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Proprietary estoppel – successful claim

Proprietary estoppel is a remedy which prevents the legal owner of a property from asserting their strict legal right in relation to that property when it would be unconscionable to allow him to do so. It is an equitable remedy which means that the court has a discretion whether or not to give relief. There are three elements which must be satisfied for a proprietary estoppel claim to succeed:

 

  1. a representation or assurance; and

  2. an act of detrimental reliance; and

  3. an unconscionable denial of the claimant’s right.

 

The remedy is increasingly sought in relation to contested wills involving farming families. A recent CA case involved a dispute between a mother and daughter. The daughter worked on the family farm for 30 years, having started working full-time on the farm as a school leaver. It was her enthusiasm for dairy farming which persuaded her father to restart this side of the business which became very successful. Without her work there would have been no dairy farming. Over several years the father had assured his daughter that if she continued to work on the farm, after he could not run it any more, the farming business would be passed to her subject to some land being made available to her brother, provision being made for her sisters and that the farmhouse in which the parents lived not necessarily be conveyed to the daughter in their lifetimes.

In reliance on these assurances, the daughter acted to her detriment evidenced by her long hours, low pay and few holidays. She also committed to dairy farming at the family farm rather than going elsewhere and setting up on her own. Her father persuaded her not to rent a farming business on the basis that the family farm would be her future.

Following his death in 2014, the mother refused to transfer ownership of the farm to the daughter which resulted in her suing her mother. The CA held in the daughter’s favour on the basis that the requirements for proprietary estoppel had been met.

See Habberfield v Habberfield [2019] EWCA Civ 890 at www.bailii.org.

 

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