Proprietary Estoppel

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Naomi Ireson takes a look at an often misunderstood legal concept: Proprietary Estoppel

What if someone is promised an interest in some land or property and relies on that promise (for example, by working without payment) only to find that the landowner has gone back on that promise? Is there anything he can do? Can he enforce the promise?

It is in situations like this that the concept of proprietary estoppel can help.

How did Proprietary Estoppel develop?

Traditionally Proprietary Estoppel arose when a landowner assured another party he would receive an interest in his land, or when one party lead another to believe he had acquired rights to the land, or where the landowner encouraged the other party to spend money on the land or deal with it knowing he was mistaken about his legal rights but standing by and saying nothing.

Dillwyn v Llewelyn (1862) was one of the first cases to consider Proprietary Estoppel. It involved a son who received a parcel of land from his father and then proceeded to spend £14,000 on building a house on the land. He did this with his father’s approval and encouragement and the promise that the land would one day be his, only to later find that his father did not leave the property to him in his will!

How did the concept of Proprietary Estoppel develop?

Proving a claim for Proprietary Estoppel was initially very difficult. As a result the courts approach became less strict. The burden of proof lies with the defendant to show that the claimant did not rely on assurances made. Therefore to succeed in a claim for Proprietary Estoppel the following elements must be established:-

1. An assurance or representation;
2. Reliance on the assurance or representation;
3. Detriment; and
4. Unconscionability.

Can someone rely on an assurance that property will be left to him in a will?

Yes. In Thorner v Major (2009) a farmer promised a young relative that in exchange for working on his land for little or no pay he would inherit the farm in his will. However, the farmer changed his will which meant the relative did not inherit the farm. The House of Lords decided the assurances together with the continuing pattern of conduct by the farmer over the previous 30 years (during which time the relative devoted his life to helping run the farm) amounted to Proprietary Estoppel. The result was that the relative received the farm as he had been promised.

Surely the farmer had every right to change his will?

Yes, but it was ‘unconscionable’ for him to do so after the relative had acted in reliance on his assurances that he would leave the farm to him and would obviously have been disadvantaged if he had not received the farm.

How we can help

We specialise in Proprietary Estoppel claims and offer a free case assessment service. Contact Naomi Ireson on 0808 139 1606 or email us at [email protected]