Due to the rise of media coverage relating to this area of law, awareness of proprietary estoppel claims, is increasing.
In order to successfully bring a proprietary estoppel claim, the following elements must be met:
- A promise or assurance must be made;
- The promise or assurance needs to be believed and relied upon; and
- The reliance of the promise or assurance caused the claimant to suffer detriment.
We have seen a fair few proprietary estoppel claims make their way through the courts recently and in a bid to review from where we start 2021 in terms of case law, this is our round-up:
Windsor-Clive v Rees  EWHC 3180 (Ch)
A reminder that promises must be sufficiently clear, to succeed with a claim
In this case, the claimants owned a farm and had obtained planning permission for housing development on the farm land in 2016 and 2017. The claimants served notices to quit the tenancies which were dated 1965 and 1968 respectively, as the land was required for development. Although the notices were contested, an arbitrator concluded that three of the notices were valid. The claimants then issued a claim for possession of the farm in October 2020 and a defence and a Part 20 claim was served on the basis a proprietary estoppel claim had arisen.
The judge in this case held that the promises relied upon were not of a nature which could be regarded as sufficiently clear and that the remedy would be of a monetary nature rather than proprietary. The promises were made in the context of a landlord and tenant relationship and as such, were made in a contractual setting. The judge was of the view that the promises were uncertain and lacked clarity and because of that, failed to give rise to a proprietary estoppel claim. In addition, the judge deemed that the acts of detriment were not substantial enough to amount to detrimental reliance, for the purposes of claiming based on proprietary estoppel.
Anaghara v Anaghara  EWHC 3091 (Ch)
A rare, non-farming estoppel claim: an interesting decision where rent-free accommodation provided by way of the deceased’s property to his widow, was not deemed to adversely affect her detriment.
This was an appeal of an earlier judgment. In the initial judgment, a widow was found to have relied to her detriment on a promise that her deceased husband had given to her, in that she would able to live in the house where she had lived and in which she had raised their children, for as long as she wanted. The widow had continued to live in the property after the deceased’s death and did not pay rent. It was held that the widow living in the property rent-free, was not considered to be a countervailing benefit. As such, the widow was granted a life interest in the property. On appeal it was confirmed that the judge had been correct in his initial judgment.
Due to the assurances that were provided by the deceased, his widow never needed to give any thought to buy a property of her own; she used money gifted to her to renovate the property and did not use it for any other purpose which evidenced detriment as a result of her reliance on the assurance. The fact that the widow lived in the property rent-free during the deceased’s lifetime was not to be considered an advantage provided for by the assurance, but rather a consequence of being married to the deceased. The initial judgment was therefore upheld. In this case, it was enough to prove that the widow never thought about buying a property of her own, rather than proving how she would have acquired a property of her own. It is interesting to note that in terms of award, the court deemed that the appropriate decision so that ‘the minimum equity so as to do justice was done’, was that the widow should benefit from a life interest in the property; but not the transfer of the property outright.
Wills v Sowray  EWHC 939 (Ch)
Another farming claim but this time, unusually, by non-family members.
In this case the deceased did not leave a will and therefore the intestacy rules applied to his estate. The deceased’s daughter was estranged from her father for a long period of his life and yet would have, as per the intestacy rules, benefitted from his entire estate. Two proprietary estoppel claims were issued by the claimants, who were brothers but not children of the deceased. Both brothers were promised a part of the deceased’s estate: the one would receive the land which he had worked on for 20 years; and the other would receive a small plot of land, on which he had built his home.
It was decided that both claimants could demonstrate the elements of a successful proprietary estoppel claim and as a result, the first claimant was given the land on which he had farm; and the second, the plot which included his home This case highlights the importance of evidencing what amounts as a clear promise and the extent of that promise; and also, if the promise evolves over time. It is also important, when reviewing a case, to investigate how a promise was relied upon; and in this case, by the one brother working the land and the other setting up and building a property to use has his home, on the plot of land.
Horsford v Horsford  EWHC 584 (Ch)
A stark warning that a previously negotiated agreement relating to the subject matter of a subsequent estoppel claim, is likely to discharge the claim.
In this case, there was a written partnership agreement relating to the family farming business; the proprietary estoppel claim came about by way of a counterclaim within ongoing proceedings. The original claim was issued as a result of the claimant wanting to retire from the partnership and to receive her payment from her son, who was the defendant.
In a bid to counter the mother’s claim, the proprietary estoppel claim was pursued. That however, failed as the partnership agreement ought of have put the son on notice as to his rights in respect of the partnership and he should have negotiated his position when the partnership agreement was entered into, if he deemed the proposed terms unacceptable. For that reason, it was not possible to then rely on alleged assurances for the purposes of an estoppel claim, as the partnership agreement clearly set out the terms which had been agreed, and which at the time, deemed to be fair, by the son. As a result, the counterclaim was dismissed. This is a clear reminder that if terms have already been negotiated, attempting to achieve a ‘second bite at the cherry’ through an estoppel claim, is unlikely to find favour with the court.
The above cases have reinforced the fact that the elements of proprietary estoppel must be clearly satisfied albeit they are to be considered ‘in the round’ by the court, for a claim to be successful. It is important to note that this type of claim is unlikely to succeed if it is being used as mechanism to rectify a bad business decision which has been made previously.
When assessing proprietary estoppel remedies, Anaghara v Anaghara  EWHC 3091(Ch) and and Wills v Sowray  EWHC 939 (Ch) in particular, demonstrate that the court will make the minimum award possible, to satisfy a claim; and this can mean remedies are not necessarily everything that was promised to a claimant.