Agreement to transfer beneficial interest: proprietary estoppel as a way of circumventing a failure to satisfy the formalities

In Sum Fan Hung v Chum Mei Diu ([2015] HKEC 1100, CFI) the plaintiff and the defendant were sisters. The plaintiff bought a flat in 1997. Title was in the defendant’s name but there was no dispute that the property was held on trust (presumably a common intention constructive trust) for the plaintiff. In 2000, the plaintiff found she could no longer meet the mortgage payments. She orally agreed with the defendant that the defendant was to become the sole legal and beneficial owner of the property. In return, the defendant would take on all liabilities relating to the property without any right of recourse to the plaintiff.  This agreement was not recorded in writing signed by the plaintiff. This was a problem since section 5(1)(a) of the Conveyancing and Property Ordinance requires assignments of equitable interests in land to be in writing and signed by the assignor or an authorized agent. This problem was circumvented by dealing with it as a proprietary estoppel case. The agreement provided the assurance and the plaintiff’s later payments (of mortgage payments and so on) provided the detrimental reliance. The court declared that the defendant became the sole legal and beneficial owner from the time of the agreement. Proprietary estoppel circumvented the failure to satisfy the formality requirements.

Michael Lower

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