Crabb v Arun District Council

In Crabb v Arun District Council ([1976] Ch. 179) P owned land with access to a road owned by D at point A. P then decided to sell his land as two separate plots. This meant that he needed an extra right of access to the road from one of the plots at a different point. P and D agreed in principle that a right of access would be granted at a point labelled ‘B’, although details remained to be negotiated (as to whether the right would be an easement or licence and as to the payment required from P). Nevertheless, D erected a new substantial gate at point B. P, thinking he had the new right he needed, sold off the part of the land that would use the access at point A without reserving a right for the retained plot to be able to get to point A. P did this thinking that the retained plot had the benefit of the access at point B. D, however, changed its mind and blocked off the access at point B. P sought a declaration and injunction to the effect that D was estopped from denying that P had a right of access to the road at point B.

The English Court of Appeal agreed that B should have an easement starting at point B on the basis of proprietary estoppel. The agreement reached and D’s conduct in encouraging P to believe that he had the relevant right (eg by installing a permanent gate at point B) provided the necessary representation. The sale of the plot without the reservation of a right of way from point A was the detrimental reliance. It would be unconscionable for D to dispute that P had the right claimed. Given the loss and delay caused by D’s high-handed actions (that had prevented the land from being put to use in a way that would have benefited not only P but also, perhaps, the local economy) the appropriate award was an easement (rather than a licence) and an award of damages for the lost opportunity to profit from the land during the time that it was land-locked.

It is interesting to note that the assurance was effective in this case despite the parties’ awareness that the agreement in principle would need to be made firmer (by agreeing on details such as payment) and would need to be incorporated in a deed or contract. The subsequent conduct both illustrated that the parties’ thought that there was a firm agreement and amounted to a representation in its own right.

Lord Denning commented (at 187) on the fact that some estoppels (proprietary estoppel) can provide a cause of action. He also sought to explain that, in this case too, equity is modifying common law rights where conscience required it. Lord Scarman doubted that there was any benefit in distinguishing between proprietary and promissory estoppel (at 193).

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