Proprietary estoppel: reliance and detriment

In Cheung Pak Chuen v Au Yeung Wing Chi ([2013] HKEC 721, CFI) C moved to Hong Kong to be with his father and step-mother. Encouraged by them, he brought his family to live in the property owned by the step-mother. He spent some money on the property and on the upkeep of his parents. In part, this was because of their assurance that the property would pass to him on their death provided he looked after them. Also at their suggestion, he gave up his employment and started his own business at the property. His father died. In her will, the step-mother left the property to her nephew rather than to C. After his step-mother’s death, C claimed that he had an interest in the property and he relied on proprietary estoppel.

The nephew argued that there was no reliance since all of C’s actions alleged to be the result of a reliance on the assurances were things that he would have done anyway as a good son. This failed since the assurances had been at least a partial cause of C’s actions (expenditure of money on the property and on looking after his parents).

The nephew also argued that there was no detriment since C had derived considerable advantages from being able to live at, and carry on his business from, the property. On balance, however, the court found that there was not merely a change of position but also detriment.

There is a summary of the law on proprietary estoppel at [72] – [81].

There was the necessary detrimental reliance in this case:

‘Looked at only in this way the detriment suffered by the Plaintiff is said by the Defendant not to be very substantial. Nevertheless, in my view, it is sufficient. He has spent money on the establishment of a business which, although no doubt primarily of benefit to himself and his own family, provided a basis on which he was able to reside with the Parents and, in due course, take care of them. He has provided financial support to the Parents via the “pocket money” some of which might well have been given in any event, but on the Plaintiff’s unchallenged evidence some not.’ ([86], Recorder Anthony Houghton SC)

When it came to the relief, the fact that there had been a clear assurance that the property would belong to C resulted in his being awarded outright ownership of the property ([93]).

Michael Lower

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