Proprietary estoppel: detriment and proportion

In Suggitt v Suggitt ([2012] EWCA Civ 1140, CA (Eng)) a father promised his son that he would give his son the farm that the father owned and a place to live. In his will, the father gave all of his estate to his daughter with a power (but no trust) to transfer the farm to her brother if she decided that he had the ability to farm it. The father died and the son sought to enforce the lifetime promise, relying on proprietary estoppel.

The daughter contended that her brother had incurred no detriment in reliance on the promise. The father had provided him with food, a home, money and business opportunities well into adult life. However, the son had returned to the farm and had done at least some work. The first instance judge thought that this did amount to ‘real and substantial detriment’ and this finding could not be said to be perverse ([39]).

Was it unconscionable for the father to go back on the promise? Arden L.J. said: ‘[U]nconscionability in this context is unconscionable conduct in failing to give effect to the assurance.’ ([41]) It is unconscionable to go back on an assurance that has resulted in detrimental reliance. There was no real issue here then.

Was the first instance award (the farm and a farmhouse) disproportionate, going beyond the minimum required to satisfy the equity? The question, after Jennings v Rice, was whether the award was ‘out of all proportion’. Was it ‘clearly wrong’? ([44]) Arden L.J. held that the award could not be criticised on this ground:

‘Since the promise was that John should have the farmland unconditionally, I do not consider that to grant him the farmland … could be said to be out of all proportion.’ ([45])

Should John simply have received a cash payment for his services? This was plainly the wrong approach:

‘That would have done the minimum … but it would not have done justice to the claimant given the assurances he had … been given and his acting to his detriment.’ ([42])

Michael Lower

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