Part performance: do the relevant acts have to point to a contract concerning land?

In Re Gonin ([1979] Ch. 16) was decided three years after Steadman v Steadman. During the Second World War, Miss G had acceded to her parents’ request to return and live with them and look after them. She alleged that there was a contract under which, in return, they had agreed to transfer the property to her when they no longer needed it. The father died and, years later, the mother. Miss G claimed to be entitled to the house under the terms of the alleged contract and in reliance on the doctrine of part performance (the services rendered by Miss G to her parents being the acts). Walton J. noted that the House of Lords in Steadman had been evenly split (had spoken ‘with divergent tongues’) on the question as to whether or not the act in question had to refer to a contract concerning land or could refer to any contract at all. He felt at liberty to choose between the approaches and preferred the stricter view that the act should point to a land contract. Strictly speaking, this was obiter, since he did not think that the act pointed to the existence of any contract at all (Miss G was simply agreeing to return to live with her parents).

Miss G, as administratrix of her mother’s estate, sought to rely on the rule in Strong v Bird. This failed too because there was no donative intent. Walton J was prepared to accept previous authority to the effect that the rule does apply to administrators (though he inclined to the view that it should not). This, perhaps, was a suitable case for invoking the doctrine of proprietary estoppel.

Michael Lower

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