Proprietary estoppel: need to balance the needs of the property owner and the detriment suffered by the claimant?

When deciding on how to satisfy the estoppel, it is legitimate to take into account the circumstances of the owner.

In Sledmore v Dalby ((1996) 72 P & CR 196 CA (Eng)) Mr and Mrs Sledmore owned a house that they leased to their daughter and son-in-law. Mr Sledmore represented to Mr Dalby (the son-in-law) that the house would belong to Mr and Mrs Dalby. Mr Dalby carried out substantial work to the property in reliance. Mr. Sledmore and his daughter, Mrs. Dalby, died. Mr Dalby and his two children lived rent-free at the property over many years. Mrs. Sledmore then sought possession. She was in great financial difficulty and needed to live in the house. Mr. Dalby only occupied the house on two evenings a week. One of his daughters, now in her late 20’s, also lived there. Mr. Dalby relied on proprietary estoppel and the assurance given by Mr. Sledmore.

The English Court of Appeal was unanimous in ordering that possession be given to Mrs. Sledmore. The majority thought that there was an equity arising out of the assurance and Mr. Dalby had suffered detriment in carrying out work to the property. Nevertheless, when deciding on how to satisfy the equity, it was legitimate to compare Mrs. Sledmore’s difficult financial situation and dire need for the property with Mr. Dalby’s scant use (and therefore presumably little need) of it. Hobhouse LJ took a different route to the same conclusion. He thought that the only assurance was that the property would be given to the daughter and as she had died that assurance could not be carried into effect.

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