Satisfying the Equity in Proprietary Estoppel: When is a Promise a Promise?

When a claimant establishes an interest in land by way of proprietary estoppel, the court must then determine the remedy to satisfy that equity. Should the court give full effect to the defendant’s representation or promise? Should the remedy be measured by reference to the claimant’s detrimental reliance? What is the minimum equity to do justice between the parties? How should the court exercise its broad discretion?

These questions of remedy have created much modern jurisprudence, described as a ‘lively controversy’ by LJ Lewison in Davies v Davies [2017] 1 FLR 1286.

The latest word on this issue comes from the Court of Appeal in Guest v Guest [2020] EWCA Civ 387. This was a farming case in which the defendants gave their son a clear enough assurance over a number of years that he would inherit a substantial share of the farm, in reliance upon which the claimant worked on the farm for 33 years receiving low earnings. When relations soured and the claimant was disinherited, he brought his claim in proprietary estoppel.

The Court of Appeal approved LJ Lewison’s sliding scale approach in Davies, by which “the clearer the expectation, the greater the detriment and the longer the passage of time during which the expectation was reasonably held, the greater would be the weight that should be given to the expectation.”

Applying this test, the court awarded the claimant 50% of the value of the farming business and 40% of the value of the land. The court also directed a sale of the farm to satisfy the judgment, with the consequence that the defendant’s expectation in inheritance was accelerated and realised during the life of his parents.

The decisions in Davies and now Guest provide useful tools against which to measure the available remedies in proprietary estoppel cases.

Daniel Attridge

Trinity Chambers

7th May 2020