Proprietary estoppel and future rights

Re Basham ([1986] 1 WLR 1498) made it clear that proprietary estoppel could apply where the relevant expectation was that rights would be acquired in the future (under a will, for example). In this case, Mrs Bird’s mother married Mr Basham when Mrs Birds was 15. Mr and Mrs Birds did a lot of unpaid work for the Bashams over the years and passed up job and housing opportunities to be with them. They acted in reliance on Mr Basham’s clear statements that they would inherit his property. Mrs Basham died and then Mr Basham died a few years later without having the opportunity to make a will. Mrs Birds claimed Mr Bird’s house and money on the basis of proprietary estoppel.

The judge, Mr Edward Nugee QC, said:

‘where the belief is that A is going to be given a right in the future, it is properly to be regarded as giving rise to a species of constructive trust, which is the concept employed by a court of equity to prevent a person from relying on his legal rights where it would be unconscionable for him to do so.’ (at 1504)

The idea that the expectation had to relate to a present (rather than a future) interest was rejected:

‘No case was cited to me, and I know of no case, which affords support for Mr. Browne’s main submission, that the belief on which A relies must be related to an existing right.’ (at 1509)

Mrs Bird’s claim succeeded.

Michael Lower

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