Proprietary estoppel: establishing the link between reliance and detriment: proportionality of the award

In Ottey v Grundey ([2003] EWCA Civ 1176, CA (Eng)) O had been in a stable, quasi-matrimonial relationship with A from 1996 to 1999. The relationship broke up. A died in 2000. In 1998, A wrote a letter to his lawyer indicating in very specific terms the property that O was to have from his estate in the event of his death. The terms of this letter reflected assurances given directly by A to O. At first instance, it was found that this was a very clear assurance for proprietary estoppel purposes. There was detriment; there was some evidence of foregoing career opportunities and, perhaps more convincing, A had drink problems and O devoted herself to helping him overcome them. It was possible to infer that the detriment had been incurred as a result of the assurance. Thus, (Wayling v Jones) the burden shifted to G (the executor of A’s estate) to show the lack of a causal link between the reliance and the detriment. G had not managed to show that there was no link. O was to receive GBP50,000 and either A’s apartment in Jamaica or a further GBP 50,000.

The English Court of Appeal upheld this award. The judge at first instance had followed the right process. When it came to the causal link between the reliance and the detriment, it was reasonable to bear in mind that O might well have left A had he decided to go back on her promise during the relationship. The fact that the assurance could not be expected to survive the relationship was irrelevant. Once there was detrimental reliance, the equity had arisen.

O had cross-appealed concerning the level of the award. Basing herself on a passage in Jennings v Rice, she argued that very clear expectations should be reflected in full in the award. The Court of Appeal rejected this. The aim is always to grant an appropriate remedy in respect of the unconscionable conduct.

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