Proprietary estoppel is a legal principle which can prevent someone from backtracking on a promise, representation or assurance, once the other person has relied on the promise to their detriment. The court has the power to enforce the promise, even though there may be no strict legal basis to do so (for instance, where the promise was made orally and there is no formal written contract).
Such claims most frequently arise in a farming and/or family context, perhaps because people are more likely to deal with their affairs more casually in these situations and do not necessarily go on to document their agreements formally in writing. This may mean that a claim in proprietary estoppel is all that is available to try to enforce the promise made.
To advance a claim in proprietary estoppel, a claimant must satisfy the criteria set out in the seminal case of Thorner v Major . This means establishing that:
- an unambiguous promise, representation or assurance was made, whether by words or conduct, which created an expectation that you would be entitled to a share in the land
- you relied on that promise
- you suffered a detriment as a result.
An example of a successful claim in proprietary estoppel can be seen in the High Court case of Habberfield v Habberfield . In this case, the claimant worked at the family farm in Somerset, owned by her father, for a period of around 30 years, between leaving school in 1983 until her father’s death in 2014. Upon her father’s death, his entire estate (including the 220 acre farm worth approximately £2.5m) was left to the claimant’s mother in accordance with her father’s will. The claimant contended that she had been assured by both her mother and father that she would take over the farm and, in reliance on this, she had continued to work at the farm, earning a low salary. She therefore argued that she had a beneficial interest in the farm in accordance with the principles of proprietary estoppel.
The claim was defended by her mother, who denied that either she or her husband had ever promised their daughter the farm. The mother also emphasised the various non-monetary benefits received by the claimant in return for her labour, such as free childcare and accommodation. Passing the entire farm to the claimant was argued to be disproportionate, with the mother arguing that, at best, the claimant should receive a cash pay-out representing her underpayment in wages.
The court upheld the claim, finding that Mr and Mrs Habberfield had made assurances to their daughter that she would acquire the dairy farming operations. It was found that the mother knew of the promises being made by her husband and that he made these with her authority. These assurances did not, however, extend to the other farming activities, such as the beef cattle or arable activities, or the machinery and contracting business run by the claimant’s brother.
The court further found that the claimant had relied on these assurances to her detriment. In particular, she had devoted her life to working on the farm, working harder than she might otherwise have and earning less than she could have elsewhere.
The Judge concluded that the claimant was entitled to a significant part of the farm (relating to the dairy farming operations and associated farmland), though not all of it. The Judge ordered that the mother pay the claimant the cash equivalent of her interest in the farm, being approximately £1.17m. Whilst the family home was not in dispute in this case, the mother had to sell the family home in order to make the required payment to the claimant. The mother attempted to appeal the decision, but this was dismissed by the Court of Appeal.
As the Habberfield v Habberfield  case shows, if a person successfully claims an interest in land pursuant to proprietary estoppel, the court will go on to consider what remedy is appropriate to compensate them for their loss.
The court will aim to achieve fairness in all of the circumstances and has a wide discretion in respect of the kinds of remedies it can award. The outcome of a proprietary estoppel claim will therefore be heavily shaped by the context. In the Habberfield v Habberfield  case for instance, the judge considered a cash payment more suitable than ordering that the claimant receive the legal interest of the property in question.
For further assistance or advice regarding proprietary estoppel or property disputes more generally, please contact Laura Tanguay on [email protected] or 01473 299188.
The content of this article is for general information only. It is not, and should not be taken as, legal advice. If you require any further information in relation to this article please contact the author in the first instance. Law covered as at August 2021.