Smith, Stone and Knight Limited v Birmingham: 1939

Implied Agency between Parent and Subsidiary

An application was made to set aside a preliminary determination by an arbitrator. The parties disputed the compensation payable by the respondent for the acquisition of land owned by Smith Stone and held by Birmingham Waste as its tenant on a yearly tenancy. Birmingham Waste was a wholly owned subsidiary of Smith Stone and was said in the Smith Stone claim to carry on business as a separate department and agent for Smith Stone. As a yearly tenant, Birmingham Waste, however, had no status to claim compensation. The question was whether, as a matter of law, the parent company could claim compensation for disturbance to the business carried on at the acquired premises. The arbitrator’s award answered this in the negative. Smith Stone applied to set the award aside on the ground of technical misconduct.
Held: The parent company was entitled to compensation in respect of a business carried on by a subsidiary on the basis that the subsidiary was in reality carrying it on on behalf of the parent company.
An implied agency existed between the parent and subsidiary companies so that the parent was considered to own the business carried on by the subsidiary and could claim compensation for disturbance caused to the subsidiary’s business by the local council. In determining whether a subsidiary was an implied agent of the parent, Atkinson J examined whether, on the facts as found by the arbitrator and after rejecting certain conclusions of fact which were unsupported by evidence, Smith Stone was in fact the real owner of the business and was therefore entitled to compensation for its disturbance.
The rule to protect the fact of separate corporate identities was circumvented because the subsidiary was the agent, employee or tool of the parent. The subsidiary company was operating a business on behalf of its parent company because its profits were treated entirely as those of the parent company’s; it had no staff and the persons conducting the business were appointed by the parent company, and it did not govern the business or decide how much capital should be embarked on it. In those circumstances, the court was able to infer that the company was merely the agent or nominee of the parent company.
Atkinson J formulated six relevant criteria, namely:
‘(a) Were the profits treated as profits of the parent?
(b) Were the persons conducting the business appointed by the parent?
(c) Was the parent the head and brain of the trading venture?
(d) Did the parent govern the venture, decide what should be done and what capital should be embarked on the venture?
(e) Did the parent make the profits by its skill and direction?
(f) Was the parent in effectual and constant control?’
Atkinson J
[1939] 4 All ER 116
England and Wales
Cited by:

  • Cited – Reed v Marriott (Solicitors Regulation Authority) Admn 13-May-2009
    The appellant solicitor had entered into an arrangement with a company to receive referrals of personal injury cases. She said that the agreements were deliberately devised to hide the fact that unlawful referral fees were to be paid, by requiring . .
    [2009] EWHC 1183 (Admin)

These lists may be incomplete.
Updated: 07 December 2020; Ref: scu.472101