Proprietary estoppel: disproportionate to fulfil expectations?

In Bradbury v Hunter ([2012] EWCA Civ 1298, CA (Eng)) B invited R (his nephew) and D (R’s partner) and their family to move from Sheffield and live with him in his large house in Cornwall. He told them that they would inherit his house after his death if they agreed to move. They did agree to move but R and D discovered that B had changed his mind and did not intend to leave the property to them. They claimed to be entitled to the house relying on proprietary estoppel. R and D succeeded and were awarded the house (but subject to the Inheritance Tax liability atributable to it). B died and his executors appealed. The English Court of Appeal (Lloyd L.J.) said that the case raised no issue of law but only concerned the application of the law to the facts ([6]). It is, nevertheless, an interesting illustration of such a case and the approach to some aspects of proprietary estoppel.

An oral assurance was effective even though R and D had asked for and expected written confirmation that B would not change his mind. There was detriment even though the couple and their family had enjoyed rent-free accommodation in a very pleasant house. They had moved from Sheffield which D had been reluctant to do, provided some care for B and done work to improve the property (though they had benefited from this improvement).

It was not disproportionate to give them the whole house. The difficulty of deciding on whether or not there was a net detriment seems to have been a factor. The first instance judge had looked at the appropriate issues:

‘So long as the judge has the facts clearly in mind, with the material elements of advantage or disadvantage to those concerned, as this judge plainly did, and has understood the law correctly, as, again, this judge did, the parties having been in agreement in their submissions on that, it is inherently difficult to show that the judge has misdirected himself in coming to a conclusion as to the appropriate remedy.’ (Lloyd LJ at [52]).

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