be regarded as a gift, or whether the giver is just being petty due to heartbreak, it is, in my opinion, the duty of the receiver to ask “is this a gift?”, or “are you sure you want me to have this?”, or “I’m not sure if I should give something in return remains unanswered”. If the receiver is unsure of the answers to these questions, then that gift is most likely avoidable.

Professor Festus Emiri’s book The Law of Restitution in Nigeria highlighted that while it is accepted that it is not the business of the court to reverse all enrichments, the court in analyzing the unjust factor will in conjunction with the above elements consider 2 golden yardsticks which caught my attention as regards my story. These elements are “free acceptance” and “unjust sacrifice”[10]. According to him, these yardsticks assist in analyzing the intentions of the parties involved.

Free acceptance

Free acceptance goes to the core of enrichment and unjust factors. It occurs when a person knows that a benefit is being offered to him/her non-gratuitously and having the opportunity to reject, elects to accept. Free acceptance is a reasonable man’s test such that the law expects that the receiver should not have reasonably expected to be gifted the goods/services/money or for the handouts to be free of charge. the law presupposes that the receiver as such should have taken a reasonable opportunity to either pay or reject the goods/services/money. In this case, the person will be deemed to have freely accepted. This flips the assumption that the recipient can only be liable to pay for services rendered at his instance or request. Free acceptance brings focus to the conduct and state of mind of the receiver. It is therefore not enough to keep numb or stand by whilst being provided the benefit under the pretext that the said benefits were unsolicited, this will provide the basis for restitution[11]. In the words of Professor Peter Birks[12] “The receiver has himself to blame for the resulting situation”.

Unjust sacrifice

The law also looks at the state of mind of the giver. Under this notion, people in romantic relations will usually render unsolicited favors as a show of love and in a bid to enhance the relationship. The law assumes again the reasonable man’s test under this principle as to whether such services though unsolicited can be deemed to be given gratuitously under any circumstances. Work or labor even when unsolicited are unjust sacrifices for which reward is expected even in a situation where there is no direct benefit to the receiver. What is most important is that the actions of the giver must in the long run be directed at the receiver without which there will be no transfer of value. The services rendered in these circumstances must be usefully purposed to the receiver and in a non-gratuitous context. Professor Emiri[13] gave the example of a doctor attending to an accident victim. He states that the doctor will be entitled to restitution on a quantum meruit basis not because he has enriched the victim or the victim’s loved ones, but as a recompense or reimbursement for services or sacrifice voluntarily done in time, effort, and expense on his behalf. This principle very well applies even if the victim or his loved ones did not have the knowledge or authority for the service.


Unlike the breach of promise to marry, an aggrieved person may only claim for restitution and not damages. Restitution is the return or restoration of some specific thing to its rightful owner or status. Restitution for unjust enrichment is aimed at depriving the receiver of the benefit unjustly received as against compensating the giver for loss. This means that in a claim under the principle of unjust enrichment, gifts, and money identified will be returned, while in the case of services, the claimant will be compensated on a quantum meruit basis. In the case of my client as per my story, aside from money spent on behalf of Mr. Boyfriend, professional services were rendered, some of which had clear and direct financial implications for my client while other implications were based on time and effort spent on professional know-how. From my analysis above, one is made to wonder if my client would have won or lost the case if pursued, but that will be left to the court whose duty it is to analyze the evidence placed before it. Our focus however is whether or not there is a case, and my answer to that question is a resounding ‘yes!’.

The happily ever after or not

I bet you are eager to know how my story ended. Well as most similar stories end in Nigeria, my client left Mr. Boyfriend to God. She chose the route of her peace of mind considering Mr. boyfriend’s violent tendencies, anger tantrums, and what seemed like a direct threat on that day of our settlement meeting. Mr. Boyfriend also didn’t disappoint as the very next day after our settlement meeting Mr. Boyfriend initiated a publication about my client claiming that my client was on a gold-digging venture when she demanded payments from him. Now that’s a whole new topic for me to sink my teeth into on another day. I will have to be satisfied with being able to make a new lifelong friend in my client and gather new knowledge.


[1] Https://Ffgnesqs.Com/Work-Without-Contract-Can-Still-Get-Paid/; The Work Was Done Without A Written Contract, Can I Still Get Paid?

[2] First Bank Of Nigeria Plc V. Ozokwere(2013) Lpelr-21897(Sc) 

[3] Efcc Act, The Criminal Code, And The Money Laundering Act.

[4]Http://Www.Nigerianlawguru.Com/Articles/General/Unjustified%20enrichment%20law%20in%20the%20civil%20and%20common%20law%20traditions.Pdf; Unjustified Enrichment Law In The Civil And Common Law Traditions; O Festus Emiri, Ll.M, Bl

[5] What Is Unjust Enrichment?: Eseroghene Joshua Oyitso; (Doc) What Is Unjust Enrichment | Eseroghene J Oyitso – Academia.Edu

[6] A Legal Analysis Of Romantic Gifts; Ruth Sarah Lee Discussion; Paper No. 43 03/2012; Harvard Law School Cambridge, Ma 02138; Lee 43.Pdf (Harvard.Edu);

[7] Anyaegbunamv V Osaka (2000) 5n.W.L.R Pt 657) 386 @400

[8] Unjust Enrichment; Ernest J Weinrib; Hill, The Role Of The Donee’s Consent In The Law Of Gift, 117 Lqr 127 (2001)

[10] Law Of Restitution In Nigeria; Professor Festus Emiri

[11] In The Case Of Weatheby Vs Banham, (1832) 172 Er 950

[12] An Introduction To The Law Of Restitution (Oxford, Clarendon Press 1985)