Proprietary estoppel and co-habitees: assurance must relate to a specific property

Lissimore v Downing ([2003] EWHC B1 (Ch)) concerned the proprietary estoppel claim brought by L on the break-down of her relationship with D, a rock star and the owner of Astbury hall, a large estate in England. The relationship began in 1993 and lasted for seven years. There was an ‘engagement’ but neither party expected to marry.

D was heavily invested in Astbury Hall, both in financial and in psychological terms. Astbury Hall represented the fruits of many years of hard work. Even before the relationship with L deteriorated, D consulted his solicitors as to the steps to be taken to ensure that L would have no claim to an interest in it.

HH Judge Norris QC outlined the law on proprietary estoppel. He emphasised the basic rule that a representation or assurance must relate either to some specific property ([12]) or to the whole of the representor’s property ([15]).

As regards detriment, the judge said, ‘the conduct must be in some sense prejudicial to the party relying on it, or of such a nature that it raises the inference that it must have been induced by some sort of promise.’ ([20]).

The claim failed because there was no representation; it was understood that L could live at Astbury Hall while the relationship lasted. Commenting on the legal effect of the relationship, HH Judge Norris QC said:

‘The fact that that state of affairs happened to endure for several years cannot of itself impose on Mr Downing an obligation to transfer some of his property when he did not undertake such an obligation at the outset. There may be a promissory estoppel (eg a defence to a claim to leave the property before reasonable notice of the change in the nature of the arrangements has expired): but proprietary estoppel is different’ ([37]).

He went on to note the problems that arise in this type of claim:

‘The advancing of a proprietary claim tends to require the claimant to list how much (s)he did, endowing small acts with a great significance whilst at the same time not recording that party’s true contribution to the relationship.’ ([47]).

L’s proprietary estoppel claim failed. D made no statement that would lead her to believe that she was to have a share in Astbury Hall. Nor did L believe that she had any such share ([51]). D’s statements ‘relate almost entirely to the currency of the relationship’ ([53]).

Nor was there any overall detriment: ‘looking at the matter in the round, balancing the burdens assumed in the relationship against the benefits derived from it, and making the assessment after the breakdown of the relationship, no substantial detriment had been suffered’ ([54]).

There is a distinction between property law and family law claims:

‘What I am being invited to do is to make a property adjustment order on the termination of the relationship, not to define what property rights were created during the relationship’ ([55]).

Michael Lower

 

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