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Most cases involve farming families, reflecting the norm that farming land and businesses are handed down to the next generation. For obvious reasons, almost all proprietary estoppel claims are founded against the background of family relationships that have turned sour.
When relationships between family members are good, an individual will typically see no risk in making a promise to a loved one that they will inherit a valuable asset on death. Similarly, the promisee may have no reason to doubt the word of the person (often a parent) who has made such a promise of assurance.
But when the going gets tough – or when the promisor dies - family relationships can become strained; and human nature is such that where money and property are involved, disputes typically become even harder to resolve.
A promise is a promise
Proving a claim in proprietary estoppel is a challenge and will probably even more so. The equitable doctrine of proprietary estoppel is all about unconscionability: is it unconscionable to allow the promisor to resile from the promise or assurance made?
The essential ingredients required to satisfy the equity are: there must be a promise or assurance of sufficient clarity; and there must be detrimental reliance based on such an assurance of promise.
Earlier this year, the High Court emphasised in two separate cases that a claimant must prove the nature of a promise or assurance in order to succeed. Both claimants failed to overcome this first hurdle.
In February in Mate1, the daughter claimed that from the late 1990s her mother had promised her an equal share of the sale proceeds of the sale of farmland. She said that in reliance on those promises, she had paid significant sums of money over many years to a planning consultant as part of plans for residential development of the farm.
However, she discovered in 2015 that her mother and siblings had agreed a part sale of the land to Persimmon Homes for £9m without her knowing.
The court emphasised that the question of sufficient clarity of the promise or assurance is “hugely dependent” on context. On the evidence, it appeared the mother had said she would look after her children financially; and referred to her power to split the sale proceeds - but had not made promises to that effect. She was never specific about what share of the windfall proceeds she hoped to pass to them.
The court therefore found no assurance or promise of sufficient clarity, so issues of reliance and detriment did not fall to be considered.
Just days later the court ruled in Gladstone2, a non-farming case where former solicitor Leigh White (LW) refused to leave the stately home where she had lived at the invitation of the elderly owner. The owner had previously appointed her as estate trustee and a trust beneficiary.
The two had been close friends for many years but sadly, the relationship soured and LW was asked to leave the property. The owner also removed her as estate trustee and beneficiary.
LW claimed the owner had promised on numerous occasions that she would inherit the property. She said she relied on these promises to her detriment in giving up her legal career to care for him and his family and the house.
The court ruled that it was not reasonable for LW to rely on any assurance given to her. No written assurances were given (this was “telling”); and, in fact the owner denied making any promises or assurances. Crucially, (as in Mate) the context of the purported assurances was important.
Trower J said: “The assurance must be unambiguous and must appear to have been intended to be taken seriously. What is meant by this is that the assurance must be ‘clear enough’, but what amounts to sufficient clarity in this context is… hugely dependent on context… one of the questions which may arise in a context such as the present is whether what was said amounted to an assurance that the promisee would receive the property, or whether it amounted to no more than a statement about the promisor’s current intention with no assurance that the promisor might not change their mind whether in whole or in part”.
In context, the owner’s intent was that the property was to be managed by LW rather than her having a beneficial entitlement in it. She would have to move out.
So what does this mean for claimants? The nature and circumstances of the alleged promise or assurance must be carefully considered before going on to consider issues of detrimental reliance.
The wider context in which any such assurances were given will be crucial in determining whether it is a promise or assurance of sufficient clarity. That could prove more of a challenge for practitioners.
1Mate v Mate and others (2023 EWHC 238 Ch
2Gladstone v White and others  329 Ch