Reliance: burden of proof shifts to property owner when inducement can be inferred from claimant’s conduct

Where there have been assurances and conduct from which reliance can be inferred, the burden of proof shifts to the property owner in a proprietary estoppel claim. The fact that the assurance was not the only cause of the conduct is not fatal (there can be mixed motives). Giving full effect to the assurance might be disproportionate.

In Campbell v Griffin ([2001] EWCA Civ 990, CA (Eng)) C was the lodger of Mr and Mrs A for nearly twenty years. The relationship was close. As they grew frailer, he devoted a lot of time and attention to looking after them. They assured him frequently that he had a home for life. After their death, he claimed an interest in the property on the basis of proprietary estoppel. The claim failed at first instance because he had agreed in cross-examination that he would have helped them because of friendship and common humanity.

His appeal succeeded. Robert Walker LJ referred to the principle from Wayling v Jones that where there have been assurances and conduct from which reliance can be inferred, the burden of proof shifts to the property owner in a proprietary estoppel claim. C had done much more than could have been expected of even the friendliest lodger. The English Court of Appeal pointed out that too demanding a test of reliance would work to the detriment of honest witnesses. Little weight should be given to answers to hypothetical questions in cross-examination concerning reliance.

As for the remedy, giving full effect to the expectation (a life interest) would be disproportionate. C was to receive GBP 35,000 and to vacate the property when needed for the purposes of a sale of the house.

Michael Lower

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