When is a statement clear and unambiguous for the purposes of equitable estoppel?

In Kim v Chasewood Park Residents Ltd ([2013] EWCA Civ 239, CA (Eng)) K was one of the flat owners at an estate called Chasewood Park (holding under the terms of a 125 year lease). The reversion (a much longer lease) came up for sale. Chasewood Park Residents Ltd was set up by the Residents’ Association to acquire the reversion. On 24th August 2006, the committee of the Residents’ Association sent out a circular letter to residents inviting them to contribute to the cost of acquisition. The letter summarised the benefits of the scheme and these were said to include the fact that those who participated would no longer need to pay the ground rent (then GBP100 annually) and that the 125 year terms could be extended to much longer terms at minimal extra cost.

K, believing that Chasewood Park would acquire the freehold and that a commonhold scheme would be established, agreed to participate. In fact, the reversion was a leasehold and what was proposed was an extension of the leases. Chasewood Park acquired the reversion and those who had agreed to participate were offered longer terms (as promised) but Chasewood Park said that a ground rent of GBP 100 would continue to be payable under the new leases.

K refused to pay the ground rent. In her defence to Chasewood Park’s claim for the rent arrears, she  argued that Chasewood Park was estopped from including a ground rent in the new leases since the circular letter contained statements that:

1. there would be no ground rent to pay following the purchase of the reversion; and

2. that participating residents would be able to extend their leases at no additional cost except a small fee.

The first, and as it happened determinative, issue was whether there had been a clear and unambiguous representation that participants would not have to pay a ground rent. On this, Patten L.J. said:

‘There is no doubt that in order to found a promissory estoppel (in the same way as any other estoppel based on a representation of fact) the representation or promise must be clear and unambiguous. But this principle raises a number of subsidiary questions. Does it mean that the estoppel cannot arise unless there is only one possible meaning of the words used or is the existence of other possible (but perhaps less probable) meanings not fatal to the creation of an estoppel where the Court can say that it was reasonable for the representee to have interpreted the words used in the way he did? There is also an issue about the test to be adopted by the Court. Few, if any, statements are not capable of being interpreted in more than one way. The Court’s usual role in construing, for example, a contract is to arrive at the legally correct meaning of the words. Their construction is a matter of law and the Court’s function is to resolve any ambiguities in reaching its conclusion. But it is arguable that in the case of estoppel it should not go any further than to identify the existence of any real ambiguities in the language. If the statement is open to more than one reasonable interpretation (one of which is fatal to the estoppel defence) then the representee was not entitled to rely on what was said without further clarification and there is no basis for an estoppel.’ ([23])

There was no clear and unambiguous statement here. The circular letter was simply a list of potential benefits. The suggestions were conditional and set out in an early stage in the scheme. They did not amount to the assurance contended for ([31] and [34]).

Nor had there been the necessary reliance since K had misunderstood the nature of the scheme. She had relied on her understanding that there would be a commonhold scheme and that she would not be a tenant at all. This was not merely a question of the legal mechanism to be put in place to give effect to an assurance. She had relied on an assurance that had not been made ([38] – [40]).

Patten LJ considered whether, had there been a promissory estoppel defence, its effect would have been merely suspensory. Would it have been unconscionable to withdraw any assurance that no ground rent was payable? It would not have been unconscionable. There was nothing to lead to such a conclusion. Chasewood Park had offered to reimburse K’s contribution but she had declined the offer. While Chasewood Park’s offer to reimburse K was not determinative, it reinforced the conclusion that it was not unconscionable to withdraw any assurance that no ground rent was payable ([42]).

Similar reasoning applied if one looked at the matter as a claim based on proprietary estoppel. The conclusion that any promissory estoppel would only be suspensory suggested that relief in proprietary estoppel should not take a form that would result in the permanent removal of a liability to pay ground rent. It would be inappropriate to grant relief in the form of a lease with no ground rent ([45]).

Michael Lower

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