Proprietary estoppel: holistic approach to detriment

In Davies v Davies ([2014] EWCA Civ 568, CA (Eng)) a couple owned a farm. E, the second of three daughters, lived with the parents for much of the time up to the time of her final falling out with them. E worked for her parents for little money, although her pay increased over time. Around 1985 her parents assured E that the farmhouse would be hers one day. She later fell out with them and moved out.  E was later reconciled with her parents but left the farm a second time after another falling out. E’s father induced her to return by promising that she could live rent free in the farmhouse. During part of the time that she lived away from the farm she worked as a technician for a company that provided livestock reproduction services. She enjoyed this work and was good at it. After a third dispute with her father, he brought proceedings to evict her from the farmhouse. She relied on proprietary estoppel to claim some interest in the farmhouse and / or the business.

The English Court of Appeal was concerned only with the threshold question as to whether she had established her right to some form of relief on the basis of proprietary estoppel. The particular issue was that of detrimental reliance. She had received countervailing benefits and the parents disputed her claim that she had been able to earn more from her work as a technician than she had from her work on the farm.

The question was whether the first instance decision that she was entitled to equitable relief was perverse or clearly wrong (Suggitt v Suggitt). In Gillett v Holt, Robert Walker LJ stated that the question of detriment should be approached as part of a broad inquiry. On this basis, the judge at first instance had been entitled to find that there was detrimental reliance:

‘The judge had to determine whether there was substantial detriment by contrasting the rewards of the job at Genus with its better lifestyle with those of working on the farm (including the free accommodation at Henllan) with its greater burdens in terms of working hours and more difficult working relationships. I am not at all persuaded that his conclusion as to where the scales came down in this balancing exercise was wrong.’ (Floyd L.J at [54])

Michael Lower

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