The case of the personal registration number which nearly got away.

My client owned a vehicle with a valuable registration mark which bore the letters of his name. He sold the vehicle but did not want to lose the mark so he arranged with a friend to transfer it to another vehicle where it would remain until my client was in a position to have it back again. This vehicle belonged to a company of which the friend was a director. Some time passed and the company went into liquidation and, before my client was able to do anything, the vehicle bearing the mark was sold to a third party.

My client requested the return of the mark but the new owner of the vehicle disputed any one else's right to it on the basis that he had bought the vehicle in good faith and as owner of the vehicle any rights to the mark were his. Court proceedings were issued to recover the mark.

When the case came to court the parties agreed that, as a matter of law, no one could "own" a registration mark. However, the judge accepted that the right to transfer the mark, which was the vehicle owner's right, was technically a form of property. The judge also accepted an argument that the company had been a trustee of the mark (or rather of the right to transfer it) holding it in trust on behalf of my client and the sale to the third party had been a breach of trust. Because the mark was unique, and the rights concerned had not altered, the court could follow the rights of transfer into the hands of the third party so as to make him also a trustee on behalf of my client who therefore was able to obtain an injuction ordering the third party to transfer the mark to any vehicle of my client's choice.

(note: this somewhat unusual application of the equitable doctrine of "tracing" demonstrates the flexibility of English trust law)