Proprietary estoppel and co-habitation

In Southwell v Blackburn ([2014] EWCA Civ 1347, CA (Eng)) B and S began to co-habit in 2002. S bought a house in his name and he alone made the mortgage payments. He did not envisage marriage precisely because he knew that B might then have a claim against the house. Several years later, the relationship came to an end and S excluded B from the house. B’s claim that they had a common intention to be equal beneficial owners failed. In the alternative she relied on proprietary estoppel.

There was no specific assurance that B would have any right to the home. S did, however, assure B that he was making a long term commitment to provide B with a secure home. S’s assurance was that B would ‘have the sort of security that a wife would have, in terms of accommodation at the house, and income.’ ([16])

Before moving in with S, B had accommodation rented from a housing association. She spent GBP20,000 fitting and furnishing the house. Relying on S’s assurances, B left that accommodation. Although her income was much less than S’s, B did contribute to the couple’s joint expenses.

The first issue was whether the assurances were enough for proprietary estoppel purposes. It is clear that the assurance must be clear and unequivocal and relate to the property. An assurance that B would be provided with a secure home was sufficient to give rise to an equity (Greasley v Cooke). S’s assurance was not, in substance, conditional on the continuation of the relationship ([7]).

The fact that the common intention constructive trust claim to an equal beneficial share had failed did not mean that there could not be an assurance as to the security of B’s right to accommodation ([10]).

Then there was the question of detriment. B had enjoyed rent-free accommodation and had been able to take a degree that enhanced her earning capacity. Did this mean that the detriment had been dissipated over the course of the relationship?

First, it is true that ‘detriment has to be assessed over the course of the relationship’ ([13]). It was right to have regard to the benefits that had accrued to B as a result of the relationship ([14]). But S had also benefited from B’s contributions ([15]).

There are cases where, looking at the course of the relationship from the point at which the promisor reneges on his promise, the benefit has been dissipated. That said, ‘cases involving couples living together lend themselves .. less readily to an arithmetical accounting exercise’ ([17]). Benefits flowed both ways and were incidents of the relationship ([18]).

As for unconscionability, S contended that the relationship was not a marriage and was not expected to be permanent. Thus, there was no unconscionability about withdrawing the security of accommodation. This failed. The point was that B had incurred detriment in reliance on the assurances:

‘It is the detrimental reliance which makes the promise irrevocable and leads to the conclusion, at the end of a broad inquiry, that repudiation of the assurance is unconscionable.’ ([20]).

The relief that was awarded was a payment to reimburse her for the money that she had spent on the home that she had left and on S’s property.

Michael Lower

 

 

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